The Romans: where next for the empire as CEO Misha Dhanak departs?

The resignation of The Romans CEO Misha Dhanak, announced on Tuesday evening, took many by surprise.

The Romans: Joe Mackay-Sinclair and Misha Dhanak at the agency's launch in 2015
The Romans: Joe Mackay-Sinclair and Misha Dhanak at the agency's launch in 2015

With fellow co-founder Joe Mackay-Sinclair, Dhanak has built the business into one of the UK's hottest consumer agencies, winning big clients such as Samsung, Twitter, BrewDog and Virgin Trains, along with numerous awards. (The agency is also shortlisted seven times in the 2019 PRWeek Awards, announced yesterday).

Backed by ad agency Mother and housed at its Shoreditch office, The Romans became a £2m+ shop within four years.

But the unusually candid resignation statements point to discontent at the top. Dhanak cited her "different views on the direction of the agency" from Mackay-Sinclair, the executive creative director.

"Agencies evolve over time and Joe and I have evolved too", she stated.

It's notable that none of the parties are saying anything about the next stage. Most pressingly, what happens with the CEO role and Dhanak's stake in the agency (believed to be around one third)?

The Romans launched in 2015 as the 'kick-ass' new kid on the block; a disruptor for the social media age, using creative advertising thinking in an earned media context to take on established PR agency names.

While the approach produced, and continues to produce, some stunning and original campaigns, there have been fundamental questions about future direction.

There can be a tension, one industry source argues, between focusing on creativity above all and growing a business. This can be especially pronounced when an agency gets above £2m in revenue, which is often seen as a benchmark in a PR firm's development.

The source also argues that building a PR agency past the initial buzz requires a shift in culture; a more nuanced approach beyond 'creativity above all' that requires greater focus on long-term client relations and developing and maintaining staff.

Another industry source described The Romans as a 'Marmite' agency, displaying a confidence and self-belief bordering on bolshiness, particularly in pitches, that is attractive for some but a turn-off for others.

While the Dhanak/Mackay-Sinclair partnership has shone brightly, it seems plausible that different visions of the future will come to the surface at some point.

In terms of their skills, the founders have been described as "chalk and cheese".

Mackay-Sinclair is the classic PR creative, earning his pre-Romans spurs as creative director at Burson-Marsteller and later Citizen Relations. He is outspoken in his advocacy of PR agencies hiring more creative talent.

Dhanak has more of a 'traditional' agency background building PR businesses, most notably as MD at Citizen. A mentor on the PRWeek/Women in PR Mentoring Scheme, she is a keen advocate of developing talent.

Interviewing the duo in late 2015, I asked for the reason behind The Romans name. Mackay-Sinclair's off-the-cuff and humourous response perhaps highlights their differing attitude.

"If you ask me, it’s because the best PR is the sort of PR that lives in culture, that inhabits a space that people actually care about – you look at ancient Rome, it was that founding cradle of modern Western culture. If you ask Misha, she wants an empire."

Where the empire goes from here will be fascinating.

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