Adfero, Axonn Media, and Adam Afriyie

If you've arrived here after seeing my name in The Guardian today, welcome. Let's make sure things are in context.

Robert Booth's profile of Adam Afriyie quotes me fairly extensively, given the size of the article, so I'd like to make sure my comments are set in a wider context - it's easy to misinterpret things when you're only given a sentence or two.

The Farming and the Scraping

First of all, I don't think I have ever referred to Adfero/Axonn Media as a 'word farm', 'content farm' or any variation of those kinds of terms. Their service - at least while I worked there, 2006-2011, does indeed involve producing short news articles, often from press releases, but it's more sophisticated than just 'content spinning'.

Articles are written from primary source material and original interviews wherever possible. Have I ever used the word 'churn' to describe the Adfero process? Possibly in casual conversation. Certainly not anywhere that I'd want to be quoted, as far as I know. I wouldn't say press releases are 'harvested systematically', and while the targets set may be 'eye-watering', they were always set out with total transparency during interviews and recruitment days.

[UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that I do use the word 'churned' to describe my role at Adfero, in its entry in my employment history on Facebook. In full, I say: "Churned out massive amounts of online news every day for five years. Rose through the ranks to 'Desk Head' position, in charge of about 10 correspondents. Loved the job, loathed the company." I think I wrote that soon after leaving, and it paints a very caricature picture of my time there. I'm not going to change it immediately, as I don't want to try and hide behind edits, but it's likely that I'll amend that statement in a few weeks or so, as I really don't hate the company as much as that particular comment makes it sound like I do.]

In fact, I think everything I told Robert Booth - the working hours, the article numbers, and the pricing structure - is a matter of public record; you could find that information by attending an interview, or by contacting Adfero's sales team.

To give Adfero/Axonn Media their dues, the content they produce works. I have seen it work, from the inside and from the outside - their articles often appear in my search results when I'm researching a subject now, and in some cases the only way you'd recognise that it was written by them is if you've worked there and know what to look for.

I have said before, I do not consider myself to be a direct rival to Adfero, and I told Robert Booth that. They typically serve clients with sizeable monthly budgets, who are looking for 50-60 website updates per month. My client base tends to be small businesses who need to maximise their return on every penny invested, and that can mean just a handful of updates per month. We operate in different markets, and I would never - at least, not for now - position myself as a direct competitor to Adfero.

Personal Experience

The bulk of my quotation in the Guardian article is lifted directly from a page on this blog (and, I note, is not cited as such - Adfero/Axonn Media would never fail to adequately cite a source). It's this page here. Please take a moment to read it in full, if you're interested enough.

Yes, there was one time when I wrote 101 articles to meet end-of-month targets, with about two hours' total sleep over the course of almost a day and a half. Was it 'expected' of me that I would do that? Well, perhaps, but I suspect plenty of people in managerial positions have had to work long shifts to hit deadlines. It's part of the responsibility that comes with climbing the career ladder. I'm sure Adfero probably weren't too pleased that so much of my team's content was sent out at the very last minute that month - it's swings and roundabouts.

When the targets (in my view) became unachievable within the remit of the job, I left. I would say that I left on reasonably amicable terms, although today's events may well change Adfero/Axonn Media's opinion of that.

In short, this blog is effectively an online CV for my freelance services. Of course I want to demonstrate that I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and to hit deadlines - 101 articles without stopping? No problem! I've worked through the night to get bulk orders completed quickly as a freelancer, too, and I have nobody to blame for that but myself. Sometimes it has to be done, especially to help the client out of an emergency.

Adam Afriyie

Briefly, a note on Adam Afriyie. I don't recall ever meeting him, or speaking with him, during my Adfero career. I have no reason to dislike him. I have no desire to slander his name, or to put any kind of blemish on his reputation. I know nothing about his politics, and he may well be the right person to lead the Conservative party at some point in the future. I have literally zero opinion on that matter, and even if I did, it wouldn't count for anything.

I would say this though - say what you want about Adfero, they tend to spell people's names correctly, even in an article that took 10 minutes to write and is primarily published for SEO purposes. They definitely would be unlikely to switch from 'Afriyie' to 'Afriye' in the space of the same article.

Too Long, Didn't Read

If all of the above is a bit too in-depth for your liking, then here's the summary:

  • I genuinely believe the Adfero/Axonn Media service is better than as described in The Guardian today;
  • I have no reason to want Adfero/Axonn Media and/or Adam Afriyie to fail;
  • I would not want my comments, as quoted in Rob Booth's article, to be taken out of context.

