How Ed Razek turned selling of lingerie into an art form
Editor’s note: Victoria’s Secret marketing chief Ed Razek has become a controversial figure as the specialty brand reimagines its iconic fashion showand has to adapt to changing cultural norms. Columbus Monthly profiled Razek in 2004 as the golden boy of racy sexwear.
“Tell me you love me,” he says. “Tell me you want me; bring me to my knees.”
Ed Razek’s hands dance in the air as he describes how the Victoria’s Secret holiday advertisement he wrote features the sexuality of the Victoria’s Secret holiday gift ad featuring models Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, and Ed Razek. He slows to deliver the supermodels’ final line: “Tell me there is no other woman in the world like me.”
You know you don’t need supermodel underwear. You know you don’t have Heidi Klum’s cleavage—you know you don’t have Heidi Klum’s anything. Yet, here you are, trudging towards Easton to purchase a damned bra from the nearest Victoria’s Secret. “Angel.”
Ed Razek is the chief marketing officer of Limited Brands, which is the parent company behind Victoria’s Secret. He has a powerful influence on women. Razek’s job is to convince women that they need the $39 Angel bra, and more, via television commercials, print ads, and manufactured media events totaling $10 million.
Razek has been making magic with Limited Brands—which also includes Limited Stores, Express, Bath & Body Works and Henri Bendel—for more than 20 years. He has been focusing more on Victoria’s Secret over the past 10 years, which was formerly a small San Francisco company that Limited Brands CEO Les Wexner purchased in 1982.
Since then, with the help of celebrity supermodels, a steady dose of controversy, Hollywood directors, a staff of more than 200 and a quarter-billion-dollar-a-year advertising budget, Razek has helped develop a brand that enjoys an astonishing 98 percent recognition level.
Razek is the first one to admit it. Wexner has great ideas, Razek makes them a reality, and everyone becomes rich. Victoria’s Secret will make nearly $4 billion this year from women’s pockets. It’s impossible to sell so many pants without showing off your style. “We’ve got beautiful women in lingerie. That’s right,” he says unapologetically. “We’re not a potato chip company.”It’s the brand stupid.
Razek must always outdo his self every time he comes up with an idea. There is no pressure. He just needs to find new ways to sell more underwear than he did last year. This is a CEO and company that are notorious for losing interest with top executives who don’t live up to high expectations.
He has a solid track record, especially when it comes to working with children. fashionShows. Think 1999 Super Bowl commercial that urged viewers to view a live stream. fashion show on the Victoria’s Secret website—resulting in a near internet meltdown. Think Cannes Film Festival 2000, where Razek teamed up with Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films for a charity event. fashion showCinema Against AIDS was able to raise a record $3million in just one night. Imagine the unprecedented hour-long nationally televised primetime. fashion show2001 saw more than 12 million viewers.
Now think Janet Jackson’s boob at the Super Bowl this year (and the subsequent $550,000 indecency penalty levied by FCC against CBS-owned stations). Razek was forced to rethink his paranoid network executives, pixilated nupples, and thongs. This means that there is no fashion show.
“We could have gotten a broadcast partner beyond CBS at that time who was not unenthusiastic,” Razek explains. There was little risk to the network, Razek maintains, because, “We don’t violate any FCC rulings. We have censors in our studio while we’re editing.”
“The issue was, do we want to start to shop it around now during this environment?”He continues, “Les [Wexner] thought it was the wrong time and place to try it.”Razek admits that he was “devastated at the time.”
One of the Parents Television Council was delighted with Victoria’s Secret’s decision. “We led the fight to put pressure on the FCC to crack down on indecent broadcasts,” which the Victoria’s Secret fashion show exemplified, says PTC spokeswoman Melissa Caldwell. “The fabrics of the lingerie were so sheer that it was like virtual nudity. So I would dispute their claim that they’re careful in censoring themselves.”She also said that if there were any fashion showPTC will be watching and ready to debate the FCC when network broadcast returns.
