Michael Gill is counsellor with Dragoman, an international advisory firm. He is chairman of Newbe Global, a digital media venture, and of Sustainable Skills Ltd, which advises governments on vocational education systems. From 1998 to 2011 he was CEO and editor in chief of the Financial Review Group and was chairman of AAP Ltd.
I grew up in Newcastle, lucky enough to be granted a scholarship by BHP. To my disappointment it was not a role in which I saw a future for myself. Back then, a fair while ago now, it was a culture that reflected the insular business environment of those times.
I decided that it wasn’t the right fit for me and started looking for the next opportunity. I wound up working at a bank where predominantly through accident I ended up face-to-face with one of the early speculative booms. The second oldest Australian bank at the time whose subsidiary company lending in effect brought down the bank. Having not yet found the job that I was truly engaged with, I went to the editor of The Newcastle Herald. To this day I am still not sure why, I think the most likely reason is that I was quite bored at the time and I was studying history at university through night classes, mainly for my interest in the subject matter. It was a mature age tutorial and one of the other attendees was married to the editor of the Newcastle Herald. We would have these fairly open discussions which really exposed me to and began my interest into what it was that he did. The editor tried his best to convince me that I was making a mistake moving into the world of journalism, that I would be taking on a considerable reduction in salary, at a time where I had a mortgage and bills to pay. He must have decided I was serious, as I got a start.
I had found the type of work which I actually enjoyed doing. I suspect that my enjoyment came from my natural curiosity, it being a job where you can ring up people and pretty much ask them any question that you like. I also enjoy the challenge of writing and the need to be able to express yourself clearly to the audience that you are writing for. Luckily for me, my works came to the attention of what was probably the most dynamic newspaper in the country at the time, The Age. I was headhunted by The Age and moved to Melbourne in order to pursue my career with them, a city I had not visited before. I found moving to Melbourne to be a rich experience, I met a breadth of people, a breadth which I had not experienced before. I think this is something that you can only do as someone who is not originally from Melbourne or another large city, I got to talk to and know all sorts of people.
From there I built a life in journalism, which I would describe as an interesting way to experience life in many ways. For a long time I was a sponge, absorbing as much knowledge and as many experiences both within my personal and my private life. I then decided to expand my experiences beyond Australia, I went to live and work in Europe, America and Japan. Having lived overseas for a number of years I returned to Australia where I worked for a number of different newspapers.
During the mid-1980’s the thought came into my mind that Australia really needed a second business newspaper. I somehow managed to talk the then Chief Executive of the Herald and Weekly Times into allowing us to use their platforms, they had printing presses and distribution channels throughout all of the major cities although they did not have a national product, whereas the Financial Review was only published in Sydney and Melbourne and flown everywhere else. Using the existing platform seemed like a good idea, it was all under way and we had a number of people working on turning the paper into a reality. Unfortunately for myself and a number of other people, as things started to come together the whole group was subject to a takeover by the Rupert Murdoch group who already had a national newspaper at the time. Someone who I knew quite well had been involved in a joint venture with Murdoch a few years earlier on behalf of a European company, said to me ‘Michael you need to be ready as getting into a joint venture with Rupert is like buying a dog with him, only your half of the dog dies’.
I then had to find something to do next, for a period of 3 years I worked on the starting programs for Channel Nine, which was another new experience for me. Some of the work was really interesting, I found there to be quite a big contrast between being a journalist who writes and working as a journalist who creates television. I was then actually recruited by the Australian Financial Review. I worked my way up to become Deputy Editor at a time during the mid-90’s when Fairfax was in the throw of coming to grips with the emerging internet technology, they wanted to develop a small group of people to work on the internet side of things solely, including myself. I had a number of different roles within this space, I developed a website which featured the first live financial share market information on it. I spent a lot of my time talking to publishers in other places, particularly in Europe and the US. In 1998 I then had the opportunity to become the CEO of the Financial Review, rather ironically.
It was something that I went on to do until 2011, the period best described as being a roller coaster. There were of course the usual cycles of the Australian economy which impact newspapers in a very direct way, particularly in terms of management. There was also the constant opportunity and challenge of what it was that the internet was going to do, in 1998 it was very hard to be clear as to what sorts of behaviours the internet would trigger and how it would impact upon consumer behaviour. I was most influenced in thinking about technology in two different ways, firstly in terms of management of a newspaper which in its nature relies very heavily on consumers buying a paper everyday. Secondly, when I had spoken to publishers elsewhere whether it be at the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal, there were clearly divergent thoughts of view as how to address the emergence of the internet. Some took what I would call the fashionable view, that the internet presented an opportunity to expand, offered unlimited distribution and the ability to offer consumers a taste of the content of the printed product for free. The idea behind the availability of content for free being that the availability would attract the investor types to the paper, encourage them to invest or purchase certain financial products which would then result in some form of commission. I remember getting into a debate with the guy who was running FT.com, essentially my point of view being that our audiences come to us to inform themselves about their financial options, that herding them towards a certain product would not be a successful strategy, that our readers could come to resent us for doing so. He then went on to spend a lot of money and effectively blew up The Financial Times in the process. It took the Financial Times a significant period of time to recover from that frame of thinking.
The alternative, less fashionable view, was that content regardless of the platform needs to be paid for. Then there was the third view, the view of The Economist who said why would you even do it at all, that at that point in time there was no way to make money through the internet in the way that we made money from the physical product. I thought it was an interesting view, the stereotypical pointy-head economist view. In line with this view, they treated their website as a second thought for a period of time, waiting to see how it could be used to make money. At the time, they decided to utilise the website, they had a number of separate magazines and other publications running. The end result was that they were able to make themselves quite stable and in turn very profitable which not many others were able to do.
