Beauty’s PR Guru
Audrey Hyams Romoff
Audrey Hyams Romoff has the beauty dream job: prestige beauty clients, international travel, a bustling pr agency and celebrity appearances. From Shania Twain to Sarah Jessica Parker to Gwen Stefani, she’s worked some of the biggest names in music and entertainment. (She’s got some great stories about Kimora Lee Simmons if you ever get the chance to meet her in person) But what’s unique about Audrey is her charitable work and willingness to help those just starting out in their careers. Audrey volunteered to handle all press relations for MAC’s spectacular Fashion Cares Gala for years, a mammoth task. She’s spoken to graduating students. And she’s shared her wisdom with entrepreneurs building their businesses. Here, she gives us a peek at her glamorous life.
Dave: To start, tell us about your career path and how you built one of the top beauty PR agencies in the country.
Audrey Hyams Romoff: I graduated with an honours degree in English literature and had no idea what I wanted to do. It took a while until I finally found my passion. My first real job was as a head hunter at an employment agency. Four months into that job I knew it wasn’t for me. I was lucky to land a position at a real estate company as a marketing assistant for shopping malls in the Bloor Yorkville area. I worked my way up to manager in one year. One of the campaigns I worked on was a charitable initiative that involved the neighbourhood retailers joining together to raise funds for a children’s charity. There was a PR agency working with our group and I became fascinated with the industry. When the agency had an opening I grabbed it. I worked at the agency for two years and was very fortunate to work on some very high profile accounts. I put in a lot of hours and really enjoyed the work but as I became more experienced I realized that there were things I would do differently. I decided to start my own agency and was a one person band working out of my home for the first year. I had made good contacts and was able to land new accounts fairly quickly. Everything was going so well I decided that this was the perfect time to start my family. I became pregnant with my first child eight months after I launched the agency. It was a crazy time and looking back on it I am not quite sure how I did it. I was actually taking calls in the delivery room and did a client pitch four days after my daughter was born. There is only one way to succeed in any endeavor and that is to work hard. There are always naysayers who will tell you something isn’t possible. When I speak with people who are just entering the industry I tell them the same thing, if you are willing to really work for it you will get there.
Dave: Can you tell us a little about what you do in your career?
AHR: PR is about combining strategy and creativity to deliver a message to the target audience. A lot of people confuse advertising and PR but they really are polar opposites. With advertising, you develop creative and then decide where you want that message to appear, for example on TV or in a magazine or newspaper. In PR, we work with the editorial side of media outlets as well as influencers, to get them excited about our message so they will write or post about it.
That could involve a variety of activities from simply sending out a press release, to creating enticing mailers that bring the products and messages to life to planning large scale events and parties. Essentially if you are reading an article or social media post about a new beauty product there was likely a PR person who was behind it. First and foremost I am a strategist. This industry is all about setting clear objectives and then devising the path to get there. I think that sometimes people think because we work with high profile brands and celebrities that this job is all about parties, it’s not. Even a party is a strategy. Who is invited, who speaks, what does the event look like, are we providing content and newsworthy information? But it is true that we get to work with fascinating people who are at the top of their industries which is inspiring
Dave: What brands and personalities have you worked with over the years?
AHR: I was definitely in the right place at the right time. Companies and brands began collaborating with celebrities in a major way and OverCat started doing a lot of work in that area. We have worked with Katy Perry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion, Alexander Skarsgard, Shania Twain, Jon Bon Jovi, Elizabeth Hurley, Adam Levine, Eva Mendes and David and Victoria Beckham. In terms of brands, we have developed campaigns for Estée Lauder, Stila, MAC, beautyBOUTIQUE by Shoppers Drug Mart, ELLE Canada and Victoria’s Secret.
Dave: How has beauty PR changed over the past years?
AHR: Social media has completely transformed the beauty industry. Before social media, the industry worked with very specific lead times which essentially means how far in advance you have to start communicating your message in order to coordinate that the stories appear when the products hit the shelf. For example, magazines could require 4 – 5 month lead times. With newspapers, a story could break the next day but it would have to be serious news so it can take a few weeks for the story to run. While those parameters still hold true, social media is about immediacy. To put that in perspective, if we are hosting a media and influencer event and we have done our job properly, social media starts hitting basically as soon as we open the doors. For our clients, that means hundreds of posts and millions of eye balls in a single day. The most effective campaigns harness the energy of all those elements – magazine, television, newspaper and social media.
Dave: Tell us the most exciting beauty event you ever planned? Tell us a little about what went into it.
AHR: We recently planned an event for the Estée Lauder Companies to celebrate the twenty fifth anniversary of their Breast Cancer Campaign. Like most large scale events, the planning began six months in advance. We had already created numerous events for the Breast Cancer Campaign but this one was especially significant because of the twenty fifth anniversary. William P. Lauder, Executive Chairman, The Estée Lauder Companies and Eric Douilhet, General Manager, The Estée Lauder Companies Canada hosted the event. Working in conjunction with celebrity photographer George Pimentel, we partnered with 16 high profile individuals who agreed to participate in the Pink Portrait series. Over the course of a month, George photographed actors, philanthropists and television personalities in front of a custom designed pink background. The large scale portraits were unveiled at the “Pink Cocktail Party.” To reinforce the importance of this initiative, each participant shared their reasons for participating in the campaign. These impactful messages were enlarged and hung on three walls in the venue. The campaign generated in excess of nine million impressions in two hours.
Zoomer editor Suzanne Boyd, Audrey & MAC Cosmetics’ Philip Ing
Dave: You volunteered for Fashion Cares for years. Tell us a little about that.
