Close-Up: Profile - The man who made reprographics respectable

The ability to embrace new technology helped Steve Parish turn TAG Worldwide into a repro powerhouse.

Steve Parish is his name, and repro is his game. And what a good one it has been for the one-time builders' labourer, whose renovation job on TAG Worldwide has turned it into one of the major suppliers of backroom services in British advertising.

But don't let the Estuary accent fool you into believing Parish's story is the familiar one of "Sarf London boy made good". This is no "bling-bedecked Jack-the-lad" with an eye for a fast buck and a self-promoting headline. On the contrary, the TAG chief executive rarely does interviews, and is not particularly keen on the usual flashiness associated with success.

His ego-free professionalism has won him many friends and it is almost impossible to find anybody in adland with an unkind word to say.

This is all the more remarkable given that TAG's direct work for clients accounts for about half of its business, and it is natural that agencies should be resentful of anybody with such potential to steal their lunch. Chris Hunton, Lowe London's managing director, says: "We're fine with Steve, he has never tried to conceal his other work."

How has Parish sustained this balancing act? Partly through being one of the first to understand the importance of new technology in reprographics, transforming it from what one agency chief calls the old "ink-on-paper" world. "He manages to excite clients about what has always been a dull area," Mark Cramphorn, the general manager of the Publicis UK group, says.

In doing so, Parish brought differentiation to what has traditionally been a commodity business, and removed a major overhead for agencies. Even more so now that he has extended TAG's activities from print into TV post-production.

He also seems to offer arrangements that please everybody, from cost-conscious client procurement specialists to creative directors, wary that the quality of their department's output might be compromised by volume deals. Parish is insistent that the process should never drive the look of the creative work. "If creatives believe you'll take care of their ideas, they'll trust you with the technology," he says.

And Parish, the son of a one-time print trade union leader, has brought straight dealing to a business once infamous for its old Spanish customs. That was a time when, as a senior agency manager recalls: "Your head of traffic got taken to an Arsenal game and had a brown envelope shoved under his nose."

Parish's skill lies in presenting TAG as a friend rather than as a threat to agencies.

Johnny Hornby remembers the role Parish played in getting the fledgling Clemmow Hornby Inge off the ground by offering its founders free office space in London's Wardour Street in return for handling its artwork during that time.

His back-scratching has reaped its rewards. Today, TAG not only has in-house joint ventures with CHI, The Red Brick Road, Publicis and Lowe, but also Ogilvy & Mather, Mother, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, and Hooper Galton.

"It's a win-win situation," an agency chief explains. "We can supply what clients need without worrying about capital expenditure on equipment that may soon become obsolete."

James Murphy, the RKCR/Y&R chief executive, says: "TAG has given us the opportunity to have access to a large amount of expertise, some of it within the agency, some on a 'needs' basis."

As a result, TAG has become the dominant player in its field. Since Parish took over the day-to-day running of the company six years ago, its turnover, generated by a 550-strong workforce, has grown from £12 million to £57 million.

Agency senior managers put that down to the professionalism in the company as personified by its finance director, Richard Jameson. Certainly TAG has the look of a grown-up company. "Can you believe we're getting people with Oxbridge degrees now," Parish says.

Now the group is preparing to enter a new phase, with Parish in the process of buying out his partners and mentors, Mick Gill, Murray Stroud and Vernon Tickel, while freeing up some equity for a new generation of management.

Not bad for a lad who turned down the chance to study politics, economics and English literature at university because he thought students were not made to work hard enough. He opted for the physical toil of a building site until his despairing dad helped him into a reprographics apprenticeship.

With the industry about to embrace new technology, the timing was apposite. Two years into a four- year apprenticeship, Parish was running a department. "A lot of guys just couldn't get their heads around the technology."

Today, Parish is still perpetually on the hunt for the opportunity to add value to his offering. In 2001, TAG acquired World Writers to help clients needing to adapt work for local markets. Two years later, there was an even more significant purchase when the post-production house Smoke & Mirrors joined the stable. "From a creative point of view, it's put us on a lot more people's radar," Parish says.

Penny Verbe, the Smoke & Mirrors chief executive, remembers how Parish's sharpness overcame any potential problems around TAG's extension from print to film.

"He knew film wasn't his area of expertise and never tried to say how it should be done," she says.

Given the company's success, it is no surprise that speculation has been rife about a sale to a communications supergroup. WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell is said to be among those showing an interest, but Parish professes to be in no rush. "You can never say never, but we don't have a plan," he declares.

Some onlookers suggest there may be no time like the present for Parish to hoist the "for sale" sign. And it is true there are a couple of ominous clouds on TAG's horizon.

One is that the relentless advance of technology, so successfully harnessed by Parish thus far, may outpace him. How long before clients bow to procurement demands and invest in the software and talent to automate artwork production?

The other is that repro joins the backroom services being shifted to the technically competent, but cheaper, markets of China or India, which Parish will visit this month.

He doesn't want to sound complacent. But nor does he wish to overplay the threat. "There's some justification for clients having their own software for things like point-of-sale material, but these will be limited and are likely to only get limited uptake," he predicts.

In the end, Parish's comfort may lie in the fact clients do not want to have direct control of anything that is not core business. For somebody who started his working life putting up false ceilings, demolishing a few glass ones shouldn't be a problem.

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 41

Family: Wife Carmel, daughters Jessica, 17, Isobel, 7

Lives: Chislehurst, Kent

Most treasured possession: My mobile phone

Drives: Porsche

Favourite TV programme: Lost

Describe yourself in three words: Pain in arse

Personal mantra: The harder you practice, the luckier you get

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