We’re postponing everything (no surprise there)

Like all businesses within the events industry, Mumbrella is facing unprecedented challenges thanks to COVID-19. Mumbrella content director Tim Burrowes offers an insight into Mumbrella’s new plans.

The marketing industry’s favourite commentator Mark Ritson published an ominous threat in his column in The Australian on Monday.

Writing about the impact of COVID-19 on the events industry, he told readers:

“No news, as yet, whether the biggest media and marketing event in Australia — Mumbrella360 — will still take place. But I’ll present naked from the main stage if the event kicks off as normal in June.”

Although a naked marketing professor would have been a first for Mumbrella360, our delegates will be spared that memorable moment. His prediction was correct.

Yes, we’re postponing Mumbrella360. And CommsCon. And Audioland. And pretty much everything else we’ve got planned for the next six months too. I’ll take you through all of that below.

But first a bit of context.

This is a crisis that came on gradually for the business world, and then fast.

I just searched my sent emails to find out the first time I even wrote the words “Covid” or “coronavirus”. It was in the early hours (Australian time) of Friday February 28, just 19 days ago. Try the exercise yourself. I bet you thought you’d been talking about it for longer.

In my case it was in a note to my boss from a sleety London, where I was attending the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers’ annual conference.

Standing in the coffee queue, it had dawned on me that this might not be business as usual. Maybe that faraway thing in China really was going global.

The conference had kicked off with a couple of wry jokes about the absence of Omnicom delegates. Late the afternoon before, it had emerged that Omnicom’s media agency OMD had closed its London office over concerns that a member of staff had picked up the virus during a trip to (coincidentally) Australia.

With a keynote speaker unable to travel and coming in by Skype from Cincinnati instead, the conference featured the inevitable technical difficulties that last-minute video streams always seem to generate.

And the event also featured the dark running joke that one of the sponsors was digital ad company Infectious Media. Calling it the Infectious Lounge must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Live and infectious

“Welcome to the conference that went wrong,” was the wry summary from ISBA boss Phil Smith as he held things together on stage as the video connection repeatedly failed and timings went out the window.

Enjoying my London anonymity, I earwigged on a conversation taking place behind me in that conference coffee queue.

Two PwC staffers were discussing their sponsorship of Advertising Week Europe due to take place a few days later. Number one on their to-do list was to review their contract to see if they could cancel.

Even then, London’s travails still seemed a long way from life in Australia. My note back to Oz was heavily qualified with words like “contingency plan” and “unlikely”.

As you’d know now, I was under-reacting.

Even in the run-up to our Travel Marketing Summit at the Four Seasons in Sydney last Thursday, the issue felt like a major business challenge for the travel sector, but even then not necessarily one that would change everyone’s way of life.

Even a week ago the travel industry’s biggest fear was the bushfires aftermath

On the day, there was a lot of ostentatious use of hand sanitiser, but also a sense of the travel sector soldiering on through the tourist drought triggered by the bushfires. That was reflected even more so during the evening’s Mumbrella Travel Marketing Awards as handshakes were awkwardly offered or declined as everybody got used to the new etiquette.

Unusually for the Mumbrella team, when formalities ended, nobody was in the mood to duck into the Four Seasons bar for our traditional post-event espresso martini.

Business as usual was over.

Once I got home, I carried on swapping emails with our curator Damian Francis until nearly midnight. We were due to run another event on Tuesday of this week – the Mumbrella Automotive Marketing Summit in Melbourne, to coincide with the F1 Australian Grand Prix.

McLaren had pulled out of the Grand Prix, and across the course of the day, four of our speakers had dropped out too.

I messaged Damo: “I’ve a funny feeling that we may have run our last event for a while.”

It wasn’t a bad guess. I reckon that’s it for at least the next six months.

The next day we called off the Summit, the first time we’ve cancelled an event in Mumbrella’s 11-year history. And that includes the excruciating time almost nobody turned up to the first Mumbrella Question Time in Hong Kong. We hate cancelling stuff.

And we began to look at the rest of our calendar.

As announcements of event cancellations big and small came in from all directions, I became increasingly aware that we were behind others in the market in reacting.

There are of course more complexities than meet the eye when it comes to cancelling or postponing events. It takes longer to work through than you might think. Stakeholders, innit?

You need to negotiate with the venue. Can we have another date instead? What are our legal obligations in the contract?

You also need to talk to sponsors. Much better they hear these things from our sales team than read it here. But sod’s law means we miss somebody. I apologise in advance to any sponsor who is, indeed, reading it here first.

And of course preparing messages for those who’ve already bought tickets. What’s the policy? Is it a credit for the event when we do run it, or a refund?

Then come our speakers. We had so many great speakers lined up, from all around the world. Might they be willing to come later in the year instead?

By Monday afternoon our leadership team was digging in. We spent the afternoon going through our events calendar for the rest of the year, accepting the fact that we’d most likely need to postpone or cancel everything until September at least.

And we hit the phones.

The venues were incredibly accommodating at offering dates at the end of the year we might be able to switch our events to.

And sponsors were incredibly supportive. Our sales team reported that they all accepted that there was no option of going ahead, and just about all of them agreed to go on supporting the events they’d committed to later on, rather than asking for a refund.

The sense was that as an industry we’re all in it together.

