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LONDON - With a British-Germanic (with Swiss-Austrian roots) mother and Antiguan-Bajan father, my complexion is, well, complex. And when trying to find the perfect - albeit elusive - nude lipstick, I sensed I had hit the jackpot upon discovering Charlotte Tilbury whilst my search reached a fever pitch.
A friend told me about a shade everyone from Amal, Bieber, Markle and Chung had been seen wearing. ‘This sounds promising’ I told myself. Intrigued, I decided to give it a try. The shade, it turns out, was none other than Charlotte Tilbury’s iconic Pillow Talk, a colour I've since become a connoisseur at recognising from a nautical mile.
Eager to know more about this mirror ball of a personal-care brand, I reached out to Global Head of PR, Sabina Ellahi. Initially, for an insightful conversation about her role and her makeup preferences, the interview became a full-fledged deep dive into the best foodie spots in London, poignant stories behind her most treasured jewellery pieces - gifts from her Thai and Pakistani relatives - and a heavy discussion on the shifts happening within the PR industry.
Tell me about your Sundays. How do you unwind from being the Head of Global PR at Charlotte Tilbury?
Sundays are so sacred for me. I've been relearning what weekends can represent for me. Historically, it used to be this spiralling attitude of the ‘Sunday Scaries’, but now it’s really less about that, more about listening to my body to see what I need to give back to myself.
During the week, I don't have much time to give to myself. So if I'm not travelling, it could be brunch with a friend or reading a book in the park or outside or taking a walk. It's very important to me to feel like I'm being able to give some time back to myself and be in control of that time. And that can look very different from week to week, but the overarching theme is just making sure that I'm able to feel like I’m calm and prepared for the week ahead. It’s all about getting myself back to the baseline.
What does jewellery personally mean to you? Any go-to designers or signature pieces you adore season after season?
Jewellery, to me, is a way to tie back to your heritage. I am fortunate to have two distinct heritages: My mother's side is Thai, my father's side is Pakistani. Beyond my engagement ring, there are two pieces of jewellery that are particularly significant to me. I have received pieces from both sides of my family, serving as a reminder of my roots and heritage, which I proudly carry into the world as a symbol of who I am.
One of these pieces is a jade pendant, a gift from my mother's brother, my uncle. It hangs on a gold chain given by my maternal grandmother. In Asian culture, jade signifies many things, but I cherish it for its representation of harmony. In our busy lives, having something that symbolises this harmony is important and meaningful. Wearing it, I feel it influences how I carry myself, even if subconsciously.
Another cherished item is a Mughal-inspired 24-karat gold piece from my father’s sister, my aunt in Pakistan. It's a beautiful, versatile piece that blends seamlessly with any outfit. It's more than just a sentimental heirloom; it harmonises the heritage and history of the region with my personal style, which I deeply appreciate.
In terms of everyday jewellery, I love a brand called Mejuri. Their philosophy of sustainable, affordable, quality pieces resonates with me. There's a trend towards investing in simple, timeless pieces, moving away from 14-karat gold plating to solid gold that endures over time. I'm really liking a lot of their stuff. It’s very, very pretty.
In terms of comfort and quality, which hotels have given you that 'home away from home' feeling?
In New York, I've always loved The James Hotel, which is in NoMad. And what I love about it is two things: Firstly - the location, it's right in smack dab of the Flatiron District. Secondly, I like that it's a no-frills approach paired with delicate attention to details. The fixtures and room layout are understated, avoiding extravagance, yet offering simple luxuries. After a long day, returning to collapse into the bed there feels like coming home.
And, while I do enjoy a luxurious hotel experience, there's something to be said when there’s an overload of amenities or novelty. It can feel excessive and underutilised. The James strikes a perfect balance for me. It also boasts excellent restaurants, enhancing its appeal as my 'home away from home' in New York. So what I really love about finding a place to stay is no-frills but with tiny details.
And there's something to be said about, I do love like a nice luxury hotel experience, but at the same time, sometimes when you feel like there's too much novelty or too much amenities and you're not able to take the full advantage of it, you do feel like it's a bit of a waste.
So, I've always loved The James and they have some really great restaurants in it. And so that's been my home away from home whenever I go to New York, in addition to staying with friends. In essence, what captivates me in a lodging choice is this blend of a straightforward approach with a keen eye for subtle, refined details. This combination is what I always seek and love in a place to stay.
