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Unlocking The Power of Storytelling in Brand Strategy with Chris Skinner, Founder, School House

It's a Matter Of...Storytelling

March 8, 2021
March 8, 2021

Storytelling has been around since the beginning of time. Craft a good story, and people will believe, align, follow and support. In an age of omnichannel brand experiences and digital disruption unlocking story thinking has never been more important, and can create a visceral connection. Christopher Skinner, founder and principal of beauty creative agency School House, has become one of the industry’s must-know names when it comes to building strategies, brand creative, and immersive environments for the world’s most in-demand beauty brands. Chris joins Kelly Kovack to share how a culture of kindness, openness, and empathy along with a deep intuitive understanding of the beauty category differentiates School House. 

[beginning of recorded audio]

Kelly Kovack [00:00:09]: This episode is presented by Eco Soap Bank, a global humanitarian non-profit that’s working to save, sanitize, and supply recycled soap with hygiene education for the developing world.

Chris Skinner [00:00:27]: Hi, I’m Christopher Skinner, Founder and Principal of School House, and to me, it’s a matter of storytelling.

Kelly Kovack [00:00:38]: Storytelling has been around since the beginning of time. I’m Kelly Kovack, Founder of BeautyMatter, and I’m a true believer that it should always be about the story. Craft a good story, and people will believe, align, follow, and support. In an age of Omni-channel brand experiences and digital disruption, unlocking story thinking has never been more important. Storytelling is central to the human experience, it’s how we explain and make sense of the world. The best stories create a visceral connection. There’s nothing more impressive than a vision well-executed, guided by intuition that results in a compelling narrative and commercial success. Christopher Skinner, the Founder and Principal of beauty creative agency School House has become one of the industry’s must-know names in beauty when it comes to building strategies, brand creative, and immersive environments, and he has a story to tell.

So, Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. I’ve been looking forward to this, I’m glad we could make the schedules coordinate, if you will. I’m just going to dive right in.

Chris Skinner [00:01:58]: Let’s do it, I’m super excited.

Kelly Kovack [00:02:00]: Yeah. So, many entrepreneurs, founders, executives, got their start on the sales floor, and I love sharing those stories for a number of reasons. One, because they’re obviously inspirational for those people kind of grinding it out in retail right now, but I think it’s also an important reminder of how critical the role of the front line at retail plays in the beauty ecosystem. So, can you share a little bit about how you got the beauty bug and the impetus for launching School House?

