David Yaffa, an empire builder who shunned the limelight

By Jeremy Light | 8 October 2018
At AdNews’ 75th anniversary: David Yaffa, right, making a rare public appearance; left, Jeremy Light (publisher, AdNews); centre, Gawen Rudder (editor, AdNews 75th anniversary edition).

David Yaffa was once called the Greta Garbo of Australian publishing, a reference to the actress’s famous plea “I just want to be left alone”. Certainly he was an intensely private person, and he rarely ventured beyond the closed door of his office, but that was just the way he liked to run his business. He was in there every day from 8:45am to 6pm, much of the time on the phone to his senior management.

In this respect his style was ultra hands-on; in other respects he was somewhat invisible, most notably through his reluctance to hold management meetings. He preferred one-on-one discussions, or meetings of two or three people – three at the most, since there were only three chairs in his office.

In later years he did hold the occasional publishers meeting when he would entertain us with warnings to keep things confidential (“Loose lips sink ships”) and how tough things were for the business (“The wolf is at the door”).

His weekly memos to the publishers and sales staff could also be fun. While they congratulated the best performers of the week and exhorted the rest of them to do better, there were also prods at the under-performers. Once he referred to “the drones on the second floor”, which didn’t go down too well.

David Yaffa was only 13 when his father died. After family wrangling over control of the company in the earlier years he eventually owned the company outright and was able to run it his way, taking control when he was 21. He was responsible for its success or failure, and there was no way he was going to let it fail.

From five magazines in the 1960s, he guided Yaffa Publishing to a thriving stable of more than 30 magazines by the 1990s, making it the second largest specialist publishing house in Australia. There would have been many offers for the company over the years, but he loved the business and would never let it go. His magazines were almost like children to him.

AdNews was his favourite child. It was the company’s first title, founded in 1928, and only the second marketing industry publication in the world (Canada’s Marketing was the first). Originally it was called Newspaper News, but from the very start it was always about advertising, marketing and the media.

The company was founded by his father, also called David, in 1925. David Snr set up a business called Yaffa Syndicate to provide newspapers with cartoons, photographs, articles and printing supplies. Cartoons became the foundation of the business and Yaffa Syndicate was appointed as only the second overseas representative of King Features Inc, New York. This part of the business is still operating, and any King Features cartoon you see in Australian newspapers today will have been distributed under licence through Yaffa Syndicate.

It was a natural step to launch Newspaper News. It was not only a vehicle for promoting the syndication business to his clients (the newspapers) but also a vehicle for the newspapers to promote themselves in turn to their clients (advertisers and ad agencies).

A strong connection formed between David Yaffa Snr and the publishers in Australia and New Zealand. It is remarkable that someone who emigrated from Europe after the First World War should so quickly become one of the boys with the establishment newspaper proprietors, but that’s what happened.

How did he do it? He partied them to death, according to grandson Max Yaffa.

Photographs from Newspaper News in the 1930s show David Yaffa Snr in group shots with the newspaper bosses at association conferences. Keith Murdoch, RC Packer, Frank Packer, the Denisons and the Fairfaxes regularly appeared in the pages of Newspaper News. When David Yaffa Snr died, a tribute from the Prime Minister was published on the front page.

This heritage was hugely important to David Jnr, as it is to the next generation that now runs the company. When David retired in 2012 his daughter Tracy became managing director and drove the 2015 rebirth of the company, renaming it Yaffa Media. Sons Max and James (publisher of AdNews) also work in the company. The middle son Guy also worked in the company in the 1990s.

As the flagship of the company AdNews received preferential treatment even though David tried hard to treat all his magazines and staff equally.

In the 1970s and ‘80s AdNews operated in a building separate from the rest of the company, a terrace house on Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. Head office was around the corner on Elizabeth Street, which is where David stayed.

In the days of endless lunches and boozy function after boozy function, it was probably best that he didn’t see the AdNews staff in the afternoons or evenings. He wisely – perhaps nervously - avoided the AdNews building. Nevertheless, he would have been aware of the ‘culture’ there. He turned a blind eye to it because it was the ‘80s, the golden era of advertising, and AdNews was making big money.

That changed when all the office staff were moved into the present building on Bellevue Street in 1987. AdNews was located on the same floor as him, and he was able to keep a close eye on them. A more businesslike feel developed at AdNews and the relationship with David became relatively convivial, to the extent he would join in at drinks celebrating yet another record circulation lead over rival B&T, or farewell drinks for senior staff.

When Sydney was awarded the Olympic Games, David threw a party for the whole company – a pleasant surprise for everybody. As he anticipated, the Olympics were good for business and the company prospered further as a result. Apart from this, the Christmas party was the only time the whole company had a chance to meet and talk with him. In some years it was rumoured that he might make an announcement, or even a speech, but it never happened.

He did make two speeches at industry functions – one in 1978 at the AANA Convention to launch the 50th anniversary of Advertising News, as it then was; and one in 2003 when AdNews hosted an industry function at the Sydney Opera House to launch its 75th anniversary edition. He also ventured outside the office in 2002 to attend the 70th anniversary lunch of the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

A profitable company needs to maximise income and minimise costs. Keeping a lid on costs was David’s forte. Spending on non-essentials was forbidden.

In the 1970s all the office staff worked on the top floor of the printers building on Butt Street. A roof that didn’t leak was considered non-essential. What was essential was an umbrella for the AdNews editor to keep the rainwater off his typewriter.

If you wanted to make an interstate phone call you had to give the name, company and number to the switchboard operator who would then put you through, but only after she had obtained approval from David.

