There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. Role Call highlights some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them. For more digital commerce jobs like this, visit BoF Careers.
LOS ANGELES, United States — Florida native Erik Lautier joined Bebe as executive vice president and chief digital officer in 2014, and before that spent 15 years working in New York for brands such as Edun and Lacoste, where he worked on digital strategy and e-commerce. Unexpectedly, before his move into the digital world, Lautier's first career was as a professional opera singer and actor. He attended the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music where he was awarded MAs in vocal performance and opera. In 2000, he moved into the world of web development, and took an MBA at INSEAD business school a few years later, where he was awarded the L'Oreal Scholarship for Creativity and Entrepreneurship.
BoF: Please describe your current role.
As Bebe’s executive vice president and chief digital officer, I am responsible for two things. The first is the e-commerce business, which includes site operations, digital marketing, social media, customer relations management (CRM), and other functions. I’ve been at Bebe a little over a year and I spent the first nine months focusing on improving the site’s conversion rate via testing, personalisation, and other enhancements. The upgrades we made there coincided with stronger brand positioning and a collection clearly defining the customer lifestyles we are serving, and as a result we are now in a much better position to see positive returns on our media spend. I’ve consequently shifted my focus more towards digital marketing, CRM and social media so we can build stronger relationships with our existing customers and attract new ones.
If e-commerce deals with the question of “what are we doing to make money online?”, the other part of my job deals with the question of “what are we doing online to make money everywhere?” There are a number of ways in which digital can transform traditionally analogue aspects of a business — for example, sending catalogues digitally rather than by mail, running ads online to encourage store visits, or using tablets in stores so that associates can show customers videos or ad campaigns.
BoF: What attracted you to the role?
I like iconic brands and turnaround stories: Bebe offered me both. The digital division had a solid foundation and a talented team, but much of the blocking and tackling of e-commerce had yet to be developed. I found it exciting to come into that environment, identify the opportunities that would give us the best return on our spend, and put things into motion; it’s not often you have that much chance to address issues in conversion, personalisation, CRM, and cross-channel.
Additionally, having worked previously with some of Bebe’s senior leaders, I knew I was joining a dedicated team that believed in digital, and that I would receive the level of support necessary to effect change in the organisation and drive value for the shareholders.
In digital, things change so rapidly that if you plan too far ahead, the landscape may have changed by the time you get to the finish line.
BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?
I would say it’s the work we engaged in early on to fix some of the conversion issues on the site. Among other challenges, we had an e-commerce site featuring a black background and a staggering 8MB of videos loading on the home page — one could argue that these were conversion drags — but we wanted to get away from dataless decision-making. We tested our approach scientifically with multiple trials, and it was a lot of fun seeing the progress of these and other experiments as they ran from hypothesis to conclusion, often confirming our initial suspicions, but sometimes surprising us completely.
For a business with our scale, even small moves can have six or seven-figure impacts on net sales, and being able to quantify the work we did was gratifying on many levels.
BoF: How is your role changing? What are the forces driving this change?
The scope of digital has grown broader within nearly all organisations; whereas once upon a time it was siloed and even viewed as a competitive threat to the offline business, it has become increasingly integrated into the organisation at large. It’s very clear today that offline sales are influenced by online activity, though this was not always accepted several years ago (and, in truth, it was less the case than it is today). At the same time, both our online audience and the opportunities we have to reach them are expanding, and along with them, digital’s percentage of a company’s overall sales volume, whether direct or influenced.
International opportunities are also now more commonplace, whether through cross-border initiatives or dedicated distribution points within particular markets, as companies often see these as a precursor to a retail footprint and a way to build demand and forecast better.
Finally, the way we communicate is changing, as many brands opt down from print into digital, and we are turning our focus increasingly to mobile. Few industries have changed as significantly in the last five years; as a result, digital leaders have had to become stronger cross-functional partners with a deeper understanding of other areas of the business, and, as their areas of oversight have grown, they have often had to become more comfortable in the boardroom as well.
BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it.
I fail daily. There’s a stigma attached to the concept, but it’s one of the things that I feel we need to embrace in digital, because much of what we’re doing is new and we learn as we go. We buy an unprofitable keyword. We target an unproductive segment. We update our code and bring down the site. We make mistakes along the way, but we adjust, we tweak, we refine, and we improve. This is one of the fundamental ideas underlying our testing, where failure and success are inextricably intertwined.
In digital, things change so rapidly that if you plan too far ahead, the landscape may have changed by the time you get to the finish line. The work you began six months ago may no longer be as relevant today, and if you’ve put other initiatives on hold, you might find that this pursuit of perfection can be counter-productive. The process we’ve adopted is more iterative, particularly since the opportunities in front of us are so wide and our sense of urgency is so high. We don’t want perfection; we want immediate improvement over the status quo and a culture of continual measurement and optimisation thereafter. Small daily failures help us move towards an improved product.
BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?
I believe digital calls for a love affair with learning, a diverse set of interests, and a strong understanding of yourself and your environment. I began running an e-commerce business in 2000 because I had taught myself web design (back then, you really didn’t need to know a whole lot more than that!). When I recognised that design alone wasn’t enough to make a site special, I learned how to code; when I recognised that digital marketing tools could transform my work, I learned how to use them; when I recognised that I knew nothing about business, I got an MBA; and when I recognised digital could mean more than just selling things on a website, I learned how to apply my experience more broadly across a business.
My career grew because the industry grew and because I was passionate about growing with it; I’ve figuratively gone back to school over and over again via conferences, panel discussions, meetups, and other opportunities. All that said, I wouldn’t be where I am without the mentors who have guided me through my tenures at Edun, Lacoste and Bebe, to whom I am extremely grateful. A supportive network of people you trust who have your best interests at heart is paramount. If you want to find people like that, be a person like that — then, they’ll find you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more digital commerce jobs like this, visit BoF Careers.