Interview: Deborah Fine

Former CEO of Pink, Victoria's Secret & Limited Brands

28 years of marketing, retail, and publishing experience


Deborah focused her discussion on two frequently asked questions:
  • How did she get into the business?

As a child growing up in Parsippany, NY, she was a magazine junkie by the age of seven. She was a dedicated reader and knew when her local store had their new magazines delivered each month. About sixteen years later, she was at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, one of the first schools to begin offering internships to students. She won an essay contest for an internship with Mademoiselle and became a Campus Marketing Representative doing focus groups and market research.

She was more interested in her job than her schoolwork and eventually convinced the university to give her college credit for a semester-long internship at Conde Nast. She was a 'Rover' for Conde Nast and essentially performed whatever tasks were required and filled in for employees who were sick or on maternity leave. This was where she was able to learn about magazine publishing. She credits these internships as her way into this business and encourages students to pursue internships.

  • How did she go about building brands for young women at the various companies she's worked for?

She will answer this question in terms of the four major businesses she has run. These businesses were vastly different in some ways, but very similar in others.

Brides

First, before she joined Brides magazine it was known as the 'stepchild' of Conde Nast. The magazine had lost its way and its advertising was discounted because it was not popular with advertisers. Only 'white goods' (wedding related products) were advertised in Brides, not more lucrative products in the categories of car, home, or beauty.

When Deborah joined Brides as Publisher, she asked her team for superlative statements about the magazine's reader to determine who she was and what was important to her. The two that came up the most often were that the reader was 1.) Moneyed (but had never been positioned that way) and 2.) In love (which made her unique compared to other magazine's readers). She determined that these were two pieces of a unique business selling proposition and repositioned the magazine as the intersection where love meets money. She restored the magazine to profitability in 18 months.

The reward for this accomplishment was a promotion to the Vice-President/Publisher of Glamour.

Glamour

When she joined Glamour it was Conde Nast's largest magazine and cash cow. But, its earlier managers had tried to be 'ahead of the curve' and abandoned the original Glamour theme of 'dos and don'ts'. The focus moved to more sexual topics, similar to Cosmopolitan and advertisers were leaving. Since advertisers contribute a large portion of the revenue, Glamour was in danger of losing profits.

Deborah decided Glamour would benefit most from going back to its heritage of the do's and don'ts. She and her team created the marketing tagline 'Do Glamour' and were successful in repositioning Glamour. Advertisers returned and revenues were restored.

As a magazine publisher, she believes one functions essentially as a consultant to other industries such as retail, fashion, and beauty. This is how she was able to leverage her experience when she transitioned to Avon.

Avon

Deborah had a meeting with Andrea Jung, the CEO at Avon, while she still worked at Conde Nast. She brought her portfolio of work, just in case. She was so impressed with the CEO; she interrupted her and told her 'I have to work for you'. This was a Monday and she started that Friday.

Deborah emphasized the importance of networking contacts, since a position was actually created for her. When she joined, they wanted her to evaluate how to modernize Avon for young women, but there was no real concept in place yet. Deborah and her team conducted a number of focus groups in many countries and found that young women wanted to be portrayed and heralded for their individuality and for making their mark in the world. Although this initially seemed like a strategy and not a brand, they settled on mark. as the name for this new brand. The period at the end of mark. was added for emphasis. Deborah recalls a number of late night sessions discussing this concept and name.

Over a 24 month period, mark. went from the ideation period to a business of scale. In 18 months mark. brought in over 105 million in sales (twice Bobbi Brown's sales). They brought in their goal of 25,000 new sellers for mark. who would speak to the next generation of customers. The tagline was 'makeup you can buy and sell'. Deborah stayed with Avon for 5 years.

Pink

Deborah was recruited for Pink, which had already been started as a subbrand of Victoria's Secret. Victoria's Secret's customers were aging up and they wanted a hot, young collegiate line to attract young women. Pink began to test in only 4 stores and was later expanded to 50, 100, 500, and now 1000 stores as of last July. Similar to Avon, she felt the opportunity at Pink was to 'own her own channel'. But, in contrast to Avon, there was no blank slate with Pink since the brand voice had already been created.

Deborah and her team had to asked 'who are we? what do we stand for?'. They determined that Pink should be for Victoria's Secret's little sister. The tagline was '7 day sexy', since the brand was more casual/sexy for everyday. In just 13 months, ten new sales mechanisms were tested and resulted in a 68% increase in sales. The future goal is to sell Pink in freestanding stores.

Deborah is very proud of these 4 businesses and credits a great deal of her success to the group of people that she worked with at each organization. She has two philosophies related to forming teams:

  • It takes a village: Look for world class talent to assemble a group of people to help you reach your goals.
  • 3 A's: Hire adults, provide autonomy, and demand accountability.

Ten Guiding Principles for Success

Deborah recommends the following principles to the audience:

  • Do something you love. Her biggest fear is a J-O-B. She feels that her jobs have been part of her hobby that she is paid for. She believes you need to get up in the morning and have a passion for what you do.
  • Do it with people you love. You spend more time with colleagues than with your family and friends. You need to give respect to earn respect.
  • Hire top talent – they are an asset, not a threat. They will be your fastest path to growth.
  • Find a unique selling position for your business and communicate it and drive it 360 degrees.
  • Add immediate value in a new position. Try to sell yourself/develop your own brand voice.
  • Network – everyone is a contact. This will pay you back in spades.
  • Ask questions, but more importantly – listen to the answers.
  • Be open and honest about what you know and don't know.
  • Know the rules of your office and live by them vigilantly.