Inside Photon – where cross pollination was personal. Very personal

Today Photon Group officially relaunches as Enero. Former staffer Cathie McGinn – who now works at Mumbrella – was marketing manager at Photon agency Geekdom during its excessive 2008-2009 period. 

Looking back, those days seem paradoxically innocent as childhood, and also as irresponsibly decadent as the last days of Rome.

I worked at Geekdom, Photon’s answer to Icarus. One year we flew highest and brightest, the next we were tumbling to earth in flames. When things were good, they were both good and intensely dysfunctional. When they were bad, it was like being trapped on an ice floe, slowly breaking up. These days, Enero’s unostentatious headquarters are in a modest sidestreet near Sydney’s central station. And the company is now run in a similarly sensible way.

Four years ago, it was somewhat different. Every Friday in Photon’s George Street HQ, the staff of most of the agencies quartered there proceeded to get roaring drunk on our sun drenched terraces overlooking Sydney Harbour. I worked there from July 2008.

After a while I took to leaving the building and the lashings of free booze behind early, terrified that as the oldest and most senior person left on my floor after the bosses had scarpered for the weekend, I’d be called upon to act responsibly if one of the 80 or so under 25 year olds running riot needed his or her stomach pumping. For many of them, it was their first proper job. I wonder now how those kids have adjusted to working life. Although few stuck it out for long; at one point I received a trophy to mark my long service to the company. I had been there for one year.

At one year’s Photon conference the management spoke about the need for “Photon cross-pollination.” Agencies were encouraged to work closely together; not to contract work outside the family. And the cross pollination extended to the personal.

There were flagrant infidelities. There was a disproportionately large number of very pretty women with no clearly defined role. I remember one executive assistant sending an all staff email to ask the entire company how you entered a number in an Excel spreadsheet. There were indiscretions. Coked up photos making their way onto Facebook. Office doors being closed and the blinds drawn for extended periods of time as phones rang and rang unanswered. Lunches that turned into dinners that turned into trips to the casino. On a Tuesday.

Photon at the Hordern

The Photon Awards at the Hordern

Not satisfied with the annual Photon Awards and epic party (one year booking out Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion, the next, Cockatoo Island featuring a performance by Empire of the Sun and a DJ set from Ruby Rose), a smaller gathering of Photon’s supposed best and brightest, the “Future Leaders Forum” convened at a golf club in the Hunter Valley. Smart people spoke and brainstormed and sparked off one another for about 20 minutes, and then as I recall we drank all the wine the Hunter could hold for the rest of the two days. Or at least I did.

That was the pervasive thing about the culture of Photon then; it seemed perfectly reasonable to behave like a teenager on a school trip or an entitled rockstar.

There was something vaguely cult-like about Photon, and certainly its enfant terrible Geekdom. I don’t think it was the case for all Photon companies; it was my impression that the further, geographically, an agency was from George St, the more able it was to maintain its independence.

Geekdom – a tech incubator and purveyor of online marketing – was right at the centre of it.

One afternoon our weekly all-staffer was interrupted by then-chairman Tim Hughes. Renowned for his “no-bullshit” mantra, he told us he had been celebrating the victory of one of his racehorses. He congratulated us all on helping Photon romp to the finish of a very successful financial year. The internet, he said, is the future. Over the next 15 minutes or so he went on to dazzle us with an unexpected analogy. “The internet,” he expounded, “is like a supermarket. With aisles.”

The best way I can describe the expressions of the 50 or so people in the room is quiet bafflement.

Much of the time, as Photon’s company of the year, we were left to do as we pleased, provided we made money, and we certainly did that for the first year or so, although there were signs that things weren’t going well. We burned through two chief financial officers, each leaving with a thousand yard stare and doomy mutterings. One day the company’s lawyer wasn’t there any more. Our first and only HR director transferred elsewhere within the group after a matter of months.

