The special relationship between publishers and advertisers is on the rocks

It’s always sad when you come across a once happy relationship that is now on the rocks – particularly when one of the couple doesn’t even seem to notice.

Minor aspects of the union that might once have been overlooked become much bigger issues once the downward spiral begins.

By the time both parties realise how bad things are and promise to change, it can be too late. So I’m sad to see one of Australia’s longest relationships headed in the direction.

I refer, of course, to the growing loss of trust between Australia’s publishers and advertisers.  

Over the years there have of course been previous transgressions, forgiven in the give and take of the relationship.

But then came autorefresh. It gradually began to dawn on advertisers and media agencies that their partner had been cheating on them.

They were selling them a reader once but charging them multiple times. Once they were caught – and in many relationships the realisation dawns only gradually – they promised to change. And they’ve kept repeating the promise.

The truth of course is that despite the promises, nothing really happened. The autorefresh continues.

Everytime somebody dodges being audited or is caught misleading the market (you may remember our rival AdNews’ creative behaviour over both its print and online numbers) things get a little worse.

Once the trust has gone, the relationship goes onto probation.

Which is why this week’s Crikey revelations about Fairfax’s circulation issues with The Age rocks that buying relationship.

There are explanations, possibly even good explanations, but previous experience makes it harder to take things on trust.

If this was the first time, there would have barely been a ripple.

It didn’t really help that the explanation appeared to miss the point of the allegation – accused of exploiting a loophole, the answer was that they hadn’t actually broken the audit rules.

Rather like Bill Clinton did not have sexual relations with that woman.

Maybe not, but as we now know, something sure went on.

The leaked email seemed to suggest that they knew the market wouldn’t be happy if it learned of the practice so decided not to launch a new initiative that would have exposed it.

Issuing an explanation that everything was okay because they didn’t launch that initiative, without dealing with the issue of the ongoing questionable practice, doesn’t quite address the main point.

Rather like a cheating spouse telling their partner that they were thinking of them the whole time they were with someone else.

So can the relationship be saved? Perhaps – all things considered, most advertisers seem to be being remarkably passive about all the previous infidelities. The other party – and I mean all the publishers, not just Fairfax – don’t seem to realise how much trouble the relationship is in.

Otherwise, why would they be throwing so many delaying tactics into revealing individual edition sales information?

The trust has almost gone. At some point the last chances will run out.

Tim Burrowes


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