British journalist and editor Richard Bence has built a career in arts, culture and lifestyle storytelling that’s defined by enduring international success. He has written for many of the world’s most preeminent publications such as Monocle, Conde Nast Traveller, United Airlines’ Rhapsody, American Express’ Departures, Centurion, Sunday Times Style and more.
Bence is recognized and celebrated as an enterprising, avant-garde, cross-platform media professional. He delivers exquisite travel, luxury and branded-inspired stories to the world across print, digital and video platforms. Navigating the changing media landscape, Bence presently spearheads editorial endeavors for BritWeek magazine, Camberwell Consulting and Vind & Vag Publishing. He has worked for such notable publications as Barclays “Little Book of Wonders,” CoutureLab, Ink Global and Attitude, the leading European style magazine for gay men. A respected and influential voice on pop culture, Bence has appeared as a guest critic for TV and radio shows including on Monocole 24, BBC, VH1 and others.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down and visit with Richard Bence and are excited to share below his insights, experiences and methods in our exclusive question and answer session.
Where in the U.K. are you from originally?
RB: I’m from Surrey originally but lived in London from 1999-2014 at which point I moved to California.
What inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?
RB: Back in the mid 90s, magazines held the keys to what was cool, they were the gatekeepers, the opinion formers, the style makers. I wanted to be one of those people percolating and sifting the information of the world. I was fortunate to know someone at the Express Newspaper where I gained valuable work experience and never looked back. Every summer I would contact a magazine (GQ, Attitude) and get more work experience, all the while becoming more and more certain that this was the career for me. It was like a vocation, and seemed like the ultimate rock and roll profession.
What were some of your first jobs and roles in the field?
RB: It is ridiculously tough to make a go of it as a writer, but fortunately I have always been blessed with staff jobs. I worked at Attitude 2000-2012 and Ink Global 2004-2011. The overlap meant that I got the best of both worlds. Attitude had kudos and allowed me access to the razzamatazz while Ink Global had gravitas and allowed me to learn core skills about publishing. But they both fed off eachother, and the TV pundit work was purely thanks to Attitude. I struck gold by becoming Lifestyle Editor of Attitude within a year of leaving University. It fast-tracked my career advancement.
You are now recognized internationally as a truly innovative journalist and editor. How would you describe what it means to be a cross-platform media professional?
RB: As a print journalist I focus mainly on travel, design, architecture and style but more recently I have gravitated towards the arts and on air journalism as the West Coast correspondent for Monocle 24. I get to talk about art, TV and film which is a dream really. Radio is definitely having a ‘moment’ and I am glad to be part of its renaissance. I also contribute to the website Civilian Global. Not everyone gets asked to contribute so it has huge prestige attached. Juggling digital, print and radio is the basis of being a cross-platform media professional.
Arts, culture and lifestyle are essentially your trinity as a journalist. How would you describe your particular objective in journalism?
RB: Clarity, brevity and simplicity. My particular objective is on all things cultural on the West Coast. That LA is having a ‘moment’ is well documented. There is such an amazing and inspiring mix of people here from the worlds of art, film, technology, music, architecture, fashion and food, all doing interesting things. I chose to plant myself here at the centre of this creative explosion. I recently covered Palm Springs Modernism Week and LA Art Book Fair. As a writer I focus on art, architecture, music, film, style and travel.
How do you continually evolve as a journalist and foresee coming opportunities and trends?
RB: More than anything I need to be surrounded by creative people right now. I’m at a point in my life where I’m tired of delaying things. I want to do some really creative, powerful work and I still have the energy to do it. I am absorbing so much by being here in Los Angeles. Freedom is the main thing for me right now. My antennae have been honed over the years to become finely tuned to earthquakes in the cultural zeitgeist. Trend forecasting was always in my DNA, but the ability to evolve is my greatest asset. Sometimes I think all you need is a willingness to try new things, most people become so entrenched in their field. To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
How did your foundational work in PR help launch you into the direction you wanted to pursue as a journalist?
RB: My early days in PR helped me clarify what sort of journalism I was interested in pursuing, certainly. I was in charge of accounts like Bulthaup, luxury kitchens with a particular emphasis on design. I had studied Architectural History so design was in my DNA. I also worked on the account for London’s international luxury lifestyle store Harvey Nicholas and its restaurants, which were the most desirable restaurants to be seen at in the early 2000s. This crystallized my passion for food & drink, design, interiors and travel. The democratization of ‘lifestyle’ meant that the ultra rich had to separate themselves from the herd, which in turn led to a craving for one of a kind and rare items. I spotted that early on: people want things that no one else can buy. That’s where things like taste and style come in as much as money. Britain has a wealth of historic heritage brands that are adored all over the world. Burberry is a good example. Arguably Britain’s most famous fashion export, begun by Thomas Burberry in 1856 and known widely for its iconic trench coats, the brand is one of the most important international luxury fashion brands. Others include Vivienne Westwood and Harrods. I remember organizing a press trip for visiting foreign journalists when I worked on the London Tourist Board account in 2000. Tate Modern had just opened and Burberry was becoming the hot British label. It was then that I could see the power certain brands wielded, including that of London itself, and how important it was to communicate the provenance of those brands with clarity. Because it is that authenticity and pedigree that people are buying into.
