As Exposure celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, the marcoms agency's founder and joint MD Raoul Shah has every reason to be pleased.
After all, he has built the agency from scratch into a business with £13m turnover and a stellar list of retained PR clients, including Coca-Cola, Converse, Levi's, Nike and Agent Provocateur.
As it moves into its second decade, Exposure is plotting to take on the US. It plans to open an office in LA or New York in the first half of 2004 to service existing clients and target new business.
For such a busy executive, Shah has lots of interests. He has a 4,000-strong record collection at his home in north-west London's Belsize Park.
Married, with a nine-month-old son, he loves snowboarding and reads National Geographic magazine 'obsessively'. He also enjoys eating out and DJs 'very badly' for his friends and at weddings.
'Raoul is one of the most honest people I have ever met,' says the other Exposure joint MD Tim Bourne. 'He genuinely means what he says and does what he says. He isn't focused on commercial goals for their own sake.
He supports brands he believes in and wins business because he demonstrates real concern for clients.'
Luxury tailoring brand Spencer Hart MD Nick Hart, who has just signed up as a client, says: 'Raoul has a lot of integrity, which is unusual in PR, and he's an intellectual. In marketing and PR, people tend to be fairly unbalanced. They promote things they don't understand with soundbites.
Raoul's someone with whom you can have a proper discussion.'
Exposure is more than a PR shop. Its offering takes in product placement, sales promotion, sponsorship, graphic and digital design, new-product development, talent management and media relations, on a retained and project basis. PR accounts for £4m of turnover.
But its PR business emerged as a by-product, says the gravel-voiced 35 year-old. Shah, a Manchester University graduate in textiles, management and economics, established the business in 1993 to promote and market brands covering fashion, retail, music, drinks and film, many of them contacts from his days as a graduate trainee and marketing manager at Pepe Jeans. Within two years, the agency's work was labelled as PR, he says. 'After being told we were doing great PR, I thought we should employ more PR specialists,' explains Shah.
This spawned the partnership, in 1997, with Bourne, a former director of sales at promotion agency Billington Cartmell. 'We wanted to build the PR expertise,' says Shah, 'but in a way that could also service a broader range of clients such as blue-chips, and offer PR amplification to campaigns that didn't start with the brief "we want PR".'
Shah sees it as crucial that the agency develops more PR specialists.
'The closer you are to your client and the more specialist knowledge you can build, the more valuable you become,' he says.
Decked out in blue jeans and a pin-striped jacket, Exposure's boss seems every bit the style guru you would expect to be running an agency with such fashionable clients. But his views are uncompromising. 'PR in the world of fashion and lifestyle is often described as flaky and immeasurable,' he says. 'That's a symptom of an industry where there's a low barrier to entry. It's difficult to build an agency with a significant client and turnover base, as well as a profitable business.'
For this reason, clients want agencies to be more accountable, and the industry has shifted towards judgement by results. Shah believes agencies that offer only media relations will lose out to those that offer a broader approach. 'If PR is not related to a cross-function strategy, agencies are going to suffer from not being able to go higher up the agenda of brand (management),' he says. 'Companies want more value for money, which means they have to find economies of scale by bringing all their marketing services together, aligning budgets better and getting each area of communication expertise to leverage off the others.'
Agencies that offer only PR cannot understand why a company is going in a particular direction and cannot progress further than dealing with marketing managers or comms officers, he argues. But someone who can offer PR as part of an overall comms strategy will be capable of reaching brand directors and chief executives who are prepared to pay more for such a service, because they fully understand how it can benefit their brand strategically.
Shah is one such person.
1989: Graduate trainee, Pepe Jeans Group
1990: Marketing manager, Buffalo Jeans (Pepe-owned)
1992: Marketing manager, Hardcore Jeans (Pepe-owned)
1993: Founder and joint MD, Exposure Promotions