Profile: High ambition on the beach - Caraline Brown, CEO, Midnight Communications

I'm sick of people thinking I'm a millionaire,' says Caraline Brown, CEO of tech PR agency Midnight Communications.

The Brighton-based PR chief is talking about the £3.5m sale of her agency to marketing firm the BV Group in 2002.

Brown eventually became CEO of the BV Group and has spent the past six months buying Midnight back for just £310,000. Her description of the timing of the deal indicates her good fortune: 'If the crash happened at 12 o'clock, I sold at five minutes to.'

Up in the fourth-floor Midnight boardroom, overlooking the sea, Brown appears fed up with the affair. She claims to have seen 'little of this cash' - certainly 'under half' - because the deal was over four years, with Brown getting an initial payment immediately before the market plunged. 'All I could do was try to secure the safety of my staff and of the Midnight brand,' she says.

Now running an agency of 30 and with clients including Notting Hill Carnival and basketball team the Brighton Bears, Brown's resume shows a slant towards PR. She graduated with a degree in sociology and social anthropology from the University of Hull and studied to be a social worker for a year. She also worked as a music promoter in Hull, plugging bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen and The Specials. It wasn't enough to have been a guitar player with the band Cool to Snog.

Brown then moved back 'home' to London to run a mother and baby hostel, and to work for music magazines. 'It was at this time that I became interested in computing,' she says. This led to her buying a Sinclair Spectrum computer and developing a taste for programming in Basic.

'I also became interested in telephones and started installing illegal extensions for friends all over London. I sound like a right wanker,' she says.

Her first media-type job was with Digitus as a technical writer, which led to her debut in PR with Infopress in 1981. In 1992 she landed a PR manager role at Cellnet, but left after two-and-a-half years. 'It was not the happiest time of my life,' she says. 'I did not fit in with big corporate life and did not like taking orders.'

At the 1994 PRWeek Awards ceremony, Brown decided to go it alone and set up Midnight in Brighton with a £2,000 overdraft and a small office.

Since then, awards of her own have followed - from PRWeek's Small Consultancy of the Year in 2000, to Sussex Company of the Year and Sussex Businesswoman of the Year in 2003.

A popular figure in Brighton's business community, Brown's contemporaries applaud her charisma. Lime Marketing MD Annalisa Hammond says: 'She is massively eccentric. She would sweep into a restaurant and the whole place would be looking at her.' She adds that Brown is 'very passionate about Brighton', adding: 'I think she will be Mayoress one day.'

Writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe, who is also the chair of Midnight, says: 'She is infectious and has a ferocious energy.'

Brown is also a political animal. She was chair of Labour's Chelsea constituency party while in London and twice ran for the council, although she was not elected as a councillor. Sucking deeply on a fake cigarette, having given up a year ago, Brown reassures me that it 'smells like a real cigarette' and also has the 'pull' of a normal fag.

In terms of new-media PR, Brown claims Midnight is the only one of the original agencies still standing. Between 1995 and 1999, it doubled its turnover each year and in 2000 had its best year. Fee income was more than £1.2m for 2002 - Midnight claims it was unable to take part in this year's PRWeek Top 150 because of the MBO.

Brown says new-media PR is still struggling: 'We have found the cutting of budgets very tough but we are very hopeful about the future. We are getting more work on a regional basis.'

She admits that having headquarters in Brighton has caused some recruitment problems, but adds: 'Brighton has emerged as the new-media hub we thought it would. When I came here it was a town; now it is a forward-thinking city.'

What does Brown think of the idea of going into politics? She throws her head back and laughs: 'I would love to be Mayoress - that would be fantastic.'

RESUME

1981: Account executive, Infopress

1992: PR manager, Cellnet

1995: Founder, Midnight Communications

2002: Chief executive, BV Group

2003: CEO and principal shareholder, Midnight Communications

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