Clause prevents competition

Some of the most powerful publicists in showbiz are getting showered with bad press. But for all the dishy media coverage of PMK/HBH CEO Pat Kingsley’s firing of chief operating officer and heir apparent Leslee Dart, one question remains unanswered: What happens when Dart inevitably sets out on her own?

When publicists leave agencies, they usually take clients with them, but a Dart non-compete clause apparently remains in place despite her firing. Will Kingsley and PMK/HBH risk more bad publicity by trying to stop her from walking off with her clients? Numerous PR execs expect she’ll be able to absorb clients who quit PMK/HBH as long as she doesn’t pursue them.

Dart has said she was surprised by her sacking after 23 years and needs time to formulate a next move. Still, praisery peers expect her to begin printing business cards and scouting office space, possibly even before the holidays.

Dart could gain a foothold just by repping longtime clients who ankled the agency immediately after she was fired, a list that includes Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Scott Rudin, Conan O’Brien, Jonathan Demme, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. PMK/HBH will no longer be working on “Closer” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” or upcoming Imagine pics “Cinderella Man,” “Inside Deep Throat” and “Curious George.”

The most surprising element of the drama: The women who built an agency fabled for keeping clients out of catfights, were unable to avoid the pitfall themselves.

Immediately after the Nov. 18 firing, Lois Smith, who started PMK precursor Pickwick in the late ’60s and retired as PMK/HBH partner last year, wondered if Kingsley, 72, was unable to deal with her own eventual retirement. Kingsley attributed Dart’s firing to the fact that she was unwilling to relinquish agency reins. Dart noted in a Newsweek online interview that she is 25 years younger than Kingsley.

Two weeks later, Smith tells Variety, “I am still stunned and appalled, and still think it was a big mistake. You need a strong presence in the New York office; there are kids there who are terrific, but I’m not sure you have that person who is going to step up and be the boss.”

One studio publicity exec, shocked by the mess, says, “For somebody who deals in perception, Pat showed little awareness of how this was going to look and read.”

Kingsley counters she was well aware how the story would play. She noted that after client Tom Cruise dropped her this year, she received “the best press I ever got in my life. I knew that the media would favor the underdog, the person who had lost a job, because that is human nature.”

So she knew she would get bad press for firing Dart.

“It was time to negotiate the contract, and Leslee was not going to sign one unless she had my job. So much of this got misunderstood, but I’m not in the business of needing to be liked or being popular.”

Kingsley is now negotiating her own contract extension with parent company IPG, pacts that usually run two years. Supporters say too much has been made of her age. They liken her to Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch, men who show no sign of slowing down.

Kingsley also disputes the notion that any of this was caused by parent company pressure to ramp up corporate accounts.

While stars pay about $5,000 a month, corporations might pay $100,000 for a single event, and every agency is chasing that business. Kingsley says PMK/HBH now gets about 28%-32% of its revs from corporate clients, but is steadfast that celeb servicing remains the priority.

PMK has about 400 clients.Kingsley wouldn’t comment whether the agency might try to prevent Dart from establishing a rival firm. That decision, she says, will be made by IPG.

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