David Yaffa, proprietor of Yaffa Media, died in October 2018 aged eighty-four. He was a quiet empire-builder behind the scenes, but nevertheless had a big impact on Australia’s magazine industry.
He was just thirteen when his father died. By the age of twenty-one he was the running the family business which included a printery, a monthly publication and a syndication service providing cartoons for newspapers.
The publishing side of the business grew to five titles in the 1960s, and by the end of the century he had grown it into a thriving stable of more than thirty magazines and websites. This made it the second largest specialist publishing house in Australia.
He would have had many offers for the company over the years, but he loved the business and would never let it go. He had built it up, he was responsible for its success or failure, and there was no way he was going to let it fail or be taken over.
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 6.00pm, 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 amuse his managers with warnings to keep things confidential (“Loose lips sink ships”) and how tough things were for the business (“The wolves are 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.