Madrid, capital of the special advertising section
Newspapers’ glossy “country reports” come from a murky world somewhere between sales and journalism.
By Nick Lyne
The other evening, while enjoying a quiet drink in a Madrid hotel bar, I struck up a conversation with an attractive, if over-groomed, young woman and her improbably handsome and well-dressed companion. The former was French, the latter American. Still in their mid-twenties, they seemed wealthy, and were well traveled, having made a number of references to returning from, or going to, exotic, far-away locations. Eventually I asked what they did for a living.
“We work for an international company that sends us around the world,” the woman answered mysteriously.
“Oh,” I said, asking on a hunch, “do you work in advertising?”
“Well, kind of,” answered the woman, with the air of somebody who still hadn’t found a simple way to describe their job.
“Let me guess,” I said, “do you work for AFA?”
A word of explanation by way of a question. Have you ever noticed those supplements that appear in some British and US newspapers inviting readers to invest in emerging economies?
You know the ones. You’re flicking through say, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, or The Wall Street Journal, and you turn the page to be confronted by: “Kazakhstan, the oil rich and faithful friend Washington has longed for”; (I’m not making this up) or “Thailand: the kingdom of enlightenment”; or “Greece, the engine of growth in the region”; or “Unstoppable Spain”.
Drawn ineluctably in by those seductive headlines, you skim through the report, which attempts to paint a flattering picture of the opportunities available to the canny investor, and singing the praises of a wise government overseeing unparalleled yet sustained growth.
The articles carry no byline. “Who writes this stuff?” you ask yourself. The answer, in many cases, is a company called AFAPress, and it’s based in Madrid.
AFA (www.afa-press.com) is owned and run by an Argentine businessman called Alberto Llaryora who came to Spain in the 1980s. Llaryora’s idea was simple: approach a prestigious newspaper or magazine and pay them to insert special advertising sections in their publication. Then sell smaller units of advertising space, at a greatly increased rate, to companies that wish to appear in special advertising sections, or “country reports” as AFA calls them.
Llaryora is the granddaddy of the special advertising section. It was he who more or less came up with the idea, and who, over the last 25 years, has developed it on an unprecedented scale, making millions from it. What’s more, almost all of AFA’s myriad competitors, many of which are still based in Spain, are run by men and women who learnt their trade under Llaryora.
AFA’s publications are designed to appear as though they were serious investment reports on emerging economies. A brisk intro full of references to burgeoning GDP growth, boosting finances, and booming FDI is followed by articles that appear to be about specific economic sectors, but are in fact clumsy disguises quoting the heads of companies nobody has ever heard of, often with their photo, and whose advertisements make up around 60 percent of the content.
Short skirts and despots
Here’s how the business works. AFA contacts the embassy of a country with a proposal to prepare a report. It may ask the embassy for letters of recommendation to ministers, as well as large state companies, and in the case of the more despotic, typically former Soviet Union nations, for compliant former state companies now in the hands of chums of the president.
Otherwise, AFA simply sends a team out to the country on spec. The team is typically made up of an attractive young woman who sells the advertising, and a young man, who plays the role of a journalist. There will usually be a trainee as well. The team will then set up interviews with government ministers and other officials, as well as leading companies, ostensibly interviewing them for their views on their sector of the economy. At the end of the interview, the saleswoman will “invite” the company to “participate” further in the report by taking out an advertisement in the special section.
Depending on the response of advertisers, and from which sectors they come, a report will later be written up that will only include those companies that have bought space in the report.
Advertisers taking part in the report can pay as much as $150,000 for space in a prestigious publication like the The New York Times. This rate will be well above what it would cost the advertiser themselves to place an advertisement in said publication.
The host publications know that the reports are, if not bogus, then at best partisan. They insist that the design is markedly different to their own, that they use different type faces, and that a banner at the top and bottom of each page reads “special advertising section”. A disclaimer is also included.
Even so, they can find themselves seriously compromised. During the mid-1990s left-leaning British Sunday broadsheet The Observer published a series of articles on the British government’s sale of fighter planes to the military dictatorship of General Suharto, which were used in Indonesia’s brutal war of occupation in East Timor. The Observer, through former editor Donald Trelford and an intermediary with Fleet Street connections called Reg Bloom, had agreed to print AFA’s supplements on Indonesia. When it realized what it had signed up to, The Observer had to negotiate its way out of the deal, causing much embarrassment. British fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye launched an investigation into the affair. At that time, AFA had set up a company called Images, Words Ltd that was dealing with The Observer. But it proved impossible to establish any link between Images, Words and AFA at the time.
Over the years, AFA has put other newspapers in tight spots, publishing reports on such bastions of democracy as Sudan, Mauritania, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia.
British financial journalist Felix Salmon, puzzled as to why another left-leaning UK newspaper, The Independent, would publish a report on Congo, also tried to find out more about AFA. Several former employees wrote on his blog detailing their experiences with the company, most of which expressed disappointment and even alarm at the company’s high-pressure sales techniques, and that there was no real journalism involved.
AFA on the rocks?
It’s been through lean times before: particularly after the combined impact of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and 9/11.
But over the last year, the company has come near to folding. After two decades of boom fuelled by former Latin American dictatorships and ex-Soviet bloc nations awash with cash, the global crisis has hit AFA hard.
Over the last year, AFA has cut back its operations sharply, sacking many people. As on previous occasions, it has refused to pay the freelance journalists it out-sources writing to, and also owes money to sales teams. It is also reportedly being investigated by the Spanish Social Security for non-payment of contributions.
So, next time you meet an attractive, well-turned out young couple in a Madrid bar, and they work for an international company that sends them around the world, chances are that they’ll be working for AFA or one of its spin-off competitors.
Maybe I should have told them how I guessed they worked for AFA. After they’d gone I wondered why I hadn’t warned them about what they were getting into. But that would have meant telling them that I used to work there, many years ago now, and I suppose I’m still a little ashamed of myself.
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Published: Mar 26 2010
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=809
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Tags: advertising, AFA, Alberto Llaryora, BusinessWeek, country reports, Daily Telegraph, Felix Salmon, Indonesia, madrid, newspapers, NewsWeek, The New York Times, The Observer