David Lauren now wields significant muscle in the media world as head of all advertising, marketing and corporate communications at the company his father founded, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. And he has a message for all those publishers and editors out there — be more creative.
This story first appeared in the September 11, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Nothing really fresh has been brought to us,” said the 32-year-old Lauren. “We’re looking to our magazine partners to develop more novel ideas. We’ve been asking more of them.”
He admitted Polo is not a “highly promotional company” and isn’t generally interested in added-value programs. “Finding the perfect idea doesn’t come along too often. Too often they want us to sponsor an event. It’s never as cool as developing something unique,” said Lauren. “It has to be done sensitively and very strategically, and they have to follow our strategy and know what our philosophy is.”
Even when publishers present magazine-sponsored events or parties with all the hoopla they can muster, Lauren often takes a pass. Instead, he’ll ask them to put the added-value money toward opening Polo stores. “Sometimes they will contribute to it without recognition. Added value does not drive us to a magazine. It’s simply added value.”
And it appears that when Polo talks, magazines have to listen. After all, the company is advertising in 70 titles this fall, both in the U.S. and abroad. Last year alone its ad budget climbed to $112 million, up from $93 million in the prior year.
As the man who oversees that budget, David Lauren is someone every publisher in town is eager to get to know. His role as senior vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications makes him a key adviser to his father, Ralph Lauren, and some say puts him in a position to one day head all of Polo.
Whether that happens or not — Polo is, after all, a public company, even though the Lauren family controls 43 million of the 100 million shares outstanding, and has 88 percent of the voting power — David Lauren for now is focused on his new, expanded responsibilities.
There is a touch of irony to his new role as advertising potentate, given that just five years ago, Lauren was on the other side of the fence, knocking on doors and trying to get companies to pony up ad dollars for his fledgling magazine, Swing.
But Swing never did, and since joining Polo in 2000, Lauren has moved swiftly through the corporate ranks. Along the way, he’s had to prove to naysayers that he didn’t get the job just because of his last name and that he indeed has what it takes to add muscle and luster to the Polo brand, whose diversified products generate $10 billion at retail.
“I take my job very seriously and want him [his dad, Ralph Lauren] to look at me as a very serious and creative person. I’ll certainly be professional in the way I handle myself. I’ve proven to people I can be very effective,” said Lauren.
But while his new position clearly carries power, publishing sources say in the end it’s the man whose name is on the door, 64-year-old Ralph Lauren, who remains as hands-on as always and who decides how he wants to advertise each brand based on how much he likes the creative that season.
Still, the son is undoubtedly having a significant influence on how Polo’s products are marketed and advertised, and so far has developed several successful initiatives at the firm. For example, when Ralph Lauren wanted to develop a new concept for the polo shirt, he approached his son. “He [Ralph] wanted to ignite the polo shirt. He wanted to take a shirt that we sell millions of and make it hot. He wanted me to conceive the advertising, marketing programs, Web, retail and design,” said David Lauren.
He went to the design area and sat down with his uncle, Jerry Lauren, executive vice president of men’s design, his dad, and Buffy Birrittella, executive vice president of women’s design and advertising, and came up with several ideas. He worked with the Web site to develop a “Create Your Own Polo Shirt,” area, and hired a new model who had a European flair. He also coordinated with retailers to offer it in a multitude of colors.
“My job is to get each of the areas focused on my dad’s vision,” says Lauren. As a result of the polo shirt initiatives, men’s polo shirt sales shot up 26 percent, and women’s polo shirts catapulted 134 percent. On Polo.com, the men’s increased five times, and the women’s six times. The Create Your Own Polo Shirt area on the Web site has sold 50,000 polos to date.
“I worked with each of the magazines and we got tremendous buzz,” said Lauren, adding that he did a similar program for the oxford shirt. “It’s my job to help the company brand its message.”
In addition, Lauren developed a new Polo Jeans concept, based on his dad’s desire to align the company with philanthropic causes. The company went out and found real volunteers for the ad campaign. “The people I identified were doing amazing volunteer work. I brought it to him and he loved it, and said, ‘Do it,’” said Lauren.
