WWD Beauty Forum: Creating Celebrity and Designer Scents

As senior vice president of American Fragrances at Coty Inc., Catherine Walsh is called upon not only to be creative herself, but to guide the creative process.

As senior vice president of American Fragrances for Coty Inc. — and some would say the modern godmother of the celebrity fragrance category — Catherine Walsh is often called upon not only to be creative herself, but to guide the creative process from the group of celebrities and designers signed to her company.

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I don’t feel like I’m ever away [from the creative process]. Instead, I live it every day, and that is the thing I like the most,” said Walsh. “When you have so many brands, you’re not really removed from it. What doesn’t work is when you do some sort of forced brainstorming meeting. That doesn’t work for me or my team — it feels very awkward. I find that if you have the ability to work on a variety of brands, you need some downtime with yourself and an awful lot of conversations with the people around you, whether they are the license holders you’re working with or your internal team.”

And contrary to popular belief, most celebrities and designers don’t just sign on the dotted line and wait for their royalty checks to arrive, said Walsh. “You would be amazed at how involved many celebrities and designers are, to the point where you wish sometimes that they weren’t involved,” she said. “It’s something I embrace, because at the end of the day, it’s not my brand or Coty’s brand. It’s their brand, so they are so involved in every single detail. The tricky part ends up being, can you all live on the same page. Sometimes, they’ll come up with ideas on their own, and they might not be part of your strategy.”

In that case, Walsh takes a pragmatic approach. “You have to be superpatient and let them talk,” she said. “You can’t say no in the beginning. When you give them facts, and ask them why they want to do this and they can’t answer, you have to go so far as to say, ‘Do you want to make money or is this a vanity project?’ But if they say, ‘I don’t care about money, I just really believe in this,’ if you don’t think it’s going to be hurtful to the business, I personally think you have to do it. If they’ve been a good partner, it’s going to go a long way. You aren’t going to launch it and support it in the same way [as you would a larger launch] but you tell them that up front. [However] if it’s going to be hurtful to the business, you really have to stand your ground and say, ‘If you’re really dying to do that, then I think you should go and do that, but it’s not something we can do together.’”

Does she approach creativity in one way with celebrities and in another way with fashion designers? No, said Walsh. “The method is exactly the same — the hard part is that everyone articulates their vision in a different way. You have to be a very good listener. [For instance] Marc Jacobs is superinteresting, but he’s not the most conceptual person, which is kind of shocking for a fashion designer. But he’s a design freak, he really loves design, and art, and he particularly loves graphics. So if you can approach a product first not from an olfactive point of view, that’s where you’re going to move and get him excited about it, because that’s his starting point and his comfort level. You have to allow them the room to ask lots of questions and allow them to articulate what they can. What they can’t, that’s really where you have to help — and that’s when you can bring in creative partners.”

And both celebrities and designers pose challenges, albeit in different ways. “The celebrity piece — it’s just a different world,” said Walsh. “When I first met Jennifer Lopez for Glow, I had no idea how to deal with a celebrity. You just sort of develop a rapport with them. The thing that’s the most important to them is that they can trust you. I’ve found the best way to gain their trust is to a) don’t try and pretend that you are them or inside their head, and b) you never want to be their friend. They do not want you to be their friend. You can have a great connection with them, but at the end of the day, you’re not going on vacation with them. I find that by removing that emotional component of it, they’re more comfortable. Even if you have a bad meeting, at the end of it, when they go home, they can sleep at night knowing you’re going to take care of their name.”