Mark Ritson: Mr Dior is the model of good leadership

Sidney Toledano, president of Dior, showed in his speech last week that he’s one of those rare breed of leaders who does what so few actually do – lead.


Ever since the publication of Sebastian Jungers book of the same name, the term “A Perfect Storm”, has become an incredibly over-used cliché. But perhaps its use in association with the crisis that overwhelmed Christian Dior and its Chief Designer John Galliano last week was, for once, entirely appropriate. Like the original storm in Junger’s tragic account of the loss of a boat out in the Atlantic, it would be hard to invent a series of events any more precise or gargantuan than the ones that engulfed the House of Dior last week.

First, there was the timing of the whole thing. The crisis began a week before Dior’s autumn/winter collection – ensuring maximum publicity for the scandal and enormous distraction for the fashion house during its busiest period. Then there was the nature of the crisis itself. I defy anyone to come up with three more damaging words than “I Love Hitler”. The fact that the words were captured on video and were followed by a stream of incredibly vulgar anti-semitic comments only served to make an irretrievable situation worse. And then there was Dior’s newly minted relationship with Natalie Portman, a strident campaigner for Jewish rights, who had only recently been signed up as the new face of Dior perfumes and who went on to win an Oscar on the weekend in which the crisis erupted.

Add it all up, and it’s clear that this would have been a perilous situation for any brand. If Dior had been a large American corporation we all know the well rehearsed crisis plan that would have followed. First, the crisis management team would have been summoned from the across the organisation. Senior crisis management experts from the company’s PR agency would have been helicoptered in. A crisis centre would have been set up on the top floor of the company’s headquarters and a press exclusion zone set up. Panel research from target consumers would have been commissioned and feverishly reviewed upon its collation. Hundreds of cans of caffeinated soda would have been consumed as the crisis management team ran scenario after scenario. Finally, with every option considered, the final strategy would have been outlined and a multi-million dollar ad campaign plan featuring television apologies and full page print ads commissioned.

But Dior is not an American corporation. In fact it is about as far from that as you can possibly get and its response could not have been more different. First, and most painfully for a brand that had enjoyed 15 years with Galliano at the helm, they fired their chief designer. And then, with enormous humility and a tangible sadness, the president of the company – Sidney Toledano – appeared on the runway of the Dior show before it began. He opened a small piece of paper, cleared his throat: “Madames et Messieurs,” he said with sombre elegance.

In the three minutes that followed he reminded the audience of Dior’s treasured role in representing the values of France to the world. He denounced Galliano’s comments – declaring them intolerable irrespective of how brilliant the man behind them was. He publicly re-affirmed his team’s commitment to the values of Dior and reminded his audience that Christian Dior was a man inspired by the dream of making beautiful clothes and above all else bringing out the best in people. The giant hall in the Musée Rodin was spellbound. Then he turned and was gone.

Toledano was superb. With a singular act of leadership Dior’s president extinguished the crisis and started the heart of Dior again. Within seconds a flash of colour and a rush of music signalled that the show was beginning and models began their prowl down the runway with studied petulance. The shadow of Galliano had left the room. Dior, however, was back.

Simplicity is not the same word as easy. I am reminded of it all the time. It was there for all to see on Friday in Paris. How much easier would it have been to complicate things with plans and strategies and research and crisis management? How much harder was it for Toledano to simply get up and explain everything? And yet that is what he did – and he saved the day as a result.

I am not ashamed to say I wept a little on Friday while I watched Mr Toledano give his speech. Perhaps it was the evident sadness with which he spoke. Maybe it was just the drama of the whole affair and the sudden emotion of the issue being addressed head on. Or maybe it was just the sight of a leader doing what so many claim to do but so few rarely actually do – lead.

Remember the stuttering, slightly petulant performance that BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward gave last year on Capitol Hill when asked to explain the Gulf Coast disaster? I am certain BP had an army of crisis experts on board to brief Mr Hayward for that disaster. What we saw on Friday was the exact opposite – a leader in charge of a brand doing it the simple, right way. Bravo Mr Toledano and welcome back Mr Dior.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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