The Audit Bureau of Circulations is a respectable not-for-profit organisation whose goal is to audit the net paid circulation of member publishers - through a rigorous process of rules, procedures, mandatories, documents, report checks and surprise checks - delivering every six months, an authentic certificate of paid-up circulation.
Several years ago, when print was the dominant medium, the weighty ABC tome was the Bible of the media operations department in an ad agency. Much has changed since then. Circulation has ceased to mean much to the advertiser or media planner, whether total, paid, net paid or net net paid. In the past 10 years, readership data has grown in availability, frequency and richness, and media planners have come to rely upon them more and more.
Going beyond readership, research now even tries to predict a reader's likely response to the placement of an ad - by page, day of the week, size, shape, content, context and so on. All of which leaves the earlier dependence on a simplistic overall circulation figure far behind. So where does this leave the ABC? From a once hallowed body, has it ceased to be relevant? Or worse, has it ceased to even command the respect it once did?
Marketing strategies to woo readers in the face of stiff competition have left ABC and its stringent audit rules far behind. The ABC, in its purest form, recognises only those copies which have been fully paid for by the purchaser or subscriber, at predetermined trade terms. Anything beyond this, done to induce purchase by giving discounts or attractive promotional offers, are frowned upon and given a 'below-the-belt' status. The copies that die-hards in the ABC sneer at.
Most media planners and advertisers, however, do not now scoff at these below-the-belt numbers. I receive a copy of The Economist every week, courtesy Sri Lankan Airlines. I don't value it any less because I don't pay for it. On the contrary, it increases my goodwill towards both the airline and the magazine.
Our initial dipsticks in Mumbai show that while the introduction of Mumbai Mirror into a Times of India home may be free, it has helped to draw the younger readers in the household, who earlier couldn't be bothered to read a newspaper. Shouldn't advertisers be interested in these new readers, even if ABC doesn't think they warrant being counted into their certificate?
It's high time that this august body peopled by highly-seasoned and senior members of the publishing community woke up and smelt the coffee. Large publishers have withdrawn their membership, and refused to be audited by a set of rules the market can no longer live by. Smaller, local and regional publishers, who would benefit from the sanctity of an ABC certificate, now fight shy of being audited because the entire audit process is too unwieldy for their systems to accept.
Of late, the ABC has been trying to rejuvenate itself and adapt itself to market realities. For one, training programmes for media planners have been held in Mumbai and Delhi. But much more needs to be done about the audit rules and processes themselves. Internationally, the ABC is as respected as ever. All forms of marketing strategies are recognised, measured and audited - even electronic editions.
Memberships of the ABC run into thousands. Here, in our country, from more than 2,000 publications, it is sad to see the ABC down to less than 400 audited publications, with some of the highest-read publications in the country not even bothering to get audited. Losing relevance is one thing - and can be corrected. Losing respect is quite another - and that's what ABC has to work at to arrest.
(The author is director, Media Services, Lintas India)