When I met Paul Austin, the founder of the Austin Advisory Group, for tea at ABC Kitchen, little did I know I was about to embark on a great conversation about telling stories. But that’s exactly what happened. Paul came up in the fragrance world, working as a high-level executive at Unilever and Quest International (now Givaudan) before taking what was essentially a half-year sabbatical in India. When he began traveling, he was convinced he would never go back to the fragrance world, but while in India, he began studying Ayurveda in addition to Indian perfume traditions and ingredients That led him to the idea of working with brands in new way, one where storytelling was used to connect with and inspire people. When I asked Paul how he defined success, he said, “Where I’m most in my game is where I’m able to associate, aggregate, and weave disparate elements into something that feels whole.” For more from Paul on fragrance and storytelling and authenticity, read on!
Can you tell me in your own words what it is that you do?
I’m the founder of Austin Advisory Group, a brand storytelling agency. Through the lens of what we call SourceStories©, we aim to discover, distill and reveal the authentic stories of the brands we love.
The idea came to start the company during a research sabbatical in India when I was studying Ayurveda and the country’s fragrance traditions and the natural perfumery ingredients cultivated and processed around the country. I had spent 18 years a an executive with Unilever and Quest International (now Givaudan, the largest fragrance and flavor company in the world) ultimately running the company’s Fine Fragrance division. But I felt disillusioned by the sameness of the industry that prides itself on creativity. I wanted to do something different. Inspired by the truth and beauty of what I saw in the fields of India, the idea for my company crystalized. I wanted the connect the fragrance industry and its customers to the truth and beauty of what I found at the source of the perfume world.
Since founding the company, we’ve worked on helping brands beyond the fragrance world connect to their Source Story….for the likes of Rolls Royce, Sotheby’s, Estee Lauder, Donna Karan, The Gem Palace, ABC Carpet & Home and several others. Each time, the mission is to connect a brand’s audience with its authentic narrative.
What interested you about Ayurveda? Had you always been curious about that subject?
What was interesting to me was more about the psychological constructs. Ayurveda is the medicinal side of the Vedas. But I was more interested in what it said about the way its adherents saw the world. I was always interested in plants because of perfumery—that’s what I think about when I smell them and see them. I’ve always had a curiosity about them, but I never really spent much time at the source. So I know all of my anonymous brown bottles in the lab: I can tell you what jasmine smells like and where it comes from, what the yields were, how it’s processed, its distillation. But when I was in India I discovered by chance that all of these natural ingredients were growing in the area in which I was living. There was jasmine, tuberose, spices. On my weekends, I started following these harvests and really trying to understand the context. I started hanging out in these very rural settings. When I was there I thought, “Maybe my industry can connect with the truth and beauty you find at the source of what we do as opposed to the veneer. There’s so much here that we’re unaware of.” And that became the lens through which I founded the company I run now.
Can you tell us about your project with ABC Carpet & Home?
Our goal was to create an authentic storytelling platform for the eminent and revered eco-luxe retailer based in Union Square. We thought, here’s a company that has got so many amazing stories to tell in-store, but they’ve never really had a framework or strategy to do so on-line. What we did was come in and think about those stories, and then we created a strategic storytelling platform for them. Today we all care about where something comes from, and we want to know why it was made, the process and the people behind it. I think we all feel much closer, much more emotionally invested in brands when we sense there’s something real, and we sense there’s some integrity and honesty and reason behind it.
One part of the project was the creation of SourceStories© films, including the one on the journey of an ABC Carpet. Austin Advisory Group has produced sixteen or seventeen films in the last few years for several brands. Each time, it’s always the authentic story.
Talk to me more about that phrase. It sounds like it’s indigenous to you. When you say “authentic story,” what do you mean?
In the case of ABC and the story behind the carpet, there was a fascinating and completely unknown story about using recycled saris to make rugs, who’s involved and how it’s done. And it’s not just a fetishization of the artisans, which is a little bit of the lingua franca of origin stories these days. This is an innovation project that ABC has with these partners in India. I think we reported on it in a way that was completely true, cinematic and ultimately, hopefully, hugely resonant. This doesn’t just happen. Its very time consuming to craft these character-driven pieces. That’s why my team is made up of world-renowned documentarians, journalists and storytellers. For example, my Director of Photography for our ABC films won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival for best documentary a few years ago. My producer, a PBS alumnus has 3 Emmy nominations for her work on disparate issues from the 9/11 tragedy to global education.
And it’s interesting that you would choose people who have no fashion and fragrance experience. I bet that brings a rich perspective to the way these stories are told.
I was moved by what happened to me in those months in India, in those fields. I was inspired by the truth behind things. And so I thought, the way you tell the truth is not through the lens of advertising, it’s through the people who know how to tell true stories.
I stumbled into the film world. I have a long history of working on the brand side. Some of the early work I did was a rebranding for Robertet, the largest source of natural, sustainable organic ingredients in the perfume industry. They’re the family from Grasse in the south of France—165 years old, same family, same company. So I was honored to be asked to do repositioning for that company.
What was that like? That’s like the apex of everything you’d done up to that point.
It was a great honor. I felt like I was dealing with a company that I’d always admired, and with my interest in natural ingredients that had emerged when I was in India, it was a serendipitous encounter to meet them and work with them. We created a platform for them that was all about starting at the source of where the ingredients grow and having the grower and the perfumer work together at the beginning, as opposed to disembodied process that begins in a lab in Manhattan or Paris. In the course of doing that program over a few years, I realized that film would be a powerful way to crystallize an idea.
And you felt like it was stronger than other mediums?
Yes. It was an integral piece to our communications message. Film is also something I’ve discovered that I like very much. I think I have a good feeling for the medium. I’m interested in the act of distillation. With film, you have to be very thoughtful about the distillation of an idea.
When you say you have to be very thoughtful, what do you mean?
It’s about taking an idea—it’s very much like making a perfume. Anybody can throw a bunch of ingredients together, but how do you make sure the perfume is different a few hours after you first spray it on? What transcends emotions and time to become something that people engage with? I think that film is similar, given how much moving content is in the world today. I think that what we do—and let the proof be in the pudding—I think and hope that the films we make deeply engage their audience. But getting there takes a long time.
So what are you doing now?
We’re working on strategic storytelling projects for a range of beauty, luxury goods and hospitality brands. One project recently took my team and me to Japan for 3 weeks which was an utter treat. I’m also working with Parsons School in Paris, which is part of the New School here, on a multi-sensory design program. I’m very interested in the confluence of the senses and the role that plays in storytelling. A lot of the work we do is digital, but it’s also about how you can bring things to life using sensory experiences. I think that my background in the scent world has uniquely prepared me for being able to riff on the senses, how to be attuned to the senses in general, and how that gets woven into what we do. Even in the films, I would like to think that the imagery is quite immersive, that it’s textural. People have often said, about the scent-driven films, “I can almost smell that fragrance.”
Well, that’s success.
That for me is great success. It becomes layered and multi-sensory and more than just a two-dimensional experience. That’s when it becomes alive, and I’m interested in stories that become alive. I’m engaged by stories that are dynamic and slightly uncontrollable and organic. That’s when the work becomes interesting—when you’re telling stories that have the potential to become something else, that are slightly bursting at the seams.