Unilever COO & Ad Club honoree Esi Eggleston Bracey on the need for a people-first ethos
Interview by Kendra Clark for The DRUM
Esi Eggleston Bracey, Unilever’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer of beauty and personal care, has been named Marketer of the Year by the Advertising Club of New York. The Drum catches up with Bracey on what drives her and what’s next.
The Advertising Club of New York, or Ad Club, each year handpicks the top talent in the industry to be honored as part of its ‘Advertising People of the Year’ awards. Among a highly competitive pool, Unilever leader Esi Eggleston Bracey has been chosen as Marketer of the Year.
Bracey has spent over three decades in the marketing and advertising industry, where she began as a brand assistant for Procter & Gamble’s Comet in Cincinnati, Ohio. She had a natural knack for branding; when she was still in her early twenties, she built the Febreze brand. She quickly moved through the ranks, working across a range of brands, eventually carving out a niche for herself as an authority on cosmetics and personal care brands.
After 25 years with Procter & Gamble, she served as president of consumer beauty at Coty, the conglomerate behind luxury labels like Gucci and Burberry as well as a handful of consumer brands including Covergirl, Rimmel and Adidas. Eventually, she made her way to Unilever, where she now serves as executive vice-president and chief operating officer of beauty and personal care.
And while Bracey’s love for beauty is no doubt a driving force in her career, it’s a deeper sense of purpose that she cites as the reason for her success. She opened up to us about how that purpose informs everything in her life.
What are some of your most significant professional achievements? What do you think put you on the road to winning Ad Club’s Marketer of the Year award?
I consider myself a human-centric business leader more than I do a marketer. But I think that's what marketing is. It's understanding what people need. And it's creating propositions and programs and businesses that meet people's needs. And when you meet people's needs, you can create a business that’s healthy and growing. It's like you're rewarded with that [success] for helping people — and then you do some problem-solving to make sure you're maximizing that help to create a yield for your bottom line as well. So when I think about ‘what is my greatest accomplishment?,’ I think of so many opportunities I've had to do that.
I [created the brand for] Febreze. I was the marketing director then the general manager for Covergirl and helped diversify the face of Covergirl so that people could see a new definition of beauty. We signed Queen Latifah and people said, ‘I've never seen a full-figured woman [as the face of beauty].’ [Then we brought on] Pink and then Drew Barrymore — at the time, these were all non-traditional beauties, showing the diversity of what beauty can be. And then having the business soar because of that was a huge professional accomplishment. I think about it also as a personal accomplishment — not for me, but for the world, in terms of my purpose.
Now at Unilever, for the four and a half years I’ve been there, there have been big accomplishments around impact…and purpose programs — being human-centric, meeting people's needs. [Most important has been the] founding of the California Crown Act, [some version of which has now passed in 12 states]. Crown is an acronym for ‘creating a respectful and open world for natural hair.’ It was founded by Dove with four other organizations, and I had the opportunity to lead the initiative that came out of Unilever. What it does is put an end to race-based hair discrimination. Dove has been always campaigning for real beauty, but there are people in society that still have the experience — because of how they look — to be turned away from school and from work, because people say that natural hair is untidy or unprofessional or un-scholastic and against the corporate or school grooming policies. The Crown Act makes that illegal. The first Crown Act was signed, July 3, 2019 in California. That's been a huge achievement. We need to help people who don't feel included.
So that's not a simple answer on what my biggest professional achievement is. But I would summarize it in saying: [I am] consistently having the opportunity to break barriers and inspire our collective greatness through brands and by showing people that we can grow and drive business by meeting the needs of people — not just as consumers, but meeting the 360-degree needs of people. I feel proud that I've been able to do that.
What advice would you offer to young marketing and advertising professionals getting their start in the industry?
Know what you're in it for. So many times we pick this thing that we want to go for, saying, ‘I want to do this job,’ ‘I want to break into this.’ But keep asking yourself, ‘Why?’ You think you have an answer? Ask yourself, ‘Why?’ Can you think of an answer? Ask yourself, ‘Why?’ again. Answering that will help with your commitment and your resilience and to understand what your superpower is that will help you [accomplish your goals].