As always, I would say, if you have the correct budget range and want to appear high in Google's search results, Axonn Media will almost certainly get you there for your target key words and phrases.

If you are a recent graduate and need an employer willing to take you on without experience, Axonn Media will give you a chance, and you will learn a lot in a short space of time.

And if you arrived here expecting a tirade against my former employer, let me say once again: we parted on amicable terms, I have no reason to want to see them fail, their service works (and is better than as described in The Guardian today) and I would advise you to seriously consider using them, if they suit your budget and your aims.

Comments are open as always, so feel free to continue the debate below, and I will attempt to answer any queries promptly.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I used to work for Adfero (DirectNews) too - wide-eyed and fresh out of uni.

You are right that they were completely honest and transparent about the nature of the job and the workload involved during the recruitment phase. I worked half days from home, but everyone I came into contact with was friendly and helpful, and being the organised person that I am I always hit my deadlines and never had to 'cram'.

Your point about sources is important. I got a right bollocking once when I failed to keep track of sources I'd used. Admittedly the company's keenness to keep on top of sources is more to cover themselves legally, rather than to preserve honesty and integrity in journalism, but still.

I am the editor of a local magazine now and actually found my time working for Adfero very useful. I think we will both agree that the quality of writing isn't always high, but then it isn't sold to clients like that - 90% of my work was for clients who clearly only wanted the content in order to improve their Google ranking. Nothing wrong with that, although that model will change drastically over the next couple of years.

I agree with your implication throughout that the Guardian article is quite sensationalist. I didn't know anything about Adam Afriyie before reading, but I'm not surprised or shocked - I always assumed it was owned by a successful business man.

Perhaps claims of being "the UK's leading dedicated online news provider" are wide of the mark, but this company isn't a scam; it's just shrewd and business-minded.

L

Anonymous said...

Oh and by the way, you do use the word 'churned' in the public details of your Facebook profile. Just a heads up.

L

bobble said...

Thanks L - you're right, I do! I had no idea. I must have been in a particularly bad mood when I wrote that.

As regards your larger comment above:

- Yes, certainly, there were people who arrived on time and left on time, while I was working there. And everybody I had the pleasure of working with was friendly and generally very professional - I've never worked with a group of colleagues who I've unilaterally liked to such an extent.

- Citing sources was always one of the fundamental rules, and I suppose legal concerns and integrity are closely related.

- I actually believe the quality of the writing was generally good and (as I tried to stress to The Guardian, who opted not to quote me on it) it's almost two years since I left. The business model has already demonstrably changed, and The Guardian ignored me when I said that any observations I could provide them with were solely speaking as an outsider.

- I have no idea why they describe the article as being a profile of Adam Afriyie. I don't see how any of it is directly relevant to him or his politics.

- I don't think they even claim to be the UK's leading online news provider any more. Like much of the rest of the information in the article, it's either incorrectly described, or simply out of date.

Anonymous said...

Yes you are probably right about info being out of date. It's been over a year since I worked there. They were already starting to change the business model quite noticeably in Sept '11. Suspect that now they are moving towards more longer pieces, blog posts etc.

Legal concerns and integrity are closely related - and certainly there are lots of publications, online and offline, that only cite sources to avoid litigation - but my feeling was always that people above me were hyper-aware that we were operating in a sort of grey area, and that one lawsuit could bring down the whole company.

But yes, like you, I knew what the job entailed and it gave me a good leg-up.

Anonymous said...

Bob, have you woken up next to a Tesco burger yet?

Anonymous said...

All the comments thus far apart from Bob's are almsot certainly by current Adfero staff, probably middle or senior management doing damage limitation. They have a history of this; they are very much aware of the distress they cause to staff with their heavy workloads and equally aware that they have a poor reputation with many former clients. As such, adfero seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on googling itself and anonymously responding to comments made on blogs etc. This is about the third time i have seen this now.

Sam Walby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam Walby said...

Haha of course you are entitled to your opinion (ironic that you are anonymous as well), but I am actually a real person and former employee (posted above as 'L', but realised that actually there is no need for me to be anonymous).

You are right that they are known for their damage control, but I just saw Bob post on Facebook through a friend of a friend and thought it was interesting.

Adfero are not that dissimilar to many other marketing/news companies. Strange that they get so much flack.

