Phil Rhys Thomas / September 11, 2019
From selling jeans in his father’s shops to founding communications behemoth ModusBPCM, Julian Vogel takes us on a whistle-stop tour of his career so far – and explains how Kate Moss, a pair of Birkenstocks and an iconic magazine cover created the moment that sparked his rise from local to global concern.
Tell us how it all started.
I grew up in London where my father was the marketing director of Levi’s while my mum had been an art director for an advertising agency in the 60s, working with photographers like Norman Parkinson and David Bailey. So being surrounded by fashion, design and photography made me very aware, early on, of that world. This, together with a fascination for magazine publishing – I loved the articles, adverts and photography in fashion magazines and Sunday supplements like The Sunday Times, meant that I had a precocious interest and understanding of the relationship between brands and the media.
Then, when I was in my teens, my dad had a chain of jeans stores. In the school holidays, I was roped into the family business, doing everything from unpacking boxes to merchandising the stock to working in the shop and selling.
Given this upbringing, perhaps it’s no surpise that I studied business and marketing. By my final year my twin brother, who had studied art, graduated to become a textile designer, and through him I met Anna Morel, who worked with Mikel Rosen one of the leading London fashion PR agencies. I used to bunk off my accountancy lectures to work with her on show productions. It was the mid 80s and London Fashion Week was at one of its peaks, with designers including John Galliano, Bodymap, Vivienne Westwood and Rifat Ozbek. I worked backstage, calling out the models’ names: Linda, Naomi, Cindy, Yasmin. And because my dad had these shops he would get a buyer’s pass for London Fashion Week, so when I was 16 I was wandering around trade shows seeing how the industry worked, meeting designers and not really realising that it would lead to a career.
Later, I went to work for Jean Bennett, who invented fashion PR – Ab Fab was based on her and Lynne Franks – and that’s when I met my first business partner, Diana Hall. I had a year’s experience and I was 22, and rather arrogantly said that if it all worked out I wanted to be a partner after a year. And that’s what actually happened. So, at the age of 23 I became a third owner in a PR agency that at the time was probably turning over about £20,000.
What do you think it is about your approach, especially specifically early on? You really turned it into quite a powerhouse in London.
Because I’d studied marketing and my first business partner, Diana, studied journalism, we used our different skills and approached communications in a very strategic way. What do the clients need? What are their business objectives? We have always worked with inspiring people and wonderful brands but we chose our clients carefully, working with brands where we could make a difference and add value.
And maybe to grow with them as well?
Exactly: you learn what not to do as well as what to do. So strategy, story telling and building relationships are paramount. We were involved in every part of their marketing plans, even getting involved with product development and becoming an extension of the company.
Which of those clients were the game-changers?
At the beginning, it was a cohort of young designers but then we started working with the Natural Shoe Store, who happened to distribute Birkenstocks. In 1990 we worked on that iconic Kate Moss 3rd Summer of Love cover for The Face.
Melanie Ward and Corinne Day used to come into the office all the time and hang out, and then they came in one day and said: ‘We just want the ugliest shoes you’ve got.’ And then they found these Birkenstocks, and they put them on Kate Moss for her first shoot for the Face, then the style press started using them. In the end, we worked for Birkenstock and the Natural Shoe Store for 15 years, getting Birkenstock featured across the pages of all the magazines and on the feet of numerous celebrities and influencers.
We also worked with CP Company & Stone Island for 15 years and that was a game-changer because it took us to Milan. Then after that, working for Katharine Hamnett in ’96 really put us on the map, and then Benetton – with all those controversial Toscani advertising campaigns. But when Calvin Klein came to us, everything changed … it brought us clients who had advertising and marketing budgets. Calvin really turbo charged our business on a global scale.
We’ve worked with so many great brands over the years from young designers such as Stella McCartney, Erdem, Julien MacDonald and Preen, who have become global players; to helping to establish new beauty brands including NARS, Diptyque, Bumble & bumble as well as the big players such as M.A.C and L’Oreal Paris.
“As more and more activity moves online and into a more digital space, events have become even more important.”
You talked about the influence that The Face and the cover and print had. I wonder how you feel about how things have evolved now, and the value of social media?
The challenge for any brand or company is how to get noticed by your target audience; to gain visibility and tell your story. We used to do this through consumer and style magazines and newspapers. We are now using a much wider mix of media platforms to get our messages across to our audiences. We see ourselves as the navigator for our clients – steering them along the path, helping to reach their target. We’ve worked with Calvin Klein for 28 years, and what’s really interesting is watching a brand like that respond to the internet. Slowly at first, to embraced e-commerce – but once that decision was made, it was like a rocket: they can move so quickly, they have the financial and creative resources so can create awareness very quickly.
