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SPH Media confirms fudging of circulation numbers: Will this leave advertiser trust broken?

SPH Media confirms fudging of circulation numbers: Will this leave advertiser trust broken?

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SPH Media has confirmed to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that it has found inconsistencies in its circulation data, following a review of internal processes. According to the company, these inconsistencies include subscription contracts.

While the spokesperson did not elaborate on further details, an article on The Straits Times (ST) said that discrepancy was of 10 to 12% which is around 85,000 to 95,000 daily average copies across all titles. There was also double counting of subscriptions and destructed copies included in the count. The article added that in another instance, a project account took in additional funding to purchase fictitious circulation numbers. Certain circulation numbers were also arbitrarily derived.

Circulation numbers have long been the basis of deciding the cost of ad space on publications. “As the organisation embarked on a new chapter, SPH Media initiated a review on internal processes in March 2022, including the reporting of circulation data.  Some inconsistencies in the reporting of the data were discovered, and we have immediately taken steps to strengthen processes. The staff involved [have] been taken to task, or [have] left the organisation,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson did not clarify if Eugene Wee, the chief customer officer, was impacted but sources close to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE say he is no longer with the firm. Wee was brought on board in 2021 to oversee divisions and functions that interface with its audience. This includes Circulation, the SPHRewards programme, and customer service, among others. Wee's appointment came less than half a year after he took on the role of head of SPH Magazines.

Last year the company also saw the departure of Warren Fernandez, long-time editor-in-chief of the English/Malay/Tamil Media (EMTM) group and editor of The Straits Times (ST). Succeeding him is Wong Wei Kong who takes over as editor-in-chief of the EMTM Group, and Jaime Ho, who will join SPH Media and assume the role of editor of ST. Wong will pass the baton of editor of The Business Times on to Chen Huifen. The review came after SPH Media took its position as a separate entity from mainboard-listed company Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). Following the move, the Ministry of Communications and Information said SPH Media would receive funding of SG$180million for the next five years.

Will this shake up advertiser confidence?

SPH Media has long been struggling with its ad dollars. According to past statements by the company, losses were contained through means such as extensive cost savings and reduction initiatives despite the continued secular decline of print media revenue. As of October 2021, the company said that over the two financial years, the cumulative loss from media was SG$78.8 million which is expected to widen further. With the impact of the Job Support Scheme (JSS) factored in, but not that of assumed depreciation, media’s operating loss is SG$13.0 million.

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, several industry players expressed their shock at the revelation of the news. However. they commented that having their own publications verify the news added a layer of credibility and transparency to taking control of the narrative of the situation.

“I believe this news could definitely shake up the existing advertisers portfolio, especially those who have been buying into print and signed master contracts with the publication,” said one former media agency chief. However, he added that those planning and buying media based on reach, which is likely to be the majority, would eventually realise that the circulation numbers should not impact their buying decision.

Those that buy based on targeted distribution (selected copies to be distributed in certain areas) or special buys (such as inserts and stick ons or belly bands), are in the bracket to ask for compensation, he added. Brands who also buy pull outs based on claimed circulation will unfortunately be left unhappy with the situation.

“Moreover, there are also advertisers who buy into the Business Times or ST due to their impression that print copies are circulated to companies and airlines. This news would definitely impact the future spending of such advertisers,” he said.

Others commented that given advertisers don’t base their spending on circulation data, it might not be that dire of an impact. “Many advertisers spend based on readership data measured by independent research bodies so this might not have an impact,” he said.  

He added that SPH acknowledging the news would be seen positively by many advertisers as it would help “mitigate trust issue that may have been seen as a likely outcome of such kind of news”.

“I still believe any impact will be short lived as we really never use circulation data for planning but this may enable advertisers to use the opportunity to push their costs down,” he concluded.

Related articles:

SPH Media's flagship Chinese paper Lianhe Zaobao embraces AI as it turns 100
Media agency veteran Helen Lee leaves SPH Media Trust to join LinkedIn
Leadership change at SPH Media as Warren Fernandez steps down

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