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John Doe Does

26 November 2012

Rana Reeves, founder of John Doe, on grown up time, fusing creativity with sales and the calming effect of running his own agency.

John Doe Does

Rana Reeves is excited.

I'm meeting the founder of John Doe, the PR agency forging a new way of doing PR, and have asked him which words best describe him. He goes for excitable young man.

"I think I'll always be excited but I think the style of excitement has changed. When I was at Jackie Cooper I was a publicist and I was excited about getting coverage, when I was at Shine the excitement was about seeing an idea realised, now as an agency owner the excitement comes from seeing people you've hired doing well and that's a different sort of excitement.

"Creatives are naturally very selfish and self-obsessed but having my own agency has shown me the enjoyment from seeing someone flourish and grow.

"It makes me very emotional – I'm a very emotional person. We had a team meeting talking about the New York office and people who have been promoted and I find it very difficult not to get emotional. I got part way through and Rosie (Holden, John Doe director) had to take over. It's because I really believe in the people and that for me is the excitement now."

He's also inspirational, intense, very funny, and super clever. Being excitable means our interview is punctuated with lots of laughing and speaking at the speed of sound.

Like its founder, John Doe is one of a kind.

From its approach to client work, connecting brands and popular culture to generate fame and sales, to its "hot" business goals, through to its outstanding journalist relationships, and staff benefits with a twist, the John Doe way is far removed from the traditional agency modus operandi.

Rana founded John Doe in April 2009, and after another "phenomenal" year of growth has a buzzing team of 18 consultants working from offices on Fashion Street, just off London's Brick Lane. Looming large at the end of Fashion Street is a six-foot 'Rana Leather Wear' sign which he points out to me while laughing.

"That swung the location for me. There’s no such thing as a coincidence – it's a godincidence – the universe brought us together."

The agency is entering what Rana calls "grown up time". Much of the last year has been about focussing on internal activity: defining the John Doe culture, launching a new website, settling into a new London office and fine-tuning the agency 'Manifes-Doe', as well as expanding to the US.

The New York office opened last month with a team of five, including Adam Thomas, the former global head of PR for Vertu and retained client illy caffè, won after beating off competition from 16 other US agencies. A second retained client is in the pipeline.

The US office is the first "cultural hub" the agency plans to open, and Rana is keen to show the US market how PR is done.

"There is more conservatism in the US and from what I've seen there’s a lot of comfortableness between PR agencies and brands but it's sometimes out of uncomfortableness that the great stuff comes – and I think we'll be able to challenge clients to think differently."

Doing things differently – "we don't do mundane stunts and surveys" - is the very essence of John Doe. The agency lives and breathes a 10-point Manifes-Doe (consumer relationship is just another phrase for conversation; brand is just another word for story) which sets the framework for how brands can successfully partner with contemporary and popular culture.

"I made a decision when I started the agency – I don't have a desire to be the biggest, I have a desire to be the best and they are two very different things. There's a lot of hip agencies out there and there's a lot more corporate consumer agencies and I'd say we bridge the two.

"Organic growth is at 23% so we've been very lucky to be able to concentrate on some of our existing relationships rather than constantly being on the pitching treadmill.

"A lot of people think John Doe is the go-to agency for cool stuff but what I'd say is a lot of our clients are big mainstream brands. Making a difference isn't about preaching to the converted, it's about brands doing things differently and shaking things up in their category."

Acting differently, turning things on their head and fusing creativity with sales, comes naturally to the John Doe team.

Its three-year business goals are: be hot; live hot; grow hot. Turning down pitches is not unusual – "I'm not a big fan of pitching". And the culture Rana and his senior team, including Rosie, Peter Chipchase, global publicity director Meena Khera and Adam, have cultivated means "we're always going to be a bit Marmite – people will either love us or hate us."

"There's a perception that we’re cool but we're very human in our approach – we just enjoy life."

The agency's staff benefits programme, called Jane Doe, costs about £40,000 a year and includes perks such as expenses turned around in 24 hours, access to nutritionists and a clothing allowance - "let's just say we have a healthy relationship with Selfridges."

"I remember being an account exec and having to go to a really posh event with crap shoes. We're not going to make them do it. We're doing well and we want to reward our staff. Why not? Life's too short."

The agency has also invested £29,000 in training over the last year.

"We've been doing a lot of creative training and work with an incredible array of different people so it's the immersion – most ideas coming out of the agency I've seen but they aren't all generated by me.

"I have a certain hallmark in the way I do ideas so it's important that different ideas are coming out. If I wanted it to be about me I would have called it Rana PR but having said that I think Jackie (Cooper) owns that name – I'm joking, she registered it once as a joke."

It's that hallmark which makes John Doe one of the hottest agencies in town, attracting a portfolio of clients that includes Vauxhall, adidas, Pernod, W Hotel group, 02, the Office of his Holiness the Dalai Lama and PlayStation, which Rana has worked on for 12 years. And the media knows it too.