Razek says, “Bring it on!” Razek has never been disappointed by publicity, good or bad. Still, the fact remains Victoria’s Secret is heading into the year’s most important retail quarter without its signature event, depending on a new idea to generate a media—and consumer—frenzy.
“Every time we do a show somebody says, ‘How are you going to top that?’ But that’s the gig,”He smiles and says so. “That’s where the juice is.”
Razek speaks fast as if he has a plane to catch. “Jeez, I don’t shut up, do I?” He laughs. He doesn’t. Razek’s afternoon at company headquarters is like running in sneakers.
Although he’s shorter than his supermodels it isn’t noticeable. Razek commands space and speaks with a piercing clarity. He’s a fit 56 years old (“Gotta play more racquetball,” he promises himself), his graying hairline sole evidence to his boomer status.
Limited Brands’ corporate culture requires a lot of endurance and emotional reserves, especially if you are a major player in the pursuit of better and better performance. There’s a litany of corporate execs and division CEOs—Ken Gilman and Beth Pritchard of late—who one day were Wexner’s favorites and the next, pursuing other career opportunities.
Razek has remained loyal. It could be his close working relationship with Wexner or his impressive list prestigious advertising and marketing awards. His amazing skin. Whatever the case, he’s played a big role in the evolution of Victoria’s Secret—now with 1,000 stores, a prosperous catalog and e-commerce business, and an emerging Beauty products line. It’s a story of talent, timing, money and a miracle worker. Purchased in 1982 as a racy little lingerie brand, Victoria’s Secret grew up in a decade when, according to Linda Mizejewski, chair of the department of women’s studies at Ohio State University, “Women were suspicious, careful and defensive about sexuality.”
This sexual identity crisis was mirrored by early Victoria’s Secret marketing campaigns that featured androgynous, bony women wearing garter belts, stiletto heels, and harsh attire. Underwear advertising existed, she says, “but underwear wasn’t a commodity to be offered in a classy way to thoughtful women.”
The 1990s were when feminism was discovered as a pleasure, and the brand really came to life. “Women were allowed to say, ‘We can be strong, we can be serious, we can be intellectual and we can also wear really great underwear.’ ”Supermodels who were thoughtful also said so. Mizejewski concludes that it is okay for women buy sexy underwear.
It was in this period—the mid ’90s—when Razek cut loose. Razek is a gifted creator. “news.” out of vapor, Razek helped turn just another mall store into one of the world’s most vivid brands. An early example of his PR prowess: It was 10 years ago, after the company had shot a very “hot” commercial with Claudia Schiffer, he remembers. “Somebody came into the meeting and said, ‘All three networks have rejected the commercial because of its sexual content.’ I said, ‘Get me a letter from every station stating why.’ That afternoon the media buyer came back with the three letters, which I sent to every news station in the world. That night, news stations worldwide said, ‘We’ll show you the commercial that’s too hot for television.” Victoria’s Secret’s ad ran worldwide—for free.
Victoria’s Secret was able to outstuff any competition in the sock drawer with its aggressive promotional position and more accepting post-feminism society. It is the number one specialty retailer of intimate apparel worldwide, with three distinct, but integrated units. Leaders include Grace Nichols (“an absolutely superb and unbelievable partner,” says Razek), president and CEO of Victoria’s Secret Stores; Sharen Jester Turney, president and CEO of Victoria’s Secret Direct, and newcomers Jill Granoff and Sherry Baker, COO and president, respectively, of Victoria’s Secret Beauty (the duo replaced Robin Burns in August).
Razek is responsible for managing advertising and media activities with the VS leadership team. This includes the half-dozen creative directors. Overall strategies are developed from the top. “You have to be precise,” Razek explains. “And you have to be disciplined. I’m ruthlessly disciplined about the writing and editing. I’ll look at a commercial 30 times. We’ve redesigned the annual report cover 50 or 60 times; probably rewrote the quote on the front half that many times. Over and over and over again. You have to have standards.” C’mon, a single quote 30 times? Is that not a little too much?
