Known for its vintage clothing, streetwear and fresh cohort of online influencers, Depop—the peer-to-peer social marketplace—is the epitome of cool. So, it’s only fitting that its chief brand officer, Peter Semple, would be, too. In this episode, the self-acknowledged "sneakerhead" and passionate brand builder shares how he's leading Depop's global efforts to drive cultural influence at scale. You’ll hear how he and his team maintain an always-on dialogue with the brand's Gen Z consumers and why secondhand fashion is becoming the most credible and viable choice for shopping new.
Heather: Just about every brand wants to understand and attract the Gen Z consumer—but few are as loved by this generation as Depop, the peer-to-peer social e-commerce company that has taken the fashion world by storm. Known for its vintage clothing, streetwear and fresh cohort of online influencers, Depop boasts over 26 million global users, 90% of whom are under 26. Last year, Depop was acquired by Etsy for $1.6 billion, and the brand continues to shape the ways that consumers shop and think about sustainability and self-expression. So, today I am speaking with the “King of Cool,” Peter Semple, Depop’s chief brand officer. Peter joined nearly four years ago, which (as he has said) is many lifetimes in Depop terms. In his role, Peter is responsible for ensuring the brand’s global efforts to drive cultural influence at scale while making secondhand fashion the most credible and viable choice for shopping new. Welcome, Peter.
Peter: Hey, thanks so much for having me. I’m not sure I can keep the title of “King of Cool,” but I’m glad to be a representative of all of the people making efforts toward that here at Depop.
Heather: In that spirit, I think we should start with music and shoes—because those are two of my favorite things, and I think that they’re also yours. So, what are you listening to right now, music-wise?
Peter: Those are the two great, great topics. I’ve been a huge fan of hip hop for most of my life, so I sort of continually try and keep up with new and interesting hip hop—which kind of evolves and changes shape, based on generation-to-generation. But I also constantly dig back into historical eras, so I think my favorite musical time is early ’90s New York.
Heather: Yes, yes. Amazing.
Peter: Naz, Jay-Z, all that sort of stuff. So, that’s my steady diet. But then I try and listen to other stuff that’s bubbling up, just so I can be aware of it from a kind of social currency point of view, especially with our young audience.
Heather: Awesome. Let’s talk shoes. You have accumulated quite a shoe/sneaker collection—so, tell me, how many do you have? Have you sold any on Depop? What’s your most prized possession?
Peter: I have a lot. Actually, I’m now potentially embarrassed to reveal the number. In my defense, I’ve been collecting for more than 20 years; and, for a while, I worked for a bunch of Nike, Inc. companies, which kind of helped. I’ve sold some of them on Depop. I’ve sold some of mine; I’ve sold some of my wife’s collection, because she’s sort of mastered collecting since we’ve been together, too. I have a few really special things in the collection—from Kanye’s Nikes, which is very cool, to one of 24 pairs they made for a small shop in a boutique in Berlin in 2003. I’m just a big fan of design and all of the kind of deep nerdery and history that goes with those things.
Heather: That is awesome. And it feels like you’ve landed in the right spot. You began in 2019 as chief marketing officer. You’re now chief brand officer. What does that entail? And what do you love about what you do?
Peter: A very potted quick journey, that I’ve been on before Depop, is I grew up in advertising agencies, briefly as a copywriter and then strategy and account management for a number of brands here in the UK…big brands. I moved to New York in the mid-2000s in my mid-20s and started working for an agency called Anomaly, where we were doing big brand work for brands like Nike, Converse, Umbro. Then I went to Google, and my role there across the seven and a half years or something that I was there was a mix of marketing, innovation in general to make Google technology more useful and also kind of taking the consumer insight brain and partnering very closely with the product organization—because, ultimately, you can have really interesting progress. If you make the product better, you don’t necessarily need to advertise how to use it; people understand how to use it intuitively.
