Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Max Warner has been the Chivas Regal Global Brand Ambassador for an incredible 13 years. With his move into another position within the Pernod Ricard group his role is now open for applications.
Interested? Want to know more about the role from the person who knows it best? Theodora Sutcliffe asked Max to tell all.
(Link to apply is at the bottom of this article.)
It's been 13 years. What's next after brand ambassadorhood?
Well, I'm not actually leaving ambassadorhood. I'm just diversifying. After having worked on vodka with Wyborowa, gin with Plymouth and Scotch with Chivas, I'm joining the team at Havana Club. I'll be based in the UK but with a focus on what they call the Icónica Collection, which is the super-premium prestige end of Havana Club.
If you had to choose three words to describe the role of brand ambassador, what would they be?
The three words I use are: host, communicator and designer. You've got to represent the brand and you've got to be with people so you need to be hospitable. Being a communicator comes down to education, mentoring, finding solutions. As designer, you're there to bring the brand to life. For Chivas, the brand was brotherhood and generosity: putting together the Chivas Masters was a culmination of that. Underlying it all, the most important thing is that you're a storyteller.
Could you describe a typical day in your life as Chivas global brand ambassador?
Honestly speaking, there's no such thing! One of the things I try and do is wake up naturally without an alarm because sleep is the biggest luxury. Most people can get away with three hours' sleep but ultimately your brain is not going to be sufficiently rested, you're not going to respond to things in the same way, your creativity levels go down.
How many flights do you take a year and how many cities do you visit?
Well, as I understand it, I fly more than the cabin crew of British Airways are legally allowed to. Last year I was on 108 aeroplanes. Over the last ten years I don't think I've gone much higher than that but it doesn't get much lower either.
But at least you land up in a good hotel, right?
Yes, I'm very fortunate in that respect!
Any travel survival tips for aspiring ambassadors?
Hand luggage only wherever possible - I take a suit carrier which has a pair of shoes in it, but it makes you more efficient as a traveller taking only things that you really need. A really good moisturiser can hide a multitude of sins and make you look a lot fresher than you actually are.
How about staying healthy on the road?
Drink water all the time. I actually have an app on my phone, I'm slightly embarrassed to say, that reminds me to drink water. You almost have to force yourself to drink water. Sometimes you don't get a chance to exercise, but there's one thing you can do and that's find some water and drink it.
How many of the World's 50 Best Bars do you think you've visited?
From the list this year there's probably a couple that I haven't been to. About three or four years ago I went to every single one in one year and wrote an article about it for Ask Men.
You work across many different languages and cultures. How do you adapt?
Quite often you use a global messaging process which won't always work locally. We talk about tasting notes a lot but those tasting notes become very different when you're in certain parts of Asia for instance. Orchard fruits mean something different because they've got a different palate.
And what about different types of market?
There are certain parts of the world where there's no real hospitality infrastructure, no training, so when you want to go in and educate people they're like, "Will I earn more money?" So it's trying to find something that will excite them: that could be teaching them how to taste whisky, a technique behind the bar or maybe an element of showmanship.
Tell us a little about your bartending career.
I trained as a chef at the Savoy, started working in the bars and in banqueting and then worked my way through different hotels - the Sheraton hotel group, St. Martin's Lane, the Sanderson - and then bars like Bank in Aldwych and the Collection in South Ken which were very successful at the time but have now moved on or rebranded.
How did you land up as a brand ambassador?
I was at Baltic restaurant, down in Southwark, for four years and in 2003 we got shortlisted for best bar team in the UK. We went to Scotland and had to do up a bar in a castle to demonstrate our teamwork, team effort and creativity - and we won. The competition was officially sponsored by Chivas, and about two weeks afterwards I got a phonecall asking me if I'd be interested in becoming an ambassador.
How did you react?
I turned the job down initially. I didn't think I was old enough to work in the Scotch whisky industry, but then I did a bit of research, spoke to a few people, called them back, said, "I'm sorry I've made a mistake," and the rest is history.
So what did you think the job involved?
I didn't really understand what it was they wanted me to do. They suggested on the phone that I'd be going into famous bars, watching people who were of good taste and sophisticated and then I'd follow them so that I could make sure our brands were in all the best places. Jokingly, I suggested that sounded a bit like stalking.
How did you move to global brand ambassador?
I was the UK ambassador for Chivas. Within three months they had a Chinese group of bar owners come over and it turned out one of the bars in Shanghai did more volume than the whole of the UK on-trade put together. He seemed quite interested in me going over there and doing a training, and that was it. My passport was stamped.
Obviously, back then there were many fewer brand ambassadors than there are now. What was the best advice you were given?
A lot of the advice was more on a corporate basis: make sure you respond to emails and be a bit more organised. I think that's one thing that brand ambassadors probably suffer from more than anything is how to be better organised.
Is it easy for people within the corporate world to "get" brand ambassadoring?
I used to put out an input every month of things that I liked: it could be things in bars, it could be things in restaurants, it could be design, it could be tea or art. I think that helped people understand a little more but there'll always be a lot of people in the business that still might not have enough of an understanding about what it is you actually do.
