Having traversed the Nigerian media landscape for decades and gathered a reasonable amount of experience in different newspapers, Abiola Ayankunbi has emerged as a circulation manager of note. He is undoubtedly one of the highly experienced newspaper circulation experts in the country today.
He was one of the circulation managers whose job it was to execute the onerous task of implementing the “no unsold copies” policy of one of the major newspapers in the country, The Punch, some years ago.
In this interview by SAKIBU OLOKOJOBI, Ayankunbi speaks on the significance of the circulation department to any media outfit, the real reasons for the declining circulation figures of newspapers in Nigeria and how to solve the problems responsible for it.
For the first time, he gives an insider account of how the “no unsold copies” policy “war” of The Punch was planned, executed and won.
He also speaks on how he paid dearly for the roles he played in the “war” as he was for several years hunted by enraged newspaper circulation agents, who ensured that he knew no peace, especially after he left The Punch.
According to him, apart from unrelenting efforts to get him out of job on different occasions, there were threats to his life and those of his children.
Ayankunbi now finds comfort in consultancy services which he describes as quite rewarding. Excerpts:
You are known to be one of the leading newspapers circulation managers in Nigeria before you recently decided to go into consultancy. How did you go into the newspaper circulation business?
My coming into the circulation business was accidental. I never planned to be in the circulation department of a newspaper. It was only made possible in 1991 through my cousin who introduced me to somebody in the Nigerian Tribune newspapers. I joined the newspaper in 1991. At the time, I worked under Mr. Osuniran, while Mr. Banjo was his deputy. From there, I saw an advertisement in The Punch newspaper looking for circulation executives. I stayed in Nigerian Tribune for barely six or seven months before I moved over to The Punch. I was in The Punch for almost 14 years. I rose to the position of Acting Circulation Manager before I moved to Daily Independent in 2004. I was there for some time. When Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim started the National Mirror newspapers, I joined. I worked as the National Sales and Distribution Manager before I finally started my consultancy firm which is purely on media marketing.
What were you doing before you joined Nigerian Tribune newspapers?
I had just finished school at The Polytechnic Ibadan at the time and was staying with my brother who is a registered nurse in Ibadan. I was always going to work with my brother at Jericho then. I had not settled down on my own before I got the Nigerian Tribune job.
What did you read?
I read Marketing and Business Studies.
How would you say the journey has been so far?
At the initial stage, it was very exciting. In those days, we enjoyed the job. As at the time I decided to leave the media as an employee, before starting my firm, the environment had changed. It was no longer the way we met it. In the past, you could see people coming to the office on their own to book for newspapers; but now, it is a different ball game because the newspapers are no longer selling as a result of certain factors. The interest is no longer there again. If you ask me, I would say the reason for the increase in sale of copies in the past was partly because editors got more involved in determining what would sell their newspapers. In some instances, they asked the circulation people to contribute and in fact, we determined what should be the lead stories. I can remember Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye’s period as the editor of The Punch; also, Azu Ishiekwene’s period as the editor. They would invite us, present the news of the day and ask us which ones we thought would sell the newspapers. We would advise them on which one would sell, and give reason(s) why one news story would sell more than the other. They respected our opinion unlike now when editors would sit down, cast the headline, thinking it would sell the newspapers. Some of the stories they choose to lead these days end up becoming boring to the readers and hence it becomes difficult for the circulation people to sell the newspapers. In the past, the newspapers were selling themselves because the headlines or lead stories were meeting the yearnings of the reading public.
How important would you say the circulation department is to a newspaper house?
In a newspaper business, until the newspapers get to the consumers – the readers – the production process is incomplete. I am not talking about mere readers, but readers with money; not just readers with money, but readers who have the willingness to part with that money to purchase newspapers. Until when the newspapers get to the final consumer, production remains incomplete. So, circulation is the last leg of the production link and it must be adequately catered for and respected.
