After a year of discovering who really runs Australia, The Power Index is finally set to reveal the country's fifty most powerful people.
Throughout July, Paul Barry and The Power Index team will be counting down the most influential people in the nation from business, media, politics, sport and culture.
The Power 50 / 2012
Media buyer and owner of the Melbourne Rebels rugby union team
Born in: Trafalgar, 125 kilometres east of Melbourne.
Home Town: Melbourne
Harold Mitchell’s the nation's biggest ad buyer. And having just turned 70 and hived off 70 kilograms thanks to his 2009 lap band surgery, he’s showing little sign of slowing down.
"I'm probably the most powerful man in the media, I guess," the charmingly skittish Mitchell admits, pointing out that The Power Index is sitting in the exact same foyer seat that James Packer had occupied just days before (Lachlan Murdoch usually sits opposite).
The down-to-earth Mitchell, who didn't finish high school and never went to uni, doesn't write, or type, preferring to dictate direct to his office manager. But his sizable footprint is everywhere, and not just because he controls the fate of $1 billion in ads through the local arm of Aegis, the global media buying agency that bought his Mitchell Communication Group in 2010 for $363 million.
Aegis was recently offered $4.8 billion takeover bid by Japanese ad company Dentsu, reaping Mitchell a $200 million payday. Mitchell will retain his role as head of Australian operations should the deal go through.
Young & Rubicam Brands chief and Gruen Transfer star Russel Howcroft says Mitchell has a "genuine benevolence" about what he does and utilises a "combination of hard and soft power ... he's soft but hard when he needs to be."
"When he decides that something needs to happen, he makes sure it happens."
Melbourne Major Events chief Sir Rod Eddington nominates the setting up of the Melbourne Rebels rugby union franchise, majority owned and chaired by Mitchell (he's stepping down later this year), as a classic case study on how Harold gets things done.
"There was bunch of people led by Harold and John Wylie, and they got the idea out there ... then everyone just fell in behind it, the government, business, the transport folks."
It's a scenario that plays out several times a day. Indeed, Mitchell sits on so many media, culture and creative boards that he actually struggles to recall the full list, saying, simply, "that makes the point, doesn't it?" after naming the first few.
In addition to Aegis, he's a director at Crown Casino, the chairman of ThoroughVision, CARE Australia, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Rebels, broadcaster TVS and Art Exhibitions Australia, the vice president of Tennis Australia and a director of the Deakin Foundation and the Melbourne Recital Centre. He's former chairman of the National Gallery Australia and the former president of the Melbourne Arts Festival, the Museums Board of Victoria, the Asthma Foundation and Opera Australia.
That's 12 current gigs, eight of which are cultural or arts-related. His philanthropic arm the Harold Mitchell Foundation has tipped $5.1 million into the arts and health in a country where the rich are enormously reluctant to splash their cash.
As Mitchell himself admits, ad money is common currency binding all these gigs together. Australia, with only 0.3% of the world's population, attracts over 5% of its advertising. And Mitchell's is by far the biggest ad buying company, with 4,000 clients eager for a better deal.
After skirting close to bankruptcy in the early 1990s, the Aegis sale meant Mitchell arguably increased his sway as executive chairman of its local arm as well as its second-biggest global shareholder and board member.
"He might have lost the kilos, but he's still the industry's 800 pound gorilla," says one ad land observer. "You'd think hard before taking him on."
Paul Leeds -- the Collingwood Football Club board member and Starcom CEO who had an infamous spat with Mitchell in 2005 over who controlled the most dough -- admitted defeat long ago. Mitchell is "the most powerful individual in the business," he says.
"Harold's used his strengths to get the best deals and no-one has ever really challenged him ... he builds strong relationship with the [Kerry] Stokes' of the world. The relationship stuff is very crucial to getting what you want."
Indeed, the all-powerful Stokes and Packer regularly defer to him, based on a concept he invented. Instead of ad agencies negotiating deals directly with the networks and the newspapers, in 1976 the sawmiller's son from Stawell decided to turn middle man, hammering the networks and extracting a healthy fee for his growing band of relieved clients.
Mitchell's been a Melbourne boy ever since moving to the big smoke from Stawell at the age of 18. Mitchell fell into circles that would put most inner-north aestheticists to shame, working with Phillip Adams by day and embarking on Sydney Road pub crawls by night. He owes his success to a common sense approach to a sometimes neurotic media world dominated by fakes and spivs.
But these days his trips to Europe are becoming a little more auspicious. He doesn't pack and keeps a permanent set of clothes in the wardrobe of a London hotel. ("I feel like Humphrey Bogart!," he says).
He's been gifted a regular column in the business section in The Age (that he says "no one reads"), but denies hacks go easy on him given his implicit power to send their businesses to the wall.
And even ten-thousand kilometres from Melbourne's streets, Mitchell demands a courtly respect.
Howcroft recalls introducing him to the regal chairman of French media giant Havas, Baron Alain du Plessis de Pouzilhac, during negotiations on the Aegis deal a few years back. "The royalty, Alain and Harold, were at the pointy end of the table and everyone else was down the side," says Howcroft.
"There was a very clear delineation of power."
And it's that gap that makes Harold Mitchell the consummate dealmaker and one of the country’s most powerful men.