Chris Skinner [00:02:35]: Well, you know, you hit the nail on the head. I started at retail, and before beauty, I actually started my career in retail as a greeter at Restoration Hardware, and I was absolutely horrible. I was very shy, I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I was afraid someone was going to ask me where a certain hinge was and I would not be able to find it, which happened to me multiple times. But, I was always drawn to retail just because it felt more theatrical and that’s my background, I grew up doing theater, and so I almost saw the mall as these different sets of these different brands kind of bringing you into the beach side or into a country home, and I was just always drawn to kind of being an actor inside that world. I was studying at Savannah College of Art and Design, and I was looking for some supplemental income, and Sephora was hiring a stock associate over the holidays, and this was probably 2003, and I went and interviewed and got the role, and basically, my job was to come in at 9pm and leave at around 4am, and I would clean all of the places that people were dumping tissues and used mascara wands, and I would stock all of the shelves and make sure that the store was dressed appropriately for the holiday rush, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It was hard for me to explain at the moment why, because I’m like cleaning up used lipsticks on tissue at night, but I just really loved the product and the people, and ultimately, I just begged for them to find me a position once that holiday rush was over, and so they did, and I ended up sort of overseeing events and animations, they ended up making up things for me to do pretty much, and this was down in Georgia, and I really stayed with them for as long as I could, and I worked on the floor at Sephora for about four to five years in a variety of different roles. Eventually, I moved to New York when they opened their 76th and Broadway location and I got to sell Bernadette Peters an eyeliner wand, that’s probably my most notable moment, and she’s very small. I just…I never was really great at sort of wanting to be the makeup artist or the kind of lead of skincare. I loved all of the education, I sat in on all of the education for all of the brands, they would come in and bring donuts and bagels, etcetera, but there was just something about sort of that final transaction, and there was also something about this exchange of passion, because what I love about the beauty consumer is they sometimes know more than we know, and they come to the table with that, and they demand that you sort of reach their level, give them what they’re looking for, and we’ve seen that just completely increase, obviously as direct-to-consumer brands have come into play, social media has come into play, there’s been more platforms for people to speak out and talk about beauty and the influence of that in their lives. And so, I really just climbed the ranks at Sephora, and then ended up – my first sort of corporate role was at Space NK Apothecary overseeing design and creative for the U.S. portion of the retailer when they launched in the U.S., and to be honest, they really took a risk on me. I mean, I had no idea what I was doing, and they saw the passion I had for design and creative and that’s what I had studied at Savannah College of Art and Design, and also sort of this passion for beauty and beauty storytelling and brands and the consumer, and they plucked me and put me into this role, and really from there, that opportunity took me to where I am today. And, a lot of starts and stops, a lot of in-over-my-head, a lot of “I want to give up” moments, but ultimately pushing through and having people, like incredible mentors at Fresh or Space NK, that really just carried me into what I’m doing now, and launching School House really, for me, was a multiple-pronged reason. I, first of all, was always sort of in these very entrepreneurial settings. I mean, Sephora under LVMH, LVMH is very entrepreneurial in their own culture; they let each brand really figure it out. There’s not really a lot of shared services, and you’re not sort of conforming to LVMH ways of thinking outside of their methodology for brand building. So, with Sephora and then with Fresh, I was really sort of able to learn and grow. And, also with Fresh and Space NK, I was around founders all the time, and we were launching, I remember meeting Vicky Tsai, the Founder of Tatcha, working at Space NK and we launched with her blotting papers on our cash wrap, and I remember working with her on a small cash wrap display. You just…you become obsessed with the founder entrepreneurial energy. So, School House is an opportunity, one, to allow a platform for these founders and entrepreneurs to have a place where they can plug in, and us to build their vision with them, but also, I think a little bit of myself having an entrepreneurial sort of bug in me, wanting to do something of my own. And then I think, lastly, as an industry and just in corporate culture, you tend to become siloed, and all of the sudden, the industry or the culture that you’re a part of is determining your future, and that always rubbed me the wrong way. I always knew that I could do more than what I was being asked, and I remember a critical moment, I met with a well-known recruiter and I was saying, “Well, this is what I envision for myself,” and she looked at what I had been doing and where I wanted to go, and she just said, “Well, no one’s really done this,” and that’s when I knew I had to do it myself. And so, starting School House was breaking out of the mold that I had been put in, of my own expertise, building a platform to connect with entrepreneurs of brands of a variety of sizes to build their vision, but also to foster young creative talent dedicated themselves to beauty day-in and day-out across a variety of disciplines. And so, that’s how it all came to be, but I’ll never forget those hands-on moments, those transactional moments in-store, and we think about it all the time as we’re designing packaging, as we’re designing retail, because like you said, that’s the frontline.

Kelly Kovack [00:09:26]: Yeah, that was an amazing intro, and you know, I really…I do think that people who start their career kind of on the frontline, unless you’ve been there day-in and day-out, it’s really hard to sort of create the tools they need to do their job, and at the end of the day, they are the frontline, they are the brand in that moment for the consumer. You sort of answered another question I had, and that’s many creative agencies work across categories, but School House focuses solely on beauty, and obviously that was intentional.

Chris Skinner [00:10:10]: Yes, yes. I think kind of to jump off of what you were saying originally, I think one thing that really sets what we do apart is I’ve been in the frontline in a variety of roles, and so most of the time when we’re working with a client, either I’ve been in their role previously, I’ve worked in partnership with their role, and there’s this real understanding of all of the things that get in the way to getting it done and getting it out there for the consumer. So, the frontline can take a variety of definitions too as you’re looking at trying to deploy a project or a program or even a brand itself, and that focus on beauty…I always knew that it needed to be more than one discipline, because as a brand, I mean, obviously I come from working on the brand side, there’s no time – you don’t have time and you don’t have resources. Everyone thinks all of these large brands have all of these resources when in actuality, everyone is running around like a crazy person whether you’re a brand that’s four years old or forty years old, and so having an agency that can do more than one thing, so strategy, branding, packaging, retail, meant we needed to staff for those. It allows our brand partners to sort of tap into and know that they’re going to have someone watching a strategy go all the way through the iterations of the design, and I knew that we couldn’t do that across multiple industries. To be able to say, “We specialize in these four verticals of capabilities across any industry out there” just didn’t make sense, and even being focused on beauty and saying we do more than one thing gets eyebrows raised more than half the time. So, you know, that, for me, was the first bit, but then the second bit was it’s just where my passion is. I just…we have had organizations approach us, and we’ve even dipped our toes into the waters of other industries, and I just don’t personally – my own personal vision, it doesn’t align, and so it just…the work is not as good because I’m just not as passionate about it and thus not energizing the team to become passionate about it, and that doesn’t work.