Some staff grumbled about the stinginess, particularly in the 1980s when other media companies were investing and expanding and generally indulging. Then along came the stockmarket crash of 1987, major changes to the media ownership laws and skyrocketing interest rates. Media companies that had gone on a buying spree found themselves unable to service their debts. Closures and redundancies followed, and 1990 became a horror year for the media.

Yaffa Publishing was no exception in that it made losses that year. The difference was that David Yaffa had not over-committed or taken on debt. He was able to ride out the downturn without closures or laying off staff. Suddenly he went from miser to hero as the staff kept their jobs. When things turned around in 1991 the company was primed and ready to take advantage of the recovery, which it did better than most.

It was a rare event for the company to launch a new title. Spin-offs from existing publications, usually directories of some kind, were more common. Occasionally healthy magazines were purchased from other publishers, such as the photography group of magazines from James Coleman in the 1980s and Ragtrader from Reed Publishing in 2000, but generally purchases were of low-cost, terminally ill publications that could be nursed back to life with a lot of tweaking.

Tweaking was another of David’s strengths. He was forever thinking about how to improve the bottom line for each publication, whether it was the paper stock, the page size, the binding, the number of pages, the frequency, the print run or the allocation of staff. He used several printers for his consumer magazines and switched magazines around to keep the printers on their toes. They knew if they did a bad job or charged too much they might find a magazine transferred to another printer.

The company’s business magazines, stationery and promotional material were printed in-house at Rotary Colorprint. This subsidiary was a mainstay of the business in the early days, reprinting and selling ‘pulp’ booklets of crossword puzzles, detective stories, ‘true romances’ and the like. It also printed Phantom comics and Reader’s Digest for the region.

David upgraded Rotary with a new million-dollar press in the 1990s, but the space was limited and technology was marching on, so he closed the printery early this century.

His attention to detail was extraordinary. He picked up many a mistake in house ads and promotional material that could have been embarrassing or costly.

Unfortunately he was not shown the AdNews front page headline “Interpubic merger”, otherwise he would no doubt have had it corrected to “Interpublic merger” before it went to print. He was amused once when the phrase “a paltry amount” was published as “a poultry amount” but generally he was unhappy about mistakes as he felt they reflected on him and his company. Fair enough.

While the business was naturally all about making a profit, David Yaffa was a proprietor with a true feel for the media. He was in it for the long haul. He spent a lifetime building up the business his way, through trial and error, virtually single-handed.

For those of us on the editorial side it was gratifying that the content of the magazine came first. In theory a good product attracted readers, and good readership numbers attracted advertisers. More revenue could then be allocated to improving the product further. Consequently he backed his good editors and let them get on with the job without interference.

Like most successful business owners he was obsessed with the business. However, he could get over-excited when the pressure was on. Medication helped calm things down, but there was a memorable time in the late ’90s when the wrong medication caused a distinct change of character. He started appearing in parts of the building where he would never normally be seen. I was surprised by him bursting into my office on one occasion to tell me he had some great new ideas for the company. “They’re all up here,” he said, pointing to his head, “and nobody knows what they are!” Yes, David.

Good ideas were always on his mind. He was excited one morning to hear that B&T was re-launching at a lunch function in North Sydney that day. “Let’s ambush them,” he said. “We can do some sky-writing over North Sydney as the guests arrive.” Yes, David. It was a cloudy day.

One of his proudest moments was winning a court case against the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) and Reed Publishing, publishers of B&T.

AdNews was a clear leader over B&T in paid circulation, the benchmark measure, and this was reflected in advertising revenue. Reed was suffering. To boost distribution and provide extra value for advertisers Reed had been sending unsolicited free copies of B&T to the membership database of the Australian Marketing Institute (AMI). It was a substantial number.

This had been going on for years but it had failed to counter the paid circulation problem. Then, in 2005 Reed claimed that those copies qualified as paid circulation.

David heard about this and knew it couldn’t be right. On the AMI website a free subscription to B&T was listed among the member benefits. He got his secretary to print this out – a smart move because the page was taken down as soon as the legal action started.

ABC rules stated that publishers could challenge competitor claims about circulation, and the matter would then be adjudicated on by the ABC executive committee. This was a rare occurrence, but it did happen occasionally. What had never happened before was a publisher taking the ABC to court.

David Yaffa hated spending money on lawyers, but this time it was a matter of principle. His gut feel was that he was right, although that was no guarantee of success. Nor was he clear about how he would do it.

In retrospect it was intriguing how he kept Reed guessing. They were told he had additional/inside information to support his case, but they never knew what that was (it may only have been the printed page from the AMI website). They asked what his intentions were – what did he want, was there a list of demands? – but he gave them nothing to work with.

The matter went to the NSW Supreme Court and David was vindicated. B&T’s circulation figure was adjusted back down and the ABC reprinted its summary booklet. A first in Australian publishing.

The court case was notable, but a far greater achievement was the development of his father’s company into a significant force in Australian publishing. Few companies in Australia remain in private hands after nearly a century.

David Yaffa was single-minded and demanding, but not the stereotypical, ruthless media proprietor. He was polite and fair, and would treat his staff with respect if they did their job well. You couldn’t ask for much more from your boss.

Vale David Yaffa 18 July 1934 -- 6 October 2018

Jeremy Light worked at AdNews from 1978 to 2015

See: David Yaffa, proprietor of Yaffa Media, dies at 84

As a mark of respect there will be a company-wide closure this Friday.

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