Words Kirk Truman
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“Every brand has a story to be told, and we love telling stories…”
I’m sitting with Oli Wheeler on Little Portland Street. We’re talking about public relations, his agency THRSXTY, and his secret life as a drummer and self-confessed adrenaline junkie. There are almost too many PR agencies to count in this neighbourhood, but this street is especially populous, filled with some of London’s biggest names in communications. We’re discussing Oli’s latest role as CEO of THRSXTY, the growing Fitzrovia-based agency whose clients are as dynamic as the company’s rapidly expanding young team.
A few doors down Little Portland Street are five or six other agencies gathered under the umbrella of the Exposure Group, helmed by joint CEOs Raoul Shah and Tim Bourne, who purchased THRSXTY back in 2008. THRSXTY had originally started out as a film PR agency, whereas today they are specialists in PR, digital marketing and event production across diverse sectors, from fashion to spirit brands. Until 2015 the agency just about broke even, but Raoul and Tim had great belief in its potential. “They thought THRSXTY could take a new and interesting direction. It was doing pretty well, and ticked over nicely, but it was always destined for more than that,” says Oli.
He started out working for Freud Communications in 1993, going on to become a board director for 14 years between 1997 and 2011. He left Freud to join viagogo, the live event ticketing company, as Global Head of Communications, launching it into 62 countries. In early 2015, he began having conversations with Raoul and Tim about THRSXTY. “I had started to think about what I’d like to do next when Raoul and Tim mentioned THRSXTY to me. They felt it needed new energy, vision and leadership to take it to the next level,” he says. “I took a good look at it and it was clearly an agency that had huge potential, and so I joined in January 2016. I had big ambitions for the agency, but it required a complete turnaround as it wasn’t where it needed to be. I actually don’t think it could have continued in its previous form. It was doing fine – and there are lots of agencies that are “doing fine” – but I don’t do “fine”. I only want to work with exceptional clients and exceptional people.”
Since joining THRSXTY Oli has taken it in a whole new direction, reshaping and redefining the image, clientele and culture of the business. In his first year with the company, its turnover grow by an impressive 71%: clearly, the agency is thriving under his influence. “Come to think of it, this is only my third proper job,” laughs Oli. His first task was to work out what kind of agency THRSXTY was going to transition into. “THRSXTY was just waiting to be taken on a growth mission. It was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. It had a handful of great clients, and a few that were not so great. We resigned those.” He set some serious growth targets, expanded the services that showed most potential (such as digital and event production) and, crucially, set about finding the right people to come on board for the ride.
“THRSXTY is still a PR company at its heart,” says Oli, “although digital and influencer marketing have both grown exponentially for us. Our production team has doubled in size as has our VIP talent team. After an explosive first year we are continuing to grow our client list and we have just employed our 20th team member. Next on the horizon is New York, which we plan to open in 2018.”
Oli is as charismatic as he is enthusiastic and driven, and this has been key in bringing on board a hefty array of intriguing and innovative brands and clients during his tenure. “THRSXTY clients have a challenger mindset – they’re ambitious, courageous and creative,” he explains. “They’re anything but ordinary, and all our clients share our energy.” Walking into the agency, you can immediately sense everyone’s pride in working with Evian, Lacoste, Original Penguin, and (a particular favourite of mine) Herschel Supply. There is an entire team dedicated to drinks brands, ranging from premium tequila brand Patrón, Piper Heidsieck champagne and Suntory Japanese whiskies to Drambuie, Sailor Jerry and Wild Turkey.
“Some of our clients have grown in size along with the agency, and others are brand new to us. The main sectors are drinks, lifestyle brands and high street fashion. We’ve become quite a specialist in the drinks category, which makes our Friday afternoon agency catch-up quite lively at times.
“We’re privileged to have a long list of cultural icons in the portfolio, but we also take pride in building new brand identities. Every brand has a story to be told, and we love telling stories. Our role is to communicate those stories to the right people via the most effective channels. PR is a bit like shouting “oi!” very loudly and then pointing at something, and we are very lucky to work on some innovative and pioneering brand campaigns. It’s a real privilege to work with such talented people.”
Oli has worked within minutes of the THRSXTY office for his entire career and he has seen Fitzrovia change over the years into the neighbourhood that it has become today. The agency’s location is not only popular with the team but, in Oli’s view, is key to its success. “I try and take a quick walk around the neighbourhood every day. After 25 years I am still seeing vibrancy and inventiveness at every turn. This morning, I noted that one sandwich shop had a queue down the street, yet others were virtually empty, so I couldn’t help ask someone why they were prepared to wait. He told me he just liked what they sell and he liked spending time in there. These are inspirational insights when you are running your own business. THRSXTY is a fun place to work and we encourage our clients to spend time with us here. Fitzrovia has a real edge to it – with a healthy dose of mischief thrown in too!”
“I believe it’s important that our people are multidimensional and that they all have interesting lives outside of the agency”. Oli is a perfect example of this multi-faceted approach to life: when he’s not working, he plays drums in a band called Westbourne Circus, made up of musicians such as Simon Le Bon as well as others who play for the likes of Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. He also rides off-road motorcycles in various adventures around the world, which he describes as “my personal choice for a midlife crisis”.
He co-owns THRSXTY with Exposure, and what started out as a friendship with Raoul and Tim has developed into a rewarding business relationship. He believes that he has found the right balance between his business and his interests and makes sure there’s plenty of time to spend with his wife, the actress and presenter Tina Hobley, and their children. It’s looking as though THRSXTY, still evolving and growing, could be his greatest adventure yet.