The importance can be seen in the sense that newspapers have to leave the production hall and get to the reading public. The circulation department is in charge of moving the newspapers from the point of production to the point of consumption. So, the circulation people are involved in moving the product to the different parts of the country. Remember that the newspapers have to be on the news stands as early as possible. If the circulation department is not existent, the newspapers would just be produced and kept in the office. That means that the newspapers will not get to the market, and if that happens, there will be no money. The advertisers who must have advertised in the newspapers would not even have the opportunity to see their advertisements in the newspapers. Simply put, the importance of the circulation department cannot be overemphasized. It is the final link and very important because it takes care of moving the newspapers from the point of production to where the newspapers are needed.
What would you say are some of the challenges you have encountered in the course of discharging your duties?
The challenges are numerous. In some instances, the editor may insist on leading with a news story against our advice that such stories would not fly. We would offer suggestions based on intelligence report but some editors would not budge. In The Punch, when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was the president, any report at the time on Obasanjo would make us incur heavy unsold copies. Obasanjo was the president and was always in the news. At a time, we advised the editorial department that any story involving Obasanjo should be done in a way not to reflect Obasanjo in the headline in order to improve our sale. Thank God, the Editor – I think was Mr. Ogunleye – listened to us and complied. And true to our words, we started recording good sale. It was then decided that circulation people must be involved in deciding the choice of stories that would lead the newspapers.
Another challenge is that the circulation department was the most neglected because there was no training. I trained myself throughout my period as an employee in newspaper houses. It is unfortunate that newspaper houses would not organise training for circulation staff. They believe that anybody can just work there.
I must say that some of the staff in the circulation departments are not straightforward when it comes to handling cash. That is another challenge. Some would collect money from agents and refuse to remit. However, with good structure on ground, this anomaly would be detected early and nipped in the bud before millions of naira is stolen. Those are some of the challenges.
What does it take to be a good circulation man?
First and foremost, one has to be very honest so that one can present one’s information the way it is, devoid of one’s bias. If one sells ten copies of the newspapers, one should be able to report the exact amount sold. Number two, one has to be very mobile in the sense that beyond sharing newspapers in the morning and going back the next day to collect the money from the vendors or agents, one has to go out into the field to find out if the newspapers are all over the place. This is because we deal with agents while the agents give newspapers to vendors. Because we don’t have control over the vendors, we need to go out and find out how far the newspapers go. If you can’t find your newspapers in some places, you can go back to the agent and tell him that the newspapers did not get to certain vendors and that you would not mind increasing the number of copies for him so that he could reach those other areas where the newspaper has not got to. That is sales monitoring and it is key for anybody who wants to make the job easier for the company to make money. Ours is a revenue centre like the advert department; we bring in money to the company. The circulation man therefore has to go round to ensure that his newspapers are where they are supposed to be. The truth is that no newspaper can claim that it is all over the place. Strategic locations have to be identified and newspapers should be available for display and purchase.
You spoke about newspaper houses not training their staff in the circulation department. What form of training would you suggest should be organised for them?
It should be basically training on sales and marketing. At present we are having issues with the circulation. So, there should be emphasis on marketing. You have to identify your readers. I have to say that it goes beyond the circulation staff. For example, the newspapers have to know where their readers are. After that, the circulation people have to go after the readers. How they would know where their readers are will be a product of research. So, any training to be given to circulation people will be centred on marketing; best selling techniques; best approach to selling and so on. The training has to be towards improved marketing skills and how to deal with people. For example, you need to build a relationship with the agents and vendors. In Nigeria today, we rely heavily on agents and vendors to sell the newspapers. So, if they decide not to sell a particular newspaper, that organisation is in crisis. They have to be trained on how to build a relationship with all the stakeholders in the newspaper business.
Beyond the issue of not leading with the appropriate stories that would sell the newspapers, what other reason(s) would you give for the poor sale being recorded in recent time by newspapers in the country?
