Ever wonder what it really takes to succeed in the beauty industry—or any industry, for that matter? Take a cue from our co-founders, Katherine Power and Hillary Kerr, who’ve penned a brand-new book to help you take your career to the next level. The Career Code: Must-Know Rules for a Strategic, Stylish, and Self-Made Career will be your bible for achieving professional success, featuring all of the practical advice they learned while building their own company from the ground up. In honor of the launch, we’re profiling someone who is, frankly put, totally killing it in the beauty world. Melissa Knapp is Clinique’s trailblazing creative director, the one responsible for every Clinique image you see—from the brand’s Instagram to ad images in your favorite magazines.
Calm is not how you would expect the creative director of a one of the most recognizable beauty brands in the world to act. And yet, the longer I spoke with Melissa Knapp, Clinique’s current creative director, the more I realized that there was indeed an air of calm around her—something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, except to describe it as a soothing air usually reserved for therapists and very patient mothers. In other words: the opposite of the stereotypically frenetic, slightly crazed persona you might expect. Throughout our conversation, Knapp just seemed so Zen—never mind the red eye she would be taking later that night, or the hush-hush Clinique shoot she’d just wrapped. Her secret to staying balanced in the midst of the madness? You’ll have to keep reading to find out.
From her own personal journey to her work at Clinique, keep scrolling to find out Melissa Knapp’s secrets to success.
BYRDIE: Can you tell us about your journey to Clinique?
MK: My first job out of college was at a Danish housewear company. Being exposed to modern Danish design was quite valuable at young age. I went out on my own for a few years after that, consulting for Dansk and few others. And then I got a call from a recruiter for John Frieda haircare. They had just hired a creative director from the Estée Lauder companies, Carol Buettner Sherts. I forged a relationship with her there. So when Carol and I parted ways after John Frieda, she kept in close contact. I went to a boutique agency called Arnell Group to get a taste of the agency business. Three years later, she hired me again to work with her. One of the projects we worked on was the foundation of Beauty Bank, which was a think tank that became an entrepreneurial part of Estée Lauder. I met and started working for Jim Nevins, the creative director, and Jane Lauder, the VP of marketing. Finally, when Jane became president of Clinique in 2014, I joined her as creative director.
BYRDIE: How has your graphic design background helped you in your creative director?
MK: Clinique was founded on and has always been known for a strong visual identity. My graphic design background is the basis of many of my decisions; I think having the graphic design background is kind of essential. That being said, if you’re the right creative director, you just empower the people beneath you. It’s more about being a big thinker, and being strategic at the same time.
BYRDIE: You’ve mentioned a few individuals who have helped you get where you are. Do you think having a mentor is important?
MK: Yes. From the start, my parents were my first mentors. My mom very early on recognized my interest in art and design, while my dad values diligence and hard work. Carol Buettner Sherts really taught me how to build and run a creative department because that’s what she was tasked with at John Frieda. Jim Nevins, who I worked so closely with, taught me that having a wicked sense of humor is essential to getting by. And Jane Lauder, among many things, taught me how to be an inspiring and passionate leader. I do feel that it’s incredibly important to have a mentor, and it’s actually something that Sheryl Sandberg says in the first few chapters of her book, Lean In. I’ve had the great fortune for it to happen naturally. If it’s not happening naturally, you should look to seek one out.
BYRDIE: How would you recommend someone do that?
MK: Be direct. If you’re confident enough to ask someone to be your mentor, then it’s probably already happening. You’re just formalizing it. Usually when someone reaches out to me and asks if I will be their mentor, I already consider them my mentee.
BYRDIE: Can you tell us about what your role as global creative director of Clinique entails?
MK: I’m responsible for the images and messaging of everything the consumer touches: advertising, digital presence, social media, and design. And I oversee the brand’s voice. We have a copy team, consumer communications team—which includes print communication and digital communication—store design team, and packaging team. In each of those teams, I have anywhere from 10 to 20 people.
BYRDIE: You’ve hired a lot of people (clearly). What are some of the qualities you look for in a strong candidate?