In your early work in PR, what were some of the brands you wrote about or worked with?
RB: My early work in PR definitely laid the foundation for my consultancy work. It trained me to be client-focused in a way that you are not in journalism. I consult for luxury brands such as The Luzmon, a Norwegian entrepreneur’s hi-tech spa in Kensington, London, and a Harley Street private doctor that caters to the holistic needs of London’s elite. I also launched the supper club Shaun & Jo in Soho, London, and more recently consulted on the launch of award-winning Swedish publishing house Vind & Vag’s “Hounds of Falsterbo” illustration book with founder and creative director Jules Nilsson.
Much of your career has seen you specialize in the realms of luxury, branded and altogether business minded journalism. Where do your business instincts derive from?
RB: The truth is I am not a natural businessman, but I do have an enterprising streak, which maybe makes me more of an entrepreneur at heart. Words mean more to me than sales. Perhaps that’s why brands use me to communicate their message, who knows? The integrity of the message is paramount. Nobody likes being lied to. Least of all the cash-rich, time-poor ultra high net worthers. They rely on people like me to cut to the chaff and deliver. It takes tenacity and endurance to be successful at what I do, but that’s true for a lot of in-demand jobs. Things like vacations can be challenging for writers. A writer wants to have fun, but he also wants an angle; an enjoyable vacation is fine, but an odd vacation that might lead to an inspired piece of writing is better. That’s the way I look at my branding endeavors: I am always on the hunt, my brain never really goes onto ‘standby’ mode. When I discover a hot new person, place or thing I immediately think about how I can write about it, and that’s what drives me. I’m in the business of storytelling, first and foremost.
What have been a couple of standout assignments you’ve completed for the luxury and branded niche?
RB: Attending London Collections Men, the curtain raiser for the men’s wear catwalk season, which has fast defined itself as the home of men’s fashion. As such, it exerts a gravitational pull on established brands from across the globe looking to underscore their point of difference, as well as emerging talent with evermore daring design identities. I also got to attend the shows of leading British couture house Nicholas Oakwell, fast becoming the go-to designer for women wanting something extra special and unexpected. Men’s fashion has undergone a revolution in recent years with a new sense of energy.
Who have been some of the most memorable sources you’ve interviewed?
RB: Lifestyle designer Jonathan Adler was a highlight. We were launching his new merchandise on GiftLab and I got to interview the American potter at his new London store. Jonathan’s mission in life is to fuse traditional craftsmanship with bold contemporary design while paying homage to jet-set destinations like Capri and Positano. In 2004, he gave the Parker hotel a radical re-think with his trademark blend of Mod Sixties and feel-good Seventies mixed with classic Rat Pack style. The Parker helped redefine Palm Springs by recapturing the glamor of those bygone days. It was the bellwether sign that California’s desert oasis was a style trailblazer once more. He effectively re-branded Palm Springs. You can spot an Adler piece immediately, wit and irreverence are infused in everything he touches, and I celebrate that. It also very cool to work with Mario Testino’s creative agency on a few branding projects including writing all the copy of the luxury fashion house Agnona’s ad campaign.
What’s the most rewarding part of your work within luxury and branding inspired journalism?
RB: In my capacity as Editorial Director of US-based agency Camberwell Consulting, I have a clear vision: to help build brand awareness through bespoke content, predominantly in the digital field. Working for a diverse array of clients in everything from health & beauty to fashion, food, hotels and travel, the ability to develop and shape brand identity has been extremely rewarding. Identifying and bringing in highly desirable new brands is also very exhilarating. “New Business” is where I get to polish my own brand and make sure I am doing a good job at communicating what service I can offer to prospective clients. It’s a virtuous circle: I can sprinkle a little marketing magic and help build their empires and in so doing pick up a few tricks on how to better market myself.
What’s the foremost challenge?
RB: When there is little to no awareness of the brand in the marketplace which could be because it is a start-up brand or because it is new to the specific geographic market. Or at the other end of the spectrum when the brand and the organization behind it have rested on their laurels for too long, not keeping up with consumer needs and industry innovations. In either case, I am on hand to guide them through that change.
