The Man Behind The Mascara

Propaganda Executive Chairman, Julian Kynaston, features on the front cover of the latest issue of Yorkshire Business Insider as entrepreneur of the month. Insider Editor, Richard Abbott talks Julian about how Propaganda transforms brands and what inspired him to found cult makeup brand, Illamasqua.

Entrepreneurs are often eccentric and offbeat types. Unafraid to follow their instincts by putting their money where their mouth is, they stop at nothing to turn their vision and passion into a reality.

Julian Kynaston fits the bill. As you can see from the photographs that he supplied to Insider, he is a maverick unafraid to break with convention.

We meet at the offices of Propaganda in Calls Wharf, Leeds. This is the marketing agency that Kynaston founded in 1993, which has grown to become one of the most respected brand consultancies in the north of England.

Around us, casually dressed but smartbrained employees are hatching plans to transform the fortunes of businesses and their brands.

Kynaston had long championed the notion that brands should be represented at the boardroom table. Campaigns, he argues, should be measured against hard business, rather than marketing objectives.

In 2006, he sold a proportion of Propaganda to the board in a £14m buyout. He retains a major shareholding and the role of executive chairman.

In the same year, another buyout saw him depart GHD, the hair and beauty brand of which he was marketing director.

With money in his pocket and unfulfilled ambitions in the beauty world, he decided to use the considerable marketing acumen he has built up over the years to launch his own beauty brand.

Together with two of the founding partners and shareholders of GHD, he launched Illamasqua in 2008 with the aim of creating a make-up range that would achieve brand loyalty in a highly commoditised marketplace.

To launch a challenger brand into a market dominated by global behemoths such as Estée Lauder and L’Oreal was a brave move – but it appears to be paying off.

Global sales stand at £7m, although Kynaston says this year he “wouldn’t be surprised if we double that”.

The brand takes its inspiration from the 1920s club scene and the manufacture of make-up for film and theatre. Kynaston says fans like to indulge and express their “darker side”.

Illamasqua has standalone stores in Leeds, London and Liverpool as well as concessions in department stores across the UK, including Selfridges on Oxford Street.

It can also be found in Myer in Australia, Sephora in the US and Bloomingdales and Harvey Nichols in the Middle East. It opened a standalone store in Croatia in 2011.

The scope of the brand, for Kynaston, is limitless. “It couldn’t be more radical,” he says. “The brand is in demand globally, yet we have never actively ‘sold’ it from day one. The market has come to us. We have just spent our time polishing this jewel called Illamasqua and the brighter it shines, the more people come towards it. I don’t think there is any region in the world that hasn’t got 20 stores competing for us.”

To illustrate demand for the brand, he slips in an anecdote about Michael Gould, chairman of Bloomingdales, flying out for meetings with him, adding: “He is not a man who spends too much time talking to suppliers.”

The brand resonates particularly well with the Middle Eastern market, where the conservative dress code for women places emphasis on eye make-up and fragrance as forms of self-expression.

“When the Middle East likes something, it loves it,” Kynaston says. “Our fragrance lines have gone particularly well over there.” The brand has a diverse range of users and “fanatical customer loyalty”, he adds.

“An 85-year-old woman will come into an Illamasqua store because we have introduced a level of care and customer service that resonates with her. And she will find herself sitting next to a transvestite.”

Despite his unbridled enthusiasm for the business, Kynaston confesses that launching and growing it has been “the hardest thing I have ever been involved in”.

He says the beauty sector offers excellent returns for companies that can secure awareness and distribution, but believes it is also one of the hardest to break into.

In a market where cosmetics giants use multi-million pound campaigns featuring celebrities with immaculate skin and hair, Illasmasqua has never used traditional advertising. “We don’t pay celebrities a penny to wear our brand,” Kynaston says.

“There is a shift happening in consumer attitudes to advertising. People want to work it out for themselves. Advertising is fatal if it embellishes any of the basic product characteristics. Marketing genius isn’t about making the product look better than it is. You put that ad budget back into the product itself.”

Much of the the brand’s growth is down to a successful social media strategy. It has also recognised the importance of having skilled staff, with trained beauticians joining salespeople at the retail counter.

In a market where brands can be cool one minute and forgotten the next, usurped by a younger, trendier rival, Kynaston’s task is to ensure that Illamasqua stays relevant as it grows in size. The target, he says, is “massclusivity”.

At the moment, Kynaston says Illamasqua is “growing for all the right reasons” but he adds pointedly: “The minute that I thought we were growing just to suit some chart for a man in a grey suit, I would stop.”

Moving the business to the next level will be the biggest test yet. As a small fish in a big pond, Kynaston will inevitably need financial assistance. “I would be very surprised if, within 18 months, we didn’t find ourselves in some kind of deal that gives us the finance to step up into the middle ground,” he says.

And in the longer term? “I have put a number on this business, but we want to keep it private for longer.”

Propaganda will be making a splash this year as it celebrates its 20th birthday. Its latest venture is the ‘Discovery’ programme, a 12-week branding boot camp which involves everyone from the owner of a business to the staff on the shop floor.

Kynaston says securing business has never been more challenging. “There hasn’t been a client that has spent a single penny with this business that they didn’t need to,” he says. “The days of just having an agency are gone. Nowadays you eat what you kill.”