My secret weapon

Spoiler: It’s email. Email is my secret weapon

Welcome to the first instalment of Unmade, my next project after Mumbrella. I’m writing this at Sisters Beach in Tasmania where for the first time in what seems like weeks, the sun is shining.

To the 627 people who’ve come on board already, thanks for signing up, even though you didn’t really know what you were about to receive. I can say that with some certainty, given that I’ve only got half an idea myself.

Just over 120 had previously signed up for Unmade’s first incarnation, Fifth Day, which was the Substack newsletter I briefly created last year, when we were stood down to four days per week.

The rest have come on board since I wrote my final Best of the Week email for Mumbrella and announced this Unmade newsletter.

In keeping with my BOTW tradition, let’s start with the important stuff. Today’s writing soundtrack is Pressure Machine from The Killers. Having heard it twice now, it’s among their best, although I suspect the spoken word interludes are going to become tiresome in future listens.

A fair bit has occurred for me personally in the short time since I said goodbye to my Mumbrella colleagues.

I had hoped that the 2021 Mumbrella Awards would be my final hurrah, but the Sydney lockdown meant we had to do that as a livestream. So, via home quarantine, I headed back for Tasmania earlier than planned.

And the day after the Mumbrella Awards, I had a virtual leaving do from my home office in Sisters Beach with the rest of the Mumbrella team spread across their homes in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to it. We’d been through a couple of awkward online leaving bashes during Covid’s first wave and I feared this might be the same. But I need not have worried. It was lovely. My colleagues said some wonderful things and when I opened the box that had arrived the morning before, it contained the perfect (for me) leaving gift - a Mumbrella trophy of my own. Indeed, it was a unique one in Mumbrella’s colours.

As anyone who has won one will know, these things have heft. It would make a good weapon to fight a burglar with. The team had even engraved the trophy with the words “Entrepreneur of the decade”. It actually felt a bit like winning an award.

Which brings me to what comes next, which is this email. To be clear, Unmade is not just a hobby. Since selling Mumbrella at the end of 2017, I’ve missed being in the room when the media business decisions were being made.

First, I decided to take a break until my Australian citizenship ceremony. (Being temporarily unemployed had the bonus of saving me a lot of time on my census form.)

My ceremony was last Wednesday. Like my leaving do, it was also lovely, and low key. I was one of seven new citizens in a ceremony at Waratah-Wynyard Town Hall here in Tasmania. There was a lump in my throat as I repeated the pledge of loyalty.

Then at 9am on Thursday, I was back at my desk, starting work on Unmade.

There’s a fair bit to starting a new media business. There are logos to create and URLs to buy and trademarks to apply for.

One of my challenges as I figure out what Unmade is about, is to remember some of the lessons of the early days of Mumbrella. A key one was that every hour spent writing was a good investment. The business side of things was necessary, but a distraction.

So time spent writing will be the name of the game, particularly once the business building blocks are in place.

Which is a major part of why I am so attracted to the Substack newsletter publishing model. Like Wordpress when Mumbrella was starting, it’s designed to remove as many of the technical distractions as possible, to let the journos get on with it.

So while in the back of my mind I’m planning on building a publishing brand, not just an email newsletter, that’s the starting point. I suspect that frequency will gradually increase. But I don’t yet know what the publishing pattern will be. I intend to experiment. For Australia’s east coast, I’m sending this first one at lunchtime on Monday.

When we started Mumbrella, like many in the industry I doubted consumers would pay for digital news content. Rupert Murdoch proved many of us wrong. I’d like to know whether there’s room for a trade press player to do the same.

My plan is to discover whether there is a business to be built on thoughtful, well informed analysis on our industry.

Having lived through it in Australia for the last 15 years, and then honed my thinking by writing Media Unmade, I’m as well placed as anybody to give it a go. With the experience of growing Mumbrella and then building a relationship with the audience of our Best of the Week email, I’ve got a good shot at discovering whether people will be willing in time to pay to subscribe to a specialist communications industry newsletter.

It might be a failure. I’ve had a few. I’ve hated the occasions at Mumbrella where we’ve had what seemed like a good idea but failed without knowing whether it was because of bad execution or bad strategy. I’m planning to make sure I go hard enough that if I fail, I can be certain that it was the strategy. And half the fun is sharing the story as I go.

I’m just beginning to figure out what Unmade will be. To begin with, it will take up where my book Media Unmade left off. There are some themes in the book that I’d like to return to. There’s a lot of unfinished media business from the last decade.

The book still deserves to breathe a bit now that it’s actually in the bookshops. It moved back up the best seller list over the weekend, by the way, on the back of a good review in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. (“Slightly dishevelled”... me?) It would seem that book lovers do still read newspapers.

