Limp List Action

Some years ago, a building materials manufacturer with a new brick design he wanted to sell to architects and building specifiers decided to try direct marketing. He rented a list from one of the leading architectural magazines, sent out a mailshot and waited for the orders to roll in.

Unfortunately, the response was far lower than he had expected – so low that he investigated it, and discovered that a large number of names on the list were students, who were in no position to buy the product.

A prima facie case, then, for properly audited lists – which are favoured by a growing number of clients. Many major users of direct marketing have felt for some time they should get the same sort of assurances about what they are buying from the list industry as they do with other advertising media, such as magazines and exhibitions.

But many in the list industry would counter that this is simply an example of a client not taking the time to understand what he is buying, and blaming the failure of his campaign on the list when in fact it was his own fault.

This argument has been rumbling on for years, but there are signs now that patience, on the clients’ side at least, is beginning to wear thin.

Those who support the introduction of list auditing – including the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) and the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) – say that an auditing system could only do the list industry good.

As ISBA director general John Hooper puts it: “We believe business lists should be audited so that we know what we are buying. Other media can be audited – why not lists?” He suggests that his members feel things have been allowed to drag on for too long, adding: “Advertisers have been concerned for years, and we’ve been pushing for it. It’s taking an interminable amount of time.”

Trevor Foley, director of marketing and communications at the ABC, says: “This whole argument has been going on for two or three years now. It’s taking longer than it should – but that’s due to the politics within the industry. There is resistance to the idea of list auditing, and it is primarily from the smaller list owners.”

He says that the bigger

list owners, who are often publishers and therefore used to ABC-style circulation audits, see list auditing as “a tool that will help them sell or rent their lists”.

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA), ISBA and ABC have had a working party looking at the issue for some time. It has

prepared a draft document on list auditing which has been sent out to more than 100 DMA members who requested it, and their comments are being incorporated in a revised document due to be published this month, with recommendations for a test programme to look at the auditing of business lists.

The draft ABC certificate for business lists would include details of the number of records on the file; how many are named individuals; how many have job titles with no name; and how many only have the company name. It also covers the percentage of the list which is duplicated, the percentage of UK records with postcodes, the percentage with phone numbers and the percentage with fax numbers. Other mandatory information will include a geographical analysis, an analysis by job title and an analysis by source type and age of source.

Foley explains that business lists have been chosen first because they tend to be more complex than consumer lists. “There is a lot less data on the consumer side, and it’s a lot less difficult. We want to crack the difficult one first.” Proposals for consumer audits are to follow.

Foley believes that an audit will probably cost a list owner about 1,500, but argues that the expense should be recouped from improved list sales almost immediately.

He expects the first test schemes to be running by the beginning of next year, although he points out they will require approval from the ABC Council as the ABC and ISBA will have to provide some of the “seed-corn funding” for them.

He is adamant that list auditing can only be good for the industry. “It would mean for the first time there would be an authoritative

independent analysis of the quality of data held on a database,” he says.

“Support from the advertis-

ing industry has been brilliant –

they want to know what they are


Hooper thinks the push for list auditing is near to success, and says advertisers’ patience is wearing thin; he points out that ISBA was created in 1900 primarily to push for the auditing of magazine circulations because advertisers were tired of being sold advertising which failed to deliver publishers’ promises. ©

Unlike Foley, David Robottom, director of development at the DMA, is unwilling to put any timescale on the introduction of the list auditing scheme: “A lot depends on the industry’s reception of the revised draft.” He also warns that whatever the proposals are, they will be “very much a first step – and this is not going to be a panacea. The audit is about what the list is, not about the quality of it. It will still be up to the clients to assess the quality”.

Many of those who oppose the idea believe auditing would be far too costly for all but the biggest list owners. They argue that, at a time when direct marketing is moving away from mass mailshots towards carefully targeted niche camp-

aigns, which involve much smaller

and more complex lists, the cost

factor could make the business uneconomic.

Trevor Farrow, a director of list owner The List Register, says auditing would be “horrendously expensive”, and believes it would provide clients with a false sense of security.

“There is a danger that clients will see an audit certificate and think it means the list is a responsive one, when all it means is that the quality of the data has been checked, not the quality of the responsiveness,” he says. One client has already told him she would stop using lists which were not audited, “even though an unaudited list might get a much better response”.

One list broker, who wanted to remain anonymous, says: “What would the audit tell you? In theory, I’m in favour of anything that makes lists more accountable, but I don’t see how this would work. And how would they apply it to consumer lists?” She suggests that many problems could be avoided if list owners and managers provided better data sheets with brief descriptions of their lists for brokers and potential purchasers. “If they were forced to provide more information, I’d be all for it,” she says.

Another argument being voiced by some in the direct marketing industry is that auditing is being seen as a catch-all remedy for mistakes clients make all too often, and that it could end up creating more problems than it solves.

Annette Kelley, managing director of list broker HLB, says: “The real issue should be educating the buyer so they ask the right questions about the list they are getting.”

Kelley, who is not opposed in principle to the idea, believes many clients encounter problems because they have not specified their needs properly to the list owner or broker. They also fail to ask for advice on what selections they should be making to better achieve their objectives. She says: “Sometimes the job description you get from the client is not all that helpful. If auditing is introduced, people will stop asking the questions they should be asking. I’m worried that too many people are looking on list auditing as some sort of quick fix.”

For some clients, the debate over whether lists should be audited has gone on too long. Experts are worried that there may now be a danger – underlined by some of the language being used by proponents of the move – that anyone who questions the proposal could be seen as supporting the existence of a less than honest fringe of the industry, when in fact they may simply be voicing legitimate worries.

ISBA’s Hooper for one seems to be reaching the end of his patience. He observes: “Responsible list owners should have nothing to fear [but] there are one or two on the fringe who see this as a threat to their livelihood. It will push any odd cowboys out of business.”

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