The Communications Store
Julietta Dexter, Founder and CEO
Prioritizing culture and values over strategy is rare in today’s media landscape, but The Communications Store (TCS) has proven it to be a winning approach for 22 years. In her interview, TCS Founder and CEO Julietta Dexter shares the story of her international business, from the support of her earliest mentors to the philosophies that differentiate her company from the rest. Thriving in what she calls a “time of communications without borders,” she also speaks on the company's U.S. expansion, with their NYC and LA offices opening January 2018.
What does your company do?
The Communications Store is a strategic brand development and communications company that works with some of the world’s best premium, aspirational and luxury brands. We have big teams in fashion, lifestyle and beauty. We also have a big VIP and Events team too, and a growing business in purpose, responsibility and sustainability.
How and why did you start TCS?
I started TCS in 1995. I wanted to build what at the time was called a PR Agency, that was built on culture and values. Culture over strategy, every time. Our industry is often known for its “Devil Wears Prada” culture and I wanted to change that. This is the most incredible professional path – an exciting, broad and varied career and I wanted to build a business that created a new dynamic within the industry. We are a service industry – and that means quite literally we need to serve our clients to our best possible ability and we need to serve our staff, ensure that our community feels valued, appreciated, has an exciting trajectory and has a real sense of ambition and purpose. Bluntly put, we want to treat all others the way we want to be treated ourselves. Our culture also means that our success is not only built on our financial results, but on our reputational results too. If the clients and the staff are leaving – but we’ve made lots of money – we are not succeeding.
Did you have any mentors or people who inspired you along the way?
I lost my father very suddenly in 1991. He would have given me the very best advice and I’ve missed that but in truth, if I ask him a question, however hard, I know what his answer would be. My business partner Tom Konig Oppenheimer, who built the business with me and has now retired from the business, was my greatest reality check. He knew how to hold the mirror up and that partnership is priceless. My current business partner who has also been in the business since 2002 is a guiding light for me too. I call him “the big man.” He is a great shoulder from time to time! The business would categorically not be what it is without these men!
I was also lucky enough to meet Lizzie Kershaw from Hearst Corporation and Madame Valerie Wertheimer in a previous job in charity PR and fundraising in 1992 and they gave me a helping hand encouraging me to get out there into this workplace. Lizzie helped me get an interview for which I shall be eternally grateful.
John Frieda has been a client of TCS for many, many years. He is the best PR I have ever met and understands the philosophy of good communications. I owe him a great deal, he taught me so much and we have been blessed to work for him and the brand he and Gail Federici founded.
And finally, my husband who is my greatest supporter, and my two daughters Valentina and Darcy. How much has changed in one generation! These young women work hard, believe in equality and I think have got confidence in themselves. They also work hard and I am very proud of them. At the beginning of the business, I was a single mum with these two beautiful little girls – there has never been a greater motivation for me to work hard and provide for them. I wanted to give them the very best education they could have to set them up for their futures in the best way I could.
In a time of huge flux in the industry, where are you focusing your agency’s efforts in terms of day-to-day work? Is the brief from clients evolving rapidly with this change?
Some clients are on the cutting edge of the evolving world, others are literally wondering what to do. Every brief, every client, is different and is at a different point in their evolution. The fundaments remain the same: good ideas, great creative idea, exceptional strategy and flawless execution – whatever the channel or medium. I also believe profoundly in the strength of human relationships in the crazy “world that moves at the speed of thought”. Trust, loyalty, belief in one another, intuition, energy – all the things a computer can’t do. Super relevant, more relevant now than ever before. Over 22 years we have built trusted relationships, we know people well, we know what they might want and this is very precious.
Brands also come to TCS because we have built, over a long time, a big network of friends and supporters – the cross-pollination that we can create between these brands is also something that people value. I like this Chinese proverb: “When the winds of change rage, some build shelters, others build windmills”….and we are building not just a windmill, but I hope intelligent, clever, considered, considerate energy!
What do you think are the ‘hot topics’ in the communications/PR/marketing area right now?
Integration! Everyone is talking about it, pretending it is easy but actually it takes time for humans to react and respond and work together. Fact.
The other big topic is that publishing companies are becoming agencies, agencies are becoming publishing companies, digital agencies want a PR arm, PR agencies are becoming advertising agencies. The linear definitions of who does what are all changing on a daily basis as traditional disciplines are having to reinvent themselves. We are all at it, and change is good. Disrupt or be disrupted but in my view, know what you are, be honest about what you are good at, and work out a truthful way of serving your customers.
How do you differentiate from other agencies?
Culture and Values. We work very hard to follow our values of Passion, Care, Strength and Wisdom. There are plenty of exceptional agencies out there that we respect and admire a great deal – what defines us is not what we do, but how we do it, why we do it. When people know us, and know TCS they either “get us” or they don’t. If they are one of us they tend to be one of us for life. Many very long-term friendships have been built within the staff community and the client community, which I am proud of.
