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March 28, 2007

AD:TECH CRISIS: What does it mean for the events industry?

On 10 November last year, the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), which produces certified audits of trade show attendances, issued a Certificate of Attendance of 9,124 for Ad:Tech London, the DMG World Media event for interactive marketing. Three months later on 20 February this year, a certificate was reissued restating the total as 5,245, a considerable revision.

Since the release of the restated figure, furore has erupted across the exhibition industry, raising a number of questions. Where did the erroneous figure come from? How can marketers trust future certifications? If dmg was at fault, should they not be disciplined by the Association of Event Organisers (AEO), which liaises closely with ABC and of which the event organiser is a member?

None of these questions really matter. The real issue is that the last thing the exhibition industry needs is destabilisation at a time when attendance figures are in decline. Particularly in an area that directly affects marketers’ ability to assess the effectiveness of the medium. What the industry needs are facts and solutions, showing a professional, open approach that inspires confidence that the situation has been investigated thoroughly and dealt with efficiently – not gossip and rancour.

But is the industry up for it?


The ABC loophole
Essentially the problem occurred because of a “loop hole” in ABC policy, whereby if a company is deemed to be a reputable organisation by ABC, it is allowed to claim its figures are the official audited figures, when in fact they have simply been submitted to ABC pending auditing. This is done to allow exhibition organisers to get their figures out as quickly as possible, and is a standard ABC policy... so nothing underhand there.

When DMG submitted its figures, ABC had no reason to question them, and it wasn’t until the figures were questioned by certain members of the exhibitions industry that attention was drawn to this. Throughout the process, it appears, ABC has followed policy to the letter, but this has left some in the industry with a bitter taste in their mouths. The main questions being why DMG continue using the erroneous stats for its marketing when it was well aware of the them being wrong, and why was nothing done to stop it.


The organiser's response
While DMG has apologised for this and, according to our sources which have seen the recent released AEO report on the whole debacle, has been appropriately censured on the matter, the ABC remains steadfastly tight lipped.

"We made a mistake and provided the wrong data. A number of factors were involved including a staff member that was inexperienced in the use of external audience audits and the first time use of a registration company which was also inexperienced in dealing with ABC," says DMG World Media's Mia Eng. "Our manager was attempting to follow our practice in the USA, which is to quote both total registration and onsite attendance, even though there was no total registration field on the submission form. Overall, the report may have been confusing and this led to the ABC issuing the first certificate based on inaccurate data. We regret that it took so long to recognise the error and that our efforts to correct the situation were ineffective, but we have now worked with the individuals involved to ensure this does not happen again. We have apologised to the AEO and its member companies and satisfied the AEO Board that this was an honest mistake, and that with new procedures in place this will not happen again."

Pointing the finger
The ABC's response has the look of a well-oiled machine, and we have published it in full separately click here. The gist of which is said is that the auditing body followed its policies to the letter, and that although adjustments do happen, they are very rare. However, this was a pretty major adjustment.

There are those subsequently who have called for the expulsion of dmg from the AEO, but, pending sight of the report, the feeling is that the AEO have dealt with this firmly and fairly.

"On 22nd March 2007, this issue was discussed at the AEO Board meeting in conjunction with a briefing on the detailed findings of the internal review," continues Eng. "The Board agreed that the situation had been thoroughly reviewed and the appropriate actions taken so as to resolve this matter without further discussion."

Commenting on the incident, AEO director Hilary Lawson says: "The AEO became involved in the issue when a complaint was raised by another member with reference to our code of practice. The AEO acted as mediator in discussions between the complainants and with dmg, and the complaint has now been resolved to the complainants' satisfaction."

Meanwhile, EIA charimanTrevor Foley comments: "This was an unfortunate situation. But dmg world media chief executive Mike Cooke both took responsibility for it and put it right as quickly as possible, once the audited figure was known.  Although ABC has not covered itself in glory in this instance, it does, however, prove the value of attendance audits. Furthermore, in response to questions, this is a matter that in no way reflects on Brenda Daly and her role as AEO chair, a position supported by the AEO Board last week."
While it is far too easy to point the finger of blame at ABC, it does have a serious point to answer, namely: why did it not at least advise dmg to stop trading on the erroneous figures. This is a pressing issue that needs to be cleared up and, in particular, the policy where the body allows companies to use un-audited figures, however reliable they may appear to be.

The implications of calling into questions the workings of ABC are much too far reaching for this to be left unchallenged, but the organisation is going to face a major backlash should it continue to offer just well-crafted, standard responses to this question. There are already those such as events company Ithaca’s manging director Andy Center – one of the first to call dmg’s figures into question – who will now be putting his business's audits through another auditing body.


Never again…?
What we need now is the industry to put in place systems and policies that will pevent this from happening again. "dmg world media is undertaking a thorough review of its procedures for supplying attendance data and marketing collateral to external bodies; and in turn, setting up the appropriate training to accomodate this," says Eng. "We, along with the AEO and ABC, are confident that this was a one-off incident as there is no evidence that this has ever occurred in the past. Where ABC has conducted audits for our events, its standard follow-up checks have further proven its audits to be accurate. This particular incident was uncovered as a result of such a standard follow-up procedure."

At the end of its missive, ABC states: "ABC continually reviews its rules and processes via the Trade Exhibition Specialist Committee. Any changes to processes and procedures that this Committee feel is necessary, and which are authorised by ABC’s Council, will be introduced at the earliest opportunity.

"All comments or industry recommendations are welcomed by ABC and would be considered by the Trade Exhibition Specialist Committee, which comprises individuals representing exhibitors and organisers as well as the AEO."

We've made some recommendations already, and it is up to all those who care to offer constructive feedback, either through EVENTS:review or directly to the AEO and ABC. Marketers need confidence in exhibitions to take them seriously as part of the marketing mix. ABC and the AEO play a crucial role in delivering this confidence. 

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