Opinion- 02 January 2006
Robinson: Entrepreneurs & the Ideas
Harry Robinson: Entrepreneurs & the Ideas Men
Please be patient. This begins with Kerry Packer and other Packers and you've been force fed on them till it hurts. Well, there is one more thing to say and it has relevance to our universities, R&D and all that caper.
Go back to 1932. Kerry's grandfather, R.C. Packer was a hired editor itching to launch a publishing venture. Kerry's father, Frank, was an amateur boxer and sometime journalist. We won't go into how but R.C. and Frank raised enough capital to set up and produce a magazine.
What kind of magazine? What kind of audience would it seek? What would be the editorial tone? Plenty of questions and more but the Packers themselves were somewhat hazy, certainly not brilliant with concepts.
But in the background was a professional editor name of George Warnecke, who had the Packer ears along with a headful of ideas. He had spent time in London in the 1920s and had observed the growth of women's magazines, their content mixes, socio-economic pitches -- the strategies and tactics.
Warnecke returned to Oz, added local knowledge to his UK observations, added also some ideas of his own. He drew up the dummy for the first edition of The Australian Women's Weekly and the presses rolled. They quickly rolled the Packer family up from fringe publishing to a force to be reckoned with.
Could they have enjoyed the same success without Warnecke? Almost certainly not. They might have succeeded but slowly.
Four years later, Frank Packer was ready to invade the daily newspaper field with The Sydney Telegraph. These were late Depression years and the times were fractious. A stumble would have brought instant failure.
Warnecke was still there in the background, still a managing editor but his health was poor. All the same, he set up a bold framework for the new paper. It ran news on the front page -- The Sydney Morning Herald did not. It used pictures lavishly. It's daily format included 3 pages for women and 6 for sport. It ran cartoons (Granny Herald sniffed at that,) and serials including a multi-parter of H.G. Wells's Things to Come. The editorial of the very first issue said, "The newspaper you are reading now is thoroughly modern . as modern as television."
The hand of Warnecke is pretty clear there. No Packer would ever have thought of television which was still an experiment. But the hand of Warnecke needed another hand to carry ideas through day after day. Enter Brian Penton, a flamboyant journalist who wore white suits and annoyed everyone he could. He blazed the Telegraph. Using both serious journalism and sensationalism, Penton knew which stories to splash, which to ignore. He had a flair for making the paper exciting on a dull news day. Moreover he wrote a style book aimed to make every line in the paper easily intelligible to all readers, no matter what their education. He insisted on the single sentence paragraph, on short lead sentences and he made it a concrete order that no story should use the passive voice.
The Sydney Daily Telegraph put on circulation fast and eventually outdid the Herald. It was followed by The Sunday Telegraph and lo! The Packer family were heavyweights in newspaper publishing.
Thank you Mr Warnecke and Mr Penton.
Fast forward now to the late 1950s and television. Frank Packer was awarded one of two commercial licences in Sydney. Did he know how to make his TV station go? Not a chance. When veteran film
producer Ken Hall came in as Packer's general manager, he found no library of program material at all. "Frank had bought the rights to six B grade British comedies which weren't worth a damn to our audiences." Hall quickly bought the rights to 600 B grade Warner Brothers movies and breathed easier.
TCN 9 struggled to its feet but had an amateur look to it until Bruce Gyngell moved in and soon took the job of program manager. What Warnecke and Penton had done for the Packers in print, Gyngell did for TCN 9 in spades. He showed how to create shows out of shadows and, mostly, how to schedule them for greatest advantage. He laid out the anatomy of programming for Nine which lasted 20 years. He was a family favourite until Frank's bullying became too much to bear. Bustup. One of Gungal's parting shots was "I have made you a rich man."
Frank died, Kerry took the head of the table and immediately re-established close relations with Gyngell. They talked as old friends, as consultants.
The pattern was clear. The Packers from R.C. through Frank to Kerry were all good at raising capital, extremely good at managing money, managing staff, playing strategic games, using political clout -- all the grinding work of directing and guiding those tricky enterprises in print and air publishing. But they were not creative. At critical times they needed creative ideas men to point them along the best paths to success. They needed not just good executives but men of ideas. Without Warnecke, Penton and Gyngell the Packer outfit would be smaller, slower and far less profitable then it is.
We have a similar situation nationally. We have a government which can raise money, pile up the capital, control spending -- all the donkey work of running a big big department store. But not an idea in the world about national building, leading toward future strength.
It's too easy to make a matrix of the bulldog minded Packers on one side and the
creative ideas men on the other, of a Philistine minded government on one hand
and the intellectual forces of education and science on the other. It can't be
as simple as that. A nation is a different creature from a commercial
company. An individualist Gyngell will not appear suddenly as a messianic
champion of the forces of intellect. But the parallel does offer lines of
But is it too much to ask for a Packer outcome -- acceptance of ideas and exploitation of imaginative thrusts?
Is it too much?
Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.