For me, when I started, I knew nothing about marketing. My mother is a lawyer and my father's a schoolteacher. I studied engineering sciences and pre-med in school — I thought I was going to be an MD PhD in biomedical engineering. And I happened to go to an informational session about brand management, and the ‘why’ that interested me is that I love people. I like sociology and anthropology. I thought I wanted to be a doctor because I liked people. My ‘why’ for marketing was I like people and solving people-problems. And I like using my brain to solve business problems and people problems.
And then later, beyond [pinning down] what I like, my ‘why’ became that I want to make a dent. I want people to realize all the potential and [recognize] the gift that we have of being on this earth. So that's ‘why.’ It started with ‘I like people and I like solving problems,’ but the ‘why’ behind that ‘why’ is that I want to help people. I can see the role that we can all play in realizing our full potential. That's my ‘why.’ That helps me navigate as I think about what jobs I want to do next. So, I give that same advice to young marketers.
The second piece of advice I give is something I learned early in my career, which is this framework called PIE. As you move through your career, think about PIE: P for ‘performance,’ I for ‘image’ and E for ‘exposure.’ P is always be clear on what you're expected to deliver and then hit or beat [those expectations]. I for ‘image’ — know your superpower, what you're good at and you want to be known for. And then… exposure is the combination of your performance and that image and the work that you do. Make sure, based on your objectives, that the people who can help you achieve those goals are exposed to that. So [my advice is] ‘why, why, why’ and PIE.
What inspires you?
It's no surprise: people inspire me. I love people. I'm so curious about people. So, I like to ask questions. And there's always something I get out of that.
Beauty inspires me. I see beauty in all things. I love taking walks and being on the water. The trees, the outdoors, buildings and architecture — those things really, really inspire me.
I also [listen to a lot of] shortcasts, because I'm curious. I like to get small doses of inspiration, particularly in the space of wellness, personal productivity, business hacks and connections. Those things inspire me.
Can you share one big prediction for the future of our industry?
What's happening in our industry is that there is a confluence of things happening everywhere around us in sales, marketing, technology, business. The trend I see is all about people — it's using all these tools to serve people. It's not just an ad. It's not just a product. It's not just entertainment. It's not just social media. Just look at what's coming out of NFTs. Everything is getting connected.
Just stay curious and watch what's going on around. Because you no longer can segment and compartmentalize things. That's what we have to do now as marketers and advertisers and business leaders: take from everywhere to be of service to what people want on an entertainment level and at a functional level.
And what's the future? And the word that I think abound is ‘amorphous’ or ‘fluid.’ As industry leaders, we need deep expertise, but also general knowledge across things that we may or may not have considered our [area of] expertise before.
What’s one thing — whether personal or professional — that may surprise people to learn about you?
There's one thing that I can share. People ask me what my favorite beauty tip or secret is, because I've been in beauty a long time. And people are usually surprised to find out that Japanese water therapy is my favorite beauty secret. Japanese water therapy is drinking a liter to a liter and a half of water every morning and guzzling it in five minutes — which I do when I wake up — and then not eating for at least an hour, until the water has flushed. And it just does wonders for your skin and for your wellness. People that I turn onto it are like, ‘That's your beauty secret?! All these beauty products, and [your secret] is to drink water?!’
[Something else that may surprise people is that] I didn't move to New York until 2017. In all the years [of talking about and thinking about] New York in the industry, I thought I missed my moment to move to New York. I thought I needed to do that right out of college because New York would be a place that would not be livable [to a more established person]. I'm married…[and I have] two children. I was afraid originally [of leaving] this Geneva bubble and bringing at the time my seven year-old and my 11 year-old to New York… I thought I missed my moment. But then I moved to New York after living in Geneva, Switzerland for eight years. And I chose New York as a place to live because… I wanted to move to a very diverse city. And I feel like, ‘Where have you been my whole life?’ I absolutely adore New York. I'm a newcomer, but I feel like it's home. It’s just been amazing for our family.
For more about the Advertising People of the Year award, click here.