The developer team was living at the office, sleeping on bean bags and coding round the clock, but we changed strategy and product so often nothing was ever finished, chasing the increasingly elusive dollars. It was clear the company’s fortunes were on the turn by the number of visits from Photon management, and the increasingly erratic decisions being made. The sad thing is that the tech incubation arm was creating interesting clever work; we were developing a geo-social platform before Foursquare ever launched, but many of these products were half-built and abandoned when they couldn’t deliver a return in the next quarter – baby and bathwater both mercilessly flushed.

The company had been in a state of chaos for so long that it seemed strange that the party would ever end. And as the Photon management finally began to more openly challenge what was going on, there was a prevailing view that it was rather unsporting of them to start asking difficult questions at this point in the relationship.

At the height of the madness, the company’s sales team travelled to three continents in a week, holding large conferences and attempting to get sales from markets where the terrible reputation of our malfunctioning products hadn’t preceded us. While I was away on a brief holiday, my boss rang me to demand I “get Facebook taken down.”

I started to suspect that some really senior Photon people didn’t fully understand how the internet worked.

I also started to suspect I was developing a stomach ulcer.

Yesterday, I asked some of my old team what they remembered of the days of decline. One said: “The day the usually overflowing snack cupboard was replaced with half a bottle of vodka.”

One day I was managing three people, the next 13 and the day after, six. The day after, in December 2009, the newly hired chief operations officer was handing me and about 50 of my colleagues a white envelope, none of us cynical or smart enough, it seems to me with hindsight, to ask those difficult questions like “where is my redundancy cheque?” It was a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in some respects.

I hear the company is now well run under new CEO Matthew Melhuish, who took over after his predecessor Jeremy Philips came on board and saved it from going broke. If I were Matt, I’d change the name of the company too.

Every time I meet another former Photon person, a strange thing happens. Within minutes we’re huddled in a corner exchanging stories in shocked whispers.

I couldn’t tell most of them here, but one day perhaps there will be a book…

Cathie McGinn


  1. archie
    3 Jul 12
    10:50 am

  2. advertising people unaware of commercial reality and wasting client’s money?

    whoever would’ve thunk it!

  3. Matt
    3 Jul 12
    10:57 am

  4. Sounds like Jordan Belfort was running the show

  5. barry
    3 Jul 12
    10:57 am

  6. Archie: Geekdom wasn’t an advertising agency, it was a software/tech company.

  7. Catherine
    3 Jul 12
    10:58 am

  8. A brave and beautifully written account.

  9. (Name edited by Mumbrella)
    3 Jul 12
    11:04 am

  10. Barry, you’re wrong. You never got it, big guy.

    Geekdom was a dream in the heart of every child; your name upon your lovers lips; the first drops of rain that hit the dirt and wash the old world away…

  11. Notmyrealname
    3 Jul 12
    11:09 am

  12. ‘sounds like London for most of the 80’s. Happy days…

  13. GH
    3 Jul 12
    11:22 am

  14. wow

  15. Kimota
    3 Jul 12
    11:33 am

  16. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone, but still a rare and brave post for daring to say it in an industry that is known to bear a grudge. Then again, I’ve always loved bloggers and writers willing to pick a fight. 😉

    There’s so much waste and bad practice and incompetence and sheer ignorance in the industry – and others – that always goes unchallenged through career fear or politeness. Or a sense that when you can talk about it because it is in the past it’s no longer appropriate to talk about it precisely *because* it is in the past. But these conversations are what bring change.

    Love it.

  17. Not my real name
    3 Jul 12
    11:41 am

  18. Loved this story – brings back all the memories of the decadent 80’s in South Africa too…

  19. Fabfour
    3 Jul 12
    11:49 am

  20. Photon tried to buy our business twice … both times the deal was done literally on the back on an envelope. Tim Hughes told us he was being so good to us we should call him “Santa.” We walked away in the end because (edited by Mumbrella for legal reasons).

