How Ed Razek turned selling lingerie into a racy art form

Editor’s note: Victoria’s Secret marketing chief Ed Razek has become a controversial figure as the specialty brand reimagines its iconic fashion show and struggles to adjust to changing cultural mores. In 2004, Columbus Monthly profiled Razek when he was the golden boy of racy undergarments.

“Tell me you love me," he says. “Tell me you want me; bring me to my knees."

Ed Razek's hands dance through the air as he describes the visuals and the sexual charge of the Victoria's Secret holiday gift commercial he wrote that airs this month and features models Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks. He slows to deliver the supermodels' final line: "Tell me there is no other woman in the world like me.”

Now, you know you don't need any supermodel underwear. You know you don't have Heidi Klum's cleavage—you know you don't have Heidi Klum's anything. And yet, there you are, barreling toward Easton to the nearest Victoria's Secret to buy a damned bra named "Angel."

Ed Razek, chief marketing officer for retail giant Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria's Secret, casts a mighty spell over women. From print ads to television commercials to $10 million manufactured media events, it's Razek's job at Victoria's Secret to convince women they need that $39 Angel bra and a whole lot more.

Razek has been making magic with Limited Brands—which also includes Limited Stores, Express, Bath & Body Works and Henri Bendel—for more than 20 years. Over the past 10, he's focused more on Victoria's Secret, formerly an unknown San Francisco company that Limited Brands CEO Les Wexner bought in 1982.

Since then, with the help of celebrity supermodels, a steady dose of controversy, Hollywood directors, a staff of more than 200 and a quarter-billion-dollar-a-year advertising budget, Razek has helped develop a brand that enjoys an astonishing 98 percent recognition level.

It's no secret, and Razek is the first to admit it: Wexner has the ideas, Razek makes them happen and everybody gets rich. This year, Victoria's Secret will squeeze nearly $4 billion out of women's pocketbooks. You don't sell that many panties without strutting your stuff. “We've got beautiful women in lingerie. That's right," he says unapologetically. “We're not a potato chip company.” It's the brand, stupid.

Trick is, Razek has to outdo himself each time he has an idea. No pressure here ... he just has to find ways to sell more unnecessary underthings than were sold last year, working for a company and CEO notorious for losing interest in top executives who don't meet high expectations.

He certainly has a good track record, especially with fashion shows. Think 1999 Super Bowl commercial, which urged viewers to watch a live fashion show on the Victoria's Secret website—resulting in a near internet meltdown. Think Cannes Film Festival 2000, where Razek teamed with Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films to produce a charity fashion show that netted Cinema Against AIDS a record $3 million in one night. Think of the unprecedented one hour nationally televised prime time fashion show in 2001, which pulled in more than 12 million viewers.

Now think Janet Jackson's pop-out boob at this year's Super Bowl (and the subsequent $550,000 indecency fine levied by the FCC against CBS-owned stations). Suddenly it was time for Razek to rethink thongs, pixilated nipples and paranoid network executives. Meaning, no fashion show.

“We could have gotten a broadcast partner beyond CBS at that time who was not unenthusiastic," Razek explains. There was little risk to the network, Razek maintains, because, "We violate no FCC rulings of any kind. We have censors in the studio with us while we're editing."

"The issue was, do we want to start to shop it around now during this environment?" he continues, “Les [Wexner] thought it was the wrong time and place to try it.” Razek admits he was "devastated at the time."

The Parents Television Council, for one, was thrilled with Victoria's Secret's decision. “We led the fight to put pressure on the FCC to crack down on indecent broadcasts," which the Victoria's Secret fashion show exemplified, says PTC spokeswoman Melissa Caldwell. “The fabrics of the lingerie were so sheer that it was like virtual nudity. So I would dispute their claim that they're careful in censoring themselves.” She adds that if the fashion show returns to network broadcast, PTC will be watching, ever ready to tattle to the FCC. 

Bring it on, says Razek. Good or bad, Razek's never met a shred of publicity he didn't like. Still, the fact remains Victoria's Secret is heading into the year's most important retail quarter without its signature event, depending on a new idea to generate a media—and consumer—frenzy.

"Every time we do a show somebody says, 'How are you going to top that?’ But that's the gig," he says, smiling. "That's where the juice is."

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Razek talks fast, as if he's got a plane to catch. “Jeez, I don't shut up, do I?" he says with a laugh. No, he doesn't. An afternoon with Razek at company headquarters requires the mental equivalent of running shoes.

He's shorter than most of his supermodels, though this fact is hardly noticeable. Razek dominates space, speaking with searing clarity. He's a fit 56 years old ("Gotta play more racquetball,” he promises himself), his graying hairline sole evidence to his boomer status.

The corporate culture of Limited Brands requires enormous endurance and emotional reserves (especially if you're a major player) in the quest for better and better performance. There's a litany of corporate execs and division CEOs—Ken Gilman and Beth Pritchard of late—who one day were Wexner's favorites and the next, pursuing other career opportunities.

