NEW YORK — To get a moment with L’Oréal chairman and chief executive officer Jean-Paul Agon, one might consider inviting him to a dance party.
Agon’s return trip to New York (his home in the early Aughts) in early October included a stop with The Fragrance Foundation for the organization’s Master Class segment — but before he poured out business tips and career advice, he took a trip down memory lane.
“The only thing I regretted when I left [New York] was an article in Women’s Wear Daily,” he said. “They wrote an article, and I thought they would write that a great marketer went to wherever. And they said, ‘the king of the dance floor left New York.’ I’m pretty proud also to be the king of the dance floor. I miss also the great parties of New York, where I used to dance a lot. By the way — if there are any parties like that, invite me.”
In lieu of dancing, Agon joined new Fragrance Foundation president Linda Levy on stage for a fireside-chat style question-and-answer session on Thursday, where he gave advice to career newbies (“do what you love”) and talked about his first big break with L’Oréal, when he was asked to head Greece for the beauty business.
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Thinking the offer to be general manager of Greece was a “miracle,” Agon, self-described as intense, immediately said “yes” and set off to buy books to learn the language, he said.
“It was a very tiny business, almost bankrupt, in a catastrophic situation,” he said. “The worst of all was that I learned they had proposed the job to 10 other people at L’Oréal and no one else would take it. It was kind of a suicide mission, anyone knowing anything about this company would never have taken the job. But I didn’t know, so I went.”
Agon inherited a sales force that was being run by a Frenchman who never learned Greek, and told employees that if he wasn’t fluent in Greek in one year, he’d go back to Paris. “When you’re 25, you say this stuff,” Agon half joked.
He learned Greek and as he tells it, Agon (which means “fight” in Greek, he noted) was becoming “so Greek” that L’Oréal pulled him out. And then, for most of his next several decades in the beauty world, the business part remained the same — but lately, things are changing, he said.
“For 30 years, we did business more or less the same way,” Agon said. “These past three or four years have been absolutely amazing in terms of transformation. With the digital revolution, the consumer revolution, the retail revolution, the media revolution and in fact, the world of beauty — this industry as we know it — has nothing to do today with what it was five years ago.”
In today’s world, L’Oréal uses “universalization” to bring products globally in different markets. “It means globalization while respecting differences,” Agon said. He used L’Oréal Paris as an example. “The L’Oréal Paris brand imagery, equity is the same everywhere, but the formulations of the products will be different in different parts of the world,” he said.
That strategy doesn’t quite translate to fragrance — “you cannot change the juice from one continent to the other,” Agon said. So in that category, companies would alter their portfolio based on region.
Agon, admittedly not a digital expert, noted that technology can come into play when it comes to fragrance marketing, allowing brands to identify “exactly who it is that you think is right for your product.”
“That’s extremely productive and can also help you to differentiate the campaigns you’re doing on two or three fragrances to avoid overlap and cannibalization,” he noted.
In terms of the actual juice, Agon voiced his support of the artisanal side of the category, and his view that ingredients are only becoming more and more important.
“To be very sincere, even if I shock a few, I was not happy when 10 or 15 years ago, there was this fad about celebrity fragrances,” Agon said. “I think [it] was a bit of easy marketing and short-term business. That’s proven to be done by the way…it’s good for the industry. On the contrary, these [artisanal] concoctions I think are fantastic. They are quality, authentic products that are probably here to stay.”
L’Oréal got in on the movement with the acquisition of niche perfume business Atelier Cologne in 2016. “It’s one of the best moves of the industry recently, and we’re going to try to participate as much as we can with Atelier Cologne,” the ceo said.
Looking forward, he emphasized a focus on ingredients.
“The ingredient story is a critical thing,” Agon said. “We have to work on it together — brands, suppliers — because this is a critical thing for tomorrow.…Regulations aren’t all the same, but regulations will become more and more strict everywhere in the world. All the other categories are adapting to that pretty well, and I think we still have to make sure we make progress on that front in fragrances.”