  21. Charmaine Moldrich
    3 Jul 12
    12:04 pm

  22. Beautifully written story. More from Cathie please Robin.

  23. Macsmutterings
    3 Jul 12
    12:19 pm

  24. Great article, I was at TLE over the same period, oh the stories someone could (should) tell…. However that said things certainly have changed for the better

  25. Cowardly anonymous
    3 Jul 12
    12:27 pm

  26. Photon was one of Australia’s prime examples of the naughties debt bubble.
    Economic rules and basic sound business principles went out the window, as they’d done across the economy.

    Everyone was going to be millionaires, almost effortlessly.

    Nero fiddled. The staff fornicated. But clients were rich (mostly because of debt) so the party-come-ponzi scheme went on.

    I worked at one of the star Photon agencies when the shit hit the fan in 2009, and you could see the shock, horror and complete lack of understanding on the blank faces of the senior managers. They had no idea what had hit them.

    [Looking forward to the book.]

  27. dotcomfool
    3 Jul 12
    12:28 pm

  28. Its a great story . You tell it well and it’s brave to have a go as someone else points out here (so long as it’s true but talking to a few others that were there it sounds like its certainly in the ball park) It reminds me a little of Michael Wolfe’s seminal book about his publishing company and the first dot com bubble called ‘Burn Rate’.

    But it does come across a bit like you’re part of a really bright group of young people who got shafted by a bunch of lunatic and foolish managers and investors. You sound senior enough (got the Hunter Valley meeting nod) and on your own admission you were their long enough to maybe have been part of the problem. Many of us have been there….it’s easy to get carried way in situations like this. In ‘Burn Rate’ Wolfe doesn’t just point out all the madness going on around him…..he is at pains to point out how out of control he got as well… making it clear he was one of the fools as well he teaches us some fairly important things about business, self awareness and learning from mistakes.

  29. Peter A
    3 Jul 12
    1:01 pm

  30. Perhaps Fabfour should have written, “We walked away in the end because we don’t believe in Santa.”

  31. archie
    3 Jul 12
    1:13 pm

  32. ps..i’m glad you landed on your feet Cathie and enjoy reading you on Mumbrella…good hire Tim/Robin

  33. Poshy
    3 Jul 12
    1:15 pm

  34. It wasn’t too bad if you were there, saw this coming (as your new M&A based CEO ‘s idea of shaving cost was trying to get tech account managers to sell branding concepts), waited for your options to divest at $6.60 and then ran for the hills. Photon was a great concept, executed sloppily.

  35. chris mitchell
    3 Jul 12
    1:19 pm

  36. mmm – and she got paid to put up with all this? There’s nothing worse than an ex-employee bagging out her old employer. A lot of the Photon agencies were great industry players and there were some really good, talented people working there. Many went into the vision with their eyes open and for a while it seemed to be working. But culture starts from the top and Tim Hughes and his merry lieutenants had no idea how to build with the assets they had. They just thought everyone would drink the cool-aid and things would take off. Other listed agencies like WPP are highly successful because they have great brands that operate independently of each other. Photon was just a get rich quick scheme that went horribly wrong. Good luck to John Porter. Just remember that substituting one letter in the new name spells Enron :)

  37. wewereonthe outside
    3 Jul 12
    1:41 pm

  38. As one of the Photon companies on the ‘outside”, our reality couldn’t have been more different. We worked out butts off, excessively long hours, no free drinks on a Friday, no free lunches or casino visits just chronic sleepless nights worrying about making budget. Cross pollination in our Photon world was a ludicrous concept. Most of the company heads were so competitive, it became a version of corporate survivor. Visits from the top were rare but well received and welcomed. (Edited by Mumbrella for legal reasons) Talk about flushing the baby and the bathwater mercilessly. Cathie, great piece, congrats, but Geekdom was only one of 50 odd companies.

  39. MicheyD
    3 Jul 12
    3:28 pm

  40. There’s a TV show in this somewhere!

  41. Phogone
    3 Jul 12
    5:13 pm

  42. Chris Mitchell is right. The agency principals who sold to Photon knew exactly what they were doing. Photon made them an offer they couldn’t refuse and they were only too happy to take it. Some chose to take it all in cash up front; others thought they could get even more by doing a cash/Photon shares mix. But, as we all know, some deals are too good to be true – yet some of the Photon agency principals still bought into ‘the Photon share dream’ – the honey pot was just tooooooo tempting.

