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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Raoul Shah

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

This is Jazz Shapers, I’m Elliot Moss. Welcome and I hope you know the drill; this is where the Shapers of Business meet the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today I am very pleased to say is Raoul Shah, Founder and joint CEO of Exposure, a creative communications agency bringing together brands, culture and consumers. A chance meeting in his twenties saw Raoul hired to product place Converse Shoes, he gave the shoes to DJs, musicians and model contacts and the resulting famous feet photos landed in glossy magazines. After repeat success he set up Exposure from his West Hampstead bedroom it says here, aged just twenty five, I like that part of London. Its aim to make brands culturally relevant by connecting them with the right people. Built on the power of word of mouth and networking Exposure now has four global offices and works with some of the worlds’ most iconic and influential lifestyle brands. We’ll be talking to Raoul about all this and the impact of social media and don’t forget or rather I shouldn’t forget, I’m going to be talking about his book, he’s got his first book out Do Not Disturb by him and its all about his signs that he’s collected from around the world of hotels. We’ve also got brilliant music from amongst others the RH Factor, Charlie Hunter Quartet and Nat King Cole. That is today’s Jazz Shapers ladies and gentlemen, here’s Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Pensativa.

That was Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Pensativa. Raoul Shah is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers and it is a real pleasure to have not just a business person, although he will probably say I’m not a business person Elliot, I’m a crazy person, we’ll find out in a moment but also a book producer. Hello.

Raoul Shah
Hello Elliot, good morning.

Elliot Moss
Good morning.

Raoul Shah
Thank you very much for this generous and you know hopefully low risk invitation to your studio.

Elliot Moss
Well you can be the judge of that when you, when we finish at 10.00 o’clock. Tell me about you and the beginnings of this business that you created. What possessed you to take the fun that you were having and try and organise it inside of a business?

Raoul Shah
I guess what possessed me was probably the fact that after five years of working at Pepe Jeans having graduated from Manchester the idea of doing my own thing was kind of set in my mind that I had zero idea about how one does that. I had no idea about businesses, running a business, business plans so I thought the best place to sort of I guess look around, search for something and surround myself with people who might be able to give me some direction was to focus on the thing I loved which was music so I used to run clubs and by running clubs, organising nights at various places in London, booking DJs and trying to you know get a certain amount of people through the door, I started meeting really, really interesting people who all shared the same passion for music, live music, DJs and a certain sort of culture that was existing in London in the early nineties that maybe is harder to find now and through the club I met a lady called Louise Hurran who was the Marketing Director of Converse and she basically said to me “how do I get everyone in your club to wear Converse” and I said “well it’s really easy. Come next week with a few pairs of Converse and we’ll give them out” and so we did. We did it for a few weeks and I eventually said “look I kind of need to do this slightly outside of the late Saturday night in Notting Hill can we talk to you in the daytime, can we like you know appoint you as our agency?” and I was sitting here going ‘oh my god this woman is completely mad I don’t even know what she just said to me but I’m going to meet her’. I rebranded my flat number 4 in West Hampstead to Apartment… no sorry it went from Flat Number 4 to Studio Number 4 – it sounded kind of slightly more professional – and given that I was living in this tiny little studio and it literally was a studio flat I said “I’ll meet you at the Marriott in Swiss Cottage” and you know because there was a lot of people at work that day and we had a conversation she said “right we’re going to appoint you and give you a one year contract, we’re going to pay you to be Converse’s agency, you know how much will it cost?” I threw a ridiculous number at her, ridiculous at the time, it wasn’t much today and that was it, it was a foundation for exposure really. So, you know and I really think the whole journey from that point on was about you know having a certain belief in what I felt you know via a bit of instinct and a bit of you know consideration was the way forward, how to sort of start building a business but also using all the things that I loved and you know and wanted to be surrounded by, fashion, music and people who were you know, had an interesting story I guess.

Elliot Moss
And now Exposure in four countries as I said, how many people work in the business?

Raoul Shah
There are about two hundred and fifty across all the offices.