Where do we head for dinner or lunch in London?
There's one restaurant that sticks out in my mind. It’s called Bubala. And, I've been shouting about how amazing this place is to anyone who listens to me. It’s probably the top 10 meals that I've ever had in London. It's a vegetarian/vegan Middle-Eastern restaurant, and they just know how to do the basics super well.
You can tell a lot of care and a lot of attention that goes into the recipes that they produce. And it's not expensive. It's a great place for a one-size-fits-all whether it's you're entertaining a client or you're entertaining a friend. It's a place that I time and time again love to go back to and get very excited about.
What's the best coffee spot in London?
I'm such a coffee person. There’s a place I’ve found that isn’t too far from me. It's a place called Southpaw, in Islington. It was a place that I found during lockdown when I was searching for a piece of normalcy, doing those socially distanced walks. Southpaw became my go-to, restoring that sense of normality and being able to feel like life wasn't completely turned on its head.
My go-to drink? A cappuccino. And I've gone through variations of the nut milks. So doing almond milk, oat milk etc. And now I've finally just gone back to the basics and I'm getting a cappuccino with regular full-fat milk. And you know what? I don't know why I decided to change from it initially because I didn't have any real dietary concerns or issues!
There's a nutritionist that I follow called the glucose goddess and she’d mentioned that having a full, whole milk dairy in your cappuccino is actually better for you because of the fats and protein that mitigates a blood sugar rise.
Southpaw is definitely one of my favourites. Another place that I do love that's not too far from me as well, (and that's more of like if I need something in the morning while I'm working from home,) is Caravan. They have a brew bar that's opened up by me and they actually grind all of their coffee on-premises. You get to see, you get a nice behind the scenes look as to what's happening in the background. And I believe they also host trainings and tastings there as well. So it's a nice element of, you know, feeding back to the community, but also just knowing that it's a really reliable cup of coffee as well.
For comfort food, what's your go-to dish? A family recipe, a chef's creation, or a cookbook favorite?
Well, it's actually less about me making the comfort food! So, I'm originally from outside of Philadelphia, from a tiny state called Delaware. It's on the East Coast, and my town is about 40 minutes south of Philadelphia. And five years ago, there was a bar and restaurant that opened up in London called Passyunk Avenue.
And it's a Philadelphia-themed dive bar and restaurant. So they specialise in serving authentic Philadelphia cheesesteaks. Comfort food is one thing but I think it's also more of the atmosphere. When I'm feeling homesick, it’s been my home away from home, in that sense. I’ve brought so many of my colleagues there. And it's a place where I've also met other people from where I'm from and we're all living in London.
In terms of what I like to create at home, I am such a sucker for a good bowl of pasta. There's actually a recipe that I'm really dying to try. It's a French onion pasta so essentially the taste of a French onion soup but it's made into a sauce and you just put in some pasta with it. So I tend to like to experiment with, you know, existing comfort foods that get reimagined into a pasta dish.
Do you remember when the baked feta pasta went viral?
Oh my gosh yes, that's such a staple for me still. I did so many variations whenever I got bored – I was like, “Okay I wonder if I should try putting some Chipotle spice in this!” I love it when you can supercharge pasta.
Is there a specific campaign part of the Charlotte Tilbury brand story that's really resonated with you, not just as an employee?
I would have to say the most recent campaign that we've launched, which is our Holiday campaign with Elton John. It’s such a beautiful intersection of purpose and the story that we want to tell as a brand. I think there's just been a beautiful weaving of what we represent as a brand with some of the purpose that he's trying to echo.
And we always say that we always try to shine a light on the causes that some of our partners bring into this world. I just thought it was a really beautifully thought-out campaign in terms of what we want to achieve. And December is always going to be a very saturated period and a lot of brands have a lot of stories to tell, but I think there's a lot that we've done to make the story shine beyond just the talent that's in the campaign, but also the purpose.
This year Charlotte Tilbury turns 10. Tell me about where you go to find inspiration for your role?
Definitely, I would say the first and foremost is getting out of London. Now, that being said, London has some amazing sources of inspiration for me. I think being outside of your comfort zone and outside of your environment, that's where you're gonna get the maximum effect of inspiration. Because you are now being taken out of an environment that you're not used to.
