October 5, 2017

Masterclass – Jean Paul Agon

This time, it was Jean-Paul Agon who was in the hot seat.

One of the most revered figures in beauty, the L’Oréal chairman and CEO sat down for a one-on-one interview with The Fragrance Foundation president Linda Levy for last night’s Masterclass at Florence Gould Hall.

Agon took the stage to introduce himself, and poke a bit of fun at his fierce reputation: “I’m a very competitive guy,” he said, later revealing that “[My] name, ‘Agon,’ comes from the Greek word, ‘fight.’ I am sure it would surprise you,” he said dryly.

But Agon wasn’t there to talk tough: He was there to share some of the wisdom he’s acquired over 39 years working at L’Oréal. The sold-out audience included this year’s Notables, who represent the best and brightest young talents in the fragrance industry.

Looking back at his career, Agon believes the most exciting time in beauty is actually this moment. Reflecting on the decades he’s spent with L’Oréal, there wasn’t even a fraction of the change he’s seen in just the past few years, he said.

“[Today], the world of beauty has nothing to do with the way it was five years ago!” he said. “The consumer is at the heart, and that is absolutely fabulous.”

So how is Agon evolving L’Oréal, which he describes as an “entrepreneurial company?” When asked about digital, he stressed the practical use of targeted marketing, which he reveres as one of the strongest tools for reaching the customer (“We know fragrance market is super-segmented”). Also, he repeatedly mentioned the industry’s sense of “imaginaire,” and how digital media can better educate consumers about the artistry of fragrance, from the perfumers behind the scents to the ingredients in the juice.

If Agon’s excitement for ingredient-driven fragrances is any indication, this sort of storytelling is going to be essential. When asked about the push for more artisanal and natural scents, Agon lit up, calling it “One of the best moves in the industry.”

Sustainability also got Agon talking, as he outlined an ambitious plan to make “100 percent of L’Oréal products have a positive impact by 2020.”

When Levy asked him about the recent death of L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, Agon got personal.

“I knew her well and she was like a mother to me in the way,” he said. “She was not involved very much in the business—the big impact is an emotional impact. People see L’Oréal as a corporation, but in many ways it’s like a family business.”

When asked about his passion outside of the office—sailing—Agon got philosophical.

“Sailing teaches you a lot,” he said. “For example, if you want to win a regatta, you could have the best boat and team you need to win, but you need to see where the wind is. The wind is where the growing segments are,” he said, bringing it back to work. “It’s my job to say, ‘There’s the wind.’”

Perhaps the very last question—and the most fun—gave some personal insight to the unflappable exec. When Levy told Agon that he shared a birthday—July 6—with the Dalai Lama, Marc Chagall, and Sylvester Stallone, she asked what he might have in common with all three. After thanking her that she didn’t pick someone unsavory, he quickly replied, “They’re all very intense.”

“So are you going to walk into the conference room like Rocky?” Levy asked.

“Probably not the Dalai Lama.” His team laughed in recognition.

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