Kelly Kovack [00:12:29]: Also, that work is…because I’ve done the same thing. Sometimes – there was a period in my career where I just felt like I was burnt out on beauty, and I did a very, very short stint in hospitality, and quickly learned I liked being on the other side of that equation, but it wasn’t intuitive, like I wasn’t as good at it because it wasn’t intuitive the way beauty is to me, so it made everything so much harder.

Chris Skinner [00:12:58]: Yeah, when you’re immersed into something, it becomes second nature, and it’s not that you become stale, you know, or you’re just doing the same thing over and over, it’s you know where all the roads are, so you can pave a new path that someone hasn’t paved before. We get a lot of skepticism around, “Well, if you’re doing all of this work for all of these beauty brands, how are you going to make me different?” and there’s this ideology of “I’ll go work with someone who designs potato chip packaging and they’ll do beauty and it will be totally different,” when in actuality, they know beauty at the level of a consumer, and so they’re probably going to give you ideas that already exist in the ethos of beauty that they don’t actually know.

Kelly Kovack [00:13:45]: Or, fall apart in execution.

Chris Skinner [00:13:47]: Yeah. Yeah, exactly, it comes down to legal translations and the wheels fall off. So, being in it day in and day out, it just…you know what’s happening, and you know how to steer a brand away from where you see another brand kind of going, or another brand has gone unsuccessfully before, and that can be across the positioning of it or the execution of it in whatever vertical that means.

Kelly Kovack [00:14:16]: I mean, I had been a fan of your work, but you are one of my COVID relationships. We met sort of in the spring, we’ve never met in person, but lots of Zoom calls, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with you and your team on a project over the past several months, and so I’ve gotten a firsthand experience kind of about…got the firsthand experience of your process, which I think in many respects is the secret sauce of a creative shop, but what stood out to me is the fact that first and foremost, everything you do, regardless of the touchpoint, is grounded in storytelling: the logo, the packaging, the copy, retail design, they’re all developed to play a role in telling a story. Can you share a little bit about how you approach projects and the importance of storytelling?

Chris Skinner [00:15:17]: Of course. Well, you know, now that we have been around for a few years, we were able to look back and sort of say, “Okay, let’s look at all of the things we’ve done successfully, unsuccessfully, and how did we get from the start to the end?” and ultimately, we boiled it down to we always listen intently first, then we go away and we think intently second, and then we design. So, that can be any touchpoint, but it always means that we are immersing ourselves as much as possible, understanding the brief in and out, but also understanding the customer, the audience, where the brand has gone, been, done, tried, failed, succeeded, then we sort of…we pull it into that story or that platform that allows us to execute, and everything kind of continues to stem from that. So, it allows conversation, creative debate, to become objective. We’re objectively talking about the work, versus if we just come to the table, “Here’s some colors, and here’s some this, and here’s some…” and it’s just all subjective, “Oh, well we like this. Everybody likes pink right now,” then it just becomes, “I like pink,” “I don’t like pink,” which is all a subjective debate, which doesn’t help anyone, and it doesn’t help the work move forward. So, that kind of has become the process, so probably what you’re feeling is every time we come to the table, we’re really clear on the objective, we’re really clear on our approach, why that links to our objective, but also links to our definition of success of the project, and then we’re designing in and between that, and I think story just naturally has sort of fallen out – storytelling has fallen out as a descriptor of that, and I come from a lineage of storytellers: my father is a novelist, my brother is a comedian and produces shows for Netflix, my mother is a lawyer so she would say she’s not a storyteller, but I absolutely think she is, and it goes generations past, and so this idea of storytelling is just kind of in my bones and my original expression of that, as I said, was as an actor and a performer, and also as a designer for theater, storytelling with space, which lends itself a lot to the way we approach retail, and I think people mistake storytelling for backstory, like where did something come from, that’s the storytelling, when in actuality, storytelling is cyclical and there’s an arc and there’s a level of vulnerability and letting people in and this sort of change of perspective that gets you to the final stage, and that is really how we sort of construct things, and it also, you know, at the end of the day, we’re all emotional people, and we all engage with story, and so when you’re presenting work and you’re giving that backstory of how we got there, immediately it becomes identifiable to you, and it just doesn’t feel like a design on a piece of paper anymore.