MK: For anyone in a design position, I’m looking for someone who shares my aesthetic, which is essentially the Clinique aesthetic. It’s really hard to teach aesthetic to someone. You either have a certain way of viewing things or you don’t. In terms of copy, I’m looking for writers who are interested and excited about talking about conversation that women are having today, human truths about what we’re dealing with every day. Having a modern and witty voice doesn’t hurt.
BYRDIE: Any standout interviews you can recall?
MK: Somone came to me once with an entire Pinterest board of what they thought Clinique should be. I looked at it, and it was like my brain on Clinique. I was like, “Holy cow! You’re hired. How soon can you start? Did I create that Pinterest board?”
BYRDIE: You’ve spearheaded campaigns like Clinique’s Face Forward campaign, featuring Tavi Gevinson, Margaret Zhang, and Hannah Bronfman. What inspired you to work with these girls?
MK: The Face Forward campaign was all about confidence, optimism, and looking for the future. It made sense to celebrate confidence and young women who accomplished so much at a young age. Because they’re not celebrities or models, I think young women can relate to as role models.
BYRDIE: What would you tell anyone who is trying to break into the beauty industry in a creative role?
MK: Image is everything. Prepare to present your portfolio, résumé, and website look as good as your work. If I see a disconnect there, I sometimes scratch my head. Secondly, take an interview and meeting even if it doesn’t seem like the right job for you. I’ve hired so many people who I’ve met with before there was a role on my team for them. Something will become available, I’ll think of that person that I met way back when, and call them up. If you make a good impression on someone, they will call you and hire you later on.
BYRDIE: Did you encounter any professional obstacles in your journey to Clinique? How did you handle them?
MK: I went through a period of time in my late 20s. I wasn’t sure if I was on the right career path. I was burned out; I was worried about my future. Looking back, I realized that I was going through what many young women are going through at that age: a quarter-life crisis. Of course, it would’ve been nice to know as I was going through it. So, I finally told myself that no one except myself had the power to transform my destiny. I made a commitment to make a change and never looked back.
BYRDIE: Walk us through that process.
MK: First of all, I had to change my attitude in the current role I was in, which was at the Ardell Group. And then I had to work on my next career step and really make it happen, which is tough when you’re in a job that’s chugging along. It’s tough to self-motivate and work on portfolio and all of that. I think pushing through that mental part was the main hurdle. Getting over that was the toughest—you realize that it’s not about how you picked the wrong career path. It’s about the fact you’re feeling insecure about other things in your life. Once I got myself over that mental hurdle, it was like, This is what I want to do to change the situation. So, I started reaching out to people, and one of my phone calls was to Carol. She said to come work with her. She had all this exciting stuff lined up, and I took the leap of faith to work with her. And it ended up being the best decision.
BYRDIE: Tell us a little about how social media has changed the way you create content visually.
MK: It’s completely revolutionized the beauty landscape. Beauty through this lens is all new. I think one of the most exciting things about it is that it’s brought beauty and inspiration to women all over the world, regardless of where they live or have access to. Right now, in terms of using it educate and inspire our customers, we’re using it express the witty, editorial side of Clinique. We’re using it to promote content on our editorial platform, The Wink. It’s a constant learning process.
BYRDIE: Lastly, we can’t help but notice that you give off majorly calming vibes. How do you stay so Zen in the midst of helping run this iconic, much-loved beauty company?
MK: That’s a tough question! I try to be really disciplined about work and life. I try to work out every single morning. It’s usually yoga and occasionally a SoulCycle or something like that. In the summer, I try to do it outdoors—it adds a whole other calming element to the whole thing. I try not to engage with technology before I leave the house. That way, I can really be focused on my family: my husband and my son. The minute I leave the door, it’s a completely different conversation [laughs]. That’s a big change I’ve made in the past two years—making the concerted effort in not checking my emails first thing. It’s tough because our phones are our lives—it’s my alarm clock! But I make a real effort to put my phone away when I go home at night. When I’m with my son, I’m with my son and taking that time. You can always check two hours later after he’s gone to bed. Obviously there are times you can’t do that, but for the most part, you can.
Want more inspiring career tips? See how face oil guru Linda Rodin got her (unconventional) start.