  43. jean cave in pedant mode
    3 Jul 12
    6:33 pm

  44. Delightful rite of passage . . ms McGinn

  45. jean cave
    3 Jul 12
    6:34 pm

  46. *not pedant mode*

  47. Former employee
    3 Jul 12
    7:00 pm

  48. I believe this is 1 opinion from 1 person in 1 small company…a company that was given too much rope and hung themselves. The stories of young bimbos, too much alcohol, parties and unanswered phones are one that should be contained to Geekdom as that is pretty much what it was. Geekdom staff would be most of the non-excel using, 22 year olds on the sunny balcony overlooking Sydney Harbour, getting drunk at every Friday evening opportunity. Most others were in their offices working! Photon’s management & most of the CEOs within, were some of the smartest I’ve worked with. Most individuals I know across the entire group worked tirelessly and drunken nights were rare and saved for celebratory occassions. A very compartmentalised view.

  49. Datb
    3 Jul 12
    10:05 pm

  50. Entourage anyone?

  51. Really??
    4 Jul 12
    9:23 am

  52. Ive worked for photon for 6 years in sydney Only two photon parties I ever went to were the big ones mentioned (great fun). Never heard of the boozy parties on the verandah referred to. Are you sure this isn’t a Geekdom story as opposed to a Photon story?

  53. Worked at Photon for 5 years throughout this time
    4 Jul 12
    1:18 pm

  54. This is a Geekdom story, not Photon. Photon never went drinking or socialised together, everyone worked till very late, and very hard – not even long lunches were allowed. The story is worded very well to make it seem like the Head Office and other company were like this, when it was only Geekdom. Typical journalist.

  55. Yes and no
    4 Jul 12
    2:14 pm

  56. The story reminds me of an agency I worked at around ten years ago. The parties were legendary. The way money (and lots of it) was handled and often mishandled not so publicly recognised. You could change the name of the business and stick my name on the byline and Cathie’s story would still be accurate. I left when I became uncomfortable with some of the erm…lets call them ‘business arrangements’. They continue to thrive although have undergone significant changes.

    Meanwhile, I worked for a Photon agency around the same time as Cathie. I didn’t experience any of what she writes about while there. Maybe we were too far from HQ?

  57. Cathie McGinn
    4 Jul 12
    3:47 pm

  58. Thanks for the comments. I think I stressed that the Photon culture seemed to me to have been relative to geography, with the George St HQ at its heart.

    And while it would be impressive for a company of 80-odd (Geekdom at its peak) to have been responsible for all the turmoil, I don’t think anyone could reasonably lay the entire blame for the woes outlined in news stories like this:
    …or the closure of Love Communications, The Population, Mark Comms, bellamy hayden and Kinetic – amongst others – at its door.

    Sam Kekovich summed up the Photon ethos rather well in 2008…

    @dotcomfool – good point well made. Learned much. To mangle Edmund Burke’s aphorism, all it takes [for poor decisions] to flourish is for good men to do nothing.

    @chris mitchell I’d be interested to hear how you think people might learn from past mistakes without them being shared? And if not by ex-employees, then who is qualified so to do?

  59. Where was I
    4 Jul 12
    3:50 pm

  60. Typical journalist…. this is not the Geekdom i remember either. I was there for 2 years after transferring from another Photon company. i remember being a ‘kid” in a fast growing company that was growing too quickly and was very ambitious. Sure, lots of young people together were having fun & there was lots of social activity, but most of it happened away from Head office in our OWN time – the teamwork and culture was great. Whilst i was there, i felt like part of a family, I learnt alot and worked on some cool things. I used to hear alot about Google changes impacting the business and this all happened during a tough GFC so there was money problems everywhere, it seemed to me that the senior team (which included Cathie) tried lots of things to make it work but Photon needed results much quicker. Ive been made redundant again recently so i guess s#$^ happens. i

