Working behind the scenes of newspaper and magazine articles, the role of a beauty PR is to propel brands into the realm of the Next Big Thing, ensuring that it’s their clients – and not themselves – who stay in the media spotlight. They have to foster good relationships with journalists and influencers as well as keep their clients happy – a tricky balancing act often requiring Henry Kissinger-levels of diplomacy. Yet PR is often derided as a “fluffy” profession (as sadly is the case with many jobs that involve a degree of emotional intelligence). All the more reason to admire Kelly Marks, co-founder of Pure PR – which this year toasts its 25th anniversary.
Throughout the years, Marks has helped steer the images of cult beauty brands such as Malin+Goetz, Moroccanoil, and e.l.f. cosmetics, building herself a reputation as an industry stalwart. In person, she is a warm and chatty mother-of-two with whom you might easily enjoy a chinwag with at the school gates. Glamorous? Yes, but worlds away from the stereotypical hard-nosed “PR girl” portrayed in films and TV.
Yet her passion for her industry is apparent from the get-go. “Beauty runs in my veins,” she enthuses. This infatuation took root during her childhood in Hampstead Garden Suburb, thanks largely to her entrepreneurial father, Henry Goldenberg — a hairdresser and salon owner who founded one of the first online beauty retailers, HQhair.com, which introduced numerous brands to the UK.
The importance of impeccable smartness was also deeply engrained in Marks’s Jewish upbringing. “You wouldn’t dare attend shul looking dishevelled!” she recalls. “Every Shabbos, you put your best foot forward, your clothes and hair had to look immaculate.”
Growing up immersed in magazines further enhanced her love for beauty and inspired a passion for storytelling. This deepened during her time at Halpern PR, helmed by Jenny Halpern, under whose guidance Marks honed her craft. Halpern’s mentorship taught Marks the power of a straightforward approach, and is the inspiration behind her own agency’s motto: “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (KISS). “That motto was always Ralph’s,” she says, referring to Jenny’s father Ralph Halpern, the late retail magnate who famously co-founded Topshop as part of the Burton Group (later renamed Arcadia).
Teaming up with her Halpern colleague Cara Ward, who managed interiors while Kelly focused on beauty, they set out to work with industries and brands they both loved – which is how Pure PR started. Back in 1999, when the notion of sustainability was still a blip on the horizon, Pure PR played a crucial role in launching eco home-cleaning brand Method in the UK, as well as partnering with personal care product firm Burt’s Bees and other forward-thinking companies that embraced corporate social responsibility.
Like many of her colleagues, Marks’s relaxed demeanour belies the fact that she has to be constantly one step ahead to ensure her clients stay relevant. “Many brands often assume theirs in the most unique and exceptional product on the market, so it can be a challenge to convince them to dig a little deeper,” she tells me. “What’s the actual story there? What’s the human-interest angle that people would actually want to read about?”
She insists that the many criticisms of PR are unwarranted. “The outdated stereotype of PR stems from the lingering influence of Nineties yuppie culture,” she notes. “But ‘AbFab’ stereotypes aside – you don’t get far in PR unless you’re really switched on.” This is not surprising if your job is managing the reputation of several household names at once. “You need an array of knowledge to draw from at the drop of a hat: from identifying the ingredients in a skincare product; to knowing the hairstylist responsible for a celebrity’s look at the Met Ball; and knowing who mentioned the brand in a Vogue article,” she explains. It’s not for the faint-hearted then. “To outsiders, it may seem like all we do is go out for lunch, but the reality is much more demanding and intricate.”
She recently spearheaded a collaboration between one of their clients, SPF-skincare brand Hello Sunday, and not-for-profit organisation Melanoma Focus to raise awareness of skin cancer and the importance of wearing sunscreen every day – a worthy cause and, she insists, a task far removed from the cliched image of PRs spending their working lives wining and dining beauty editors. (“It is so important to get that message across, particularly to Gen Z.”) Another quirky campaign saw her client e.l.f. cosmetics partner with up-and-coming pop star Caity Baiser, who handed out products to every single attendee of her UK tour. “That was a world first, for an artist to gift branded products to every one of their fans,” she says. A huge gamble and logistical nightmare, one might imagine, but Marks and her team managed to pull it off.
She explains how the advent of social media has also changed the way brands speak to customers. “Back in the day, brands hardly engaged with the people buying their products,” she recalls. “Social media has opened up incredible opportunities for them to interact directly with their audience and cater to them better as a result. For example, asking Instagram followers: ‘What perfume shall we create next?’ It gives us as PRs more scope for creativity too.”
Nevertheless, despite being so fast-paced and innovative in some arenas, the beauty industry continues to grapple with a lack of diversity, particularly within the realm of PR, a matter that Marks is earnestly determined to address.
“We’re open to anyone from any background, who’s got the interest and the skills,” she says. “Ultimately, people are chosen on competence but we do strive to have people from different walks of life. Otherwise, if everyone came from the same part of London we’d just get the same ideas over and over again.” Her strong relationship with her business partner Ward is testament to that. “I’m Jewish, she’s not. I’m north London, she’s south. We have totally separate lives outside of work but it works well. We’ve been in business together for 25 years and have never had an argument – I think the secret is opposites balance each other out.”
In the wider industry, she’s been no stranger to antisemitism. “Some years ago we were in a client meeting and they were talking about something in a derogatory way, something along the lines of ‘Oh yeah, they would, wouldn’t they? Because they’re Jewish.’ I asked what that had to do with it, and was told, ‘Well, that’s just what they’re like.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m Jewish… is that what I’m like?’ There was a pregnant pause and then they carried on.” Another time she found herself having to reprimand a hairdresser friend during a meeting when he insinuated that an individual might be unwilling to spend money “because they were Jewish” (the irony being that Marks was currently helping him for free). “I was trying to boost his career and offering to make introductions. I was stunned that he could be so hurtful.”
Yet Marks remains fiercely proud of her Jewish heritage. She is currently in the process of acquiring German nationality, prompted by her lineage to a grandfather who sought refuge outside the country during the 1930s.
“I’m Jewish before I’m British,” she says. “I keep kosher, I observe holidays and we won’t go out on a Friday night.”
Her commitment to her faith mirrors her passion for the beauty industry, which is what makes her a force to be reckoned with. Here’s to the next 25 years.