Demsey has a droll manner when speaking, and he tends to think as others write — in fully formed paragraphs that segue crisply from one thought to the next, each point building upon the
previous to substantiate the original hypothesis. It’s a mana- gerial style under which people either thrive or wilt, associ- ates say. Many of his key team members have been with him for 10-plus years, and laud his leadership technique. Still, for others, his flashes of steeliness can be off-putting.
Says James Gager, who today is senior vice president and group creative director of the MAC, La Mer and Jo Malone brands, and who was one of the first people Demsey tapped for MAC, “I’m not for everybody as a person. I’m a very specific guy. What I admire about John is that he truly understands what I bring to the party. And I could say that about John, as well. He’s not for everybody either, but he brings special skills to whatever situation he is in, and that’s important in terms of being a success and a leader.”
He’s also not afraid to take risks. Jennifer Balbier, senior vice president of global product development for artistry brands, remembers the birth of MAC’s Mineralize line. “I found a complex in our lab comprised of 77 minerals fermented in yeast water, and a little factory in Italy — who we didn’t do business with — who could bake it,” she recounts. “Bare Escentuals was starting to explode, but I was having a hard time getting anybody interested. I took it to John, who believed in my vision and said, ‘Let’s do it.’” The risk paid off. Today, Mineralize is one of MAC’s biggest franchises.
As Demsey delved deeper into MAC, he began to fulfill Leonard Lauder’s mandate. “I came to understand what he meant, that the life force of the brand was its counterculture beginnings and the focus on the makeup artist and the theatricality, and that the heart and soul was the MAC AIDS Fund,” he says. Demsey eschewed traditional beauty-industry brand-building strategies (such as print advertising) and focused instead on building a passionate community of acolytes, using the credo, all ages, all races, all sexes. “We built the brand on word of mouth and on a community social relevance platform that was in a fashion context,” he says.
Though this was the pre-Facebook age, the brand was able to effectively harness the rise of social media because it already had such a loyal community, particularly among makeup artists. “The fashion outreach, the events, the pop-culture icons — those were the underpinnings of MAC,” Demsey says. “Add into that when the Internet and community and blogs became a driving force for how you communicate brand, and suddenly you have a brand that didn’t advertise except for Viva Glam becoming the most active brand in the online community, because it was authentically sitting in the middle of the content. For MAC, that was another game-changer, not by design, but because it was authentic and organically there.”
MAC became synonymous with fashion — it was the original and is still one of the most involved beauty sponsors of fashion week, both in New York and worldwide — as well as pop culture. Demsey tapped everyone from Lil Kim to Lady Gaga to star as the faces of Viva Glam, the MAC lipstick whose proceeds are completely funneled to charity, demonstrating an ability to recognize star potential that rivals that of a teenager.
“John is tapped in not just because he’s a marketer but because he’s a consumer,” says Sarah Brown, Vogue’s beauty director. “When he signed Nicki Minaj, I was only vaguely aware of her, and he said, ‘No, she’s going to be big.’ Look at her now, a year later,” Brown says of the budding superstar. “The same thing with Lady Gaga,” she continues. “He has incredible instincts for what is going to explode and sell. Here’s this guy in a beautifully tailored suit who looks like a businessman, and is a businessman, but he’s also a voracious consumer of pop culture.”
(When asked what he spotted in Minaj that wasn’t immediately apparent to others, Demsey turns unchar- acteristically reticent — “My niece is a fan of Lil’ Wayne. She enlightened me” — and he likewise refuses to name names when asked for potential phenoms on the rise.)
The amount of media that Demsey digests is astonishing in its scope. “I watch a lot of TV. I go to a lot of theater. When I’m home late at night and reading and on my computer, I multitask. I watch Morning Joe, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, the Today show. I like watching talk shows, like Oprah or Ellen or Kelly and Regis. I like reality TV and the Housewives,” Demsey ticks off. “I get all of the top celebrity magazines for the U.S., the U.K., France. I get Spanish and Italian Vanity Fair. I like to read Point de Vue to see what the royalist European point of view is. I surf YouTube, and I always look at Billboard to see what the top songs are in each country. If you look at fashion, at celebrity, at music, that tells you a lot about where people’s minds are.”
Demsey pauses to take a breath. “When I travel, I want to know what’s going on, so I go a day in advance,” he continues. “I ask the office to have in my room a stack of 40 or 50 magazines, from lifestyle to fashion to celebrity, and I’ll turn on MTV, no matter what the language is. I always go to the hot neighborhood, just to sit and see what people look like. I’m also addicted to going on The Sartorialist. You learn a lot — street culture and pop culture infuse themselves into what’s commercial.”