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Master Class: Drew Elliott

MAC Cosmetics' senior vice president and global creative director on joining the Lauder family, rethinking the brand's dot-com and de-stressing with "Love Is Blind" on Netflix.

Drew Elliott broke the Internet as Paper Magazine’s editor in chief. Now, as MAC’s senior vice president and global creative director, he aims to do the same in beauty. He sat down with Beauty Inc before the coronavirus pandemic to share the direction he envisions for one of beauty’s most storied brands.

What was your first job and what did you learn?
Drew Elliott: I worked the door at The Roxy nightclub in New York City, which was an old roller rink that was turned into a huge dance club on the West Side. I learned so much about New York, people and the curation of how you put the right people together to have a spectacular occasion. It’s kind of like the choreography of people.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Your plan is going to change. My dream when I was a kid was to be an actor. I went to theatrical camp, I did all kinds of things, and all of that was not lost because I love to perform. I sing to the people here. I will crank up the tunes and make everyone dance. Being in theater also helps me in meetings. That’s what my dream was, and then I worked in publishing and that was a dream. I wanted to be on TV —  that was a dream. And then this happened. I never closed myself off to opportunity, but I think when I was young, I was like, ‘This is what I’m gonna do,’ which I think is ambition. But sometimes you have to understand that your ambition can be what you’re able to achieve as opposed to the thing you’re achieving.

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What’s driving the growth of MAC and where do you see opportunity for improvement?
Emerging markets, areas like China. Geographically, that’s what’s driving our business. But also, all of our innovation. What’s amazing about MAC is we have so many things. Some stores have 1,700 products in them. We really have over the years accumulated every single thing that you need to create whatever look you want. I think there are certain heroes inside of that, whether it’s our Studio Fix Foundation, our bullet lipsticks, Ruby Woo. There are staples to the business, there’s newness to the business, and then there are new markets to the business. That’s really what creates our growth.

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What are your top three priorities for the next year?
My first one is around our brand dot-com. What’s amazing about MAC is it’s such an experience. When you go in stores, when you try on our products, our artists — it’s second to none. People love MAC when it’s in real life, so I think translating that and making sure it equals that excitement digitally is the number-one thing that I’m looking at achieving. We have amazing things like virtual try-on and shade finder, so it’s just bringing all of those to the front and helping consumers understand how they can use online the same way they can use our stores.

Number two is making MAC remarkable. It has this artistry, it has fashion, it has all of those amazing components and that’s why people know MAC and love it. Translating that remarkable feeling for young people is really exciting to me. Starting with [the collaboration with “Euphoria” star] Alexa Demie, that’s the MAC that I love, but it’s nuanced. I always believe in this idea of now-stalgia: making something brand new by looking back. Alexa’s mother was a makeup artist at MAC 20 years ago. It has all of those elements of story.

The third piece would probably be how we are reigniting the experience in store. We’re rolling out a brand new look. How do we appear at these really important places whether it’s in your hometown or in a tourist destination? How do we build an experience that’s special for you?

What’s the most important change you’ve seen in consumer behavior over the past year and what are you changing to address that?
Consumer behavior is interesting because of how people are tuning in to live events. That, to me, is one of the most interesting things. It’s almost like a trending moment that everyone’s doing at once, like we’re seeing on TikTok. A lot of our artists across APAC and China are doing tons of live-streaming. People are taking cues from that. Trends used to come from backstage, from films and artists. Now, trends are coming not only from social media stars, but they’re happening in real life all at the same time. We’ve seen this speed of the Internet take commerce and trend to a whole new direction.

What is the toughest assignment you’ve been given and how did you navigate it?
Probably this job is my toughest assignment, and not for all the reasons you would think. It means a lot to me personally, because I’ve always loved MAC. MAC is the place that has always made me feel included. Being a queer kid who grew up in Indiana, I always found MAC to be a place where I could explore and play and find a community of people like me. Having met John Demsey when I was 19 years old and then knowing the former creative director and meeting Mr. [Leonard] Lauder, you understand that it is a family and you want to make it as magical as I always felt it was in my heart when I was young. So I have the job and the responsibility and the opportunity to deliver that to everyone around the world. I take that as a challenge, but it’s an honor at the same time.

What’s your favorite question to ask when you’re interviewing someone?
I always ask people, “What do you really want to do? What is the North Star?” I want to see where they’re going because I want to see where they are in the journey of getting there. If you can understand what their big dream is, you can help them with the steps that are going to take them to get there.

What do you do to de-stress?
I love to shop and not to buy a single thing. Nothing is better, to me, than walking down Fifth Avenue and looking at the stores and going in and talking to the people on the sales floor, asking them questions. Not only does it enhance what I do for a job, I find it so interesting because that gives you a look into what’s happening in culture. And I don’t just do it in New York, I do it anywhere I travel. At home, I usually do absolutely nothing. I am watching “Love Is Blind” [on Netflix]. I watch the worst, horrible TV, which I love. I will binge a whole thing. I love being home and I love being left to my own ideas.

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