He developed a jeans line that comes with a G.I.V.E. (Get Involved. Volunteer. Exceed) Guide, that’s designed to get people excited about volunteering. Ten percent of the line’s proceeds goes to various causes. After buying a pair of jeans or a jacket, the consumer decides where to donate the 10 percent by voting on Polo.com. “You become the activist. Hopefully, we inspire you to give,” said Lauren. So far Polo has raised $800,000.
When Lauren approached the magazines with the concept, he already had the charitable causes lined up. “All we needed was a good way to give it the right platform. Some [magazines] have come back with good ideas. We’re still looking for something breakthrough,” he said.
As the next generation, Lauren is also being viewed as the conduit to take the company into new businesses and media. “My dad is really open to new ideas; he has his finger on the pulse. He gives everybody a lot of freedom of expression. I think my dad’s vision for the company is always new. He loves the idea of developing a media company, magazines and hotels,” said Lauren, noting the Web site was just the tip of the iceberg.
“I think the Web was the seed of a lot of online concepts. So many seeds for new concepts we test out online. It’s great to test responses,” said Lauren. While the company has had a magazine in development, with concepts, layouts, assigned stories and photography, it’s currently on the back burner. “We’d have to have a really great editor in chief,” he added.
And that’s a job he intends to take a pass on, even with his background in magazine publishing.
“I think it’s a full-time job and not something I’m interested in. I think somebody can do it better. I haven’t found that person who gets all aspects of it,” said Lauren.
For years Lauren resisted the idea of joining his father’s business, and neither of his two siblings is in the business. His older brother Andrew is an actor and film producer, and his younger sister Dylan is co-owner of Dylan’s Candy Bar. David Lauren spent the first five years after college as editor in chief and president of Swing, a lifestyle magazine geared to young men and women that he founded as an undergraduate at Duke University. Failing to build a solid franchise, Swing folded in 1999 with a circulation of 125,000. He then considered starting another media company, but his father convinced him to establish a Web site for Polo, in conjunction with NBC. It still seems to be his pet project, and something he’s very proud of and continues to oversee.
“My dad pioneered lifestyle marketing and cinematic advertisements,” explained Lauren. He said his challenge was to translate that to a flat screen. Helping to create what he calls “merchant-ainment,” Lauren said what he needed to do was transfer Polo’s heritage and environment into “lifestyle stories” on the Web. Today, Polo.com features video interviews, fashion shows, behind-the-scenes conversations with Ralph Lauren during show week; RL TV (launched in December 2003); a Polo magazine with writers from Vanity Fair, Vogue and Men’s Health, and interviews with celebrities such as Andre 3000, Kevin Costner, Bobby Kennedy and Jennifer Garner, as well as an e-commerce component
Polo.com, he pointed out, does more volume than any single Polo store, even more than the Madison Avenue flagship, both of whose volumes he declined to divulge. “I’ve worked hand in hand with Sara [Gallagher, president of Polo.com] to develop all the creative aspects of the brand,” said Lauren. “The traffic has been phenomenal, and the word of mouth has been great.”
The site does more than half of its sales in Black and Purple Label, with price points well over $100, noted Lauren. “People are coming here to buy cashmere and Collection accessories,” he added. The site began hosting online trunk shows last spring, and its proceeds were the 11th largest of any trunk show at its stores. It plans to do it again this fall.
By all accounts, Lauren appears to be growing into his expanding role at the company. He got his latest job last June, when he succeeded his boss, Jeffrey D. Morgan, formerly president and chief executive officer of Ralph Lauren Media, who became president of product licensing at Polo. Lauren now reports both to his father, chairman and ceo of Polo, and Roger Farah, Polo’s president and chief operating officer. At that time, Polo’s advertising and marketing departments were consolidated under him, two months after the company severed its longstanding relationship with the ad agency Carlson & Partners in order to take its advertising in-house. Sandy Carlson, who had been Ralph Lauren’s creative partner for 25 years, died in March 2003 of lung cancer.
