Mambo and Halfbrick: two versions of Australian creative entrepreneurship

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Arts programming on ABC TV has long been characterised by one major factor; its ability to be reliably dull. Though lately there seems to be an effort to liven it up. In recent weeks, two documentaries in particular have shown the ups and downs of creative entrepreneurship in Australia.

The first is Mambo: Art Irritates Life (Dir. Paul Clarke, 2016) which tells the story of the famous fashion brand which seemed to be everywhere in the 1990s. Through interviews with the business’s founder, Dare Jennings, and the artists who contributed the brand’s anarchic designs (plastered on t-shirts, board shorts and assorted paraphernalia), it tells the story of how, almost entirely without planning or strategy, the clothing line grew in popularity and cultural significance.

As the company’s financial success accumulates year after year, a handy graphic shows sales revenue climbing like one side of giddyingly steep mountain. Mambo seems to grow through a series of intuitive leaps, celebrity endorsement and cross category infiltration, but if Jennings had a systematic plan which led to the brand’s success, the documentary doesn’t detail it. Instead there are pleasing tales of how the stable of contributing artists benefited from their designs suddenly bringing in truckloads of cash, and how an inter-group rivalry developed which pushed them to deliver edgier and more striking images.

It’s all very nostalgic, not just for a time when everyone was wearing farting dog t-shirts, but for a time when you could build a world-conquering fashion brand in Australia, something that a combination of high production costs and a cash hungry business model seems to have extinguished for good. The documentary’s main point seems to be that Mambo’s crude and brazen designs had an outspoken, rebellious ethos that was the secret of its appeal. That appeal dissipated when the brand went mainstream, which the film pinpoints to when the Mambo creative team provided giant inflatable kangaroos at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. From then it descended into ‘dadwear’ and forever lost its cool.

It’s this decline that the film shies away from. There’s no handy chart showing the slide down the other side of that mountain. Instead, the brand’s sale to overseas interests and journey onto the clothing racks at Big W goes undocumented. That’s a shame because it feels like we got half the story. But the half we got tells the story of creative entrepreneurship is familiarly Australian terms – outsiders, larrikins, iconoclasts, schoolboy humour.

Then there’s Play to Win (Dirs. Sue Swinburne and Michael Angus, 2016), the story of Brisbane games studio Halfbrick. Halfbrick was a struggling games development company which struck gold in 2010 with Fruit Ninja, a fun, colourful time eater for various iDevices. The game’s success was almost instant and stratospheric. The money started pouring in at rate which makes Mambo’s climb up that mountain look sedate.

The documentary focuses on CEO Shainiel Deo, a smart, personable and highly driven man who worked hard to engender a laidback and fraternal culture at Halfbrick. As the company’s success grows so does Deo’s ambition, and he looks to access the massive games market in China. But his closeknit band of buds at Halfbrick are fracturing. One of the critical issues is an ideological shift; mobile games are moving to a freemium model – free to buy, but requiring in-app purchases to progress through the game. Some of Deo’s compadres yearn for the days when you just paid for a game once and played it to exhaustion.

This is a story about leadership and the pitfalls of switching business models. It’s a truism that companies which are unable to innovate are destined to fail. Deo can see that the business model underlying games is changing, but is unable – as much to his regret as anyone else’s – to bring his key people along with him. Advocates of business model innovation as a road to growth will probably have some sympathy with Deo, rather than his likeable co-workers who want to hang onto the (admittedly pretty recent) past.

The company has trouble replicating the success of Fruit Ninja and its attempts to develop a movie franchise of the title seem to breed only resentment and confusion from those who put the game together in the first place. Deo spends much time overseas and looks enviously while a business colleague lists his company on the NASDAQ. Sadly, his family life suffers as does his surrogate family life at Halfbrick. Senior staff/old friends leave, one after another.

This is a far more personal view of entrepreneurship than the Mambo documentary presented. There, business success was presented as a kind of happy accident, and business decline glossed over. In Deo’s case, business success was his consuming goal and its decline a deeply personal failure. (Even so, this is the polite version of Halfbrick’s troubles. A more scurrilous version is here.)

Mambo’s fall from favour was years ago now (and, it should be said, tempered by a successful exit via trade sale for the founder). Its art is celebrated and exhibited in major public galleries. Its key creative minds look back fondly on wild, heady days. Halfbrick’s journey is not yet over, but its tribulations are raw, the raised voices and angry words still fresh in Deo’s mind. Two distinctly different narratives on creative entrepreneurship; one comfortable and nostalgic, the other raw and painful.

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