In the coming days, I also intend to figure out the book’s audio edition, and perhaps a companion podcast too.

Plus, the media world keeps turning. Even though I was supposedly on a break, I couldn’t resist devouring the media companies’ financial market updates over the last couple of weeks. There’s room for more of that sort of analysis in the coming weeks. Nine’s financial year results announcement on Wednesday will likely be my next opportunity.

And in the agency world, there’ve already been massive stories while I’ve been away. The Howatson + White disaster comes to mind. 

Meanwhile, marketing to post-pandemic consumers is going to represent a whole new landscape to understand and talk to CMOs about.

Email will be the primary medium for Unmade, and not just because of the emergence of Substack as a platform.

Email was always Mumbrella’s secret weapon. Constantly updating on the web was important, but email was the way you reminded your most valuable readers that you were out there. It helped form habits and build traffic. 

Email deserves to be a journalistic medium in its own right. When I started writing Mumbrella’s Best of the Week email about four years ago, I was influenced by a long running music industry offering called The Lefsetz Letter, which offered Bob Lefsetz’ analysis on  the business of music.

One I hit my stride with BOTW, I noticed I was writing it differently to the way I’d craft an opinion piece for Mumbrella. I was writing a letter to my audience, not steeling myself for an argument with the comment thread.

I’d also delight in receiving responses from readers. I’d read them all carefully, even if I wasn’t always very good at replying.

Lefsetz publishes some of the more intelligent responses he gets. I intend, with the writer’s permission, to do the same. It’s a more curated approach than comment threads. I hope to recapture some of the early days of Mumbrella’s comment thread when it was a more thoughtful place.

So please do drop me a line.

The other part of the experiment will be - in time - to attempt to monetise Unmade through a paid subscription tier.

I don’t expect everybody will choose to pay for that. Part of building a brand is about giving away some of your best content so people can see what you’re capable of.

A few weeks back, I interviewed Hamish McKenzie, the affable Kiwi cofounder of Substack, for the Mumbrellacast. Lucky timing, huh? His rule of thumb was that you should be able to turn ten per cent of your general subscribers into paying subscribers.

My suspicion is that this will turn out to be a tad optimistic, but we’ll see.

My inclination is to wait until Unmade hits 1,000 general subscribers and then to turn on a paid tier. I’ve already got an idea for what that might include. If it results in around 100 paying subscribers at $10 a month each, that means (after Substack and the payment platform have taken their cuts) annual revenue of around $10,000.

Clearly that’s not a living in itself. But if momentum takes the list to 20 times that size - and Mumbrella’s Best of the Week list was well above that - then it becomes quite interesting.

Where my views differ from those of McKenzie is in his aim to create a media business model independent of advertising. In my view, the debate of subscriptions versus advertising is not one of either-or, although the balance between the two has shifted over the last decade.

In my choice of subject matter, I’m fortunate that marketers and media agency executives hold budgets, and as a result there are plenty of organisations that want to speak to them, and are willing to pay for the privilege. That only comes once there’s a loyal scaled audience, of course. So it will be a while before we get to that.

I feel reasonably optimistic that there’s something in this though - enough to invest the next year of my professional life finding out.

One of the pleasures of running my own race with Unmade is that, just like the days when I was still an owner of Mumbrella, the business story of Unmade is once again mine to tell. I enjoyed being able to be transparent about our successes and failures. That will be the case here. I’ll offer regular updates on subscriber numbers.

Another attraction of this is that, borders permitting, I will have family reasons for spending more time in the UK over the next four or five years. When I’m over there, I hope the time difference might even work to my advantage for overnight analysis. And I suspect the growing influence of the digital behemoths will make northern hemisphere reporting every more important to marketers in Australia.

But the relationship with Mumbrella and its owner Diversified Communications continues. We’ve agreed to spend six months working together on building Unmade. If we both feel at the end of that period that it’s working for us, then we’ll formalise the arrangement, otherwise we’ll part ways with no hard feelings. That incentivises both sides to do everything we can to make it succeed.

That also means that I can go on contributing to Mumbrella as editor-at-large in the meantime.

You can help too. You’ve shown a lot of faith by signing up already. You can help even more by encouraging a friend or colleague to do the same. Please feel free to forward this to them. They can click here or below to sign up for themselves.

I note though that this first edition of Unmade is long on promises and short on analysis. In future editions, I’ll talk much more about the industry and much less about myself.

As I say, I’d love to hear what you think - and to include your thoughts in future editions. Correspondence deserves a second coming. If you’re reading this via email you can do so by hitting reply. If you’re reading it online you’ll be able to comment below.

The experiment begins…

Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade