The Australian content marketing champion is proud of the business she has built over 20 years, but there’s plenty more to do.
The Mahlab philosophy is on the wall at the top of the stairs in the content marketing agency’s Balmain office:
INTEGRITY CURIOSITY EXPERTISE
INTELLIGENCE JOURNALISM LED
CREATIVE THINKING NIMBLE
TECHNOLOGY FOCUSED ORIGINAL
It’s impossible for visitors to miss the mission-statement wall art as they sit on the red office sofa, alongside a small coffee table bearing two industry awards. The words are an expression of what founder and managing director Bobbi Mahlab wants her agency to stand for. It’s her mission of intent, her pledge, and it represents the principles on which she has built Australia’s most enduring content marketing success story over 20 years.
“I’m more enthused and driven about this business than ever,” says Mahlab, sitting in a sunny, glass-walled corner meeting room overlooking her busy open-plan office in Sydney’s inner west. “I’m as excited about it as I was when I started. There have been times along the way when transforming the business has been a real challenge. But that suits me, because I thrive in those environments of change.”
After starting as a print-focused custom publisher, Mahlab offers a range of content services from strategy to design to distribution and measurement. Its content capabilities spread from writing to podcasting and video production, and it publishes print and digital products for a broad range of clients. It has twice been a finalist for the Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI) global Agency of the Year award.
Bobbi Mahlab speaks quietly and deliberately, with hardly a wasted word. “We know that not every client is right for us and we’re not right for every client,” she says. “And I think different businesses have different areas where they excel. I think we’re really strong in those editorially led, quality pieces. We’re very good at mastering complex issues. I love stuff that other people don’t find sexy. I love it.”
Mahlab says the work that brings her the most satisfaction are with “strong organisations that have a really solid purpose”, such as the Australian Human Resources Institute and Engineers Australia. The agency has had to move many of its clients from publishing monthly printed trade magazines to running “always on” digital platforms with a social media presence. “Our role is to help them be great communicators and cross-channel communicators in a digital-first world, and understand what the different channels and platforms are,” she says.
“Give me a dry industry any day. It’s so much more challenging to make something dry interesting and bring a creative flair to it. Anyone can make gorgeous travel destinations look and sound good. I’m not downplaying that at all, but we have always loved working in areas that other people might find dry or technical.”
After completing her honours degree in history at the University of Melbourne, Mahlab’s first job was in a marketing agency. She found her way into journalism, working first at the now defunct Melbourne Herald and then The Sunday Age. After moving into custom publishing at Text Media, she saw content marketing as a good blend of her marketing and journalism experience. “Back in 1997, when I started the business as a custom publisher, it was still about creating editorial environments for fundamentally marketing purposes.”
Mahlab started her business in a rented office with exposed brick walls in East Balmain. She called it “the pizza oven”. “I remember sitting in that room with my desk and my brick of a phone and fax machine, and not a single customer,” she says. “I had that palpable feeling of what it’s like to start something from nothing.”
Reflecting on the past 20 years, she says she learned quickly about the value of customers. “You spend so much of your time as a business owner focusing on doing great work, focusing on your team, focusing on the culture of the place, focusing on your values and what’s important to you,” she says. “But actually where it starts with is your customers, because without them you don’t have a business.”
Mahlab didn’t start her custom-publishing business just to live a comfortable life, she says. “Making money has always been a by-product of what we do, and we made money from the beginning. For me, the premise is doing really good work. I started the business because I’d been working in custom publishing elsewhere and I really loved it. I loved the relationship with the clients and the diversity.”
Mahlab says her business is now very different to the one she started in 1997.
“We were a print publisher and now we’re a content marketing agency,” she says. “We have reinvented ourselves and we did it early. We had that mindset and appetite to adapt and change. You have to be quite brave about being willing to do things differently, and to constantly ask hard questions: ‘What don’t I know?’ ‘What aren’t I thinking about that I need to think about?’ ‘What’s in my peripheral vision that I need to make sense of?’ I think that was really, really important to us.”
Mahlab says a major turning point came in 2008, when she and a few friends started a business book club. “A focus of that book club was looking at digital disruption – this was way back. We would say, ‘What does this mean to your business?’ At the time I didn’t realise how instrumental those conversations were but it led me to an intensive five-day course with an American company that specialised in taking legacy publishers into digital thinkers. I went in with my head facing in one direction and came out with it facing the other.
“From that day, I knew the whole world was going to change, and that my job was to make the change.”