Razek has managed to stick around. Maybe it's his very close working relationship with Wexner, his impressive list of prestigious advertising and marketing awards. Or his age-defying skin. Whatever the case, he's played a big role in the evolution of Victoria's Secret—now with 1,000 stores, a prosperous catalog and e-commerce business, and an emerging Beauty products line. It's a rags to-riches case study in the confluence of money, timing and talent. Purchased in 1982 as a racy little lingerie brand, Victoria's Secret grew up in a decade when, according to Linda Mizejewski, chair of the department of women's studies at Ohio State University, “Women were suspicious, careful and defensive about sexuality."

This sexual identity crisis was mirrored in early Victoria's Secret marketing efforts that depicted bony, harsh, androgynous women in garter belts and stiletto heels. Underwear advertising existed, she says, "but underwear wasn't a commodity to be offered in a classy way to thoughtful women."

The brand came into its own in the 1990s, when feminism discovered pleasure. “Women were allowed to say, 'We can be strong, we can be serious, we can be intellectual and we can also wear really great underwear.’ ” Besides, thoughtful supermodels said so. Finally, Mizejewski says, it was OK for women to buy sexy undies.

It was in this period—the mid '90s—when Razek cut loose. With a knack for creating “news." out of vapor, Razek helped turn just another mall store into one of the world's most vivid brands. An early example of his PR prowess: It was 10 years ago, after the company had shot a very "hot" commercial with Claudia Schiffer, he remembers. “Somebody came into the meeting and said, 'All three networks have rejected the commercial because of its sexual content.' I said, 'Get me a letter from every station stating why.’ That afternoon the media buyer came back with the three letters, which I sent to every news station in the world. That night, news stations worldwide said, 'We'll show you the commercial that's too hot for television.” Victoria's Secret's ad ran worldwide—for free.

This aggressive promotional posture, coupled with a more accepting post feminism society, allowed Victoria's Secret to stuff any early competition in the sock drawer. Today, it's the number-one specialty retailer of intimate apparel in the world, encompassing three separate, albeit integrated units. Leaders include Grace Nichols (“an absolutely superb and unbelievable partner," says Razek), president and CEO of Victoria's Secret Stores; Sharen Jester Turney, president and CEO of Victoria's Secret Direct, and newcomers Jill Granoff and Sherry Baker, COO and president, respectively, of Victoria's Secret Beauty (the duo replaced Robin Burns in August).

Razek manages advertising and media efforts with the VS leadership team, including the half-dozen or so creative directors, with overall strategies that come from on high. “You have to be precise," Razek explains. “And you have to be disciplined. I'm ruthlessly disciplined about the writing and editing. I'll look at a commercial 30 times. We've redesigned the annual report cover 50 or 60 times; probably rewrote the quote on the front half that many times. Over and over and over again. You have to have standards." C'mon, a single quote 30 times? Isn't that a little excessive?

“Doing great work anywhere is about having standards and being uncompromising and not letting crap go through,” he continues. “The words matter, the visuals matter, the music matters, the nuances matter. It’s never over.”

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Razek, who grew up in Cleveland, was close to his father, a single parent who worked in a steel mill. At age 12, Razek went to Culver Military Academy in Indiana. “My father made $7,000 a year gross; the school cost $3,500 a year. I think he lived on about $1,000 a year for five years,” he says. “I can’t imagine that level of financial sacrifice.”

A love of language led him to Ohio State University in the late 1960s to earn a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing. When, as a young grad, 160 applications to ad agencies met with 160 rejections, Razek parked himself on the doorstep of a small Columbus firm, saying, “ ‘Give me any topic, any media, and give me 30 minutes and I'll prove to you that I can write,' which I did. He [Harry Bruce] hired me, then fired me after a month," he remembers, laughing. “I didn't think it was a very good agency, and I sort of behaved that way."

He spent the next few years at Shelly Berman Communicators (now called SBC Advertising, Inc.) and helped morph it into a regional powerhouse. Bob Brucken, art director at the time (now an art teacher), remembers working with Razek, who was creative director. “We were all young, and we worked hard, and we played hard,” Brucken says. “Ed and I really related to each other; we really clicked. We didn’t have big egos, we just did our work, and we worked as a team. It was a creative playground in preparation for the rest of our lives. We were disciplined, but we had a lot of fun.”

One of their accounts was The Limited (forerunner of Limited Brands), which had six stores at the time. “The Limited dominated the industry with their marketing materials, and we helped get them there," Brucken adds. Soon, in the early 1980s, The Limited lured Razek to help run in-house branding operations.

Now, having worked with Wexner for so long, Razek says, “I've learned to integrate a lot of his thinking. We speak in shorthand.” It's as if the two are one—like an old married couple, able to communicate without words. “I've traveled all over the world with Les for over 20 years," Razek explains. "It's a tremendous compliment that he's allowed me that opportunity. At the same time, you have the obligation to absorb it and try to do something with it. I've seen people who've traveled with him who've never done anything with it."

Perhaps this is Razek's greatest talent—his ability to connect with his boss, to conjure ideas from Wexner's head and turn them into seductive images and events. “I work for a business that's been incredibly supportive of me, and I'm not going to let them down. I'm just not," Razek adds.