Elliot Moss
And we’re looking at roughly from my source summary a thirty million pound plus business.

Raoul Shah
Yeah, the group, the group thirty pound, thirty million pound.

Elliot Moss
Thirty pounds, you’re still back in…

Raoul Shah
I think that’s how much I charged Converse probably in those days.

Elliot Moss
Luckily it worked. I want to go back into something you said because you talked about, I love fashion, I love music, I’ve ended up creating a business which is kind of in that vein, it’s the things that you enjoy. You come from a Gujarati family, immigrant family and obviously from an East African connection rather than directly from the Gujarat which is not an uncommon thing here. You grew up in a pretty conventional school system, you went to University, you mentioned that. You did a textiles Degree of sorts and here you are at that age, at twenty, twenty five whatever being very comfortable with the fact that you’re going to do something in the world of music, fashion and lifestyle. Now I know plenty of people with your background, very, very well who did not do this, who ended up as good folk, Doctors and Lawyers and Accountants. Why, I mean were you perceived as a rebel in your community as it were and I don’t just mean literally the family, I mean the community of people you grew up with?

Raoul Shah
I think I was very lucky being born and brought up in London you know I was born in the late sixties; I won’t be specific to the year, but it was the late sixties.

Elliot Moss
I know but I won’t tell anyone.

Raoul Shah
And you know going to school in North West London in the eighties, Camden specifically meant that there was a sort of whole musical scene that I couldn’t avoid when I was going to school so you know bands like Madness were a regular sort of you know pub fixture in Camden town, not that I was going to pubs but you know music was a big part of the sound track of growing up in London and so was the language of Star magazines. You know I was very interested in magazines like ID and Blitz and The Face and various others and I think my parents always gave me a lot of, you know without sort of formally giving me permission they really encouraged us to be curious and I think part of that comes from the fact that my mum was an Artist, she painted, all her life and my dad was also an Artist but that was a hobby of his so he learnt to paint Chinese sort of brush painting that was his style. He would go to China to perfect and improve his kind of his own art and so I was always surrounded by perhaps the environment at home was much more creative perhaps than traditional good Gujarati families living in London. They had also not come from a sort of Doctor/Optician/Accountancy background, there are many of them in the family, but they left, they were probably two of the earliest members of the family to leave Nairobi and come to London. So they in themselves I think in their sort of DNA had some spirit of adventure and travel and you know discovering the world which has clearly rubbed off on me and I think you know, being given that opportunity to see the world as you know open and being able to sort of try things and do different things was something that was always very much part of our sort of conversation at home and I think that’s weirdly where this book kind of you know, how I mean giving birth to this product right now is one thing but in 1980 taking that first Do Not Disturb sign from a hotel in New York was a reflection of what my parents wanted us to experience as kids which was to travel, you know not travel just back to Kenya or go back to sort of our roots in India but you know we went to Japan and we went to Egypt and we went to America and all those things I think gave me a great foundation to eventually think as I was starting to sort of map out what I wanted to do on my own, gave me the belief that kind of anything of interest is a good place to sort of start looking and searching within.

Elliot Moss
I’ve watched you in a couple of films as I always do a bit of homework before I meet people as you may have guessed and you talk about, you mentioned just then that curiosity point and the openness point is that in the heart of the DNA of the business you’ve got, is that what you look for when you hire people, basically just be open?

Raoul Shah
Openness especially now in a world where nearly everybody you sort of stare at walking around the streets looking down at a screen is you know, in its broadest sense and its most literal is absolutely key. You know we need people in our business and brands need people who are able to constantly think about you know everything around them in a different way. You need to be able to challenge conventions, you need to think of ideas that other people wouldn’t maybe take the risk of presenting to clients, to do that you need to be curious, you need to be looking around. I mean I always say I’ve got this letter that we should write to every single member of staff when they join and the last few lines say you know, ‘you’re living in arguably the greatest cultural capital in the world don’t miss a thing, look up’ and I think that’s really key and I think when we interview people one of the things I’m always fascinated by is what people do that really kind of drives their passion, its got nothing to do with work because if you’ve got something great going on outside of work whatever it is, whether you are into final and you know reading books or whether its travel, it could be anything but you need to have something that is drawing you away from the office and making you want to go and do something outside of just you know work and home and family and all the other things.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper today, that’s Raoul Shah, he’s coming right back at you in a couple of minutes but first we’re going to hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some advice for your business.