So, I joined Depop because it felt like this really fascinating culmination of all of my experience, both commercially and professionally. Then, along the way, I’ve been involved in various parts of fashion communities. What’s really fascinating about that, I think, is that the communities I was part of in the early 2000s are, in lots of ways, prototypical of what you see on the community side of the Depop things: a number of people brought together by a common interest. Sure, there’s buying and selling at the heart of it and a transaction and an accumulation of things; then, there are also all these really interesting other parts of it, as in people get to know one another, people are introduced to new things. People’s understanding of a topic they love deepens because there are other people with whom they can share it. When I met the CEO of Depop in 2018, I told her that I had been part of these communities. In fact, it sounds kind of crazy to some people, but my son’s godfather is someone I met on these sneaker forums. So, these things, these communities, really have life and world and industry-changing potential. And, as I say, a number of the people who were in the chat rooms with me have gone on to be…you know, the HYPEBEAST founder was there at the time…these people have gone on to work for the sneaker brands. So, I think lots of the stuff that I’ve been deeply passionate about—combined with technology, consumer culture, brand work—hopefully made me the right combination of things for Depop.
Then, to answer your question about the four years—the many lifetimes, as you said in your intro—since I joined as chief marketing officer, there were a number of people doing parts of marketing around the business. It wasn’t really a consolidated effort, because the company was a sort of mid-stage startup at the time. It was post-Series B. So, the first thing I did when I got here was actually take this incredible talent, some whom had experience and a lot of whom came from the community itself, and help shape them into: Do we all speak a common language? How do we make sure we multiply the things we are doing versus lots of interesting people doing interesting things in interesting but different places?
I became chief brand officer in early 2021. That was as a result of…as we grew, we went through Series C and then, actually, faced really big growth because the lockdown dynamic in 2020 really helped Depop. And I always have to say that with somewhat a heavy heart, because other brands in other businesses suffered in so many ways. But, as we began to scale up, the reality of what our marketing mix was became a mix of brand work—at scale, engagement work, cultural astuteness, and insight-driven work; and, as a technology and an app-based marketplace, performance marketing is also a great amount of what we do. How do we show up in relevant channels, efficiently, at-scale? In reality, our marketing mix is the combination of both of those—like many other businesses. We had a senior vice president of growth here, who was brilliant at the performance marketing thing, but we decided that we were effectively splitting the marketing responsibility. So, she became the chief growth officer at the beginning of 2021, my title changed to chief brand officer, and we combined the different talents and different experiences that we have for the overall marketing offering, and I look after ESG and impact and DEI and sustainability in other parts of the way that the brand manifests. And she has different commercial growth levers that exist beneath her that are broader than simply marketing. It’s perhaps an unorthodox way of organizing, but it means that we both bring the discipline and the experience of our long careers. And, ideally, we get the best of both worlds when we work together.
Heather: It sounds like, a great match, and it feels like you were meant for this—like you were born for this role—and that everything that you’ve done up until this point has gotten you there. I want to touch on something that you just mentioned, which is what I think we often talk about—certainly our clients talk about: showing up in the right way, in the right time, in a way that feels authentic to whom you’re trying to reach. That’s what everyone is trying to do. How do you do that? I would love for you to peak under the hood into some of the ways in which you are really building that community and are able to achieve that resonance that so many are searching for.
Peter: It’s a combination of things and a combination of quite a broad variety of people; hence, my thing at the beginning where I definitely can’t be the “King of Cool,” but I’m glad we project our cool to the community. You know, I mean, I’m a British man in my 40s. Am I that close to what the U.S. Gen Z audience is doing and living through and experiencing? No, I have a point-of-view on it and am fascinated by observing it; but in order to successfully speak to them, we need to listen to them—or we need to have people on our team who really are part of that demographic, part of that audience. So, our marketing mix and the way we approach the audience understanding piece is a combination of data on one end. Obviously, we’re a marketplace. A lot of data signals come through our understanding of how people are actually interacting on the platform itself. We can make decisions based on that, and we can make merchandising decisions and identify trends, but you also need to interact with the real world. And part of that is, as I say, we’ve always hired people from the community of Depop to come in here and teach us what it’s like to live through it. We encourage everyone in the business to participate in it. And I don’t always have the time necessarily to…I don’t sell on a weekly basis; but when I’m on holiday, I’ll sell a few things in order to remind myself of what the experience is like and to see the language coming back, the interaction from DMs, and all of that sort of stuff. And, as I say, we encourage the entire company to do that.
