While agency heads across the industry are fretting about how the economic downturn will affect their business, Mandate CEO Sasha Deshmukh is a picture of serenity.
He is so confident, in fact, that a few weeks ago he revealed ambitious growth plans for Mandate, the agency created from the merger of Republic PR and public affairs outfit AS Biss last year. Deshmukh plans to double the 64-strong agency in size and fees by 2012 and, while his rivals are making redundancies, he has appointed four managing directors to lead the agency’s major practice areas.
The economic forecast may be gloomy, but if anyone can transform Mandate into a top-ten agency, it is Deshmukh. He knows the agency better than anyone, having started out at AS Biss in 1997.
At 23 years old, shortly after completing a degree in social and political sciences at Cambridge, Deshmukh joined AS Biss as a graduate trainee. On his first day he went from helping to fix a broken photocopier to briefing the CEO of a FTSE 100 company. Now he is at the other end of the agency’s hierarchy, Deshmukh is no longer allowed near the photocopier. But unlike more distant chief executives he is still heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the agency, and spends a large portion of his time advising clients.
Deshmukh has the gift of the gab and it is the social aspect of his job that he loves most. ‘I’ve not been bored in 11 years,’ he says. He is genuinely passionate about public affairs, and it is this passion that has helped him reach the top before his 34th birthday. He is articulate when listing Mandate’s achievements, but becomes reticent when asked how it feels to have accomplished so much at such a young age. ‘I don’t know,’ he stammers. ‘Sometimes I feel older.’
Deshmukh’s thoughtfulness betrays an older soul. His colleagues describe him as ‘measured’ and ‘intelligent’. Gavine Devine, chief operating officer of Mandate, says Deshmukh always thinks carefully before acting, which means he ‘doesn’t make mistakes’. He also describes him as calm and unflappable, and a good leader, a sentiment echoed by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, with whom Deshmukh worked during a year out from AS Biss.
Summerskill describes Deshmukh as ‘unusually bright’ and admires the way ‘he always has his eye on business’.
Of course, Deshmukh likes the occasional glass of wine and even breaks into uncontrollable laughter during our interview, but his professionalism shows through no matter what he does. Summerskill calls him ‘fun in a focused way’.
He is definitely ‘focused’ when he meets PRWeek, and it is clear from the start that he wants to get certain messages across about his company. He asks himself questions which he then answers, but he clearly understands what a journalist needs from an interview – a crucial skill in a PRO.
Even when he talks about his hobbies and interests, Deshmukh cannot help referring back to PR. He loves cooking, because unlike PR it ‘is a way to start a short project and finish it in one evening’. He says he enjoys spending time with friends, which reflects his choosing a career in such as sociable industry. His group of closest friends work in different industries, which he says allows him to put his work in PR into a broader context.
It is clear he possesses the business acumen and comms skills to succeed, but Deshmukh still had to work hard to get where he is today. As he shows PRWeek around the agency’s impressive offices in the West End headquarters of Mandate’s parent company Engine Group, his pride in his achievements and those of the agency is obvious.
The tour takes in the top floor bar where staff eat subsidised canteen meals in cocoon-shaped booths, the balcony and the open-plan office, where he stresses he sits ‘right in the middle of everyone else’.
Deshmukh not only believes in Mandate, but in the industry as a whole. ‘PR is going to be absolutely central to maintaining and growing business value during the recession,’ he says firmly. He cites how in the past year banks and companies have had their reputations destroyed in a matter of days, and confesses he is ‘excited’ about what part PR will play in the 2009 economy.
However, he stresses that only those agencies willing to adapt to an evolving economy, and provide the support that cash-strapped firms need, will survive. As far as his own agency is concerned, he already has next year all figured out. ‘Any business in this market lets itself get static at its peril,’ he says. ‘I’m already thinking about what Mandate will look like in 2012.’
Sasha Deshmukh’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Joining the graduate scheme at AS Biss. I was fortunate to join a company that aimed to develop people over the long term.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Talk to organisations that have an interest in how your career can develop. Probe the employer on where they see you in the long-term future.
Have you had a notable mentor?
Alex Cole, corporate affairs director at Cadbury. She was a director when I joined the graduate scheme at AS Biss and she allowed me to show what I was capable of. She taught me about business.
What do you prize in new recruits?
I look for people who are genuinely excited about what they do and who will bring that excitement not just to our clients, but to their colleagues as well. I’m looking for people with passion and a vision of what they want to achieve for themselves as well as for their clients.
2007 Chief executive of Mandate (which formed when Republic PR merged with AS Biss)
2005 MD of AS Biss
2003 Director of AS Biss
2001 Director of communications at equality campaigning group Stonewall
1997 Graduate trainee at AS Biss