Caraline Brown, founder and MD of Midnight Communications, celebrates her company’s 21st anniversary this year. Midnight was at the forefront of the Internet revolution as the first PR company to recognise its huge impact, and, as well as winning the title of PR Week’s PR Company of the Year, the firm also produces the highly regarded Sussex Business Awards.
Ian Trevett spoke to Caraline about how she created such a successful brand.
I have known Caraline for the best part of 15 years and there has always been one constant: if you are invited to a Midnight Communications event, you don’t miss it; you know it will be expertly run, the venue will be just right, the guest list will be spot-on, and you will have a great time. Always sociable, Caraline knows how to put on a fantastic party.
To start a feature making the point that Caraline is adept at organising events is not the introduction she would choose, but the fact is that in my career as a writer, editor and publisher, I have largely encountered Caraline through the PR company’s events. The media can be a spoilt, judgemental herd, and the perception of a client can hang on the success of a launch event. On New Year’s Eve 1999, journalists were left queuing outside in the rain at the Millennium Dome, and they got their revenge in print. In organising events, Caraline simply applies the same professionalism and attention to detail she has in any aspects of her spectacular career in PR, in which she rode the wave of the Internet boom and broke down the barriers in a profession which had been a largely male preserve.
Along the way, she sold her company and bought it back for a fraction of the price, she led Midnight to the accolade of PR Week’s PR Company of the Year (as well as winning several South East Consultancy of the Year awards), and she defied the convention that a successful PR company has to be in the centre of London. But Caraline enjoys defying conventions. She worked in a women’s refuge and refuses to work with unethical businesses; she is a musician, an active Labour Party member and recounts her proudest moment as being the time John Peel played her band’s record on Radio 1. And she has only just started, as she reveals when I ask her what her current ambitions are:
“I want to write a novel, to live in a foreign country, to travel the world, to come up with a death-defying app; to come up with a really good killer idea. I’ve had loads of business ideas over my life and I’ve never had the time or the luxury to make them work. I’ve got one more dance left in me, as the song goes, and I’d like to do another business. When I set up the Brighton Business Awards, that was a totally new venture, which is now in its 11th year. We acquired the Sussex Awards, and that’s all gone well. I’d like to set up a gay wedding chapel. I’ve always wanted to set up a taxidermy shop.”
All a bit outlandish? Her back story suggests otherwise…
After taking both a Sociology and a Social Work degree in Hull, Caraline was employed at Women’s Aid, working with battered women for 18 months. It was an experience that shaped her ethics and ideals in her later career: “I won’t work with cigarette companies or arms dealers or anything that brings death and destruction to other people. I am honest, straightforward and I don’t tell lies.” It wouldn’t make a great script for Mad Men, but it is an admirable ethos.
Her organisational and creative skills came to life in her spare time.
“Back in the 1980s I was also running clubs and bands. I used to run a club called the Welly Club, which is still there now. I’d put on bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Magazine, John Cooper Clarke, The Reviles and The Members.
“I was a guitarist in a band called ‘Cool to Snog’. John Peel played our record and he said it was the best name for a band he had ever heard. Of all my later successes in life, the most exciting thing I have ever experienced was when I was getting ready to go out one evening and heard John Peel say ‘And here, all the way from Hull, is “Cool to Snog.”
“I started to get a bit bored with the North and I saw an opportunity to run a mother-and-baby
hostel in Earls Court, so I moved back down to London. I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I decided to go back to university. I applied and got into Brighton University to do what was called a Masters of Science in Information Technology. They were looking for arts graduates, because at the time, the only people trained in science were nerdy types and they wanted to take more creative people in.”
It was a placement which was part of the Masters that changed her career direction.
“I was placed in the marketing department of a London company called Digitus and then transferred to another company within their group called Caxton Software, where I learnt how to write technical manuals. I produced the first-ever manual designed for an Apple Mac.
“After a year or so, I saw a Technical Writer job advertised in the Guardian. The guy who interviewed me said: ‘You don’t know much about PR do you?’ and I agreed. So he showed me a video, and it was all the things I’d done before, like getting people into clubs and coming up with ideas. ‘Oh, that!’ I said, ‘I can do that!’
“When he asked if I could write, I showed him a leaflet I had written for the Chelsea Labour Party on reasons not to eat veal, and I was in. The company was Infopress in Fleet Street. I started as an account executive and was quickly promoted before being head-hunted to be part of the team who launched mobile phones in the UK for Cellnet.
“I came up with this visual idea of people using mobile phones in different scenarios, so I did a whole load of different photo shoots. I believe it was the first time a black person’s face had been used in advertising. The photos were so good, the advertising department nicked them and they produced a full page in the Financial Times of all my photos. It was a really exciting time.
