In the Arab world, auditing is a burgeoning practice and increasingly seen as a key way for advertisers to know that their money is being appropriately spent and for media to know that their revenue matches their circulation. A few years ago, a small handful of newspapers were audited and circulation figures were rarely publicized, leaving room for arbitrary pricing of advertising space and non-transparent business practices. Now, there are more than 100 audited titles. APN spoke to Aspen Aman, Business Development Manager of BPA Worldwide, the global auditor of the media, about how auditing is quickly taking off across the Middle East and becoming more of a necessity for the most competitive newspapers.
By Alexandra Waldhorn
Auditing is a watchdog for the media. Similar to how the media calls for transparency in the government, auditing ensures that a paper's circulation and distribution figures are accurately given to their audiences, advertising agencies and potential advertisers. Developed auditing practices also signify a mature newspaper industry characterized by honest relationships between different actors in the newspaper business.
APN: What is BPA?
Aspen Aman: BPA is a non-profit trade association based in the US. The company is over 75 years old and we audit more than 2500 media groups in almost 30 countries. The organization has a membership of 2600 advertiser and agency members, with a majority of buyers [advertisers] and a minority of media owners. By having a majority of buyers we can protect ourselves from becoming a "publishers' club" and ensure that the buying community has confidence that we are not unconsciously or deliberately skewing information to benefit a publisher.
APN: What makes BPA different from other auditing organizations?
Aspen Aman: We are the only audit bureau of circulation organization that has an international mandate. Every other audit bureau of circulation out there focuses on a national market, and perhaps a neighboring market. So you have ABC US for example, who audits in the United States and Canada, and ABC UK does the same thing in the UK and Ireland. We have a mandate to produce audit reports in an international media "currency", without any national limits.
APN: How is an "international mandate" a plus?
Aspen Aman: International advertisers like Nokia or Toyota run ad campaigns across different national media markets, and so they need circulation or web data that is measured in the same way to facilitate market analysis and penetration. We offer that necessary uniformity of information.
APN: Do you have any specific audit methods and guidelines?
Aspen Aman: We have rulebooks that we follow in order to offer a clear methodology and added transparency. We have a rulebook for analyzing consumer titles, business titles, and for events and online outlets we have other rulebooks. And, even when newspapers provide the same type of content we have rulebooks for the paid newspapers and rulebooks for the free distribution ones. All this is available online, because it's really about openness and efficiency. On the development side, we follow the laws of the market. If we start having several clients in a region, and we feel that the region is ripe for sustained auditing, then we open an office there.
APN: You have recently opened an office in the Middle East. Can you describe that process?
Aspen Aman: We have had an office in Dubai for three years now. Before that, we were going through a local company but the boom of that particular market was undeniable so I was asked to develop the project in April 2006. Although our office currently covers the entire region, our focus is on the GCC and the Levant. This doesn't mean that we wouldn't audit for a publisher elsewhere, it just means that we have a lot of demands from those areas as opposed to Egypt for example that might not yet be ripe for effective auditing.
APN: When you say the market has to be ready, how do you make that assessment and what is particular to the Middle East?
Aspen Aman: We use different benchmarks that depend on the level of saturation of the media market. In Europe or North America for example, my counterparts approach publishers, look at their advertising rate card (which is a document provided by a newspaper or other print publication featuring the organization's rate for advertising) and if there is potential to sell enough ads to cover the cost of the auditing then they push for it. That is also how we assess the return that the audit will generate. In the Middle East, on the other hand, rate card information is not always public, so we don't know the amount of discounting going on. We basically rely on what is published and make estimations for the rest of the market. Another difference is that publishers tend to ask for an audit, and that helps others realize the importance and to a larger extent the benefit for all in releasing accurate rank cards. But, I think most publishers in the region who are asking to be audited, are realizing that this the best practice that they can do.
APN: How do they know the benefits of being audited?
Aspen Aman: We spend a lot of time on outreach and training. I think I have spent about 50 percent of my time doing advocacy and outreach since I arrived in the Middle East. We basically explain to ad agencies, and to a lesser extent to advertisers, the importance of an audit and how they can use the information. We also get in touch with publishers that need to understand the development boost that an audit can bring to their enterprise.
APN: Is your outreach and advocacy paying off in the Middle East?
I believe so. In the GCC market for example, we have gone from virtually no audit data to having media buyers push for it. Take the examples of OMD, Media Edge, Starcom, Univeral, and Mindshare, who have all told their staff to assess whether publishers who are looking for ad revenue are being audited. The media buyers will not only rely on the sales pitch of a publisher, they want independent research on the effective reach of the media they might advertise in. Of course, in the Arab language market, there might not be the option to go for an audited publication but when the choice can be made - when a non-profit third party can confirm that the ad numbers are true for example - then the audited newspaper will have a significant advantage in convincing advertisers. If you do have a choice between an audited publication and a non-audited publication, you should be opting for the audited publication because that publisher is being open with you and that publisher is able to start to quantify really basic things like Return On Investment on your ad spend because there is data that is not coming from the publisher.
APN: Can you give us a picture of the success of auditing in the Middle East?
Aspen Aman: Before we opened in Dubai, we were flying auditors in and doing our advertising outreach from London. By the time the office in Dubai was on its feet, we had 22 clients in the region. Today, we have over 100. Although it's a good number, we are still missing quite a few publications, but no market has 100 percent penetration, even the saturated ones. That is not a realistic target at all.
We do have a lot of room for growth in terms of publications that really should be getting audited that would benefit from getting audited. In the case of Arabic language newspapers in the region, the advertisers - international ones - are putting great pressure in saying why aren't these key titles in the region that claim to, and probably do reach, huge numbers of key demographics on the Arabic language side of the market choosing to be audited yet? So it is not just that the publisher should recognize that there are benefits - which there are, internal operational benefits as well as sales benefits obviously. But the advertising community is getting increasingly accustomed to having some data from someone other than the publisher, no matter how good the publication is.