In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Lynn Tesoro, the co-founder of PR powerhouse HL Group, can pinpoint the moment in her career where one decision changed her entire path.
"I was told not to go to Giorgio Armani, because there was an environment; they were all telling me, 'Don't go, you're out of your mind,'" she says from a sunny conference room in HL Group's expansive new offices. "Had I not taken that job, honestly, I would never have been where I am today, for sure. I might have been somewhere along the way, but not to this degree."
Following her gut was the best choice Tesoro could have made. That job at Giorgio Armani would lead her to another career-defining role at Calvin Klein, heading up PR during the Kate Moss years. Tesoro worked closely with the iconic American designer, who took her under his wing and introduced her to key editors and clients. "When he throws his eggs into your basket, it's unwavering," says Tesoro. From there, connections lead her to Ralph Lauren, where she would reunite with Hamilton South, her HL Group co-founder whom Tesoro first met — you guessed it — at that Armani job.
"It was all very intertwined," she says simply. "It's kind of interesting."
Of course, Tesoro also put in the hard work and spent years building relationships before she would ultimately struck out on her own. And she isn't done learning yet: Her biggest priority today is to help navigate her team into the future of fashion. "Even today, I still love fashion," she says. "I still get a charge out of it, but I see it crossing over in so many other ways."
Thankfully, she had some time available in her schedule to share why she made the change from in-house PR to launching an agency, how social media has changed how she does her job and what she's looking for in the next generation of PR superstars.
What first interested you in fashion?
I was the kind of person who loved designers, loved fashion magazines. I wanted to be a journalist, and I ended up in a very traditional, liberal arts, all-girl Catholic school. But then, when I got out of school, it was just a different kind of environment; public relations or communications, they didn't have the majors. Syracuse had a really great program, and still does, but most schools didn't offer it — certainly my school didn't.
When I was really struggling at the end, a professor of mine told me to make a list of what I liked and what I didn't like to do, and she literally turned to her bookshelf and handed me a book on public relations. My first job was strictly agency, and I was working on very consumer product things. But I really did want to be somewhere in fashion; I did interview at Condé Nast and I tried so hard. At the time, I had to take a typing class, because if you didn't have a way in, you had to go through the bottom up — I still, to this day, can out-type anyone. [Laughs] But I couldn't get in.
I was interviewing, and I went for an interview at Women's Wear Daily and [the interviewer] liked me, but she had just made an offer that day. She sent me to Jeffrey Banks, who was opening up his first business, and Mindy Grossman was the sales director, and they gave me my first job in this business.
From there, I worked for a small company called Robert Comstock, who was an outerwear designer in Idaho. Then I was interviewing at Giorgio Armani, and at the time, right after the Barneys launch, it was a very small organization; there was a store on Madison Avenue and there were four people above it. I got called in for an interview, and I was there for about five or six years. It changed my life; completely changed my life, opened up a whole other world for me.
What was working in fashion PR like at that time?
It was obviously very traditional. It was magazines, and you had to know the editors, and your job also was to support sales. We also had to understand the construction of the garment; we had to understand what it was about. It really was about relationships, from top to bottom, and service, and all of those things that I think were defining back in the day. You had to write; you worked with the retailers; you worked with the regional press.
How did you get to the point where you knew you wanted to start your own firm?
That was a longer journey, funny enough. I had been at Armani, then I was at Calvin Klein for many years, and then I was at Ralph Lauren. My partner, Hamilton South — we started this in 2001, but I met him at Armani, so we've had this journey back and forth for a very very long time. I always wanted to be part of a team, part of a brand; I wanted to be in-house, always.
And then, life changes; I had kids, I was married and I knew that I wanted to continue to work, but not sure that I wanted to work for an "ultimate being." I wanted to do different things; I wanted to understand what consumer press would be, and travel, and hospitality. Ralph actually did show us that we could do everything because there was beauty, there was home, there was fashion, there was events.
Hamilton left before I did, and almost a year after he left, we started talking about creating, because we had hired and fired so many agencies to help us; when you're sitting inside, you get very close to the conversation and you can't see the forest through the trees, so we would bring in agencies to help us with our vision, and strategies, and things like that. But at the end of the day, it didn't always work, because they're trying to show that they're better than us, and it ended up in this weird sort of competition. We thought there was a void in the market for an agency that wasn't about pushing samples out, but was more about using marketing, communications and events in a very holistic, very integrated way, to move a brand forward.
We started off with things very small. There's a great story of Hamilton and I sitting in our first office, both at a table facing each other with the phones on our desk, and a friend walked in and he goes, "This looks like a scene from 'Absolutely Fabulous,' are you guys waiting for the phone to ring?" [Laughs]
Going from in-house to agency, how did you find clients?
All of our relationships, all our contacts from back in the day, helped shape this company. That's how we got referrals. We built our business on referrals. I would say the first five to seven years, really probably before social media, it was all referral. We were out and about. Back in the day — at Armani, too — you clocked into work, you worked a whole day and then you were expected to go out. The next day, you were writing a report about what you did the night before. It wasn't about dancing on the tabletops and being crazy; it's who you saw, who you ate with, who you went to drinks with, how that's furthering your job and what you're bringing to the table. The journey, if you stayed long enough, totally helped us form this.
How did you guys decide to expand out into categories beyond fashion?
