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CHRISTOPHER SKINNER: FOR THE LOVE OF BRANDS AND STORYTELLING

March 01, 2021 BeautyMatter
March 01, 2021

Today’s continually changing beauty landscape requires the ability to build branded experiences that craft layered narratives—making every moment small or large, from beginning to end, memorable.

There is nothing more impressive than a vision well executed and guided by intuition, resulting in a compelling narrative and commercial success. Christopher Skinner, the founder and principal of the New York City-based creative agency School House, has become one of the must-know names in the beauty industry when it comes to building strategies, brand creative, and immersive environments.

The generalized-specialist studio is narrowly focused on beauty but wide in its capabilities, enabling School House to help brand partners tackle more and faster. But it’s the culture of kindness, openness, empathy, and the deep intuitive understanding of the beauty category that is the true differentiator.

For Skinner, a deep love of brands and storytelling has guided his journey in the beauty industry. He sat down with BeautyMatter to share his story.

You’ve taken a unique path with School House. Most creative agencies work broadly across categories. You’ve gone deep, focusing on beauty. How did you arrive at this strategy? Other than the category focus, how does it differentiate you from your competition?

We speak with brands daily about the importance of focus, emphasizing one thing and deemphasizing the other. Whether it be messaging, product, channel, audience, this focus helps your team keep its course and achieve the objective quicker.

School House took the same focused approach. Being everything to anyone felt like a long, daunting course towards success. How could we make an impact when the energy was so widespread? Choosing beauty was the no-brainer; it has always been a personal passion and it’s in my blood at this point, having started on the sales floor of Sephora and working my way to the Executive Team at Fresh before the launch of the School House agency.

And for our clients, this focus means you’re coming to School House for in-depth knowledge. We’re not learning about your industry or category for the first time in our discovery sessions, but instead, we’re taking that time to learn about you, your brand, and your audience, and we then graft that with the pre-existing and evolving industry and category knowledge to identify how/where your brand can stand out and make a difference.

"Marketing is the bridge that connects the brand to the consumer. The more things you do to shorten the bridge, the more connection you create. And the faster you will grow."
By Christopher Skinner, Founder and Principal of School House

In six short years, you’ve built one of the must-know creative shops in the beauty industry, working with brands around the globe. What’s your secret sauce for this success?

If you do great work and build great relationships, great work and great relationships come your way. School House is a testament to that power. In six years, we’ve touched sixty-plus brands and have met many, many more. As an agency conductor, a lot goes into the great work and the great relationships on the backend.

  1. Surround yourself with talented and driven individuals who are powerhouses in their discipline, curious about other disciplines, and have equal emphasis on how they show up versus what they deliver.

  2. View yourself as a leader underneath the team versus above them or amongst them. Let the team feel you have them when they need you; otherwise build the courageous foundation and safe space for them to try new things, get out of their comfort zones, push themselves, and reach for success.

  3. Treat individuals as individuals—from one person to the next, no role will be performed the same, and that’s okay. Encourage each individual to bring to the table what makes them a secret ingredient to the secret sauce while mentoring through what can help make them stronger.

  4. Create guardrails and formality to build trust and relief in processes. This formality also allows fires to be fires treated quickly, versus the feeling of walking into one big blaze at the start of each day.

  5. Be clear in expectations and allow those expectations to change. Jean-Marc Plisson, my previous CEO at Fresh, always outlined three growth opportunity goals for each year dependent upon the year’s learnings prior and the objectives of the year forthcoming. I’ve kept this tradition within School House, and it’s a helpful tool to continue “moving the chains” for the entire team.

What’s been the hardest and most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?

Firstly, entrepreneurship is a lonely journey. You hear a lot about the long hours, the on-call 24/7 lifestyle, the being everything-to-everyone mentality, and if you consider yourself a traditionally hard worker, these things don’t scare you. They might even excite you. However, no one prepares you for the “founder loneliness,” because most people view your life through the lens of its existing or potential reward as an entrepreneur, not the daily sacrifices. The best thing to do is surround yourself with other like-minded entrepreneurs or breaking-the-mold thinkers, even if it’s through books, podcasts, or Clubhouse. Because ultimately, you aren’t alone. You are a part of a unique community of those willing to step out of the social norm.

Secondly, you don’t always get out what you put in. This notion is a hard one to swallow for me. I’ve grown up thinking, “If I work harder, put in more time, put in more energy, then things will be better, move faster, and I’ll be rewarded more often.” Working in-house, that is generally the case. You’re rewarded for “going above and beyond.” But as an entrepreneur, you’re facing a lot of rejection on the daily. You’re facing a lot of things-gone-wrong on the daily. And your ultimate goal is to become comfortable in that uncomfortable space. To be able to step out of the situation and either fix it or move on from it. And to avoid that comparison trap, because comparison kills creativity and leaves no room for personal growth.

The reward comes by seeing these things, understanding them, learning from them, and evolving into a more wholehearted leader and a more wholehearted person.

