Tributes are flowing for Australian media industry icon Harold Mitchell, who has died at the age of 81.
Mitchell founded the communications group Mitchell & Partners in 1976 before growing it into a behemoth in the media industry and creating a formidable reputation both locally and globally. Mitchell spent years rejecting acquisition deals from all the global holding companies before selling the agency to Britain’s Aegis Group in 2012 for $363 million.
He also founded the Harold Mitchell Foundation in 2000 and was a major contributor to the arts and Australian public life.
The Harold Mitchell Foundation confirmed his passing on February 10, stating he died “whilst recuperating from knee replacement surgery.”
“He was a wonderful man who helped so many. He will be sadly missed,” said the statement.
During his career, Mitchell served as chairman of Free TV Australia from 2013 to 2018, where he was involved in the 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 also worked on the boards of institutions, including the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Opera Australia, and Tennis Australia.
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.
In 2020, he was fined $90,000 by The Federal Court for committing “serious” breaches of his duties while serving as a director on the board of Tennis Australia. Mitchell was penalised for feeding secret information to the Seven Network during negotiations in 2012 and 2013 for the Australian Open’s television broadcast rights.
Leading figures from across the industry have paid tribute to Mitchell.
Seven West Media managing director and chief executive James Warburton said, “Harold was a fierce, tough competitor and a true legend of the Australian media and advertising industry. He loved media. He was passionate about selling the impact and value of advertising. He was a great friend to the TV industry and many of us learnt a lot from him. Our deepest sympathies go to Harold’s family at this very sad time.”
Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes said, “Harold was a visionary and a leader in the media industry over many decades. He will also be remembered as a great philanthropist and supporter of the arts and sports. Harold was a doyen of the industry and a great friend over the 40 years we had known each other. He had a wonderful sense of humour and a was groundbreaker in the way media was monetised. I enjoyed his company, and he will be missed by us all.”
Atomic 212° chairman Barry O’Brien OAM said, “This is an incredibly sad day with the loss of Harold Mitchell. My sincere condolences to his family.
“Harold was a powerhouse of the media industry and the platform for many people to start their own agencies. I had the privilege of working with him for several years, and I saw first-hand his philosophy that everyone at the table had to win: the client, the media and his business. As such, he was a true wealth creator.
“Harold was also known for the amazing support he gave to many charities and institutions, all of which benefited from his wide range of connections.”
Free TV CEO Bridget Fair said, “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,” said Fair.
Former 3AW Mornings host Neil Mitchell said, “I wouldn’t for a moment doubt his commitment to Melbourne.
“Whenever we disagreed, and we disagreed quite often, it was on a point of principle to do with the city. I remember they were going to have Japanese war drums in the forecourt of the Shrine of Remembrance, and I thought that was a very bad look, Japanese war drums at a war memorial.
“He and I had an aggressive on-air debate about it; my recollection is that he complained to management about me, and then we went to lunch and sorted it all out,” said Mitchell.
On air on Monday morning, 3AW Breakfast host Russel Howcroft told listeners “You could argue I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for Harold,” remembering the long list of achievements that Mitchell recorded throughout his life.
Danny Bass, CEO, media, dentsu, said, “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 who 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,” said Bass.
Sophie Madden, CEO of the Media Federation of Australia, said, “Harold Mitchell has accurately been called the father of the media buying industry in Australia. From launching the first independent media buying company in the country to growing it into one of the biggest and most powerful agencies we’ve seen, he has had a profound impact on the industry and many people working in it today.
“I have fond memories of working for Mitchells in the very early days of my career, and I’m grateful for everything I learned there. Harold was passionate about promoting the value of our industry to the economy and the broader community and will be remembered as a true pioneer,” said Madden.
Michael Stephenson, chief sales officer at Nine, said, ”Harold Mitchell was a passionate advocate for our industry and dedicated his professional career over many decades to improving and supporting it. We extend our condolences to his family and those close to him at this sad time.”
Director of The Florey Institute in Melbourne – where Mitchell served as the chairman for eight years – Professor Trevor Kilpatrick said, “We are saddened to hear of the passing of Harold Mitchell.
“He was hugely proud of The Florey and was a very generous philanthropic donor whose substantial donations have supported scientists to conduct world-leading research here in Melbourne.
On behalf of all at The Florey, I extend my heartfelt sympathies and condolences to Harold’s family and friends.”
Top Image: Harold Mitchell