A major leadership change is afoot at Victoria’s Secret: Ed Razek, the veteran CMO of parent company L Brands, is leaving.
Razek’s departure is both a long time coming and a relative surprise. The executive, who has been with Victoria’s Secret since 1983, was the mastermind behind the brand’s most famous marketing ploy, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. He’s overseen the rise of the production from its origins as a small event held in a hotel ballroom to a global phenomenon featuring celebrity musical guests and the world’s best-known models on the runway that raked in more than 10 million viewers on broadcast television.
In recent years, however, the show has been falling from grace: Viewership last year was down to just 3.26 million, and earlier this year Victoria’s Secret announced it wouldn’t be airing the show at all on network TV. Stores are sluggish, too: This year, January sales were down 1% from the previous year, compared with 4% growth in 2018. In February, L Brands announced it would shutter 53 Victoria’s Secret stores. According to IBISWorld, Victoria’s Secret has about 63% of the lingerie market, though its place of dominance is on shaky ground thanks to DTC competitors like ThirdLove and Lively.
Razek also stirred controversy last year when, in an interview with Vogue, he claimed there was no public interest in a more diverse array of body types on the runway, as well as outright stating that he didn’t “think we should” cast a transgender model in the show.
“It’s like everything you wouldn’t say to your target consumer, he said in that interview,” said Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York-based consultancy.
The backlash was immediate, and Razek apologized, but the damage was done. Consumer sentiment around not just the show but Victoria’s Secret in general had changed, as the sales figures show. And with his comments, Razek had become the face of what was wrong with Victoria’s Secret: an older male executive who insisted on only casting models who are thin, tall and cisgender. Or as Quynh Mai, founder of agency Moving Image & Content, who works with retail clients, called it: “an objectified, Barbie-esque model.”
“They’ve had a slow decline in how they’ve connected to women,” Mai said. “But it really started erupting in the #MeToo era, and this era of millennials who don’t aspire to be someone that they aren’t. They want to be the best person they can be, not something that’s unachievable.”
Era of ‘machismo and manhandling’ is over
In an email announcing Razek’s departure (provided to Adweek by a representative for Victoria’s Secret), L Brands chief executive Les Wexner commended his longtime colleague, saying: “There are few with Ed’s passion and talent in this industry, but I have faith in our incredible teams, talent and product, and I look forward to the future as we grow and change.” A note from Razek himself was included in the message, where he shared that “it’s time” for him to retire, despite the fact that he still carries “a deep love of this business.”
With a nearly four-decade tenure, his influence is everywhere. The list of Victoria’s Secret angels, past and present, is a who’s who of the world’s most famous models: Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Karlie Kloss, Adriana Lima—and that’s just for starters. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, at one point, was a major marketing moment that no other retailer could match, even if it now feels like a relic of the past.
“That level of machismo and manhandling of supermodels is completely over,” Mai said. “I would predict that he just realized that the culture and world that he knows is just no longer acceptable. He can leave now, and have the legacy of bringing the supermodel to the masses and inventing the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, leaving his legacy somewhat intact.”
With his absence looming, so does the question of what the future holds for Victoria’s Secret, and in particular, what will happen to Razek’s crown jewel. Rumors swirled a few weeks ago—a Victoria’s Secret representative did not respond to a request for confirmation—that it would be canceled entirely. Phibbs said the show should be canceled, and that the brand should take this opportunity to find its footing in today’s world by listening to what their consumers want.
“They can’t do the same thing they’ve done, and why would they?” he said. “It’s a perfect opportunity to say, ‘We’re not doing that. We’re going to empower women of all sizes.'”
Who’ll be the new guiding force?
As the company looks for a new marketing chief, Ed Wolf, svp of brand and creative of L Brands, and Bob Campbell, vp of creative at Victoria’s Secret, will take over his duties in the interim. Choosing the next marketing chief presents a chance for the company to usher in true change.
“This is an opportunity for them to have a woman lead the brand,” Phibbs said. “A woman who listens and understands the heritage, but ultimately how to respond to everything they’ve heard over the past few years.”
Victoria’s Secret, for its part, had another piece of news this week that showed it may be heading in a new direction: On Monday, news broke that the brand had—for the first time—hired a transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, who will appear in catalogs for VS Pink. However, Mai said hiring one model—particularly for one of the company’s sub-brands—feels like a “brand tip-toeing into the space of inclusion, but not wholeheartedly embracing inclusivity.”
“You can’t give a brand too much kudos for hiring one model out of dozens,” she said.
It may be a small step, but it is a step. And without Razek as the brand’s guiding force, Victoria’s Secret may be free to take even more like it.
“When you make significant structural changes at the top, suddenly there’s a wealth of energy that comes out,” Phibbs said. “This one man stopped the brand and put it in cement, and now they’re going to break free of that.”