Emerging Leader: How Mitchell Long found his place in advertising

Mariam Cheik-Hussein
By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 17 August 2021
Mitchell Long

This first appeared in the July/August edition of AdNews. Subscribe here to make sure you get your copy.

It wasn’t until Mitchell Long began his career in advertising that he felt he was in the right place.

Long, PHD Sydney’s head of strategy and AdNews 2020 Emerging Leader, entered the industry after a lifetime of searching for what he calls his “Goldilocks zone”. From a failed concert violinist, to joke of the school formal, injecting-room reject and F-grade hand model, this is the story of how Long eventually found his niche to become the youngest head of strategy in the history of PHD’s global network.

One of three children, Long grew up in a musical family. His parents had met while studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where his grandmother and sister had also studied, so learning an instrument from an early age was a big part of growing up.

“Some of my earliest memories are sitting in the orchestra pit by my mum as a baby and feeling the vibration of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 belting through the floorboards,” says Long.

He picked up the violin at age five, became the lead violinist of the SBS Youth Chamber Orchestra at 14 and went on to earn his Associate in Music performance (AMusA) from the AMEB at 16, by which time he earnt spare change teaching violin after school.

“I haven‘t touched it for a long time now so I couldn’t play to save my life,” says Long. “But it taught me the difference between being a good player and a good performer, and my nerves meant I certainly wasn’t the latter.

“Now, whenever I feel that rush of adrenaline before a pitch or presentation, I am relieved my sweaty palms don’t have to attempt double stop harmonics or spiccato.”

Completing his HSC in 2006, Long describes high school as “a bit of a rough” experience. At a time when the LGBT+ community faced a lot more stigma and discrimination, he was a teenager coming to terms with his own sexuality.

“It wasn’t all doom and gloom, but there were definitely moments when I found it difficult,” he says.

“It was before projects such as ‘It Gets Better’ and ‘Wear it Purple’ existed to fight homophobia, and the only reference point for gay people in mainstream media were a narrow selection of Will & Grace, the original Fab 5 [Queer Eye for the Straight Guy] and Ellen.

“Feeling like you don’t fit in at a time when you’re still trying to figure out who you are makes it hard for any kid to find confidence in themselves. So going through school feeling like there was something wrong with me was quite an alienating experience. That was the most difficult time in my life.”

At his high school formal, Long’s peers awarded him ‘Most likely to come out of the closet’, a joke he views as a defining point in his life.

“At the time I just felt like they didn’t get what kids in my position were going through internally,” says Long.


Long and the PHD team at the MFA Awards

Free from high school, and putting away his violin, Long began a double degree at University of Technology Sydney studying communications, journalism and international studies, where he also studied for a year in Japan at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Long was drawn to journalism because it would allow him to leverage his knack for storytelling and writing, combined with a clear career pathway.

However, once he began his journalism courses, Long realised he was probably too “mild” for the life of a reporter.

“I remember one of my first assignments was to go and chase down a story from Kings Cross where I ended up being kicked out of the injecting room while trying to get a sound bite,” he says.

“One of my first tutors was a real hard news journo who I found both inspiring and slightly terrifying. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I was probably too mild for a life of cold calling and chasing stories from people who obviously didn’t want to talk.”

Coasting through journalism, in his fourth year, Long studied abroad in Tokyo as part of his international studies degree and had the “time of his life”.

“2010 was a highlight — it was one part study and many parts partying. On my first day off the plane, an agent scouted me for a Gucci event in downtown Shibuya which led to a string of odd promotional jobs. To this day, the pinnacle of my success is hand modelling for page 78 of Vogue Homme Japan.

“Japan is a crazy place full of contradictions that certainly fuelled my interest in culture and contemplating why people do what they do.”

In 2011, Long returned to Sydney for the final year of his studies.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he says. “I was no performer, I wasn’t a journalist and hand modelling wasn’t exactly a lucrative trade so I took a sub-major in advertising and surprisingly things clicked.”

In his final semester, Long landed an internship at PHD, a small media agency of around 50 staff at the time that has since grown to more than 300 nationally.

“By this point my hands had gone from being in magazines to booking them for eBay’s ‘Fashion Gallery’ campaign at the time.
“Like most, I landed in the industry having no idea what a media agency does, but I was instantly struck by the fun energy, the smart people, and the warmth I felt.

“Quite early on I was instinctively drawn to strategy. At the time, Chris Stephenson was heading up the strategy team at PHD and he’s a superstar. Beyond a brilliant brain, he has that rare kind of energy and creativity that can transform a room.

“What drew me to strategy was the opportunity to fuse my creative side with the part of me that loves to think deeply on things and do so in a way that solves problems simply. In a way it was the “Goldilocks zone” I’d been searching for that brought together aspects of all the things I had been drawn to growing up.”


Mitchell Long and his family

Within his first six months, Long was competing at the national finals of Cannes Young Lions, returned to the finals again the following year, and spent the next four years honing his craft through investment and planning roles on PHD’s Google account before eventually landing his dream job in strategy working across accounts including Google, Unilever and Volkswagen.

In the following years, Long was leading strategy for campaigns that won awards such as AdNews Media Campaign of the Year, Gold at the MFA Awards, Festival of Media APAC and M&M Global.

By 2017, these awards contributed to 65% of PHD Sydney’s annual award wins and Long was travelling to New York, San Francisco and Tokyo as the Australian lead in Google’s global strategy unit for the coordinated launch of several of its priority products.

In 2019, Long stepped up to head PHD’s Sydney Strategy team and he led the strategy on the winning pitch for Virgin Australia.

“There are definitely those tick-box accolades which are really humbling to get,” he says.