“Doing great work anywhere is about having standards and being uncompromising and not letting crap go through,”He continues. “The words matter, the visuals matter, the music matters, the nuances matter. It’s never over.”
Razek, a Cleveland native, grew up with his father, a single parent who worked at a steel mill. Razek was 12 years old when he entered Culver Military Academy, Indiana. “My father made $7,000 a year gross; the school cost $3,500 a year. I think he lived on about $1,000 a year for five years,”He said. “I can’t imagine that level of financial sacrifice.”
His love of language led him in the late 1960s and to Ohio State University to obtain a degree as an English teacher with a focus on creative writing. When, as a young grad, 160 applications to ad agencies met with 160 rejections, Razek parked himself on the doorstep of a small Columbus firm, saying, “ ‘Give me any topic, any media, and give me 30 minutes and I’ll prove to you that I can write,’ which I did. He [Harry Bruce]I was hired and then fired after a month.” he remembers, laughing. “I didn’t think it was a very good agency, and I sort of behaved that way.”
He spent the next few year at Shelly Berman Communicators, which is now known as SBC Advertising, Inc., where he helped to transform it into a regional force. Bob Brucken, then an art director, remembers working with Razek as creative director. “We were all young, and we worked hard, and we played hard,” Brucken says. “Ed and I really related to each other; we really clicked. We didn’t have big egos, we just did our work, and we worked as a team. It was a creative playground in preparation for the rest of our lives. We were disciplined, but we had a lot of fun.”
One of their clients was The Limited, which was the precursor to Limited Brands and had six stores at that time. “The Limited dominated the industry with their marketing materials, and we helped get them there,” Brucken adds. In the early 1980s, Razek was recruited by The Limited to manage in-house branding operations.
Razek, who has worked for so many years with Wexner, says that it is now time to say, “I’ve learned to integrate a lot of his thinking. We speak in shorthand.” It’s as if the two are one—like an old married couple, able to communicate without words. “I’ve traveled all over the world with Les for over 20 years,” Razek explains. “It’s a great compliment that he has given me this opportunity. You also have the obligation to take it in and do something with it. I’ve seen people who have traveled with him and never done anything with it.
Perhaps this is Razek’s greatest talent—his ability to connect with his boss, to conjure ideas from Wexner’s head and turn them into seductive images and events. “I work for a business that’s been incredibly supportive of me, and I’m not going to let them down. Razek says, “I’m just not.”
His open loyalty to Wexner is evident; Razek’s grown son was hired to be the copy director at Victoria’s Secret. When Razek’s father died five year ago, Wexner sent three planeloads with company executives to the funeral to Cleveland.
Razek discusses the building of VS as part of the Wexner love fest. He claims that Wexner is the only one who has achieved these triumphs. “From making each store a woman’s paradise: from having the scent piped in through the air-conditioning system to playing classical music to having large dressing rooms with good lighting, good mirrors, real chairs—all of those things were unique marketing ideas and concepts that were entirely his,” says Razek.
Scroll down to the end: The idea of fashion show, the use of supermodels to bring credibility to the brand, even the Super Bowl commercial—all Wexner’s, says Razek.
So who’s the visionary marketer that paired a weather-beaten Bob Dylan with a scantily clothed super-Angel in Venice against a backdrop of Dylan’s remixed version of 1997’s “Love Sick”? (Sick, all right. He wrote a review for the online magazine Slate. He wrote that he felt like he had eaten bad shrimp after watching the video.
Victoria’s Secret has paired up with musicians before: Mary J. Blige and Sting performed at last year’s fashion showPhil Collins in the year prior. But Dylan? That was quite creepy. The commercial—yes, Wеxner’s idea—ran for three weeks in April, says Razek, and it was no marketing misstep. “We wanted to do something evocative, romantic and aspirational and take it to a place where competitors wouldn’t go,” explains Razek. No worries.