AHR: I was asked by a business associate if I would volunteer to co-chair the publicity committee for Fashion Cares. AIDS was a growing and terrifying disease and at the time very little was known about transmission, prevention or treatment. A group of very committed and talented volunteers from the fashion and beauty industries created the event with funds benefiting the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Philip Ing was the creative director of the show and is a truly brilliant individual. MAC Cosmetics became the title sponsor and the event grew from a grass roots initiative to a must attend party attended by over 2000 people that raised over one million dollars in a single evening. OverCat had just launched and was a much smaller agency. We had never dedicated as many hours to any single campaign but this disease was ravaging our industry and I wanted to do whatever I could to make a contribution. I don’t think you can appreciate how truly tragic this time was unless you were actually there. We worked side by side with designers, hair and makeup artists, and AIDS Committee of Toronto Board members who did not survive the disease. Fashion Cares had a profound effect on my life. I often think about those we lost and am grateful to still call many of the people I volunteered with dear friends.
Dave: What advice do you have for anyone entering the industry these days? What should they study at school or learn?
AHR: Work hard, pay attention and use common sense. While there are definitely specific skills that you need to learn from an educational program, it is just as important to understand what personality traits it takes to be successful in this industry. Be realistic about yourself and how you want to live your life. During the interview process we are very clear with potential candidates that this career requires long hours Not everybody wants to make that investment and I totally understand if that’s the case but if it is, this isn’t the career for you. When you are starting out, keep your eyes and ears open. Be aware of all the campaigns being worked on in your agency or department. That way if you are asked to work on a campaign outside of your existing scope of work you will already have some base knowledge. Educate yourself about the industries you will be working on. That way you can make meaningful contributions. Know when to speak and when not to. This can be tricky.
Don’t chew gum in the interview and know who the Prime Minister is. I swear, that happened. In terms of what to study there are a few different routes, from a college program to a university degree followed by a certificate program. While our world is currently dominated by visual imagery it is still important to know how to write properly. You will need this for everything from press releases to content creation and proposal writing. Be a good proof reader. Spell check doesn’t catch everything. Take as many courses as you can in social media, both content creation and analytics. Volunteer to work on social media campaigns either within your program or with outside organizations like charities. The better you are at social media the quicker you will find a job.
Audrey and team with Kardashian makeup artist Joyce Bonelli (centre)
Dave: One of the characteristics of a great PR executive is adapting to challenges at the last minute. What was one of the biggest surprises you had with an event and how did you solve it?
AHR: We were planning a large scale high profile event in Montreal for a major brand launch. The New York based company president was attending. I had worked with him in the past and knew that he expected perfection. We were working with our agency partner in Montreal at that time and they were responsible for mailing out the invitations. The event was taking place in a large venue and the target number of attendees was 300. The client provided the guest list which I emailed to the agency several weeks before the event. Four days before the event the client calls and says that a few people who should have received the invitation had not received it and could I look into it. I spoke with the agency in Montreal and asked if the invitations had been mailed and how the RSVPs were. Yes they had mailed them out but the response rate was in fact quite low. Upon further analysis, the invitation list had been sent in two different emails. One list had been sent out but the second list, which was the much larger list, had been at the bottom of an email that had event details at the top. The agency had never scrolled down! No one on that list had been sent the invitation. We sprang into action. A team of fashion students were hired to track down the guests’ phone numbers because all we had were names and addresses. Once we secured the phone numbers the team called everyone on the list. This was hundreds of invitees and it was three days to event day. Fortunately the plan of attack worked and we far exceeded our target number.
Dave: Which celebrities were the nicest or most interesting that you’ve met?
AHR: We worked on campaigns with Sarah Jessica Parker, Katy Perry and Shania Twain and these women were incredibly impressive. When you work with a lot of celebrities you begin to notice some similarities. The true A-list stars are incredibly talented, savvy and professional. We worked with Sarah Jessica on an event in Toronto and there were so many different aspects to it, it was like a military operation. Sarah Jessica couldn’t have been nicer even though we literally programmed every minute of the eight hours she was with us. Many celebrities have a big entourage but Sarah Jessica didn’t. She was incredibly kind and accessible. We worked with Shania on several campaigns and she is one of the hardest working people I have ever met. At one event Shania had a chartered plane that was supposed to fly for the Caribbean to the US but the plane had technical issues and was grounded. Shania flew commercial on an overnight in order to not miss the event. She had literally not slept but you would never have known. She was so gracious. Working with Shania was always a wonderful experience because both she and her team were so well prepared. From delivering the key messages to knowing what was the best lighting for her, they had it all down. We did a private meet and greet with Katy Perry for a group of 30 fans who had won a contest to meet Katy. We have done many of these type of meet and greets but Katy Perry was extraordinary. She was totally down to earth and connected with her fans, many of whom were young teens, in such a genuine way that it was truly touching to witness. Eva Mendes did something unexpected and wonderful. Following a product launch at a department store, Eva spontaneously asked if she could meet the sales associates who were selling her product. With no advance warning we walked over to the department and Eva started introducing herself. I have never seen a celebrity do that.
Dave: What’s a typical day in your life like?
AHR: There is no such thing as a typical day which is probably what I like best about this career. Being able to multi-task is crucial because even if you have planned your day ahead it’s unlikely that you will be able to stick to it. On any given day we will be in the planning stage for a series of events so I will be reviewing guest lists, responses and event details. We also spend a fair bit of time doing site visits both for events we are working on and as potential venues. In addition to client meetings we have internal brainstorming sessions to plan strategy for existing clients and new business pitches. Liaising with media and influencers is also a key activity. And of course being on site for all of our events.
Follow Audrey’s adventures at overcat.com, @OverCat_PR on Twitter & Instagram.