Editor! Please….

There always seems to be a trajectory with my favorite popular authors. When I start reading them over their first few books they are great. Then as they gain more popularity the books begin to get longer and longer. They have more long swathes of unnecessary, or repetitive, exposition. What I believe happens is when the author is just another author the editors at their publishing company assist them to make a polished diamond. Once the author gains some notoriety and is contributing in a large way to the bottom line of the publishing company I suspect the editors are more freely disregarded or jettisoned altogether.

Over the last month I realize perfumery has its own version of this. It doesn’t happen that often but it usually occurs once an independent perfumer is making their second set of fragrances. This is after a widely successful first set of releases. The independent perfumer does not know when to stop tweaking the final formula. This has just happened as I received the fourth “final” version of the next release for this perfumer. I am betting I will get another “final” version before it finally is put on sale. This is the perfume equivalent of getting that document at work with the file name, “Perfume-Final-draft-Final-FINAL-ReallyFinal.doc”

The problem I have with this particular perfume is I really liked the first “final” version I received. I liked it so much I was going to call it out as one of the best new perfumes of the year. Then I received the three consecutive “final” versions which are still good but not as good as the first “final” version. As a reviewer this has put me in an awkward place. There was a version which I thought was as good as it gets. The version that I will eventually review will likely not be as good as that while still being good. Do I mourn the good idea turned less good? Do I try and scrub my memory clear of the earlier version?

AskEditor

I always want to be supportive of any perfumer’s vision and I am going to do so in the case described above. What I have found out through e-mails is the only nose this perfumer is trusting to make the final decision is their own. Right there is where I think the indecision springs from. If you worked as perfumer for one of the big fragrance firms the perfumer is paired with another person called an evaluator. The evaluator is there to give an unfiltered opinion on the development of a perfume. I suspect the evaluator is probably the one to say, “Stop! Enough! It is done.” The evaluator is analogous to the publishing editor. A trained outside viewpoint can help focus the creative process.

Obviously an independent perfumer is not going to pay an evaluator but they shouldn’t have to. The key piece of information to receive is an impartial assessment of your perfume in progress from someone in whom you trust. Pick someone you feel can give you constructive advice. I think your perfumes will be the better for that. There are a number of well-established independent perfumers who I know have a few people they rely on for exactly this process. It is no coincidence that these are also some of the most successful independent perfumers, as well. Just remember at the very end you are probably no longer the best judge of your own work. Time to go find an editor.

Mark Behnke

The 2015 Halftime Report

We have hit the halfway mark of 2015 and I’ve been thinking about everything I’ve smelled in the first half of 2015. Here are some quick thoughts on the perfumes so far.

-It has been a very green year. I haven’t gone back and made a hard count but a significant percentage of the perfumes I have reviewed this year have had a verdant color to them. The vegetal green of Penhaligon’s Ostara. The completely abstract wasabi green of Olfactive Studio Panorama. Monsillage Eau de Celeri and the cilantro of Dasein Summer. Finally the classic chypre green of Aftelier Perfumes Bergamoss. I have never been happier to go green.

-In my New Year’s wishes for 2015 I hoped Olivier Polge would step up and revitalize the Chanel perfume offerings. With the release of Misia for Les Exclusifs in the spring it wasn’t a home run but it was a solid double up the middle. What I liked was all of the boldness Olivier Polge has shown in the past was still there. It has been a while since Chanel has seen that, which I think I figured out was what I was missing.

-There have been more excellent independent offerings than there have been in a while. Many of these have been from first-timers. Jessica Hannah and her perfume for Canoe Goods, Skive. Andrea Rubini and his Rubini Fundamental team. The established names have also impressed. Bruno Fazzolari Room 237 and Charna Ethier’s Providence Perfume Co. Provanilla.

-Interesting aquatics continue to arrive most of them leaving the Calone on the shelf. Pierre Guillaume’s Collection Croisiere is a great example of this through the first five releases.

-Really beautiful synthetic prominent fragrances have caught my attention. All of the Raymond Matts Aura de Parfum collection are examples of how synthetic does not necessarily mean banal. Kaiwe was my favorite but the entire collection is the best of the half-year. Mathilde Laurent also picked up the synthetic baton with Cartier XI L’Heure Perdue.