Kelly Kovack [00:18:20]: I want to kind of switch just a little bit and focus sort of on the purely aesthetic design, and with all creative pursuits, there are trends, and there are trends that drive branding, and we see sort of a pendulum shift when we got from one aesthetic to another, and we’re living through one of those moments now, I think. We went through sort of what’s being dubbed the millennial blanding that became the formula for D-to-C brands that created kind of this sea of sameness, and now it’s given way to these Gen Z brands with these really big personalities and bold use of color and graphics, and kind of a lot of elements that when done well, come together in this really kind of busy but exciting experience. It’s really hard to pull off well, because it goes wrong really fast, but I’d love to get your thoughts on the shift in the sensibility, but I also think one of the things that I find interesting about you guys is you don’t say, “Oh, that’s a School House design,” like you really sort of internalize what your client’s brand is and interpret it rather than imprint your style on top of it. Because I didn’t see any blands in your deck.

Chris Skinner [00:19:53]: Yeah, you know, well, first of all, just as a person, I’m so happy to be getting away from blanding, I think it’s just…I’m more drawn to this younger Gen Z sort of design on design, maximalism look, personally, but yeah, you’re absolutely right, and I’m happy to hear you say that because there’s a lot of vulnerabilities with being specific to an industry, and you know, I spoke about some of them in the upfront, and one of them aesthetically is, well, do you just make everything look the same? And, ultimately, if you really do the work of listening and thinking, the outcome will be different, because the ingredients that you’re putting in at the very beginning are different, and so that doesn’t mean that everything, you know, is not…we’re not taking into consideration the audience we’re speaking to and what they’re drawn to, etcetera, but also, brands are more than just packaging, brands are more than a homepage; you have to really build out a system that has layers and levels that you can dial up or dial down to whom you’re speaking, and we’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of work internationally, and blanding, in China, is not what is successful, you know, it’s just very different, and the same with India, and so it’s just…it’s a very narrow-minded kind of look at beauty and what works, and I think unfortunately, a lot of brands have gotten stuck in that trap where all of the sudden, they’re trying to pitch to a retailer, or they’re trying to garner attention, and there’s nothing differentiating about them, and unfortunately, no matter how great your product is, if it’s not aesthetically developed as well as your product has been developed, then it just won’t be successful, just like the product won’t be successful on skin, hair, body, whatever you’re targeting. So, we really try to understand kind of what is coming out of that funnel for the brand, and make it unique, make it ownable, make it identifiable, and I think, honestly, a lot of that comes from this LVMH way of working that I got in the building of Fresh during really pivotal time periods. Fresh was huge successful and is not a part of that blanding culture in any way, but there’s parts and pieces of it that fit perfectly: the primary packaging is all white and really clean, but the secondary is fully expressive, and then the environment, the world it lives in is very expressive. So, not everything is dialed down, you know, it’s those layers and levels that have to appear in the right place at the right time, and if you, you know, are a millennial, and you want that super minimalistic, clean, shelf-y, Fresh is right there, and if you want a really cool, layered moment of discovered in retail, Fresh is also right there. And so, I think that training has also changed how we approach things at the agency.

Kelly Kovack [00:23:10]: You know, I also think during kind of that millennial moment, it also felt like the brands themselves were a little one-dimensional, and it was all about speed to market, and people weren’t going – or, I found, at least, people weren’t going through that traditional full exploration of the brand. It’s kind of…I know when I was doing a lot of creative work, I’d have people that were like, “I want to build the next Chanel.” You didn’t have people having the desire to build a heritage brand, it was much more, “I want to be a beauty unicorn; how fast can I do it?” and you know, there was this moment where I was like, you know what, maybe I’m just showing my age, and maybe this is just the way brands are going to be, and then the corona virus came, and all of the sudden, heritage brands were kind of killing it where they weren’t before, but they had this robust tool set that they could rely on, where I think some of these other brands were like, “Our formula doesn’t work anymore, what do we do?”

