Liz Kaplow started her public relations agency 30 years ago armed with knowing how storytelling could create an emotional connection between a brand and its audience. Calling herself an “accidental entrepreneur,” she built Kaplow Communications from one assistant in 1991, to one of the leading independent PR agencies in the country, and CEW’s agency of record for more than two decades.
Under Liz’s leadership, Kaplow has ushered in many innovations, including the first holiday pop-up for Target, Skype in the Classroom, CVS’s game-changing Beauty Mark, and the CEW Beauty Awards, rebranded to the CEW Beauty Creators Awards.
Kaplow has won more than 70 industry awards and accolades. Personally, Liz has earned honors including the Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications, PRNews’ Top Women in PR Award induction into PR Week’s Hall of Femme and Girl Scouts of America’s Woman of Distinction. Through it all, Liz has been a mentor to many and a champion for women across generations.
Here, Liz reflects on growth, leadership, beauty shifts, and more:
CEW: What was the foundation for starting your own business? Has that premise changed over the past three decades?
Liz Kaplow: I’m a practitioner at heart with a love for the communications business. The idea of telling brand stories, which was new 30 years ago, was what drove me as a founder. With every change that has taken place—each new outlet, platform, or development—it is still about the story and how it connects with our lives.
CEW: You often talk about the importance of having a support system and how finding a champion is relevant to women in the workforce today.
LK: The early years of building the business reminds me of the challenges women are facing today. When I started, there was no roadmap and through the support of many, especially my husband, the business became our 360-degree life. Women today need to look to that support system: relationships, friendships, and mentors are crucial to building and sustaining a career. I want women to know it is okay to ask for help.
CEW: Let’s dissect the decades and the major events that shaped each.
LK: Getting through the first decade was a major achievement! Meeting Carlotta Jacobson and working with CEW was a major highlight. What was meant to be an introductory call with Carlotta turned into a conversation that covered the gamut of business trends and opportunities. We discussed a consumer engagement idea for CEW that idea turned into the CEW Beauty Awards. Through that first decade, we built a strong footprint with beauty companies and began what would become many long-standing client relationships. We started to see that partnering with clients in a high-touch way could lead to long-term success, a tenet that still guides us. We also saw the deep brand-building results of our work with earned media.
During the early 2000’s, many startups came to us from diverse sectors across retail, consumer technology, finance, home, and fashion. Brands looked to Kaplow to humanize and communicate complex technologies. The way people were living and interacting with brands was changing, but consumers were still looking for ways to feel connected to the products and services they needed every day.
Through the decades, we embraced the evolution of the communications industry. Our relationships with the editorial community put many brands on the map. We embraced the shift in the way we engage the consumer, from new platforms to hybrid experiences to influencer and VIP voices. As consumers have become increasingly connected to brand stories with purpose, we continue to help brands align their mission with what’s most meaningful to their audiences.
The last decade underscored the importance of creating a strong culture that keeps the best people inspired. Early on I was so focused on building the business that I didn’t fully understand how critical it was to establish a strong culture. One day, I found myself feeling sheltered and calm under the branches of a tree – and I thought, this feeling could become the backbone of our agency. That is how the Kaplow culture of TREE (Trust, Respect, Energy, Enthusiasm) was born. TREE is at the heart of who we are as an agency and everything we do internally and externally.
CEW: TREE became an important concept to help you through tough times. How do you overcome other bumps in the road?
LK: Speedbumps were recently put in front of my house. Everyone on our block would forget they were there and go too quickly over them. But with time, drivers instinctively sensed the speedbumps, allowing time to slow down and anticipate. The same is true in business. The biggest speedbump is one shared across every industry: the Covid-19 pandemic. As we slowed down to anticipate the impact it would have, it allowed us the opportunity to come together, show our value and strengthen our relationships with each other and our clients.
CEW: What’s your leadership style?
LK: In the beginning, I thought I had to do everything myself. I realized that in order to grow and develop, it was important to encourage the next generation of leadership. I have become our team’s biggest cheerleader. I liken it to an actor who shifts their role to behind the camera. Investing in people, promoting from within and allowing our team to bring their own thinking has had a direct impact on our growth.
Another shift is human leadership. Putting people first and looking through the lens of humanity helped us get through difficult times.
CEW: As an advisor to CEW for more than 20 years, what would you say have been your top contributions as a board member and to the organization?
LK: From the beginning, my role has been to help shape CEW’s evolving story. Working with Carlotta and the leadership team as a sounding board, I always try to ask the right questions. . . to bring a unique perspective, providing ideas and insights from both inside and outside the beauty industry. My contributions have been focused on helping communicate the organization’s value and relevancy. I see myself as an ambassador for CEW’s mission focused on education, empowerment, access and action. Serving on the board, it has been my privilege working in a collaborative manner with fellow board members to build on strategies and fulfill the organization’s goals.
As agency of record, we have worked with the CEW to embrace the changes in the communications landscape. We’ve seen it in every facet: from the evolution of the Beauty Awards, the early notion of using CEW’s platform to create beauty content and even in the broad shift to communicating in a digital world.
CEW: On the foundation side, you have been instrumental in making Cancer and Careers as successful as it is. Please talk about how you have helped propel this side of CEW.
LK: In 2001, Carlotta told me a story that resonated deeply—how 5 out of 40 of the organization’s board members had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She said a lightbulb went off as she wondered what workplaces were doing for women facing this difficult diagnosis. CEW Cancer and Careers was born out of that story. At that time, we pledged to provide pro bono services and we have been supporting the organization ever since. It’s been incredibly gratifying to partner with CAC on the communications front, and I’m proud that our agency has played a part in helping the organization expand its reach and continue to grow.
Over the years as social media continued to grow and provide deeper communities for survivor storytelling, we have shifted our approach to elevate and amplify those connections to the cause through our influencer efforts – specifically in supporting CAC’s Beauty with Benefits efforts. Each year, it’s incredibly moving to hear partners share their own stories of how CAC plays an important role in making it easier for people to return to work/normalcy after diagnosis and treatment. It’s been fulfilling to see the beauty industry come together around CAC’s mission.
CEW: Carlotta has said the success of Beauty Awards has benefitted from your constant nurturing and evolution of this program. How have you helped the program evolve most recently?
LK: The Beauty Awards was founded on the insight that CEW could provide consumers with a window into beauty insiders. As the media landscape has changed, our communications approach has evolved. Our job has been to explore different ways to communicate directly to the consumer, including using new platforms and opportunities through a completely integrated approach.
This year, recognizing the passion consumers have for the people behind the brand, the program has been relaunched as the CEW Beauty Creators Awards. We are advancing our communications — unearthing the stories, the conversations in social media led by beauty awards ambassadors. This leads to the next exciting opportunity: to bring the consumer directly into the conversation with the beauty industry all yielding continued importance to the awards, and credibility to CEW.
CEW: What’s your future plans?
LK: I think I’ll be doing this when I’m in my 90s because of my passion for helping brands tell their story. There is also a part of me leaving it open for what the world brings.