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An Interview With a Former Beauty PR Manager

Jane Marie: As your friend, I know that you used to work in the New York beauty PR world — calling around to get products into magazines, always smelling great and having awesome eyeshadow and stuff. That’s how I would describe your old job, if pressed. You wanna give it a shot?

MacKenzie Lewis: My official title was PR Manager. My unofficial title was press liaison, pitcher of stories, planner of events and writer of press releases. It was a great gig because no two days were ever the same, and I was able to work on projects like Fashion Week and events with Colette in Paris. But budgeting, strategic planning and analysis make up the less glamorous side of things. There’s this misconception that PR is all about socializing at cocktail parties — that’s part of the job, but a very small part.

Okay, so the impetus for this interview was that the other day I was on Sephora.com and on the home page they had this “Shop Allure’s ‘Best Of Beauty’” feature. You know, that annual list in Allure magazine of the “best” beauty products? Of course there were a bunch of the usual suspects in there — the Clarisonic face brush, Bobbi Brown gel eyeliner (yes!) — but then I kept scrolling and there was all this other stuff that I had never heard of, nor would I ever play with at Sephora. So it got me wondering how that shit gets on the list, you know? Could you maybe walk me through how a beauty product gets featured in an average editorial — that is, not an advertisement — in any magazine? 

Okay, well let me preface whatever I’m about to say with a disclaimer that neither Allure nor any other magazine has ever let me sit in while they compile their “best of” lists. But I do have friends who are editors and am not completely oblivious to what happens around me. I’m also an editor now, though in a country where publishing functions slightly differently than in the US.

But back to the question. I guess the first factor in getting on the list is the most optimistic: the editor genuinely likes a product. Most things in life prefaced by the word “best” (movies, New York style pizzas, friends) are subjective, and makeup is no exception. Consider just how many boxes would have to be ticked off before you’d call a dry shampoo, for example, your favorite. How many of those are personal preferences (good packaging, for me, is essential)? And then consider how many things affect that dry shampoo’s performance on you, personally: your hair color, texture, shampooing habits and even climate. I might love one brand of hair powder because it disappears on my hair and gives it just the right amount of body in my humid climate. But on your shade it might leave white residue and feel dry, or the fact that it doesn’t wash out easily could be a deal breaker.

Then there’s the practicality factor. Editing a magazine is someone’s job, and sometimes she has to make concessions for the overall good of the story. For example, maybe she’s doing a “Best fall fragrances” piece, and the art department told her she needs to include eight fragrances for the layout to work. But what if she only likes seven? That eighth “best” scent is going to come down to a) whatever’s already in the magazine’s beauty closet, b) whichever publicist sends her an eighth perfume first, or c) whichever beauty publicist she’s better friends with. 

Which brings us to the next factor: relationships. A big part of public relations is building relationships between your brand and the media. Because brands are built by humans and humans run the media, this relationship — especially in the beauty industry — often boils down to your run of the mill work friendship. When I was in PR, I had an expense account and a quota of breakfast/lunch/dinner or drink “meetings” I had to go out on each week (seriously). We didn’t have new products launching that often, so I wasn’t always there to pitch a specific story. A lot of times I was there to get to know the editor better so that pitching her in the future would be easier for both of us: I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable calling her and I’d already know how and what she likes being pitched. But, like with other work acquaintances, if you go out for company-sponsored cocktails enough it’s easy to become fast friends. When you inevitably get to the stage where you’re sharing boyfriend drama, it’s not awkward to start a phone call with “I need a favor…”

But let’s be honest, you want to know about advertising. While most magazines won’t agree flat-out to give editorial coverage in exchange for advertising dollars, there’s often an unspoken (or maybe whispered?) rule that advertisers get priority. Publishing is a business, and more so than subscriptions or newsstand sales, advertisers pay for the offices, the computers, trips to Fashion Week and of course the salaries of the editors putting the magazine pages together. So if some makeup company buys $1m worth of advertising a year at a beauty mag, and then that magazine runs a “Get Your Flirtiest Lashes Ever” story without including their mascara, the magazine is going to have one very pissed off client. On the flip side, if a magazine does a product roundup that includes shoes from Prada, an Alexander Wang bag, a Thakoon dress and a jacket from Guess, flip through the rest of the magazine and see if there are any Guess ads. That might account for those “one of these things is not like the others” stories — or oddball products on “best of” lists.

Aaah, thank you! That was like scratching a serious itch. So, that all makes a lot of sense — but the part about the advertisers really pisses me off. Ha! I mean, grow up. You might not get picked every time, you know? Make better products if you want on the list. And so on…

Babies, maybe, but they’re more just being businesses. “Best of” lists drives sales far more than most advertisements, so from a money-making standpoint they’d kind of be bad business people if they didn’t at least attempt to leverage the money they invested into more bang for their buck. It might not be the most ethical strategy, but questionable ethics aren’t unique to beauty companies.

But also, wait. When you say “I need a favor” to your cocktail friend/beauty editor, that’s the thing that seems so wrong to me. If the product was awesome, would it need a favor? And it’s unfair to the readers not to disclose which products are great and which are there as the result of a friendship. Which is the thing that gets to me, it all seems so phony.

