Media agencies stress the importance of having an ABC certificate, but are marketers and clients as aware of its role? Joanna Wright finds out.
No ABCs, no advertising!
Gordon Patterson repeats this media industry mantra whenever he can, in the hope that it will stick. He recently cited it when questioning why The New Age (TNA) newspaper still hasn’t applied for certification by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). In an article in the Daily Maverick in August, Patterson expressed bewilderment at the newspaper avoiding having its circulation figures audited, saying that mere readership figures don’t give advertisers a full picture of the newspaper’s profile.
All Media Products Survey figures show TNA to have attracted a readership of about 39 000 in its first year. But readership is only one aspect of a publication’s reach and is potentially flawed as it relies largely on reports from consumers. The function of the ABC is to provide accurate data on core circulation so that marketers and advertisers can make educated decisions when buying advertising space in print publications. This works in conjunction with readership figures and a good knowledge of their market.
Andrew Evans, marketing manager of Shell, underlines the ABC’s importance. “As Shell, we are aware of the Audit Bureau of Circulations. I do think it is a well-established source that the industry relies on for confirmation of circulation and readership figures. There are times when it is vital to reach the critical mass, so understanding the numbers that we are likely to touch, both from a consumer and trade perspective, is important.
“There are of course other factors that determine media space selection, such as the profile of the market, the environment, the geographic location of the audience and so on. However, putting the figures to those we want to reach ultimately helps in estimating the likely exposure,” says Evans.
On the agency side, media planners and buyers certainly do emphasise the role of the ABC’s data in their schedules. The ABC recently put out a presentation in which they quoted a number of top industry professionals – including media guru Gordon Muller, Lynne Diab of FNB and Karen Phelan of Full Circle – some of whom echoed the refrain, ‘No ABCs, no advertising’. “This is really your currency in terms of your proof of sales,” says Phelan.
Marketers, who spoke to The Media, said the agencies they deal with definitely emphasise advertising in audited publications. Celia Bayley of Sappi says that she buys advertising through The MediaShop, who stress ABC accreditation. She also buys advertising herself through her own agency, Troika, in trade journals, as she knows their reach and they appeal to her market, the quality of the journalists who write for them, their competitors and so on. Bayley says the ABC data is useful and credible to her. Sappi does advertise in publications that aren’t audited by the ABC, “but only [in] long-standing reputable publications or ‘start-ups’ that have particular appeal to my audiences and which I feel will fill a particular gap in the market”.
Having an ABC accreditation is a criterion of entry for industry awards such as the Picas. But marketers don’t all hold the certificate in as much esteem as media agencies. As Bayley implies, good marketers will know their industry and will not have to go through agencies to buy space.
Evans says Shell also advertises in non-accredited publications. “The selection of media space should be an ongoing discussion between marketers and advertisers. In most instances, we are advised to avoid unaudited titles. However, there are exceptions to the rule. At times, reputable publishers come up with exciting press and print titles. Normally it takes up to 12 months for these titles to be audited. In such situations, marketers and their agencies have to make an educated guess based on the history of the publisher and on the gap that the title is closing in the market place. The new unaudited title can be a viable option,” says Evans.
Agencies, then, do seem to place more emphasis on such data than do marketers. It’s important to be able to expose clients to a wide range of options for media space and the ABC figures provide invaluable information on titles the client may not be familiar with. Sean Press, CEO of Contact Media (publisher of Afropolitan, Wits Business School Journal, JoziBeat and others), says he has found that in some cases his sales team actually had a tougher time getting advertising after their publications’ certification than they did before, because times have changed – clients’ marketing budgets are tighter and more business is coming through agencies.
Says Press, “Prior to Wits Business Journal being audited, the market/economy was very buoyant. So the selling of ads was a lot easier, whether you were audited or not. We did have clients ask for our audited figures on occasion, but not very often, especially when going to the client directly. With markets changing and a lot of our business coming from agencies, audited figures are a big requirement.”
As for TNA, its status as a company without ABC accreditation has not seemed to affect its ability to attract advertising – Politicsweb reported in August that the newspaper is in the top 10 publications in South Africa in terms of ad spend, pulling in an estimated R49 million in the first six months of 2012. When it launched in late 2010, there was widespread concern in the media industry that TNA was an ANC mouthpiece, as its owners are seen as being close to President Jacob Zuma. These concerns have partly been laid to rest by independent research conducted by Media Tenor, which shows that the paper prints similar levels of complimentary and critical stories about the government to other newspapers.
However, TNA’s lack of ABCs has revived concerns that the publication is not being run transparently. When The Media put this to the paper’s CEO, Nazeem Howa, he responded: “We sincerely believe we have proved our critics wrong, as we have consistently delivered a newspaper that reflects on our country fairly – applauding when required, criticising when it is needed…
“As far as concerns around transparency go, every part of our operation is transparent. We are fully audited by KPMG, in addition to our own internal audit process. It is also very interesting to note that our printing is done by one competitor and our distribution by three others. So they, too, have an ability to look into our business.”
TNA may apply for ABC certification, he said, but they want to get their distribution and circulation management systems ticking over properly before they do.
Howa says: “We are close to completing that task right now, and with the memories of how ThisDay was closed after their ABC audits were challenged, we certainly want to ensure that we get it right.”
When asked if he felt TNA has missed out on attracting advertising, Howa replied, “I am sure it has, but we have also been able to pull a wide base of advertisers who have seen the benefit of advertising in our title. The best example is Outsurance, which measures responses very carefully. They are now in their second commitment, which shows that we have been able to deliver very good returns against their investment. Some advertisers have asked us to provide certified publishing lists which we have been happy to do and it has been adequate to close the deal with them.
“Now that we are 20 months old, we are certainly expecting more focus on our business from our critics and competitors as Nielsen has just released statistics that places us in the top 10 of ad spend in daily newspapers. Co-incidently, this announcement was made at the last release of ABCs.”
Howa suggested that in an age of falling circulation, revised means of measurement may have to be adopted. “If we consider the current newspaper landscape, perhaps we need to find more flexible ways of measuring newspapers. Too often, sales at less than 50% are not considered in measures. It is our view that if newspapers are to remain relevant, they will need to deepen penetration, even if it is at less than 50% of cover price…
“Given the pressures on copy sales across the South African market, it may be critical to review our current ABC rules to provide more flexibility as has been done in some other markets, which has now led to growth in newspaper sales.”
The truth is that ABCs, as an across-the-board print measurement, is an industry norm. It is a leveller and a clear indication of what you are getting when you buy advertising space. So, perhaps it is time for more marketers to join Patterson in saying: “No ABC, no advertising”.
This story was first published in the October 2012 issue of The Media magazine.