Avin' it large with Harold Mitchell

  • News
  • December 17, 2009
  • Ben Fahy
Avin' it large with Harold Mitchell

LivingLarge_Jacket.inddIf you were to picture an archetypal media magnate, Harold Mitchell would be a pretty good fit.

He's certainly got all the required magnate characteristics: he set up what is now Australia's biggest media buying company, Mitchell Communication Group; he's a regular feature of the Australian print, TV, online and radio sectors; he's an imposing figure (or, more accurately, he was an imposing figure; a human ball bearing who, at five foot seven, used to weigh in at 165kgs); and he's just released a book in time for Christmas, appropriately titled Living Large.

Mitchell, 67, is regarded by many as the father of the media buying industry in Australia. It all started back in the early 60s when he was given a job at an ad agency in Melbourne, primarily, he says, because he travelled the furthest to get to the interview.

At the age of 30, he had made it to national media director at Masius Wynne Williams and by 33 he was running the media buying operations of Australia's third biggest advertising agency.

Back then, media buying was inextricably linked with the advertising agencies. But he thought it was strange that the media strategy often tended to get the last five minutes of the meeting with the clients after the creatives had finished talking, despite the fact that they were spending a huge chunk of their budgets deciding where those ads would be placed.

Mitchell knew clients wanted more expertise and focus in this area, so he decided to go it alone (after his idea for a separate media buying entity was rebuffed by agency) and he set up Australia's first independent media buying company in 1976.

Carat was born in 1973 and there were a few others that had set up in the UK and New York around the same time. But he says "it was still considered a very strange thing" to do, especially in Australia.

There were plenty of aggressive naysayers from within the established order who predicted his failure, but he proved them all wrong, going on to tap into the rich commercial vein that was Australia in the 80s, before crashing back down to earth with a thud not long after. He climbed back up the business ladder, of course, and now he is charge of a $100 million business.

His life story, much of which he says has already been told in the media, does make for interesting reading, both for those within the advertising and media industries and for those who can't resist the peaks and troughs that this quintessential plucky Aussie battler has gone through.

But Mitchell openly admits Living Large is not a tell-all book. And, as far as he's concerned, that's what life should be like. He says there have been a few from within the advertising and media industries who wanted more juicy stories on the likes of Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. But he claims he doesn't have any.

There are plenty of anecdotes, however, either about himself or the high-rollers he's rubbed shoulders with along the way. And many of these tales are mixed with sage business advice, like how not to get into $32 million in debt.

"I was very successful in the late 80s. We had the recession we had to have, as Paul Keating said, and I did something really stupid: I invested in things I knew nothing about [for example, the Big Banana]. Then you put your foot on the sticky paper and you can't get out. I'd signed four personal guarantees adding up to $32 million. I wasn't running any of the businesses. But I signed the guarantees."

He could've opted for bankruptcy, but he decided to try and fight his way out of it. But to do this he needed some help from a friend to keep his head above water. And that's when Kerry Packer came to the party, offering him an interest free loan of $1.9 million.

Mitchell comes across as a bit of an anachronism; a throwback to the no-nonsense businessmen of the 80s. He doesn't suffer fools, he's very confident (some claim he's got the biggest ego in Australia) and he loves nothing more than 'the deal'. He also still writes in pencil in his moleskin covered book and, much like Rupert Murdoch, who, perhaps apocryphally, had never been online until very recently, he doesn't claim to be an expert in the online realm, despite his online advertising and marketing company emitch having a large influence in that sphere.

He says his rural upbringing in the sawmill towns of Victoria has helped in many of his business dealings because he was never allowed to get ahead of himself. And, despite having a reputation as a shrewd deal-maker who's locked horns with some of the toughest people in the world over the years, he says he generally shies away from confrontation.

"The most powerful punch of all is the counter-punch. I'm more likely to give the second punch. I try to solve things before it gets to that stage."

At the moment, Mitchell is trying to solve the Internet question. He grew up in the world of mass media and mass products and he says television changed the world because products and ideas were able to be presented differently, which meant different politicians, ideas and causes became more prominent. And he thinks we're in the middle of another major structural change with the rise of the internet, which offers an exciting opportunity for marketers to target the individual.

Currently, online ad revenues make up 10 percent of all ad dollars in New Zealand. In Australia it's around 18 percent and in the UK it's 25 percent. And by 2013 he predicts internet advertising will be at the same level as free to air TV and newspapers.

As well as trying to predict the media future, Mitchell also focuses heavily on philanthropic work and features on an array of boards for the arts, culture and sport in Australia. All the proceeds from the book (AUS$500,000 worth of books sold so far, he says proudly) are going to the Harold Mitchell foundation, which he set up when his internet company emitch was floated in 1999 and he ended up with around $10 million burning a hole in his pocket.

In the book, Mitchell (or, more particularly, the writer who spent a few days with him and cobbled his musings together in a coherent format) writes about a journalist who claimed he always had one weakness. He used to smoke like a train, he was an alcoholic (he doesn't drink now, which enables him to keep a very impressive wine cellar) and he's battled his food demons for years (last year, however, he had lap-band surgery and now weighs just 93kg).

He still has his one weakness, however: trying to do too much. But, even so, he certainly doesn't have any desire to slow down and whittle sticks on the porch just yet. If anything, he aims to be like his dad, who's 89 and still cuts his own timber and fixes his own roof. What he will be doing is continuing to listen and keeping an open mind.

"I hope I could be open-minded at any age. You can be old at 22. I don't try and be anything that I'm not. I don't self-analyse. I am what I am. The only thing I wanted to be was taller."

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