Legal letters, scandal and controversy: it’s been a fun three years

After three years in the Mumbrella editor’s seat Alex Hayes is moving on to start a new division for Mumbrella. Here he looks back at three themes he believes have defined that time for the industry.

Less than two hours into my first day as editor of Mumbrella I was served with a legal letter threatening an injunction on a story.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start.

Alex Hayes

Alex Hayes

That letter was from lawyers acting for the Australian Radio Network, after an anonymous tipster sent us images of the mock ups for the new KiisFM and Kyle & Jackie O show, weeks before either had been officially announced. 

A tipster sent us images of the KiisFM mock ups weeks before it was announced

A tipster sent us images of the KiisFM mock ups weeks before it was announced

We published the story and heard nothing more from the Australian Radio Network on it. Kyle and Jackie O moved, Kiis launched, and three years on are top of the FM tree in Sydney.

It wasn’t the last legal letter I’ve received sitting at this desk, but you soon learn to expect that when you confront malpractice, bigotry and fraud in the industry. 

Finishing up in a role leads to certain amount of retrospection, and looking back I think I can point to one big issue that dominated each year (more or less).

Don’t panic, I’ve tried not to make this too self-indulgent, but I thought it’d be good to share some of the story behind the stories which have helped to shape the industry.

In 2014 it was scam.

We didn’t go to the Cannes Lions Festival that year looking for a fight, but we really found one.

What turned into a wide ranging and resource-intensive scam investigation came from an email I sent to the team back in Australia from the Cannes press room, asking whether they had ever seen any of these remarkable print ads that were picking up metal for some large Australian agencies and their clients.

Leo Burnett's WWF Shark ad was found to have run in

Leo Burnett’s WWF Shark ad was found to have run in

For the uninitiated scam is a practice associated with the creative industry which we define as work that wouldn’t have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for entering into awards shows. Our stance on it is simple – when that stuff wins, the industry loses.

It turned out to be one of those threads that once you start pulling you couldn’t just stop.

I was surprised at quite how poorly some very large communications agencies handled the issue. Responses ranged from media plans being “confidential” (and here I was thinking the whole point of marketing was to be seen), right down to one which refused to speak to us on the matter, or for that matter anything else for quite a while after.

At times I felt sorry for my colleague Miranda Ward as she banged her head against a brick wall trying to get answers from them, and credit to her for sticking with it and driving a lot of our coverage.

For anyone in agency management teams out there, things don’t just go away if you refuse to answer questions about them, journalists will keep digging and fill the vacuum with information. You’re always better off getting on the front foot and addressing the issues properly.

Back to the investigation, and searches of two media monitoring services failed to locate ads for the likes of McDonald’s, Panasonic and Samsung. Which was curious.

An anonymous tipster pointed us in the direction of the Rouse Hill Times, which it transpires was at the time the cheapest newspaper space in Australia, for those now infamous McDonald’s press ads, which ran on the last day of the qualifying period. Once, and on consecutive pages. All hallmarks of work which the client has allowed an agency to run in exchange for their hard work through the year.

McDonald's run once press ads

McDonald’s run once press ads

We struggled to track down a few other press ads from that year as well, despite our best efforts. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying, as anyone who remembers our ‘Lost dog’ posters from the time will testify.

We mocked up some 'lost dog' posters as we attempted to track down this Panasonic work

We mocked up some ‘lost dog’ posters as we attempted to track down this Panasonic work

Cannes organisers didn’t do their credibility any favours by at first refusing to answer questions, and then likening ads that ran in the Rouse Hill Times to multi-million dollar Super Bowl spots, because they both run just once. It was one of the worst defenses of anything I’ve ever heard.

Eventually we’d gotten to a point where we couldn’t ignore the enormous issues we’d been exposing with the whole Cannes system. It became obvious we’d have to make a stand, which is the point at which we announced we wouldn’t be returning to Cannes until they’d addressed the problems. It’s a shame not to be making an annual trip to the south of France, but a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.

I’ll admit there were times when it felt a little like we were yelling into the void. We were addressing some pretty major issues, admittedly ones that had been known about for years, yet others in the trade press and creative blogs were keeping silent, or starting whispering campaigns urging boycotts of Mumbrella, a tactic which proved wholly unsuccessful.

Fast forward a year and it was VML’s turn to be exposed for entering the Blackspot Beacons campaign which its client hadn’t signed off on.

The Blackspot Beacons campaign that didn't get client sign off

The Blackspot Beacons campaign that didn’t get client sign off

Then we got to this year, and suddenly I felt a massive sense of vindication for all of the effort we’d put in. Because 2016 was definitely the year anyone looking at Cannes had to admit it has a scam problem.

Three network agencies have now handed trophies won at the festival back admitting either they paid for the media space themselves, had overreached with claims about saving rhinos, or had simply created an app that didn’t actually work (although Grey Singapore they never admitted this in the huffy statement they made about it).

And while organisers of the now publicly listed Cannes Lions festival refused to address why they haven’t been disqualifying agencies from major holding companies that pour millions into their coffers every year, they have tacitly admitted they’ve got problems by changing to jury system.

But while the problem went global this year it was great to not have to write a Cannes scam story about an Aussie agency or client – and we did look hard. That gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, kickstarting the conversation has moved the dial in some way.

If it has, it’s a long-term win for the industry. I know experienced colleagues like Simon Canning are going to keep up the pressure with it.

In 2015 we had transparency

Technically the issues around media transparency became apparent in Australia in late 2014 when we revealed Mediacom had been caught out falsifying TV results for some of their biggest clients, including, ironically, Foxtel.


What started as a story about a dozen people exiting Mediacom suddenly, a yarn which had actually been on Adnews earlier in the day, soon ballooned into the biggest scandal we’ve seen (yet) in the Australian media industry, courtesy of a some digging from my former colleague Nic Christensen. 