– Both Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and Serge Lutens were underwhelming in their early 2015 releases. Hopefully the second half of the year has something to thrill me again.

-Looking towards the second half I am still eagerly awaiting the first fragrance by Christine Nagel for Hermes. I know there will be something unexpected that will thrill me which is what makes doing this so much fun.

I think the marching band has left the field time to head out for the second half.

Mark Behnke

Hail To a Founding Mother of American Independent Perfumery

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It is July Fourth in the US. It is the day we Americans celebrate our Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers who formed that document. If there is anything that makes an American stand up straighter it is that sense of wanting to do things our way.

When it comes to perfume there has been a huge expansion in the American independent perfume movement over the last 5-10 years. There are multiple factors which have contributed to this growth. I also believe there is a person who could be considered one of the Founding Mothers of this movement, Mandy Aftel.

mandy aftel

Mandy Aftel

Ms. Aftel began making perfumes for commercial sale in 1995 under the brand name Garandiflorum Perfumes. Two years later she would found her current brand Aftelier Perfumes. Right from the beginning Ms. Aftel wanted to change the perception of natural perfumes. Prior to 1995 they were sold mostly at health food stores and head shops. They had an unfortunate association with being seen as both low in quality and lacking in style. Ms. Aftel would take the time to seek out materials and understand their nature before using them in a perfume. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fragrance with which I became aware of her with, Cepes and Tuberose.

cepes-tuberose

According to an interview Ms. Aftel did on the blog Kafkaesque wherein she talks about her love for working with difficult ingredients. While she was working on her 2004 book Aroma with Chef Daniel Patterson she decided she wanted to incorporate mushrooms, or cepes, into a perfume. The choice to pair it with the most boisterous white flower on the planet tuberose could have been disastrous. Instead this single perfume represents so much of what is right about Independent perfumery; the ability matched with the desire to take crazy chances which pay off in perfumes that stand among the best of the best. Cepes and Tuberose is a spectacular example of this. If I was just going to call Ms. Aftel a Founding Mother for her portfolio of perfumes that would be justified. There is another reason I think of her this way.

Ms. Aftel has been the teacher, inspiration, and confidant to so many independent perfumers it is difficult to make an accurate count. In 2002 she founded the Natural Perfumers Guild so she and the other people who wanted to see natural perfume elevated from the poor perception it had banded together. They would spread the word that Natural Perfumes were something to be celebrated. They would provide outreach to budding independent perfumers to give them a place to come together and learn from each other.

That sense of teaching extends to her book Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume. It is many young independent perfumers’ key reference. I believe it is a part of the essential perfume library for anyone interested in perfumery in any way. The aforementioned Aroma which explores scent and taste along with last year’s Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent which delves into the history and use of five perfume raw materials show her desire to share her experience through writing.

Beyond that Ms. Aftel is extremely giving of herself. She teaches classes out of her home studio on a regular basis. She is one of the key figures in the West Coast Perfume movement. She will invite people into her home to visit her garden and studio.

In science we have what we call “family trees” where we trace ourselves back through the people we obtained our degree from. Eventually we all end up springing from the tree labeled “Newton”. I would venture to say if the same method was applied to independent American perfumery that original tree would be labeled “Aftel”.

All of the above is why I consider her a Founding Mother. While I am watching the fireworks tonight and thinking about the founding of this country I will also take a moment to think of Ms. Aftel. I will send out a silent toast as a chrysanthemum firework explodes in a circle of color far above my head and thank her for all that she continues to do to support the American independent perfume world.

Mark Behnke

The Story of Charlie by Revlon, Liberation via Perfume

This week saw the end of two television series. One was The Late Show with David Letterman and the other was Mad Men. David Letterman had been the man who took the late-night talk show and changed it up. Mad Men was this perfect time capsule of America as it grew up during the 1960’s as seen through an advertising executive. When both started out they were the new cool thing. Then they both lived long enough to become perennials without the buzz. When I think of perfume I usually don’t think of it in those terms. There are great perfumes and they have continued to last attaining their own kind of persistent classicism.

charlie bottle

This past weekend at Sniffapalooza Spring Fling Michael Edwards, who I consider to be the perfume equivalent of the Navajo wisdom keeper, reminded me of a perfume which changed everything back in 1973. That perfume was Charlie by Revlon.

