If ever there was a career path that seemed tailor made for someone, it would have to be Felicia Walker Benson and the beauty industry. Felicia may have spent 12 years as a corporate HR exec, but even then she was the office go-to girl on all things beauty and style.
Now, she’s the founding editor of ThisThatBeauty.com and the Social Media Beauty Director at luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman where she spends 3 days a week creating addictive beauty content, strategizing with brands and keeping Bergdorf customers up on the latest beauty trends.
I caught up with Felicia last week to learn more about the evolution of ThisThatBeauty over the last decade, how her blog and industry influence landed her a job at Bergdorf and I got some insight on her PR preferences and advice to pass along to those who may be interested in following in her footsteps.
Hashtags + Stilettos (H+S): You founded ThisThatBeauty in 2005 before the major influx of blogs and you’ve written about how being the office go-to girl for makeup tips and advice motivated you to launch TTB. Was there any other catalyst that inspired you to launch the blog?
Felicia Walker Benson (FWB): I’ve always wanted to have a place that was a repository for all of my fashion and beauty ramblings. I felt like I needed a place to deposit all of those things and I wanted to share it all in one place. There were other beauty bloggers out there doing it, so I don’t consider myself one of the OGs.But I knew that I had a knack for sharing fashion and beauty content in a very specific way. And when I started, having a blog was really the thing to do. And now, almost 10 years later, with the availability of social media platforms, ThisThatBeauty has really come full circle and is more of a brand that goes beyond beauty and into the lifestyle space now.
H+S: Who were some of your earliest blogging or digital influences?
FWB: Lianne Farbes’ The Makeup Girl, Daneen Baird’s Spoiled Pretty, The YBF, Bossip and Crunk + Disorderly. In the beginning it was kind of crazy for me. I read a lot of magazines and websites, but these were some of the first inspirations for me.
I tell this story a lot but I really used to read Lianne Farbes’ blog religiously and then one day I saw that she was looking for a contributing writer. I remember being so excited to apply for the position, but I never got a response. Then reading her site one day I saw an announcement about someone else getting the job and that kind of motivated me. It made me think “hey, why can’t I just create my own site.” We’re friends now and we laugh about the situation, but I really credit Lianne with inspiring me to start my own blog.
H+S: Did you have a vision for where you’d be right now?
FWB: When I started I just really wanted a place to dump all of my beauty ramblings and passions. I didn’t have a profound vision, but I would say that it’s evolved over time. I have a corporate background in HR, an industry I worked in for 12 years. I credit that background with a lot of how I approached blogging. I’ve been very business focused from the beginning. When I started blogging, I kept my eyes open for opportunities that would help me turn ThisThatBeauty into a brand and a business.
H+S: In addition to running ThisThatBeauty, you are also the social media beauty director at Bergdorf Goodman. What does that role entail?
FWB: It’s a wide reaching position that covers all beauty areas for the retailer. I oversee all of the beauty editorial and social media online and offline. I write copy for beauty campaigns, mailers and advertisements. And I also work directly with vendors to come up with ideas and strategies for social media campaigns.
H+S: I don’t know this to be a fact, but it seems like this was a position that was created just for you.
FWB: It was a position that they created for me. Bergdorf originally reached out and asked me to do some guest editorials, which led to an in-store appearance. Bergdorf’s customers related to my editorial content so eventually they created this position for me. I work at the retailer three days a week, so there’s never really a conflict between the work I do for ThisThatBeauty. If anything, it enhances my role, because I get to see everything that’s happening in the world of beauty with fresh eyes and I get to constantly bring in a new perspective, insight and innovation to the role.
H+S: How do you balance the two roles?
FWB: Before I started working at Bergdorf Goodman, I already had pretty deep relationships with 70 to 75 precent of the brands, beauty buyers and vendors. So when Bergdorf announced that I was going to be working in beauty, most of the brand partners were like “great, we already know her.”
H+S: How many people are on the ThisThatBeauty editorial team? When did you decide it was time to hire a staff and why?
FWB: Right now we are a team of four. Over the last few years the site has evolved so much and it’s not just about beauty anymore, it’s becoming more lifestyle driven. I wanted to share more points of view, because there are some things that I’m just not interested in covering, but I know our audience would appreciate it, so it made sense to expand. My team handles a lot of the strategic planning and marketing and they’re able to attend events and create great content which has helped the ThisThatBeauty brand a lot.
H+S: Do you remember the first brand you worked with in an official capacity or the first brand that contacted you based on your early blog content?
FWB: The first brands I worked with were Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, Beaute Cosmetics and Three Custom Color Cosmetics. For Three Custom, I had the chance early on to go in and interview the founders. I can say that from the beginning, people have been very gracious and open. And it may be because I’ve always approached blogging in a very professional and business savvy way. I wasn’t just a fan girl, I actually took it serious.
H+S: You work with a ton of different brands and have appeared on network television and in magazine advertorials. What is one goal you haven’t accomplished yet?