Then, we have a number of different people in the company—our PR team, our social media team—who are obviously reviewing and seeing what is being talked about on social, either prompted by us or organic. We have this group, the trends task force, who work across customer insight, surveying and meeting with people and identifying sellers, as well as seeing what merchandise is sort of bubbling on our platform and helping to determine themes from that to help us put more of the right things in front of the right people. We specifically have a seller engagements team, which is speaking to the sellers—primarily the top sellers, because they’re the ones who have committed to building a business at scale at Depop—but we have daily interactions with them. We have Slack interactions with them. We have a different system, which we use to make sure that there’s a consistent dialogue.
And the wonderful thing, I think, about this specifically younger community, Gen Z— but also the younger Millennial—is that they’re very vocal. They’re willing to tell you all the things you need to understand about what they’re interested in or where they’re having problems with the app. And as a business like us, you really have to pay attention to those things, listen, and take action on them. That gets you on a cycle where they feel like you’re listening, that you’re fostering their ideation. You’re there as a platform for them, and you build a mutual trust. And without interesting people transacting with interesting things and expressing themselves on our platform, we’re an empty technology service. So, our responsibility to them as an audience, but also as a business, is to do that—because that’s how we’ll continue to build.
Heather: What I’m taking away is that active, always-on dialogue that’s continuing and co-creating is really what Depop is. The trends piece is interesting. I’d love to learn more about that team and about some of the trends that are currently on your radar—or on their radar.
Peter: What they do is to effectively build an internal press presentation, which is our fashion themes presentation, on a quarterly basis. That involves taking a number of signals from all of the places I’ve mentioned, as well as doing some external industry reading and listening and checking with other sources of consolidated industry information. Then, they build from that a number of key themes that we think are likely to be resonant in the coming few months and that we can fulfill. The great thing about the secondhand market, Depop, is there are tens of thousands of items being added every day. So, broadly, whatever anyone is looking for probably has a number of interesting versions of it existing within Depop.
As these trends ebb and flow (and they do that with increasing speed when you think about what TikTok is engendering) and someone wears something and a particular style blows up and it’s replaced two weeks later by something else, the secondhand market is a really good answer to, “Hey, if you want cottage core, well, we have infinite plaid dresses and cardigans existing within Depop.” So how do we merchandise them and package them as the answer for people who stumble upon the cottage core theme and want to participate in it? Anyway, the fashion task force builds out these internal presentations and structures that are then disseminated across the products and the marketing organization so that everyone is reading from the same sheet when we’re thinking about the merchandising decisions, when we’re making an ad, and the types of fashion and the types of themes that we want to relay in that ad either explicitly or somewhat implicitly. When we’re thinking about the merchandising on the site itself, what are the interesting things to show and to prioritize over other stuff? And to your question of what’s interesting now, I think this is a version of what’s been happening since last summer in the post-lockdown world; but freedom of expression and various themes that kind of iterate off that continue to be a real factor for the young audience.
We see a number of these kinds of freedom dressing notions, and even flex dressing, of “I want to recreate myself.” We see that happening—people still wanting to hold onto excitement, self-expression, and actually fun and cultural engagement in the world—despite various other things.
Heather: I think that there’s a special sauce that’s inherent within the Depop brand, and I think it comes back to really having a deeper understanding of your consumers and how they want to engage with you and with each other. And then, obviously, sustainability that you had mentioned before that’s something just in terms of your own efforts. You’ve managed to make sustainability accessible, desirable. How are you continuing to motivate and excite people to change consumption behavior, and where do you see this going over time?
Peter: I think we’re sort of uniquely placed. And, you know, this precedes me. Simon, the founder of the business, many, many years ago—10 or 11 years ago—set it up to be community-driven and to sort of infuse that community with a bunch of creative people with interesting taste and interesting things to sell. He set out to create a thing that was appealing from the outset. And, interestingly, circularity and secondhand consumption was sort of a byproduct of it, because it was people selling things they owned, which wasn’t necessarily what he started doing. He started with, ‘I bet if we got cool people to curate stuff, that would excite shoppers.’ We are now in the position of having tens of millions of users and this kind of groundswell of youth and youth culture and youth digital native self-expression. We really do have a sort of lens on the exciting end of secondhand fashion. Secondhand fashion has always been available, and we’ve all known people over the years who really were digging into the Goodwill bins or in charity shops here in the UK and were able to find that gem. What you have with something like Depop is a number of those curators finding the really interesting things, presenting them in an interesting way, and making them accessible at a new scale to anyone. So, I think we are, as I say, uniquely placed to do the desirable and exciting bit of it, as well as being another product for access to secondhand fashion.