As Mr. Edwards recounted prior to 1973 the great majority of perfume was purchased by men for the women in their life. As women entered the workplace and began to find their economic footing Revlon wanted to make a perfume to appeal to that demographic. In 1973 Charlie was released, it was composed by perfumer Francis Camail. M. Camail composed a floral-aldehyde perfume but one not nearly as heavy, or “old lady”, as other prominent floral–aldehydes. Revlon was aggressively hoping to attract the 20-something liberated woman. They were also hoping to create an entire lifestyle brand to cater to that demographic. The approach to this produced one of the classic television commercials of all time.

The television commercial showed this blond statuesque woman getting out of a Rolls Royce in a gold silk pantsuit. As she walks into the bar it is clear she is known by all of the men she encounters. The catchy jingle was sung by lounge singer extraordinaire Bobby Short. If there was an ideal for a liberated woman to try and emulate here it was. A woman exalting her freedom with a laugh.

This worked spectacularly well as within three years Charlie was the best-selling perfume in the world. Revlon had done exactly what they wanted. They had created a new demographic of consumer pointed towards buying their products. The men were no longer going to be the ones who made the fragrance purchases anymore.

charlie advertisement

Every time Mr. Edwards reminds me of the influence Charlie had it makes me all the more surprised it hasn’t really lasted as other perfumes from that era have. Now it is found on the back shelf of your local drug store. Forgotten, probably collecting dust. It is like the women who made Charlie so successful; once opened up to the world of buying their own perfume found something they liked better. It reminds me of that last shot of Don Draper from Mad Men embracing the societal changes but finding a way to leverage them into an advertising angle. Charlie is the story of how Revlon changed the entire sociology of perfume and like Mad Men and David Letterman has now retired to be fondly remembered but not contemporaneously used.

Mark Behnke

Subscription Cancelled

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To truly innovate you can’t be afraid of failure. One of the challenges for independent and niche perfumery is having people try your perfumes in places where there are no stores to carry them. One new idea was to create a perfume subscription service. Throughout 2013 I seemingly received an e-mail monthly describing a new one of these services. The bare essentials were similar in that you would buy a year’s subscription and monthly you would receive a box containing samples of carefully curated samples.

This sounds like a good idea but it seemed like there was going to be a crowded marketplace vying for what should be a pretty small base of potential subscribers. If there were five or six of these all competing for the same perfumes and the same customer this might fail because nobody could have enough market share to survive.

Another big problem was the curation of these boxes. If I am going to trust you to pick out a few perfumes for me to try every month then you should be someone I believe has the experience for that. Almost all of these efforts were business first; making sure there were perfumes in the box and not necessarily perfumes that had any common theme or note to allow for someone to expand their perfume knowledge experientially. Most of the time the boxes just seemed like self-promotion without any desire to communicate anything about the perfumes inside. That was an opportunity missed.

charlie brown looking in his mailbox

Charlie Brown from "Peanuts" by Charles M. Schulz

The other part of this was, who these subscription’s target audience were anyway. If they were exclusively new releases they could have gone for the hardcore perfumista always looking for the next new thing. If they were from a store promoting their inventory it seemed more like advertising not education. If it was about older releases then you needed a way to find new perfumistas starting their acquisition phase of perfume discovery. None of the boxes did any of this well and as a result the murky execution led to even murkier success.

One effort that was different was that of Fragrance Republ!c. They sent out an entirely new perfume done by a professional perfumer every month. This was the one I joined and for the most part I enjoyed it but I could tell it was in a slow death spiral. There were many attempts to get more subscribers and all of them fell flat. What triggered this editorial was the notice last week that Fragrance Republ!c was closing down.

That’s the story for most of the subscription services that touted themselves to me in 2013 almost all of them are finished. I’m not sure how the ones remaining are doing. At least they have the advantage of having the audience to themselves which should help one or two to survive a while longer.

Should this be viewed as a failure? I don’t think so. All experiments don’t work at first. I suspect a smart group will look at what went wrong and what went right and combine all of this into a business model which also represents the best fragrance can offer. Then I can look forward to a monthly perfume arrival with pleasure.