"Journalists know we really understand the emotion. A lot of PRs are selling the what and don’t understand the why, it's the why - the story within the story that is important to the readers/viewers.

"Journalists know that we understand what makes a moment – sometimes when we call we can't even say what will be happening but they know we don’t fuck about."

Despite John Doe forecasting fees of more than £1 million for the current financial year (ending December 31) and a client portfolio bursting with must-have brands, Rana still sometimes doubts himself and muses that when he launched he didn't think "anyone would come".

"When I grew up in the 80s, I experienced a lot of racism; I was from a single parent family – you ingest this – it gives me my humility but it also gave me my selfishness, it's kind of a package. I'm very aware of my flaws as well as the positive aspects.

"Being aware of my flaws means I surround myself with a great senior team and I think that's where some agencies go wrong. Nobody can be good at everything."

Rana's senior team balances out what he calls his "singular creativity".

"I can be very passionate and single minded about what I want; I will have an agenda and sometimes that needs to be balanced."

One issue he is extremely passionate about is diversity in the industry which he believes still has many layers of bias and is full of snobbery about popular and mainstream culture.

"I've been in PR for 15 years and we’re still having this conversation. There's still a huge number of barriers and glass ceilings.

"Diversity isn't just about ethnic diversity, it's about class and education – you don't have to have a degree to work in PR.

"Neither Jackie (Cooper) or Rachel (Bell) have a degree and they’re both the most phenomenal PRs.

"The industry is wising up to internships – there are a lot of people working in this industry who have come to it easily. I worked for a year unpaid and that fucked my finances until my late 20s. I took out loans and worked weekends.

"Lots of the big agencies talk about the Taylor Bennett Foundation but I'm not sure how many of them has hired anyone from there. There's only 20 of us and we've managed to do it.

"I see an old boys' club in the industry. There’s an agency head who shall remain nameless – we were both speaking at a PRCA event and when we came off mic he said: 'you guys will always do the hip stuff but you'll never make money like we do'.

"I really rail against all these guys and girls who think they're Ab Fab – it bores me to tears."

The interview turns to the increasingly blurred lines between advertising and PR and how John Doe is positioning itself to best advantage, by taking on work that is usually handled by advertising agencies and bringing a PR point of view.

"There's a reason we didn’t put PR in our title. We create campaigns. Traditionally there was media planning, advertising and PR; it was all separate. Now we have channels and there has been a landgrab.

"PRs want it for free and advertisers and planners come at is as how much do we have to pay?"

"We now commission content – we commission digital content, a lot of films; activity that might have traditionally gone to advertising agencies.

"We can work quicker than ad agencies. When people hear ad agency they add two extra naughts and think of unwieldy organisations.

"We're also a lot more fleet of foot – a media agency might buy the idents for a TV series but not build in talent whereas PRs think about that – how can we sweat this and get more out of it? We just think in different ways and that comes from not being able to just buy our way through everything."

He thinks the way things are going, ad agencies will be looking for PR agencies to buy. Would he sell?

"We've had a few offers but we’re not big enough yet. If I'm going to sell I'm going to sell so I can buy an island."

He does admit that he's often too busy thinking of the next thing to take stock of what John Doe has achieved. For example, the agency's work with the Office of his Holiness the Dalai Lama saw a two-minute film, shot over Skype by Rankin, trending on twitter, a sold out stadium appearance and blanket coverage across key media.

"I have to learn to ingest this more – it was a dream piece of activity. What was amazing on that campaign was that a lot of talented friends gave up their time. PRs have heart and soul – I just picked up the phone and asked for help and I got it."

CSR and pro bono work is an important part of the agency sitting under the John Doe Heart umbrella. The team has active relationships with Amnesty International, Body & Soul, Elton John Aids Foundation and Philip Treacy.

Rana says he stays connected because he's "genuinely interested in what people are doing and when I'm interested in something I reach out".

But it's eavesdropping that gives him some of his best ideas and make him feel like he's plugged in.

"There's a perception that I spend my time going to fabulous parties with fabulous people but I don't. I'm at home watching Dallas. So I love hearing what the AEs and SAEs have been up to at the weekend.

"I'm a bit like a PR Dorian Gray – I need their energy to feed my excitement." More laughing.

"I'm 37. In disco years I'm about 500. If it's not something we're working on then it has to be pretty special for me to drag my carcass out. It needs to be a moment."

With his bulging contact book – he won't say who is in it beyond "the right people" – and creative flair there's no doubt plenty more moments ahead. But success?

"Success is an internal sense of validation. For me to say I'm successful means you aren't growing.

"As Jay-Z says there's always a bigger boat. I'm more content than I was five years ago. Having my own agency is a calming exercise."

Rana was talking to Gorkana's Celina Maguire.