Painful exits after Mumbrella’s illicit afterparty
Embarrassing as it is, Mumbrella’s owners have done the right thing in parting ways with staff, and (eventually) disclosing (most of) what happened
Welcome to Unmade, coming out later than usual on Wednesday.
Happy National Popcorn Day.
Don’t forget - if you haven’t signed up to the Unmade email, most posts are free. You can do so via this button.
There’s a reason for today’s lateness. I had an inkling of what was about to break this afternoon, and it was close to home.
A Christmas debacle for Mumbrella
This afternoon the owners of Mumbrella dropped a bombshell. Two employees have left the company and other staff have been given official warnings after “illicit drugs” were taken in the office. The drug in question was cocaine, on the day of the Christmas party. Yes, it was that much of a cliche.
I say bombshell. This all happened more than a month ago, and rumours have been circulating within the industry for a while now. I’m surprised it hadn’t come out already.
However, what was not entirely clear in this afternoon’s article is that one of the people who did not get to return from the Christmas holiday was Mumbrella’s most senior member of staff.
I’ll come to what happened shortly. But first, the back story.
In the early years of Mumbrella, we had two running jokes about our annual office party.
The first joke was that it always went wrong.
Our inaugural Christmas party, not long after we started Mumbrella in 2008, was a flamenco-themed Sydney Harbour dinner cruise. The big glass boat was otherwise completely devoid of both passengers and atmosphere. There was one other work group, and a couple attempting to have a romantic dinner. At one point a water taxi dropped off a couple of flamenco dancers, who twirled listlessly around the empty dance floor for a while before exiting the same way they had arrived.
A year or two later, a Darling Harbour restaurant took our money in advance, but when we arrived they had lost our booking and had no table available. They were remarkably unapologetic about this turn of events. If I recall correctly the restaurant went into administration a few weeks later.
Then there was the year we planned a hike in the Blue Mountains followed by an overnight stay. We were hit (as was reasonably predictable) by heavy rain. There was no Plan B.
Or there was the first time we hired our own boat. It turned out to be more of a fishing vessel than pleasure cruiser. This became relevant when it started to drizzle, and there was no cover. As the boat bobbed around in choppy waters, our CEO Martin Lane’s end-of-year speech was interrupted by the sound of our seasick head of finance vomiting over the side.
It was only once we asked our events team to organise the office parties (which was the obvious thing to do, in retrospect) that they drastically improved.
And the second running joke, which has aged badly, was a line I’d use when people asked me about my ambitions for Mumbrella. “I’d like us to get big enough to have an HR incident at the Christmas party one day,” I used to quip.
As we grew, I began to hope that I had not angered the party gods with my flippant remark.
Towards the end of my time with Mumbrella, I was the one arguing for an earlier cutoff time for drinks, not only for our internal events, but at the various awards we organised for the industry. Considering so much alcohol was served at our awards and post-conference receptions, I was starting to feel that we’d dodged a bullet by not having had a major problem.
We sold Mumbrella to Diversified Communications in late 2017 and after an earnout period we formally handed over management control two years later. I stuck around for a while after that, and eventually left the staff last July.
I retained the honorary editor-at-large title until the end of 2021 when my non-compete period also expired. I stepped back from that mainly because it was time to be clear that Unmade is now my day job.
It turns out that Mumbrella finally had its HR incident at the first Mumbrella party that I missed.
The 14th Mumbrella Christmas party took place on Thursday December 9, at the Green Moustache restaurant in North Sydney. Technically, it was actually the Diversified Communications’ Christmas party, held for all the company’s Sydney staff. In practice, most of those present were from Mumbrella, as the majority of Diversified’s expo staff are based in Melbourne, where I’m sure there was a separate, and less eventful, party.
After drinking for several hours, some of the Mumbrella team went back to the office, which was close by on Walker Street, in the office block above Coles. The large office - which is far swankier, and more corporate, than our poky old previous home in Chippendale - opened just a few weeks before Covid hit. It’s got a terrific deck, although Covid meant that we never got to use it when we first moved in.
