Bloomberg — In the white-gloved world of Swiss luxury watchmaking, a floppy-haired Brit armed with a camera, lighting kit and best-mate charm is rewriting the rules of how to peddle Rolex and Omega timepieces.
A former corporate trainer, Adrian Barker has muscled his homegrown YouTube channel into a luxury wristwatch taste-making empire in the space of a few years. A Barker video entitled “I bought a Rolex Submariner off eBay!” has more than 700,000 views. Another, asking “Why is HUBLOT the most hated luxury watch brand?,” has been seen more than a million times in just eight months.
Like fans of other high-end kit favored by men of a certain age — think espresso machines, racing bikes or bespoke tailoring — watch aficionados can come off as fussy and stilted. Barker, by contrast, appears equally at ease discussing his first timepieces — “absolutely foul” — as he does fawning over his current Rolex Explorer II, which retails for about $9,000. It’s all delivered in a rapid-clip narration that’s both disarming and dissecting.
The platform earns the 36 year-old what he calls “a healthy salary” in the six figures, though Barker makes a point about watches being not just for people with silly cash to throw around.
His YouTube videos drive traffic to his website, Bark and Jack, where, combined with separate sponsorship deals, he makes just as much income again selling watch straps, storage cases and coffee mugs emblazoned with his logo.
“I was just having fun,” said Barker, who quit his human-resources job at a technology company in London to go full-time with his channel. “I like making videos and I like talking about watches. It was no more complicated than that.”
While Swiss industry giant Rolex remains aloof, other luxury watchmakers accustomed to having near total control over their marketing and messaging are taking notice. Rolex sister-brand Tudor now loans Barker timepieces for review, and others have accepted the rising power of a new breed of online video influencers.
Vacheron Constantin, part of the haute horlogerie triumvirate that also includes Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, loaned Barker a £26,600 ($33,411) Dual Time Overseas watch last year for review. Barker strapped the timepiece to his wrist and hiked up a mountain in Scotland, for a video that’s been viewed more 150,000 times.
Amid all the hype, Barker tries to maintain a degree of independence. He’s had watchmakers send him timepieces to review while asking him to sign contracts stipulating he won’t name rival brands or make negative comments about the watch without approval. When that happens, he said he sends the watch back, unreviewed.
His biggest audience is aged 25 to 35, according to his own analytics data. Barker said watch brands interested in attracting a younger, aspirational consumer are more likely to work with him.
Zenith, founded in 1860 and now part of the LVMH empire, is embracing the trend. Working with watch YouTubers is much cheaper than traditional advertising and better targeted, said Chief Executive Officer Julien Tornare.
“It literally became part of the landscape and we work with them more and more,” Tornare said.
YouTube watch vloggers scattered across the globe, from Australia to Europe to the US, are using their video macro-lenses to propel a revived interest in luxury timepieces that has sent prices soaring. Besides Barker, there’s Teddy Baldassarre, a 28-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio, who cranks out about six videos a week to his more than 500,000 YouTube subscribers.
Baldassarre now has a staff of 12 and sells watches on his e-commerce site, where annual revenue is fast “approaching eight figures,” he said in an interview.
Barker’s pitch is that, despite all the complications surrounding watches and their movements, keeping it simple is what draws viewers. He’s not fancy, he just fancies some expensive timepieces, particularly rugged tool watches like his own Rolex Explorer. Think an equivalent to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, but instead of well-prepared, easy-to-replicate food, Barker lays out the virtues of the Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical or Grand Seiko’s quartz-powered GMT.
There’s long been publications dedicated to covering all things luxury watches. Online outlets such as Hodinkee, WatchPro and A Blog to Watch have been popular, respected and influential industry chroniclers for years.
Barker’s twist has been to put video first. It’s paid off handsomely as the very nature of luxury watches lend themselves to high production video, giving consumers a feel and sense for the product in a way that no article in print or online can replicate.
YouTube videos “have definitely changed the landscape in terms of where people get their information,” said Mercedes Abramo, the chief executive officer for North America at Cartier, the maker of Tank and Santos watches. “We see it as a positive because it is an additional channel to learn and teach consumers about great watches.”
Barker is now mulling a social-media consulting business to help centuries-old watch brands understand the secrets of video. Some companies have approached him with an outright takeover offer for the site, though he’s politely declined.
“They clearly don’t understand YouTube and want me to be part of their team,” Barker said.