Now With Dentsu, Elise Mitchell Builds Brands from Broadway to the Ozarks

From the window of her downtown Fayetteville office, Elise Mitchell can catch a glimpse of the scenic beauty of the Ozarks. What she sees from her new office in New York City is a much more metropolitan scene.

As different as both locales are, the view from both is identical for Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell Communications and now an executive team member of the Dentsu Network. Wherever Mitchell is working these days she can see what Dentsu Network President and CEO Tim Andree describes as “green field to build.”

Mitchell sold Mitchell Communications to Dentsu Network in December and is being asked to help the global company build its worldwide public relations brand, while maintaining the local firm and its impressive client roster (Wal-Mart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt, Southwestern Energy and others). Financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but regardless of dollar figures, it is viewed as a big move in the industry.

Dentsu Inc., founded in Japan 112 years ago as an advertising agency, is parent company of Dentsu Network. Only recently has Dentsu made a serious venture into public relations, and the Mitchell Communications acquisition — not to mention the acquisition of Mitchell herself — is seen as significant.

While Dentsu America had its own in-house communications department, it couldn’t match the public relations reputation or expertise that Mitchell Communications offers. Dentsu hopes to grow its global operations from the Ozarks, adding to a network of PR firms in 29 countries on five continents.

Already Mitchell has developed a plan for expanding Dentsu’s reach. She is working to tweak her ideas for the company and has a blueprint for the next month, year and five years. This includes evaluating other firms for Dentsu to acquire or partner with as it carries out Andree’s vision for creating a global PR titan.

Implementing that vision, creating something from a fresh slate is what Andree refers to when he mentions seeing a green field. Mitchell sees the blank slate and also has another description for her new situation.

“It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle that I have no idea what the picture looks like, but every day and every conversation I can drop one more piece into place and the picture becomes clear,” Mitchell said. “You have to be patient. That’s what being strategic is. You gather all the information that you think you need and then [know] how to act on it, where the priorities are and where the early wins are.”

Love at First Meet

There have been plenty of wins for Mitchell and Mitchell Communications over the years.

Mitchell’s success story in growing her company is well documented. She began Mitchell Communications from her home 17 years ago and has since built the firm into a darling of the public relations industry.

In the early days the company was built primarily on a network of freelance “project” employees across the country. Mitchell would make regular Sunday calls to check in with her stable of workers and see how much time — if any — they could devote to projects that week.

From there the firm has grown to 74 full-time employees, plus a network of 30 project workers in 16 different states. Mitchell continued to use the model of hiring out of state while building the infrastructure at the home office in Fayetteville. In 2008 the company had 13 employees with $2.1 million in revenue, and by the time of the sale, annual revenue had reportedly grown to $13.8 million.

Mitchell Communications, named Arkansas Business of the Year in the 26-75 employee category in 2010, has gained local and national attention for its rapid growth. Most recently it was named the 2012 Small Agency of the Year by The Holmes Report and was named among Inc.’s fastest-growing companies in 2011 and 2012.

While Mitchell’s decision to sell after several years of rebuffing potential buyers might have been unexpected, the fact the company was highly sought did not catch those who have worked with her or the firm off guard. Procter & Gamble is among Mitchell Communications’ clients, and Associate Director Tim Marrin said he’d been impressed.

“If you don’t know Elise the success and growth might come as a surprise,” Marrin said. “I know Elise. It’s not a surprise.”

Andree became familiar with Mitchell Communications less than three years ago. He was impressed with the firm’s client list and what associates had to say about Mitchell, the energetic CEO.

They talked for the first time last February. Interest accelerated in April. The sale was official on Dec. 31, though Andree said it felt all but inevitable following the first face-to-face meeting with Mitchell.

“When I met Elise I knew probably after the first meeting this was the right one. This is what we wanted to do,” Andree said. “Mitchell was pursued by everybody. It really had to be their decision of who they wanted to join.”

‘Tremendous Potential’

Mitchell announced the decision to her staff on Jan. 2. She outlined then what the transition would mean for them, laying the groundwork for Andree’s recent visit to northwest Arkansas.

Andree met with members of the Mitchell Communications leadership team on Jan. 15 and then held a town hall-style meeting with all staff the next day. He wanted to introduce himself and answer any questions employees might have.

What will change for Mitchell Communications? Not much, Mitchell and Andree said, other than the reach the company now has thanks to the Dentsu Network roster of companies and its 6,000 clients worldwide.

Andree said the plan was to change little, noting it has always puzzled him why competitors would purchase firms only to change the way business is done within their new acquisitions. That kind of strategy “destroys the value,” he said.

Because Dentsu Network wants to keep the value of Mitchell Communications intact, the firm will remain headquartered in northwest Arkansas. There will likely be Mitchell Communications offices nationally and internationally in the relatively near future, and Mitchell will travel, but Fayetteville will continue to be the home base.

Keeping operations based in the Ozarks was key, Mitchell said. And it was something Andree was more than willing to do given Mitchell Communications’ success over the years. He sees “tremendous potential to grow” from Fayetteville, he said.

That played heavily into Mitchell’s decision to sell. She declined suitors in the past because the fit wasn’t right.

Despite opportunities that didn’t pan out, Mitchell said, she felt obligated to listen whenever someone inquired about buying the company. Typically it became apparent early in conversations that the flirtation wasn’t going to become serious.

The more Mitchell and Andree talked, the more right the fit seemed. Not only did they find common ground in operating philosophy — chief among them a client-first approach and a commitment to digital media — but Mitchell also was intrigued by the prospect of making an impact globally and building on that wide open, green field.

There was a comfort level with Dentsu, but Mitchell was still debating whether to sell.

Dentsu Network “is a perfect mirror image for the way Mitchell is. Even still, I didn’t know if I’d want to sell,” she said. “Except that the chance to build something from scratch does not exist in our industry today except here. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our team to be able to be a part of that, and for me as a leader to help lead and build that blueprint in our industry.”

Mitchell Growth

Mitchell Communications has grown by nearly 500 percent since 2008. It built a roster of clients including Wal-Mart Stores and Sam’s Club, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt, making it a target for larger companies trying to build a public relations brand. Dentsu Network purchased Mitchell Communications on Dec. 31. Here’s a look at how the company has grown since it was founded nearly 18 years ago:

1995 - Mitchell Communications established by Elise Mitchell as a sole proprietorship, implements virtual employee model.

2005 - First full-time employees hired by Mitchell Communications.

2008 - Company begins a period of rapid growth, reports $2.1 million in revenue and 13 employees.

2009 - Employee count grows to 16 and revenues reach $3.6 million.

2010 - Mitchell Communications named Arkansas Business of the Year in the 26-75 employee category; revenue jumps to $6.5 million with 37 employees.

2011 - PRWeek names Mitchell Communications, now at 61 employees, its small agency of the year as revenue tops $10 million.

2012 - Dentsu Network purchases Mitchell Communications, which reports $13.8 million in revenue with 74 full-time employees and 25 project employees in 16 states.