Mitchell Kaye stunned the PR world when he decided to quit Mischief PR, less than two years after selling the firm he founded to Engine Group.
To many, Kaye was effectively synonymous with the firm he launched in 2006 after departing Shine Communications. Ambitious and relentless, Kaye succeeded in turning Mischief into one of the hottest agencies in the UK's notoriously cut-throat consumer PR market, racking up account wins and awards by the fistful.
According to the Holmes Report Global Rankings, Mischief recorded fee income of $6.4m in 2012, a very healthy 20 percent increase on the year before. Numbers like that suggest the Engine deal was hardly slowing the firm's progress, despite any lingering concerns over how Mischief's singular culture would play in the marketing group's integrated model.
Much of that culture - forthright, impatient, imaginative - stemmed from Kaye himself, a man who was once described as having "a strong point of view about what’s wrong with the public relations consultancy business and what to do about it."
Yet Kaye is in more subdued form when the Holmes Report sat down with him last week. Unsurprisingly, he is particularly careful, declining comment on several questions about his resignation. "It was a very, very tough decision," he notes."It’s a brand that I founded and, because I hired every single person there, it was a very tough decision."
"Equally it’s hard because Engine have been absolutely exceptional partners since day one," adds Kaye. "It’s been a great two years for both of us. They’ve got an agency that grew year-on-year and we did some of our best work as part of Engine."
Read on for an edited transcript of the conversation that followed.
Given all these factors, why are you leaving?
The timing was right. I’m really ambitious and anyone that knows me knows I’m really impatient. It just felt like the right time. I’m confident with the management team I’ve got in place now and the structure and the group. The next step of Mischief’s journey is set up and I feel I’m able to step down safe in the knowledge that the success will continue. We’ve had a record year, most awards won…I’m leaving on a high.
What are you going to do now?
Consulting work in the short-term. Three or four businesses have been asking for my help for a while. The idea of helping other people run their business really appeals to me. I haven’t worked out if my future is in PR or outside of it, but I am really passionate about it. I’m excited about not having a definite plan. It’s really flattering when people ask you to meet and want your help and advice.
Do you think Mischief sold too soon?
I’ve got absolutely no regrets about the timing. If I had my time again I would sell on the same day to the same people. I’m involved in the CEO search [for my successor]. I’m really confident that the management team at Mischief are well placed to build on what we’ve achieved. It’s all set up for Mischief’s next chapter - better utilising the assets around them in that building. I can only see the success continuing.
You set up a successful consumer PR firm, then took that into a more ‘integrated’ offering at Engine. How do you see PR changing?
I think Mischief is well placed to have an amazing couple of years ahead of it. If you are not in an Engine-type setting…I think it’s really difficult to compete with what Mischief has around it.
Have any other PR firms impressed you?
I’m less focused on specific agencies. I’ve always been focused on great work. There’s too much great work to list.
Does Mischief do much work with [sister agency] MHP Communications?
No, not at all. No sinister reason, we just operate in very different areas. We work more closely with Jam, WCRS and Slice, being our experiential arm. It’s an amazing setup at Engine, that’s difficult to get close to everywhere else.
But does it always work? People might suggest that the degree of cohesion required of the individual agencies at Engine is not always there.
It ‘s worked really well for me. It’s a clever model full of talented people that Mischief has hopefully added something extra to.
Did you get much business from MHP or other agencies?
When we joined Engine we weren’t really geared up to take advantage of the huge opportunity that exists when you land in a building full of 800 people across every part of the marketing mix. So if there was one regret it would be not always taking advantage of the opportunities around us. But the very big opportunity moving forward is to do just that; making our work bigger and better by just tapping into what is on our own doorstep.
You've talked about how, to succeed in today's world, a PR firm needs the type of resources around it that Mischief has at Engine. But you also said that Mischief has worked primarily with Jam and Slice over the past two years. Has there been a disconnect between the integration you would have liked for Mischief, and what it has been able to achieve at Engine to date?
There was no disconnect in terms of Engine integration, but the big opportunity for Mischief to evolve lies in being at the heart of Engine. Our momentum and reputation have ensured year-on-year growth to date, but to be the best we can be, it is the Engine opportunity that we believe will deliver that. And today we are set up, structured and strong enough to take full advantage.
Small firms often struggle when they get to a larger size, with more people, larger clients, possibly a different type of work. Has that affected Mischief?
No. My policy of hiring every single member of staff ensures that every person has a link with me. If we do that, it doesn’t matter if you have 30 people or 100 people. We also have ‘link groups’ where people meet with me to ask questions. And you have to grow the infrastructure and have to work harder. You have to accept the fact that ambitious companies don’t stand still. It’s about maintaining that in your DNA.
Isn’t that hard at a big corporate entity like Engine?
Only if they interfere or provide a barrier to success. In my experience Engine only ever supported Mischief
What was the secret of Mischief’s success?
We were totally obsessed by doing great work and totally paranoid about being average, and finding brilliant people to deliver it. Bravery, disruptive, speed, humour and luck.