So here’s what we’ve decided so far:

CommsCon: Our next big event was to be CommsCon, for the PR industry, which would have been in early April.

The CommsCon conference, which was due to run at The Fullerton Hotel in Sydney, is postponed until towards the end of the year. We have a probable date, but it’s not yet locked in.

We’ve already announced the shortlist and judged the CommsCon Awards. It feels wrong to make the winners wait until the end of the year to find out.

So we’re figuring out a plan for a live video-streamed announcement of all the winners. It reminds me of the first year of the Mumbrella Readers Choice Awards back in 2009, although I suspect there’ll be no mariachi band in the studio this time. And we’ll also figure out a plan for a proper celebration ceremony for the winners down the track.

Digital Essentials: Our Digital Essentials training workshops, which were due to run in Sydney and Melbourne later this month, are also postponed. Although they were for smaller groups, the social obligation of making our contribution to flattening the curve felt like it would have been the wrong thing to even try to run them.

And while we’ll run more physical training while we can, we are of course figuring out what we can do to offer online training in the coming months too.

Audioland: We were so excited to run Audioland for the second time, on May 5. We had some amazing speakers for the audio world, and we still had a couple of big surprise speakers to unveil. Last year’s event felt like the whole radio and podcast industry had come together as one community, and we were so proud of the program. We will come together later in the year instead.

Mumbrella360: So Prof Ritson was correct. (He usually is.) Although we hadn’t announced it all, the program for what would have been the 10th Mumbrella360 in Australia was pretty much complete. We’ve sold a lot of tickets and been supported by a lot of sponsors.

But with more than 2,000 delegates expected, it was obviously not going to happen. The Hilton in Sydney, like all the venues we’ve been talking to, is supporting us in finding new dates in the final quarter of the year. They’ve helped out magnificently in a couple of small crises since we started running the event there in 2011, but this is the biggest.

And the biggest priority of our events year will be making sure that we still deliver an amazing Mumbrella360 experience when we do get to run it.

Summit series: Our various summits aimed at individual marketing segments are also being postponed. That includes the Mumbrella Sports Marketing Summit on July 2 and the Mumbrella Finance Marketing Summit on July 23. We’ll also be pushing back the dates of the Mumbrella Automotive Marketing Summit in Sydney and the Mumbrella Health Marketing Summit (lots to talk about there!)

And the chances are that we’ll also be postponing the Mumbrella B2B Marketing Summit and the Mumbrella Retail Marketing Summit too.

We’ll be inviting delegates with annual summit passes to extend their tickets into next year, and of course we’ll also be fair where people need refunds.

Mumbrella Awards: We’ve already launched our call for entries. That will stay open, but we’ll be extending the closing date and extending the judging period right through until the end of the financial year on June 30.

I’m sad to say that the face-to-face judging – which I believe is one of the things that makes the Mumbrella Awards so credible – won’t happen this year. But it’s important to give our juries the chance to ask questions, so we’re figuring out how we might be able to do it by video instead.

The awards ceremony, due to take place at The Star Event Centre in Pyrmont in July, will now run much later in the year. We’ve not been able to lock in a date yet though.

Publish: The Publish Awards, recognising the best in Australia’s print and digital publishing industry, will still go ahead, hopefully in September or not long after.

However, we have reluctantly decided not to run the Mumbrella Publish conference this year. If there’s demand for it to return in 2021, it will.

This week has been challenging for everyone.

Yesterday the phone rang several times from friends within the industry, just checking in. Experiential agency owners have seen clients stop spending; solo operators who’ve lost all their work; a tailor friend who’s no longer got weddings to make suits for.

And of course, it goes way beyond business.

As I walked home through North Sydney Oval last night listening to a BBC podcast discussing the possibility of 260,000 deaths in the UK, I found myself having to sit down for a moment to compose myself.

I’m a news junkie. But this morning I walked through the park with the Hamish & Andy podcast because I needed half an hour off from thinking about airlines going broke and people dying.

And we’re lucky.

Financially, Mumbrella’s business model is more than 50% based on our events portfolio.

If this had happened three or four years ago, it might have killed the company.

We’re about to have a very tough year.

But we’re fortunate, because it will still be much better for us than many will experience. Many of those who read Mumbrella are in industries in situations where their employers may well go out of business and many jobs will be lost. For the media and marketing. world, it’s a far more desperate situation the GFC felt a decade ago.

Mumbrella is fortunate to have been acquired by a privately owned family firm, Diversified Communications, back in late 2017.

Diversified takes a long-term view and is in a strong financial position. Indeed, the company even announced an acquisition today, with the purchase of Energy Storage North America.

Not all of our colleagues in the media, conference and expo world are in such a secure situation.

Plus, we’re lucky to have the ability to pivot. Our trade marketer friends will be hearing a lot about our market-leading digital portfolio in the coming weeks. We’re going to make sure we remind the world that Mumbrella’s audited reach into the media and marketing world is greater than any of our competitors.

And you’ll be hearing a lot about Mumbrella Pro subscriptions. If you’re stuck at your desk, there’s a lot of great catch-up content from our events to be found.

Meanwhile, like most in the industry, we’re making our own plans for life working from home for the foreseeable future, as we all try to help flatten the curve.

This week will see our first podcast with all the team in different places. Thank goodness for Zoom.

There’s never been a time like this.

Thanks for standing by us.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.