Chris Olshan entered The Luxury Marketing Council in 2008, amidst a devasting recession. Nonetheless, he was able to grow both the company AND his career.
Now the CEO, Olshan shares how leaders can inspire their employees, top tips to overcome marketing challenges, how to prioritize projects while keeping consumers at the forefront and more.
"You have to be invested – it’s bottom-up, not top-down. You need to listen to your people and know what’s going on in every aspect of your business."
DesignRush: How did the Luxury Marketing Council come about?
Chris Olshan: Our founder started the company in 1994. At the time, he was running marketing and the catalog business for Bergdorf Goodman. Bert Tanksey was leaving Bergdorf Goodman to run Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Greg didn’t want to leave New York City. He saw this as a wake-up call from the universe to start his own business.
At that time, luxury marketing was very different. Luxury was booming in the 1990s. Brands had great products and great services but saw marketing as spending a lot of money on advertising that would tell people what to buy and what to wear. Additionally, all communication was done in vertical silos Hotels talked to hotels, jewelers talked to jewelers, and so on, but no one spoke to each other across luxury industry segments
Our founder realized that all of those luxury brands were trying to market to and win a greater share of wallet from the same best customers. So he created The Luxury Marketing Council with the idea of flipping the model horizontally to help businesses from different segments learn from one another and find creative ways to share their best customers and by doing so grow their customer base.
DR: Tell us about your role at the Luxury Marketing Council.
CO: I am the Global CEO – when I started with the company in 2008 I ran business development for the New York chapter, and as our organization has grown so has my role.
I joke that I picked the best and worst time to join because I started right when the recession was happening.
Everyone was scrambling, luxury brands went from double-digit growth year after year to at best breaking even and for many brands showing a loss for the first time in decades. The entire luxury industry was turned upside down almost overnight.
But the good thing was the market was at it’s worst and when you are at the bottom there is nowhere to go but up. I was able to help businesses find creative ways to grow and drive revenue while they rethought their marketing approach and turned their focus back to their top consumers. Brands had to take a hard look in the mirror and ask questions like, how do we show why luxury products are worth what they’re worth? And what are we doing to inspiring our customers to spend?
DR: That must have been a tough challenge to overcome.
CO: It was. Another interesting challenge that occurred at the same time was the release of the iPhone. This was the first time that mobile technology really hit the market in a meaningful way. So now, luxury brands are trying to appeal to a more cautious luxury consumer while navigating an influx of technology that no one really knows how to work or how it will impact the market.
But we, like many of our luxury brand members, were successful. Our founder is a true visionary – but like most visionaries hates to admit it, and I am the fast, younger, streetwise marketer that’s more digitally savvy. He has the history, heritage and experience of a long and successful corporate career in the industry and I have an entrepreneurial mindset and focus on what’s coming next, and that makes for a very dynamic partnership.
DR: That sounds like the perfect partnership! It must be difficult to strike a balance between exclusivity and a digital presence.
CO: We compliment each other very well. It took a lot of patience on both of our parts but we have never been stronger or more in sync.
As far as a balance goes, navigating the digital age, in general, is certainly a challenge. The luxury industry can be a bit behind when it comes to a digital presence, which is understandable– companies are trying to take really luxurious and intimate experiences online, which can be very difficult.
For us, different forms of communication work well for different levels of employees and executives. While there are people or teams who run the digital side of a business, senior executives aren’t always involved. A CEO is less concerned about logging into a website and more concerned about running the company, for example. So offline communication plays very well with senior executives, while online works great for a team that needs to be actively involved but may not have the flexibility to leave work and attend events.
DR: Did you face any other unexpected challenges while growing the company?
CO: Yes, several.
At one point right after the recession, we wanted to upgrade our website and we were working with a developer who talked a good game, but ultimately tried to sell us on a Flash website – which doesn’t work well with Google – and this delayed our digital launch by a few years.
Another challenge was that many major relationships the founder built during his time in the corporate world, as well as during the first 10 to 12 years of The Luxury Marketing Council, changed after the recession. The economy fell, many companies were downsizing, and a lot of executives personally were financially impacted. People that knew our company, supported us and had been involved since day one were looking for jobs or retiring.
