Industry leaders hail the impact of Harold Mitchell – the “father of media buying” – who has died, 81, due to complications from knee surgery.
Arguably Australia’s most revered (and sometimes feared) media buyer Harold Mitchell has died, sparking a flood of tributes for advertising trailblazer.
Media executives, agency chiefs, senior marketers described him as “passionate”, a “powerhouse”, “visionary” and “fierce competitor” who took on the multinationals by leading Australia’s largest and independent media shop for more than three decades.
Mitchell founded Mitchell Communications (which became Mitchell & Partners) on a shoestring budget in 1976.
He has been widely credited as a pioneer of media buying, one of the first to take media buying and planning outside of the full-service advertising agency model that had been prevalent at the time.
In the 80s, 90s and 2000s Mitchell grew into the most influential advertising executive in Australia, regularly holding court with powerful media barons of the era including Kerry Packer, Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch. He has been inducted in several industry Hall of Fames.
Stokes said Mitchell will not only be remembered for his leadership of the industry, but also as a philanthropist and supporter of the arts and sports. “Harold was a doyen of the industry and a great friend over the 40 years we had known each other,” Stokes said. “He had a wonderful sense of humour and was a groundbreaker in the way media was monetised. I enjoyed his company, and he will be missed by us all.”
Cheryl Hayman, who worked with Mitchell as a marketer for Unilever and Yum Restaurants, described him as “strong, powerful, passionate and street smart”.
“In those ‘golden olden days’, Harold was everywhere,” Hayman said. “He loved being with us clients, doing the deals with the TV stations and other outlets. He existed in the days when relationships were the cornerstone of every deal done, and boy, did he have those in spades.”
At its mid-2000s peak, Mitchell & Partners booked about $700m of advertising (7 per cent of all ad spend in Australia) for blue chip clients including Woolworths, Optus, ANZ Bank, Flight Centre and Virgin Blue.
No Australian independent media agency since has come close to controlling such a large chunk of the industry’s advertising money.
In 2010, Mitchell sold his business to London-based Aegis Media (now Dentsu) in a deal worth $370m.
An Advertising Titan
Barry O’Brien, the founder and chair of Atomic 212°, said Mitchell paved the way for Australia’s vibrant independent agency sector.
“I had the privilege of working with him for several years and I saw, first hand, his philosophy that everyone at the table had to win: the client, the media and his business. As such, he was a true wealth creator,” O’Brien recalled. “He knew that the global agencies knew he had the largest media independent agency world wide and as such they were going to pay accordingly for the privilege to own it.”
Omnicom Media Group ANZ CEO and Media Federation of Australia chair Peter Horgan also acknowledged Mitchell’s role as a trailblazer.
“He built a market leading agency and was a presence who could engage at any level across corporate Australia,” Horgan said. “He was a ruthless competitor, but had a wicked sense of humour. He changed our industry and will be missed.”
Another advertising luminary and MFA Hall of Famer, Anne Parsons, described Mitchell as a “great bloke” and a “tough, unrelenting competitor [who] then a committed and loyal mate”.
She added: “[He was a] complex man who worked relentlessly but for whom work was never the most serious thing – it was a whole lot of other stuff like using his knowledge and experience to propel others.”
Mitchell’s ruthlessness as a competitor, noted by several of his contemporaries, is counterbalanced by a “generosity” he showed colleagues, including some of adland’s current crop of leaders.
In a post on LinkedIn, GroupM ANZ CEO Aimee Buchanan said Mitchell had a “monumental impact on my career”.
“My first twelve years in the industry were spent working at Mitchell’s/MPG. Four weeks into my first job in 2000, Harold gave all of his staff four tickets to the Olympics, as he wanted everyone to experience that here in Sydney. As a grad fresh out of Uni, it will be a memory I remember for a long time. That and the time I sat in his chair in a meeting with a client. He walked into the meeting and asked me why I was sitting in his seat.”
Danny Bass, the CEO of media at Dentsu arrived in Australia during the 90s, recalling an industry defined by three media tycoons: “Murdoch, Packer and Mitchell”.
“I worked with him both on the media side and as a competitor and once he retired, he was very generous with his time with me on a number of occasions. Harold Mitchell was a titan that defined Australia’s media landscape for many decades and must be remembered in the pantheon of Australian media legends,” Bass said, adding that Mitchell helped raise the domestic industry as a competitive force on the global stage.
Mark Coad, a fellow Victorian and the CEO of IPG Mediabrands Australia, led OMD at the time Mitchell’s agency reigned supreme.
“He could be charming, he could be humorous – or he could make you feel he’s about to run over the top of you,” Coad said. “I still get a laugh about the times I’d bump into him back in the days I ran OMD. He would say, ‘Hello Mark – where are you working these days?’ and I would respond, ‘I’m working for OMD, Harold”. He’d pause, look at me almost quizzically and say, “Hmmm. I think I’ve heard of them” as he strolled off.
“OMD were his biggest competitor at the time, and he knew exactly who worked there, but he couldn’t help but administer a decent dose of sarcasm, wit and condescension in equal measure. All the while, I was simply grateful he took the time to say hello.”
Philanthropy & renaissance man
Outside of advertising, Mitchell was heavily involved in the arts, health and sport, holding board positions at the National Gallery of Australia, Opera Australia, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and Tennis Australia, among others.
In 2000, he set up the Harold Mitchell Foundation, which donated money to causes in the arts and community health. He received a Companion (AC) of the Order of Australia for his philanthropy in 2010.
Former Labor leader and Government Services Minister Bill Shorten said Mitchell was a close friend and “an avuncular renaissance man who was energetically interested in everything and everyone”.
Known for living large, it has not always been smooth sailing. Mitchell has previously spoken about his past battles with alcoholism and obesity. In 2020, a Federal Court of Australia dismissed the majority of charges laid against him by the corporate regulator ASIC, which alleged he had breached his duties as Tennis Australia director by providing confidential information to Seven Network for TV rights to the Australian Open in 2013.
Survived by his children Stuart and Amanda, Mitchell will be remembered for helping raise and shape the Australian media landscape, and a generation of industry leaders with it.
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