“But for me it’s more about the sum of all parts versus a specific moment in time. Strategy isn’t something delivered in a single
campaign so if I think about the journey I’ve been on with clients such as Google helping to genuinely transform their marketing function, what I value most is having been part of their broader journey.”

In recent years, Long has focused on finding his own style of leadership.

“There’s a point in your career when you need to shift from striving to be the best, to enabling the best in others. Part of this is finding inspiration in the superpowers of those around me, from my boss, Alex Pacey, and his inappropriately disarming humour, to members of my team and their infectious curiosity.

“I find the best leaders have the EQ to read people and the self-awareness to identify the gaps in their own behaviours to give others what they need from them to do their best work.”


Mitchell Long accepting the 2020 AdNews Emerging Leader award

In 2020, Long became Sydney co-chair of Omnicom’s Open Pride and helped lead initiatives and events across Omnicom’s media and creative agencies to drive greater diversity and inclusion across the broader network.

For Wear it Purple Day, Long shared his personal story growing up gay as part of the Heart on My Sleeve initiative which he regards as one of his “scariest but also most rewarding” career moments.

“I saw an opportunity to turn some of the negative experiences I had left behind growing up into something positive that could hopefully help other people on their own journeys of self-discovery,” he says.

“The problem with many diversity and inclusion conversations is we often look at things through one dimension. Sometimes people can be really sensitive on one issue because it relates to their own identity, but dismissive of another and I find that bizarre. I believe sharing our stories enables us to recognise that we all have hang-ups, past trauma or that little nagging voice in our head, and if we’re kind and open with one another, we can do a lot of good.

“That’s what I love about Open Pride, it’s inclusive for LGBT+ people and their allies as there are life lessons we can learn from each other that have nothing to do with who you sleep with.”

One key lesson that Long himself has learnt is shaking off the experience of his younger years and rethinking what his image is to other people.

“The big learning for me coming through into the industry is that my childhood years of feeling judged based on my sexuality ended up causing me to judge others later in life in terms of who I felt I could be authentic with,” he says.

“But when you realise you’re carrying a lot of unnecessary baggage and projecting that onto how you assess others, at some point you realise it’s your problem, not theirs. That was a big learning curve for me.”

When asked about his future goals, Long says he’s more focused on what he can bring to people he works around.
“When I started out it was easier to know where I wanted to go as it was about a destination, such as getting into strategy.

Now I’m in a role that feels aligned to my skills, and I find myself pursuing more of a feeling as my role isn’t just about what I do anymore.

“One of the KPIs I routinely set myself each year is to be described as a joy to work with. I use that as a guiding light to constantly ask myself am I energising others? Am I empowering them to be their best selves? Am I giving them the confidence to do their best work?

“It can at times be draining if you’re more introverted, but the further you progress you realise leadership is all about how you make others feel. Of course, being great at your craft is essential, but that alone will only get you so far.

“Be good to others, do good work that resonates with you, and you will find your ‘Goldilocks zone’.”

What others say about Long:

Alex James, PHD Australia head of strategy Melbourne
I have had the pleasure of working with Mitch for two years now, and it’s an understatement to say that he is one of the best strategists in Australia right now. His talent to be able to synthesise complex challenges and quickly understand the core issues and opportunities at hand for his clients is second to none. Not only does this make it incredibly easy to make great change happen, he sees it through with passion, flair and drive and his unique touch! Mitch thinks deeply about communications and our industry and is a key leader amongst industry bodies to make our industry a better place and I feel genuinely lucky knowing he’s there – as he’s motivated for all the right reasons, to do great work that makes a difference. He is an exceptional leader with a ferocious pace, who is empathetic and understands that great leadership is the balance between strength and vulnerability (to quote the great RuPaul). I’m truly excited to see where Mitch goes and feel exceptionally lucky to work with him.

Alex Pacey, PHD Australia chief product officer
I have been lucky enough to see Mitch’s progression at PHD for the last seven years. He is by some distance the most talented strategist that I have had the pleasure of working in my 22 years in the industry. Mitch has an openness to learning that has powered his ability to uncover and deliver true insight across our business for multiple years and on multiple existing and new clients. Throughout his progression this openness has not diminished, in my experience this a very rare and valuable trait. For this reason amongst many others Mitch was a no brainer to lead our strategy team and the work he and the team has produced thus far along with the culture he has created has been outstanding. Although, not surprising!

Mark Jarrett, PHD Australia CEO
Often recognition of this sort goes to people who have moved around different organisations to gain wider experience. I’m especially proud of what Mitch has been able to achieve and experience both locally and globally by staying with PHD throughout his journey. From helping to strengthen D&I across our broader network as the co-chair of Omnicom’s Sydney Chapter of Open Pride, to being our youngest head of strategy in any office globally and helping drive award winning work for clients including Unilever and Google in collaboration with teams out of Sydney, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo, Mitch has crammed a lot into career to date. It’s been a privilege to see Mitch grow and evolve over his time at PHD, he’s an amazing strategist that we and our clients are lucky to have and I couldn’t think of a more worthy recipient of this award.

Freya Harvey, Google AUNZ product marketing manager, hardware
I couldn’t put pen to paper fast enough to recommend Mitch having had the absolute pleasure of both working with and learning from him over the past 4 years. His intelligence and passion combined with an incredibly open and collaborative attitude make him a sought after strategist and respected leader. He’s always one step ahead, asking the right questions and taking the time to understand businesses, products and consumers. This translates into an amazing ability to distil complex problems and exciting opportunities into clear and concise strategies that drive real impact. I can’t wait to see the continued impact Mitch will have on his clients and the industry.

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