Friday night plans were cancelled as Nic, Tim Burrowes and myself hit the phones in a full court press to get the full story, talking to clients and others in the industry, as well as the agency. It was satisfying sitting in the office at 8pm to see the numbers surge on the Google Analytics screen as a lot of half-cut agency types opened an email and quickly forwarded it around the world. (Tracking analytics as any editor will tell you is one of the most addictive things in the world, and will be one of the hardest things to wean myself off).

Unlike with scam, Mediacom was very forthcoming with its explanations when asked the right questions, as were many of its clients. And I think in the long term that helped the agency to some extent manage the situation which industry speculation could have blow even bigger.

It’s not lost on me how by a quirk of fate former Mediacom US CEO John Mandel (the most hated man in advertising) got up on stage the day after and made his own set of explosive remarks about widespread industry practices of kickbacks and media rebates.

John Mandel's revelations in the US coincided with the Mediacom story here

John Mandel’s revelations in the US coincided with the Mediacom story here

And that kicked the issue into the stratosphere. Suddenly practices we’d written about in the What your media agency might not be telling you piece were coming out thick and fast.

Investigations kicked off left, right and centre. Locally the reaction from industry groups was crickets, but GroupM kicked off an internal review of processes promising a full report at the end of it.

And credit to them again they lived up to their word. What was evident was how tightly Ogilvy PR had managed their processes, limiting each publication to a 45-minute briefing with the auditor, bombarding them with information and rewarding people who asked the right questions with a piece of paper explaining the company’s position on it in a tight statement.

Embargoing the stories until Monday morning the group also refused to answer the multiple follow-up questions which came out during what was an incredibly extensive writing and re-writing process which only ended at 11.59pm on the Sunday night as we sent the yarns live.

I’m proud of our extensive and robust coverage of the situation at the time and since. There are some complex and important issues at play here, and it could have been easy to get lost in the jargon, or caught up in the hype flying around the industry and overclaim things.

Australia is still the only country in the world where a major agency group has admitted value banks as far as I’m aware, so it’s astonishing how slow the industry bodies like MFA and AANA have been in responding to these issues – taking more than 18-months to issue guidelines, relying on investigations and examples from their US and UK counterparts.  


Transparency has been a watchword now for the last two years and I doubt there’s a client out there who hasn’t asked questions of their media agency. Let’s hope they start to pay reasonable rates so agencies can actually afford to operate transparently going forward.

And 2016 has been the year of diversity.

The lack of gender diversity in the industry isn’t a new phenomenon. Neither is it one the industry has been keen to get a handle on, especially in the creative side.

We’d had a stab at looking at it in 2014 with a series of pieces examining the issues. We were met with crickets in response from the industry, which was disheartening to say the least.

We looked at the 'Mad men' industry in a series in 2014

We looked at the ‘Mad men’ industry in a series in 2014

But sometimes change needs a catalyst. And in terms of the ad industry there are few more effective catalysts than disruptor extraordinaire, Cindy Gallop.

What, to my subsequent chagrin, we’d dismissed as an innocuous FYI from Leo Burnett announcing some new creative hires was flagged to the former agency boss, who tweeted:

Gallop's tweet kicked off a huge debate

Gallop’s tweet kicked off a huge debate

We wrote the story about the tweet, Leos went to ground, and the next week saw the biggest discourse about female representation in the creative industry I’ve seen in Australia.

The issue flared again when we decided to do something unprecedented, take a stand as a publication to call out the ‘entertainment’ at the M&C Saatchi 21st birthday party earlier this year.

It wasn’t a decision we took lightly, we were invited guests at that party, but we took the view that shouldn’t stop us from calling out something we felt was wrong.

Given the reaction we’d seen to previous posts on the equality topic we decided to write the piece as a leader – from the voice of Mumbrella rather than a bylined opinion from one journalist. Instead of setting one person up for the inevitable vitriol and backlash we knew would come, it meant we owned the opinion as a publication, and I’m proud of that.

The backlash was intense, not just in the comment thread but with other publications deciding to step up and take a swing at us rather than address the issues. The irony of one of them now trying to make holier-than-though milage out of the issue is not lost on me, or the refusal to work together on an industry initiative around it.

Since then we’ve kept the conversation going, not least with a formidable keynote from Cindy Gallop at Mumbrella360 in June.


We also added criteria around demonstrating a commitment to diversity to our awards program for the first time, and I was really pleased that far from scaring agencies off it seemed to galvanise the best in them, and we achieved record entry levels.

We also managed to assemble the first gender balanced jury in the process, and are working hard to achieve more representation across all of our events.

This isn’t something we can claim a win in, and neither would I presume to even if we had seen real change. I hope in 30 years I can look at the industry and see a more representative cross-section of the population inside our agencies.

As we’ve said many times before this is not about fairness or giving people a go, it’s about the viability of the industry.

I’ve been really lucky at Mumbrella to work with some of the best journos on the media and marketing beat, not just in Australia but anywhere. Without their hard work, skill and determination none of this coverage of these issues would have been half as robust, thoughtful or extensive. And life would not have been as exciting.

It’s not always made us popular with certain parts of the industry. That’s mainly because some people who should really know better believe the trade press is there to cheerlead the industry, not question it.

But I learned very early on in my career this profession really isn’t about being popular with the cool kids, or writing to serve your contacts.  

By asking the tough questions and pushing issues others are too scared to I believe we’ve managed to maintain the respect of our readers.

And at the end of the day as an editor and a journalist that’s all I’ve ever wanted.

Alex Hayes is stepping down as editor to head up a new division Mumbrella Bespoke. Vivienne Kelly starts as editor on Monday.


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