One of your very interesting projects to me is your Managing Editor role for Barclays “Little Book of Wonders.” How would you describe the “Little Book of Wonders”?
RB: Barclays’s elite invitation-only website and lifestyle service for the bank’s ultra high net worth clients.
The project charged you the task of telling succinct and compelling stories of many of the foremost, elite brands in the world. What was your ultimate goal in shaping such stories and what were a few of the brands you worked with?
RB: My ultimate goal was to strip away the unnecessary spin and get to the humanity in the story by spotlighting the creators and artisans doing the making, thereby connecting on an emotional level. Words are best when used sparingly. Brands will often tend to blow their own trumpet when really it’s best to fly low, like a stealth bomber. Captains of industry know a thing or two about decision-making, that’s why they have made it to the top of the tree. Our job is to talk to them on a level, as a trusted friend might do offering impartial advice. That’s the essential ingredient: it really comes down to trust. Lose that and you’ve lost the connection. A few of the elite brands I worked with include Aston Martin, Gucci, Ferrari, Ralph Lauren, Harry Winston, Tommy Hilfiger, Bentley and Tiffany.
Serving as Editor in Chief for the leading luxury e-commerce site, CoutureLab, was a position that required your leadership in the core areas of arts, culture, style and luxury. What were some integral achievements and responsibilities you executed for CoutureLab?
RB: Online sale of luxury goods may triple in the next decade. By 2025, we expect the online share of total luxury sales to be 18 percent, worth about €70 billion annually, making e-commerce the world’s third largest luxury market, after China and the United States. Creating a premium e-commerce experience is essential for a luxury brand’s survival. As editor in chief of CoutureLab, I was fortunate enough to work with the world’s most digitally-savvy luxury brands including Ann Demeulemeester and Rick Owens. Content plays a key role in defining an online experience as something more than just a listing of products. That is where I come in as a digital content strategist. My role is more akin to that of a curator. Video is a powerful tool for brands to connect with customers, and digital lends itself to this form of storytelling. Magazine e-commerce is today’s Holy Grail of publishing. In my view, they already are arbiters of taste, curators of the best products for their readers, guardians of all that is chic and covetable. Why shouldn’t they sell what they show in their pages? Companies/designers with distinguished reputations that I worked with at CoutureLab include: Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens, Aurelie Bidderman, Bea Valdes, Olympia Le Tan, Orlebar Brown, Anndra Neen and Kilian Hennessy
Your tenure with Ink Global from 2004-2011 as Editor and co-Publisher was a position deeply entrenched in travel journalism and with many of the world’s best airline publications. What publications were you most engaged with during this period and what was your vision for shaping an effective editorial approach?
RB: As a co-publisher at Ink Global my job was to make the magazines more profitable. Around about the time of the crash in 2008, magazine ad venues fell off a cliff. We had to re-focus, and chose to push our titles in a more luxury-orientated direction. The Style Issue and the Luxury Issue were born out of that, and boosted our revenues. You have a captive audience on a plane so chasing readership is not a concern, but making a quality product that passengers will take with them and return to on their next journey is crucial. That’s what the advertisers are counting on: eyeballs. We did that by collaborating with relevant fashion brands like Samsonite and Tommy Hilfiger in an intelligent and meaningful way. We offered tailor-made editorial-style fashion shoots that followed models exploring a city, which helped bring the destination alive. Everyone was happy: the airline sold more flights, the fashion houses sold more apparel, and we sold ads.
Before Ink Global, you’d served as the Lifestyle Editor for Attitude, Europe’s leading style magazine for gay men. Your 12-year run with the magazine called for a lot of reporting and travel, again with a focus in luxury. How would you describe your experience with the magazine?
RB: Running a section of the magazine at such a young age was a baptism of fire. I was given total free rein, which meant that there really were no limits. Lifestyle was the area that interested me most, and I got to satisfy my wanderlust. I collaborated with luxury hotels and resorts like W Hotels, Starwood, St. Regis, Rosewood, Firmdale, Morgans, Ace, Soho House, Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton and Orient Express, to name a few, as well as individual properties like The Dorchester, Claridge’s and The May Fair hotel. In terms of fashion I worked with leading luxury brands like Roland Mouret, Burberry, Gucci, Tom Ford and Dunhill. I was known as “our man with the five-star habit”. My job was to reveal the latest trends and introduce the readers to the hottest places to shop, eat, sleep and drink in the world.
Who were some of your most memorable interviewees for Attitude and story subjects?