There are absolutely loads of ways for you to enjoy all of our former Jazz Shaper guests and indeed to hear this programme again. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes or just pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes or you preferred podcast platform and you can enjoy the full archive. But back to today its Raoul Shah; he’s a pioneer, do you feel like a pioneer? I pioneer of influence of marketing and Founder and joint CEO of Exposure, a creative communications agency. Just, if you’re allowed to, just tell me a couple of the brands that you work with at the moment?

Raoul Shah
So, I’ll start in order of some of the oldest clients we’ve got in terms of the ones we’ve represented for the longest so Levi’s, Dr Martens, Coca-Cola we’ve been working with for over twenty years now, Nike for fifteen years. We also work with Microsoft; Converse clearly were our first client actually they went away for a couple of years and have come back.

Elliot Moss
You’re wearing Converse, I think.

Raoul Shah
I’m wearing pretty much always, a bit of Levi’s and Uniqlo, this my uniform.

Elliot Moss
I love Uniqlo. Uniqlo is a client as well?

Raoul Shah
Uniqlo is a client as well.

Elliot Moss
And these clients now what would they say they’re buying from you today?

Raoul Shah
You know that’s a great question because we will constantly I guess push against the vernacular and sort of stereotypical sort of language of agencies which is you know, you’ve got to drop yourself into a box and you’ve got to sort of make it easy for people to understand what they’re buying. I mean we talk about making brands culturally relevant. What they are really buying is a series of specialisms. They’re buying you know PR, they’re buying brand experience, they’re buying digital strategy, they’re buying social media campaigns. You know it doesn’t sound that interesting, they’re buying lots and lots of things that lots of other people do. Our point of difference is that we will constantly invest in the specialisms becoming more specialist. We are not interested in presenting a general list, everyone does everything so when you meet somebody in our business I’m hoping you will feel like you’re talking to somebody who is a real expert in their specific area and discipline and our real sort of challenge as well as sort of biggest opportunity over the last I would say decade has been how we join those dots together. How do we get clients to navigate their way through all these different specialisms, through the various different departments and the companies and the agencies and the markets we are in so they get a seamless campaign idea that works across a multitude of channels and ultimately nowadays do that with some kind of clarity around how that impacts a brand. You know how do we measure it? What are we actually doing that has value and builds longevity and you know the value of brand?

Elliot Moss
And for you as the person who has obviously at the beginning you created this thing and now here it is however many years later, you as a leader of the specialists, of these very talented open-minded, creative people – what’s your style? What’s the way that you get the best out of these people, keep your sanity, keep client focused and there’s a lot going on?

Raoul Shah
Yeah well one thing about our business is that a couple of my senior partners and shareholders, my business partner, Tim and our CFA, James have been friends of mine from before Exposure so on the one hand there is in my case anyway, a lot to be said about working with people that you know well, that you trust and that you feel that you can kind of complete sentences for when you are in a room and that genuinely happens. When it comes down to leadership style and I’m not going to go through all three of us because we’re very very different which is possibly why it works.

Elliot Moss
I just want to know about you Raoul?

Raoul Shah
But in my case, I am, I’m very involved. So some people will laugh and argue that that’s not a good thing. I am, I love what we do for clients, I want to be involved in the creative process and the ideas. I love the client relationship part. I still spend more time outside of the building wanting to go and meet new people and see what you know we can do and where we can kind of extend ourselves and I’m into detail. I’m quite fanatical about detail so I’m not great with people who send me errant misspelt emails and you know everyone knows that there’s a certain way I think things need to be in terms of order and orderliness in an agency like ours because ultimately for me everything that somebody experiences is a reflection of what they might get if they’re buying services from us so I can handle chaos but I like organisation and structure and I then have this other side to me which is completely, I’ve got an idea and by next week I’m going to make sure it happens.

