Here’s the second interview in a series of stories I’ve prepared called ‘Inspirational Life Changes’. Given we’re all living longer, it’s highly likely we’ll all take on more than one career in our lifetime. Sometimes this can be a dramatic jump – sometimes a dainty side step. Whatever the change, it’s a leap of faith into the future. I’m curious as to why and how people make this happen.
Now on the verge of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, I thought something racy would be topical, so I caught up with a man who made a huge impact in the Birdcage last year.
INTERVIEW (2) : Mitch Catlin – Journalist turned Marketing Machine
(Head of Partnerships, Community and Media: Swisse)
I was able to pick Mitch Catlin’s voice even before I met him in person. I was listening to the news on 3AW when I first heard it – that striking, baritone vocal – and made sure I remembered his name because I was convinced, with a voice like that, he was certain to become a famous radio or TV presenter.
Several years later, after Catlin finished a stint as LA correspondent for Seven News, we ended up working together at Network Ten. But surprisingly Catlin moved behind the scenes, away from the microphone, to fill the position of Chief-of-Staff. Which he did extremely well. (Apart from occasionally forgetting to put a newspaper on my desk, which we often joked about.)
Then in October 2005, he announced he was leaving. And not just leaving Ten. He was leaving the media. Hanging up his boots as a journalist for good.
And he hasn’t looked back. From Ten, Catlin worked for PR company Haystac, then quickly shot up the radar by shifting to Myer where his efforts made people sit up and start to take notice. Now he’s ruffling feathers among the marquee set at Flemington with his ability to grab headlines after a sensational debut in the Birdcage last year with the new company he now represents – Swisse Vitamins.
But what happened to make him want to leave the media? Was I too hard on him about failing to deliver my newspaper? I took him out for coffee to find out. Catlin laughs, remembering our verbal jousting, but says, no, that he probably started questioning his future a few years before he left Ten.
‘It was about the time I turned thirty. Like for many people, it’s a milestone year in your life, which gives you reason to think about where you’re heading. I decided I should try something else, because if you leave it too late and then try to jump in another direction, you become a bit pigeon-holed. I thought now is the time to have a crack.’ he says.
So why marketing? Catlin says originally he was planning to work in PR. Generally speaking, most journalists don’t want to work in PR. Public relations people are the ones trying to sell us the stories. We want to write the stories and are often skeptical about those doing the selling. So in a way, Catlin has gone to the ‘other side.’ But when he explains, it makes sense – his theory being that he was capitalizing on his knowledge base.
‘Because I had the knowledge of dealing with the media and for many companies, that’s gold. Because many people don’t actually understand how it works. I’m not for one second suggesting I’m an expert but the knowledge is there – regardless or not as to whether you are deemed to be an expert – you have a knowledge base, which a lot of people simply don’t have. If someone said to me, we’re putting you in I.T. tomorrow, I’d freak out because I don’t know anything about I.T. but I do know a bit about the media. And for many people, that’s a great benefit in this day and age.’
The turning point came when one of the companies Catlin dealt with as Chief-of-Staff – Haystac – offered him a job. ‘At that point in time, they were certainly the most ‘it’ brand as far as PR was concerned,’ he says. ‘They said we don’t necessarily need someone with PR skills but we do need somebody with media skills. So they created a role which was about getting media and PR for their clients which were the likes of Toyota, ANZ, Myer and David Jones.’
But surely it couldn’t have been easy, leaving a long career in the media? Wasn’t the switchover difficult? ‘Oh, at first I didn’t like it at all!’ Catlin says adamantly, shaking his head. ‘I thought, “Oh my God, What have I done? This is not for me!” And I think it’s because I really struggled with the concept of journalists not necessarily liking PR people and me making that transition. It was a challenge. But then I found that the journalists liked that I was able to provide what they needed for a story. I ‘got it’. So there was a connection I developed with them. And that’s because of the knowledge base I had from the media. Anybody who has been a journalist has a skill set that other people simply don’t have.’
It wasn’t until six months later that Catlin really found his feet. Once he started getting coverage in the newspapers, something clicked. ‘For example, I’d open up page five of The Australian and there was a story that I’d worked on. So it was like, “Wow, I’ve done this.” It took me a few months to feel like I could do it, but it’s the same with anyone starting a new job. Initially you have a sense of vulnerability and insecurity. For me, this was a COMPLETE change. So when I got a couple of runs on the board, your insecurity goes down a bit and things start to happen for you. You probably don’t judge yourself as harshly as you had.’
I’m guessing other corporate bigwigs were reading the papers too, because in a blink, Catlin was suddenly flying the PR flag for Myer, taking on board a high-profile PR role. Again, another transition, but he’d have to agree, a step up – yes? Catlin looks thoughtful and pauses. ‘Well, I guess so, I mean in Melbourne there are only a handful of brands that stand out and as they say, Myer is Melbourne. So as far as Melbourne goes, Myer is up there as one of the most famous of the city’s brands. So it was a great opportunity. It gave me a great belief in myself that I could really do this job.’
‘I have a great deal of respect for Bernie Brookes, the CEO of Myer, who took me under his wing and taught me a lot about business,’ says Catlin. ‘I might have had a fair bit of media knowledge but not necessarily a whole lot of business knowledge, so he did teach me a lot.’
Catlin was obviously a good student. You only have to Google his name to gauge an idea of his success. Articles about his publicity coups and prowess are everywhere, littered with words like ‘publicity guru’. His flair for PR came to the fore during his time at Myer when Jen Hawkins seemed to feature on the front page of the Herald Sun every week.