We have to admit that the effect of the coming of the online newspapers on the print media is enormous and affecting sales negatively. Beside that, the print media houses are not doing enough. For example, go to any website of these newspapers, you will notice that they have uploaded virtually all the contents of the day’s newspapers on their websites by 12 midnight. So, if I can get a data of N100.00 and access these information, what will make me go and buy the newspapers. Definitely, the media managers are the ones killing their own business because the stories are now available to be read free. When you go to the site, you find out that about 200,000 people have visited the website to read one news story or the other. Why can’t the newspapers make the readers to pay to access the stories; it may just be some very little amount. By the time you multiply the little amount by the number of visitors, you must have made a lot of money. If you hear the print run of newspapers in Nigeria today, you will be shocked. It is very ridiculous. That is one issue.
Secondly, you would realise that virtually all newspapers are reporting the same thing. Go to the news-stand now. Once you read one newspaper, you must have read all the others. So, there is no difference. You would realise that there is no ingenuity, no follow up on stories, not so much of investigative reporting any longer. They stop midway without doing follow up on stories. They should not take readers for granted and think that anything that they print would definitely be purchased by the readers. What is the importance of the epidemic in Bauchi to the people of Port Harcourt, when you are doing satellite printing? The essence of satellite printing is to feed the different markets with different stories that would suit their taste and touch them more. Rather, the media manager will publish the same stories published in Abuja market in South South and South East. So, the media managers are not ready to take the bull by the horns. They are just interested in taking short cut to success, which to me is not good for the business. That is why they are having issues with paying salaries.
You said one of the problems with the traditional newspapers is that they do not make readers to pay to have access to their websites. But when you realise that there are countless news websites that readers can visit to get the stories, it would not be wise to adopt the style you have suggested.
From my understanding and observations so far, the conventional media – print- are the originators of most of the stories you find online. Most of the other online publications or those who call themselves media influencers, go to the websites and tap information. This, you will note when you see some of them who credit their stories to the traditional media. So, definitely, they originate some of the materials. Only a few of the online publications are independent and source stories by themselves. So, if the traditional media can ensure that before you access their sites, you have to pay premium, they will be making some money. The essence of the newspaper business is to make money; it goes beyond informing, educating and entertaining the readers. You have to make money. It is not a charity organisation.
You were in The Punch as one of the top circulation officers when the newspaper faced a crucial circulation issue popularly referred to as “No unsold copies” policy. Can you as an insider then give us an account of what transpired at the time.
Well, I was privy to the process and I can talk about it from the position of an insider. The company increased its cover price. I can’t remember the exact year now but it was very early in 2000. It is a very critical situation which I seriously suffered for personally years after I left The Punch. It later affected my work in other organisations. That is by the way.
The company increased the cover price, and they told us at the circulation department that we would be giving the agents so so amount of commission. The issue of “no unsold copies” policy preceded the increase in cover price. With the policy, unlike the tradition, we were told that the newspaper house would no longer be collecting unsold copies from vendors.
When the cover price was increased, the agents felt the pressure on them was becoming too much, so they asked for 50 kobo extra on the amount of the commission per newspaper, but the company said, “No”. As at the time, we were printing over 100,000 copies of the Saturday Punch. The chairman considered that 50 kobo on every newspaper was too much. He said the newspaper could not afford that. He said that we had to force them to take the condition when all entreaties failed. But the agent said no way.
Much as we tried to engage them, persuade them and make them see reason, they were not bothered. They insisted that 50 kobo should be added. The chairman of the company at the time, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, said the company gave us the mandate to carry out the policy. I was the deputy manager in the circulation department and the manager was Olorunshola Tomiwa. We held a strategic meeting and decided on how to go about it. My friend, of blessed memory, Pastor Charles Oguntoyinbo, who later changed to Omotoyinbo, was also with us then.
What we did was to move copies to where vendors would buy, thereby ignoring the agents who were insisting on additional 50 kobo. Ordinarily, the agents were the ones that would get the newspapers and give to vendors to circulate.
