Michelle Duncan

  1. Michelle Duncan

A conversation between Momentum Insights and Michelle Duncan of Estee Lauder Companies. 

Hi Michelle, can you tell us what you do at Estee Lauder Companies (ELC)?

I am the global collaborations, partnerships and creative strategy lead across the ELC brands falling under John Demsey’s oversight.*

For collaborations, my job focuses on high profiles such as who should we partner with to help bolster the brand equity, attract new consumers and do something unexpected - whether it is a fashion designer or a celebrity.

I also handle the creative partnerships, picking and recommending art directors, stylists, photographers or media outlets, which also translates into the creative strategy for these brands.

But your job evolved, you weren’t originally hired to do this when you first arrived at ELC?

I was at a talent-management consulting firm scouting talents for Fortune 500 companies, I moved to Estee Lauder to do the same job for them. I wasn’t focused on creative, but because the company made a point that creative talent was such a strategic priority, my role shifted.

Things really changed when I was looking for an art director for the Bobbi Brown brand. I emailed Giovanni Bianco, not really knowing much about him at the time. He invited me to his studio and showed me photos he had just done with Gisele. I was carrying a Givenchy bag and he said, “My friend Riccardo designed that, I’m going to tell him I saw his bag on a cute girl that works at Estee Lauder”. The next thing I know I’m in touch with Riccardo Tisci, thanks to Giovanni, and he’s like “Hi, I’d like to have lunch with you to better understand the Estee Lauder Companies”.
So I emailed John Demsey and I said “Look, I know I do this other job, but I just had lunch with Riccardo Tisci”, and my job just evolved from there.

Of course, you realized how attractive a large beauty group could be for fashion brands!
So in terms of creative strategy, does John Demsey give an overhead impulsion, and the brands have to align with it, or it is more a conversation?

It's a conversation because I sit within the brands. I am always immersed in the brands, alongside their creative director, or sometimes the brand president, or the head of marketing. We reflect on collaborations, on creative partners that will resonate or align to the strategy of that particular brand. The easiest partner in all of this is Demsey, actually. It helps that he is hyper aware of what is going on in the streets.

The job that ELC has built for me, all big houses would benefit from having someone in this role. They could use someone actively out in the market and making sure that they're on top of everything and super plugged in.

How does a brand within ELC remain singular and exclusive even though they belong to a larger group - and live alongside potential competitors?

The brands’ DNAs have always been championed by the Estee Lauder Companies, and by our founders. Creativity has been at the centre and the heart of what the company was founded on, literally from the start. We foster it, and you can see that even in the personal art collections that the Lauders give out to the world. I think it's pretty unique, and it definitely infuses in the way we operate.

Technically, we structure brands to make sure they stay true to themselves. We always keep front-of-house functions, as we put it, like a marketing director, or a creative director, or a PR, within the brand, and the brand keeps its own offices. So, whatever it is they do, theirs is proprietary information.

The creative director at M.A.C Cosmetics, for instance, has a role very similar to that of a fashion house creative director. That responsibility is to ensure that M.A.C is pushing itself while keeping a line to its heritage.

This is probably me looking out into the industry but I imagine other groups struggle to keep that singularity.

What do you look for in a creative partnership that will come and support this?

I always look at the person, past the studio or the agency, their conceptual abilities, aesthetic and honestly, his or her or their mind-set. I try to understand the individual first, which is maybe harder, but definitely more enjoyable. I build a relationship with them. I also think this is an easier way to understand past works, with other clients. It helps me to define what that person might be able to push, conceptually, how we could work for a brand to make it a really good partnership.

And that's not just exclusive to art directors or photographers, I’ll strive for this with designers and other types of media outlets. So it really comes down to the person first.

So it's not just a portfolio?

It's always interesting to see a portfolio to appreciate if the work is relevant to beauty or fashion. It’s also crucial to look beyond, because sometimes with big ad agencies you don’t even know who is doing the work or who is the actual thinker.

How has the way we promote beauty changed in recent years?

In the past, you were speaking and telling your consumer what beauty was and what it meant, and what the trends were.

I think it's shifted dramatically to be much more democratic. The consumer definitely has a say, and in some ways, for some brands very specifically, that shapes what the future is. So creatively, I think in some ways a lot of big global brands and companies, whether it’s us, or our competitors, or even fashion houses, have to become borderline entertainment companies.

Of course we've got a product and we have a vision and dream that we're selling, but I think that the creative shift is that brands and companies have to entertain through storytelling. It's not just about moving images anymore, it's also about experiential, sensorial and even stunts, and they all need to be done in a way they've never been done before. I don't know if everybody else would call it entertainment, but it is.

I guess the amazing success of Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, KKW Beauty and Fragrance, and Kylie Cosmetics, is proof of this.
Brands now need to embrace so many more horizons and people and aspirations.

I think in some ways it’s also because so many different consumers have the platforms and new channels to have their voices’ heard, that companies are now focusing on that more.

Going back to gender fluidity and some of the US-centric topics that are happening socially and politically, it's really amazing for all these other people who maybe just haven't had their voices heard before to be able to have a point of view, and for us to cater to them because they were always there, they just maybe weren't talked about, or spoken to.

That's also the responsibility of global brands. I think beauty is so much more interesting than fashion in this way. I love the fashion industry, and while they are thinking about catering to different body shapes, beauty feels a bit more multifaceted. In beauty, when you think about lipstick or texture or a cream or a skincare formula, you have to think about so many different types of bodies, skin types and appearances and whatever the product is, it has to speak to all of those ranges of people. So it's really interesting in that way, I think it makes the beauty industry much more complex than the fashion industry.

How does a brand remain true to it’s core identity while also being relevant and inclusive and without appearing like it’s riding on a trend?

It's exciting to have that conversation actually because going back to creativity, it broadens the spectrum so much more and the possibilities are endless. It's just a matter of if you want to be a part of that conversation and if you’re not a part of it, then you're irrelevant to be honest.

M.A.C Cosmetics were literally the first make up brand, 20 years ago, to provide ranges and shades and textures to all different skin types. It’s now a huge trend in cosmetics to be able to say: we have 50 shades of foundation for you. But M.A.C didn't even really talk about it for so many years, it was just an obvious given because of the brand heritage. It's such a diverse group of people behind the brand to begin with.

Only in the last few years did other cosmetics brands start to speak in a new way, so I guess what I'm trying to say is that our company has always done that, it was a non-negotiable.

And, with up-and-coming creatives, that are relatively young today, it's also in their DNA. It’s built-in. The younger generation is just inherently so inclusive and they will find a way to incorporate that element because it’s a conversation they’re having in their personal lives.

*Michelle Duncan works for Executive Group President John Demsey on his brands' portfolio (Estee Lauder, Clinique, M.A.C, Tom Ford Beauty, Smashbox, Frédéric Malle, Bobbi Brown, Jo Malone, GlamGlow, Lab Series Skincare for Men, Prescriptives, Le Labo, Rodin Olio Lusso, Ermenegildo Zegna, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan and Kilian).

This interview has been condensed and edited.
Shot in Paris by Maxime Tetard