I came back and I guess my general view at the time was if we are going to do something with the Financial Review online, we basically need to charge for it. For a while this was a fairly academic exercise as Fairfax, like a lot of other publishers, had decided that the internet was not something that they wanted their publishers to be concerned with, they wanted this left to dedicated internet focused teams. They wanted those who had come from a consulting background, and in a surprising number of cases people who had come from Mackenzie, to be put in charge of the internet side of things. This resulted in them running, within Fairfax and elsewhere, a relatively parallel and not particularly integrated operation. It is no secret that I had a long history of conflict over this issue, it took until around 2005 or 2006 for the board to agree that The Financial Review would be better run as a single body, with the print and online working together. We did have one false start through a series of bad decisions that I had made around the product design and some of the technology. By 2008 to 2009 we had sorted out a lot of those teething issues, things were going well and the business was quite stable.
I guess that my overall experience of that period was that there was so much uncertainty, so many moving parts and so much difficulty in relation to management that it was hard to constantly stay on top of things. The lesson that I took from this experience is that the best or most productive time I spent was the time spent ensuring that I kept my own management group well informed and engaged with the questions at hand, the uncertainties around those questions and around the execution of strategy. It required us to be as flexible as we could be given the number of things that we did not have certainty over. I was happy with the team and with the results, the outcome was that over that time The Financial Review actually substantially outperformed its direct global peers both in terms of financial and qualitative measures. In those terms it was stable, in good shape and had a good growth outlook. Of course, the 2008 GFC was highly disruptive and in turn changed a lot of behaviours, particularly within the advertising side of the business but the overall outcome over the 13 to 14 year period was that The Financial Review outperformed its global peers based on the financial qualitative measures that we had available to us. Most importantly though The Financial Review had developed a strategy which was stable, one which would lead to high levels of opportunity as the future unfolded as it was developing a reliable audience and a paid audience which would have enable it to continue to expand based solely on the value of the content and what they would be willing to pay for. This continues to be the strategy of The Financial Times today.
I recall a gentleman working at the Wall Street Journal saying to me a few years ago that he had wished that he had seen what I had at the time of the emergence of the internet, a need to put prices up as opposed to down or providing content at no cost online. A decision which at the time had been widely unpopular and for which I had been heavily criticised for. I guess from this period I learnt to have confidence in the qualitative value of the product that we were producing and trusting in the fact that people really valued what it was that we were providing them with. It was then about delivering to them what it was that they valued and making sure that it wasn’t just me who held that view, that it was shared by the other staff and managers. You can imagine how uncomfortable it was working in a large media company where you are the only guy pursuing a strategy which a lot of people outwardly believe not only to be the wrong one but also to be slightly crazy. It takes a lot of discipline to then pursue such a strategy. I am thankful that those around me had enough confidence in me to not just follow but to also support me in taking the widely unpopular approach. When David Kirk became CEO he said to me that as he had spoken to the various executives in the company the noticeable thing about my team was that they all had a very clear understanding of a common purpose, something which I in turn found very gratifying.
If I look back at my career I have really enjoyed the jobs that I have had at the different times, I have tended to follow my interests. I guess that I have also been lucky in doing so that I have been able to find jobs where there is a supportive environment filled with efficient and intelligent people. I wouldn’t understate that amount of pleasure that you can get from working in Journalism, particularly if you are working in the right places. I was lucky that I was working in places like The Age where the public recognition of those papers was high, if you called someone, even those who suspected you would ask those questions that they did not want to answer, they would usually still pick up the phone. I think that is a great credit to the papers and to those who worked there in that they had built such a great rapport with their community and had developed a level of community respect.
Advice to self or others
There are a lot of things that I have earnt throughout the course of my degree and I owe a number of people for various pieces of guidance that I have received along the way. I have to admit to myself that along the way whilst I wouldn’t say that I was an adventurer, I would say that I would pigheaded once I had something in my head. The best things that happened to me in terms of mentoring was people who had positions of authority or had the ability to helped me, did so only because they could help others. I have a great list of people who I owe a debt to. For me the great thing in life is discovering that there are actually people who for no reason other than their own good will, decide to help those that they recognise to be doing an important thing.
I have always had in my something that my Grandfather said to me when I was quite young, he simply told me not to worry about the things that you can do nothing about. Whether my behaviour has been conscious or unconscious, I think this has been a very important characteristic in my success. I have found this behaviour of particular use in situations where you are swamped by interesting opportunities, which I was particularly working in journalism, or where you are surrounded by a lot of moving parts clouded by uncertainty within the management realm.in management the first thing that you often discover is that there are an awful lot of people who work with you whose issue is always the most important issue. It is then a matter of working out what it is which you really need to act on now and those which you don’t as often things will fix themselves if you leave them alone. When you have a lot on it is invaluable to have in your mind where you are going what it is that you really need to do today which will get you to where you are intending to go.
I do not have a lot of quotes, other than the of my grandfather ‘do not worry about the things you can do nothing about’.
I have found that in many periods of my life, particularly during periods of stress or periods where you can be disappointed in others, there is a booked titled Catch 22 by Joseph Heller which is a great recognition and reminder of how absurd we really are as human beings. It talks about how contradictory, silly and frustrating we all are which is a refreshing reminder when you are questioning as to how someone can act in a certain way or do a certain thing. It reminds us that life is often absurd.