So does he regard himself as successful? ‘People have a perception that if you’re publicly visible, you are a success and I don’t think that is necessarily what success is.’
For a man who deals so much with celebrity, his answer is surprising. ‘I think success is about being good at what you do. I look back at people who inspired me when I was young, like school teachers, who to me were so successful at what they did because they shaped the things that I believe in. My Mum was a full-time Mum her entire life and has been a wonderfully successful mother – raising myself and my brother – we were very much cared for at home. So the word success for me is difficult – it’s very subjective. I like to think I have achieved well in what I have done, but how you talk about that in terms of success – that’s for others to decide, not me.’
Catlin is way too modest to blow his own trumpet. In fact, it took a lot of arm-twisting for him to agree to this interview. His preference is for the focus to be on the product, not himself – that his job is about delivering results for the brand. ‘I am more focused on promoting the product or brand – it is not about me,’ he says.
But if he won’t acknowledge his own success, can he explain how it has happened? ‘I always try to put myself in the shoes of someone else and think, what is it these people will want? And then manage to think that through and come up with concepts. It’s about having a strategy and a plan, then you deliver. It’s not about responding or reacting to events. It’s about having a clear long-term strategy and plan,’ he says.
So with everything going so swimmingly at Myer, why then did he jump ship and take up the PR reins at vitamin giant Swisse? ‘Oh, I think it was time for a change,’ says Catlin, after pausing for consideration. ‘I was looking for something in my life that was worthwhile and what Swisse represents, in terms of health and happiness, well-being and looking after friends, family and yourself – is all true. To be able to work in an industry that really does strive to make people happier and healthier is an important thing to do.’ He sits back in his chair and seriously, he really does look happy.
But there’s always critics. What about the vitamin-skeptics who say vitamins are rubbish – merely a product that makes for expensive urine?
‘Well everyone has an opinion on every single industry,’ says Catlin, sighing. He’s obviously dealt with this one many times before. ‘Look at the health industry in general. There’s always speculation about pills and potions – do they work – all of that. The biggest thing about Swisse is how much money they invest in research and supporting their products. You only have to ask anyone who takes them if they support them and of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t buy them.’
I’m sure Swisse must be mighty pleased with Catlin’s efforts. His work has raised the profile of the vitamin brand to dizzying heights. Celebrity ambassadors include the cream of the crop from high-profile industries – sport, television and music. Catlin was also behind a move to push Swisse into the spotlight at the Spring Racing Carnival last year. And even when a star appearance on Stakes Day went down the toilet, with the non-appearance of Kim Kardashian, Catlin turned that into a coup, gaining almost more publicity for the reality star’s NO-SHOW by using a cardboard cut-out in the marquee and after-party. Almost every guest wanted their photo taken with Kim and then dutifully posted it on Twitter or Facebook.
Again Catlin is modest, saying Swisse’s marketing strategy was already in place when he joined the brand. ‘What our CEO and the board have set up is a massively successful marketing campaign of integrating ambassadors into existing programs.’
Of Swisse’s ambassador family, the celebrity line-up seems heavily skewed towards sport. Is Swisse neglecting the arts, I ask? Catlin shakes his head, smiling. ‘No, it’s more about looking at people who are the best in their field. And that could be anyone from an actor like Nicole Kidman through to a TV presenter like Sonia Kruger or a cricketer like Ricky Ponting. And the way our marketing strategy has been successful is that we integrate with our retailers, so the likes of Coles, Woolworths, Priceline and Chemist Warehouse are the ones who really dictate to us what they want to achieve.’
And we’ll see more celebrities during the races. Nicole Kidman is making an appearance on Derby Day, Kim Cattrall on Oaks Day and singer Rick Astley on Stakes Day. How does he manage to attract such a star-studded line-up? Catlin credits his team. ‘With Swisse, what’s going to happen in the lead-up to the races, during the races and post the races, is a team effort. It’s not about me, Mitch Catlin, it’s about the Swisse team who have built this plan together. That’s why we’re confident about our outcomes as a business. I might do a few media interviews here and there but it’s very much about the team strategy.’
When you hear about how Swisse treats its staff, it’s easy to understand why Catlin appears so content. ‘We get 3-day weekends. We get breakfast and lunch provided every day. We get massages every Wednesday. There’s no doubt I wake up every day and feel blessed I’ve found a company like that who actually make a difference to people’s lives,’ he says. (I’m applying for a job tomorrow!!)
Aside from the professional work, Catlin says his time at Swisse has changed the person he is. ‘I’m a much more contented, happy person. More interested in helping others and what’s going on in the community. There’s a real focus on what’s happening around you which is a wonderful change.’
As for future plans, Catlin says he has a few ‘secret squirrel’ projects under his belt that he can’t discuss. But his focus next year will be a major push by Swisse into the global market, the face of Nicole Kidman leading the way. ‘My mission is to share the health and happiness story of Swisse around the world,’ he says.
Watch out world!
Looking back, Catlin credits three men for helping him get to where he is today. ‘They’d be 3AW broadcaster Neil Mitchell, when I started as a journo, ‘ says Catlin, ‘And Anton Staindl, the MD of Haystac who taught me when I first started in PR. And of course, Swisse CEO Radek Sali who constantly inspires me.’
It’s now seven years since Catlin left Ten. Would he say his decision to leave the media and head in a new direction was the right one? His smile says it all. ‘When you look at how life has panned out, it’s very different to what I imagined it would be, but I feel that I’ve achieved a lot and am really happy with where I am right now.’