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Madrid, capital of the special advertising section

Newspapers’ glossy “country reports” come from a murky world somewhere between sales and journalism.

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Newspapers 300x225 Madrid, capital of the special advertising section

Newspapers' country reports have been suffering as the recession bites. Photo: Tomás R. Vigo.

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.

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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
Category: Culture
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=809
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19 Comments for “Madrid, capital of the special advertising section”

  1. Cheers Nick, I worked in AFA many years ago too, and am also ashamed of myself for it.

    I think all of us who fell for it at some point in our lives should keep writing about it. At least it will allow the young, impressionable people AFA tries to recruit to have a clearer idea of what they are getting into.

    Found your article through Felix Salmon, who blogged a recent post of mine about my experience in the ad section industry:

    http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/09/03/

  2. Yup, all true! The Argie must be the one who refused to pay me for work on a supplement for some clowns years ago. I eventually got paid by blocking his Ferrari with my own sports car in the car park at his palatial northern Madrid house. Real charming people!

    One of the many crimes they commit is, when contacting their targets, to claim to be on the staff of the unscruplous newspaper or magazine that has agreed for a large fee to include their junk journalism.

    Not to be confused with special reports put together by teams within publications. These usually concentrate on nice tourist destinations rather than the fiefdoms of despots. But once again the journalists who independently research and write the supplements create the leads for the advertising sales reps who are paid fortunes in comparison to the fees paid to the hacks!

    But how can we complain in Spain? Look at the ads for prostitution in almost every paper!

  3. Hi,am from Malaysia and we have been approached a few times by publications associated with AFA-Press for country reports advertorials. Just wondering if Oxford Business Group based London is part of the link? They have been pursuing Malaysian corporates and somehow established some kind of relationship with certain local govt agency to support the country reports. Modus operandi is the same, am confused. Appreciate more insights, if any.

    Thanks.

  4. Well written and very interesting article Nick.

    On the flip side of the coin, I worked in the "industry" for about 5 years, two of which for AFA and

    I am NOT ashamed to have worked for the industry.

    While many of the things you say are valid, at the same time, my personal opinion how an individual project director approached, managed the project and eventually, managed the content and writing of the report all constitutes to what people can expect out of the report.

    To put this into context, before I came to doing special advertising sections, I studied journalism and communications in California and Canada. Then worked in print and broadcast journalism in Canada. One of the most disappointing aspects of journalism, is when you can't pursue a story, because one of your biggest advertisers is what you're writing a story about. Of course your newsrooms will argue that advertising is separate from the editorial rooms…however there is still a bottom line that these media houses must pursue. And dig deep, and you'll find the instances where stories were cut because of an advertiser.

    The example I will give: in Vancouver, Canada, there was a major problem with new condominiums that were being built. These new residences were getting out and sold to market quickly. However, within a year (or shortly following) and after the new home warranties passed, homeowners would be experiencing problems. And because the home warranties were no longer valid, these homeowners had to put up much of the repair costs which was ridiculous amounts, considering this was supposed to be a new house. It took much, much, much, much more time for this problem to be covered in the news, because the developers were the biggest advertisers to the respective media houses. No media house will ever admit that they "ignored" the "condo story" however, talk to homeowners and some jaded journalists….why did it take so long to get the attention??? When the condos became something that no longer could be ignored, it eventually was given the attention it deserved. This became known as the “leaky condo” situation in Vancouver.

    It was stories like this that jaded my view on journalism, hence making the move to special advertising sections, made things, in my opinion more transparent. My thesis in university was about media ownership and how it affects democracy. Things have probably changed since my research, but then again not too much. (I’m not saying all media houses operate this way, but we can’t ignore that it happens, nor can we say that journalism is always “noble”)

    When I was on the field, I made it clear the advertising/editorial ratio. My teams managed the actual content, and many times me or my colleagues would write the articles.

    AFA has made considerable efforts in training over the last few years that I've been there, in order to make the business more transparent and give more value to the clients. I've heard the stories from back in the past….and I know that the management team is trying to put their efforts to manage processes more soundly.

    So before others make their judgment on this company and this industry…and before others will say that they were ashamed to work in the industry (cause I know there's a few of you there)….

    I just wanted to say I'm NOT ashamed to have worked for AFA.

    (On a side note, the experience from AFA and the people I've met, interviewed and sold advertising to…has lead me to pursue an MBA, at IE Business School, which is currently ranked #3 in Europe. I'm not going back to the field after, but the experience there was rewarding and enriching. And the people I've worked with, wonderful. Hence, once again, I'm NOT ashamed to say I worked for AFA)

    • Ruby, what a shame that you spent so much money to pay for your masters and you are back pretty much at square one. You are not in the field any more, that’s right, you have now been “promoted” to work in the Madrid head office. Was it worth the effort, the time and the money? Do you realize most people take advantage of such degrees rather than keep working in shitty companies, full of lies, that switch offices every 6 months so that people they own money too cant find them? And if i recall correctly, you are a Christian, right? do you honestly think God is ok with the way you earn money? because in the end it is not about what we -simple readers- think, it is about your own morale…

    • Ruby went to IE and is back dodging taxes for the Argentine mafia? Hilarious!