You're experiencing different cultures, different people, different food, et cetera. Everything in terms of your senses is being heightened and in some cases being challenged. And I think that's where the inspiration really comes to life.
Living here in London and even within Europe, you're so fortunate to have access to so many different types of culture within a few hours’ plane ride away. If I'm feeling like my inspiration tank is running on empty, I'll be quick to book a city break. It’s just keeping your brain motivated. Sometimes loss of inspiration comes with a lack of motivation and that's really where I try to make sure that that kind of gets brought back to life on these trips.
But within London, what's amazing is the access to the museums here. And there are so many incredible exhibitions. Plus the fact that museums are free and the exhibitions don't cost that much for you to go in to learn and explore. I've always been a proponent of gaining a deeper understanding on specific topics. That’s my quick way of being able to activate inspiration and feed it immediately.
Where do you want to travel to in 2024?
There's a list of places. I would say I am dying to go back and spend some time in Asia, particularly Japan, which is on my and my husband's travel list. I mean, talk about a place that fuels creativity and energy and inspiration because it is just like a whole other world. I think that's gonna require a two-week minimum trip to really indulge and enjoy. Other places that we've talked about were Mexico City.
Another place that is rich in culture, vibrancy and livelihood. Within Europe, there are still places that we haven't seen. We’d really love to go to Corsica and Sardinia. Being out in nature and really seeing untouched beauty is the peak inspiration for me. Because that existed so long before any of us existed.
What else helps you stay grounded? How do younger generations inspire you?
I would say that the travelling piece unlocks a lot of that for me. And regarding Gen Z, their ability to challenge. They've challenged the industry norms and also the expectations. And they've turned the beauty industry on its head, asking the industry to do better when it comes to sustainability practices and environmental practices. They want us to be more mindful and deliberate in what's being produced.
And I think that's something that all brands need to do better about. Because a lot of the time you're working on building out a very busy and crowded marketing calendar, and sometimes it's actually asking yourself - ‘Are we launching this for the sake of launching it?’ because the chances are you could be sitting on a lot of stock. Or you're gonna have to work really hard to diversify and strengthen the difference, the point of differentiation of the product.
And I think this new generation, including Generation Alpha, has done a really good job of just making us think a bit more critically about what is it that we are putting out and being a bit more intentional with that.
What intersections of branding, aesthetics or industries pique your interest outside of your category?
Interior design, obviously, I think is such a proponent because in what we do, especially if you're developing something at IRL, that aesthetic is really important to try and build out. So I think a lot of inspiration for myself definitely comes from interior design. Nothing makes me more excited than, you know, entering a really gorgeous hotel lobby that's really thought through and has a theme or has a certain identity that it's trying to get across.
And I think it goes back to what I mentioned about when we were talking about hotels that feel like home: I really appreciate places that are quite intentional with the smaller touches. So it's like looking to see what type of books are filled in the room. In the last couple of years, there's been a lot of conversations about book covers and what they represent. And bold typefaces and bold colours - as a storyteller, I find very interesting.
It's similar to packaging; a product's packaging can captivate you, and the same can be said about a book cover. For me, it's about the intersection of making a strong first impression.
To impress someone at first glance with a cover is quite an achievement. Whether the story within is readable or enjoyable is another matter, but especially in recent years, with reading gaining momentum and the sheer volume of literary works increasing, book covers have become more significant. You notice this in places like airports, where the abundance of choices can be overwhelming.
I love that a book can serve as a centerpiece or a conversation starter, whether it's placed in someone's room or on a coffee table. It's about combining interior design and the elements that create an identity or story within a room, with books being a huge part of that. I find this concept inspiring. It's almost like sending a message to the world, and there's something profound about that.
What does a good work-life balance look like for you?
My therapist a few years ago mentioned to me about rituals. And there’s such an emphasis on rituals now. What they look like, a face mask, skincare regime etc. But when I think back to one of the most profound things she said to me, it was “rituals can simply be going back to the basics.” And there are five things that she mentioned: Hydration, nutrition, movement, hygiene, and sleep.
And the exercise was, if things are feeling too out of control or too hectic or too crazy, these five elements will always help you re-center and ground yourself, bringing you back to earth. It is really just the basics, but if you think about it, those five things are the ones that get neglected nine out of 10 times. If anything, we're lucky to achieve one of them, right?
