The Brighton-based agency specialises in business-facing communications for the professional services industry and has won a raft of industry accolades in the two years since its inception. Last week it topped them all by winning New Consultancy of the Year at the PRWeek Awards.
Mason predicts the company – which pulled in a fee income of £343,890 at the end of its second year – will hit £1m at the end of four-and-a-half years. MBD currently has six full-time and four part-time staff. But Mason’s plan is to increase that to 30 in Brighton by the end of year six and to open a London office after that. But she says: ‘Our main focus is on margins and quality.’
Indeed, MBD operates without junior staff and outsources all administration. It claims a 44 per cent profit margin on fee income and 34 per cent on overall turnover.
MBD has not achieved this by being dull. Mason, who has a ‘slight red addiction’ and stands at 5 ft 10 inches – or almost 6 ft in her red high heels – embodies the company’s ‘fun but corporate-friendly’ brand.
‘Business PR is fascinating,’ she gushes. ‘We’re working on big, interesting stuff and people don’t make enough of it.’
She adds: ‘There was a real gap in the market for a consultancy that could bring professional services to life, especially because high-end professional services is where the UK economy is going.’
Mason’s pitch is that her agency offers clients such as Adobe, BT and The Hay Group a ‘truly different’ service, which she describes as ‘more than PR – very commercially minded, more like a management consultancy’.
One of MBD’s specialities is producing headline-grabbing reports and white papers that, according to Mason, ‘focus on the bottom line’. A report for The Hay Group quantified both the threat and the opportunity presented by China in monetary terms. Another, for architecture firm Gensler, argued that office design has a real effect on staff productivity and got Gensler into the Financial Times.
Mason is exactly the sort of person the PR industry is keen to attract – an Oxford graduate who got all As in her A-levels and GCSEs, then gained a distinction in her MA at the University of York. Thereafter, she decided to go down the corporate route, working in a variety of agencies, including Cohn & Wolfe, Le Fevre Communications, Midnight Communications and The Red Consultancy, before founding MBD.
Mason says she knew throughout her career she would have her own business. She has an entrepreneurial drive that perhaps came from her father, who set up 300-strong telecoms and IT convergence company Mason Communications, now part of the Analysys Mason Group. ‘I really wanted to set up a business, but I wanted to have enough experience so that I didn’t have to ask anyone anything when I did,’ she recalls.
Her previous bosses – including 3 Monkeys CEO Angie Moxham, who was then at Le Fevre – spotted her drive. ‘Claire was a real livewire. I always knew she would go on to do her own thing. It was very obvious she wanted to be in control,’ says Moxham.
Similarly, Midnight Communications founder and chief talent officer Caraline Brown says: ‘Claire was always one of my best operators – you could tell straightaway that she was ambitious.’ She describes Mason as ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’ and adds: ‘Claire is a genuinely nice, kind person, but she will never let anything, man or beast, stand in the way of her and the successful execution of a project.’
MBD’s success must have something to do with the company’s clever branding. Mason says she spotted a niche between the ‘really creative consumer agencies’ and ‘really corporate corporate agencies’. The brand is most obviously reflected in the agency’s quirky name, which refers to the old newspaper adage: ‘When a dog bites a man, that isn’t news. When a man bites a dog, that’s news.’
Mason says the name sums up her agency’s philosophy well, because her clients are ideas companies: ‘They don’t tend to have natural news such as new product releases. It’s about creating “man bites dog” stories out of ideas.’ She hit upon the moniker while researching names of bands for her boyfriend, a musician in the band Dubstar, creators of 1996 hit Stars.
While some instantly understand the reference, the name can cause confusion. Mason laughs when recalling being referred to as Man Bites God and, brilliantly, Man Bites Dyke. Either way, it is a great conversation starter.
The company’s pink branding is similarly unusual for a B2B consultancy, as are its business cards – which look as though a dog has taken a bite off the corner. Its website, too, features a cute illustrated film based on MBD’s ‘playful’ dog-house logo.
Mason has a number of other strings to her bow, including her non-fiction book, New Religious Movements, published in 2003. Her investigation into cults is now available in most British and some American high schools. She also has a ‘half-finished’ novel about life in a band sitting under her bed, inspired by her ‘adventures on tour’ with her boyfriend’s band.
Like her company’s branding, Mason is friendly enough to be approachable and creative enough to be fun, but also exudes a sense of control that ensures she fits into the corporate world. If she realises her ambitious plans, the agency’s trophy shelf could become a lot fuller over the next few years.
PRWeek: What was your biggest career break?
Claire Mason: Probably my first PR job at Cohn & Wolfe, where I worked as an international network executive. That meant I was the ‘go to’ person for everyone in all the global agencies, so I got to work with all the different global MDs and saw some amazing PROs in action. That’s also where I discovered my love for ideas-based clients, as I had my first professional services client there.
PRWeek: What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
CM: The way to move forward is always to surprise people by exceeding their expectations.
PRWeek: Who was your most notable mentor?
CM: Ex-Capgemini UK MD Clive Williams – he is a former client who has become my mentor. He is now a non-executive director at MBD and has helped me concentrate on achieving what I set out to do – he is brilliant at encouraging us to keep our focus.
PRWeek: What characteristics do you prize in new recruits?
CM: First of all, intelligence. I want to hire people who will relish and prize the opportunity to think for a living. Secondly, excellence. Recruits should be determined to excel in everything they do. Finally, they must be creative and full of ideas. We want people who are simply too creative to be lawyers or management consultants.
Man Bites Dog
The Red Consultancy
Le Fevre Communications
Cohn & Wolfe
Pell & Bales