What has happened at the Joe.ie publisher Maximum Media?
Founder Niall McGarry’s decision to step back comes amid a controversy over the accuracy of podcast listenership figures
Niall McGarry is a 60 per cent shareholder in the Irish business and 80 per cent shareholder in Britain. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times
The decision this week by Maximum Media founder, Niall McGarry, to step back from executive involvement in the Irish arm of the Joe.ie and Her.ie publisher comes against the backdrop of an internecine media industry mini-controversy over the accuracy of podcast listenership figures.
The issue relates to a 2017 episode of its since discontinued business podcast, Capital B, which was presented by Sunday Times columnist, Nick Webb. Capital B ran for about 18 episodes in 2017 on Maximum’s Joe.ie digital publication, before the series was pulled.
The recent furore centres around the fact that episode 12 of the podcast, a May 2017 broadcast where the guests included comedian PJ Gallagher, had dubious listenership numbers.
The episode’s listenership figure on the Soundcloud audio platform appears to have been artificially boosted overnight – from just over 3,000 to over 21,000 – by the use of a “click farm”.
A click farm is a surreptitious service that provides digital publishers with fake “clicks” or false audience engagement, which increases the perceived reach of an item and therefore boosts its commercial value for advertisers.
The use of click farms breaches a digital media publishing industry code of conduct. It also goes to the heart of a concern that has always dogged the digital media industry: how much can listenership or click figures be trusted?
Within traditional media publishers, such as newspaper groups, it has often been alleged that the use of click farms by digital rivals in the online publishing industry is widespread.
The problem of falsely-inflated audience numbers for published content is not a new issue in the media industry, however. Some newspapers organisations in particular have come under scrutiny in the past over the reliability of readership numbers associated with the bulk distribution of their newspapers for free.
Apart from episode 12 of Capital B, no clear evidence has yet emerged that any other material published by Maximum Media, whose titles include Joe.ie and Her.ie in Ireland and Joe.co.uk in Britain, was boosted by a click farm.
The company maintains it was an isolated incident perpetrated by an employee who later left the business, although he or she was not sacked at the time. Sources maintain the sudden jump in Capital B’s listenership was noticed internally at Maximum Media by senior management, who dealt with it discreetly.
So why has a row over a 2017 podcast suddenly blown up two-and-a-half years later, long after Capital B was discontinued?
In recent weeks, an anonymous video was distributed within media circles, alleging the use of a click farm by Maximum media to boost the Capital B episode. The video, narrated by a computerised voice, is addressed to advertisers and asks why the industry tolerates such practices.
The 5 minutes, 8 second, reasonably well-produced clip was mostly distributed on the Whatsapp messaging service. In digital parlance, Maximum Media is “called out” by whomever produced the video.
The language used by the narrator is peppered with marketing industry lingo, such as references to “digital campaign deliverables”. This suggests it may have been produced by someone within the industry, possibly a commercial rival of Maximum Media, before being distributed anonymously.
It is understood that the video was in recent weeks brought to the attention of the country’s largest ad-buying agency, Core, which asked Maximum for an explanation on behalf of its advertiser clients.
There was some back and forth between Maximum and Core, before the digital publisher admitted there had indeed been an issue with episode 12, which it said was dealt with at the time.
Core was not satisfied with the responses it received, and it decided to suspend all advertising with Maximum. It has yet to lift the suspension.
Curiously, the anonymous video appears itself to have also been produced in 2017, when it didn’t even make a ripple, let alone put public pressure on McGarry. It is unclear why the video has resurfaced in 2019, but it has caused a serious problem for Maximum.
McGarry, a confident and sometimes brash character, is one of the most outspoken individuals in the nascent digital publishing sector, and has many critics within the wider publishing industry.
In a February 2019 interview with The Irish Times, he acknowledged this: “I know that certain media organisations love to snipe at us. They can’t stand the fact that we came from nothing to become fairly significant.”
Maximum Media launched Joe in 2015 in the UK, where it has invested heavily to build its brand. McGarry previously told The Irish Times in February that he decided in April 2017 to scale back his involvement in the Irish arm, which employs close to 100 staff, to concentrate on helping grow the business in Britain.
So even before he announced this week that he is stepping back from any executive role in the Irish business, it is unclear what his level of day-to-day involvement was anyway.
McGarry, who is a 60 per cent shareholder in the Irish business and 80 per cent shareholder in Britain, said this week that he wants to put a clear degree of separation between himself and the Irish unit.
He suggested that his personal profile and outspoken reputation in the industry can sometimes attract a certain type of industry attention for Maximum in Ireland, which he wants to bring to an end.
On Friday, he said he was putting in place a “board of management” at Maximum in Ireland, which will run it without any need for his input.
The three most senior managers will report into the newly created position of executive chairman, to which Justin Cullen has stepped up from his previously non-executive chairman role.
“There was ambiguity in the industry about my involvement,” said McGarry. “I made a decision to stand back to empower the Irish management team, to give a clear separation.
“Maximum Media is no longer an entrepreneurial baby. I needed to put in a board of management and this recent issue has offered me the opportunity to do that.”
He will focus instead on helping to develop the UK business, which is already run day-to-day by it own management team, which stays in place as before.
There is plenty at stake. At the end of 2017, the UK arm, which only recently became profitable, owed £4.4 million to the Irish operation.
Overall, the Maximum media group has sales of about €11.5 million in Ireland and the UK.
It remains to be seen whether McGarry’s decision to step out of the limelight takes enough heat out of the click-farm issue to make it go away.
For the wider online publishing industry, however, the issue of how much to trust audience engagement metrics remains.