Even if we do achieve one, it often falls short of its optimum levels. This idea resonates with me, particularly as a member of the millennial generation. We have been consistently encouraged to approach everything grandiosely. This ties back to my interest in the slow movement, which emphasises being intentional. Sometimes, focusing on the basics is really all you need.
So, those five things I mentioned are the things that always keep me grounded without a doubt. If I can get all five of them done each day, I know that whatever is ahead of me, however crazy or hectic life is, as long as I have a firm grasp on those five things, I'll be fine.
What's inside your make-up bag and what does your beauty regime look like?
I think there are two things for me: Beauty always starts with having a really good skincare regimen because, with a good skincare regime, your makeup will always look better. (That's a line Charlotte always says!) And I think it's really important to remember, there's been a reset in the beauty category. Makeup was traditionally used to cover imperfections or blemishes.
However, there's been a shift towards starting with skincare to minimise these issues. Instead of relying on makeup for coverage, the focus is now on skincare and basic care to maintain a healthy complexion. This approach allows you to enhance your features with makeup, rather than conceal them. I've always loved a good full-coverage concealer, a glow boost, a good natural cream blush, and a good mascara.
Like honestly, if those were the three things I had to carry because I had limitations on my liquids bag, those are the things that I always carry. You can always make it stretch, make it work.
Then in terms of skincare, for me, it's just three things. It's a good serum, a good moisturiser, and SPF. Like those are the things, and SPF, I cannot express the importance enough, even if you're sitting inside, but it really is the one thing, (especially from what I've heard from fellow colleagues, scientists, who work in product development,) that really is a bona fide way to fight anti-ageing.
And part of like my belief and philosophy was always, what if I was working for a brand, I have to make sure that I as a consumer would also love it, because otherwise, it's really hard to advocate and to vouch for it, right? That’s one of the reasons why I was so excited to work for Charlotte Tilbury, is because the products do perform really well. I’m a user of them myself, even before I started the job. And there's something to be said about that, especially for PR professionals, because we move across brands all the time.
But you can really unlock your own inner potential if you're able to work at a brand that you actually believe in and are a customer of. 95% of the stuff that I use is Charlotte Tilbury for sure.
She's launched this new Magic Water Cream. So it's the latest iteration of her Magic Cream but it's in a water fragrance-free version. And that is probably my, (as cliched as it sounds), desert island staple. I cannot stop raving and talking about that product to anyone. It's just super hydrating, and gives you, this beautiful glow. Every time I put that on, it sets a really nice precedent before I start to do my makeup routine.
You spoke to me about learning about confidence, and how this personal philosophy serves as a good foundation. Have you always had confidence or is this something you've had to work on?
No, it is definitely something I've had to work on. And again, I think it was something that really only came to fruition in the last few years; probably entering into my thirties.
What I realised from building my career in my twenties, (and I think a lot of women share the same sentiment) is that we are incredibly critical of ourselves. We're very hard on ourselves. And I've noticed we all collectively never gave ourselves a break, especially in those formative years of our careers. In the last few years I’ve learnt to change that mixtape. And instead of, oh gosh, I did something wrong, or oh gosh, this didn't come out the way it should.
‘They're not going to like it’ - It's just resetting, changing that mixtape to say, I'm doing the best with what I have. And honestly, just that simple phrase has unlocked a piece of confidence I didn’t have before. It's looking at what's in front of you, the data you have and recognising you can only do the things that you do with what you know.
And we just have to remember that about ourselves. Of course, we'll always want to hold ourselves to a high standard, but it's remembering that we're human and we're working with what we have.
You studied abroad in France. What did it teach you?
And I say that interestingly enough because in my career I worked with a number of French people and it was, honestly, the reason why I studied in France. I decided to minor in French at university and, and even though I don't have a linguistic bone in my body - I can't say languages are my strong suit - there was something to be said about the interest of being in the environment.
That was the only way I could learn the language. Actually being in the country living with a family for six weeks that didn't speak a lick of English. It forced me to communicate in French. Interestingly enough my husband is French, so it was almost like a foreshadowing of what my life would entail. But, I do think that it did teach me empathy because when you're unable to speak a language, it can be frustrating, but people are always willing to try and understand you.
Tell us about your home. What's your style?
