Profile: Business is about values, says CreativeRace CEO Rob Shaw

The secret of success in business, says Rob Shaw, comes down to values. He should know – now the CEO of Leeds-based CreativeRace, he’s already met with more success than most people in the brand marketing business could dream of, and he’s far from finished yet.

Rob Shaw, CEO of CreativeRace in Leeds.

“I like people, and I like making things,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“I also had really good values and morals instilled in me early on, in a tough way – you know, ‘do the right thing you’ll do well, but do the wrong thing and you’ll get in trouble quick’.

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“I think if you can demonstrate to both your clients and your teams that you’ve got a really strong value system, then you won’t go far wrong.”

Mr Shaw first reached the boardroom while working for contact centre business Ventura at the age of just 30 and six years later entered the world of digital marketing when he was made chief technology officer at Warrington-based Latitude.

It was to be a pivotal role in his career, when his experience met and married his calling. But it was in his next role, at the helm of Leeds agency Epiphany, that he made waves well beyond the northern ecosystem that had nurtured his talents.

Founded in 2005, Epiphany still only employed about 20 people when he arrived there in 2009. By the time he left, it employed over 200 and had grown into an internationally-respected brand.

When Mr Shaw and his fellow directors sold Epiphany in a deal worth £18m to Sheffield-based data science-led marketing company Jaywing in 2014, Mr Shaw became CEO of the whole operation, turning it into a northern powerhouse more than capable of competing with rivals in London.

He stepped down in March 2020 and took up his current role in September 2020.

After more than 20 years in board-level positions, Mr Shaw has had plenty of time to reflect on the nature of management, but it was when he was given his first directorship that he learned one of his most important lessons.

“When I got the job, the MD didn’t take me to one side and say, ‘now you’re on the board, here’s the secret plan; this is what we’re really doing that we don’t tell anyone about’.

“He’d always been transparent, and everything that I’d learned about the business as an employee was the same when I became one of the leaders of the business, and that’s always stuck with me.

“We’ve always from the early phases of growing any business, been really honest with the teams about what we’re trying to achieve – what ‘good’ looks like. I think that transparency and honesty is really, really important.”

The initial distrust of manage-ment that this anecdote suggests – followed by the realisation that it was ill-founded – is a theme that recurs. It becomes clear he had to adjust his thinking about the bosses when he became one.

If he could go back in time and give his younger self a piece of advice, he says, it would be that there is no “us and them”.

“When I was starting in businesses as a junior software developer, people would say ‘they’ve decided this’, and the management and the leadership of the business were seen as this amorphous blob, which would be referred to as ‘they’: ‘they’ve decided to do it this way’. And there was always that perception that ‘they’ don’t understand what you mean.

“As you progress through your career and you take more senior roles, you realise one day: ‘I am ‘they’. I’m just a person making decisions in the best way I can possible, with everybody’s interests at heart. You have a much better appreciation of how companies work and realise that actually, everybody is just people.”

Mr Shaw’s new role at CreativeRace represents a change of gear, but he says it’s a welcome one. Part of his role at Jaywing plc was to look after the shareholders, which was “difficult”; “my heart is absolutely with privately-owned businesses,” he says. Also, the smaller size of CreativeRace – it employs about 50 people – means that he can focus more on his team and the work they do.

The client list includes some big national names, such as Asda and Greggs, but also some smaller ones, such as sustainable energy supplier PlanetU.

“I think regional businesses keep you honest,” he says. “As a Yorkshireman you know the value of a pound, and I think it’s important to remember that.

“The reason your clients are working with you is to invest their money wisely, to get bigger results for them, and there’s nothing more sobering than dealing with an owner of a business where you’re spending their cash reserves to allow them to grow. You get measured on your results.”

He’s joined at a strange time, and still hasn’t met some of his employees face to face, but is clear that the move to CreativeRace, which is chaired by co-founder Gordon Bethell, is a positive one.

“I’m far too old now not to work with people that I like,” he says.

“Life’s too short not to do something that you love, with people that motivate you. So I’ve always wanted to find an opportunity to do something with Gordon.

“What I’ve always loved about CreativeRace is that it’s got over four decades of heritage. It’s always believed in doing the right thing for its clients. It gets to measure its client relationships in decades, not years, and that’s really rare.”

“The thing that is absolutely burnt into the DNA of this business is its ability to understand brands. The importance of branding is never going to go away, whether that’s in a retail context, in a PR context, through social media, online, at the heart of that is: we make brands famous.”

Due to a non-competition clause, Mr Shaw had to take a six-month break before taking up his new role – “it was very frustrating, but what a time to be able to get some thinking in!” – and had planned to celebrate a landmark birthday with a big holiday, which had to be cancelled.

But he threw himself into his charity work with the Jane Tomlinson Appeal and Run For All, and has returned to the fray rejuvenated.

“Despite the fact that I turned 50, I’ve probably never had as much energy and excitement for doing what I do in the industry, because I love it,” he says.

“I’ve spent the defining times of my career leading marketing agencies, and it’s what I enjoy the most. So to be able to keep doing it, and build new careers for people, is the thing that brings me the most happiness.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Born and bred in Hull, Rob Shaw started work as a systems analyst straight from Wolfreton School. Ten years later he joined outsourcing firm Ventura, where he was made IT director, and in 2006 he moved to digital marketing agency Latitude as CTO.

Following redundancy in 2009, he was snapped up by Leeds-based Epiphany, which he turned into an internationally-respected brand. When Mr Shaw and his fellow directors sold Epiphany for £18m to Sheffield-based Jaywing in 2014, Mr Shaw became CEO.

He stepped down in March 2020 and was named as CEO of Creative-Race in September 2020.

An ultra-marathon runner and triathlete, he is a trustee of the Jane Tomlinson Appeal, and a non-executive director of Run For All.