When Rick Webb got engaged several years ago, he turned to the best wedding planner he knew: himself.
The long-running stereotype is that men are not just indifferent about the details of their wedding ceremonies; they’re bored by them. Couple that with the idea that women are bridezillas who have been planning their weddings since 13—and who actively discourage their grooms from participating—and you have a wedding-industrial complex dominated by women.
But Webb—co-founder of digital ad agency Barbarian Group, and now the COO of social media company Timehop—wants to turn that paradigm on its ear, so much so that he wrote Man Nup, a self-help book that challenges men to plan their own weddings.
MEL spoke with Webb about the complicated gender politics of weddings, why you should never tell a vendor what your real budget is and why he hates assigned seating at wedding receptions.
Why write a book about the reasons why men should plan their weddings?
I got married in August of 2013, and I planned the whole wedding myself. That decision came about in a totally organic way, too. My wife and I were having the standard couples’ discussion about how many people we were going to invite, etc., and we realized we had very different views on the subject. I wanted a lot of people there; she didn’t. Or, better put, my wife didn’t necessarily have a problem with having a bunch of people there, it was more that she didn’t want to deal with all the planning. I was like, “I don’t mind doing it!”
That makes you completely against type. Because the stereotype is that most straight guys don’t participate much in wedding planning.
It’s interesting, because once a few friends of mine realized I had planned my own wedding, they came to me in short order and told me they were planning their own as well. So to me, all of a sudden, it looked like this tradition was maybe changing to some extent — that men were helping and taking on more roles. I began to think that maybe my participation in my wedding wasn’t a complete fluke.
It sounds like the seeds for a New York Times trend piece.
I joke about that a little bit in the beginning of the book: Three other guys said it, so it’s a trend, right? Some of my wedding-planning friends did say that generally men are still very passive in this situation. In fact, most of them told me, “I always try to get the grooms involved, but pretty much every single time, they’re just not interested.” So me and my friends aside, I don’t if there’s a lot of others.
Aside from your book, is there a lot of other information out there about men who plan their own weddings?
Not really. When I Googled “wedding planning for men,” I found a lot of vaguely sexist articles like “How to Survive Your Wedding,” “How to Not Annoy Your Bride While She’s Planning the Wedding” and “How to Just Say Yes.” And all of the traditional wedding planning books were offensive in the reverse — they just assume that women are really into different icing flavors and that they really care about the dyes the could use to color their slippers.
I don’t think it can be super great for our society to think that one person isn’t supposed to help with one of the most important acts in a relationship. Take birth as another example. Men obviously can’t pop children out, but it’s understood that they’re supposed to help in every other way they can. They’re not supposed to just sit there and say, “Yes, dear, whatever.”
It is your special day, too, so it would make sense that you would help as well.
Exactly. In that way, it further propagates this myth men that men are roped into marriage and that it’s against their will. None of that is healthy either.
You’re signing on for a lot of responsibility, though, because after reading your book—holy shit, there are so many things to consider when planning a wedding.
It was definitely surprising, because I’ve thrown large events for 500 people; I thought, How different can it be? But there’s a profound difference between renting a venue and getting 500 people drunk and making an experience that’s moving, touching and memorable for the rest of your life.
Plus, you’re up against this giant industry that’s geared to take your money. It’s just like buying a mattress: It’s one of those industries that’s founded on obfuscation. Because you only do it once — or maybe 3 or 4 times if you’re Elizabeth Taylor or Larry King. And so, every person comes to it with a lack of knowledge, which means they’re easily convinced that they need to spent money on stuff that might be unnecessary.
Are you trying to say that the wedding industry is ripe for disruption?
I’ve been known to use the phrase “wedding-industrial complex.” And it’s true. There’s an inequality of information that the consumer doesn’t understand, and therefore, they’re unable to make rational purchase decisions.
You repeat throughout the book, “Never state your real budget.”
Totally. If you can get away with it, don’t even admit it’s a wedding that you’re throwing.
Because I’ve heard several people say that the moment they mention it’s a wedding, all the rates go up — from the venue to the food. Because they know that you don’t know. On the other hand, if they think you’re calling from a company that throws an events all the time and you might move your event to another venue because you know how much everything costs to the dollar, they’re going to give you a real rate.
Was this your strategy?
I used a lot of different tactics, but they were basically all around this concept of obfuscation — not admitting what I was doing and striving mightily to use vendors and venues that generally didn’t deal with weddings. Since weddings aren’t their business, they price in a more competitive and advantageous manner.
Didn’t that make you nervous, though?
No, but it probably should have. One thing I learned the hard way is that seemingly a lot of simple stuff can fall through the cracks with nontraditional wedding venues. Like I had to rent tables at the last minute. As always, there are pros and cons to spending (or not spending) money.
In the book, you write, “Avoid using your friends as vendors as much as possible, even when they volunteer. Especially avoid friends who volunteer to cook for the wedding.” Why?