Elliot Moss
Well you talk about order and things and just to say Raoul has brought his new book in, only released a couple of months ago, ‘Do Not Disturb’, which we’ll be talking about in a bit and the card has my name on it very nicely written and its spelt correctly which is a miracle so this man is fanatical about…

Raoul Shah
But these are the things that are important.

Elliot Moss
This is important right because that’s my first experience of you.

Raoul Shah
You know handwritten, remembering people’s names…

Elliot Moss
Yeah, it’s not difficult is it.

Raoul Shah
…date of birth. I mean its not difficult but people don’t do it and I think you know its easy to do things quickly and there’s a reason why doing things quickly is a good thing and we need to in business but I think the building of relationships and taking time and remembering people and kind of getting deeper into conversations is an incredible, incredibly powerful sort of business tactic perhaps but it’s actually a passion for me.

Elliot Moss
The fanaticism, the adulation of order, your desire to collect things and that’s where this book comes from, but I know you’ve been a collector of skateboards and the like and all sorts of stuff. Where does that come from? Why do you like keeping stuff?

Raoul Shah
So, I thought you would ask this question and I’ve been trying to kind of go…

Elliot Moss
Why, who knows?

Raoul Shah
Right what would I say if somebody says why do you do it? And I guess it’s pop culture, you know pop culture for me as a sort of reference point of moments in time and the changing moments over time for me is fascinating. You know I’ve always liked looking at you know I’ve been subscribing to National Geographic for twenty five years and I don’t read them in order you know and going back to them is like, its like having a great library I guess and I think this idea… my parents always had lots of books at home you know one thing we had a lot of was art, they bought a lot of art and specifically Indian art and they had a lot of books and I think I always liked sort of delving into them even if it wasn’t to read them but just to sort of flick through them and look at them and I think magazines were probably the first thing. I remember buying all the original back in maybe the seventies you know, I used to buy Black Echo, Sounds and Smash Hits and I kept them all and I kept them all because my favourite bands were written about within the magazines but I always used to kind of go back to them you know it wasn’t just a one read and then that’s it and I guess it was like a touch paper and then suddenly this hotel Do Not Disturb sign thing happened and then you know matchboxes from restaurants because I thought every time I you know go home or remember where I was and who I was with in that restaurant moment was great and skateboards was sort of more a, you know it was a sort of art driven collection. I was collecting, buying skateboards in New York a long, long time ago and you know every now and again brands would release a, you know a kind of co-lab between an artist and a skate brand and so a lot of street artists would be customising skateboards and I would you know just walk up and buy one. Nowadays people queue round the block for getting these things and resell them but you know I just, I bought a lot and eventually I thought it warrants the title ‘collection’ rather than just a pile of wood and I now find it even more interesting to have done it because I am much more conscious of the fact that I’ve got these things everywhere which for a long time were clutter and just sort of rubbish and for some people just something that you should discard but you know we had our twenty fifth anniversary last year for Exposure in October and I went to the warehouse in sort of near Heathrow airport where we’ve got thousands of boxes of sort of stored, mainly documents you know legal and professional documents and contracts and things that we used to you know print once upon a time and there’s probably about sixty boxes of you know things that I had kept which were part of the sort of work and the output and the industry of the agency as a record and we’ve got about four thousand photographs now complete of every single item from fliers and invitations to parties to you know Levi’s 150th anniversary in Berlin to the 40th and 50th and next year it will be the 60th anniversary of Dr Martens and when I look at that we’ve got a record of like the last twenty five years, if not longer, of to some degree the evolution of the youth culture seen through street art, through fashion, through music, through sneakers, through retail, through DJ culture, through clubs. I mean for me, I think I now feel I have a responsibility for a lot of these collections to kind of capture it which we’ve done and share it because otherwise there’s no library. You know it doesn’t sit in one nice orderly A to Z of encyclopaedia Britannica’s anywhere so now I feel kind of glad that I have had this urge.

