How I Got to Where I Am Today: Marketing Manager for Avon

On the face of it, Kate Digney’s career change — from finance to fragrance — was dramatic. The two fields, after all, don’t appear to have much in common.

But Ms. Digney, 30, says the move was not about turning off one side of her brain and turning on the other. It was about finding a job that would require her to use both.

“I really wanted something that would allow me to use my analytical skills, but also be a bit more creative,” she says. “Marketing is a mix of those things.”

As global marketing manager for fragrance at Avon, Ms. Digney is responsible for the day-to-day development, design and marketing of approximately eight new scents per year. Her path to the post, including a b-school stint, reflects the surprising turns a career can take in corporate business.

After graduating from Cambridge University in 1996, Ms. Digney moved from her native London to Moscow to work as an analyst in equity operations at investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston. She says she had been interested in Russia since high school, when she studied the language with a youthful dream of one day becoming a spy. But she gave up the hope when communism fell. “There wasn’t as much of a need for [spies] anymore,” she says, laughing. “I felt that it wouldn’t be such a lucrative market.”

In the beginning, she says, she enjoyed her work in Moscow. “It was a dynamic market,” she says. “And there was a lot of buzz at the firm.” But as a financial crisis erupted in Russia in 1998, Ms. Digney’s job, supervising trades, became less fun, she says. All around her, she says, people were laid off.

Her work also became more mundane, she says, and she realized that, although it was a good place to start, she didn’t want to be in finance forever. “I wasn’t fulfilled,” she says. “Being in back-office operations was esoteric, and I wanted something more tangible.”

She decided to explore her options by applying to U.S. business schools. In 2000, she enrolled at Columbia in New York, which she felt had a lot to offer international students and women.

Ms. Digney spent the summer after her first year in the London office of a New York-based consulting firm, but she says she concluded that the consulting lifestyle, with its extensive travel, wasn’t for her. By the time she got her master’s degree in business administration in 2002, she says, she decided to pursue a career in marketing. “I wanted to work with products, things that I cared about,” she says.

At first, the search was tough. Less than a year after Sept. 11, it was a difficult time to find work, particularly in the New York area.

The fact that she was not a U.S. citizen made it even harder. “A lot of companies said that they weren’t interested just because of the visa issue,” she says. “I cried a lot the summer after business school.”

But she also persevered. She narrowed her search to retail and beauty companies. She had long been interested in aesthetics, she says, and, as a classics major in college, she had done her dissertation on classical art and archaeology. Early on in her job search, she says, she ruled out retail, however. “There weren’t a lot of marketing positions,” she says.

She also believed that the more focused her search, the easier it would be to find a job. Her strategy was to do as many informational interviews as possible to scout out opportunities and make connections. “If I sent my resume to human resources, it would have been chucked in the bin,” she says.

Ms. Digney says she talked to approximately 20 people on the phone to set up meetings. Employers questioned her interest, she says. “They thought I had a great resume, but that it didn’t match with what I wanted to do,” she says.

She kept on. She joined Cosmetic Executive Women, a trade organization, and read up on the beauty industry. She also worked her b-school connections, she says, which included a friend of a friend at Estee Lauder Cos. Inc., who put her in touch with de Guise Vaillancourt, then executive director for fragrance in the global marketing department at Avon Products Inc.

Mr. Vaillancourt, now at Estee Lauder, says he agreed to an informational interview with Ms. Digney, and then referred her to his boss, the director for fragrance, and the company’s human-resources department. “She had zero experience in fragrance or marketing,” Mr. Vaillancourt says. “But I look for someone who can think and solve problems.”

When Mr. Vaillancourt asked her about the Russian on her resume, she told him about her childhood plan of becoming a spy. “That showed creativity,” he says. “It was revealing.”

Since Avon is a global company, focused on more than 200 geographic markets, Mr. Vaillancourt says, he was also impressed with her background. “She was aware of habits and customs beyond U.S. borders,” he says. “There aren’t enough people in global positions like that.”

In October 2002, Ms. Digney got a temporary position as a consultant in the fragrance division of Avon. Her first project, she says, was to develop a strategy for premium fragrances, which sell at or above $30 for a 1.7-oz. bottle.

Six months later, Ms. Digney secured a permanent spot as associate marketing manager for fragrance. A year ago, she was promoted to global marketing manager for fragrance and specialty bath. She works at Avon headquarters near Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan.

Her most recent product launch, a premium fragrance and the third in a trilogy called “Today, Tomorrow, Always,” was the culmination of the work she did when she started at the bottom of the totem pole. “It’s been  very exciting to see products come to life and to get validation for them,” she says

In 2005, “Today” — the first of the series — won a FiFi Award from the Fragrance Foundation, the equivalent of an Oscar in the international fragrance industry.

“When I first started at Avon, I was at the bottom of the totem pole. Now I report to the director [for fragrance and specialty bath], who has ultimate control over products,” she says. “I’ve come a long way, and I really do feel that I am making an impact on what I am doing.”

— Ms. Hess is a free-lance writer in New York.

 

By Diane Hess

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