It wasn’t part of the day’s official schedule. But for those who went back to the office, it became an afterparty.
And then they got into the bags. As Diversified’s managing director David Longman put it in his disclosure on Mumbrella today: “Illicit drugs were purchased, distributed and consumed by many (but not all) of the staff there. The staff ranged from junior to more senior staff.”
So far, so adland. Back when I relaunched B&T in 2008, our first new look cover was dedicated to the same topic.
I’m sure that Mumbrella’s party was not the only one in the industry that had a white Christmas.
But working at Mumbrella puts people in a different position to working in other parts of adland. Like B&T, Mumbrella has regularly written about the problems which some of the industry has with abuse of substances, both legal and illegal. If Mumbrella’s own staff join in or countenance such behaviour without consequence, then they lose the moral authority to write credibly about the issue.
In my time at Mumbrella, I was able to live with the accusation that we were overly preachy, but tried hard to avoid us behaving with hypocrisy.
I’m so square that in my 13 years with Mumbrella I was never offered coke at an industry event. Particularly after we called out M&C Saatchi for their woman-jumping-out-of-a-birthday cake stunt at their birthday party, we became seen in some quarters as the industry party poopers.
For most of its history, Mumbrella’s culture was also more akin to an old school newspaper newsroom, where if a drug was used to excess it was alcohol.
However, halfway through last year, Diversified hired somebody who had come up through the programmatic digital advertising world, to run Mumbrella. I suspect that the digital sales segment of adland runs at a different pace, where other behaviours are more normalised.
This person had the double title Publisher and Commercial Director, with the editorial, sales, events and marketing functions all reporting in to him. He was Mumbrella’s boss, reporting in to Diversified’s management in Melbourne.
While I’d been surprised that Diversified had not opted for somebody in that senior role with B2B publishing experience, my impressions of this person were positive.
Although he was new to B2B publishing, he was smart, personable and hard working, and seemed to be doing a good job at bringing focus to a team which had been contending with something of a management void. I was sure he was going to pass his probationary period.
When the Melbourne-based management of Diversified heard the following week about what had happened in the office and the part he had played in it, they had to act.
This incident had taken place in the workplace, so there was no arguing it was off the clock just because it was after hours. They investigated immediately and I gather they talked to everybody who was present, and most (or possibly all) of them were frank about what happened.
Two people were most prominent in the incident, including the person I’ve been talking about. Neither of them were on the editorial team, and both were relatively recent hires.
These are the two people who’ve since left the business. I don’t know what the legal mechanism of their exit was. According to David Longman’s piece they were allowed to resign, but it would have been untenable for them to stay with Mumbrella either way.
By the way, in reporting their exit today, Mumbrella has chosen not to name the two individuals.
For anyone who knows the trade press and does some basic detective work, it’s easy to work out who that senior individual is - until a few minutes ago, this person’s name was on top of the About Mumbrella page. And of course Mumbrella is going to need to advertise for a new publisher soon enough.
Although I feel badly for this individual, my first instinct is that Mumbrella should have named him in the article, or at the very least specified the role. The departure of the boss compared to a junior employee is relevant information.
Yes, omitting his name was an act of kindness to someone who has lost a good job through a single stupid misjudgement. But I’ve always believed that the trade press should owe its first allegiance to readers, rather than doing favours for anybody, including friends. Mumbrella has named plenty of other people over the years who’ve left jobs in acrimonious circumstances in other parts of the industry.
My halfway house in writing this piece - is to disclose the seniority of the role because that’s the important and relevant fact to the industry.
Nonetheless, I do believe that overall, Mumbrella and the management at Diversified have behaved with integrity. I’m not obliged to say that, by the way. Unmade started last year as a partnership with Mumbrella, but my non-compete from the sale of Mumbrella is now over. I don’t work for them and am not obliged to say positive things about them.
It was a shitty situation for them. Given that the people involved were good at their jobs - and in the publisher’s case in particular, will be very hard to replace - it would have been tempting to try to sweep it under the carpet.