RB: The most famed would be this one with Pop Idol winner Will Young: http://www.richard-bence.com/l5jnxg0am7w57aorpomnu9gw3ljk5u The English singer-songwriter and actor came to prominence after winning the 2002 inaugural series of the British music contest Pop Idol, making him the first winner of the worldwide Idol franchise. His double A-sided debut single “Anything Is Possible” / “Evergreen” was released two weeks after the show’s finale and became the fastest-selling debut single in the UK. Attitude’s unprecedented access to a generation of artists, musicians and actors of our time allowed me to chronicle key moments in the cultural zeitgeist, like Mr Young’s win. He came out shortly after although it was no surprise to the voting public. On 9 February 2002, 13.34 million viewers watched Young and Gates battle each other in the Grand Final for the title of “Pop Idol”. Television has never been the same since.
Can you speak a little to some of your go-to digital content strategy skills ad how you incorporate those components into your journalism endeavors?
RB: My main job is to ensure a brand’s identity is presented consistently in different contexts: print, digital, social media and I’m increasingly excited about immersive storytelling and VR.
Focusing predominantly on digital media, my broad knowledge from the worlds of publishing, design, journalism, marketing and brand building creates an alchemy of perspectives that help bring new businesses to life. Currently I have a number of clients in the canine category: Have a Nice Walk, a deluxe Hollywood dog-walking business which specializes in catering to clients in the film and music industries, and Peternity, a high-end memorial service for pets). I am the client’s first port of call for all questions relating to the branding and give direction on creative briefs and steer the project forward. I ensure consistency, accuracy and ensure all content reflects the aims of the client while maintaining editorial integrity
Share with us a little about BritWeek magazine. What does the publication feature and what has been the best part in acting as Editor at Large?
RB: BritWeek celebrates British creativity and innovation in Los Angeles. It’s an organization and publication dedicated to fostering a strong cultural bridge between California and the United Kingdom. Every Spring, BritWeek hosts a program of events that promotes British creativity, innovation, and excellence in California across multiple categories including film & television, music, art, fashion, art, design, retail, sport, philanthropy, business, and more. I was commissioned to write a number of articles and stories including Hollywood’s love affair with Britishness in space, and an interview with the legendary, internationally-renowned design titan Thomas Heatherwick, a fine example of British creativity. Interviewing people who have a passion has been the best part of acting as Editor at Large.
What do you expect may be on the horizon for the future of journalism?
RB: People still care about print. Great magazines still make their subscribers excited. If you look at sites like Net a Porter and YouTube, they started online and have now expanded their offering to include a print magazine. The truth is that you can’t replicate that emotional connection or sensory experience of leafing through the glossy pages in your palm. Online is necessarily less in-depth, we are all becoming multi-device enabled and multi-platform users which means we invest less. Surfing between sites is always going to be challenge: how you voluntarily get someone’s undivided attention for a decent chunk of time is becoming harder and harder to do. And the jury is out on whether longer reads work online.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
RB: The great outdoors inspires me and here in Los Angeles you are cradled by nature so energetically I am more ‘at home’ here than I was in London. I’m a sucker for the sunshine so swapping gunmetal grey skies in England for cobalt blue in California is a panacea for all ills. The cultural distance I feel as a Brit in a foreign country is amplified by being in sun-baked southern California, that and being always seemingly an inch away from oblivion (be it quake, fire, drought, coyote or rattlesnake attack). It feels like I’ve stepped onto Mars some days. I love exploring downtown Los Angeles, it’s like an Art Deco time capsule. I’m an architecture geek so can spend hours wandering around, stumbling upon some relic from the 20s or 30s.
What is next up for you?
RB: More reporting on LA’s cultural renaissance. With the Gold and Expo Lines now up and running, this is the beginning of a third act for Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne calls the city’s early years “First Los Angeles,” stretching from 1880 to 1940 and characterised by a massive streetcar system. “Second Los Angeles” is the freeway-dependent, car-dominated sprawl we know now. And before us lies “Third Los Angeles”, in which the public transit system is restored and the 51-mile concrete gutter housing the LA river – more famous as a dystopian film backdrop than a body of water – is finally revitalised. Transforming the river will give Los Angeles a riparian version of Central Park and restore the city’s topographical reason for being. I’m also really keen to write a book on the architectural history of Los Angeles. From West Hollywood’s Harper district, redolent with old Hollywood pedigree, to the Beverly Hills Hotel, built with the hope of luring wealthy Easterners to retire in what were then open fields of the Beverly Hills, Los Angeles is an architectural historian’s paradise. Micheltorena Street, which runs through the Moreno Highlands, a much-coveted area originally developed in the 1920s and 30s by silent film star Antonio Moreno, is home to John Lautner’s famous Silvertop house, among other midcentury masterpieces. It’s here that you will discover the hidden staircases that lace the steep-streeted hillsides of Silverlake, which serve as historical reminders of a time when trolleys once rumbled through Los Angeles.