Are media, marketing and entertainment professionals caught in an inner city latte-sipping bubble that’s out of touch with the rest of Australia? How can they continue to be relevant to an audience that leads a life very different to their own? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Amanda Meade finds out.
When News Corp’s group editorial director Campbell Reid edited The Daily Telegraph and The Australian in the late 1990s he prided himself on catching public transport instead of driving his company car and parking it in the company car park.
As busy as he was, Reid insisted the daily commute with the general public kept him in touch with the readers of his papers.
Earlier this month, Mumbrella reported on a survey which found many advertising agency personnel live in an inner city “bubble” that renders them out of touch with middle Australia. The survey, conducted by outdoor advertising company Adshel, found that 41 per cent of Sydney agency folk live in the city or inner city, compared to just four per cent of the general public.
Richard Riboni, the executive marketing manager at AAMI who created the successful Rhonda and Ketut campaign, admits he lives in the so-called inner city bubble but he makes a considered attempt to burst out of it and keep in touch with the mainstream. “I certainly think it’s very easy for people in the industry to produce work that appeals to what they’re familiar with which may not be representative of the broader community,” says Riboni. “We listen to customers in the AAMI contact centre, read what people say about our campaigns on Twitter, on blogs and on YouTube.”
Riboni believes social media is a good indicator of public sentiment and appreciates its instant feedback. Conversely, Mamamia publisher Mia Freedman blames Twitter for reinforcing an elite view at the expense of the mainstream. “I’ve noticed Twitter has become a real echo chamber,” says Freedman, former editor of women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. “The same voices going around and around, looking for the latest industry outrage. It can be such a destructive cycle to get caught up in that. You have to actively disengage from it if you want to stay focused on your readers – who are the ones who matter most.”
The Seven network’s drama executive Bevan Lee, creator of a string of top-rating drama series including Home and Away, Packed to the Rafters and A Place to Call Home attributes his success to his very ordinary roots.
“I’ve always said I was very glad I was born into, and grew up in, not impoverished but fairly straightened circumstances in the lower middle class in Perth,” Lee told Encore.
“I really didn’t extract myself from my roots in a geographic sense until I was well into my 20s and so I have that as a creative reservoir to draw from.
“I don’t think I could have created Rafters if I had been born into an eastern suburbs family. I understand the everyday Aussie from my past. If you live in the inner city, you do form the opinion that it is the be-all and end-all and I don’t think you are able to create for other people because you simply don’t understand them. I’ve had the ability in my career to create shows for a wider demographic because I haven’t turned my back on my roots.”
Freedman echoes Lee’s approach, saying she prides herself on creating media for the general public rather than for her peers, despite personally living inside the perceived bubble.
“There are two types of people working in the media: those who want to make content for their peers and those who want to make content for readers,” Freedman says. “It’s easy to get confused between the two. Twitter doesn’t help. And industry websites can also really skew your view of what you’re doing. I learned this back when I started in magazines. There were always editors and fashion editors who were obsessed with impressing other people in the industry which baffled me because those people won’t buy your product. And they’re a teensy fraction of the audience you should be targeting. On our editorial wall at Mamamia, we have pictures of the six different types of readers we’ve identified. One of those we call ‘they’re watching us’ and it includes competitors, professional rock-throwers and people we respect as well as people we know want us to fail.
“While we’re always mindful that these people are out there, and every so often they become loud and dominant, it would be a huge mistake to tailor our content for them. That would be like trying to drive a car while looking over your shoulder into the back seat. It’s a classic mistake and takes you straight into a downward spiral – or, to put it more colloquially – it’s a fast track to disappearing up your own bottom.”
Nick Cater, executive editor of The Australian, has written an entire book about this “latte-sipping elite” – The Lucky Culture And The Rise of Australia’s Ruling Class – which he says makes up most of the media.
“The cultural gatekeepers need to get out more and remind themselves constantly that the mood in the inner west of Sydney or north Fitzroy is very different – and often diametrically opposed – to that in the rest of the country,” Cater told Encore. He says a campaign launched by Coles this year, which saw the supermarket chain use shopping bags to push the ‘Make it possible’ cause against factory farming of animals, is an example of the narrow ideas of marketers failing to take into account the feelings of the punters and the food industry.
“Coles’ mistake in rushing to market with shopping bags supporting Animals Australia was an example of how out of touch marketing teams can become,” says Cater. “The backlash from farmers and the wider population was swift. Coles was smart enough to realise this and reverse the decision, but it shows how important it is for retailers – like political parties – not to become wedged on these thorny cultural issues. Woolworths felt it too when they withdrew advertising from Alan Jones only to feel the backlash from Jones’ not inconsiderable group of listeners.
“These misconceptions about the broader public mood are exaggerated by social media, which may be a useful forum for debate, but is a poor gauge of democratic opinion.”
But sometimes marketers get it just right, as was the case with AAMI’s Rhonda, a character so real she strikes a chord with the general public. Rhonda is no inner-city hipster – she is a dag. Riboni says: “It’s hard to dissect the elements that went into making that Rhonda and Ketut campaign a success but there is no doubt the character of Rhonda was central. She did silly things; she got tan lines in Bali and she made a fool of herself flirting with Ketut.
“Most Australians have been to Bali and whether people like to admit it or not they can see a little bit of themselves in Rhonda, or know somebody like her and recognise that it’s funny. I would suggest that part of its appeal is the relatability that came with her character.
“To an extent we all live in a bubble of our work, family and friends. What we have now with social media is the ability to have a greater understanding of what people outside of our immediate sphere are saying.
“Social media is just word-of-mouth on steroids. It gives us the ability to get a pretty good understanding of whether something has been successful or not way before our formalised tracking comes out.”
And Riboni believes the advertising industry is not the only sector guilty of sometimes misjudging their audience. Television producers, he believes, often foist overseas formats on the Australian public rather than creating something to reflect the mood in our backyard.
“The Real Housewives franchise is coming to Australia,” Riboni says. “I can’t imagine how something like that will work in this market. It’s an example of taking something from another market that doesn’t relate.
“Those type of formats tend to struggle in Australia because we are not the same type of personalities as the American population. It’s a different mentality. Australians like The Block where people are actually doing something. I think it’s out of touch with what is appropriate for this market.”
The Block has been unkindly referred to as ‘bogan TV’ but it finished on Sunday night with an astonishing finale average of 3m viewers across five capital cities.
Seven’s Bevan Lee says his pet hate is elitists who criticise mainstream success. He is unashamed about wanting to make television which celebrates the good in our society. And he is not a fan of the Underbelly franchise on Nine which he says glamorises crime. He says: “Rafters was a fairytale of suburbia. They’re an idealisation and a distillation of all that is good in family love. I chose to make the show optimistic and concentrate on love.”
And what of Reid in 2013 now he is News Corp’s most senior editorial executive? “I still commute by bus and train,” he says. “I get to read mX on the train in the evening to see how much people still love newspapers.”
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.