Chris Skinner [00:24:25]: I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I think it’s this sort of finite mindset versus infinite mindset, and if you are…ultimately, building a brand, there’s no end; it doesn’t stop. You don’t one day wake up and say, “Oh, it’s done. We’re done now,” it’s a continuum, it’s change, it’s evolution. I mean – this is an overused statement, but brands are like people; they have to evolve, they have to change, because naturally, you’re learning more about yourself as a brand, and also, you have different people now in the brand as an influence of that, and you have different external partnerships. So, I think where heritage brands that are successful have been kind of thinking is that infinite mindset. They’ve had to pivot and change so many times that doing it again is an exciting challenge, versus a “what are we going to do?” moment.

Kelly Kovack [00:25:26]: I think there was maybe the past…I don’t know, call it five or six years, heritage brands were sort of underestimated. They were almost thought of as a liability, but I am such a branding geek, I have such a soft spot for heritage brands, and kind of the people that run them and nourish them and love them, so, you know…I’m happy to see sort of that resurgence.

Chris Skinner [00:25:52]: Yeah. Why do you think that was, Kelly? Why do you think people were thinking of heritage brands in that way?

Kelly Kovack [00:25:58]: I think because there was this moment where kind of legacy brands were burdened by the legacy, and they weren’t perceived as being as nimble or as relevant, and they felt a little disconnected from the consumer, and I think a lot of brands got caught flat-footed, kind of in this short period of time of this kind of digitization of everything and the emergence of social media. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I mean, look at what L’Oréal is doing on the technology front.

Chris Skinner [00:26:40]: It’s incredible.

Kelly Kovack [00:26:41]: I mean, I think there are – or brands like Erno Laszlo that has been completely kind of reinvigorated, much more so in Asia than here, or even Dr. Dennis Gross, you know, it’s a 20-year old brand that is like the hottest thing in skincare right now, you know?

Chris Skinner [00:27:04]: Completely.

Kelly Kovack [00:27:05]: So, you know, I think it was this moment in time where maybe they got caught a little flat-footed, but now, I think…in so many ways, they’re set up to kind of get through this moment in a way that some of these younger brands aren’t.

Chris Skinner [00:27:22]: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, I feel like…I enjoy working with heritage brands just as much as I do with independent start-up brands, and with heritage brands, I mean, I’m a person who loves a challenge, and getting things done quickly is a challenge when you have a larger organization and there’s more regional teams and more people to include, so for me, that’s exciting, and when you get something through and you’re successful, it’s almost like passing a new form of legislator, it’s just like, how did we do that? We’ve got everyone joining together, we’ve got everyone agreeing, so I’m excited by the success that some of them are seeing.

Kelly Kovack [00:28:09]: Yeah, but I also think all of the sudden, these brands, these new brands that are emerging that are tackling really difficult problems like circularity or reinventing a kind of supply chain and refillables, they’re having to do that kind of traditional brand work to be able to tell these complicated stories. So, I think the pendulum has kind of swung back to kind of doing that due diligence before you launch again.

Chris Skinner [00:28:39]: Yeah, I mean, I think you always have to step back and re-evaluate, and I think where we saw a few years ago a lot of fumbling with the heritage brands is because there was a lot of…the tenants of success hadn’t really been challenged, you know? We had the way that we launched a product, we had a hero visual that got plastered everywhere, we didn’t have to think about anything beyond that, and now, all of the sudden, it’s different, and so being able to react and respond to that I think is now being baked into those cultures and there’s more awareness to it, which makes them even more viable for ongoing success.

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I want to make sure that we really dive into retail, because retail design is a big part of your practice, but it’s also something that you guys do so well. You create sort of these experiences that are kind of a culmination of little moments, and everything is thought through, every turn, every experience, every sort of finish, you did…I think it was La Mer, that kind of big pop-up in China that was kind of unbelievable, and then you’ve also worked with, oh, the Indian retailer…

Chris Skinner [00:30:54]: MyGlamm.

Kelly Kovack [00:30:55]: Yes. And, you know, what’s going on in India is crazy, there’s this whole retail explosion, while the rest of the world is like, “Oh, what’s retail going to look like?”

Chris Skinner [00:31:03]: I know, they’re actually doing it, they’re showing you what it’s going to look like.

Kelly Kovack [00:31:09]: Exactly.