Generally speaking, it’s been one area where I’ve seen a lot of heartbreak and friendships ruined. People who are supposed to make the cake and don’t make it right. Or: They’re your friends, and you can’t yell at them if they do something wrong.
So it’s better to avoid that awkwardness if possible?
The better advice might be to be aware that it’s an area with significant risk. Have backups. Work out the relationship. Make the expectations clear in advance, and make sure there’s good communication.
What’s your beef with assigned seating?
Let me argue against myself for a minute: Right after I finished the book, I went to a wedding where assigned seats did work. I only knew about six people out of 150, so I was pretty thankful that we were all at a table together. In my mind, that’s the best situation of assigned seats. The worst is when you know a lot of people at the wedding, and you’re stuck in a seat talking to the same five people for three hours, including the person you live with. I mean, I traveled to some faraway town to hang out with a bunch of people I never get to see, and for half of the time, I have to sit at this table with only five of them.
You don’t feel like you can walk around and mingle?
I talk a lot about setting up a calendar for your wedding, and the flow and timing of things. The assigned seating can sort of exacerbate a bad calendar. You have to sit there through five speeches and can’t move or talk to other people. There’s also a lot of politics involved in families. They’re never sure where they should seat different people. Aunt Martha is arguing with Aunt Jane, and you only have five college friends but you have eight work friends. What are you going to do — put two of the work friends with the college friends? They don’t know each other. It’s just a logistical headache.
Doesn’t that same kind of awkwardness settle in if it’s a free-for-all?
Not in my experience. People mingle. They move around. They sit where they want.
Dealing with family is interesting on a lot of levels. How do you manage dealing familial advice in a wedding situation, especially if they pay for it?
I think the first part is that if you take their money, they’re going to have some sort of say. Doubly so if you don’t have it out with them at the beginning.
Well, if their money is absolutely necessary, it’s pretty likely they’re going to have some conditions — which isn’t unreasonable. The most common one is that people want a certain number of their friends or family members there. My main point, however, is that you can take people’s money, but you need to work out in advance what that means. Things like: I’ll take the money, but you need to understand that doesn’t mean you get to invite 15 of your Kiwanis buddies. That way, if something changes, you can say, “Remember, we talked about this and made an agreement. It’s too late now to amend it.”
You also encourage people to talk openly and in detail about their weddings. That people genuinely want to hear about it, which is contrary to conventional wisdom.
Everybody is definitely going to ask you — especially if they know you’re a man planning a wedding, because it’s a unique topic of conversation. You can answer a number of different ways: A) you can say nothing because it feels repetitive to you, and you don’t want to talk about it over and over again; B) you can joke about it, but that just reinforces the negative stereotype that you don’t care; or C) you can talk about it for a minute or two. I think option C is important because it’s an opportunity for them to see how actively engaged and excited you are about it.
What do people tend to overspend on the most?
Food, because it’s really expensive. And it’s even more expensive if it’s served. That again, ties into my whole assigned seating thing. You can have a served wedding without assigned seats, but it’s pretty rare.
None of it tastes good, either, since a lot of these all-in-one venues don’t have great food. Then you have these approved catering companies that are the only ones that can work with the venue. In economics, they call that licensing, and it’s a means to charge more money.
What areas do people usually not spend enough on?
The whole AV situation beyond the wedding photographer. For starters, make sure everybody can be heard. I’ve been to so many weddings in homes and outdoors where they didn’t think through the speaker situation. The bride or groom is speaking quietly, and nobody can hear the vows. Or somebody is reading poetry, and you can’t hear them. So make sure you’re properly mic’d up.
You said you’ve been to around 200 weddings. What’s the worst wedding you’ve ever been to?
I was at a wedding once where I stood up and did not forever hold my peace. I was young and impetuous. I was right, but that’s not something you should do.
What did you say?
I said that the wedding was a terrible idea, and that it shouldn’t happen.
What was the response?
Of course, I was asked to leave.
I didn’t know people ever actually did that.
They were both very unhappy people in life, and they knew each other for a week. It was all just a terrible idea. Later on, the bride told me I was right and forgave me but I still shouldn’t have done it.
On a happier note, what’s the best wedding you’ve ever attended?
I would say my friends Buster and KellyAnne’s wedding was fantastic. It was the first wedding I’d been to where I saw the Google Docs spreadsheet schedule. I was a groomsman, and at first, I was like, “What is this ridiculous nonsense?! What kind of neurotic person makes a spreadsheet for their wedding?” But it was amazing and really well-planned. The venue was gorgeous, and they made sure we all had something to do each night. It was a really great time.
I think people equate how much you spend to how good the wedding is. But that doesn’t seem to be the case from your book.
I learned from my old agency party planning days that there are things you can do that people think are expensive but aren’t. For instance, you can cut out the whole top shelf of booze; nobody needs Macallan 18 and things like that. But you can leave the bar open otherwise. That just feels very extravagant. And in the end, it’s the feeling that you want people walking away with. Because it’s the thing that will stick with them forever.