The Telegraph and The ABC

Last week an unusual thing happened. The Telegraph Media Group (TMG), publishers of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph announced that they were pulling out of the ABC (for overseas readers, that’s the UK’s Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry-wide measurement of newspaper and magazine sales covering around 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 they 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 the newspapers are losing sales (both the daily and the Sunday paper were down 12% 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 they will be issuing subscriber numbers. Or in Telegraph-speak: “..our core subscriber numbers which 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 that they will publish subscriber numbers assumes 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 them over to PWC for ‘assurance’ is worth a huge amount.

Remember the 2015 case involving the editorial coverage of HSBC, a major advertiser that led to the journalist Peter Oborne sticking to his principles and leaving the newspaper? Here’s the Cog Blog on that 2015 story.

Frankly whether you believe TMG’s promises or not this whole thing is a worry, for a number of reasons.

First, the ad business has 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 UK) ISBA have both made this principle crystal clear.

Secondly, wasn’t it the newspapers who were at the forefront of the fuss about Facebook data? Data that is not validated and is controlled by the vendor isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, FB lied to their advertisers, and so on?

Indeed, the newspapers’ own marketing association, Newsworks makes much of the quality of their members’ data, their transparency in measurement and so on. 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 they can just take away one piece of data and replace it with another. Agencies need sales data (via the ABC), subscriber data, 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 much matter 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 agency CEO’s 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 be 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 on TMG’s annual accounts. Here’s what ‘Campaign’ 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,” the accounts 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 they don’t like the industry’s data.

Will agency CEO’s 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 the biggest guys? Will they put at risk their rebates 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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