FWB: I want to write a book. I’ve been going back and forth a lot, shifting from whether or not I want it to be a pure beauty book or more lifestyle focused about pregnancy and adjusting to life as a mom. So becoming an author is the one thing that’s been challenging me and that’s a big goal of mine. I just have to find the time to make it happen.
H+S: Who are a few of your favorite bloggers?
FWB: I like Beauty Department, WhoWhatWear, Refinery29 and a few other lifestyle, fashion and beauty blogs. But I don’t get to read them often for a number of reasons: 1. I just don’t have the time and also I like to stay in my own head so that I’m not influenced by the things I see other people do on their blog or on Instagram. I really don’t want to see what people are doing. Instead, I share the things that I want to share and interact with people that care about those things.
H+S: Who or what inspires you?
FWB: I am honestly inspired by life. In terms of beauty I’m not necessarily inspired by a collection, but on my long walk to the train station I’ll see certain things in nature or just in general that can inspire me and give me a fresh take on life. I’m also inspired by my daughter. When I’m interacting with her and she’s bubbly and laughing and she’s just the perfect baby for me. That gives me a lot of inspiration.
H+S: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
FWB: [When I decided to quit my job] I thought I would give myself a year. But a mentor told me that I needed to give myself at least 18 to 24 months in order to set up roots, figure out what I really wanted to do and make industry connections. That was the best advice. To give myself more time for trial and error.
H+S: From your personal experience, what advice would you give someone who was interested in pursuing a career in beauty, blogging or social media?
FWB: It really needs to be pumping through your veins. You have to love [whatever you decide to do] like you love air. We’re approaching the bursting of a bubble, so you need to be bringing something incredibly fantastic to the market because it’s so over-saturated. Have a unique point of difference that separates you from the pack. And again, you have to love it like cooked food or else it just won’t happen for you.
H+S: There’s been a lot of talk about how the golden age of blogging is over and with it the opportunity to make major money or have influence. Do you think that’s true?
FWB: To some extent things are fizzling. For instance, anyone can take or repost beautiful pictures [on Instagram] and become a rockstar. I think you’re going to start to see a huge backlash from that as brands don’t really have the time to figure out who’s authentic or truly influential because everyone has the [same level] of access. Eventually, I think we’ll get back to a more purist form of blogging and social sharing where brand’s will want to work with people who have triple threat elements: Can they write well? Are they good on camera? Can their influence lead to sales?
H+S: Do you feel like you’ve become more or less social as your audience has grown?
FWB: I think I’m consistently social, but it depends. I may attend less press events. But if one of my editors are out at an event, I make sure they’re sending me pictures that I can upload in real time. I’m also always interacting with people on Twitter and Instagram. It’s rare that someone reaches out to me and I don’t respond.
FWB: Definitely email. Send a pitch with access to images and a press release. This way I can take a look and if I want to request samples, I can do that.
H+S: What types of stories, content or projects are you looking for?
FWB: Everything under the beauty (make up and skin care products, color launches, hair care, etc) umbrella but also lifestyle, food and wine, fitness and baby stuff. The blog has evolved into being about “the life of me.” I am the brand. It’s about my taste level; my likes and dislikes.
H+S: What are your biggest PR pet peeves?
FWB: One of my biggest PR pet peeves is when people pitch things that aren’t relevant to what we cover on the site, or when they pitch things that they want you to do for free that would normally be considered a sponsored post or a campaign in exchange for placement on the brand’s platform, which usually has about a third of the audience we have. Ultimately, it’s a big time waster. I know that a lot of brand’s don’t have the budget to hire PR people and sometimes even the PR people get it wrong.
H+S: While on the topic of pet peeves, you recently tweeted about some annoying things that commenters do on Instagram. Can you elaborate on that?
FWB: Sure. One of my friends is a blogger and we’re convinced that there’s some sort of [group consensus] to ask a ton of questions that we’ve already answered either in the caption or in a post. For example, the label of a particular product will be visible and someone will still ask what the product is and where they can buy it from. I always try to be helpful, but that’s a major pet peeve of mine.
H+S: How can a PR person or brand get on your “always respond” list?
FWB: If they make their pitches succinct, to the point and relevant. And if they include the most pertinent information and an opportunity to follow-up for more. You’re good to go.
H+S: Please complete the following sentences:
My favorite inspirational quote is… “Dream big. Work harder.”
I’m currently reading… I Like Myself, Goodnight Moon, Hug Time and other mom books. I haven’t really had much time to get back to adult books. After having a baby it takes time to reintroduce components of your life. I’m working on getting back to some of my old routines.
My favorite book is… I don’t really have a favorite book, but I read the bible often.
I had the most fun working on… I recently did a shoot with Target on the Highline where I got to showcase the latest Target collections and how you can get the style you want on a shoestring budget. That was fun. I’m fortunate that I get to have a lot of fun on a regular basis.
I’m most proud of… My daughter. She is literally my greatest accomplishment ever.
My 3 favorite mobile apps are… My banking app, have to make sure my money isn’t funny. Uber and of course Instagram.
Iphone Blackberry or Android? iPhone.
I have … unread emails in my inbox right now? Over 10,000.
My dream interview would be with… Diahann Carroll.