Chris Skinner [00:31:10]: Yeah. I mean, I just love working on retail projects as much as I do the strategy and building brands and rebuilding brands, and you know, when it comes to retail, I think it’s one of the most challenging things inside of an organization to actually execute; it’s physical. It’s not like designing something in digital that you can easily update, adapt, change. When you put something physical into the world, one, there’s a lot of capital expenditure that goes into it, two, there’s maintenance, there’s logistics – there’s a lot of reasons why not to do it, to be very honest. So, when you do it, and you get to do it well, and you really get to transport people, for me, that is just so magical, and you know, I always…when we’re doing it, it’s like designing for Disney World, that’s how we try to do it, and it’s not to say that everything is over the top, but it’s experiential in every facet, and you really have to pull each part apart, really put them through the lens of that brand, and then put them back together. So, from the moment that you’re greeted to the moment that you check out, everything should really feel cohesive, different, differentiated, and obviously, everyone talks about Apple, and I think that’s really what they did, is they pulled every part of the retail experience apart, they redefined it in their own way, they got rid of things they knew they wouldn’t need, they added new things that they knew exemplified their purpose, and then they put it back together. And so, it’s not about architecture, you know, architecture is a part of that, but it’s really about, what is the story of the space? I mean, there’s a lot of strategy that goes into it. There is a site map version of retail design. There are wire fames and versions of that in retail design. All of that is important and a part of it, but there’s also the intangibles, and I think that’s where we do a really good job of, “Okay, what do we want people to feel when they’re in this space?” and that’s not something that can easily be uncovered without really being brand people first. When we’re working with these brands on retail, we always talking about, “This is a brand first experience. This is not a design first experience.” Ultimately, that’s why it’s retail design, not commercial or corporate office design.

Kelly Kovack [00:33:41]: So, what do you think beauty retail is going to look like post-COVID? I mean, you know, some elements of kind of the retail landscape were broken, I mean, department stores have been broken for so long, but the idea…kind of the dramatic changes that needed to happen were so financially risky, no one would go there, and I feel…and, tester units, they’ve been disgusting for a long time; when were they ever a good idea? But, who is going to say, “We’re not going to have a tester unit”? And, now, all of the sudden, there’s this window, and it is a window, it’s going to close, to redefine what that experience is, and some of it is being redefined for us because of hygiene and social distancing and that type of thing, but it is this moment to rethink how we interact with the consumer at retail and what those expectations are.

Chris Skinner [00:34:46]: Yes. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s…I mean, yeah, you’re right. Tester units…I can’t tell you how many lipsticks I have shaved in my career in beauty just to clean the tester units. So, you know, seeing them all shrink wrapped right now, it’s a scary thing. I believe, personally, at the end of the day, people love doing things, and so, why are people leaving New York? There’s nothing to do, and people love to things. Why is the count and challenge of corona virus so big in America? Because people don’t want to stop doing things; they want to keep doing the things that they always did. So, all of these hypotheses of it’s going to change and it’s a huge departure, I don’t think it’s true. I mean, at the end of the day, we all want to be closer to what we used to define as normal, and so retail is just a part of that. Will people walk in and want to put on eye shadow from a pan that someone else has used? Yeah, probably, and that’s the challenge that we’ve had in this country with sort of the virus itself. So, I think the things that functionally are different is that I feel like people will want to have more autonomous experiences, so self-shopping, being able to walk in, not have to pay and touch money and credit card machines and all of that stuff, being able to walk in, grab what you need, walk out, know it will charge you immediately; things like that that just make it easier for you, that’s better. But, ultimately, I think people want to get out, do things, experience things, and, you know, brands have been entertaining individuals throughout this entire pandemic. So, it’s our job to get out and entertain once everyone’s out of the pandemic, or kind of wanting to get out of it, and retail and physical experience and physical space is a huge role in that. So, I think what will be a little bit different is we’ve all felt culturally, things have changed, conversations have bubbled to the surface that we’ve often ignored, or have ignored for many, many years, and how do these spaces sort of take into account the emotional and behavioral mindset of people? And, I think the idea that just, you know, everything becomes like an Amazon locker where physical spaces are just grab-and-go areas, I don’t think that’s a true existence for retail and for branded physical spaces. I think that’s just a part of it for the efficiency, but I see something way more emotionally driven in the future than what we’ve done in the past.

Kelly Kovack [00:37:35]: I agree with you. I mean, I think that we’re also going to see maybe a return to kind of that old school retail, where there’s a sense of community and conversations and listen, I think we all want to like, go out and have a conversation with strangers.

Chris Skinner [00:37:54]: Yeah, exactly. And, I think you’re right, I mean, I feel like, you know, the strategy of distribution within your own brick-and-mortar probably will change a lot. It’s not going to be about roll scale, scale, it’s probably going to be more about how can we really create jewels of conversation that are physical informed, that continuously evolve and change just as much as how we can evolve and change in digital, and that might mean that we have less, but you get exponentially more from what you have.

