As another UAE publisher withdraws from print auditing, are advertisers being taken for a ride?

There has been a worrying drop-off in the number of titles being audited in the UAE, raising concerns of exaggerated circulation claims and unethical accounting practices. Rana Hariz, Middle East director of BPA Worldwide, the US-based third-party verification company that has been ensuring regional publishers can prove their numbers, says: “A dozen titles have resigned this last year, some for financial reasons and others are ceasing publication.”

Campaign’s parent company Motivate and daily newspaper Gulf News are the only two major publishing houses left auditing titles in the UAE. Glenn Hansen, president and CEO of BPA Worldwide, says: “It is fair to say that Motivate and Gulf News are the standard-bearers for trust, truth and transparency. They are to be celebrated.”

The “financial reasons” argument doesn’t hold water, he says: “It is not the price of an audit that is the reason for resigning. Typically the cost of the audit is roughly the same price as one full-page ad.”

ITP, a large UAE publisher, is the latest to leave BPA. Its magazines include Arabian Business, Construction Week, Cosmopolitan Middle East, Hotelier Middle East and Time Out. Vogue Arabia, published by Nevora, also provides no verification of its print runs.

ITP declined to comment when asked about its decision.

BPA’s Hariz says there have been two main incentives for titles to get audited. “Those who were the first believed in the need for transparency and accountability in the market place,” she says. “Those who followed were pushed by the market to ditch their self-reported claims and provide actual figures that were assured by an independent, third-party organisation.” Without that push from marketers, the incentive is gone.

In a recent Gulf News feature, the newspaper’s commercial director Rajeev Khanna said: “Right now there is a bunch of publishers claiming high circulation but this is far from the truth and, sadly, advertisers lose significant advertising spend using such media. This will all change in the very near future as the UAE drives towards embracing universally accepted benchmarks of truth and transparency in all facets of conducting business.”

He added: “Eventually, the need for declaring honest audited figures will be recognised by both the advertisers and agencies. Truth shall prevail.”

In the absence of auditing, print media buying is open to abuse. Unaudited titles can claim vastly inflated circulation figures in order to charge brands a premium for ad placements based on false claims of reach
and cost-per-reader.

And the publishers behind unaudited titles can incentivise agencies to spend more with them by offering higher volume rebates, paid to the agency when a certain number or value of ads has been bought. This practice can encourage agencies to turn a blind eye to false numbers used to justify their spend. Ultimately it is paid for by clients, who must sign off spend based on unverified claims.

In 2016 an investigation by the Association of National Advertisers in the US found rebates are “pervasive”, despite agency groups denying they happen. In the Middle East they are more commonplace.

Reliable measurement and auditing of reach across media is felt by many to be a crucial front in the battle against such practices, which are ethically dubious at best and illegal at worst.

Gulf News’s Khanna says: “As the largest selling English language newspaper in the region, we take independent circulation audits very seriously. This is the key differentiator of solid, respected and scaled publications as opposed to the ‘wannabe publication houses’ quoting throwaway concocted figures with the sole idea of getting a share of the advertising pie, albeit in an unfair manner. It is time for media buying houses and clients to wake up to some brutal facts and recognise some ground realities. They are not doing themselves a favour by channelising advertising revenues into non-audited publications.”

Hariz says she cannot understand why advertisers themselves are not demanding more accountability for their advertising spend. “We need marketers in the Middle East to carry on the rallying cry that the media owners should not be scoring their own work,” she says. “Independent, third-party audits are needed.”

She warns: “Accountability may soon be gone in the market unless marketers demand audit and support it with their decision not to buy unaudited media, or buy much less.”

Campaign reached out to some of the largest advertisers in the UAE. We asked if they are concerned at the lack of accountability from unaudited titles, and whether they are satisfied with the unverifiable assurances they and their agencies receive. In the absence of reliable data, “best judgement” must steer their hand, said one brand chief. Some were reticent to address the issue on the record.

The major telcos, Etisalat and Du, said respectively they “do not comment on such topics” and “will be unable to comment on this matter”. A major bank also declined to comment, and satellite provider OSN did not respond to questions through its PR agency.

Fadi Ghosn, chief marketing officer at Nissan Middle East, says he is concerned about the lack of accountability from unaudited titles as global print spend has fallen in recent years. “The decline rate locally is less than other countries,” he says. “However the pricing is the major issue, as no justification is given based on audited circulation.”

He adds: “Audited titles are very transparent. However, pricing rationale is a challenge. Having less titles audited makes the pricing strategy somehow difficult and judgemental.”

Arunkumar Pallikandy, director of publishing at Havas Media Middle East, says: “We live in an era where independent third-party verification will never be as it once was. This poses a massive challenge to all who operate across the media ecosystem.”

He adds: “While it’s not perfect, there is still nothing as transparent as independent circulation, and if two titles are comparable on different metrics, the one that is audited will be the one considered”.

Irfan Ibrahim, regional business director at UM MENA, says: “We would love for all titles to be audited. It would certainly make our lives as planners better. However, there are certain titles we believe are extremely important to reach specific audiences and unfortunately they do not believe in the current audit practice, or for whatever reason do not participate.”

He adds that although recent years have seen a declining spend on print, magazines and newspapers are still an important way to connect with audiences. With increased focus on ROI and results, he says, audits for print titles are more important now than they have ever been. “If audits can help establish the connection to actual delivery of brand messages and campaigns, the better the chances of [print] surviving in the long-run.”

Maya Bou Ajram, business unit director at OMD, says that her agency uses BPA to ensure claimed circulation is accurate in terms of print and distribution. She says a print audit “is not meant to assume the strength of a publication to drive readership, but rather the business/network power of the title to ensure a solid reach”.

Marketers and those titles that are still audited need to keep pushing agencies to increase spend with publishers that can prove their figures. Otherwise, the UAE’s print market is in danger of going back to the dark ages of wildly exaggerated circulation claims, unscrupulous kickbacks and no way for advertisers to see where their spend is going.

Ian Fairservice, managing partner of Motivate, whose titles include Campaign (BPA confirmed circulation: 7,795), says auditing is costly but provides peace of mind to advertisers.

Motivate has one of the longest unbroken records of circulation audits in the region. What’s On has been audited since the early 1980s – first by the UK-based Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) and then BPA.

Open Skies, Emirates’ in-flight magazine, which we publish, has a verified circulation of 133,095, making it the highest circulation BPA title in the region. It has been audited since soon after its inception in 1986.

Of course auditing is an expensive process. There are the fees – which add up for a publisher like ourselves – and the cost of extra paperwork to keep printing and distribution numbers transparent to an international standard. Most significantly, it demonstrates we are investing in printing the number of copies we are claiming.

One by one publishers have shied away from audits, especially as times have become tough and the temptation to slash print runs to save money is, for many, irresistible.

Agencies are left with the dilemma of sticking with audited publications on accepted commission terms or supporting unaudited publications that can often afford to make it much more worth their while with bonus pages, inflated discounts and volume rebates, all financed by print savings.

As far as clients are concerned, caveat emptor remains the golden rule: buyer beware.