Media agency bosses slam AMAA exodus as 'foolhardy' and 'hypocritical'

Magazine transparency has been questioned after major publishers pulled out of circulation audits.

Media agency bosses have described the exodus of Australia’s largest magazine publishers from the Audited Media Association of Australia (AMAA) as a “terrible decision”, “foolhardy” and “hypocritical” in the context of recent attacks by traditional media on Facebook’s transparency.

Yesterday, Pacific Magazines became the third major magazine publisher in a week to pull out of the independent measurement body, which provides official circulation figures of newspapers and magazines to the market.

Pac Mags joined Bauer and NewsLifeMedia in what appears to be an orchestrated attempt in the past week to undermine circulation as a measurement metric altogether. Fairfax made the decision to no longer submit its digital paid subscriptions to the audit earlier this year.

It leaves the AMAA and the circulation metric hanging by a thread, with the major media companies pulling out, but there are still some 800 publications that are continuing with the audit.

The move has angered some media agency leaders who believe it is self-serving because publishers don’t like the decline in circulation figures exposed by the AMAA, while readership is preferred because it offers a more positive story to present to market.


A 'terrible' decision

Maxus CEO Mark McCraith told AdNews he thought the move was poorly thought out and would erode transparency in the struggling media channel.

“I think it is a terrible decision by Pacific, Bauer and NewsLifeMedia to move away from at least the easiest recognisable metric of how many copies they sell,” he said, pointing out that he is a board member of the AMAA.

“I think they're scared of the circulation results when they come out and they're scared about circulation dropping. They're being foolhardy in thinking that readership is going to solve their problems.

“I think it's really funny when the industry is calling out Facebook for more transparency and the magazine industry is saying, 'no, we don't want that',” he continued.

“They want to hide behind another cloak of research rather than rely on circulation because they just don't like the numbers.”

A blow to transparency

Carat Australia CEO Paul Brooks told AdNews he wasn't consulted by magazine publishers about the change in direction over measurement and it would place even greater pressure on their transparency.

“We're all in an environment now where we're all requesting greater transparency, measurement and metrics around media channels and media performance. The direction this industry is going and the requirements we want as an agency and the clients want seems at odds with the decision they've made,” he said.

“If anything it could put pressure on their medium to grow or stem the decline.”

Another source told AdNews that retail clients he has been in contact with are concerned over publishers no longer submit circulation figures, however, they wanted to “let the dust settle” before taking a public position on the issue.

For significant print spenders, like Harvey Norman and Domayne, the move by large publishers to ditch circulation is a “massive blow to transparency and accountability”.

“Readership can hide the primary reader and the primary purchaser. It should be concerning to agencies because the move will mean less data for them, which means less transparency,” he said.


Circulation – a “ground-zero” metric

When media agencies consider how they invest in print, circulation is a regarded as a benchmark figure with readership and other variables that come into play.

The AMAA is the major verification body in Australia that measures circulation while Roy Morgan and EMMA measures readership, but these figures are based on market research rather hard sales figures.

Although some publishers argue readership is a more meaningful measure of reach, it is less accurate than circulation and both metrics are used in investment decisions, as are other variables such as environment, fit, integration requirements and other factors.

“You would never make an investment decision without having some decent, quantitative metrics be that circulation or readership...the circulation figures are as robust as you can get (in print),” Brooks said. “For me it seems a strange decision and counter-intuitive to the way every other channel is going.”

McCraith was more forthright in his assessment of the importance of circulation: “From my point of view as the leader of an agency, circulation is critical to the health of the business. Unless you are measuring the actual physical distribution of the paper or magazine, what hope have you got? How do you believe readership figures anymore?”

He said he doesn't buy the reason being used by some publishers that the cost of being AMAA audited is prohibitive.

“It's nothing, in the case of Bauer it's like $70,000 a year... At the end of the day they are trying to disguise their circulation figures. Say it's 100,000, they will say 'but we have 900,000 readers'. We don't know if Roy Morgan or EMMA are as accurate as the circulation figures and you have to have a basic, ground-zero metric and circulation is the best one around.”

Brooks said what publishers could have consulted advertisers and agencies leading up to the decision to pull out.

“How do they re-engage advertisers and agencies and give them some confidence around the medium moving forward,” he said.


Transparency doesn’t attract ad dollars

But a source close the AMAA, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told AdNews part of the problem is the pressure media agencies place on publishers as ad dollars shift elsewhere.

“Publishers have felt like they have been held to a higher standard of transparency because they publisher circulation and readership. TV doesn’t have to do that,” the source said.

“This is them realising they’ve provided a lot of transparency but it hasn’t turned into dollars because agencies are putting their money into digital.

“The lack of transparency is on the back of the lack of support of the print channel. You can’t expect publishers to invest in double layers of reporting and then not put revenue in magazines.”

Yesterday, PacMags said the media company will continue to engage with the AMAA on alternative measurements they are currently developing that measure across platforms.

“Pacific is absolutely committed to providing accurate and transparent audience measurement. Granular audience-first, cross-platform metrics are where the market is demanding our focus, and reflects what we see as the future for our evolving, dynamic brands,” PacMags CEO Gereurd Roberts said.

In Bauer's announcement it will pull out of the AMAA audit, it also revealed it would continue to back EMMA data.

EMMA executive director Brian Hogan tells AdNews he doesn’t believe circulation is the primary trading currency in the modern media landscape.

“The reality is circulation in a historical legacy. It was used for many years because it was appropriate for that particular time. But the landscape has completely changed and it’s now common for a newspaper or magazine to have multiple readers per copy and that engagement should be counted because it’s of value to advertisers,” he says.

“The move from the AMAA puts EMMA data in a critical role in the context of audience measurement and the fact of the matter is the vast majority of media investment decisions are made on surveyed audience data.” 

In the meantime, the country's largest magazine publishers will need to convince the market of the merits of reducing transparency at a time when its focus has been sharpened in competing channels. 

*Yaffa Media, the publisher of AdNews, does not submit its figures to the AMAA.

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