  61. jump ship
    4 Jul 12
    4:09 pm

  62. Ahhhh Photon… I lasted 4 ‘Photon Awards’… the memories (or lack thereof) are great!

  63. Another perspective
    4 Jul 12
    5:00 pm

  64. The Geekdom I remember was a place of dreams and opportunity. People from all over the world came together and worked incredibly hard to achieve the big dreams and vision from Photon. It was a unique place that gave an opportunity for people to rise up and be more than they were before. It was fun and sometimes a bit messy, but I genuinely believe most ex-employees were left with good memories, great learning’s and lifelong friendships. It’s sad that one individual (who was far from a great example of best practices) now, 3 years later puts shame on Geekdom and Photon – typical journalist. I hope that Cathie McGinn’s sensationalised representation will have people on “the other side” unite, laugh and smile

  65. Circling sharks
    4 Jul 12
    5:08 pm

  66. I worked for a Photon-owned agency that sent people to the Future Leaders Forum. They came back and said nothing of it, flatly refused to and conspicuously so. Given the people who were sheepish about it weren’t prudes by any measure, what happened there must have been staggering.

  67. Former employee
    4 Jul 12
    5:10 pm

  68. Cathie, just for the record, Bellamy Hayden was never closed. It was merged & always very profitable throughout its term. Could you please write about something you do know about?

  69. Ex-Photon
    5 Jul 12
    12:15 pm

  70. Crap. I’m not saying Photon didn’t have issues but I also don’t think anybody else who was in Photon (5000 FTEs) would judge themselves the same as those 100 or so [edited by Mumbrella for legal reasons]

    Nicely written prose but don’t judge the rest by your own loose standards.

  71. Ex-colleague
    5 Jul 12
    2:28 pm

  72. Well written but fictional article Cathie. You have just done yourself, your former colleagues and the entire photon group a major disservice. I am one of the Geekdom employees you have just degraded and I think this perspective is one sided and totally sensationalised for your own self serving purposes. If this was true and reflective of your 2 years there, why did you not resign in protest? The truth is that we all worked long damn hours just like the entire photon group and you should be totally ashamed of yourself for suggesting otherwise and presenting a few isolated incidents (which you have embellished) as a reflection of the company or its ethics. Geekdom made millions of dollars for photon and whilst it ultimately failed, it, photon and Tim Hughes should be celebrated for creating jobs and making profits. The GFC crippled 100 year old banks and caused heartache globally and your article has totally mislead mumbrella readers.
    We all make mistakes and every company has issues, that’s call life. The sad thing here is that you really missed an excellent opportunity to write a positive article about Matt Melhuish and the rebuilding of photon under its new brand. People have long memories Cathie!

  73. mumbrella
    5 Jul 12
    3:04 pm

  74. I can’t help but notice that “Where was I” and “Another perspective” and “Ex-colleague” share the same IP address.

    It’s good to see that all these years later, you’re all still working together. And that you think the same way. And that you use similar phrases (“typical journalist”). And that you all think Geekdom failed because of the GFC.

    I’m also interested to see the IP address. Are you sure you’re typical former Geekdom employees? What with that IP address being registered to the new company of the former boss of Geekdom?

    It’s almost like you don’t fully understand how the Internet works…


    Tim – Mumbrella

  75. bob is a rabbit
    5 Jul 12
    3:13 pm

  76. Gold Tim! Love it.

  77. Dan
    5 Jul 12
    3:31 pm

  78. “Tim Hughes should be celebrated for creating jobs and making profits?”

    Just… Wow. What colour is the SKY in your world?

    And “people have long memories”? – loving the veiled threats.

    What a cowardly little grub.