  5. Louise Johnson

    Hi,

    I have recently finished uni and am deseperately looking for my first proper job and was recently contacted by AFA and asked to go in for an interview. I have been doing some reading up in preparation for my interview, and this is the second site I have come accross that is giving AFA a bad name. I am worried by what is said and don't know what to think when I go into my interview tomorrow, other than planning on asking whoever is doing the interviewing about all the bad things I have read about the company and how they can expalin it. Does anyone have any advice for me?

    Thanks!!

  6. Stephanie Medina

    Hey Nick,

    It is a shame actually… what you describe is true but you knew that before you started with AFA right? they don't lie!

    And you probably made money out of it right???? based on commission you can earn big bunts.

    Now you probably just created the competition and therefore need to speak badly about AFA, all competitors as you say are trained by AFA.

    You know what? I fell ashamed by all those lost souls that bite the hand that feeds them, lack of respect and manners…

    I have no more comments to add. I work for AFA, no company is perfect but they take care of you like no one else, and the payroll is superb. Maybe you personally just conducted shit reports, the director decides how the report will be laid out, ohhh maybe you never were a director and now you are just frustrated!!!!

    AFa is a super interesting job where you meet very interesting people and yes, we do country sections that are inserts of prestigious media…

    Kind regards,

    Stephanie Medina

    Fan of AFA and not ashamed at all!!!!!

  7. Pedro the Mono-brow

    As much as I enjoy reading these blatent attacks on an industry that flourishes in economic booms,the question one has to ask is the hostility towards the employees and the industry.

    Im guessing those hell bent on cruicifing current employees in the sector, were clearly fired from the industry or naive beyond belief. I was not somehow deluded and brainwashed into my position, i am a salesman and am doing what i love best. Im not selling food to the starving, selling drugs to kids, i am selling to multi billion dollar corporations that happily profiteer from the general public. To attack this industry is to attack the moral fibre of our modern day capitalist soceity, so either throw your laptop away and emigrate to greenland or shut the hell up. I havent noticed any blogs by Nick on rolex purchasers, or the detrimental effects of penthouse owners, the matter of the fact boils down to one thing, my favourite deadly sin, envy.

    I wish you all the best in the future, hopefully one day you will all realise your hypocritic ways and actually step out of your bitter boxes to see that the world revolves round sales, and like the lottery, you have to be in it to win it.

  8. Dear Nick,

    I am also an ex-AFA employee, now working for a Multinational. You know what, there's nothing to be ashamed of. I have been working for different companies over the last 15 years of my career, and they all have good and bad things. Banks have pushed credits to people who didn't know what an APR was, newspapers (good and bad) write favourable stories about currupted companies, governments or public people if they can benefit from it, governments make promises they cannot keep… but I am sure you can also think about a couple of good things about them, can't you?

    You probably also found something good about AFA yourself. Otherwise why did you work for them TWICE. Because if I am not mistaken you worked there around twelve years ago, and not for a little while. And you went back a few years later.

    What happened, you run out of interesting stories to write about that you had to cover yourself with dirt? Second thoughts about your decision to work for them twice in your career?

    I see nothing bad in re-selling advertising space (even at a premium – because they need to cover costs and make profits as any other company in the world) or agressive sales techniques. At least is as bad or as good to what you do. Do you really think is the most horrible industry?

    Companies are made of people. Excellent, hard working people. People you want to learn from and follow their steps. Good colleagues. And people who are mean, who stab other colleagues backs, and who like you, take only the bad part and make a story.

    This is not about a company, or an owner. It's about the people you've worked with. You've made it personal my friend. Beause those people were my family. I learnt a great deal from them. I learnt to be flexible, to support each other, to accept mistakes, to avoid bad practices… I cannot deny there are things I dind't like or I was not confortable with, but that's also true about all the other employers I've had. That's part of the game. Or do you think people agree with you all the time, or believe you are doing the right thing.

    Don't let rage and vengeance guide your way.

  9. Hi D,

    I wonder if you will read this comment… but I must admit I had a blast reading your comment. Totally agree with you.

    Can you tell me if that report about the Philippines was ever published? would you have a link to it? the AFA site doesnt include any info about a possible partnership with the International Herald Tribune – I assume the IHT cancelled the contract but i dont actually know.

    Btw, I know several people who have worked with Ruby, two of them, females rumored to also sleep with clients, of course they will defend Ruby. The rest have always tried to either not talk at all about her, or when they do they say very similar stuff to what you said.

    Ruby – everything is not valid to make a sell. Really, it is not, whoever told you the opposite lied to you.