You said that ‘we are in a time of communications without borders’. Can you please elaborate?
We used to operate only on a UK-basis. That is no longer relevant particularly if a brand is global. OK if the brand is UK only, but most brands have bigger ambitions if they are not already global brands. If we launch a brand in the UK we have to realize that it is out there in the ether. If we work with Vogue say for a big launch feature in the US, the UK won’t cover it in the same way. Social channels are globally (where allowed) available. Media is in the palm of your hand every day and consumers consume media and react to it. I like the idea that brands can’t control the conversation anymore. We used to be able to sell “exclusive” stories but this is becoming less and less possible. You want your story out there strategically in as many places as possible – I like the democracy of it!
What was behind the decision to expand TCS into the US market? How is that going?
There were a few reasons – firstly we had some clients who wanted us in the US who had been with TCS for a long time. Secondly, if you consider communications without borders we wanted to give our staff more of a global viewpoint – understand the fundamentally important US market for our clients as well as the UK market. We have an amazing leadership team at TCS in the UK and their relevance and growth must be international. Finally, we have big ambitions for the future of our business and the US launch is a steppingstone within those ambitions.
What have been some of the highlights of your career thus far?
22 years of highlights, I think. It has been the most incredible time – it has been very hard at times, particularly during the financial crisis but I value the relationships I have at work with my colleagues and clients so much. My life is hugely enriched by them. I have really enjoyed travelling all over the world and at the same time I love my London office. I feel really relaxed there, and I am blessed to have the most beautiful roof terrace too. We had the most wonderful party in 2015 to celebrate 20 years of the company and to celebrate Tom’s retirement from the business. It was a magical night that I shall never forget. Graham Norton came to make jokes about Tom and we just laughed all night long.
What are some of your current projects that you’re excited about?
I am really excited about opening our office in LA in January under the leadership of Jessica Wong. Jess worked with us in London for years and then went home to LA. She always said that just as soon as we were ready, she’d build the business on the West Coast. I am also very excited about spending time in NY with Emma Paton, our US President. Emma joins us in January and I am going to be spending more time in the NY office with her building the business for a couple of months. Finally, I find the work we are doing with our Senior Director of Purpose, Responsibility and Sustainability hugely fulfilling. The world of luxury is waking up to this vital subject. TCS has always worked on the basis of a triple bottom line – we focus not only on our economic impact, but also our social and environmental impact. Esther is hugely well-respected in this arena and literally the number of client meetings that are happening without her interaction are becoming less and less frequent.
What are a few key pitfalls you’d advise against in creating a thriving business, and your tips for success?
In terms of pitfalls I think people often try and be all things to all people. Focus on what you know you are really good at. At the beginning of the business I found the financial side of the business a bit daunting, not my core focus. I swore to myself that if I did not understand it, then I should not be doing it or making that decision. I forced myself to ask, and ask and ask the question again until I understood. Interestingly, many people can “blind you with science”, or “big talk” and actually there ain’t much underneath! It is a strategy they have developed to sound like they know what they are talking about. I increasingly found them out. It’s been the same in the digital world – please don’t try and impress me with “terms” that sound complicated but mean little. If I don’t understand it, then I doubt anyone else will either!
How do you plan to grow and develop your agency in the future?
Right now we’ve been through a huge evolution over the last 4 years. We’ve built teams in global, innovation, creative, social, influencer, VIP, events, sustainability and purpose, in the US etc., We’re working hard to be relevant, useful, nimble, thoughtful for the needs of our evolving clients. 2018 is all about excellence in delivery to our staff and to our clients. That is our key focus. And it won’t be about getting out there and winning awards, we KNOW if our work is good – and that is what we want to focus on.
On the longer-term horizon, I like the idea of having a business in $, £ and €. All three. Brexit has not been the UK’s finest political hour to say the least. It creates above all a big question mark about the future. Change, and not necessarily good change will no doubt ensue. I have always believed in not having all our eggs in one basket.
Most importantly, at TCS we have a fundamental business belief – “bigger is not better, better is better”. Every single client in any business will tell you that and we hold that thought very firm.
Have you found any differences between working in the UK vs. the US?
Yes, there are many differences that I am learning personally right now! I love the no-nonsense approach in NY. I love the fact that meetings are 30 minutes – in London we tend to spend 20 minutes asking each other how we are and if we’d like a cup of tea before we actually get to the business. So, I love that!
I hope that we (TCS) can have a cultural impact in our industry. We take great care to look after our employees, we want to value, nurture and grow our assistants. That is a key focus for our business.
It is so interesting to me that whilst we speak English – there are still so many things that I am not sure about. I said thank you so someone recently and their response was “definitely”. Not sure what that meant, but no doubt I will learn.