His overt loyalty to Wexner appears to be reciprocated; Razek's grown son was hired as the copy director at Victoria's Secret, and when Razek's father died five years ago, Wexner sent three planeloads of company executives to the funeral in Cleveland.

The Wexner love fest continues as Razek talks particulars about building the VS brand. Those triumphs belong to Wexner alone, he says. “From making each store a woman's paradise: from having the scent piped in through the air-conditioning system to playing classical music to having large dressing rooms with good lighting, good mirrors, real chairs—all of those things were unique marketing ideas and concepts that were entirely his," says Razek.

Go down the list: The idea of the fashion show, the use of supermodels to bring credibility to the brand, even the Super Bowl commercial—all Wexner's, says Razek.

So who's the visionary marketer that paired a weather-beaten Bob Dylan with a scantily clothed super-Angel in Venice against a backdrop of Dylan's remixed version of 1997's “Love Sick"? (Sick, all right, wrote a reviewer for the online magazine Slate. After watching it, he wrote, he thought he'd eaten bad shrimp.)

Granted, Victoria's Secret has paired with musicians before: Sting and Mary J. Blige performed at last year's fashion show, Phil Collins the year before. But Dylan? That was creepy. The commercial—yes, Wеxner's idea—ran for three weeks in April, says Razek, and it was no marketing misstep. “We wanted to do something evocative, romantic and aspirational and take it to a place where competitors wouldn't go," explains Razek. No worries there.

“You want to surprise people. Clearly that was. Clearly that was the most talked about commercial of the year. Is it effective? Yeah. Does it get the brand talked about? Yeah. Is it positive conversation? Yeah. Did Dylan take some heat about it? Yeah. Does he care? No way. I want to try to capture things that haven't been seen before—Bob Dylan and Adrianą Lima together in Venice is something no one's ever seen before or gonna see again from anybody. You just keep trying to break new ground."

The new-ground strategy gets the nod from industry experts. “The idea generation helps to keep Victoria's Secret fresh," says Dana Telsey, an analyst with Bear Stearns. “There are always new products and innovation. They're always looking for the next new item that brings customers in on a repeat basis."

She warns that “no retail concept is infallible, because there's always someone clicking at your heels. A lot of people want to get into the intimate apparel business. Victoria's Secret's facet is one which made intimate apparel a little like fashion combining fashion with the basic needs of intimate apparel. I think that's what brings people in regularly and what's allowed them to gain so much market share."

Victoria's Secret's second quarter same-store sales (the benchmark of a company's financial vitality) were up 6 percent this year, due in part, analysts agree, to the company's highly visible rollout of Pink, a colorful and casual line aimed at the 18-to 22-year-old college student.

Ultimately, what retailing is all about, says Telsey, is "being able to create wants and desires; it's about making people want things they don't necessarily need. Retail is entertainment."

Razek agrees. "Our business is about entertainment. You have to stop them before you can sell them and that's about entertainment value. We're in show business.” You certainly get that impression when Razek drops names. Michael Bay, director of the movie “Pearl Harbor,”directs the new holiday commercial; Harvey Weinstein helped produce the 2000 fashion show in France; Bobby Dickinson, the lighting designer for the Summer Olympics in Greece, lighted Victoria's Secret fashion shows.

So it's no surprise that Razek has friends in some of Hollywood's highest places. Robert Evans, producer of “The Godfather” and “Chinatown,”is among them. "Ed is a very close friend,” Evans says from his office in California. “I think he's brilliant." Evans recently canceled a deal on a screenplay after having Razek review the manuscript as a favor. "His notes on the manuscript were more succinct than anyone in Hollywood could have given," he says. "Not only can he give you a critique, he can give you options of how to change it."

Evans has been trying to lure Razek to Hollywood for years. “I'd like him to be my partner," he says. “I want him to come out here and work with me on the new book I'm writing," a sequel to Evans's autobiography, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” which was turned into a popular documentary.

But Razek says he's not going anywhere. A bout with prostate cancer a few years ago led him first to the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University, then to an internal inventory of his abilities and responsibilities. “When you get into a job like this in marketing or advertising or design, you're just so desperate to survive," he says, thinking back over the years. “Every night you go to bed with the notion that you're a fake, you're a phony and somebody's gonna find out. You spend 35 years doing that; running as fast as you can. Finally you have to look back on your body of work and say, 'I really know how to do this stuff. I have an ability to communicate with people and that skill is transferable.’ So the notion of teaching is one important thing; the importance of giving back, particularly to something as important as the James or the OSU hospitals facilities in general, is equally important."

Razek says he will work with the James cancer center on building its “reputational capital,” developing the brand into one that's associated with world-class performance, he says. A guy who hawks zirconium-studded thongs to twentysomethings will create the international reputation for a cancer hospital? “Marketing principles don't change. The communication issues we face are the same no matter what we sell.”

Today, Razek is cancer free and committed, he says, to teaching, giving back and "just doing good work."

Still, in a business where you're only as good as your last Super Event, "doing good work” is a matter of perspective. That perspective—especially during the holiday shopping season—is always heavily influenced by one factor: the sound of the cash register. To twist Razek's words, he has to hope his idea for replacing the fashion show doesn't bring him to his knees.

This story originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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