The path from aspiring rock-star at 17 to chief executive of a
multi-media business at 37 is not an obvious one, but it's one Mike
Mathieson has forged with energy. Having this month promoted himself
from MD to a newly created post of CEO at west London-based Cake,
Mathieson retains an infectious enthusiasm for his agency - despite the
sleepless nights occasioned by the arrival last month of his first
Cake made its name in the late 1990s with its alternative take on
product promotion. Stunts such as fitting jeans onto the chalk hillside
giant at Cerne Abas in Dorset, painting a Salford street bright pink and
driving (empty) Pokemon branded lorries over Westminster Bridge have
earned its clients, as well as the company itself, huge media
'We've got great people coming up through the company, but they've
nowhere to be promoted to. I've been doing the MD job for years and want
to focus on new directions,' he says.
'I also need to learn more about the business and financial side of
things,' he adds, with less enthusiasm.
Part of Cake's success is the commitment staff have shown - a commitment
accounted for, in part, by Mathieson's ability to delegate. He claims
this as one of his strengths, and his move to CEO supports the
He's also big enough to point out that as he nears 40, he's not going to
turn his nose up at input from 17-year-olds, particularly in selling to
the youth market.
When he started out, of course, he was the youth market. His first job,
aged 18, was as a record plugger for the then Stiff Records - he sat
through unprintable responses to his early cold calls. Things improved,
and by 1989 he was head of PR for Virgin Records.
But the job, even at 'the finest record company around', didn't hold its
charm and 18 months on he set up For Further Information (FFI), an
independent plugging company, with Julian Able. Five years of working
with acts such as The Verve, D:Ream, Lenny Kravitz and Manic Street
Preachers changed both their ambitions, and in 1995, they parted
Mathieson switched his energy from bands to brands, working on Red Bull,
Converse and Dr Martens, initially on his own. The company grew, and in
1998 with eight employees and 12 retained clients he got together with
ad strategist Mark Whelan and creative Ben Jones. Cake was born.
Four years on, Cake employs 61 staff and clients include Budweiser,
Rizla, Nintendo, Reebok, Evian and Kellogg's.
But growth has forced the pace of change and Mathieson has decided to
take a more strategic role. 'I want to develop Cake as a brand in
itself,' he says, hinting that major corporate change is in the
The company is certainly a broad enough church to warrant acquirer
It already sells advertising, PR and brand consultancy as well as
headline-grabbing stunts, and last year linked up with US viral marketer
Electric Artists. Joint venture Electric Cake promotes entertainment
clients online, using fans to disseminate information. Cake also has an
interest in Form Talent, a London-based sports and entertainment talent
To reflect increasing demand for services such as online brand
reputation management, Mathieson is keen to develop Cake's new media
division: 'The dot.com crash was a good thing because only the fittest
will survive. To succeed in that market now, you have to have a
convincing product,' he says.
He attributes Cake's success to persistence - its ability to 'get a foot
in the door, then follow it with the whole leg, then a shoulder or
There is also an emphasis at the company on flexibility, allowing staff
to work outside the confines of job titles, and on fluidity, with all
staff involved in creative brain-storms. Although he's new to parenting,
Mathieson has been practising the paternal act on his staff, taking them
on regular out-of-town team-building weekends.
Clients approve. Simon Dornan, Virgin Megastores PR and events manager,
who has worked with Mathieson for three years, lauds Cake's no-waffle
approach. 'The office is busy, energetic, welcoming and everyone looks
to be enjoying themselves. It personifies Mike.'
Having worked through the last recession, Mathieson is keen to maintain
a level of solvency at Cake that could see it through another. 'Mike has
boundless ideas and energy, but is practical, and conscientious - you
always know he's going to deliver, and you feel he's put his heart into
the job,' says another client, Lisa Davis-Evans, head of customer
marketing at Imperial Tobacco, which has worked with Mathieson for more
than six years on the Rizla brand.
With the option of selling up within a couple of years apparently now
tempting him, he has come a long way since being a 17-year-old with
1989: Head of PR, Virgin Records
1990: Founding partner, FFI (For Further Information)
1998: Managing director, Cake
2002: Chief executive, Cake