Joni Rae Russell
President of Joni Rae and Associates
Joni Rae Russell has been on the fast track since graduating from the University of Miami with a dual degree in marketing and management in 1973. After launching her career as director of advertising, sales and education for a full-service distribution company, she published and edited The Curcio Chronicle, an innovative 24-page newsletter focused on companies, personalities, and business trends in the cosmetics, hair, skin and nailcare industries. In 1979, she moved from the client to the agency side of the business, joining Merchandising Warehouse, a large full-service sales promotion agency. By 1984, Russell had risen to senior vice president within the company, spearheading product introductions within 10 divisions of Revlon, and launching more than 100 new products to the industry. In 1988, she joined Redken as vice president of marketing with responsibility for four salon divisions. In 1991, she formed Joni Rae & Associates, an award-winning marketing, branding, and creative services firm, and through it Russell continues to unify and strengthen her clients’ looks and position by providing a cohesive, integrated program of services comprised of strategic planning, marketing development, product naming, positioning, packaging, promotion, publicity and advertising.
How are you tenacious?
Russell: I fight for designs that people say cannot be executed. I fight for product positioning that people say is too risky. I fight for fair pricing. I fight to move timelines forward. I fight for the things that move a brand from ordinary to extraordinary.
Since you started your own business, how have your motivations changed?
Russell: My motivation has always been to innovate and create excitement for my clients, while exceeding their expectations.
Who or what inspires you?
Russell: I am a voracious consumer of all things written and visual—I always look for the essence of what I see and think, “How can this be applied and translated to my work?” I am especially inspired by art and architecture. I collect inspirational ideas and try to expose myself to a wide variety of things trending.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from running your own business that you would share with other women?
Russell: In the early days, I would wear many hats and handle myriad project details myself. As the business grew, I realized that I could not do it all and needed to build a team to handle the details, allowing me to be the “think tank”/team-leader. A leader needs a completely different skill set. I learned that if everyone bought into the goal from the start, we would all get on the same page faster. Now I realize that my business team is my greatest asset.
As you grew your company/ brand, what ‘Ah-Ha’ moments of clarity helped you share its future course?
Russell: I started JRA as a marketing firm 21 years ago. I wrote the marketing and business plans and clients were happy, but then they'd say, “Now what? How do I execute this?” Typically, they would go to a branding firm, then a package design firm, then a promotion company, then a media-buying firm and, finally, a publicity firm; when you did the timeline, it was rather long. I had an “ah-ha” moment: I could also execute the marketing plans. I developed teams to execute my plans and acted as the creative director. This not only enormously strengthened the brand, but also allowed clients to bring products to market faster with a stronger position because all teams were working under one umbrella toward one goal.
What is the number one quality you look for when hiring employees, and how do you evaluate if they possess that trait?
Russell: I look for DNA. Specifically, people who are self-motivated team players, who possess desire, passion, confidence, drive, organizational skills and enjoy communicating. I have found that either you are driven, passionate and ambitious or you are not. It’s in your DNA. I would rather hire someone with these traits and train them than hire someone with experience who lacks desire and commitment.
Throughout your professional history, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned after making a mistake?
Russell: Everyone makes mistakes. Things happen that you just cannot predict no matter how much thought you put into something. The secret is to remember these sidetracks and never allow them to happen again. Nothing trumps experience.
What’s the best thing an employee/colleague ever said about you?
Russell: I like it when they say, “She knows her stuff,” but honestly, I just love hearing, “Thank you.” One client told me that he would not have been able to sell his company for hundreds of millions if it were not for JRA. Another offered me the CEO position of his company. Another sold and said that he wanted to be my partner in any endeavor I choose.
If you were training another woman to take over your job, what’s the most important advice you would offer her?
Russell: I would tell her to put herself in her client’s shoes. To exceed their expectations. To over deliver. To maintain strong ethics. To support her team. To not be afraid to take risk. To never compromise quality. To strive for excellence and not take her eye off the prize. To stay on course. If she does not know the answer, ask. Do not miss a deadline. Have fun and don’t take yourself so seriously.
If someone were to write a book about your life, what would be an appropriate title?
Russell: The Beauty Behind the Brand
If you weren’t in the beauty industry, what would you be doing?
Russell: This is all I have ever wanted to do. I was born into the salon industry and have been working in this industry for forty-two years. I am proud to say that I am third- generation in the business. My grandfather was a cosmetic chemist and formed a barber manufacturing and distributing company. My father and his siblings built and grew that company into a full service professional beauty salon distribution company (VJ CURCIO Beauty Supply) and expanded into salon interior design and finance. I am arguably the first female DSC. My brother Vincent Curcio went into sales and I enjoyed the marketing side of the business. We have both worked full-time and supported our families on what we earned in this business. It’s in our blood. We both love it.