9 minute read 5 Sep 2019
Photograph of three Mecca lipsticks

More than skin deep


EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

9 minute read 5 Sep 2019

For the first seven years of trading, beauty retailer Mecca didn't show a single model's face in its marketing or on the store floor. It was a radical departure from the norm - a gamble that customers wanted more from their beauty buying experience than a new mascara. 

It's a fair assumption that Jo Horgan has never been called a shrinking violet. At seven, she put together what could only be described as a business case and argued with her parents until they agreed to send her to boarding school. At 23, she researched and cold-called the chief executives of six top companies in London and pitched to work for them. All six made offers but Horgan chose L’Oréal so she could learn from their female general manager.

At 27, Horgan decided to back her instinct about there being a better way to do beauty retailing. Despite an industry packed with of naysayers, she sold her home and poured that money into a new concept store that brought emerging brands together in a boutique staffed by brand agnostic hosts who were nine-parts educators to one-part sales assistant.

She is chief of the informed choice. Informed choice operates whether you’re in a retail store at Mecca, or educating girls around the world as she does through Mecca’s philanthropic vehicle M-Power. It's about being given enough data, evidence and information to make your own decisions and control your own journey.

It may be a long bow to conflate being given the right information to know to purchase a Kevyn Aucoin Volume Mascara with the self confidence a year nine girl in rural Africa gets from being taught what’s possible. But (and it’s a big but), the principle is the same, and it’s a principle that underpins the entire philosophy of Mecca, M-Power, and of Horgan herself.

“We put our money where our mouth is from the outset on this, when we had no money and I was the educator. The first two [stores], there was a two-week education session before anyone stepped foot on the floor and we did it with no money. I had nothing. It nearly killed me, but that was something I was crystal clear on.”

Horgan wanted every person in the team to know the product, the story behind the product, and the application methodology. Critically though, she taught staff how she wanted customers to feel.

We want to make customers feel fabulous. How do you do that? You educate them. You entertain them. You make them feel that they are in control.
Jo Horgan
Mecca founder

“We want to make them feel fabulous. How do you do that? You educate them. You entertain them. You make them feel that they are in control," says Horgan, who was recognised as Australia's EY Entrepreneur Of The Year in 2018.

Through careful curation of the retail experience, Horgan has ensured customers recognise implicitly that empowerment is part of Mecca’s DNA. She says it means they feel comfortable shopping there, safe in the knowledge everyone is on the same team.

Her instincts were right, and since opening in 1997 Horgan has grown Mecca, without any external capital, into a business that accounts for nearly a quarter of Australia and New Zealand’s $2.4 billion premium beauty market.

Jo Horgan

Railing against the “inbuilt sense of condescension” that was so prevalent in the beauty industry in the late nineties (and to an extent still is now) is something she’s proud of. For the first seven years, Mecca did not show a single model's face in anything they did. Not in any of the marketing material, nor on the instore displays. Nowhere.

“Who gives anybody the right to say that you do not conform to the stereotypes of either beauty, or what you should be doing with your skin,” says Horgan. “We didn’t show models until we felt that our customer knew that we genuinely were about them.”

It’s a rare thing to be able to trace such a clear line from the culture and philosophy of a CEO, down through a business of 3000-odd staff, and see a direct impact on an individual customer, let alone see a company’s culture sustained at scale.

“It is not often as a hearing impaired woman I feel heard,” a Melbourne customer told Mecca in an email about her experience with the retailer. “For me shopping is difficult and isolating.” She recounted how a staff member at Mecca with “hilariously limited” AUSLAN tried her best to engage, communicate and welcome her.

“I got in the car to come home and began crying,” the customer wrote. "No words can express how much that interaction gave me something I so desperately needed – and it wasn’t the moisturiser.”

Then there was the cancer survivor embarrassed by her disfigurement, who actively avoided beauty shops. She reported back that while waiting for her daughter in Mecca, a staff member “offered me empathy and a chat”.

“She wanted to learn about my cancer story and we started to look at my scaring,” wrote the customer, “I bought the products but what I took away was more important to me than the make-up, it was the beauty industry taking time to be present in a very hard time for me without judgement.”

In an era where executive leadership teams talk the talk on purpose-led organisations, Horgan’s own business was doing it before it became fashionable. The brand is now deemed a ‘Lovemark’ business, which recognises high levels of loyalty and an engaged customer base, and boasts an NPS score, which measures customer satisfaction and loyalty, higher than Apple’s.

In 2018, MeccaLand, the annual beauty festival Horgan founded, reached half of all women on Instagram in Australia, 70 million worldwide, and sold 8,000 tickets in 15 minutes.  

It evidences an approach that has made Horgan incredibly successful by putting compassion, respect and education at the heart of every transaction to drive business outcomes. Which is not to discount her wily abilities at the negotiating table, and few would doubt her reputation for sealing deals others couldn’t, or didn’t think to. She was first to convince nascent brands such as Nars and Stila, with no distribution outside their home country, to make Australia their second or third market after the US. They still over-index here. 

What’s interesting is that Horgan doesn’t believe she started out as particularly purpose-driven, although she’s ‘crystal clear’ (one of her favourite terms) about the power of the knock-on effect of educating and empowering women. She talks about the hundreds of women who earned their business education by rising through the ranks at Mecca to subsequently go out and start their own businesses.

She’s equally fierce about the young entrepreneurs and the school girls M-Power supports both in Australia and overseas. And while it’s all about empowering women, that goal is underpinned, as with everything at Mecca, by good business outcomes.

According to a 2018 report from the World Bank, when girls are prevented from completing a full 12 years of school, it costs between USD15 trillion and USD30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.

“The point I like to make to people about Mecca is that you can think about it however you want. You can think about it philanthropically, you can think about the social responsibility point of view, but I actually like to appeal to people's business acumen.”

Warren Buffet said in a documentary on him a couple of years ago, ‘I've been a feminist from the beginning of time because it makes [business] sense’. I mean, why would you exclude 50 per cent of the population?
Jo Horgan
Founder, Mecca

Horgan doesn’t go so far as to say businesses are guaranteed to be rewarded for their purpose, but it’s obvious that where there is a platform and message that makes sense for that business, or the person running it, she firmly believes teams and crucially, customers, more readily embrace the company.

“If I was to give advice to entrepreneurs today, I’d say with hindsight, what would have been much more invigorating and interesting for me would have been to take Mecca’s purpose and articulate it more clearly and have a very clear philanthropic lens from the outset.”

Nowhere is the benefit being articulated more clearly than with the current generation coming through the retail purchasing cycle.

“One of the fantastic things about this age group now is that they’re very civic minded and they are holding businesses to account, and holding themselves to account,” Horgan says about the demand for change the younger generation is making.

“Honestly, I think it is one of the most exciting things that’s happened to business.”


Through careful curation of the retail experience, Jo Horgan has ensured customers recognise implicitly that empowerment is part of Mecca’s DNA, and she's been rewarded for the effort by exponential business growth. 

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EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization