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The Drapers Interview: Raoul Shah

Raoul Shah, the founder of influential creative agency Exposure, on 20 years of connecting fashion with entertainment.

The fashion and media worlds were very different places in 1993 when Raoul Shah left his job as a marketing manager with the Pepe Jeans group in London to go it alone. Aged 25, he started as a one-man band with loads of energy, a passion for product, notably denim and music, and a belief that bringing different people together makes new things happen. He was the supreme networker long before anyone had signed up to LinkedIn.

Twenty years on, Exposure is a £24m turnover business with 200 employees and offices in London, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Amsterdam will be added to this diverse network next year. Now a married father of two, Shah is joint chief executive of the business with Tim Bourne, who joined him in 1997, bringing blue-chip marketing experience to complement Shah’s more instinctive, streetwise approach.

Levi’s, Dr Martens, Nike, Coca-Cola, Converse, Topshop, Selfridges, Sony PlayStation and Drapers’ parent EMAP’s ground-breaking trade event 40° are among the diverse roster of businesses that have sought the right exposure via Exposure. Many of the techniques and strategies Shah’s vision introduced are now marketing industry standards. His creation has had an extraordinary development from being the go-to new agency of the 1990s to being the go-to experienced, multi-disciplined “establishment” business of today.

What does Exposure do for its clients?

We still do what I started doing in 1993. Today, Exposure is a communications and marketing agency with the purpose of making our brands culturally relevant.

What I’ve always done is networking. My thing is being relatively good at bringing people, particularly from different backgrounds, together and finding out what the dynamic is. So, bringing fashion together with music or advertising people with retailers and looking at how ideas can be born. We didn’t regard it like this back then, but it was a non-traditional way of approaching ideas and campaign generation.

On a practical level, today Exposure sells a portfolio of services and specialisms ranging from fashion PR, consumer PR, events, graphic design, art direction and advertising. We are also selling a lot of digital services, social media, content generation for campaigns and we are very involved in big-scale events that are part of a campaign, rather than a one-off. We do a lot in the retail and trade marketing space too.

You’ve gone from being the upstarts to being almost the establishment agency, yet you have maintained very long relationships with some key clients. How come?

All our new business still comes from referrals and word of mouth. There was a time when we were visible enough and small enough to be the go-to agency, but in 20 years there have been waves of go-to agencies. There are very few that are still around - most of our peers have closed, been sold, merged or disappeared, but we are still here.

It’s quite obvious that we are passionate about certain areas, which explains why we have worked with Levi’s and Dr Martens for more than 14 years, or with Nike and Coca-Cola for more than 10 years.

Converse was an early client for us. In 1993 Converse was not on the cool radar; LA Gear was its competition. For 10 years we put its classic styles on people’s feet, starting, oddly enough, with visiting US hip-hop artists such as Dr Dre, Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg.

One of the defining periods for Exposure was running Converse’s UK and European PR account purely through product placement. Such an influencer programme is now part of almost every contract we have. The question is, how do we engage influencers and what’s the media return on that? It’s about editorial reach, changing perceptions, and online visibility.

Why was 1997 such a turning point for you?

I started Exposure on my own in October 1993. In 1997 I brought in Tim Bourne, who came from a traditional sales promotion background, and was the expert in blue-chip and consumer brand marketing. It was fascinating for me to learn about a commercial sales business rather than just image-making and branding.

We thought there was a real opportunity to bring in blue-chip brands alongside fashion and lifestyle brands. One has scale, while the other tends to have a lot of credibility and cool value; bringing those two together could create something interesting. A perfect by-product of that in 2003 was the first bottle collaboration between Coke and Matthew Williamson, a big global consumer brand working with what was then an emerging London fashion designer.

That collaboration model continues to be a really key foundation to our business.

Exposure has been growing its top-line revenues consistently for 20 years. As an independent company, consistent profit growth has not always been easy, but we have virtually no debt and have a very healthy organisational structure.

How can clients be heard in today’s world of instant and uncontrolled communication?

Some of the values today are no different to those of back then, even though there is a plethora of channels and individuals who carry a voice.

The question must be: ‘What and who carries influence?’ We have always said ‘people trust you if you are authentic’.

Today, you have to be absolutely crystal clear in your message. You have to back up your message with a lot more than a traditional press release and pictures from a lookbook.

One of our biggest areas of development outside digital and social media has been content creation. That can involve anything from making short films as a brand experience to using retail as experiential space, not just a selling environment. A retail flagship is becoming more like a marketing vehicle, while online is the place where people are trying to attract a growth of sales. The challenge is understanding how you integrate all the different channels, how you make sure they are consistent, with a very clear message, and then create appropriate content that has to be world class.

How do you measure success for a client?

Two years ago we set up within our group eQ, an analytics and research company. It has a bunch of metrics, listening and measurement tools that we use to measure everything we do. Getting a picture in a magazine of a celebrity at your party is not good enough anymore. Clients want really robust measured value for what they are spending.

One of the disciplines we have introduced is putting clarity on what success looks like up front. We no longer go headlong into campaign, then look at the results and say it looks quite nice. Now we ask what a client’s money is expected to deliver in terms of success. It’s about clearly setting objectives and bringing some more maturity into the dialogue around the value of marketing and communication.

What’s the business benefit of being in the US and Japan?

Having our feet on the ground in those countries is amazing. When we launched the all-white England kit for Umbro in 2009 when Nike had just taken over the brand, we launched it in Tokyo and New York, which had a disproportionate effect in London. When we launched Levi’s Red in 1999 we launched it in a magazine in Japan called Composite and a magazine in LA called Flaunt. But the first journalist that called us was from i-D here in London because they had seen it. And that was before digital. The influence of those cities is phenomenal. We say to clients, you engage those cities, those communities, those consumers and influencers and you can have a phenomenal effect on the UK and across Europe.

Business in the US is done in a very different way. The Americans are hugely driven by recognisable growth and are motivated by success. They are ruthless in their decisions, and there might as well be a different language for each of the 50 states. It took us five years to make a dent in the US. You need blue-chip brands as a calling card to prove you have any reason to exist out there. Luckily, we have Nike and Coca-Cola.

Tokyo is the closest thing to being on another planet. It’s different culturally, emotionally and in entertainment terms. It is quite sobering to learn that Tokyo is not filled with cool, fashionable kids. That’s a tiny niche of how we might see Japan based on what comes over here. It’s a very traditional society, and an old economy that’s been in recession for a long time. It is so traditional that it takes people a long time to break away and do anything different.

What hasn’t worked for you?

We have tried looking at building a sales function next to our PR function, but it’s very difficult and complicated when you start understanding how good sales agencies operate. It’s quite hard to replicate as an add-on to what we do. And it’s hard to find good people as most of the good ones are already at great agencies, many run by friends of ours.

We also tried running a talent management business about 10 years ago and had Helena Christensen as a client for two years. We were successful with Helena and we started establishing her position as a photographer, but we couldn’t get any further beyond her. We thought we could build a really good talent portfolio but you need a lot of people on your books.

Organising events is one of your things. What will your 20th party be like?

We have hired a venue with a capacity of 2,000 because it’s never good to run out of space - or drink. We have sent out 1,000 invites and had 500 yeses quite quickly, so I am expecting about 800 people, including Jane Plouviez, the first person I ever hired at Exposure. I have guests coming from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo and several cities in Europe. There’s a fantastic surprise performance on the night.

For a lot of people coming there will be great reconnections, which is the story of Exposure itself. From the start, it has been about putting people together. The rest is just paperwork.

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