  79. Another perspective
    5 Jul 12
    5:34 pm

  80. Tim, I never mentioned the GFC as a reason in my post. I was genuinely trying to provide your readers with a different perspective which I believe is reflective of how most ex-employees feel despite what happened. Cathie’s perspective is very subjective and only (publicly) supported by a few people who worked at the company for a few months. Are there some truths to the stories, yes. Are some of the stories inaccurate and misrepresented, yes. Is it fair to tell the readers that there is another side to the story, I believe so. Do I believe that a lot of people feel humiliated and hurt by Cathie’s representation, absolutely!
    Cathie makes everyone who’s ever worked under the Geekdom and Photon umbrella look incredibly bad “in the name of journalism”. Is that fair?
    Many ex-employees still work together in companies all over Sydney. A lot of us stay in contact across the world, we cherish the friendships and share the stories of the past with a smile.
    So much for a story on the re-branding of Photon…
    Enough said.

  81. Jozette Heerman
    5 Jul 12
    9:09 pm

  82. I worked at Geekdom from June 2008 to July 2009. It was without a doubt one of the best years of my life, debauched and fantastic.
    Now as someone who has no experience with or aptitude for technology, my interests in it were limited to a few TED talks and reading Wired once in a while. However my lack of tech knowledge was in no way a requirement for the role I was hired for. A role which to this day I don’t totally understand.
    The first thing (name removed for legal reasons) did when interviewing me was tear up my CV and whilst whirling around on his chair answering emails with one hand, he absolutely mesmerized me.

    Geekdom seemed to run on a management style, one can only describe as “freestyling”. The boozy Friday’s (they started at lunch), the long pub lunches, screwing the crew, an occasional mid-week bender… that is all very true. Trust me.

    What is also true is that it felt like we were all a group of friends. So cheesy, but I’m going there… it felt like family. I would guess about 50% of the staff were foreign, so we didn’t have big groups of friends from school and university. We created our own group with Geekdom at the core. We also really cared about each other and felt at times like we were a part of something extraordinary that was being led by an eccentric but brilliant visionary. It was cult like in many respects, pervasive through our lives. Although the wheels only really fell after I had resigned to live in London, the downward spiral had started and when things turned it was ugly. 10 to 20 people would get sacked in a day. The party had ended. When your life boat is the Stennings you know things are very very bad.

    Cathie, well done on your article. I was not planning on adding my two cents but from my experience there, if anything, your article is restrained. I loved my time there and loved everyone I worked with but in all honestly it was a gap year for me. An amazing, boozy, exciting gap year paid for by Geekdom. I learnt a lot and probably didn’t add much to the corporate side but what I lacked in tech knowledge I made up for in tequila and foosball. I also know that there were many people who worked unbelievable long hours, invested their money, time and hope there. I get they would probably be a bit more sentimental about it and more protective of their memory of it. The one thing that Geekdom was really good at was spotting awesome, talented young people who had phenomenal passion and potential. Good times they were.

  83. not true
    5 Jul 12
    9:42 pm

  84. Cathie your story is about party culture – why talk to the closures of the agencies to defend the inaccuracies of your article, and the misattribution of Geekdom to Photon

  85. LB
    10 Jul 12
    11:22 pm

  86. Underbelly:Geeks

  87. craig mack
    11 Jul 12
    9:39 am

  88. Great insight from one of the insiders Cathie. I only spent a few short months at Geekdom as one of the coaches and what you describe pretty much sums up what i experienced while i was.

    A business on the go that just didn’t quite know where it was going. A whole lot of talent in some areas, a whole lot of people who seemed there to make the place pretty and a whole lot excessive spending for what seemed like the fun of it.

    As for the output and product delivery, an array of great ideas on concepts that never came to fruition, and a selection of content to fill the holes on the days where we had not much to coach

    One of the craziest and strangest few months in my working career with some of the oddest tactics i’ve ever encountered.

    Can’t speak from a wider Photon experience but that’s Geekdom to a tee. Among the things i have to thank Geekdom for is kicking of my path into the marketing world as what i learnt about digital and social marketing fascinated me.

    With some solid direction, planning and delivery it could have been much more than it was i’m sure