Kelly Kovack [00:38:28]: I also think one of the things…you know, everyone is focusing on this rapid adoption of technology and the mainstreaming of trends, but one of the things that I’ve found kind of the most hopeful is that the beauty advisor, or that frontline retailer person, has become the connection between physical and digital, and they have become sort of the superstars of this moment, whereas before, they were kind of dismissed, and it was influencers, and it was the latest kind of tech gimmick. Now, the technology is being built around them to give them the tools to actually flourish in that role, and I think the opportunity around that tech-powered human connection is what’s going to be the most exciting thing about retail on the other side of this.

Chris Skinner [00:39:29]: I love that. I mean, you’re absolutely right. I mean…and, gosh, it’s really been a long time coming for these individuals, you know? I’ve always struggled with the fact that retail, specifically I think in the U.S., is looked down upon as a career path, when I actually think it is. I mean, I have seen – obviously, that’s how I started, but I’ve seen people working in retail that honestly love it and get so much from it, and get to meet so many amazing people, but also get to impact so many amazing people. I mean, you really are the ones that are living the truth of that brand human-to-human right then and there, and, you know, I feel like the fact that we’re sort of deeming them “essential” now to brands being successful, and we’ve sort of raised them up to say, “Wow, you actually are the conversation starter of our brand, because you’re the ones having the conversations.” I think it’s such a long time coming, and I hope that that doesn’t go away, and to your point, I hope we arm them with technology or physical spaces that make that transactional, transformational experience they’re getting easier for them.

Kelly Kovack [00:40:47]: I agree. Let’s make it happen, Chris, you and me.

Chris Skinner [00:40:50]: I would love to; I would love to. Maybe I’ll end up back as a greeter somewhere.

Kelly Kovack [00:40:55]: So, I have one last – and I’m going to say selfish question. So, what do you do when you have a creative block? And, more importantly, how do you help your team through those moments? Because it’s hard to be creative all the time and have to do it on demand.

Chris Skinner [00:41:13]: Yeah. Well, especially right now, when you can’t see anybody, you know? I mean, you said at the very beginning, we’ve never even met each other in person, which is crazy to me, but we’ve done so many projects – we’ve started and ended projects throughout the pandemic, very large scale projects, without ever meeting once the team we were partnering with. So, doing that, and creating the work with our team without seeing each other has definitely been a challenge. For me, I think it’s always about sort of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. When you’re stuck in the weeds, and you’re trying to kind of get through weed to weed, it’s extremely challenging to sort of even understand, “Where am I trying to go with this?” and the ability to sort of step back and look at the larger vision, and even look at, you know, adjacent visions that could help and make sense to inspire you, for me, always makes sense. So, an example is, we were working with L’Occitane, and we’ve done a variety of flagship concepts with them, and each time that we’ve been asked to do one, it’s like the pressure goes up, because you’re like, “Oh gosh, now what are we going to do?” I started thinking about cooking, and the fact that restaurants have a limited set of ingredients, but make these incredible cuisines, incredible experiences inside of incredible environments, and so I started watching the Chef’s Table on Netflix and there’s a restaurant in Chicago called Alinea, and it’s just all about this abstraction of, you know, the food experience, and that’s what lent to the concept we created for L’Occitane and their Yorkdale experience, we called it “The Wonderment,” and it was this extraction of what it means to experience beauty, and so we looked to a variety of inspirations and within improvements to serve up product experience, so rain shower sinks, you can experience shower gels, bistro bars where you’re cranking out, similar to espresso, but you’re cranking out moisturizers and serums. So, kind of stepping back and looking at adjacent categories, for me, is always super helpful, and getting out and experiencing things, also, is extremely helpful, even though that’s challenging right now, there’s so much content where you don’t even have to leave your living room to experience a variety of specialties and places in the world. But, I think the more that you can really step back, look at the greater picture, understand and remind yourself the briefing at the beginning, the definition of success at the end, where you are in that process, generally something for me always happens, or as a team, we’ll sort of say, “You know what, I think we need to pull out of this parking spot we’re trying to get into, and maybe find the next one that feels a little bit more correct for us.”

