17 October, 2009

Big man in media makes millions

Melbourne Herald Sun 17th October, 2009

It was a long time ago I first met Harold Mitchell, at the advertising agency Masius. Little did I suspect that he would one day be both rich and famous.

While I was a junior copywriter, he was only a few years older than me, still in his 20s. But already he had become national media director of one of this country’s leading agencies.

He was as smart as he was big. In board rooms he’d sit quietly as the creatives and account managers pitched a campaign to the clients. His job was to tell them how their money would be spent - on TV, newspapers, billboards - he’d briskly set out the media he would purchase for them, millions of dollars. And while they had lots to say about the ads, these clients said little about where the money would flow, trusting that Harold would buy the most cost-efficient plan.

In 1976 he picked up a new idea from the US. A consultancy specialising just in advertising media, with highly skilled professionals choosing and negotiating the very best media rates for clients, working with them directly or through their own advertising agency.

Naturally the agencies thought it was a terrible idea - this was their source of income after all - but some key advertisers like Just Jeans and Bob Jane liked the flexibility, speed and cost-savings this gave them.

Before long Mitchells were turning over millions of dollars in media billings. Nowadays it’s $1.3 billion which makes him a pretty big customer to the media. No wonder Kerry and Rupert always picked up the phone when he called.

In his recently published book, Living Large, Harold Mitchell doesn’t exactly tell all - but he tells enough about life amongst the millionaires to make it fascinating reading. I wouldn’t call it an autobiography, more what the French call a carnet. Part reminiscence, part anecdotes, part philosophy and history.

It certainly sounds like him. Short, sharp sentences crisply delivering the facts. Don’t expect to find any poetic interludes or intimate romance here. Always the soul of discretion, he tells you enough to pique your interest - but not so much as to be scandalous.

So while he devotes a chapter to Kerry Packer, it’s from the point of view of a friend he looked up to. He’s not so kind about Christopher Skase or Alan Bond.

His regard for Packer is understandable. In the 1987 stockmarket crash he came close to losing it all. The Big Fella tossed him a couple of million dollars, unasked. It was enough to keep the wheels turning till Mitchell could dig himself out of the hole.

He passes these favours on, too. One time a large client of mine suddenly crashed leaving me holding a substantial media debt. It’s the sort of thing that happens in advertising. I told Harold I couldn’t pay him. “So what can you pay?” We worked out a percentage and did the deal on a handshake. Not many blokes like that in today’s business.

It’s indicative of Harold’s political skills that the back of the book has tributes from both Steve Bracks and Jeff Kennett. They both learned that when a job needs to deliver results, he’s the man to call.

He has proved this repeatedly over the past 20 years as Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia, Victorian Museum, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Just this week I have been missing that entrepreneurial spark that so energised the Melbourne Festival when he was its president.

Masius in the early seventies was a cauldron of talent - author Peter Carey; creators of The Campaign Palace Lionel Hunt and Gordon Trembath; food writer Terry Durack. But none bigger, then as now, than Harold Mitchell.


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