Then there was the social media boom. Which is a whole other discussion, because it changed the way people were communicating and made us ask ourselves, how cutting-edge should we be? How do we stay modern but not lose what makes us special?
Ultimately, we decided it was better to maintaining a “by-invitation-only” standard than to worry about always jumping on the latest trend. Like most luxury brands we aren’t for everyone and don’t need to promote ourselves as if we are.
DR: So, what digital presence did you land on? How do you communicate with your members while growing your brand?
CO: We use email and our global website to communicate. The founder and I both have LinkedIn profiles, but that’s it.
It’s almost impossible to maintain exclusivity when you’re on different networking platforms – it only takes one or two people to accidentally get added to a LinkedIn or Facebook group, for example, for it to get out of hand. Plus, you don’t have the control you need to manage your presence when you work with a third party. Linkedin doesn’t care if someone gains access to a group that is private even if we do. Facebook is all about how many likes you can generate. With Twitter, the more followers the better. That isn’t how we want to operate.
So, email and our website are the only two platforms we use because we can control 100 percent of what it sent out and who will see it.
DR: What inspires you personally and professionally?
CO: There’s a lot that inspires me. Personally, my son, my wife, my family and my never-ending desire for personal and business growth.
As far as within The Luxury Marketing Council, I’m inspired by the success of our members. Helping our members grow their business and create new ways to work with other companies, that’s what does it for me. I love finding the synergies within our community that lead to unique and profitable partnerships and collaborations. Every day is something different – hospitality, private jets, jewelry, fashion, fine wines and spirits, automotive, etc. Businesses from these different segments work together and we get to help facilitates that.
DR: Have you executed any specific marketing campaigns that other businesses can learn from?
CO: We’re a marketing organization, so we’re doing campaigns on a daily basis – promoting new members, creating special partnerships, email marketing for events, and so on. What we have learned is that the most successful campaigns are those that are personal.
Anyone can sign up for an e-blast and craft a somewhat successful letter. Anyone can cold call and get one out of 100 to respond. But it’s the personal campaigns – those that invest in the audience and lets the audience invest in you – that are successful.
As a brand, we don’t just send emails and create campaigns for the sake of doing so. Our members and Global executives who are busy and we try to focus on our what they want and need.
DR: What advice would you share with someone who is leading a company?
CO: You have to be invested – it’s bottom-up, not top-down. You need to listen to your people and know what’s going on in every aspect of your business. The founder has a saying that I didn’t quite grasp when I started but now has become my mantra: Chief, cook and bottle washer.
I will be the guy printing nametags for an event, talking to the venue to organizing catering, moderating the panel discussion and pouring drinks if need be. Ultimately, you have to be involved and care about every detail of your business. It’s the little things that add up to the whole. You can’t sit in the ivory tower and assume problems or shortcomings in different departments will work themselves out. You need to get involved.
My advice for any executive is to look at the company they work for and say, what would I do if I owned this company? Then, take your answer and do it. That’s something I have learned from watching the c-suite executives of our 1000 member companies worldwide. They OWN their businesses.
DR: Any final thoughts or words of wisdom?
CO: I think one major issue/challenge for luxury brands today is what to do with millennials. People are constantly hearing that millennials are so different, they’re killing this and killing that in business – but they aren’t killing anything.
The media, in particular, is looking at a generation that is so large, ages 17 to 37, and isn’t fully developed and trying to classify them into one group.
For starters, someone who is 17 is so different from someone who is 37 in the way they think, act and consume. You just can’t classify those people as the same or put them into one group -- most millennials – with the exception of the older ones - haven’t figured out what they want, where they are going in life, or what they want out of a brand.
Plus, look at the history of other generations. Many boomers were flower children in the ‘60s and are executives now. As they grew and matured they came into their own and are very different people from who they were then.
When a brand is looking at the next generation of luxury customer, don’t assume they are all the same, or that the media is giving you honest feedback on such a large and diverse group of people. There’s this big fear that millennials going to change the industry and, while I think they’ll have some new ways of shopping, I don’t think things will change all that drastically. It will all balance itself out like it has in every generation before.
Lastly, stop calling them millennials. That term was created by a baby boomer.
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