The incendiary resignation letter from Peter Oborne cites the removal of articles from the Telegraph’s website , claiming the articles went because of pressure from HSBC as a major advertiser.
Buzzfeed have the story (and the article( here).
I know nothing of HSBC (other than I bank with them and that First Direct is a model of probity), but I know a lot about the pernicious power of financial advertising.
The greater the dependency of an organisation on advertising revenues, the harder it is to remain independent. This goes not just for on the page (including webpage) advertising but the more subtle sponsorship of events and even education.
What starts out as an altruistic venture, quickly turns into a search for “ROI” as advertisers seek a return on the investment. Necessarily there are conflicts between what is good for the advertiser and what is best for the reader/member even pupil.
The dead hand of advertising impacts on the great pension debates we are having. The vested interests with the weight of advertising behind them stifle and distort debate. Few organisations can rise above the “they would say that” test!
This works at a personal as well as a strategic level.
It is so hard to maintain editorial independence when your bonus or the very funding of your job is dependent on the ongoing support of the organisation that you are exposing. Which is why (whether there is substance to these allegations or not), I instinctively side with Peter Oborne.
For it’s first 12 months, when its transactional revenues have not been sufficient to match development costs, my own venture, www.pensionplaypen.com has benefited from revenues from NOW and Legal & General and ITM. I hope those organisations benefit from this advertising but they know very well that I will not promote their product because of their advertising.
I have been very impressed by Legal & General, especially since they have moved their investment and workplace pension teams into one. I continue to be impressed by NOW but have been critical of some aspects of their proposition both on my blog and in the pension press. ITM’s middleware has never been directly promoted as part of our solution.
I know how hard it is to remain independent and my thanks to my advertisers is for their understanding that the value of our service is nothing if we are anything less.
The big loser in Peter Oborne’s resignation will not be HSBC, the stories about their inadequate accounting remain on other influential websites, it is the Telegraph. But by association, financial advertising in general, which when it sits alongside editorial or conferences or “educational” programs, inevitably compromises.
Looking around my flat, I can see a pen from OPDU, a notebook from JLT , even a plastic piggybank from Hampshire County Council. My rucksack is emblazoned with a NOW logo. I am a tart for tat!
But the inducements rule, that my company follows scrupulously , recognises that the greatest care needs to be taken in attending conferences, or educational courses , even reading articles which (by dint of surrounding articles) may become advertorial.
Www.pensionplaypen.com is now advertising free, as is this blog, as is the www.firstactuarial.co.uk. I have to pay www.wordpress.org to have the ads removed from here!
We may take more advertising but those advertisers know that it will not purchase a blind eye to imperfections. Nor will it lead to sponsored articles where the words of the Pension Plowman are written by those paying him.
The bravest and best advertisers are those who continue to support a venture through thick and thin (witness Morten Nilsson’s stoical response to criticism of his service which you can now find at the bottom of yesterday’s blog).
In the short term , advertising can achieve a return on investment by obstructing editorial independence, but in the longer term, the divide between the editors desk and those in marketing must be scrupulously maintained.
There are no short-cuts for independence.
Ironically, the product that has most value on my sites is independence. Organisations that want to buy into this commodity can do so knowing that they will be treated in exactly the same way whether they pay us money or not.
If you want to associate yourself with our high standards, then we’re happy to take your money as it allows us to develop faster and improve the buying experience for others. It will also allow us all to eventually get paid for this endeavour.
So here’s a bit of free advertising for those who have stuck with us, we’re grateful to you , but we’re not in your debt!