Mahlab says the essence of good content marketing is having a deep understanding of audiences. She says audience insights – “and really understanding who they are as people” – is what separates her agency from others in the field. Doing it well, she says, requires a mixture of data knowledge, creativity and experience. “Anyone can do data with the right skills, and technology is increasingly taking over gathering, analysis and presentation. But I think creativity will always have a place, especially in how to tell a story.
“Often the really great publishers and editors are those who have conceived something that others couldn’t see. That why I believe people who come from the publishing and editorial traditions have something to contribute in content marketing.”
One of the agency’s most recent projects is also one she is proud of – HBF’s Direct Advice for Dads. HBF is a private insurance health fund that saw an opportunity to reach out to new and expectant fathers – most parental information is aimed at their other halves. Mahlab won the tender through its creative solution, which partly revolved around speaking to fathers in a style and language they could understand.
Launched on Father’s Day in 2016, HBF’s Direct Advice for Dads has earned high website engagement rates and almost 47,000 Facebook followers. It’s also been recognised as one of the world’s best content marketing initiatives, winning four awards at CMI’s 2017 Content Marketing Awards, including Content Marketing Launch of the Year and Best Content-Driven Website.
“If you think the best content marketing is creating an owned audience, Direct Advice for Dads is well on its way,” she says. “But what that audience is doing is helping each other. On the site, dads are expressing issues to do with mental health or reaching out to each other. There is also huge following of women, who are sharing it and tagging their partners.
“It’s really become something quite fabulous; it’s actually helping people in their world. And that’s what I said our business can do with our content; we’re helping people in their world, wherever that might be.”
Mahlab is concerned that content marketing is often badly defined, leading some industry pundits to question its worth. “I think that we’ve all got a job to do to explain what content marketing is, and what it’s not,” she says. “I’m constantly meeting with people who come, let’s say, from an ad agency background. They say they’ve been ‘doing content marketing’. I look at their work and, in my view, it’s not content marketing, but in their world it is.
“In every case, it’s about working out business objectives and the important things to measure. And what the short-term and longer-term outcomes are. It’s a process.”
A proud builder
Mahlab now employs 38 people. One thing that pleases its founder is that it’s the kind of workplace she always wanted to work in. “I like creating things and I like seeing things flourish,” Mahlab says, looking out to her staff like a proud parent through the glass wall. “To me, the people you’re surrounded with every day and the kind of work you do are really important. The fact that it’s a combination of strategy and creative and that you’re working with smart people all the time is fantastic.
“My working life has always been more than this company, and I’ve always needed other things. I don’t know why, it’s in my DNA. I always needed to contribute to a bigger world than just my world. I’ve had an infinitely interesting journey.”
As well as sitting on the management committee of a refuge for women and homeless teenage girls and being an investor in a female-focused angel investment fund, Mahlab is co-founder of Mentor Walks Australia. The project, which has launched in Sydney and Brisbane (and is due to start in Melbourne in November), gives aspiring female leaders an accessible way to speak with some of the country’s most successful businesswomen.
“We’ve already had about 350 women walk with us,” she says. “We’ve got extraordinary mentors who are giving their time to pay it forward and help other women. One person from Mahlab comes on every walk.”
Mentor Walks Australia’s other co-founder, STM Brands owner Adina Jacobs, says Mahlab has a “quiet energy” about her. “You’ve got this sense that she’s a powerhouse but she isn’t showy about it,” Jacobs says. “She’s a great active listener. She never just jumps in and says the first thing that comes into her mind. She always pauses and then comes out with a very thoughtful and insightful answer.”
One of Mahlab’s biggest societal issues at the moment concerns a lack of diversity and inclusion, especially in the media, marketing and advertising industries. It’s one of the few issues that clearly rankles her. “In here [the agency], we have a lot of diverse people: age, gender, preference, you name it. The audiences we’re creating content for are diverse and so should we be. But even if we were writing only for a single audience, diversity would still drive me.
“I just think we’re in an incredible country, with people from everywhere, and all shapes and sizes. The thing that continues to amaze me is that it’s irrefutable what diversity in an organisation and at board level delivers. It’s been shown in almost every criteria how it assists. The fact that it’s still such hard yards – and it is – blows me away. To me it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s just smart business.”
You get the sense, though, that Mahlab is up for the fight. “I’ve got a lot of energy and I always have. I’m actually quite an introvert, but I really like people. I particularly like people who are doing stuff.”
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