Talking Digital Q&A #5: Tim Burrowes, Editor-In-Chief, Mumbrella. “I think we work harder – and care more – than many of our competitors”

It’d be hard to find anyone working within the media or advertising industry in Australia who isn’t familiar with Mumbrella. Conceived in late 2008, it has become the daily go-to for news, views and opinions around the industry movements within advertising and media. Mumbrella added some much needed elements to a relatively tired trade press – topicality, recency and no shortage of opinion – and it signalled a move from weekly and fortnightly print magazines breaking the big news, to movements being reported and commented on in real time. In the past 3 years the group has revived a magazine brand (Encore – which I contribute to each month) and moved into the conference game (with Mumbrella 360, which began in 2011 and is back for 2012). To find out the story behind Mumbrella and get an idea of what might be next, Talking Digita spoke to Tim Burrowes.  

Talking Digital: What is about the media and advertising world that keeps you interested?

Tim Burrowes: In part it’s because it’s my own world. I spent nearly seven years writing about medical politics, and although doctors are fascinating, intelligent, inspiring people, in the end, I was never going to be completely in their world. The fact that the media and advertising world changes fast, is full of opinionated people who are willing to share those views, and is at one of the most interesting points in its history all helps too.

TD: When was the ‘a-ha’ moment when Mumbrella turned from an idea into something you had the confidence to pursue?

TB: In truth it was the relentless nagging of my now business partner Martin Lane (four of us own the company jointly). Martin lured me to Australia in 2006 to edit B&T which at the time he was publisher of, then rang a few days before I arrived to say he was going off to do his own thing. He then spent the next two years nagging me to join him. In all honesty the risk for me was mitigated by the fact I was joining a going concern (Martin and Ian Wakeling (one of the other partners) had built up a B2B travel publishing and conference business and I took a stake in that too. We’ve since sold our travel interests) The a-ha moment came some months later. The business model that Mumbrella evolved into was not the original plan. That consisted of a series of super-niche specialist weekly PDFs. Thankfully we didn’t pursue it.

TD: In addition to your public role as Editor-In-Chief, you’re also a key player in running Focal Attractions. Could anything prepare you for the logistics and challenges running a media/publishing business entails, and what have been some of your toughest obstacles?

TB: Most commercially aware editors have done a lot of these things for another boss before they do it for themselves. Prior to arriving in Australia, I was launch editor of the Middle East edition of Campaign magazine in Dubai. Along with that we launched a commercially successful awards from scratch. That gave me the confidence that there was a business model to launch a big awards event for B&T. In turn that gave me the confidence that I could help build something else for myself. But actually the structure that Martin and Ian put around me in which they effectively handled most of the logistics off the side of their desks while also doing a day job, left me free mainly to focus on creating content. I guess the toughest thing was simply the challenge of feeding a daily machine while also trying to do new things to keep it growing. The first couple of years were pretty much 60+ hour weeks, and I don’t think I really took a holiday in that time.

One of the hardest things for us has actually been getting to grips with being a print publisher too – we bought Encore magazine from Reed a couple of years back. Managing distribution and marketing of a magazine is tougher than you might think and it took us a long time to get to the point where we were happy that we were on top of things. Along the way, our experiences with other elements of the publishing chain really opened my eyes to why the print industry is in trouble. Believe me, it’s not simply because of changing consumers’ habits…

TD: What do you believe makes Focal unique? What distinguishes it from competitors and what are the key contributors to its success?

TB: I disagree with the word unique. We’re not doing anything particularly clever. Just like anybody else in this space, we’re a B2B company. That means our job is to try to do two things well: help our readers in their daily jobs, or help them in their careers. Everything we do, whether in text, video, events, training or whatever else should deliver one of those two things.

Key contributors to success? We (by pure luck) picked the right moment to start with a new model. We’re still underpinned by WordPress. It meant we could launch with very low costs. We’ve got clever, committed people who work very hard. I think we work harder – and care more – than many of our competitors.

TD: As an astute observer of the agency and publisher world, who do you believe are the companies doing extraordinary work, and why?

TB: I struggle to answer this one without sounding like a suck up, so I’m not going to mention anyone in Australia. In publishing, The Guardian sets a global standard for trying new things, and setting a brave course hopefully giving them a future beyond print.  The Economist is a wonderful model – an example that high quality content works on any platform. it’s the only publication I buy every single week on the iPad. As far as agencies go, I don’t think any of them fully live up to their reputation or their potential. But there are a few who have the ambition, and capability of doing so. I’m optimistic that we’ll see quite big  improvements off a pretty average base over the next couple of years.


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