Kelly Kovack [00:44:08]: Is there…because, you know, I’m obsessed with finding random sources of kind of inspiration and information, but is there a place where you’re just kind of blown away by kind of the creativity, or just kind of gets your juices flowing that is kind of outside the beauty world?

Chris Skinner [00:44:29]: Yeah, I’ve actually really fallen in love with…I don’t know if you know Brene Brown, she’s a speaker and she does a lot of leadership training, she has a few podcasts, and she talks a lot about leadership and things like that, and honestly, on a personal level, I’ve gone through a lot this year, trying to manage a small business through a pandemic, I lost a relationship, my family is nowhere near me, I’m now in Manhattan alone, it’s just…there’s been a lot that has happened, and I found her and her first thing that she talks in her first book is all about vulnerability. There was something about that that struck me, and always I’m relating it back to the work that we’re doing, I just thought, “You know, what brands need to be doing more of is being more vulnerable.” All of the things that’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the pandemic, by pretending that you have the answer, by sort of saying, “Oh yes, I know what I need to do,” versus being vulnerable, letting down your guard and saying, “You guys have to help me, guide me, have a conversation,” and sort of say, “I don’t know, but I want to figure it out and I need your help,” I think that is so powerful. So, there’s these little things, and even personal self-discovery, self-betterment, leadership self-betterment, that I’ve immediately started connecting to how brands can be better as leaders of their community. So, I’ve really been enjoying her podcasts and her books and constantly mining for inspiration on how we lead brands through really hard times and hard conversations to have.

Kelly Kovack [00:46:14]: Well, not what I was expecting, but I need to check it out.

Chris Skinner [00:46:18]: You’re like, “I thought you would just give me a URL to a blog that I didn’t know about.”

Kelly Kovack [00:46:24]: I’m like, “Wow, okay, it’s going to actually make me work really hard, but I’m going to check it out any way.”

Chris Skinner [00:46:29]: Yeah, I know. You know, it’s hard. In the industry, we’re constantly talking about what’s happening in food, what’s happening over here, I mean, so when I found that for myself, I just thought, “Gosh, this is so similar to what a lot of the brands I know we’re working with are trying to get through,” and how to be more truthful, which obviously allows more connection and more belonging, which leads to more community, which, you know, that word that we always love to talk about when it comes to brand building today.

Kelly Kovack [00:46:59]: Well, Chris, I could spend all afternoon speaking to you, but, you know, maybe we’ll have to do a part two, I don’t know.

Chris Skinner [00:47:06]: I know; we’ll have to do a part two. Well, Kelly, thank you so much, I truly appreciate it, and I appreciate what you’re doing for our industry, and the brands big and small that you put a spotlight on, and those that you allow to share your platform with you, so I thank you on behalf of all of us that you’re supporting.

Kelly Kovack [00:47:26]: Oh, that’s so kind. I mean, it is, you know, if you had asked me even five years ago if I would be running a content platform, I would have told you I was crazy, because I build and run brands, but yet, here I am, on some other side of the equation, but I do love it. So, thank you for those kind words.

Chris Skinner [00:47:49]: Thank you.

Kelly Kovack [00:47:50]: Alright, and you know, on the other side of this, we will meet in person.

Chris Skinner [00:47:53]: Yes, we’ll have to upload a photo to your Instagram, the @BeautyMatterOfficial Instagram of us finally meeting.

Kelly Kovack [00:48:02]: Exactly. Alright Chris, thank you.

Chris Skinner [00:48:05]: Thanks, Kelly!

Kelly Kovack [00:48:10]: For Christopher, it’s a matter of storytelling, and Christopher Skinner and his team craft and tell compelling stories. But, it’s the culture of kindness, openness, and empathy, and a deep, intuitive understanding of the beauty category that differentiates School House. The generalized specialist studio is narrowly focused on beauty, but wide in its capabilities, enabling School House to help brands tackle more, faster. Today’s constantly 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, digitally, physically, and everything in between, creating frictionless, immersive experiences that support band narratives, and meeting consumers where they are with content and products they want, when they want it. So, in the end, it’s a matter of storytelling. I’m Kelly Kovack, see you next time.

Chris Skinner [00:49:20]: Hi, I’m Christopher Skinner, and to me, what matters is storytelling, because at the end of the day, storytelling allows us to connect emotionally, and everyone can identify with a story.

Kelly Kovack [00:49:34]: It’s A Matter Of is a production of BeautyMatter, LLC. You can find more content and insights on and follow us on social media @BeautyMatterOfficial.