It’s time to look again at Mamamia

Mamamia was once dismissed as clickbait content pumped out by an army of underpaid juniors. But the company's culture has matured, and it has found its purpose, suggests Mumbrella founder and editor-at-large Tim Burrowes, in a piece that first appeared on his Unmade newsletter.

Hamish Blake and Andy Lee have a game on their podcast, which is a good idea with a terrible name. “Tell Us Someone We Haven’t Thought About For A While” challenges listeners to call them up and do exactly that.

The listener wins if Blake and Lee concede that the celebrity the listener mentions has indeed, not been in their thoughts. It’s harder to beat the duo than you’d think.

For me, the media business version of that has been Mamamia.

Its content mastermind Mia Freedman is sufficiently ubiquitous that she’s remained permanently in view, but as an organisation, I realise that my perceptions of Mamamia were stuck at some point around 2017.

That was, until yesterday’s Mamamia Upfronts event. Covid’s suspension of live events has been a leveller for smaller media companies. Until Covid, upfronts were the province of TV networks willing to drop a million bucks on a giant production and a party. And that model will begin again next year, I’m sure.

However, with a streamed upfront, every media company gets the same opportunity. There’s no limit to the number of marketers and media agency folk who can be invited to watch a video stream. Keeping the audience’s attention still demands production levels, but the playing field has been somewhat levelled.

So as well as Nine’s Upfront 2022 event which has already happened, brands like Starts At 60 and NITV have also got in on the action in recent days. Next week it’s Seven’s turn, and Ten will be the week after.

Yesterday, it was Mamamia’s moment in the sun. And it made me realise, I hadn’t thought about Mamamia for a while.

Freedman: Fronting yesterday’s Mamamia upfront

If you’d asked me my first thoughts on the organisation, I’d have summed it up as simply a female-focused, chatty website that still had its blog roots showing, and it did a few podcasts. Owners Mia Freedman and Jason Lavigne seemed to have missed their window to make a lucrative exit when the likes of Junkee Media, Pedestrian and Conversant Media sold out five years ago.

It would have also occurred to me that there wasn’t a lot of stability at senior levels underneath Freeman and Lavigne. The most notable person I recall churning through was Kylie Rogers, who came in from Ten as sales director before becoming MD, then moving on to her current role within the AFL. There were plenty of others too though.

Plus, Mamamia had a reputation as being a sweatshop. A profile of Freedman in 2015 pointed to an army of young women early in their careers, “under appreciated and underpaid”.

At a similar time, Freedman ventured onto Tom Gleeson’s “Hard Chat” segment on ABC’s The Weekly. Industry watchers took rather too much delight when Gleeson pointed out that most of the company’s hundred or so staff were women: “That’s a great idea – because you don’t have to pay them as much, yeah?”

There was also an element of truth at the time in his acerbic question: “Do you ever click on your own clickbait and think: ‘Why am I reading this shit?’”

A while later, Gleeson hosted the Mumbrella Awards and backstage I asked him about the segment. “That’s the one that media people always seem to like,” he told me.

At the time there always seemed to be more people who enjoyed Mamamia’s woes than made sense for its size, and I never completely understood why. I wonder whether it would have been different if, instead of an ambitious woman as the face of the organisation, it had been a similarly ambitious man.

And 2017 also saw the company suspend its ambitions of going global, closing its fledgling New York operation.

Which brings me to the Mamamia of today, and yesterday’s Mamamia Upfronts.

In some ways, the organisation is the same as it was four or five years ago. It still employs about 100 people. Mia Freedman is still the face of it, and deeply involved in the content. Lavigne is running the business itself. And it’s still talking about whatever interests women.

But in terms of internal culture and media business model, Mamamia has evolved. But it is still a content machine:

Take this morning’s Mamamia home page articles:

  • “Five things I’ve learned since returning to work after maternity leave”
  • “Can we please acknowledge that The Biggest Loser was the most f**ked up thing on TV?”
  • “Chewing gum came out of my allowance. I was financially abused for ten years”
  • “The real problem with ‘nude’ foundation”
  • “Midwifery is a noisy job. Until it falls silent.”
  • “Oh no. I tried these viral bikini bottoms and I regret everything.”
  • “Six of the best positions for having sex in a wheelchair”
  • And “These are 50 photos of what women’s vulvas actually look like”.

That’s quite a mix. There’s highbrow and lowbrow, and all – I’d suggest – likely to draw clicks. But maybe without actually being clickbait. And there’s not as much outrage there as used to be the case.

And Mamamia has also reinvented itself as one of the leading podcasting players in the country. Mamamia does 44 podcast shows, many of them with brand integration. I wish they’d sign up for the Australian Podcast Ranker now it offers genuine download data.

Mamamia placed an intelligent bet on podcasting, right at the moment that it’s second, more commercialisable (if that’s a word…) wave was approaching.

And almost as impressive is what the company did not do. While many publishers were buying Facebook’s bullshit around the pivot to video, Mamamia did not.

But the thing that most struck me about yesterday’s presentation was how much better the company has become at articulating its purpose.

“Make the world a better place for women and girls” could be seen as a bit corny. “Making the world a better place” is one of the running jokes in sitcom Silicon Valley as the mission of every startup.

But in Mamamia’s case, it’s the right mission to rally behind.

And as well as the choices of what not to do, it occurred to me that another absence has been the noise about Mamamia being a sweatshop. You don’t hear that any more. The revolving door of senior people coming and going seems to have slowed. The same goes at a more junior level too.

The culture of the company seems to have changed. Since Freedman and Lavigne decided they were personally all in, rather than asking others to run it, the company has acquired structure and purpose.

I also struggle to think of many other independent consumer publishers in Australia as big, at 100 or so staff. I imagine the company would now be turning over something like $30m a year.

There were subtle signals in the presentation about how the company is thinking about its place in the world.

Freedman emphasised that the brand was “bootstrapped “in the lounge room, not a board room”. That’s not the sort of language you’d use if you have any intention of selling out to somebody more corporate. It suggests a commitment to staying independently owned.

And in turn that suggests that the company must be comfortably profitable, so doesn’t need to think about it.

The independence may be of necessity. Who could afford Mamamia these days?

And there was something of a swipe at the company’s main rival in the women’s space, magazine publisher Are Media: “We’re one brand, not a disparate mishmash”. Which is true. Having one brand is a much better situation.

The question is one of where Mamamia will go next.

The business model appears to be evolving beyond sponsor-supported publishing. There was a nod towards the fact that it is selling online courses for its Lady Startup audience. And I’m sure it will push further into the B2C space, selling more services and products to its audience.

Yesterday, the company also launched Squad as a full service content agency, evolved from its in-house studio Social Squad.

And I wonder if Mamamia will take another shot at going international. That’s the only circumstance I could see the company seeking more investment.

The company has momentum, purpose and culture. That’s a pretty good place to be.

I’ll be watching next year’s upfronts with a lot more anticipation.

Tim Burrowes is the founder and editor-at-large at Mumbrella. This post first appeared on Tim’s analytical newsletter Unmade. You can subscribe to its free and paid tiers below.



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