Eight months after becoming the first chairman of The Marketing Agencies Association from a PR and comms background, Tim Bourne, founder and joint-chief executive at Exposure, tells Gorkana why he thinks the comms industry is “a bit confused at the moment”, which brands he’d most like to work with, and offers four key tips for PRs who want to launch their own agency.
Describe the current state of the comms industry.
I’d say it’s a bit confused at the moment. I think comms agencies have a vital role in helping businesses define and communicate their purpose and values. The growing importance of earned media is very much in their favour, while the shift of eyeballs from traditional media to digital/social channels presents a risk for those that can’t adapt quickly enough. The competition seems to be stronger than ever with agencies of all types professing some expertise in comms and PR.
You became joint-CEO of Exposure in 1997 with Raoul Shah. 19 years on, tell us about some of your proudest moments.
The first one was when we won the European Levi’s business in 1998. We were a very small London agency at the time and we took the whole team to Brussels to pitch for the business. It meant that much to us. Raoul and I locked ourselves away in a hotel room to crack the brief. It was a wonderful experience and we were fortunate to have a very brave client who was prepared to put their faith in us and our ideas. We have done some of our best work for Levi’s over the years and I’m incredibly proud that we continue to work with them today.
There are so many fantastic moments: creating an urban music festival for Virgin. Developing Coca-Cola’s fashion platform. Creating Stella Screen (outdoor film programme), moving to our current offices in Little Portland Street in 2001 (we worked with a Belgian interior design company called Creneau. At the time it won a number of Interior Design Awards). Opening our office in New York in TriBeCa was really a dream come true. Launching 3 mobile. Winning Nike. Winning our first Cannes Lion … The list goes on.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
I do genuinely still love my job. I’ve been so lucky to work with Raoul Shah, the best business partner anyone could wish for. We’re lucky that we’ve remained very close friends as well as business partners. I think it works because we’re so different in how we approach work and where our strengths lie.
I guess the part of the work I enjoy most now is working with the people inside the business, helping them to develop. We are fierce believers in entrepreneurial culture and try to keep centrally controlled processes to a minimum, so people can develop their own entrepreneurial skill and progress at their own pace.
We have a philosophy that doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone; we want people to stay with the business for as long as we’re able to make a difference to their career. We want people to leave (or stay) feeling that Exposure made the biggest difference to their career, but we don’t expect everyone to stay forever.
Which brand do you most admire?
I am a huge admirer of people like Bill Gates, Paul Poleman and Elon Musk. Those guys seem to have recognised that business has to be about more than making money. We need a lot more of these people, otherwise our planet is heading for irreconcilable difficulties.
What’s the dream brand you’d like to work with?
I’d like us to work with an environmental business. I’m a big admirer of The Soil Association and we are talking to them about how we could collaborate with them. On a personal level, I’d love to work with Rapha, partly because I cycle a lot. I know Simon Mottram and admire what he has done with that brand. It feels part business, part religion!
What was your first job?
My first job was in advertising for an agency based in Windsor. It doesn’t exist anymore. I was lucky that I knew what I wanted to do when I was 16. I was very specific, even then I was clear I wanted to run my own agency. I decided not to go to university because I thought work experience would be more valuable to me. That proved to be a good decision. By the time my contemporaries came out of university, I already had four years work experience under my belt.
You set up your first agency, Noble, Bourne & Lyme, aged 23. What advice would you give to comms professionals thinking of doing the same thing?
1. I have a real belief in partnerships in business. Unless you’re Richard Branson or Elon Musk, I’d recommend finding someone to work with who you trust and who has skills you don’t possess. Don’t worry about surrendering equity to the right person. The value of the business you build will be worth far more than the equity you give up.
2. Be clear on what makes you different. If you’re not sure, hold off launching until you know and can articulate it. These days there are so many companies competing for work, that includes agencies of all types, non agency businesses and clients themselves. To be successful you have to be clear on your point of difference and how to communicate it.
3. Be brave and don’t give up. Every successful business has been through tough times and I wouldn’t mind betting every owner has had moments when they thought they weren’t going to make it. The difference is they didn’t give up.
4. Use your network. Success in business these days relies on collaboration. One of Exposure’s values is that ‘we aim to give more than we get back’. This philosophy of helping others has helped us to build an incredible network of partners. Without their help, encouragement and support we simply would not have made it.
Earlier this year, you were the first PR to be named chairman of the MAA. A testament to where PR now sits in marcomms?
I don’t see myself as a PR. It’s never been a strong discipline of mine, although there are plenty of people in our business who are outstanding at PR. I was attracted to the MAA because of its progressive and diverse agenda. I joined the board initially as the chair of entrepreneurship and created Super Entrepreneur, an annual league table of blue chip business entrepreneurial performance.
What makes the MAA different and highly relevant is that it doesn’t favour any specific agency discipline. That enables us to be contemporary and progressive, combining the inputs from agencies of all types: advertising, PR, digital, social, branding, media. I think that more accurately reflects the way communication works today. It also helps us to future proof.
Tell us about the work you’ve been doing with the MAA.
The MAA had been going through a lot of positive change over the last few years to help us be more relevant and maximise the value we give to our members. Many of the trade bodies do amazing work adding real value to their members. However, the existing model is quite a reactive one. We want to be more proactive for our member agencies by anticipating some of the challenges they are likely to face and help to support and protect them.
I don’t think there has been a time when the challenges facing agencies have been greater. There is a bewildering amount of change to consumer behaviour and media consumption. We are here to help our members adapt to market changes and secure a profitable future.
- Bourne became joint CEO of Exposure in 1997. When he and Raoul Shah started the business, they made a joint decision not to specialise in a ‘core’ discipline. They say this attracted clients which were also looking to break new ground by seeking “out-of-the-box solutions”.
- He set up his first agency at the age of 23 – Noble, Bourne & Lyme – and has sat on the board of six different businesses, including two start-ups. Clients he has worked with include Pepsi-Cola, Disney, Procter & Gamble, GlaxoSmithKline, Red Bull, Whitbread, Diageo and more recently, EE, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Bacardi Martini.
- Once a keen motorcyclist – until a nasty accident took the thrill out of the sport for him – Bourne says he now cycles, swims and says he is a “very average triathlete”. He is also a fundraising board member of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.