The Ambassador

Hamish Smith finds Simon Ford is on good form, despite the early meeting


SIMON FORD IS HUNGOVER. Not in the way that most of us of are – red-eyed, tight-skinned and struggling to form sentences – but in the way a career brand ambassador has learned to be. Feeling it, but dealing with it.

This is a meeting born of two tight schedules. It’s 8.45am, and only a jetlag-stunted sleep after Ford had appeared at the London Sessions, talking to bartenders too openly about his colourful life in the drinks world. He shudders a little recalling some of his remarks – somehow the controversial lines live longer in the memory.

This you expect from a loquacious bartender. But Ford’s background is mainly brand work, not bartending. He was behind the stick for just a year. So when you ask who his mentors are, he won’t name a legendary barkeep. No, for him it’s guys such as Nick Blacknell, who headed up Ideal Brands, an on-trade division of Seagrams, and who is now with Havana Club. Or Charles Rolls, now the owner of Fever-Tree.

“Nick Blacknell is one of the best marketers in the world – he’s a puppet master, my number one mentor,” says Ford. And on Rolls: “I learned a lot from him. I just wish I had had the idea for Fever-Tree – he owns two planes.”

Ford’s career may not yet have made him rich, but he has been impactful. Many say his work with Plymouth Gin in the US was the blueprint for the brand ambassador role as it is today. In the mid-2000s he arrived in New York, a pocket full of ideas and a credit card with Pernod Ricard’s name on it.

He was always looking for new ways to build relationships and, indirectly, his brand’s image. He was the first to do trips such as tours of graveyards to celebrate the legends of bartending. The kind of stuff that is now a standard didn’t exist back then. Ford says he spent a lot of money – but creatively. “It was always beneficial to building the brand,” he says.

Ford’s fun-peddling style was a big hit at a time when New York’s cocktail scene was lifting off. It didn’t take long for other brands to cotton on. “Now there are thousands of brand ambassadors like me – and I get the blame for it.”

Eventually Ford’s knowledge and contacts became too valuable an asset for him not to go it alone. Behind the scenes at Pernod Ricard he had started laying the foundations for 86 Co, which eventually launched in 2012 with Employees Only founders Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas, Malte Barnekow, Kris Roth and, latterly, fellow Brand Ambassador of the Year winner Dan Warner. 86 Co aimed to give bartenders what they wanted. The bottle labels flannel-free, the glass ergonomically designed and the liquid meant for mixing.

It’s early days, and Ford admits the company isn’t making much money, but he says it was a “great start to the year” to see each of 86 Co’s four brands in The World’s 50 Best Bars Annual Report 2016 – a sure sign of traction at the slippery end of the business.

Without that old credit line, Ford will need to continue to flex his creative muscles. People with ideas normally find a way.