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


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