Elliot Moss
Just listening to you and briefly is it about fearing that you’ll lose the importance of those moments or is it a more positive thing that just says I just don’t know, I just like this and I’m just going to put it in a box and one day maybe…

Raoul Shah
No I think for me the moments, you know I like telling stories and there’s a reason why I haven’t written much in the book because every sign I can tell you a story about and there’s a lot of credits in the book, you’ll see a thanks to or a dedication to you know a friend whose passed away and that page for me is a you know is a good twenty minute story and I think the moments and the memories are not, you know capturing physical objects to kind of hold the memory isn’t the reason, it might be a trigger or a sort of prompt its much more about like I said sort of collecting things that over time suddenly represent a sort of almost a pop culture moment when put together and of course it was never conscious at the time its only me slightly older and a bit wiser able to articulate that. There have been times when I just thought I don’t really need this I’m going to chuck it away and actually what normally happens is most people when you tell them you’re about to get rid of you know two hundred pairs of sneakers or thirty pairs of vintage Levi’s from the eighties they go ‘don’t do that, don’t do that, you know that’s really important it’s a record of time’ and I’m thinking ‘alright I won’t’ and of course when people say that its not because they’ve got the same they’re going no one else has it so keep it and then do something with it which is perhaps why my first sort of venture into creating a physical object has now arrived.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with my guest today Raoul Shah who going forward will be called the Curator, I think plus, we’ll be playing a track from Nat King Cole that’s all coming up in just a moment.

The nicely juxtapose sound of Nat King Cole there with Route 66. I’m still with Raoul Shah just for a few minutes, he’s my Business Shaper today and we have been talking about all sorts of things, collecting stuff – I am not going to use the word obsessive – collecting stuff and enjoying the art of bringing people and ideas together and capturing the essence of brands through what’s inside of their culture and what’s outside of their culture and sort of fusing the two and all of that. What we haven’t spoken about because it is an ugly thing, is the money bit.

Raoul Shah
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
You happened to have made a living out of the things that you find fascinating. You mentioned earlier I love it when people have a reason to leave the office whatever it is. It strikes me your office is everywhere, it doesn’t really matter where you are, you’re just moving along and you bump into people and you go I like that, you bump into ideas you go I like that. Firstly, what role does the money play for you and secondly where do you escape to that really isn’t related to work or is everything related to work?

Raoul Shah
A lot is related to work but I don’t find that a problem. I’m very lucky that my work and my passions and my hobbies and the things I love are all intertwined and I don’t think anything is ever compromised, I don’t think I’m in conflict, I am, you know when people talk about work life balance I just have the whole thing you know in the same pot and that’s just me and that kind of you know I can handle the delineation when I have to you know there’s definitely lots of time outside of work where I am very much you know off duty, away with family, my wife is from Amicie in France so that is definitely our escape and we’re there for most school holidays but the work life thing is its important to sort of set some sort of you know have some values in the organisation where people understand that there are different ways to work and an office is just a sort of housing structure for people if that’s what you need and if that helps you kind of apply yourself and think in a certain way but you know I’m not really you know set on work being a sort of a 9.00 to 5.00 moment in life and everything else being separate. I mean I don’t mind if people find alternative ways to kind of contribute to what we do, whether it’s through idea generation or networking with clients. We are very open to being challenged but what that means is financially we run a very, very sort of strong structure. We have an incredibly you know robust middle of our business so you know legal, finance, HR, IT all those things are incredibly well managed and service every part of the business to let the individuals within the business do what they are best at and continue to improve at being the best at you know what they want to be focused on. So the central services I guess of the agency was always something I believed and this was maybe a belief from my background, my upbringing which is that you’ve got to have a very strong financial infrastructure to allow you to then do everything else because everything else for me as I said it almost feels like a hobby it’s not about accumulating money for the sake of having cash, it’s about the freedom and I think having choices at work by being financially sound gives us all lots of freedom and freedom for us means you know enjoying work more and making you know, as The Times once said, ‘you’re making the work environment almost better than being at home’.