And, I think, ultimately—long-term—secondhand fashion needs to be exciting, because we’re all conditioned to buy new fashion. There’s new fashion thrown at us every day, because we want constant newness. So, accessibility alone for secondhand fashion isn’t going to get us to change consumption behavior. We have to be more interesting. We have to be more on the pulse. We have to be an answer to the desires or the things that you’ve seen: “I saw a rapper do a thing, and I’m influenced by that. I want to find a similar outfit.” We need to get people to think that they can come to Depop and find those things, because they really can. As I say, the whole country exists. So, our plan is that we will continue to drive consumption behavior by being exciting. And in some respects, to some people, that might be a Trojan Horse to sustainability. There are definitely some people who come here because they’re values-driven; they align with us as a secondhand business; they want to shop here first. For lots and lots of other people, I think they’re still looking at ‘Is it cool, do I think it’s good enough quality, is it the right price?’ before they get to, ‘Oh’ and ‘I’ll feel better if I buy it second hand versus new.’ So, we have to find a way of catering to people for whom second hand and sustainability isn’t necessarily a primary motivator. We have to bring them in in other ways.
And the good news is, we’ve all become so much more educated in the last 10 years about our personal impact or the impact of industries like fashion—but I think we’re still some way off before that becomes a primary motivator. And it may never do. So, if we can become a Trojan Horse and sell people into the secondary market by being exciting and dynamic and attractive and trend-led, then I think we have a chance of succeeding as a business and also succeeding at changing consumption behavior.
Heather: Yes. I see your point about not everybody is driven to make that conscious decision, so how do you build the story and the excitement around it in order for that to then become the decision? You mentioned a little bit about celebrity. I’d love to just understand the role of celebrity and other influencers and partnerships that, again, create this world that people want to be part of. What have been some lessons learned in managing through that?
Peter: It sort of connects back to the thing you were saying earlier about we want to be cool, we want to be desirable. In order for people to be interested in you, you have to do interesting things. And partnering with interesting people, or institutions or brands is one way that we can propel Depop forward…propel the idea of circular fashion. So, when you think about celebrities and influencers, we deal with a number of different tiers. Notably, I think last year, we did a project with Olivia Rodrigo, who has obviously gone on to become this enormous and fascinating musician and artist. She’s one example of very large scale. We just did a partnership with Charlie XCX that’s rolling out at the moment, who, again had (I think) a number-one album this year in the UK and a number-two album in the US. So, very big music culture, cult-of-personality. We interact with people at that scale and, of course, we need them to have a values alignment with who we are. Ultimately, they need to be interesting style and fashion icons, because they’ll provoke people to think about those things. And, ideally, they also come with some built-in validity in terms of the agenda that we are pushing, which is helping people turn to secondhand fashion. So, the celeb piece is about embedding ourselves in people’s minds and their lifestyles and aligning ourselves with the people who motivate [our audience] to action—because that’s very much the case. We then do lots and lots of much smaller tier, micro-influencers or specific social media platform influencers like YouTubers, who can talk you through what they’re clearing out in their closet, what they’re selling. And they have really strong engagement from their specific audiences. As you tally up the amount of those people with whom we work, you start to reach millions and tens of millions of people.
We have an interesting program going on at the moment, internally called a brand ambassador program, that’s working primarily with stylists. So, we’re working with Harry Lambert, who is Harry Styles’ stylist in addition to a number of other things. He’s just been to Fashion Week dressed entirely in clothes he sourced off Depop. That’s interesting and provocative, and he’s promoting that on his channels. These things will capture the attention of media and various other outlets, because it’s interesting that Harry isn’t wearing the latest thing. He’s chosen to look through the existing inventory on a platform like Depop. So, we wield these different tiers of interesting talent.