“You want to surprise people. That was clear. This was clearly the most talked-about commercial of the year. Is it effective? Yes. Does it get the brand mentioned? Yes. Is it a positive conversation? Yes. Dylan did it. Yes. Does he really care? He doesn’t care. I want to try to capture things that haven’t been seen before—Bob Dylan and Adrianą Lima together in Venice is something no one’s ever seen before or gonna see again from anybody. You keep trying to find new ground.
Industry experts give the nod for the new-ground strategy. “The idea generation helps to keep Victoria’s Secret fresh,” says Dana Telsey, an analyst with Bear Stearns. “There are always new products and innovation. They’re always looking for the next new item that brings customers in on a repeat basis.”
She warns that “no retail concept is infallible, because there’s always someone clicking at your heels. Many people are interested in the intimate apparel industry. Victoria’s Secret’s sidet is one that made intimate apparel a little more like fashionCombining fashionThese basic needs are essential for intimate apparel. This is what keeps people coming back and what has allowed them so much market share.”
Victoria’s Secret’s 2nd quarter same-store sales, which are the benchmark of a company’s financial health, were up 6 percent in this year’s fiscal year. This is due to, analysts agree with, the highly visible rollout Pink by the company, a colorful and casual line targeted at college students aged 18-22.
Telsey says that retailing is ultimately about what it is all about. “being able to create wants and desires; it’s about making people want things they don’t necessarily need. Retail is entertainment.”
Razek agrees. “Our business revolves around entertainment. You must stop them before they can be sold. This is about entertainment value. We are in show business.” You certainly get that impression when Razek drops names. Michael Bay, director. “Pearl Harbor,”Directs the holiday commercial. Harvey Weinstein produced the 2000 commercial. fashion showFrance; Bobby Dickinson is the lighting designer designerVictoria’s Secret was lit for the Summer Olympics in Greece fashionShows
Razek is a friend in Hollywood’s top places, so it’s not surprising. Robert Evans, producer “The Godfather” “Chinatown,”It is among them. “Ed is a very close friend,” Evans says from his office in California. “I think he’s brilliant.”After Razek reviewed Evans’ manuscript as a favor, Evans cancelled a contract on a screenplay. “His notes on the manuscript were more succinct than anyone in Hollywood could have given,”He said. “Not only can he give you a critique, he can give you options of how to change it.”
Evans has been trying for years to lure Razek into Hollywood. “I’d like him to be my partner,” he says. “I want him to come out here and work with me on the new book I’m writing,” a sequel to Evans’s autobiography, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,”It was made into a popular documentary.
Razek claims he won’t be moving. Razek was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his early twenties. He was referred to the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University and then to an internal inventory of all his skills and responsibilities. “When you get into a job like this in marketing or advertising or design, you’re just so desperate to survive,” he says, thinking back over the years. “Every night you go to bed with the notion that you’re a fake, you’re a phony and somebody’s gonna find out. You spend 35 years doing that; running as fast as you can. Finally you have to look back on your body of work and say, ‘I really know how to do this stuff. I have an ability to communicate with people and that skill is transferable.’ So the notion of teaching is one important thing; the importance of giving back, particularly to something as important as the James or the OSU hospitals facilities in general, is equally important.”
Razek stated that he will collaborate with the James Cancer Center in building its new facility. “reputational capital,”He says he is working to make the brand synonymous with high-quality performance. He will build the international reputation for a cancer center by selling zirconium-studded shorts to twentysomethings. “Marketing principles don’t change. The communication issues we face are the same no matter what we sell.”
Razek is now cancer-free and has a commitment, he says to teaching and giving back. “just doing good work.”
Still, in a business where you’re only as good as your last Super Event, “doing good work” is a matter of perspective. That perspective—especially during the holiday shopping season—is always heavily influenced by one factor: the sound of the cash register. Razek has to believe that his idea for replacing the cash register will succeed. fashion showHe doesn’t fall to his knees.
This story was originally published in Columbus Monthly, November 2004.
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