In 1993, Raoul Shah founded communications agency Exposure with the simple aim of creating a multipurpose network as a tool for brands. Over the years, Shah has established himself as a key medium for huge corporation to target and communicate with audiences around the globe, and during that time Exposure has provided consulting work for brands like Nike, Converse, Levi's, Uniqlo, Netflix and many more.
When he's not busy being one of the world's leading media gurus, Shah spends his spare time amassing books, art, and other cultural collectibles.
We caught up with Shah at his London studio to pick his brain and tap him for some valuable advice on starting your own business.
Please tell us what you do in your own words.
Our original philosophy was the idea of networking to create brand fame – connecting brands to the right people, places and events to build brand equity, awareness and commercial success. Perhaps we were the original social network in an analogue world? We still believe in the power of our network amplified via digital and social media to make us more relevant today than ever before.
Our core services at Exposure include PR, product placement, brand collaborations, experiential marketing, digital and social media. Our group employs 250 between London, New York and Tokyo working within one of the group agencies – Exposure, The Gild, Beauty Seen, THRSXTY, and The Supermarket. I focus on building our global connections, leading some pillar clients within the agency like Netflix, Levi’s, Dr Martens, Nike, Converse, Uniqlo and Coca-Cola, plus an executive role across Exposure’s international offices.
Explain the capacity in which you work with brands through Exposure, what is the company’s mission statement? What role does the brand serve?
Our mission statement is “making brands culturally relevant.” For the majority of our clients, one specialist department is the lead for each client, even if the client is buying an integrated mix of services across the agency. We have maintained relationships with brands like Levi’s, Dr Martens, Coca-Cola and Nike for over a decade so we are true partners to our clients and we have a very strong dialogue with each brand. That means we listen to each other, we share in the successes, learn from the failures and have relationship built on trusts and integrity.
Given how much the media landscape has fragmented and proliferated, we have always kept an eye on being progressive in our thinking and innovative in our business culture so we can add value to our clients, campaigns and network.
Discuss some of the more visible/well-known campaigns you’ve worked on.
A few highlights come to mind. We launched Levi’s Engineered Jeans for the brand in 1999. That was a Pan-European campaign that helped sell product to 4,000 doors across Europe in its first season. This was the beginning of a new chapter in our history, as we started handling bigger European campaigns and offering a more diverse mix of marketing services. In 2002, we created an immersive brand experience to launch the book Sole Provider, a celebration of Nike’s 30-year history in basketball. That event traveled from London to five other European cities.
We were also the first agency to turn the iconic glass bottle from Coca-Cola into a collectible piece of content having asked designer Matthew Williamson to customize it.
In 2008 we launched "Tailored by England", a campaign to celebrate the iconic all-white England football kit for Umbro, having recently been acquired by Nike. We were responsible for launching the limited edition, designer Diet Coke bottles across Europe in 2011 (Karl Lagerfeld), 2012 (Jean-Paul Gaultier), and 2013 (Marc Jacobs).
We launched Netflix in the UK in 2012 and saw the streaming service go into hyper-space following the release of Breaking Bad. We launched Edun for Ali Hewson, the first fashion brand that built sustainable trade opportunities by sourcing its production in African factories. We launched the instantly recognizable Armand de Brignac gold bottle of champagne for Jay Z in the UK and across Europe.
Talk about word-of-mouth influence and how it affects brands.
In 2015, word-of-mouth is arguably the most valuable medium a brand can engage in to create real consumer value. If it’s positive, the spread of relevant brand messages and strong content can define a brand’s success. If it’s negative, it can be highly detrimental to a brand’s success.
As my boss at Pepe Jeans once said “Make one person happy and they’ll tell four others. Make one person unhappy and they’ll tell 10 others.”
We talk about the transition of "word of mouth" to "word of mouse" given the exponential growth in communications channels fuelled by technology and mobile users. The rise of the consumer champion in the last decade has been really significant in how brands have changed their approach to marketing, and the increased emphasis brands place on earned media.
Any brand that is not proactively building a digital and social future will become irrelevant to millennials. Engaging content, great stories, and ideas that travel across multiple channels are where we place the greatest emphasis.
What are the most important things to remember when starting a business?
Follow your instincts. Have belief in your ideas and be prepared to adapt and evolve as the company starts taking shape. Be generous in spirit. There’s plenty of work out there, so stay focused and don’t keep looking over your shoulder. Take a true interest in other people. Be a great listener. Be prepared for things to go wrong but learn from your mistakes and always move forwards.
What were the best and worst business decisions in getting where you are now?
The best decision is investing in good people. We have plenty of staff that have been with the company for over a decade. They are loyal and passionate and as energized today as their first day at work. Giving half the company to my business partner Tim in 1997 was the best thing I ever did.
Investing in our office culture is also important. Our environment contributes to a creative and inspiring energy. We have a bar, a library, an art gallery and London’s finest coffee shop (Mothers Milk). We take the whole agency away for 2 days in the Summer which builds great integration across the whole group and allows us all to stop and have some valuable downtime.
As far as the worst decisions - we are an entrepreneurial business and out of all the agencies in the group, one was an acquisition (the others were all start-ups). That was a costly route and still continues to be a difficult business to manage, but we are invested in its success and people. The challenge is integrating another culture and group of people into our own. We've come out of it stronger, more focussed and even more prepared for the unexpected.
How important is it to carve out your own niche in a given market?
It’s important to have a clear proposition (“making brands culturally relevant”) and a set of values so that you can be held to account. Our values have not changed since 1997 - pride in people and work, honesty and integrity, sharing knowledge, driving change, maintaining creativity, and staying accountable.
There is such an over-supply of agencies in the market, you have to become known for something, so it's important to have a clear point of view. Our point of difference is that we’ve been independent and working in the earned media space since 1993; plus our world–class client list; our people; our global network; our offices being in three cultural capitals – London, New York and Tokyo; and, of course, our work.
When did your interest in Be@rbricks start? How many do you own? What are your favorites?
I was first drawn to Medicom Be@rbricks when I saw a whole gallery of them at my friend Hardy Blechman’s maharishi store in London circa 2001. I started collecting the artists series and, due to space, mainly bought 100% although I probably have about 50 400% toys in the collection. My favorites are by artists like Futura, STASH, KAWS, Dr Romanelli, Staple, Mr A, A Bathing Ape and UNKLE, plus a COMME DES GARÇONS Christmas snow shaker, several solid wood 400% toys and the colette 10th anniversary 1000%.
Can you talk us through some of the other things you collect - unique decks, art books etc.
I’ve collected "Do Not Disturb" signs from nearly every hotel I have ever stayed in. There’s probably about 300 in total and Liberty once displayed the whole collection in London. Art and photography books as well, mainly signed, first editions. These include David Bailey, Damian Hirst, Rankin, Paul Weller, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, The Clash and JR.
I collect vinyl and have most 45rpm and 33rpm releases from The Clash from around the world, and I also I have a collection of artist designed skate decks from Supreme, Real, Zoo York, and Powell Peralta.