It’s a never-ending process of evolution to work with talent. The heart of it has to be: Who are the right people to align with our business and who will help us continually unlock new resonance with the audience that we’re reaching. Ideally, we will find someone who will help us reach new swathes of audience that we actually haven’t spoken to yet. So, their influence helps carry Depop as a business and also carry circular fashion forward.
The other thing that you mentioned is brands. Again, if we can partner with brands that our audience, a youth-driven audience, loves or has history with, in a way that introduces their audience to secondhand fashion, that’s a really powerful lever for us. In about the last six months alone, we’ve partnered with Doc Martins on a project where they effectively refurbished and resold used Doc Martins that they sell exclusively through us. We did an interesting partnership with the Sims, which is a kind of interesting one and very relevant in terms of all of the kinds of metaverse conversations that exploded. We’re showing up and introducing thrifting and particular Depop styles within a gaming environment that has the potential to reach tens of millions of people. We have a few coming that are in both the technology and culture space, which brings with it very, very brilliant and massive scale, along with some heritage brands that have decades of love. In 2019, before the lockdown, we did a really interesting partnership with Ralph Lauren. I think that was an amazing step forward for them to interact with the secondhand market. And for us, as Depop (and we were a much smaller business then), we took over their European flagship store. Every single window was Depop. So, I’m really excited that we’ll continue to work with brands that can, as I say, help us reach new audiences. The tradeoff is that it’s a good cachet for them. They’re interested in finding a way of resonating with the younger audience that does lean toward values-driven sustainability.
Heather: Culture is everywhere. It’s not just online, right? It’s not just in social media or how you’re thinking about physical spaces and popups and other ways in which you can connect with your audiences. Where do you see growth coming from? And, as you think about new audiences, there’s certainly a cohort that loves you and that you love—and you’re kind of building on that; but what’s the next frontier, either from a demographic standpoint or a psychographic standpoint or geographic standpoint? Where do you see growth coming from?
Peter: Our business has been built in large part on a Gen Z audience, with a Gen Z audience and for a Gen Z audience. And it’s sort of a real point of pride that so many of our audience are under the age of 26. But the notion of sustainability, this notion of grand change of consumption behavior, isn’t limited to people under 26. As I say, I’m in my 40s. It’s appealing to me, and I can shop secondary.
Heather: I’m 26, so I’m right there. [laughter]
Peter: That’s right [laughter]. So, I think what we’ve consciously done—we began doing it at the beginning of last year—we’re growing up as a business. We’re starting to think about how we definitely never want to lose our commitment to this young audience, but it’s becomes interesting to say, ‘How do we make sure we’re not excluding an older audience?’ If we continually reinforce, solely, the “We are for Gen Z and of Gen Z” narrative, are we excluding people who could fruitfully come here and participate in the community and find things to wear, bring their audiences in, etc., etc.?
So, we’re thinking about expansion on both horizons. Youth and the new generation will always shake up everything, and Gen Z has helped us shape the business that we are. Gen Alpha will not be far behind, and it will be fascinating over the years to see how they change consumption behavior, how they change the ways in which businesses should operate. We have to keep an eye on that. Obviously, they’re too young at the moment; but they will land in our world or have the potential to land in our world in the coming years. We’re also sort of looking at how we need to reshape our brand. Who are the people that we might need to align with to open the aperture to an older audience who might not previously have considered us? Who might be getting driven to the notion of secondhand fashion through a number of other influences in their life, from a brand aesthetic point of view and a kind of core brand messaging? How do we retain youth as a really attractive part of our business but ensure that we’re not closing the doors? And language, even the ways in which we shoot films, have to evolve slightly, so the freneticism of the thing that feels like a TikTok edit isn’t going to cross over to appeal to an older audience. So, we make aesthetic—call it cultural—messaging decisions and then actually, genuinely, paying attention to the kind of inventory that’s appealing to different audiences and partnering with brands. We just ran a campaign here in the UK that, for the first time, had a whole variety of ages represented in it—right up to, I think, nearly 50 was probably the oldest person in it. It becomes really interesting seeing this, the vibrancy of the Depop community, seeing the fashion and the styles that truly can cross generations. They’re not solely the domain of people under 26. It actually becomes really exciting to present to those people together, as long as you do it in an aesthetically interesting way. So, we are definitely looking to scale up the audience. We have an eye on what this next generation will do, what they will shake up and what we need to listen to and pay attention to and learn from. Ultimately, we’re trying to position ourselves less for an age but more as a place where you can fruitfully find a better alternative than shopping first hand. And it doesn’t matter what age you are; we don’t want you to feel like you wouldn’t find what you’re looking for here.