“I had a great success with an idea called Mobile Manners - a little booklet on mobile etiquette I created with a colleague, Giles White. It was on the front page of the Financial Times, translated into Braille and half a dozen languages. I was doing phone interviews first thing in the morning with South Africa and last thing at night with Australia. It was really successful. But I was as miserable as sin working at Cellnet because it was a big corporate organisation. I hated it and I didn’t fit in.”
Ironically, bearing in mind the success Caraline has had creating awards nights, it was at an awards evening where she realised a change had to happen.
“I was with Giles at the PR Week Awards in 1994, looking at all these PR companies, and he said, ‘What a load of old shit. You could do that better.’ I went back in the next day and handed my notice in. It was October and I was on three months’ notice. On February 13th 1995, I started work on my own.
“I was in a little room at the old Brighton Media Centre and I supplemented my income by freelancing a couple of days a week. When my mobile phone rang, I’d get someone else to answer and say, ‘Midnight Communications,’ and then, ‘I’m putting you through to the Managing Director.’ I got away with that loads of times.
“An ex-client got in touch with me, and she said, ‘My husband and I are going to launch something in the UK.’ Her husband was Roland Perry, who had invented the Amstrad 8256 with Alan Sugar. They wanted to launch an Internet online service (UK Online), then a revolutionary idea, where you bought a subscription, which gave you access to the internet as well as content. That’s how AOL started. They were content providers with an access provider.
“They wanted me to do the PR. I asked the fee and it was £6K a month. I had just been to a Chinese and was a bit drunk, so I said, ‘I can do that.’ I got into the back of a taxi and phoned the The Argus to book an advert saying, ‘Trainee PR person wanted.’
“Lindsay Edmonds wrote one of the best applications that I have ever received to this day. There were the two of us working with a 2.4 bps modem. If we wanted to check the internet, we had to unplug the telephone, and to find a second computer for Lindsay was a massive investment.
“I became the world’s first on-line agony aunt, Email Emily. Kids of today wouldn’t understand, but that was truly original. I used to do interviews as Email Emily and there was a classic photograph of me in character in the Financial Times. It was all about getting UK Online recognised. Then somebody came to me and said they had a plug-in instant conference videoing service and I remember sitting at home by the fire and thinking, ‘I know, I’m going to specialise in the Internet.’ New Media Age hadn’t even been launched. I had launched in February and this was only April. I became the UK’s first internet PR specialist. People started flocking to us. It was amazing.
“One of my strategies was to approach corporates and say to them, if I can give you free internet access, all you have to do is use our name. I got email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and Waterstones@ ukonline.co.uk. I spent my days phoning the marketing managers of these large corporates and getting them online. We did the PR for the first online divorce, the first online comedy club, the first online high street delivery, the first-ever online comparison website, which later got bought by Barclays. We were the go-to agency for anything to do with the Internet.
“It was proposal after proposal after proposal. It was like the Wild West, and then, when you realised you had to service this business, you had to recruit. Recruitment is incredibly time-consuming. It was very, very hard, but exciting. And I was a single mum as well. After five years I had £1.6 million turnover.
With such rapid success, it was inevitable that Midnight was going to attract a lot of attention. “I was approached by BV Group Advertising Agency, which specialised in the Internet. The idea was to sell to them with a three-year earnout. No sooner than we’d sold to them than there was the dot-com crash, and the company I had sold to had over-extended itself. I realised that this company was badly run and managed. I told them to change the name of the company to Midnight and let me run it, but Tristram and Rupert just laughed. They came back to me a year later, as though it was their idea. I took over but refused to change the name. I sold off various chunks, and in the end I agreed to buy back Midnight in 2003 - for a fraction of the price I had sold it for two years earlier. This time I expanded the PR portfolio out of tech into general consumer-facing clients.
“At our height we had about 45 staff across two offices in London and Brighton. I bought another PR company and sold another PR company during that time. Everything went quite nicely until the crash in 2008, when we had to reduce in size, but we always survive and thrive.”
Despite all the high-flying successes of the agency, there is another aspect to the company which makes Caraline particularly proud:
“One of the successes I am most proud of is the fact that for the last 12 years I have had a member of my staff as either a winner or a finalist in the Young Communicator of the Year competition. I have always trained my best staff. I’ve got ex-members of Midnight now who are at leading marketing companies such as Three Monkeys, Man Bites Dog, Shine and Brilliant Noise.
“Others have gone off to set their own companies up. Some succeed, some fail. One success story was Tim Banks and Steve Green who left in 2005 and set up their Giant PR, and they are still going.
“Being named PR company of the year nationally was a very proud moment. But I am very proud of how we have survived and created such successful alumni of Midnight people. Nice people attract nice people, and I look at our alumni and there are some really lovely people who have stayed in touch.”