'L'

bobble said...

Perhaps worth me adding at this point - I work (and have a very positive relationship) with agency clients as a freelancer. I appreciate the pressures of an agency structure - balancing giving good value to customers with paying a decent rate to suppliers - and, speaking from recent (and therefore non-Adfero) experience, it can work to the satisfaction of all concerned.

I know there are some people who have worked at Adfero/Axonn Media for longer than my entire career there lasted, and would probably still say they're happy in their jobs. My personal experience was that I reached a point at which I no longer wanted to do the job, and left to go freelance. I don't think I'm giving away any behind-the-scenes information if I say that as far as I was concerned, it was a fairly amicable departure that was mutually agreed, and I'd add - as I often do - that I don't think many people leave jobs that they still love, but I certainly don't have any desire to destroy Adfero/Axonn Media or their reputation, and never have attempted to do so.

This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that The Guardian chose a two-year-old blog post to quote without proper citation, rather than anything I said to them when they called me to discuss Adfero earlier this week. I don't *think*, at first reading, that a single word of what I told them on the phone made it to print.

bobble said...

And before anybody asks why 'L' deleted that first comment, it was purely to repost it with the 'L' sign-off on the end. There's no cover-up happening there, conspiracy theorists.

Sam Walby said...

Just to add to my last post in response to the one before:

"They are very much aware of the distress they cause to staff with their heavy workloads."

I saw no evidence of this while working there for two years. Where does your information come from? Searching 'Adfero' on Google and trawling old forum posts?

Many people working for similar companies feel stressed - it's the nature of the industry, if you don't like or can't keep up then do something else - but never did anyone I work with seem 'distressed'. As mentioned previously, it was actually quite a harmonious workplace.

I left the company because I had a better offer and because it wasn't particularly simulating work, not because they are some shady corporation.

bobble said...

For my part, I left because my total output of content had gone up by about 50% over the years - although I acknowledge that the role had been streamlined in terms of the research required etc. Again, I don't think anyone has ever tried to disguise the workload, and up until the last time I was involved in the recruitment process, applicants were told in no uncertain terms what would be expected of them.

The things that haven't been mentioned in all of this are as follows:

- I think, if you're willing to do a set amount of work for a certain amount of money, it's nobody's business but yours and your customer/employer, provided that it is mutually agreeable.

- Adfero employed people who were talented but lacked workplace experience, and I have always believed they deserve praise for giving people a chance who would have found it difficult to get employment elsewhere simply due to a lack of on-the-job experience.

- For probably the first three years, I loved my job and had no major problem with doing it indefinitely. Workplace spirit was particularly good, the parties (both scheduled and impromptu) were legendary, and anyone who seemed 'distressed' by their job tended to leave pretty quickly, which is probably the way it should be. That in itself shouldn't imply that nobody in the world should work for the same company on the same terms, if they find them to be agreeable.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob, don't be worried about protecting yourself after the pieces in the Guardian - I'm sure potential employers will be sympathetic to the whistle-blowing.

I left recently-ish and the same business practices are still in place. I wrote a post about it here:
http://www.journalism.co.uk/journalists/forum/index.php?topic=3425.0

bobble said...

Thanks Anon. I'm actually self-employed though, so no need to keep potential employers on-side, and my existing clients who are aware of the Guardian pieces have been brilliantly supportive (I do love my clients).

Also, 'whistle-blowing' isn't really a fair description; I gave an entirely different interview to the Guardian than the one they portray in the article. The bulk of my quotation there is lifted from a two-year-old blog post, not cited in a way that would allow it to be traced to its source, and not set in the context in which it was originally written.

As regards your forum thread, it's certainly interesting and I think I may add a reply to it myself. If Karen Webber is happy to discuss the style guide on a public forum, then I'll take my lead from her and simply say this: to my knowledge, in the time that I worked at Adfero, placing a comma before the word 'and' was not allowed. That rule was, and still is, infamous among employees, and if it has indeed become a general guideline, rather than a hard and fast rule, that can only be a good thing.

Overall though, as I've said several times, I specifically told the Guardian that I was unwilling and unable to provide them with any sensational comment, and their reporter evidently compensated for this (in what is clearly a very one-sided analysis of Adfero as a company) by using an old comment, out of context, without appropriate citation. It is not a fair representation of what I said to them, and frankly, after this long out of the company, I don't think I'm the right person for them to have quoted at all.

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