I love a neutral palette. Keeping the room in neutral colours, then using soft furnishings or furniture to really add in that splash of color. In my living room right now, there are lots of accents of orange and warm purples.
You can change pillowcases, you can change rugs etc but painting a room is a whole other feat! Having a neutral neutral palette never goes out of style. And it also allows for flexibility in terms art.
What would some people be surprised to know is part of your role?
Every day I'm wearing different hats. PR in general and historically, has always been anchored on media; Relationships with media and journalists and now influencers etc. And I do think that a lot of people who are not familiar with PR fail to think about how important both the strategy and position pieces are, along with the storytelling. A lot of things that might be also sitting in the world of a head of brand or a brand strategist.
Those worlds are increasingly becoming much more blurred because. PR and comms professionals are the first ones to really force the inception of a story or campaign, because we need those materials earlier. I think what a lot of people don't understand is the strategic initiatives that are kind of embedded into a comms professional, because a lot of it is for planning.
In my view, effective communication in our current business landscape extends beyond just engaging with our stakeholders; it encompasses the integrated communications aspect. I'm observing an increasing number of brands being more thoughtful about these roles, recognising that communication isn't solely about the advocacy partners we involve in our work. It's about the story we aim to convey to everyone, including consumers.
Nowadays, there's significant crossover between different functions, and a key challenge lies in discerning which responsibility belongs where. We strive to collaborate cohesively, ensuring we are in sync without overstepping or needing to extensively modify our approaches for different audiences. This cohesive collaboration is a continual challenge for communication professionals like myself.
We have to dictate the types of assets needed, be it collateral, copy, images, etc. We also need to creatively direct these needs. In a company of our size, with an abundance of talent and professionals, it's crucial to guide them in a way that makes sense not only for our immediate needs but also for others who may utilise these assets.
The blurring of these worlds and crossing categories is a complex, yet integral part of modern communications, demanding adaptability and strategic oversight.
Outside of beauty, what brands are on your radar?
Blueland. It's a sustainable home cleaning brand and essentially you drop in tablets to create a solution for a window cleaner or a general antibacterial cleaner for example. The way they present themselves is so impactful to me.
It looks very similar to a Method bottle, and they’re trying to achieve this minimal branding which I see a lot of brand doing right now - not wanting to overwhelm the consumer. And it's unlocking an aesthetic. So that captivated me, plus the imagery and how the products are presented. It made me go, ‘oh, that's really chic - I want those in my house!’
Cleaning products is definitely a category where you look at historically, and it's like, it's just so dated! And you wonder about the environmental aspects of it and the ingredients. There are a lot of parallels between beauty and cleaning goods. So much that has been done for so may years and now we’re pulling back from using toxic ingredients because there are effective alternatives. There are definitely other ways.
We have the technology, we have the science to be able to develop and explore other ways that are going to be harmful to not only the environment but also to us as well. I think there's so much to be said about that category. I think it's doing what beauty had done maybe around six years ago. Like you're starting to see challenger brands rise up and I think that's going to be a really interesting space to look after. Cleaning is a volume-based business so I think if you're able to crack the code and understand whether the consumers are willing to invest.
The challenge of PR is we're in the business of eyeballs. It's all about reach and it's all about how many people are actually seeing our content. Now, the conversion factor or getting people to buy is a whole different story. And I think this is where a bit of work can be done in general. I think PR professionals face similar challenges in quantifying their impact within a business.
We can highlight impressive figures, such as reaching millions or billions of people and earning media value in the millions. These are the typical KPIs used in communications, but there's room for further exploration beyond these metrics.
The concept of 'impressions' has always been somewhat ambiguous. For instance, if a piece is published in the Daily Mail with a readership of, say, 200 million, the real question is how many people are actually reading that piece and engaging with it.
While we have data on click-through rates and other metrics, the challenge in PR goes beyond just landing coverage or having influencers post about us. We showcase significant audience sizes and reach, but the underlying question in any business is how this translates into sales.
PR's role is to place content effectively, but then it's up to other departments, like performance marketing, to optimise this in ads or newspapers. PR is more than just media coverage; it's a tool to amplify other parts of the business.
And I say this as a challenge to all PR professionals, how do we amplify that? And how do we celebrate the results that we get in other forms beyond a recap that gets circulated internally?