Mitchell Kaye smiles as he welcomes PRWeek into his creative, brick-lined office. He has reason to be happy. Three years ago he left Shine Communications to set up his own agency. Now Mischief is one of the youngest agencies ever to be shortlisted for PRWeek's Agency of the Year Award.
To date Mischief has secured a place on the much sought-after COI roster; was behind the recent story that philosopher Alain de Botton had been made Heathrow Airport's 'writer in residence'; and has won 77 of the last 83 pitches it entered. So what is Kaye's modus operandi?
Before launching, Kaye undertook an audit of the top 100 PR agencies' websites and found the majority were saying the same things: that people were their biggest asset, that they had the best contacts in the media and that they were one-stop shops. Kaye took a different approach. 'I asked, what are the ten things that most frustrate my clients? If I set up an agency that from day one avoids those things, it would be a good place to start,' he says.
These included familiar bugbears such as sending senior people to the pitch but letting junior staff handle the work. Or a lack of commercial understanding of a client's business. 'PR people talked in terms of coverage or return on spend but didn't understand what a good job looked like for their client's business. Krispy Kreme, for example, wants to know how many doughnuts it will sell as a result of your campaign,' he says.
The most important lesson he took was that clients wanted agencies to be honest with them. This is what Kaye believes sets his agency apart. 'Too many agencies told their clients what they thought they wanted to hear. I wanted to tell the clients what they needed to know,' he says.
Kaye is obviously committed to this mantra, and his straight-talking manner is refreshing, if at times a little pushy. But the strength of his belief is grounded in a hard lesson he learned at Shine. After working on the Heinz account for a year, the agency repitched and won the business again. But the client said Kaye had a habit of overselling, and asked that he should be taken off the account. It was his worst career moment, but he decided from that day onwards to overhaul his approach: 'If my entire philosophy now is straight talking, it was born in 2004 from that bad bit of feedback from Heinz. I wouldn't have set up this type of company if I didn't have that experience.'
This approach, he believes, has contributed to his high pitch conversion rate because he is willing to walk away from work in which he does not believe. In August last year, he did just that. Weeks after winning the account to relaunch Virgin Radio as Absolute Radio, he walked out after a disagreement about creative direction. The move won him praise in the industry. PRWeek's columnist Ian Monk wrote at the time: 'For an industry prone to overdo its willingness to please, this sounds refreshing.' Kaye says it is often cited as a reason why potential staff members want to join Mischief.
'We did everything we could to avoid leaving, but in the end the creative direction wasn't something I'd be proud to deliver,' he says. 'I believe if you are taking tough decisions with conviction and for the right reasons, you get it right in the long run.'
Kaye initially wanted to be a journalist and started out writing freelance football features. He also did a series of work experience placements and smiles as he recalls a piece of advice he was given: that everyone is a potential future contact. 'I was obsessed by that and spoke to everyone. On my last day at the News of the World I was knackered and there was this ditsy junior girl who kept losing her keys. I thought, I really don't think I'm going to need to keep in contact with her. Her name was Rebekah Wade.'
Work experience at Sky led to a job in the press office. From there he went on to the agencies Shine, Brian MacLaurin Associates and Geronimo Communications, but it was always his ambition to set up on his own.
Kaye is only 33 and has a relentless quality that matches his ambition. 'I am the most impatient guy in the world,' he admits. He recently emailed WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell for business advice, who replied with two words: 'Be persistent.' According to Kaye's agency rivals, Sorrell was preaching to the converted.
'He is extremely competitive and one of the most tenacious and hungry people I've ever met- he will stop at nothing to win a piece of business,' says the boss of one rival agency. 'He's a great talker and knows how to punch above his weight.'
As for the PRWeek Award, Kaye enjoys being the 'rank outsider' but says getting a direct approach from a potential employee is more important than an award. 'The best compliment to have is that someone wants to work for you.'
MITCHELL KAYE'S TURNING POINTS
What was your biggest career break?
I got a phone call from a mysterious Dan Glover in 2006, but was cut off before I could speak to him. The biggest career break I've had is that Dan phoned me back a second time, because I ended up hiring him as creative director and his contribution to Mischief has been enormous.
Have you had a notable mentor?
My mum and dad. They have run their own business for more than 30 years. My mum is the best sales person I've ever met and my dad is the best manager I've ever met. Combine the two and you can't go too far wrong.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Be persistent. Work somewhere where you trust your boss, where they know what you are doing, because then you won't have to campaign for promotion. Focus on doing good work and you'll be promoted.
What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
Hunger, work ethic and people who aren't afraid to make mistakes. Only by making mistakes do you learn. I also only hire people who are happy in their current jobs because then they are leaving for the right reasons.
- Tell PRWeek about your career turning point.
2006: Founder and MD, Mischief
2004: Director, Shine Communications
2002: Account director, Geronimo Communications
2001: Senior account manager, Brian MacLaurin Associates
1999: Senior account executive, then account manager, Shine Communications
1997: Press officer, BSkyB Sports