Housed in a lovely bungalow unit in Bukit Gasing is a 7 year old boutique public relations & social media agency with an impressive list of clients. The agency is run by a bunch of hungry and entrepreneurial ‘Hatters’ who are reframing the traditional communications model by setting the agenda in lifestyle branding. The maddest hatter of them all is its Managing Director, Rengeeta Rendeva who founded Mad Hat in 2014.
After spending a little over half a decade working in various roles ranging from an account executive at Ogilvy to non-communications related roles such as Head of Ancillary Revenue at AirAsia X, Rengeeta bowed out to start freelancing as a side hustle while she worked on a tech startup.
“When I would speak to friends and acquaintances from the client side of the industry, I sensed there was this frustration among them when they spoke about what they were getting from PR agencies,” Rengeeta said as she recalled key moments that led to her pursuing Mad Hat. “I saw a real opportunity through these conversations when I realised that PR and its rigidity hadn’t changed much since I was in the field 7 years ago.”
After a period of providing freelance communications services to different companies, Rengeeta joined forces with a friend who was leaving a media company at the time and officially started running Mad Hat as an agency, solidifying herself as a business owner.
While speaking to Rengeeta over Zoom, I asked if there was a story behind the agency’s name, which has now become a personification of the creative campaigns it executes.
“It was actually completely unplanned,” Rengeeta explained. “I went to the SSM office to register my services in order to issue my first invoice and when the SSM officer suggested I do it under a company name instead of my own, I chose ‘Mad Hat Consult’ inspired by a preoccupation i had at the time with Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking-Glass’.”
From there, Mad Hat grew organically into a current team of over 20 Hatters as Rengeeta hired more creative people to join her in delivering lifestyle-focused communication strategies for clients that were willing to push the boundaries.
Some of the brands on Mad Hat Asia’s list of clientele include Heineken, Viu, The Cooler Lumpur Festival, Cadbury Dairy Milk, Naelofar, Viu Malaysia and more.
Reframing PR beyond brand image protectors
In the simplest of terms, PR is about getting the right information to the right audiences. However, it is the nuances of the execution that determines the impact of the information and Rengeeta believes brands must embrace alternative, non-traditional means of engagement to truly connect with people.
While one of the biggest hurdles she faced when starting out was convincing potential clients that they could handle big accounts despite being a smaller team, clients who chose to trust their alternative lens of the trade and saw the quality of their work helped Mad Hat show the industry they knew what they were doing.
Under Rengeeta’s leadership, Mad Hat has carved its way to being synonymous with an agency that clients go to when they want to market themselves as a consumer facing lifestyle brand. After starting off with three clients, one of them being Red Bull Malaysia, Mad Hat’s uniqueness and the efficacy of its approach earned the Hatters plenty of positive recommendations as Rengeeta shared that over 75% of the new business it gets is from word of mouth.
“The relationships we have with our clients is more akin to that of partners as we truly resonate with them and they with us,” Rengeeta said. “Even when a corporate client partners with us, we tend to persuade them to adopt lifestyle-centric approaches when connecting with their audience.”
Becoming a multifaceted leader
As a mother and leader, among other things, Rengeeta can be described as mindful. Her empathetic approach as a business owner combined with her hiring philosophy has given the Hatters a working environment that also functions as a close-knit community.
According to her, each individual in the Mad Hat team holds a sense of responsibility and ownership which forms a strong foundation of trust that has enabled them to sustain success.
“When it comes to hiring, my philosophy is to always hire people who are better than you,” Rengeeta added. “This allows me to trust my team and gives me the confidence to focus on other aspects of operations for the business.”
Aside from that, Rengeeta also believes that being a mid sized team that is neither tiny nor big, fostering a positive working environment comes down to providing personal support. This was especially true when she and her team navigated the emotional waves caused by COVID-19 and the series of MCOs and its variations.
Despite running Mad Hat from the beginning, Rengeeta says she never saw herself as a leader until last year. It was then when she and her internal leaders stepped up to provide personal and emotional support during uncertain times.
“I remember when one of the MCO extensions was announced last year, we spent hours on the phone with Hatters to get them ready to provide support to their individual teams,” Rengeeta said. “Witnessing the team band together to be there for each other as we faced challenges has been amongst my proudest moments since I’ve started Mad Hat.”
By surrounding herself with creative and capable Hatters, Rengeeta admits she has also grown as a leader since she first started. Slowly shredding away some of her perfectionist tendencies, she learned that a big part of building something great is learning to let go.
“I’ve learned that if you want things to work, you need to be able to trust the people you’ve chosen to hire and I’m often proudest when I see a campaign that wasn’t my brain child, come to life,” she said.
Advice to budding entrepreneurs
Aside from her philosophy of hiring up, Rengeeta also firmly believes in sharing, a quality instilled in her since young by her mom who is a corporate trainer.
“If you have knowledge, don’t keep it to yourself because you actually learn more when you share, people will resonate with you and it will come back,” she assured.
When asked to share a key piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs based on her experience as one, Rengeeta said, “A practical piece of advice I’d give is to do what you need to do to first be fairly financially sound and do not rely purely on loans and funding.”
While working in corporate and feeling like you don’t own your own time can become frustrating, Rengeeta added, “Do not go into it just because you are looking for a lucrative exit because it’s very rare that you’re going to execute something with passion if you’re only looking for an exit.”
The global theme for IWD 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge and in Rengeeta’s case, she challenges the notion of working yourself to the bone in order to be successful. “While there’s some truth to it, it isn’t the only way to achieve success,” Rengeeta said.
Aside from that, she also challenges the common idea that entrepreneurship is a cut-throat world. “It is something I was told repeatedly especially when I first started out but I’ve learned that it’s not true and in fact at Mad Hat, we’ve found a lot of success in collaborations without competitions.
Perhaps it is this mindset that has empowered Mad Hat to grow regionally to Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. While a bulk of the strategic direction comes from the Mad Hat team based in Malaysia, Rengeeta supplements the agency’s remote presence in other countries, with executing teams on the ground and strategic local partnerships to drive the business.
“I hope I look back at this habit and laugh at how small my dreams were but I always ask the Hatters how they would execute something if they were part of a 250 person team ,because that’s where we’re heading toward and we need to already be thinking that way.”
In the long run, Rengeeta’s vision is for Mad Hat to become the top communications agency for consumer lifestyle brands and a collective fully trusted by its clients, partners and Hatters themselves.