The demise of the advertorial business

By Felix Salmon
September 3, 2009
March 2006 blog entry and its July 2006 follow-up, there are now more than 50,000 words of comments from people either involved or thinking about getting involved in this business.

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Two of the most popular blog entries I ever wrote were on the subject of AFA press. AFA is a publisher of sleazy advertorials, targeted mainly at companies in developing markets. (In the US, they operate under the name “Summit Communications”, when producing inserts for the New York Times.) Between my original March 2006 blog entry and its July 2006 follow-up, there are now more than 50,000 words of comments from people either involved or thinking about getting involved in this business.

But finding the good stuff amidst so much volume is not easy, so it’s great that Alan Furth has now blogged his own experiences working for this kind of company.

I was in charge of the editorial for the supplements, so I had to “interview” CEO’s and key government officials on their views about the attractiveness for business of their countries and companies.

A typical “interview” was structured as a 30-minute conversation that had to strike a delicate balance between gathering information for the copy of the supplements, and most importantly, making the interviewee say the right things that would allow my accompanying colleague — invariably an attractive, sharp, aggressive saleswoman as most people in positions of power in the developing world are still men — to construct the arguments for selling him an expensive ad in the supplement…

I became totally focused on listening attentively to my interviewee’s answers, taking notes, and coming up with witty comments for sparkling the space between questions and adding flavor to the conversation. I had to pay close attention to my interlocutor’s body language to gauge his emotional state: if he was tired, bored or angry, the pressure was on. I needed to wake him up somehow, to find which buttons to press in order to put him in the right frame of mind for a sale, while still feeling he had been “interviewed” by a journalist. Seeing his mood change subtly in the right direction was exhilarating, each favorable micro-expression getting me a bit closer to signing an advertising contract, and a commission of several thousand dollars.

The problem with this kind of thing is that once the big guys have been burned once or twice, they’re unlikely to fall for the same scam again. So Furth had to go lower and lower on the food chain, looking for unpicked-over companies:

In our hunt for “virgins”, we scoured the countries searching for them, storming into office buildings, taking advantage of relaxed, unstructured, friendly local cultures to steal 30 minutes of the boss’s time, and walking out with a 25,000 USD ad contract from a small stock brokerage firm that didn’t make a million USD in yearly turnover. Or for that matter, from a truck-manufacturing company that had no exports, no international expansion plans, or any other minimally rational reason for advertising with us.

I guess that the good news here is that this business model contains all the seeds of its own demise: according to its own website, Summit Reports has published nothing since February. With luck, it’ll be a long while until such things re-emerge.

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