So what are the core skills that somebody needs to be a brand ambassador?
They need to be very strong in presentation skills, and that's not just in front of people, that includes email. Some media skills are important; however, those can be trained on the job. You need to be confident in what you do and how you do it but also be a good listener. Try and be as efficient as you can in everything that you do. You need to be as professional as you can be but also demonstrate how you can bring energy and fun to the role.
What have been the real high points of the job for you?
Honestly, it's got to be the simple things like the people I've met, the people who've inspired me, the people who've supported me on projects, and the people who I now consider friends. I totally adored doing it, I loved the brand, but London's my home, it's time for me to come back and be close to family and friends.
What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you as a brand ambassador?
In the early days of my role I had a trip to Hong Kong and I was interviewed by a local Chinese magazine. When I was asked the question, "How do you enjoy drinking Chivas?" I said, "I like to drink it naked [ie, no ice, no water], with friends." Then the piece came out and I was on the front page of a magazine that basically said, "Max Warner, the brand ambassador for Chivas Regal, likes to walk around his apartment nude waiting for his friends to come round." Completely lost in translation!
What was your worst day on the job?
The most challenging day was after I became a Keeper of the Quaich up in Edinburgh on a Sunday night. On the Monday I had to travel from Edinburgh to Berlin where I was going to be doing a presentation at BCB. Following BCB, I was going to get on another plane to Paris where I was hosting an evening event for 300 people. Basically, the planes were delayed so I ended up taking six flights across Europe in one day. It taught me not to be such a time optimist and to prioritise.
What about your best day on the job?
The job is all about advocacy and when people turn around and go, "That was really great!" they give you all that extra energy that you need. That's what a good day looks like.
What's the most challenging part of the job?
The low points have been - balance. Balancing my home relationships with travel and time differences, being away, having to come back and feel exhausted but then reconnect with people, that's been really tough. Travelling, meeting people, staying in nice hotels, flying business class, those are all great things to do, but if you blink you could still be doing that in 10 years' time and that could be a lonely existence. It's nice to come back to the warm side of the bed.
You started before smartphones and social media were really a thing in the way they are now. How have they changed what you do?
It's much easier to bring brands to life through social media, not just through the imagery but also through tone of voice. We can actually speak to our audiences in a much more clear and defined manner both on a personal level and on a brand level. I've got a bit of the old school in me, but social media does play a massive role in the way that brands and events can be brought to life.
Let's say someone wants to take over your role, what should they be doing on social media?
As a brand ambassador the most important thing on social media is always to be positive. Have an opinion but try and put a positive slant on it at all times.
Where do bartenders who want to become brand ambassadors go wrong?
Bartenders move into a brand ambassador world, quite often, because they're feeling a bit disillusioned. If you work in a big city like London or New York you tend to find that "I'd really like to own my own bar one day but I haven't got enough money and if I bring in investors I'll never really have a big enough share of the pie and it's really daunting anyway." So they think that because they haven't really achieved as much as they'd like as a bartender the transition into brand ambassador is the obvious next choice, when it's probably not.
What's the most common mistake people make?
Not asking the right questions during the interview process. They need to ask what the brand really wants them to do and how they can demonstrate to the brand that they've been successful.
So, besides the corporate expense account, is brand ambassadoring well paid?
Well... I think travelling the world or the country, going to new places, enjoying new experiences and making new friends, and being paid for it, makes it the best job in the world easily. There's the experience of working for big business, learning how brands are marketed, having the benefits of things like healthcare and pension plans, while expensing stuff on the road means you're not really spending money. I took a pay cut moving from working in bars to being a brand ambassador, but I'm providing myself a good life and I only really waste my money on hats and shoes.
Let's talk about your replacement. What sort of person do you think Chivas are looking for?
A solid background in drinks is really important, having worked in some great bars. If you've got some awards to your name, so much the better. Someone with the right attitude, someone who's humble - you need a very can-do attitude as well. Respect the fact that you will do something within the business no one else can do and it's up to you to demonstrate that knowledge and expertise.
What would your main tip be for someone applying for the job?
It's just an amazing experience for the right person, it really is, and if you're questioning your commitment from the beginning, then it's probably not right for you. Honestly speaking, it's a minimum of a three- or four-year commitment, that's what it takes to become the face of the brand. Some people think you can go into being a brand ambassador for a year and after that go and do something else. They're looking for someone who can really put themselves down and build a reputation and really establish what they think the brand should be.
And, finally, what's the single biggest thing you've learnt from the job?
If you've got a good background in hospitality you'll already have experience of looking after a varied audience and how to adapt to different situations, taking pleasure from pleasing others. This is a crucial skill when doing the job. With all the experiences I have had, places I have travelled to and people I have met, I've been very fortunate to see almost everything possible. Whilst I am still consider myself adaptable to other people, I've learnt what I like and that it's more important to get the simple things right, execute them perfectly, consistently and above all be yourself.