The Australian advertising industry will be saddened to hear of the passing of Harold Mitchell AO, one of the true giants of the business, who died on Saturday, at the age of 81.
Mitchell was one of Australia’s most successful and well-regarded media executives. In 1976, Mitchell formed his own independent media agency Melbourne-based business, Mitchell & Partners.
He was a dedicated philanthropist, channeling his resources and influence to support various charitable causes. His contributions to education, healthcare, and the arts have left an enduring impact on communities across Australia, underscoring his unwavering commitment to social responsibility.
Mitchell was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to the community through leadership and philanthropic endeavours in the fields of art, health and education, and as a supporter of humanitarian aid in Timor-Leste and the indigenous community.
Some of the key issues in which Mitchell has played a key role during his tenure as Free TV Chairman include the historic repeal of the media ownership laws, the removal of commercial television licence fees, the transition to digital only television, defeating the proposal to increase SBS advertising time limits and maintaining the anti-siphoning list.
He was the chairman or board member of various organisations including the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, the New York Philharmonic, the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum Board of Victoria, Opera Australia, CARE Australia, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Tennis Australia, the Deakin Foundation, the Melbourne International Festival of Arts, and the Australia-Indonesia Centre.
He was a major champion of sport, helping to ensure the long term viability of soccer in Australia. In 2010 he became co-owner of the Melbourne Rebels rugby union team.
He was a major promoter of Australia overseas, such as in bringing Australian Indigenous art to millions worldwide.
Mitchell was born in Trafalgar, Victoria, one of four children. His father was a sawmiller who had to go wherever the work was. His mother left the marriage when he was 15. By the time Harold was 16, the single-parent family was living in Stawell, Victoria. He left school early and worked in the local sawmill for some months and then went to work for an advertising agency in Melbourne, a city he had only ever visited once. He studied part-time at RMIT.
His autobiography Living Large appeared in 2009.
Says Danny Bass, CEO, media, dentsu: “Arriving in Australia in the late ‘90s, it was clear the industry was defined by three: Murdoch, Packer and Mitchell. Harold Mitchell was a titan that defined Australia’s media landscape for many decades and must be remembered in the pantheon of Australian media legends. He was a powerhouse of our industry and passionately believed in the power of advertising. Harold was a fierce competitor, a passionate Australian and a passionate Victorian. I worked with him both on media side and as a competitor and once he retired, he was very generous with his time with on me a number of occasions. Harold Mitchell’s legacy is one that is hard to capture in a few short sentences, but it is one that lives on in those who knew him and the industry he helped shape into a competitive force on the global stage. His passion for the arts and sports and efforts in philanthropy will also be remembered.”
Harold Mitchel back in 1983
Says Free TV CEO, Bridget Fair: “Harold’s contributions to the industry cannot be overstated. During his time as Chairman of Free TV he was pivotal in some of the most significant developments in the commercial television sector and delivered superb leadership and advice. He left a lasting and important legacy at Free TV, having significantly changed the industry for the better and contributing to the sustainability and growth of free-to-air television in his time as Chairman. Harold’s strategic insights and steadfast commitment to the industry’s best interests contributed significantly to its resilience and relevance in an evolving digital era.
“Speaking personally, I am devastated at Harold’s loss. He was an outstanding Chairman for Free TV as well as being a personal friend and mentor. It was a great privilege to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from a respected business leader of his calibre with such a deep understanding of commercial television and the wider industry landscape. He was generous with his knowledge, his energy and his time in furthering the interests of Free TV broadcasters.
“He never lost his passion for the industry and remained in touch on every key issue even after stepping down as Chairman right up until recent weeks.” added Ms Fair.
“Harold was one of a kind, this is truly the end of an era. He will be sorely missed by Free TV and the commercial television industry. We thank him for his outstanding service and friendship. Our thoughts and sincere condolences are with his family and friends.”
Says Thinkerbell founder Adam Ferrier:
“Harold was a media boss, and one of the few to understand Naked and their value.
“He bought us in to jointly pitch for I think Nissan in 2006. It was a joint pitch and on the morning of the pitch Harold had got word that I intended to wear a tshirt and jeans.
“To rectify the situation he had someone in his team get / buy / commandeer a suit for me to wear….. which obviously I wasn’t going to do.
“It all came to a head and he called me into his office and had me sit down opposite to him, his legs spread as we sat very close to each other.
“Harold then said to me ‘what’s this I hear about you refusing to wear a suit?’ To which I replied jokingly ‘I’ll wear the suit, if you wear a t-shirt.’ As quick as a flash he lent forwards and put his finger in my face and said ‘Don’t fuck with me Ferrier.’
“The Michell’s team wore suits, the Naked team didn’t, and we lost the pitch.
“He was a super smart guy, ruthless as hell, and those who work with him describe him as loyal and generous. To me he was a larger than life character who made our industry colourful. We had great fun working with Harold and his team at Mitchell’s for a few years. RIP Harold.”
Neve Media Perth’s managing director, Debra Neve, has had many dealings with Mitchell over many years and she told Campaign Brief she was saddened to hear of Harold’s passing.
“I first met Harold in 1992/93 – I know most of your readers weren’t even born then,” said Neve.
“It coincided with when JMA O&M merged with FCB Shorter. Mitchell & Partners were the media buying group that Shorter’s used. He was a force to be reckoned with as many have said. He was passionate about media, his company and had an incredible network of contacts across government and a range of businesses. He was looking for growth and saw an opportunity to get into the Perth market. He helped to make media recognized as an integral part of the advertising equation at a time when creative was king. He could be very intimidating as his style was to sort of bark orders at people. I remember going to Melbourne for some training and being terribly impressed with the office and the systems. He took me to a Melbourne function with his staff which was a whirlwind of introductions to people “in high places” in adverting. I was in awe.”
“I left the Shorter agency, however, in much later in 2011 found myself rejoining the Mitchell group as by then Harold had well and truly established Mitchell & Partners, with Alan Matthews as MD, as a force in Perth.
“One of my funniest recollections was on his first visit to our market at the time of the aforementioned merger. We had a function to introduce Harold to the staff and clients. As he wasn’t due to fly in until a couple of hours prior to the get together, I decided to do the right thing and pick him up from the airport. I spoke to his personal assistant and told her I would pick him up. I obviously didn’t think this through as Harold was expecting her to have organized a limo for him. Instead there I was ushering him into my 15 year old Ford Escort – accessorized with a rusty roof rack. Although he didn’t say anything – he did sort of grimace as he squeezed himself into the front seat. RIP Harold.”