The Plugged In World of John Demsey

By combining his appetite for pop culture with a razor-sharp business acumen, the group president of Estee Lauder is redefining 21st-century beauty branding.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 11/11/2011

Forty floors above Fifth Avenue, in a tastefully decorated if somewhat bland room dominated by a Richard Serra lithograph, lies the corner office of John Demsey.

Group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., Demsey oversees eight of the company’s key brands, including Estée Lauder, MAC, Bobbi Brown, La Mer, Jo Malone, Tom Ford, Prescriptives and the recently acquired Smashbox. In all, industry sources estimate Demsey’s brands generated an estimated $5 billion of the $8.8 billion in net sales that the company reported for its fiscal year 2011.

The 40th floor aerie is a visible manifestation of Demsey’s professional achievements, but the executive isn’t one to roost comfortably in an ivory tower. Rather, Demsey’s success stems from his prowess in knowing what’s happening outside the insular walls of his office. More than any other beauty executive working today, Demsey is a master at keeping his fingers on the pulse of pop culture, continually ahead of the curve in anticipating the next big thing — be it in the worlds of fashion, music, art, celebrity, retail, photography, publishing or design. By applying that connectivity to the brands he oversees — most notably starting with MAC back in 1988 — Demsey has helped redefine modern-day beauty branding.


"The brands that have long-term sustainability are the brands that live in the context of now — not based on who you used to be," says Demsey, who declined to comment on sales figures for this story.


Living in the context of now means that Demsey is as comfortable at Saks Fifth Avenue, schmoozing with its chief executive offiver Steve Sadove during a frenzied Fashion's Night Out pit stop, as he is two hours later welcoming hipster songstress Beth Ditto in a makeshift dressing room at MAC's SoHo store before she performs an electrifying set to adoring fans. It means navigating his way through throngs of cross-dressing fashionistas to greet Nicola Formichetti, Lady Gaga’s stylist turned fashion designer who tonight is opening a pop-up store in TriBeCa, and the next day escorting pop star Nicki Minaj to her front-row seat at Prabal Gurung amid the glare of flashbulbs.


“If anyone else looked at my schedule, they would think, Why on earth is he doing those things?” says Demsey. “Yet what I know is that there is a rhyme and reason behind every single thing that I do.”


That approach is one of his most defining characteristics. “John’s greatest strength is his insight into the often not obvious aspects of the business, such as popular culture and distribution,” says Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., who has known Demsey since 1991. “He shows a tremendous flexibility in comprehending how each brand needs a unique approach. Each brand that he supervises has created its own unique personality and individual growth rate. No two brands look or sound
alike. That’s beyond brilliant.”


Jane Hertzmark Hudis, the global brand president of Estée Lauder, has seen firsthand how Demsey filters the myriad influences he surrounds himself with, parceling ideas to the brands they are most relevant for. “What he’s amazing at is that he has his finger on the pulse. He knows the beat, and he can go to the edge and exciting part of any opportunity,” she says. “He has a sensibility about culture, about edge, about the next big trend, and it is percolating with him. He is sitting on it, thinking about it, and he looks among his brands for the right opportunity and puts it there. He has a sensibility to pick up whatever is about to happen and seize that and see where the next opportunity can be.”

Fabrizio Freda, the chief executive officer of Lauder under whose tenure has seen Demsey’s role at the company evolve from day-to-day brand steward to group strategic thinker, agrees. “John is strategic and creative at the same time,” says Freda. “He is very good about taking a chance when he sees the opportunity, and enabling his team to have the courage to take a chance. He knows when the right moment is to take risk. He has a good hunter instinct.”

For proof, take the rejuvenation of the Estée Lauder brand. Demsey was named its president in early 2005, after successfully transforming MAC from an indie makeup artist brand into a color cosmetics giant. While Lauder was undeniably a prestige sales powerhouse, its image had become staid and in need of modernizing. Demsey was very familiar with the brand — his first job at the corporation was as its vice president of sales for the West Coast, and he diligently absorbed the teachings of Estée Lauder and Leonard Lauder. However, it was the time he spent away from it that held the key to Demsey’s ideas for its reinvention. “The great-est liberator to me was coming back after eight years at MAC, with fresh eyes,” he says. “The ability to have fresh eyes is not forever, and I started thinking more abstractly in terms of what does Estée Lauder really mean? Who is our competition? Who is really buying the product?

“If a brand is successful, there’s a reason, and the answer is usually sitting in the room,” he continues. “And I try to go back to the original DNA of what the brand was about.”

That thinking led Demsey to Estée herself, who he saw in a new, more modern light. “I began to understand that she wasn’t conventional, that her command of point of sale, her point of view relative to product, the way she conceptualized things and the way she worked with Leonard were all quite different for the time.” And that thinking led Demsey to decide that it was time for a jolt. Enter Tom Ford, the superstar designer who had recently inked a deal with Lauder for an eponymous fragrance line and whose overtly sexual ethos was the polar opposite of Lauder’s genteel universe. Demsey decided to do a co-branded limited edition color cosmetics collection to be called the Tom Ford and Estée Lauder Collection.

“The idea was a shock to the brand and a shock to the world,” he says. “It was a short-term association for the Estée Lauder brand, but it was a turning point in that it reframed the importance of aspiration, storytelling and establishing uniqueness and a point of difference to sell product.”

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