Storytelling is at the core of what you do. It’s even ingrained in the School House process when working with clients. Can you share the importance and power of communicating through storytelling?

I believe emotional and functional connection is only as good as its story. I believe a story is only as good as its willingness to show vulnerability. And I believe vulnerability begets vulnerability. We’ve observed all of the other present-day brand-building attributes fall out of it: relatability, approachability, transparency, authenticity, community because it creates a human connection above all else.

It would be best if you triggered both the emotional and the functional connection at every touchpoint. Define where these connections live and how these connections live dependent upon the audience’s behavior. But define how these connections show up through your own, vulnerable, human/brand story.

Some creative agencies have a signature design aesthetic. While you certainly imprint on the brands you work from a design standpoint, you’re agnostic, driven by the brand’s aesthetic. Why is this approach critical to your work?

As an industry-focused agency, we never want our brand partners to feel they’re receiving the same aesthetic of the brands before them or the brands after them. Our role as a beauty creative agency is to uncover the existing assets and equities of each brand and pair that with the consumer’s aspirations, which yields differentiating but relevant work.

You don’t come to School House for an aesthetic; you come to School House for a way of thinking. And the aesthetic falls out of that.

I know it’s hard to pick a favorite, but what is a recent project that best exemplifies your work? What was the mandate, the conceptualization process, and the result for the brand?

At the end of 2019, School House opened La Mer’s first experiential exhibition in Shanghai, a 10,000-square-foot fully immersive and reactive experience dedicated to the beloved brand’s storytelling and annual campaign. Named “Edge of the Sea” after a collaboration between La Mer and Mario and Gray Sorrenti, the exhibition took place in China’s first state-run contemporary art museum, The Power Station of Art (PSA).

Rather than create a linear brand storytelling activation, we created an experience of immersive storytelling art with the consumer at its center. It explored the powerful dynamic and innovative output of two forces thematically coming together—sea and sky, land and water, Mario and Gray, and so on. The experience was brought to life through a range of digital and tactile treatments, immersions, and interactions, within a space constructed to visually represent recollection.

In the end, the exhibition garnered 20,000 visitors in two weeks, one billion total social media impressions, and was recently awarded the Grand Prize for Interactive Design in the Communication Arts Interactive Competition. Why did it work? Because we weren’t trying to graft brand education onto the consumer but awake a sense of discovery and desire to learn and see more—the same impulses that La Mer was founded and built on.

School House has worked in two of the most dynamic beauty markets in the world with two of the hottest start-ups in the category, Perfect Diary in China and MyGlamm in India. What can brands learn from these brands?

Marketing is the bridge that connects the brand to the consumer. The more things you do to shorten the bridge, the more connection you create. And the faster you will grow.

School House is known for its experiential and retail design. Has your thinking about retail changed looking forward to a post-COVID world?

Our current situation, framed by the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, social division, civil unrest, and a decline of trust in our public institutions, has naturally created high levels of anxiety and distrust amongst consumers. Understanding how consumer mindsets are reacting to this age of uncertainty is vital for beauty brands as they seek to redefine their why. We’ve spent the last few months tracking and distilling these changes into emotional and behavioral mindsets to help us reorient as a sector. What’s clear to us is that retail must now go beyond current short-term strategies based around physical safety. It’s time for us to start engineering positive pathways for consumers by offering them a vision embedded with hope and advocacy for change.

Through this approach, retail can evolve from offering destinations consumers use because they merely reflect what they want, to a resource they choose because it helps them get to where they want to go.

Your work is well documented and might give the impression that you only work with big beauty brands. How do you work with indie brands?

We work with brands of all categories, shapes, and sizes within the beauty space. When it comes to indie brands, we go through a similar process that we would on any other brand-building project but focus the deliverables on what is needed for the initial launch. We never want to create work that isn’t usable and actionable. From there, learnings can and will arise, from which we listen, pivot, and grow together.

How do you build future-proof brands that can remain visually relevant as sensibilities change?

Spend the time and energy building the brand’s foundation (the why and its adjacent, strategic underpinnings). Then, create the house and its rooms, knowing those can evolve but will always be upheld by that foundation. Have the courage to take risks, don’t overly compare, and listen to the consumer, but don’t chase them.

The past year was uncertain, disruptive, and chaotic, but it has also provided an opportunity to rethink old ways and ushered in a new cycle of innovation. What gets you excited about the work you do and the future of the beauty industry?

At the end of the day, I love helping people. And I’m using School House and my expertise as the means for doing so. Whether it’s a founder looking for launch guidance, an executive team looking for strategic and creative support, or a creative finding their voice, lending an ear or a hand is what gets me up in the morning. And charges me throughout each day. No year, however challenging, will disrupt that calling.

I’m excited to see our industry continuing to challenge itself to be more open to new ideas, new consumers, and new values. You can feel the conventional walls crumbling around us, and while it’s sometimes uneasy not fully knowing what will happen next, its evolution and change mean it’s an industry built for endurance. You just need the courage to be open to it.