The Fragrance Foundation's Masterclass with John Demsey.

NEW YORK – John Demsey joked about being a “mid-season substitution,” Wednesday evening during The Fragrance Foundation’s Masterclass.

The executive group president of The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. hosted the first of The Fragrance Foundation’s new Masterclass series at The French Institute Alliance Française here. He was a last-minute stand-in for Leonard Lauder, Estée Lauder Cos.’ chairman emeritus, who because of a back injury was instructed by his doctor to stay in bed.

“I’ve sort of morphed into an elder statesman of our industry…it’s an interesting inflection point,” Demsey said during an interview before the Masterclass began, noting that although he’s made his “theoretical name” in the makeup business (most notably at MAC Cosmetics), he began his career 36 years ago in fragrance. First in the Macy’s executive training program and then in various roles including assistant, “spritzer,” department manager and assistant buyer at retailers and brands from Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue to Benetton and Revlon.

The event, sponsored by Givaudan and Hearst Magazines, was the first in a new series designed to both inform existing executives as well as usher in the beauty industry’s next generation, according to Elizabeth Musmanno, president of The Fragrance Foundation. Musmanno said the plan is to make this an annual event, with the second Masterclass slated for next fall. Also on stage alongside Demsey was the Notables class of 2016, a group of up-and-comers in the space that were honored by The Fragrance Foundation.

Demsey, who called himself “a little more optimistic about the future of our industry” than most, talked quite a bit about the state of the fragrance category — and its great evolution from the Eighties to now — before delving into the top 10 things he’s learned from Leonard Lauder.

He detailed the time from the Eighties, a period of “mega launches” where scents became bigger, louder, more promotional and heavily distributed, to today: the era of the artisanal fragrance.

“A business that used to be very artisanal and very shopkeeper oriented started becoming…blockbuster and flanker oriented,” Demsey said of the Eighties. “The business started to become more masstige in its orientation and more commoditized in terms of its voice. More money was spent on the tote bag or ad campaign than what was going into the olfactive investment and what the product was.”

To overcome the “overblown fragrance blockbuster notion” that prevailed in the Nineties, Demsey said a big shift started to occur a decade ago — at the same time the Estée Lauder Cos. and Tom Ford established Tom Ford Beauty brand and its signature scent, Black Orchid. With the new company and Ford at the helm, the line was able to create the notion of “Private Blend” scents, $225 fragrances that were available in limited distribution.

This was only the beginning. Between 2014 to 2016, the Estée Lauder Cos. acquired three indie fragrance brands — Frédéric Malle, Le Labo and By Kilian. The trio has helped propel the company to become “the biggest player in the high-end fragrance business,” according to Demsey.

“We chose a lane and a strategy….Our unique angle wasn’t going to be the biggest distributor,” he said, echoing advice given to him by Lauder, whose unofficial title at the company is “chief teaching officer.” Among the many learnings Demsey’s picked up from Lauder, one of them was: If you don’t have a point of view and don’t know what you’re trying to get, you’re never going to get there.

This is the exact approach the Estée Lauder Cos. has taken in fragrance, striving to focus specifically on one segment of the fragrance market — the high-end one — instead of being the overall market leader.

Demsey shared other nuggets that he’s picked up from Lauder, which include:

• Experience matters and it doesn’t matter where or how you get that experience.
• Learn from David and Goliath, or when you’re little, focus your efforts on someplace where you can win.
• It takes a thief to catch a thief, or there’s no better competitor to you than you.
• Keep away from people who try to belittle your visions.
• Fantasize about success.
• The answer is always in the room.

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