Raoul Shah partied with superstar Beyonce and her husband, rap's first CEO Jay-Z, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but you would never guess it, thanks to his super-cool demeanour. When talking about celebrities, he might as well be detailing what brand of breakfast cereal he prefers.
That is not to say that Shah, 42, founder and joint CEO of lifestyle shop Exposure, is arrogant or dismissive of such things; it is just that he is so goddamn cool about it.
His fellow chief executive, Tim Bourne, says: 'Raoul is a great socialiser and finds it easy to be with celebrities without being starstruck.' That said, Bourne adds: 'He also has no issue with approaching Ronnie Wood at a restaurant in New York and asking for his autograph.'
Shah's contacts book is packed with celebrities and several big-name clients, thanks to his flair for networking. Shah's agency does not seem to suffer much, considering he is rarely in the office. But being away from his desk does not mean he is not busy using his considerable skills as a networker to the agency's great advantage.
Exposure has long championed PR as part of its below-the-line marketing mix of services. When the agency was launched in 1993, Shah sought to build on his passion for and interest in people by using the idea of networking as the agency's foundation.
'When I started the agency I didn't have a business plan or long-term view,' he says. 'I had a thought about setting up a business that would champion the idea of networking. It was about putting people together, especially from diverse backgrounds.'
Fast-forward 16 years and Shah feels the services Exposure offers are at last being taken seriously by big brands, helping to insulate the agency against the recession.
'The past 12 to 18 months have been so difficult and brands have started looking for more ways to communicate than advertising,' he muses. 'People are taking much more seriously some of the services we have offered for many years, which perhaps in the past were a bit of an experiment.'
Shah also believes the agency has been able to weather the financial storm better than some because of its business in the United States. Exposure's sixth year Stateside has been its most successful yet.
'We had a phenomenal year in America and have gone completely against the grain. We had no expectations other than a year of stability, but we will actually grow by 25 per cent in the US this year, which is amazing.' The agency has offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Not content with success on either side of the pond, Shah is expanding further afield, with an office due to open in Japan. The new venture sees Exposure team up with existing client, British luxury brand Globe-Trotter, to launch an office in Tokyo (PRWeek, 23 October).
'We wanted to look at a new market and Tokyo is a key centre for us because of its cultural and network influences,' says Shah. 'Globe-Trotter made the proposal for us to join it. It seemed like such a natural fit.'
The Japanese venture is evidence of Exposure's close relationship with its clients. Brands such as Levi's, Coca-Cola and Globe-Trotter have worked with the agency for a number of years and are effusive in their praise for Shah. Globe-Trotter director Gary Bott says: 'Raoul is quite simply one of those rare individuals who understands and respects each and every brand with which he works.' And it appears Shah is not averse to having a good time. Bott adds: 'Apparently the rule is: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Although there could have been a bottle of vodka involved. And a camel...'
Coca-Cola GB head of brand PR Joan O'Connor says Shah's creativeness, passion and quirkiness is a winning combination: 'Raoul is very calming, but full of insight, ideas and perspective. He brings strategy and cultural insight together in a way that engages the attention of the audiences we are trying to reach effortlessly.'
Shah's natural style distances him from the 'fluffy' perception of fashion and lifestyle PR. He is fashionable without being over the top and clearly well-connected without being showy.
He was particularly proud to become a Trustee of the British Council last year, and admits he was initially surprised to be invited. 'I was very excited to meet council chair Neil Kinnock,' he says. 'When I looked around I thought "there is no way they're going to sign me up".' But they did. 'They wanted people with different experiences to balance what the others bring.'
Kinnock may not be as glamorous as some of Shah's contacts, but it is clear the work will be very close to Shah's heart. And if the British Council ever wants to use music's most powerful couple, then it knows where to turn.
RAOUL SHAH'S TURNING POINTS
- What was your biggest career break?
There have been a few. Getting my graduate trainee position at Pepe Jeans Group in 1989 and, within six months, moving to Bordeaux to work on its Buffalo Jeans brand. My first client at Exposure, Converse, wanted an influencer product placement strategy, so that really validated our networking business concept. Then Tim Bourne believed in me enough to join as my business partner in 1997. Winning Levi's in 1999 was a key turning point. Being appointed as a Trustee of the British Council in 2008 has been invaluable.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
Nitin Shah (no relation), founder of Pepe Jeans, and David Attenborough, whom I have never met, but whose work has been my inspiration.
- What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?
Be patient. Learn from everything and everyone you encounter. And listening is so much better than just hearing.
- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
Energy and enthusiasm. And good instincts and common sense, which are fundamental to being entrepreneurial.
1993: Founder, Exposure Promotions
1992: European marketing manager, Hardcore Jeans (Pepe-owned)
1990: European advertising & promotions manager, Buffalo Jeans (Pepe-owned)
1989: Graduate trainee, Pepe Jeans Group