Elliot Moss
And in this world where communications is being shot apart, the industry has literally been disaggregated on an daily almost basis just because of the nature of the way that digital’s going and the nature of client’s demands and just the changing environment we all find ourselves in. Interested in selling or is that point about freedom the big one that trumps everything because you go why the hell would I want to be owned by someone else?

Raoul Shah
I think it’s always about having the choices. The thing about the conversation around selling the agency always drops into a very transactional discussion which just takes all my energy away and I, so you know we wouldn’t do it because we can’t afford to pay the rent. Would we do something financial to allow us to open up the opportunities you know everyone goes go to China well I kind of travel enough I want to travel less. I’m not going to China. If somebody says we’ll help you open Exposure in China and do something really interesting and significant amazing, South America, Africa I mean there are places in the world we’d love to exist. We can’t do it on our own. At the moment its not part of a you know immediate business strategy but we are open to all sorts of things and we always say to everybody you know New York and Paris and Tokyo didn’t happen as part of some very well defined three year plan although there are plans. It happens because of opportunity and conversations and chance meetings often that lead to those kind of opportunities becoming a reality.

Elliot Moss
Its been great talking to you, I’ve really enjoyed it, thank you.

Raoul Shah
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
And thank you for the book too.

Raoul Shah
My pleasure.

Elliot Moss
You won’t take it back because you’re happy?

Raoul Shah
It’s yours.

Elliot Moss
Excellent, very good. Just before I let you go what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Raoul Shah
So, it’s As by Stevie Wonder. It’s the song that we walked down the aisle to and actually there’s a thanks to Stevie in the book because when I met him for the first time at the Mondreal in LA I had just got married and I saw him, I went up to him and started talking to him, he got up and gave me the biggest hug ever and for me that sort of sums it all up.

Elliot Moss
That was As from Stevie Wonder the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Raoul Shah. He talked about the importance of being curious, of being open to the world, of being a little bit fanatical about the detail and how important that was, about being a Curator, about loving to keep stuff, to collect stuff and to share it and also of course why is he doing all of this because he loves the freedom, the freedom to do what he wants and the freedom to be his own boss essentially, really good stuff. That’s it from Jazz Shapers though have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Raoul Shah is Founder and joint CEO of Exposure, a creative communications agency that joins the dots between brands, culture and consumers.
 
Founded in 1993, the agency prides itself on long term client relationships (some of which span over 15 years), has won numerous awards (including Cannes Lions & D&AD), and remains one of the UK’s largest independent agencies of its kind. Exposure’s internal culture has evolved via its gallery, library and bar which ensures the working environment is conducive to creativity, ideas and sharing knowledge. Following the widespread success of Exposure London, offices in New York, Tokyo and Paris are now up and running.
 
In 2007, The Guardian voted Raoul as the most influential ethnic minority working in media and he has been featured in the PR Week Powerbook every year since 2007. He was a trustee of the British Council (2008 – 2014), a member of the Promote London Council for the Mayor of London (2009 – 2011), and has been part of the advisory board for the London Design Festival since 2014.
 
Follow Raoul on Twitter @Raouls.

Interview highlights

I was very lucky being born and bred in London.

I grew up in a creative environment.

I started to map out what I wanted to do on my own.

You need to be able to challenge conventions.

I’m always fascinated by what drives someone’s passion.

You need to have something that draws you away from the office.

I want to be involved in the creative process and the ideas.

I can handle chaos but I like organisation and structure.

I think the building of relationships and taking the time to remember people is an incredibly powerful sort of business tactic.

I’m very lucky that my work, passions and hobbies are all intertwined.

We are very open to being challenged.

I’m not really set on work being a 09:00 – 17:00.

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