Now that social media is such an established communication platform for everyone, currently we’re working with Calvin Klein in a more sophisticated way, on extensive micro-influencer programmes where we’re targeting influencers that have probably 5,000 followers but, critically, can reach their audience in a genuine, authentic way.
In a way, how we’re working now isn’t that different to how my dad worked with Levi’s in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He would tell me stories about dressing The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They were the influencers of their time and probably not getting credited because I can’t imagine the newspapers printing: ‘Paul McCartney wears Levi’s’. The difference now is the commercialisation of these brand and influencer relationships.
It will be interesting to see how things develop when micro-influencers grow their following (because if they are working with Calvin Klein that will happen). Will that still be seen as genuine and authentic or is scale a turn-off for their followers? Or do they evolve and become more relevant as an information broadcaster, raising awareness, rather than someone that has a direct influence on sales?
I’m thinking here of someone like DJ Fat Tony. He is just so entertaining – nothing directly to do with music. He’s not advertising anything or trying to get his followers to buy anything. But by being authentic and true he has a huge following and had become the DJ of choice again. I’m also fascinated by the robots/ the virtual influencers, like Lil Miquela. The fact that they’re not even real but they are treated as if they are, appearing on the red carpet or photographed at the shows. It’s extraordinary when you stop and think about it – they aren’t actually real. And yet have a huge base of followers and are influencing their audience.
What role do events play in the wider communications remit of your work?
As more and more activity moves online and into a more digital space, events have become even more important. For many reasons: we’re human and we want to connect and we want to see people and we want to share and remember experiences. We want to be there and want to show that we have been there to our friends and followers.
Events are also the perfect way to tell the story of a brand. Look at these massive experiences that brands like Vuitton and Hermès have been doing, where people are queuing around the block to experience the world of that brand. Social media has played a huge part in that because people want to show their friends they’ve been there, so the actual construct of the event is all around the Instagram moments and taking pictures. I find that really interesting.
But I think also the scale of events is important: we’re finding we’re tailoring the scale of the event from a small-scale, intimate dinner to a huge party, depending on what the client is trying to achieve. We’ve learned that the important conversations happen when people get together, but as well as that, physical events deliver content that can exist online long after the occasion itself is over. But also the experience can be enjoyed by way more than the 100 or 1000 people who attended when it’s shared across the social media channels of both the brand and the guests. Because of that, the creative production of the event is optimised to garner coverage.
Can you give an example of something that’s been particularly successful?
We did a shop opening for Sergio Rossi in London. It was a cocktail party, in store. But we knew that we couldn’t just have people standing around having drinks. So we installed a huge interactive screen which allowed guests to design their own Sergio Rossi shoes. We added a competitive element so that the winner’s design would get made. We also added a more traditional creative element with an illustrator drawing the shoes guests had designed so they had something to take away. It was a simple thing but it provided a lot of conversation, fun and great interaction with the product. People really got into the design process. But then we also did a small dinner afterwards, so there were two tiers to the event. Essentially, it’s about creating theatre.
We’re about to do a start a project with one client where we’re doing a series of store windows which will be taken over by different creators. Product showcased in a creative way by a known collaborator creates stories for the media, theatre for the public and content for social media.
I have to touch on the merger with Vanessa von Bismarck and BPCM. Maybe you can talk about how you’re complementing each other?
More and more of what we’re doing is seen globally in a magazine in New York, on Instagram in LA or a store in Paris. So what we’re offering is a geographically joined-up approach. For me, it’s become more important to be able to have cross-border expertise.
Equally, for a lot of the American brands we’re providing a gateway into Europe. Which is ironic with what’s going on politically, but I think with a common language, Americans feel comfortable having London as a springboard into other European markets. For us and for our clients, it’s important that the people heading up our international offices are the owners with a vested interest in the business and not just someone employed to head up the office.
It’s important to say that the merger with BPCM has allowed us to start a luxury lifestyle division with a variety of clients from hotels to publishing, luxury apartment buildings and art spaces to add to Modus’ fashion and beauty portfolio.
But what we are essentially about is relationship building and trust between people, and despite globalisation and the digital world, that fundamental core of our business hasn’t changed in 30 years.Back