One thing is clear. Jan Richter, svp of creative at Saks Fifth Avenue, is no snob. And her job is to make sure you don't think her brand is, either. Well, maybe Saks is just a little snooty, because otherwise, Richter's ads wouldn't be quite so amusing. Richter loves playing with the notion that Saks and its shoppers have their noses in the air.
Her work puts elegant women in witty high-society scenes that beg for explanation. In one of her magazine ads, a woman in a gown stands on a stepladder holding a lobster. Next to her is an aquarium. The headline: "Saks loves fishing for complements." Think vintage New Yorker cartoons and the highbrow humor of Brit P.G. Wodehouse. "We use copy to support the visuals, which is rarely done in high fashion, with messages and a tone that is both friendly and sophisticated," says Richter. "The element of fun gives it an emotional punch."
Richter, 48, had been working at Saks for three years when Terron Schaefer, svp of marketing, came to the scene in 2004 "with a suitcase filled with fun ideas," she says. He took the focus away from product advertising and put it on brand narrative, telling consumers a story, she says. "Creatively, we started looking at things differently, and it helped us get over the stigma of snobbery" that hounds luxury brands, she adds.
The current "Saks Loves" campaign with animals and unexpected props started right after Schaefer's arrival and continues in magazines and newspapers. A March magazine ad has pencil-thin former Chanel model Inès de la Fressange pushing a large safe on a dolly down the sidewalk to Christie's auction house. The headline is, "Saks loves serious collectors."
The hint of sarcasm suggests Richter's humor has a sharpened edge, and she acknowledges that the illustrations she enjoys creating in her free time can be a little dark. But she's sunny and upbeat, with energy to spare. Keeping the work fresh and clever without losing the patina of luxury is a delicate process, and colleagues say Richter has an exceptional skill at fostering ideas from everyone in her 12-person team. "She has a playful sensibility, and her open approach makes the work more multifaceted," says Laura Silverman, vice president of copy.
Over the course of her career, Richter moved between the in-house and outside agency worlds. In the early 1990s, she founded the in-house agency at Anne Klein and later honed her skills at New York agencies, including a stint as group creative director on Avon at N.W. Ayer from 1999 to 2000. She says the client side can be more exciting than agency life when you have a showplace like Saks so close by. The flagship store is like "a theater, with celebrities, publicity events, trunk shows, press luncheons or something else going on every day. The buzz just feeds us," she says.