Mark Behnke

Get Off My Lawn!

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Change; for such a small word it has such a large effect. For most, we dislike change we want the things we like to stay the same. Our view of perfume brands is no different. There are times when I wonder if I am falling into the trap of resisting all change just because I don’t want to give it a chance. Am I the old man wearing vintage perfume standing on the porch telling these modern compositions to get off my lawn? Of course, I’d like to envision myself as the antithesis of that always looking for new experiences the past be damned. It has been an interesting week to consider whether that is true or not.

Earlier this week in his regular column for Style.com Arabia called “Message in a Bottle” perfume writer and reviewer Luca Turin wrote of Guerlain in his review of the new Aqua Allegoria Teazzura, “These days, Guerlain fragrances are more like seventeenth century concertos of average caliber, commissioned by the dozen for delivery a month hence. Much like baroque concertos, they are intended to perpetuate a house style, to serve as background music to frivolous conversation as opposed to devoted silence, to develop foot-tapping tunes in an unambitious way, and generally to be pleasantly unobtrusive.” I don’t on the whole disagree with that statement but are we wanting something that no longer exists? The “house style” is still recognizable we just liked the previous version. Do I want the grand perfume houses to stay true to the past? Or do I want innovation? Which by necessity means hewing to modern trends and customers?

keep-calm-and-get-off-my-lawn

The second event this week was my review of the new Serge Lutens Le Religieuse. I am on record for not appreciating the new aesthetic Serge Lutens has imposed on the newest releases. I have publicly wished for a return to the past. I woke up this morning to a passionately worded e-mail from a reader who actively disliked the past releases I adore and conversely owns all of the new ones. She thinks Le Religieuse is as good as it gets when it comes to Serge Lutens. After an exchange of a few e-mails I started to wonder if I am so reluctant to let go of the past I can’t embrace this new direction. There were many who told me if I gave L’Orpheline more of a chance I would come to see its charms. I did wear it some more but I found nothing to enjoy. I said in that review that I just think that for this current phase of Serge Lutens perfumes I am not their audience.

I admire both perfumers a lot. I think Thierry Wasser has done a creditable job steering Guerlain through the last few years. I think Christopher Sheldrake is the perfect facilitator of M. Lutens’ visions. I don’t think it is lack of skill or desire. I don’t think these are perfumes without an audience. I think I am not that audience and that brings me back to my metaphorical porch waving my cane. All artistic endeavors should not seek to please everyone they should try to please a specific audience. There are plenty of other perfumes out there which do thrill me and they come from venerable brands as well as precocious independents. I still believe there is a future Guerlain and Serge Lutens which will challenge me and thrill me. At that point I’ll put down my cane and go join the kids on my lawn.

Mark Behnke

Thank You to The Original Five

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I started my own blog less than a year ago and these few months have been an incredible experience for me. Over the course of this year I realize how much I owed to those who started doing this perfume blogging long before I ever thought about doing it. I am always quick to embrace the new but it often leaves me less time to wax eloquent on that which lasts. Back in 2006 when I discovered the perfume groups on the internet I found there were five distinctly different websites which were run by five distinctly different perfume lovers with their own personalities. They were early adopters of this new thing called blogging. For me they were the planted seed of an idea that a personal view of perfume, or any subject, could be expressed on the internet. It would take me a lot longer to finally take my own step of doing it. These Original Five blogs were the forerunners of everything that has come since. As many of them turn 10 years old this year I wanted to take a minute to express my thanks to what each has taught me through their efforts.

blogging

Now Smell This has always been referred to as “the perfume blog of record” by myself and others. If Robin publishes it, it must be true. Robin has set a standard which I try to live up to. Get it right first and foremost. Then never forget its just perfume. There is never a day which passes where I don’t stop by Now Smell This and I know I am not alone in this.

Bois de Jasmin has been the blog of Victoria Frolova for ten years now. It has always been a pleasure to read along with her as she has developed over that time. As she says in her “About Me” section on the site, “One cannot be an expert in this fascinating subject until one spends a lifetime practicing it, so I have a long way to go.” That attitude is one which has always informed my view of being a perfume blogger. I think it is too easy to get caught up in the attention and I need to remind myself that, like Victoria, I have a long way to go.