Sorry, I think I oversimplified it for the sake of explanation! No editor who’s even remotely good at her job is going to write about perfume that smells like burning plastic just because a friend makes a few pleading phone calls. Most editors take their jobs very seriously and are obsessive about beauty products — they know their stuff and they’re not going to risk their reputation just to help a friend out.

But think about it this way: every fall there are dozens of new product launches. I mean, you know how overwhelming it is to walk into a Sephora and be bombarded with all the new lipsticks, eye shadows and perfumes. It’s not that different for an editor, who just gets to see them before everyone else. So maybe the editor has decided to do a “Five Best Fall Lipsticks” story and has narrowed it down to, I don’t know, her top six. If my client is one of those six, my phone call could be the deciding factor between it and an equally great competitor.

The bottom line is that there might be a hundred truly awesome products launching every season, and an editor can’t write about them all. Is choosing one of those hundred because your friend is nudging you any worse than picking one out of a hat? Or, more realistically, picking one because it happens to be on your desk at that very moment?  Or — and this happens — because its shape looks good on the page?

As for it all being phony… we’re still talking about fashion magazines, right? These are the magazines that convince you your life will suck without this season’s $2,000 “it” bag, and that a man will never love you if you get a pixie cut. They’re also the magazines that rely on Photoshop to “fix” flawless 16-year-old girls. Can we really expect them to be completely unbiased news sources? Is that even their purpose? I’m not saying it’s right and I’m not defending it, but I think we have to acknowledge this particular media for what it is.

[NOTE: have you seen the September Issue doc about Vogue?]

YES, and it is wonderful and infuriating. Switching gears a little, did you ever have a product, and you don’t have to name names, but something you really didn’t believe in but you somehow got a beauty editor to give it props anyway?

As boring as it is, not really. I was really lucky with the clients I worked with. I guess the closest thing would be pitching a perfume I can’t stand and having an editor rave about it — which happened a lot. But again, fragrance is especially subjective, so I never thought “well, this must be a shit product because I don’t like the way it smells.” I just pitched it for what it was and let the editor make her own decision.

Even if they don’t believe in something 100%, most PR people don’t have sinister plans to trick editors into loving some horrible product. Our job is (or in my case, was) to promote a product by focusing on its best qualities and what makes it stand out from the rest. Just about every product has something good about it, even if it’s just the packaging.

If you had the power to change the look of any, say, three products out there so that they would photograph well or look better in magazines or whatever, which three would you transform?

Anything white. I used to do PR for a hair care company that launched a line of products with minimalist packaging. The bottles were white, the pumps were a very light silver and the typeface was simple. This stuff wasn’t cheap and it looked sleek, but on a white page filled with colorful lipsticks and bright nail polishes? No one would feature it because it disappeared on the page. For the record, it was a great product. I’ve heard a rumor that several years after being discontinued they’re relaunching it. No doubt it will have different packaging the second time around.

In terms of my own personal taste, anything from Estée Lauder. The gold packaging with the EL logo just looks dated. It almost has a vintage glamour feel, but somehow always ends up looking like something you’d find at the bottom of your mom’s makeup bag.

And because you asked, Maybelline Instant Age Rewind Eraser. Have you tried it? It’s great. I’m actually not sure whether it’s meant to be foundation, but I use it as a (very big) concealer, especially when my skin gets dry in the winter. The only thing I’d change about it is the packaging. It has a twist applicator with a giant sponge tip, so it’s really hard to control how much of the product comes oozing out the top. I’ve wasted a ton by misjudging the number of twists. This has nothing to do with how it looks in a magazine — I just wanted to use this opportunity to vent a bit.

What products should NEVER be taken off the Awesome List in any beauty magazine?

For budget-busting products, it’s Clé de Peau concelear and By Terry lipstick. No other concealer comes close to Clé de Peau, but the Maybelline Eraser is still a good option when your money has to go towards groceries rather than makeup. By Terry lipstick lasts forever, is super moisturizing, comes in universally flattering colors and smells like berries. Consider it $40 well spent. Because By Terry hard to find the in US, MAC’s Russian Red is my back up. It has similar qualities but doesn’t smell like berries.

Here’s one of those WTF products from the list. Is it made by THE Jack Black? Just buy Vaseline!

Ha! That would be an interesting side project for THE Jack Black, but no, I don’t think it’s him. (Side note: I know it’s common name but wouldn’t you choose to call your brand something else if you were another Jack Black, to avoid this misconception? He seems like a great guy, but is THE Jack Black really what you want associated with your grooming brand?)

And yes, we could just buy Vaseline. But if we did, Sephora wouldn’t exist. It’s like if we all used olive oil on our hair and those underarm rocks, we wouldn’t need expensive hair masks or deodorant. Some of it has to do with the quality of what we’re buying, and some of it has to do with the image a brand’s selling us. Maybe some people really do just want lips like Jack Black’s?

Also, can you believe this is still here

Ugh, no. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that I will never, ever understand what the majority of people see in a perfume. You couldn’t pay me to smell like Taylor Swift, but give me my grandmother’s Shalimar and I’d never need another fragrance.

MacKenzie Lewis lives and writes in Lebanon, where she’s Managing Editor of Time Out Beirut.

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