Last week, something unusual happened: Telegraph Media Group (TMG), publishers of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, announced that it was pulling out of the ABC (that's the U.K.'s Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry-wide measurement of newspaper and magazine sales, covering about 1,200 titles).
The official announcement from TMG stated: "The Audit Bureau of Circulations results published today, January 16th, are the final set of ABC results Telegraph Media Group will take part in. The ABC metric is not the key metric behind our subscription strategy and not how we measure our success."
It is, perhaps, worth deconstructing this decision, given other events.
In effect, TMG is saying it will no longer subscribe to the industry's measurement of sales. Any passing cynic, like me, will feel obliged to point out that, at a time when newspapers are losing sales (both the daily and the Sunday paper were down 12 percent December 2019 over December 2018), this rather smacks of, "We don't like this set of numbers, so we're ignoring them. Meantime, here's another set, controlled by us."
The "controlled by us" bit comes from TMG's comment that it will be issuing subscriber numbers, or in Telegraph-speak: "Our core subscriber numbers … are omnichannel and we will communicate these numbers each month." PWC will have a role "assuring" the industry of the efficacy of these numbers.
Once again (and not forgetting that the "C" in "Cog" stands for cynical), it might be worth pointing out that the only value in any guarantee the industry has from TMG is that it will publish subscriber numbers — and that's assuming you believe the word of TMG.
Given this is the newspaper group that has from time to time been accused of behaving somewhat unethically when it comes to its journalism, I'm not sure that a promise to release data that it alone verifies before handing it over to PWC for "assurance" is worth much.
Remember the 2015 case involving the editorial coverage of HSBC? When a major advertiser led to the journalist Peter Oborne sticking to his principles and leaving the newspaper?
Frankly, whether or not you believe TMG's promises, this whole thing is worrying for a number of reasons.
First, those in the ad business have made it very clear that they expect validated, independently verified data to be at the heart of media measurement and, thus, central to decisions on where money is spent, and how. The WFA and (in the U.K.) ISBA have both made this principle crystal clear.
Second, wasn't it the newspapers that were at the forefront of the fuss about Facebook data? Data that isn't validated and is controlled by the vendor isn't worth the paper it's printed on; FB lied to its advertisers, and so on.
Indeed, the newspapers' own marketing association, Newsworks, makes much of the quality of its members' data, their transparency in measurement, and the like. And quite right, too. I'm not sure if Newsworks has commented on TMG's decision.
Third, it is rather insulting to the media agency business that TMG thinks it can just take away one piece of data and replace it with another. Agencies need sales data (via the ABC), subscriber data, and PAMCO on- and offline readership data. The more data they can get their hands on, the happier they'll be and the more rounded their advice to their advertisers.
Yes, of course, the odd press expert has emerged to tell us all that sales don't matter much in an era of digital, but that's hogwash. All exposures matter; if they didn't, why bother with a print title at all?
After all, those saying printed newspapers are irrelevant these days are usually the first people to complain when they appear in them as a result of some misdemeanour.
One commentator, Nick Langworthy got it right in Campaign: "The ABC is the bedrock of all print trading; to remove oneself from this trading model removes oneself from trading conversations."
I haven't noticed any agency CEOs condemning TMG's decision, although the IPA did issue a "strongly worded" statement.
Why the silence from the leaders of our largest agencies? Could it possibly have something to do with protecting their deals?
After all, it was only in October last year that the Cog Blog commented on a Campaign report pertaining to TMG's annual accounts. Here's what it had to say:
"Telegraph Media Group has disclosed for the first time in its annual accounts that it pays rebates to media agencies and clients. These rebates can take the form of cash payments, free advertising space, or a mixture of both," it said. "The company enters into agreements with advertising agencies and certain clients, which are subject to a minimum spend and typically include a commitment to deliver rebates to the agency or client based on the level and share of the spend over the contract period."
Presumably, these contracts contain zero provision to cover TMG from suddenly deciding it doesn't like the industry's data.
Will agency CEOs be writing to their Telegraph-using clients to tell them of the implications of the publisher's decision? Some will be raising concerns, I'm sure, but what about the biggest guys? Will they put their rebates at risk should advertisers decide to vote with their wallets?
Only two weeks ago, we commented: "Measurement is ... the topic of the moment."
Well, the first brick in the joint industry research wall has cracked. Hopefully, the crack can be filled, and any lasting structural damage avoided.
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