It was, honestly, the original thinking of HL. We didn't want to just be a fashion PR company. We realized that there was a much bigger conversation, and we were interested in that conversation. Beauty is a very big part of this, and hospitality; we do real estate, crisis management, corporate. At Ralph, we were part of the group when he went public, so we started to get an understanding of that whole world, and as we started to build this, we started to meet people that had expertise in other areas that we knew we didn't have, and we just rolled them in. Our Los Angeles office came with the celebrity-dressing thing, and VIP services, but we also wanted to service California-based companies that wanted exposure in New York.
Right now, what we're doing is going through another period where we're looking ahead and trying to figure out what's the next iteration of HL, because I think you have to stay relevant, obviously, and what does that mean? I think all agencies are kind of questioning that right now.
How have you seen the PR industry change since starting out?
It's 24/7; there is no down time. We were very clear about what the media was, and who the readership was and all. Now it's such a broad conversation. And there's no exclusives. The shows have been impacted most severely, good and bad, I think, to some degree. But it's just 24/7, and you have to stay in front of it. It's why we circle ourselves with really good young people, because they understand it so much better than we do.
Early days, when we recognized the digital conversation was really coming into play, we both looked at each other and I was like, "Oh my gosh, we need someone to come in," because our head was not wrapping around it. We partnered with a really great digital agency called Attention PR. They came in and gave us a real education.
How has social media impacted how you approach your job in the agency?
I think it's a huge part of it. I don't think you can have a conversation about communications and marketing without social media. It's a big part of our group that we're looking to expand, because I think most of our clients have some aspect of it, and I think most companies know it's important, but I'm not sure everyone knows how to use it to further their conversation. It's just prevalent on every level.
What are the pros and cons of being in-house versus being at an agency?
I loved being part of a clear path, in the early days. One of my first experiences was Giorgio Armani, which was laser focus: This is what the colors are, this is how you dress, this is what the fashion is. And Calvin Klein was the same way. Everything had to be a certain way. I loved getting into the head [of the designer] and if I had to write something, I would be able to think about how Calvin would say it, or how Ralph would say it, or what the brand would say.
When you move into an agency, you have to stop a minute and realize that you're here to give advice, you're here to give guidance — that's what they come to you for — but you can't be emotionally connected if they say, "Sorry, no." You can say, "This is my best advice," and they can say, "That's not what we want to do; we're going to do this," and you have to back away and say, "Great, let's do great work. You heard my advice. I don't agree, but now we'll do the best thing we can possibly do."
What do you think is the key to building relationships in the industry?
I think it's honesty, consistency. I don't think you can go to people just when you want something. To this day, I still meet with so many people that I never want to be in a situation where I'm only asking [for favors]. I think a relationship is something that's consistent. It's a two-way street.
What do you look for in people that you hire?
I love energy. I like people who are interesting, smart; they read. I don't even feel that people have to be so incredibly knowledgeable in the particular area as long as they have a resourcefulness about them, and a curiosity. We're actually going through our process a little bit, how we do interview people, because I think sometimes we should make the process a little tighter and not so dragged out. Sometimes you meet someone, you're like, "Oh, they're so great" and then three weeks go by.
I want someone to bring something new to the table. What's the next conversation in social media? What's the next digital conversation? Where's media going? It doesn't necessarily have to be that they know fashion. You can learn fashion. If you're a smart person, people are going to want to talk to you.
What is something you wish you had known before starting out?
I think I was blissfully naïve, and actually, that worked in my favor because my expectations were like, "Well, thank God I'm not waitressing," you know what I mean? Every room that I was fortunate to step into with amazing people or creatives, I was like, "I can't even believe I'm here."
The one thing that I will always say is don't take a job for just the money, especially if it's a job that you're not really interested in. We've lost a lot of people that have hopped for bigger paychecks, and it doesn't always necessarily work out. I really always took [positions] where I was very happy, and where I was passionate. There are times, I guess, you do have to take it for the paycheck, but I was offered my first job at Giorgio Armani in sales, and I turned it down. I wanted to be in public relations, so I stood hard on that. And the first job that I was offered at Ralph, I didn't take, either; they came back in six months and I got the job that I wanted.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into PR today?
They have to understand media, for sure. They have to be passionate, whatever direction they end up going into, because when you're working long hours — and there are long hours; it doesn't stop — I would absolutely say love what you do, or at least have the direction.
What do you think is the future of HL Group?
I haven't quite figured it out yet! It's staying relevant, and I really feel that we have to synthesize what we are, because I really think fashion, consumer and lifestyle are so intertwined now. By knowing all of these different categories, and really having an understanding and expertise in it, I think that the agency could be more valuable to companies that maybe hadn't thought of working with an agency like ourselves. There's a lot of value in that.
Number-one priority is bringing great talent in — talent that wants to work. There's a lot of amazing people out there; I'm so inspired by some of the young people who I do meet, and a couple people who have left here on the best of terms have created their own businesses, and it's amazing and inspiring, I have to say. The walls are so much more open than they were; I think the young people today have a lot more freedom.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
Well, I already live at the beach! [Laughs] I don't think I want to stop working. What we're in the process of doing is creating a company culture, because what I would love to see is that this company continues on charting new paths, doing things differently. It's really how we started. That was the whole thinking behind creating HL, so I want to keep those attributes and those core things very much in the forefront. And also that all my kids are working and healthy and get jobs — then I could truly live at the beach. [Laughs]