PROFILE: Rachel Bell, Still shining after a decade

'That? That is a gimp mask,' sighs Rachel Bell, feigning concern before repeating, matter-of-fact: ‘That is the gimp mask in our boardroom.'

Rachel Bell
Rachel Bell

The gimp mask to which Bell refers is of course an innocent prop, part of a PR campaign for a film about wrestling. But Bell's decision to have it on show, as a talking point, is one of many indicators that the Shine Communications founder is a more interesting character than the typical, blonde PR specialist she may at first seem to be.

The 39-year-old has an eccentric streak and dry sense of humour. A mother of three, she is warm, friendly and maternal, but you also get the impression that she is tough enough to win any argument.

It would certainly take someone special to launch a consultancy like Shine, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this month. It came seemingly from nowhere a decade ago to win awards and triumph in a number of hotly contested pitches.

At the crux of the agency is its young, fashionable culture, which permeates its client list and its staff. Bell insists this rem­ains, and that - although it now has 42 staff - the agency still ‘feels very small'.

Rachel BellIndeed Shine's warehouse-style offices in Clerkenwell are far from corporate, housing squidgy sofas, a 7ft tall effigy of DreamWorks character Shrek, a slew of young men in striped cardigans and a rash of fashionable haircuts. The culture is also apparent in the staff's friendly banter.

Moreover, according to Bell, Shine continues to pile on the pounds, and is on target to increase its fee income by 22 per cent in 2008.

Bell did not take the standard university then account executive route into PR. She has three O-levels and started her career as a secretary - first in the hotel industry and later at Fleishman-Hillard.

At first, her ambitions were modest: ‘It was very hard to get into the industry if you did not have a degree, and it took five years at F-H to get out of being a secretary and into PR. So my big aspiration was to have my own business card and be sent abroad for work.'

As she became more ambitious, Bell says she knew she could never fulfil her potential at F-H: ‘The board was mainly male and my career path was much mal­igned. I thought that starting as a secretary meant I wouldn't be taken seriously as a board director.'

She remembers being patronised when she asked if she could have a go at new business (‘that's a really nice idea Rachel and there's nothing wrong with that aspiration, and maybe one day you will get that chance', her manager told her). She also felt ill at ease with the company culture.

‘In that environment you needed to be a certain persona - ideally male - and there was no laughing or mucking about. Frivo­lity was not to be tolerated. I did not think for a minute that I would ever bec­ome a board director at F-H so when I star­ted Shine I had nothing to lose,' she says.

Carrot Communications MD Richard Houghton - a director at F-H when Bell was an account director - remembers her as an enthusiastic hard worker. Like many agency bosses she was someone who ‘needed the freedom to do it her own way, without the constraints of a global network, in order to really blossom'.

After ‘struggling for every opportunity' Bell wanted her agency Shine to be different: ‘I really wanted an environment where people felt empowered and listened to and valued. That was the mantra and energy that star­ted the agency - giving people a chance to shine.'
When she formed the agency, she says she had fire in her belly because her father had just died.

‘My dad was a huge inspiration to me, a wily Yorkshireman. He didn't have big asp­irations for me - he had an engineering business and he thought it would be cracking if I was his van driver.

He was probably quite chauvinistic - my brother went to public school whereas my sister and I went to the comprehensive and no-one really looked at our reports,' she remembers. ‘But he allowed me to shine as a kid.'

Former Shine board director Mitchell Kaye, now MD of Mischief PR, says Bell taught him the art of people management, and of going the extra mile for the people around you: ‘I began as one of her account executives and finished as one of her board dir­ectors, itself a testament to the opportunities Rachel is willing to give.'

Bell credits her PA and her husband - a TV actor - with her ability to maintain a good work/life balance. Having a five-strong management board means she can leave the agency in her lieutenant's hands during summer holidays.

There are often industry rumours that Bell is planning to sell, but she says this has never really been her ambition - although she will ‘never say never'. ‘I relish our independence because it
all­ows us to do what we want to, like spending money on perks and benefits for staff.'

These include Aveda products and cinema membership. She even pays for her agency directors to give birth in pri-vate hospitals.

‘Could I sell to someone else? They would have to have the same passion for looking after staff as I do, and be comfortable with the effect on profit, but even then I just don't know,' she admits.

Given that Shine is one of the few big independent PR agencies left, the industry as a whole will be as keen to find out as she is.

1998 Founder and MD, Shine Communications
1997 Account director, Fleishman-Hillard
1993 Account executive, Fleishman-Hillard
1988 PA and accounts secretary, Fleishman-Hillard
1987 Foods and beverage secretary, Hyatt Hotels
1985 Concierge and receptionist, Tara Hotel

What was you biggest career break?
Getting a job with Gerard Sintes, director of food and beverage at the Hyatt Hotel, at the age of 18. He taught me so much and carved out an entrepreneurial role for me in his team. It was also the only time I have ever sat in board meetings before launching Shine.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
There are a lot of young ambitious people in PR. But my advice would be to do what you are doing now fantastically, focus on today, rather than constantly looking over your shoulder at what the person next to you is doing, or daydreaming about what you would like to be doing tomorrow.

Who was your most notable mentor?
My father was my biggest inspiration in life - he had a ferocious appetite for life and endless passion, energy and enthusiasm. At Shine my team are my mentors. We have all worked together for such a long time and they are incredibly supportive.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
Enthusiasm and passion. Everyone at Shine is very different, but we go by the rule of never hiring anyone you wouldn't have over for dinner. A willingness to open up and bring something of themselves to the agency is also important.

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