Bringing the advertising in-house “frees us up to work with other outside companies when we think it’s appropriate and to bring in fresh ideas,” said Lauren, who then caught himself, realizing he’s going to be inundated with pitches from ad agencies.
Lauren now supervises the creative team that develops the ad campaign and selects the photographers, models and locations, but always under the designer’s watchful eye. “Sometimes he [Ralph] comes in with a very clear direction, sometimes he looks to his team to bring his direction to life. I work with a really great group of people,” said Lauren, who recently returned from a week-long trip to Alaska, where he kayaked and hiked glaciers by himself.
One thorny issue is how demanding Lauren is when it comes to how much editorial coverage a magazine must give Polo in order to get advertising.
Lauren said there was a misconception during Polo’s 35th anniversary in 2002 that he demanded that magazines give the company editorial in exchange for ad pages. “The magazines that chose to do stories approached us and chose to do stories,” he insisted. That year, Ralph Lauren’s face graced the covers of GQ, Architectural Digest and Town & Country, and there was major editorial coverage in Vogue, O, the Oprah Magazine, Men’s Journal, and WWD’s sister publication W.
Although some publishers beg to differ, Lauren said getting editorial is not a prerequisite for ad dollars.
“We’ll go months without getting any editorial. Sometimes it’s just a T-shirt under someone else’s jacket. We have run in magazines that are not Ralph Lauren-focused,” he said. “You respect a magazine that has its finger on the pulse. Our strategy is to be in magazines we really respect, that have exciting stories and interesting photography.”
For the most part, Polo remains consistent in its ad buys from year to year. “Sometimes they [magazines] will get more, sometimes they’ll get less. We’re pretty loyal to publications that are loyal to us,” said Lauren.
As for his criteria in selecting magazines, Lauren said, “I meet everybody and I’ve been on the other side. I know how hard it is to produce a magazine and to get people to understand their vision. If they’re not communicating, I’ll ask questions. I read everything and I look at everything. If I’m excited as a reader and as my father says, as a consumer, it’ll be the number one reason to be in the magazine. Every magazine we evaluate is based on the quality of the publication.”
Publishers say they’ve gotten to know Lauren over the past few years, and believe he’s being groomed for a bigger role at the company.
“He’s got a mediagenic face. He’s one of the company’s best spokespeople. He’s young, he grew up in the Ralph Lauren environment and is now the crown prince,” said Stephanie George, president of In Style.
Acknowledging that it’s difficult not to be in his father’s shadow, George said, “He has a chance to make his own mark. He’s dealing with the image and marketing of one of the world’s premier brands.”
As for his prospects to one day run the Polo organization, George offered, “One never knows. You have to be really good at what you do. It doesn’t matter that you’re Ralph Lauren’s son. He’s one of the people being groomed for that. Controlling the image of the company is one of the largest investments in the power of the brand. He’s definitely capable and surrounds himself with great people. He’s in it for the long haul.”
Richard Beckman, president of the Condé Nast Media Group (which, like WWD, is owned by Advance Publications, Inc.) added, “David is in tune with the DNA of the company. Ralph has built a company of multitudes, but a shared DNA. It’s very important that people who run that company share that DNA.
“The pace level is spectacular,” Beckman continued. “They are zealots about protecting the integrity of their brand. I’m sure David has been assimilated into that his whole life. It’s intrinsic to him.”
Whether Lauren sees himself as the company’s next ceo is something that he’s not addressing. “I have my hand in every side. Just as I was publishing and editing Swing, here I worry about the creative side and its effect on business. Marketing is a wonderful way to bridge the creative and business,” he said.
And while he acknowledged he was lucky to be born into his family, Lauren realizes that the luck comes with high expectations.
“Being related to my dad is great. We’re of the same blood and speak the same language. It [the business] is constantly evolving and changing, and I still need to keep up with him every day.”