Words Kirk Truman
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“I simply did what I did – making connections, bringing people together and seeing how that resulted in brand fame, media visibility and positive brand perceptions.”
Exposure is the agency responsible for marrying Diet Coke with fashion, Converse with the music industry and Levi’s® with music, art and design. Creating mutually beneficial collaborations on this scale is no walk in the park, but a self made challenge that this Fitzrovia-based communications agency has taken on with moxie. Bringing cultural relevance to brands since 1993 and with a portfolio that reads like a guidebook for the world’s leading superbrands, the title above the door at 22-23 Little Portland Street really does mean what it says. Like any endeavour, networking and collaborating has a history of starting out small and this is something Exposure’s founder, Raoul Shah, is all too familiar with.
Raoul was born and raised in North London, his parents born in Nairobi from Gujarati origins. “They moved to London in the 1950s and were lucky enough to meet each other on a visit to the Reeves paint factory organised by the British Council,” he says. It was serendipitous that Raoul himself became a trustee of the British Council between 2008 and 2014. As a youngster, Raoul developed a passion for music – a love that remains today. He lived out his youth in venues like The Lyceum, Camden Palace and Subterania, and in his late teens he was immersed in the sounds of The Clash, The Jam, and The Specials. “I think I had a brief phase trying out every youth culture style of the moment – Mods, Rude Boys, Punks and New Romantics,” says Raoul. “In the late 80s, Buffalo became the really enduring style reference for me thanks to magazines like The Face, i-D and Arena.” Raoul now lives in Belsize Park and is proud to call London his home, citing it as the greatest capital city in the world – a distinction due in no small part to its rebellious spirit and creative originality that led to sub cultures that went global.
Raoul started out his career at Pepe Jeans where he began to build his network, connecting with a variety of brands and individuals. In October 1993 he went solo and founded Exposure from a desk in Sedley Place, just off Bond Street.His initial idea: to create a business that specialised in networking. “I wanted to bring people and brands together to see the impact one can make via word of mouth and mutually beneficial collaborations. I guess you could call it ‘social media’ in the original sense of the words,” he says. “I was connecting brands like Converse with bands and music festivals, Coca-Cola with fashion designers and Levi’s with design and creativity.” Networking produced content that delivered earned media. Raoul started out small and the progression of Exposure was organic. In his early days he was unaware of the industry terminology and labels associated with agencies. “I simply did what I did – making connections, bringing people together and seeing how that resulted in creating brand fame, media visibility and positive brand perceptions.” As the business began to develop, Raoul soon recognised that Exposure was in the PR and product placement business and opted to create specialist units within Exposure. Today, he explains, “These departments have grown considerably and they now sit alongside other specialist teams handling events, brand experience, digital marketing and social media. We have dedicated communications teams that work in specific sectors such as fashion, beauty, drinks and entertainment.”
As Exposure began to expand, higher profile brands approached the agency. Raoul sought out somebody with experience handling global brands in the marketing sector. With his proven track record, Tim Bourne became an equal partner in the company in 1997. “Tim set us on an incredible trajectory that has, today, created a group with 200 employees and a global revenue of £25,000,000,” Raoul explains. Exposure’s expansion was far from set in stone, or confined to London; in 2003, the company handled a campaign for British car manufacturer Jaguar in California. This campaign led to the beginning of Exposure’s US expansion and the opening of its New York office in 2005. “Dr. Martens and Casio were our founding clients in New York. I was always inspired by the cultural relevance and connectivity between London and New York, so the next step was to open the Tokyo office in 2008. In 2014, we opened The Supermarket in New York, a space dedicated to art,installations and events. Todate we have converted it intoa skate bowl, a radio stationand an auction house. We referto it as a ‘gallery of ideas.’”
Prior to the overseasexpansion of Exposure,towards the end of the ragtrade era in May 2000, Raoul relocated the UK company to Little Portland Street, Fitzrovia.At the time, the area was unpopulated by businesses in the creative industry. With characteristic foresight Raoulsaw Fitzrovia as an area with potential. Here was a chance for the company to stamp its personality on the building, and the area. “North of Oxford Street was still a little vacant and certainly not hip but we were keen to move here and establish our roots in an area that had so much potential,” says Raoul. “Langham Estates has always been very supportive and often showcases our space as an example of what can be achieved with a few ideas, a little creativity and some talented people. Fitzrovia has a great independent vibe to it – there’s still the alteration tailors in various basements and the remnants of the rag trade. When we moved here, Sergios, Efes and Franks were the go-to places to eat or have a cuppa. The truth is that they still are for me, although now we have plenty of other choices. Back then, Oliver Peyton had still had Mash on Great Portland Street which was a really hip place to eat and drink for those in the know. Like Mash, we wanted Exposure to become a destination.” And so it has: Exposure’s presence in Fitzrovia and its strong relationship with The Langham Estate has resulted in Little Portland Street often being referred to as ‘Exposure Street’.
Raoul has noted the influx of media and marketing agencies that are now dotted around Fitzrovia. Their arrival heralded a new, creative and more dynamic perspective that attracted many businesses to follow suit and take up residency in the area – Workshop, Portland and Bonnie Gull amongst them. True to form, Exposure recently collaborated with independent coffee shop Mother’s Milk (founded by James Wise and Will Hilliard) by giving it a new home in the Exposure bar. The move welcomes Fitzrovia residents into the world of Exposure and has given rise to a shop front for this hybrid creative and communications agency.
“Gallery, library, bar, coffee shop – our reception has always been designed to be a little ambiguous. We did actually convert it into a charity shop in 2013 so the idea of revisiting a retail format is definitely a real possibility.” Raoul tells of a range of Exposure products that are currently in development so there’s every chance that the addition of an Exposure shop front may one day become a reality. It’s a case of “watch this space,” he says.
2015 was a year of transformation for Exposure having simplified its business model in order to focus on the agency’s core earned media skills: consumer PR, brand experience, events, digital communications, social media, fashion, beauty, consumer insights and brand strategy. 2016 is set to be a strong year for the whole group with a forecasted 15% total growth. Select projects for the next year include campaigns for Coca-Cola and Nike leading up to the Olympics, plus the Heineken Champions League final in Milan.
Levi’s and Anthony Burrill. Uniqlo and Benji B. Dr. Martens and Buffalo. Diet Coke and Marc Jacobs. Star Wars and Christopher Raeburn. Microsoft and D*Face. Nike and Clothsurgeon. The Tudor Watch Company and Mark Ronson. Exposure isn’t just a communications agency, it is about producing great ideas with cultural impact that resonate with consumers. On the subject of further oversees expansion Raoul says “never say never.” He has looked at opportunities in Amsterdam and Berlin, but confirms that there are no immediate new European offices on the horizon. “I think the next step for Exposure will be to expand its presence in the US with a west coast base in either Los Angeles or San Francisco.” For Raoul, Exposure is defined as a creative communications agency and he maintains the company’s guiding principle: to continue to make brands culturally relevant by producing ideas that engage the modern consumer.