Imagine having this one drop into your lap as a manager just a couple of days before Christmas. In many workplaces in the industry, I suspect it would have been hushed up.
And I’m sure this person remains highly employable at other places once this blows over, by the way. Somebody willing to take a risk on a good sales person in need of a second chance might do themselves a favour.
It’s a lot harder to allow somebody to leave when you would rather keep them. But if they had done that, Mumbrella would have lost its moral right to have difficult conversations about the negative sides of the industry.
As David Longman suggests in his article, the reason this came to light was because there was a whistleblower from within the Mumbrella team.
This wasn’t somebody motivated by internal politics, but because they wanted to do the right thing by Mumbrella, which would otherwise have been impossibly compromised.
I’m also impressed that those who had been present at the afterparty were frank during the investigation, even though some of them must have been worried for their own situations. It would have been easier for them to refuse to help the investigation.
And although (in part thanks to the Christmas break) it took a month, at least readers go to hear it first on Mumbrella.
During my time since Diversified bought Mumbrella four years ago, they never attempted to interfere with editorial. How many other trade press titles would be similarly frank about their own misdemeanours in a situation like this, I wonder?
Even though I’m no longer on Mumbrella’s staff, I’ll always be the founder, so I still care for its reputation.
It’s a relief for me that although this is an utter debacle and setback for Mumbrella, at least the brand has come through with integrity intact.
BBC next, then the ABC?
The UK’s governing Conservative party, mired in a scandal around lockdown parties, has announced that it intends to end the licence fee as the method of funding the British Broadcasting Corporation after a two-year funding freeze. The announcement came in a tweet from the country’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries.
The move has striking parallels with Australia where the publicly funded ABC is in a similar difficult relationship with the Coalition government, and has also been going through a funding freeze.
Change of plan at Kiis in Melbourne
ARN’s Kiis 101.1 Melbourne says it is delaying the return of its fledgling Jase & Lauren in the Morning Show, and that presenters Jase Hawkins and Lauren Phillips will now be back on air in February. Former Fox FM presenter Byron Cooke will temporarily take the slot, which ARN says is because Hawkins is about to become a father for a third time. It did not explain why this plan was not announced sooner.
Hawkins and Phillips came together in August after the departure of Polly ‘PJ’ Harding back to New Zealand. In the last set of ratings, the show was fifth in the FM breakfast timeslot with a 5% audience share.
Google and Facebook bosses ‘knew about collusion’
The temperature has risen in the US court case against Google being led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. According to newly released documents in the case, both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google boss Sundar Pichai knew about a deal between the two organisations which disadvantaged publishers in the programatic advertising chain.
Publishers prioritise subs over advertising
A survey of publishing executives across the world, including Australia, reveals that subscription strategies are their biggest priority for 2022. In the survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 79% of executives said subscription was now their main revenue focus. This was up from 74% last year.
Display advertising was next on 73%, down from 81%. Only 59% said native advertising was a main focus, a big drop on last year’s 75%.
Unmade Index back in green
After a bumpy few days, The Unmade Index recovered slightly yesterday, with the ASX’s listed media and marketing stocks up by 0.46. This was better than the wider All Ordinaries which was flat yesterday.
Yesterday, research company Pureprofile saw the biggest percentage gains, up by just over 3%. This morning the company updated the market on its quarterly financial results. It said that revenue was up by 31% for the quarter compared to the same time last year, which flowed to an 82% improvement in profit to $1.4m for the quarter.
Dr Spin: When the AFR killed off home computing
Dr Spin has been enjoying the Australian Financial Review’s ongoing celebration of its 70th birthday.
Today’s contribution from the archives is special. Back in 1985, the paper made a big call on its front page: “The home will never be a viable market for computers”.
Time to let you go on with your day. I’m currently in the wrong timezone to still be out of bed. As ever, I welcome your thoughts to email@example.com or via the comment button.
And if you haven’t yet signed up to receive your own copy of the Unmade email, several times per week, then it takes just a few seconds. You can do so here.
Have a great afternoon.
Proprietor - Unmade