Perfume Posse is as the name portends is the rowdiest of the early blogs. It is a group effort but the den mother has been Patty White throughout its tenure. Perfume has always been categorized as a feminine pursuit but the gang from the Posse, March, Musette, Tom, and Portia, have always made it seem like a raucous party for all. There is no blog which leaves me with a smile more often and it reminds me that those who love perfume are defined by their passion and not by who they are.

Grain de Musc is the blog of Denyse Beaulieu and has been the blog I look most forward to reading a new post on. Denyse has spent years examining the world of perfume. She has gone from writing about it to teaching to writing a book about being a creative director on a perfume. In short she is the example that all possibilities are open to someone who is genuine in their passion. She reminds me to stay true to myself and to be open for whatever comes next.

The Non-Blonde is Gaia Fishler’s blog not only on perfume but also make-up. Gaia has been everything I aspire to be. She is accurate. She is passionate She is a great support to other bloggers as they start out. She says more in 400 words than most say in 4000. She is a constant presence in my daily reading.  When I grow up as a blogger I want to be The Non-Blonde.

These five women did this blogging thing when it was a crazy idea and they still continue to lead the way every day. They deserve our thanks and appreciation as the foundation upon which all of us who write perfume blogs stand. I want to thank Robin, Victoria, the gang at the Posse, Denyse, and Gaia for blazing the way, you continue to inspire this writer.

Mark Behnke

Acquisition Mania

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There has been a lot of words written about the latest big business acquisitions in the niche perfume space. I’m going to add a few more.

During the first week of November 2014 Estee Lauder purchased three niche companies: Le Labo, Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums, and Rodin Olio Lusso. This news was met generally with the reaction that Estee Lauder will ruin these brands. Examples used were the previous acquisition of Jo Malone by Estee Lauder ten years ago. Guerlain’s acquisition by conglomerate LVMH is also always mentioned.

Detractors tend to point towards these examples and say they aren’t the same since they were bought. The implication is the business has overtaken the artistry. Except that isn’t true. In Jo Malone’s case the availability expanded dramatically. I would also argue that under the stewardship of perfumer Christine Nagel some of the very best perfumes in that label’s history were produced. The ability to give the creative reins to someone like Mme Nagel only comes when there is a bit of big money behind a brand. If the future holds more opportunity for people to discover great perfumes like Le Labo Rose 31 or Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums L’Eau d’Hiver, how can that be bad? I have always wanted a wider distribution for niche perfume which has embraced the principles of niche perfumery to make something for the true aficionado without worrying about the bottom line. The big money sale of these brands show they have been successful at that and I am hopeful that more people can see there is more to perfume than the latest mass-produced fruity floral.

frederic-malle

Frederic Malle

I have also seen a number of comments around the idea that these two lines which have come to be prime examples of niche perfumery “selling out” is bad for the other brands out there. My short answer to this is, “Good!” One of the things that has distressed me is the proliferation of business people behind new niche brands who believe there is money to be made in this sector, quickly. If nothing else these sales show that it takes time to build a brand identity and allow that identity to find an audience. All of these moneychangers in the perfumed temple looking for a quick buck might realize there is a little more to it than fancy bottles, aspirational pricing, and high-concept marketing. If they want a quick score what the spate of brands bought by the big companies has shown is you better have a good track record over many years.

My bottom line is both Le Labo and Frederic Malle will continue largely unchanged and the only noticeable change will be the opportunity to buy some of their perfumes more widely, a good thing. It might also bring to an end Le Labo’s city exclusives since Estee Lauder would want to have those with a wider availability; also a good thing. Reformulations should be a non-issue as both brands were already IFRA compliant. I think that there are many good years and great perfumes ahead for both brands no matter who reaps the monetary benefits.

Mark Behnke

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

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I have been part of many enthusiast communities on the internet. I have always thought they were special groups of people. Over the past few days the group of perfume lovers who connect digitally all over the world have flown into action and shown that they are ready to help in any way they can.