    To give you an idea on how greedy Ruby Alcantara is, she almost lost an eye in Nigeria, her parents were terrified, but she went back so she could make some more money instead of letting someone else finish the project…

  10. Anyone considering to work in this industry must be aware that besides all the sleaziness, you will very likely end up working and possibly sharing an apartment with a boss that will treat you very much like, er, Sarah Palin apparently treats people who work for her!

    I challenge anyone who has worked for AFA not to chuckle at how similar this description of Palin’s behavior, as portrayed by a recent article published in Vanity Fair, is to the prototypical AFA Queen’s:

    “A onetime gubernatorial aide to Palin says, “The people who have worked for her—they’re broken, used, stepped on, down in the dust.” On the 2008 campaign trail, one close aide recalls, it was practically impossible to persuade Palin to take a moment to thank the kitchen workers at fund-raising dinners. During the campaign, Palin lashed out at the slightest provocation, sometimes screaming at staff members and throwing objects. Witnessing such behavior, one aide asked Todd Palin if it was typical of his wife. He answered, “You just got to let her go through it… Half the stuff that comes out of her mouth she doesn’t even mean.” When a campaign aide gingerly asked Todd whether Sarah should consider taking psychiatric medication to control her moods, Todd responded that she “just needed to run and work out more.” Her anger kept boiling over, however, and eventually the fits of rage came every day. Then, just as suddenly, her temper would be gone. Palin would apologize and promise to be nicer. Within hours, she would be screaming again. At the end of one long day, when Palin was mid-tirade, a campaign aide remembers thinking, “You were an angel all night. Now you’re a devil. Where did this come from?”

    The intensity of Palin’s temper was first described to me in such extreme terms that I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be exaggerated, until I heard corroborating tales of outbursts dating back to her days as mayor of Wasilla and before. One friend of the Palins’ remembers an argument between Sarah and Todd: “They took all the canned goods out of the pantry, then proceeded to throw them at each other. By the time they got done, the stainless-steel fridge looked like it had got shot up with a shotgun. Todd said, ‘I don’t know why I even waste my time trying to get nice things for you if you’re just going to ruin them.’ ” This friend adds, “As soon as she enters her property and the door closes, even the insects in that house cringe. She has a horrible temper, but she has gotten away with it because she is a pretty woman.” (The friend elaborated on this last point: “Once, while Sarah was preparing for a city-council meeting, she said, ‘I’m gonna put on one of my push-up bras so I can get what I want tonight.’ That’s how she rolls.”) When Palin was mayor, she made life for one low-level municipal employee so miserable that the woman quit her job, sought psychiatric counseling, and then left the state altogether to escape Palin’s sphere of influence—this according to one person with firsthand knowledge of the situation. The woman did not want to be found. When I finally tracked her down, her husband, who answered the phone, at first pretended that I had dialed the wrong number and that the word “Wasilla” had no meaning to him. Palin’s former personal assistants all refused to comment on the record for this story, some citing a fear of reprisal. Others who have worked with Palin recall that, when she feels threatened, she does not hesitate to wield some version of a signature threat: “I have the power to ruin you.””

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/featu res/2010/10/sarah-palin-201010?currentPa ge=2

  11. Stefan de Meyer

    I am glad that I read this article on time as I was considering applying for one of their vacancies. I was skeptical because of their amateuristic website and the not so much information i found on the company. Companies like these should not be allowed to operate nor exist.

    Stefan

  12. Hi Nick,

    Thanks very much for yur article. It’s unfortunate that I have only just read it, post my recent “industry” experience.

    Have you had any recent follow up to your article, and do you know of any other media carrying similar stories? As someone who was born, and has lived in a number of developing countries, I find what AFA and their affiliates, such as ASAP in Barcelona, are doing by publishing these reports completely vulgar and irresponsible. From my own experience, their treatment of their staff also leaves much to be desired.

    If only AFA had folded when you predicted they would, but unfortunately they seem to be going strong.

    Kind regards,
    Tash.

  13. Sophocles: “Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none More wonderful than man.”

  14. Odd how Mr Lyne writes this article but leaves out the fact he still writes the majority of these country reports and still has a more steady income than anybody out of this industry!

    There is nothing wrong with creating advertising reports for governments and companies. There are a couple of companies that don´t treat their staff well and I´d suggest people to do their research on the company they are going to join but if Mr Lyne is going to be ashamed of anything it is of being a complete hypocrite, happy not to “warm them what they are getting in to” because he knows they will be helping him get a nice paycheck once he writes the article from their research!

  15. AFA PRESS is a mafia, it’s amazing that no one has uncovered the shit of that “business” yet.
    There are many stories of these people, is horrible as they can continue to deceive customers or future young employees …..

  16. AFA’s history of lying and deceit knows no bounds. They have robbed directors of vast amounts of commissions. It is shocking that people continue to defend them.

  17. I am glad I read this article on time as I was considering applying for a vacancie. Had found the first signs strange on their website, they were apparently looking for journalists but workers should be “comercialy” inclined and prepare advertising plans. It took me just one google search to realize what this is really about so many thx

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