Heather: The Etsy acquisition…that’s a pretty big game changer. Tell me about how that’s impacting what you’re doing day-to-day and what that’s providing.
Peter: The deal completed July 14, 2021. We’ve actually had a long-standing relationship with Etsy. We’ve always had this collaborative relationship. The dynamics that we undertake as a business—or involved with as businesses—are similar, but we’ve had quite vastly different audiences. So, it’s useful to share notes with someone who isn’t a competitor, and that mutual respect grew over the course of time. So, last year we had a conversation with them early on in the year, and it manifested that they decided to buy us. They’re building what they call “the house of brands.” So, the first marketplace that Etsy, Inc. bought was called Reverb, a music instrument and equipment marketplace. Subsequent to us, they bought a Brazilian marketplace called Elo7. So, the notion is very much that these different marketplaces serve different interests for different audiences. What Etsy brings to all of them is years and years of operational excellence. So, it has been a really fascinating year of—call it integration—a kind of value partnership with us, because they’ve tackled a number of the things that we are tackling. They’re thinking about technological scale: Well, here are some things we tried that didn’t work; try these things instead. Or, lending us engineering teams to build out parts where we may not have the kind of internal capacity and resources to build it ourselves. They’re enormous in scale. They’re in multiple markets simultaneously. They’ve been through the international expansion thing enough to have a playbook on it. And they’re a good reference point for, hey, did you try this? How did it work out for you? I think the interesting balance for us—and I speak a little bit with the other sort of affiliate businesses within the house of brands—is knowing when to draw the line between the stuff that they’ve tried that worked for them, or understanding the fundamental rule of it, but not necessarily applying it wholesale to your own business because we are different. We’re culturally led, we’re brand led in a way that Etsy hasn’t always been. We definitely have the same underlying values, and we definitely have the same desire to help people build businesses and to connect people around unique inventory—but we’ve built our businesses in quite different ways. So, it’s very valuable for us to go, ‘Hey Etsy, do you have some point of view or advice on this?’—and then consider it alongside the things that we know to be true about our business. And that helps us make decisions.
Heather: There’s mutual respect and partnership, but you also recognize the things that retain some level of Depop-ness that isn’t just something that can be scaled across everything. Okay, Peter, I’m going to end with this question: Who is your icon?
Peter: It is a brilliant question. I had one boss in my career who was amazingly conviction-driven. He was driven by doing what he thought was right for the end user at all times, even if it was sometimes contrary to the short-term goal of the business or short-term commercial gain. His fundamental belief was, if you obsess about what the people you’re trying to serve want and you really deeply try to understand them, you will be on the right track.
I’m very lucky to have had a number of really powerful mentors in my life. On a sort of a large-scale cultural thing, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. When I was at boarding school, very young, someone gave me the Wu-Tang record, and it blew my mind. It expanded my cultural appetite to really fall in love with New York City, New York music, New York art, New York fashion, and all of the things that actually have gone on to quite substantially shape my life. I moved to New York many years later, more or less inspired by falling in love with the Wu-Tang record at the beginning. Interestingly, I’ve read tons of stuff that RZA has written about his philosophies on life, his understanding of numerous different disciplines and religions and philosophical beliefs. He combined them into some interesting points of view that have driven his decisions, that have driven his creative output. And, funnily enough, they continue to resonate with me. I met him once, and he wrote in my book. He wrote a brilliant book, called The Tao of Wu. He kindly wrote in mine, “Peter, be a fisherman of men.” And I was, like, I’ll try my best, RZA. But then, sadly, I left my copy of the book on a plane!
Heather: Oh no! Those are both great icons. I think Depop is, for sure, an icon in the world of brands that means something to people and that is doing innovative things. I just want to thank you so much for spending time with me this afternoon and basking in all your coolness and all the coolness that Depop is giving to the world. I think you’re doing amazing things.
Without interesting people transacting with interesting things and expressing themselves on our platform, we’re an empty technology service.