The unfortunate reason which precipitated this outpouring was the announcement that my former colleague at CaFleureBon Tama Blough has terminal cancer. I have known Tama for years but it was only this past March that we actually met in person at Esxence in Milan. I thought how funny it was we both had to travel to Europe to finally meet. Tama was the same in person as she was electronically. A warm presence always smiling. I got a kick out of watching her meet some of her favorite perfumers and then communicate that in her daily post for CaFleureBon. I remembered my first trip to Esxence and the doors it opened up for me and was thrilled to see Tama opening her own doors. I knew she would create personal relationships that would last. She has done that for years as the organizer of her hometown SF Sniff and has created a local community of perfume lovers who regularly met up to go sniff perfume.

As the word of her illness was revealed late last week one of those local people Nina Zolotow took it upon herself, with Tama’s permission, to rally the perfume community to help by starting a Give Forward donation site called Tama Blough’s Cancer Fundraiser. In just five days it has raised $12,000 of its $20,000 goal. That money is critical to Tama’s ability to face her cancer on her own terms, in her own home, surrounded by the things she loves and her cat Buster. As someone who works within the cancer community I know the importance of keeping a hold of all of the things you love in life and allowing that to raise your spirits. I believe Tama also has to be drawing strength from the level of genuine love that has been displayed. Not only by donations to her website but different efforts to raise money using perfume as the vehicle. There are multiple sale threads on Facebook where people are selling their unwanted bottles and donating what they sell those bottle for. Perfumer Tanja Bochnig of April Aromatics and CaFleureBon Editor-in-Chief Michelyn Camen have made a limited edition perfume called San Francisco Rose which can be purchased here. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is donating 15% of the sales for her The PLP Project perfumes; Peace, Love, and Perfume.

So often when a person is facing a terminal disease there is a reaction by many to pull away to not want to face the inevitable. What makes me proud to be part of the perfume community is from all parts of the world it has come together to give Tama a virtual hug. We can only hope that Tama allows that love and caring to help her through the difficult times ahead.

Mark Behnke

The Price of Passion

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I am spending this fine mid-October weekend among people who share my passions. Half of it will be spent with my fellow comic book fans at New York Comic-Con and half will be spent with my fellow perfumistas at Sniffapalooza Fall Ball. One thing both groups have in common is the willingness to spend for that which they believe to be unique and/or collectible. As I have observed this over the past few years I have begun to wonder if there is an upper limit to the price we can be asked to pay for our passion.

I rarely talk about price in my perfume reviews because I try to judge based on the quality alone. I leave it up to the reader and eventual consumer to judge whether it is “worth it”. I do talk about perfumes I think are a great “bang for the buck” and heck there is a whole category called Discount Diamonds on the sidebar to the right. There have been ultra-luxe lines exemplified by Amouage, Roja Parfums, and Clive Christian. Not to mention extrait versions from established houses like Guerlain. There are bottles of perfume in my collection which required me to pause for a moment before paying the price. I always justify it as the price for owning a piece of olfactory art. No matter how a buyer justifies paying the price the brands can still go too far.

price of passion

What is beginning to concern me is that brands that previously didn’t charge high prices have started to do so. There have been numerous examples of brands in the last year charging significantly more for a new release. Some brands have charged up to four times their previous price. Sometimes I can understand the increase in price because of the choice of ingredients….and sometimes it is not so obvious. That is really where my concern lies if the much higher priced offering doesn’t differ significantly is the brand taking advantage?

Many of the brands I am talking about have spent years building a passionate base of perfumistas who await each new release. I don’t know what it must feel like to see myself, or another reviewer, wax rhapsodic about that new release only for the consumer to get sticker shock when choosing to buy it. Business principles say the market will only bear what the consumer is willing to pay. I wonder if that factors passion into that equation.

My final worry with this tactic is if the passionate supporters feel taken advantage of can this do damage to the brand as a whole? Once a consumer feels taken advantage of there is no easy way for a brand to re-capture that one time supporter. This could be a case of short-term gains at the expense of the long-term.

How much something is worth to someone is a very personal decision. Almost as personal as choosing which perfume brand commands your respect and loyalty. I don’t want to see either taken for granted in an attempt to increase the bottom line.

Mark Behnke