As Asos posted rocketing sales again this week, George MacDonald examines how an advertising man with no retail background has managed to set the bar so high in etail.

Nick Robertson

Asos founder and chief executive Nick Robertson has, like other retailers this year, had to get used to falling UK sales growth.

But the similarity between Robertson’s etail outfit and high street-heavy chains ends there.

It is a sign of how effectively Asos has carved out a niche for itself that current trading in its domestic market was, in the terminology of some in the City, “only” up 23% in the first seven weeks of the new year.

Asos’s success has been driven by Robertson, one of the few entrepreneurs in the sector who has, in less than a decade, built a business from scratch, floated it and managed the transition from founder to public company director.

Retail success did not look likely to feature for Robertson. Although his great-grandfather founded menswear specialist Austin Reed, Robertson was a self-confessed failure at school. He left at 18 with just two Ds and an F at A-level, but picked up a job in advertising. It was that experience in the media world that helped give Robertson a head start in the emerging world of the internet.

Roles at advertising firms such as Young & Rubicam and media planning and buying agency Carat, Robertson says, provided an insight into consumer behaviour that was invaluable at Asos.

Originally called As Seen on Screen and selling clothes inspired by the celebrity looks in films or TV programmes such as Sex and the City, Asos had its roots in Entertainment Marketing, a business set up by Robertson following products used in films and TV.

His media expertise meant Robertson approached etail in a different way to traditional retailers. Peter Williams, former Selfridges chief executive and a non-executive director of Asos, says: “In fashion it’s not necessarily just the product that’s the issue – it’s the way you present yourself. Asos is not a listing like Amazon, it’s like a magazine.

“Because Nick doesn’t come from a retail background he looks at things in a different way. His advertising background helps with that.”

At results time Robertson typically provides grateful business page photo editors with pictures of himself and other directors flanked by leggy models garbed, just about, in the latest styles.

But he does not pretend to be a fashion expert. Instead, he has concentrated on building up a strong team around him and, unlike some entrepreneurs, happily relies on others’ expertise.

Williams says: “He’s realistic about what he knows and what he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t think he needs to know everything.”

His leadership skills were evident in 2005, when the Buncefield oil depot explosion resulted in the incineration of Asos’s nearby warehouse. Williams, who joined Asos’s board soon afterwards, says: “It was a testament to the strength of Nick and his team, who really rallied round. The business continued where it left off.”

Buncefield was a one-off drama, but Robertson’s direction and others’ knowledge have helped Asos keep up the pace.

Asos changes constantly. Innovations such as social networking, Asos Marketplace – where customers can sell their clothes on the site – and delivery deals keep the retailer up with the wider etail game. The big opportunity at present is international expansion, and overseas sales rocketed 112% in the first half.

Robertson said on Monday: “Fundamentally, the internet is the retail channel with the greatest potential and Asos is ideally situated to exploit it.”

Robertson may have been a dullard at school, but in etail he is obviously no dunce.

As seen on…

  • Age 42
  • Family Married with two children
  • Interests Chelsea FC, skiing and watching sport
  • First job Advertising firm Young & Rubicam
  • Business Founded Asos with a £2.4m loan from friends and family
  • Asos pre-tax profits £4.4m, up 9% (six months to September 30)
  • Asos group sales £96.5m, up 47% (six months to September 30)