At that point, the vendors were eager to collect the newspapers. What we did was to divide Lagos State into many zones, and all the staff of the company, including those in the editorial, production and… everybody was involved in the operation. Everybody served as a vendor. We started first by going out to sell the newspapers. As time went on, the vendors could not stand not selling The Punch because they were losing greatly. So, they started coming to the office to buy the newspapers according to the new company policy.
Soon, the agents started attacking the vendors. They would collect the newspapers, burn them. While that was going on, the company continued to engage the agent, but they refused to listen. It got to a stage that we had to get the assistance of the police for security. Mike Okiro was the Lagos CP at the time. He provided policemen who gave us security as our staff sold newspapers at the time.
At a point, the agents said they had incurred some expenses, and that we should come and settle them (financially). We felt if we went to hold a meeting with them outside, anything could happen. We felt we could be kidnapped or attacked. We told the chairman and he said we could meet them. We explained the implication of the meeting to him and we resolved that the “war” should continue instead of having to go and negotiate.
Later, the vendors started coming in to buy the newspapers. They enjoyed all the commission that would have been shared between them and the agents. That emboldened the vendors the more. That gave us an upper hand against the agents.
One thing that made us to finally win the “war”, was when Chief Bola Ige was killed. The Punch reported it. Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye was the Editor at the time. We got to the market early and I am not sure any other paper did or got to the market before us. The vendors sold like never before. They were so happy. We used the story as a selling point, telling the vendors that we would continue to give them the kind of stories that would sell the newspapers on a daily basis. Vendors made money from the sale, we also enjoyed the turn of events. Before, we would stay till about 12 or 1 p.m. before we returned to the office. But as early as 10 a.m. we were already in the office with all the money accounted for. Gradually, we started winning the war.
We brought in the vendors and told them that if we took the newspapers to them at their locations, they would enjoy only the commission meant for them as vendors, but if they came to the office to pick the newspapers, they would enjoy the commission of the agents and the vendors. With that we lured them and they started coming to the office. We opened a register for them. At that point we stopped negotiating with the agents. Even the vendors that did not come to the office, after giving them the newspaper, we still gave them extra amount. Whatever the excess money we made at the time, we returned to the company’s account. We got receipt for all our transactions.
Gradually, the agents started coming. At a point all the agents wanted to come and resume full business, but we told them that the vendors had taken over. We explained to them that the vendors were with us at our time of need and we could not abandon them. It was at that time that the company came up with an instruction that on no account should we admit any of those agents since our earlier discussions with them failed.
Later, some of them started sponsoring vendors to register in their own names. That was what happened and how we won the “war”. But it was not easy. I can remember a particular incident when my manager, at the time, Mr. Olorunishola, led a team to Lagos Island and he was nearly stabbed. Some thugs suspected to have been hired by the agents there broke a bottle and made to stab him. But for divine intervention, he would have stabbed Olorunishiola. It was a close shave. More details will come up in a book I am putting together.
We had problems in Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt, Abuja and all over the place. However, we had something at the back of our mind: Once we were able to solve Lagos problem, we would use the template to solve the problem in other places. We had already introduced the “no unsold copies” policy before we introduced the increase in cover price. By the time we increased the cover price, we still maintained our “no unsold copies” policy. That was why the agents felt that it was getting too much. But, what we told them was that if they booked 100 copies and sold 80 copies, the gain on the 80 copies sold would be more than the value of the 20 remaining copies. We reasoned that whichever way, they were not losing anything. That was what we told them. We argued that if they had booked for what they could sell, there would not have been any problem. They argued that it was not possible to determine the number of sale that could be made at any given time. That was how the war of “no unsold copies” policy was fought and won.
Does the “no unsold copies” policy still exist?
It is no longer strictly applied like before. The managers now use their discretion. If they feel that an agent has the power to sell 30 copies and he orders 20 copies, they can still give him 10 more to assist him, depending on the manager. So, whether you sell it or not, you will come back and reconcile. The issue of payment before supply is also no longer limited to The Punch. It is now done in The Nation and others. But the policy is no longer as we designed it.
At the time, we attached some conditions to the policy. Should there be lateness of newspapers (late production), we would collect unsold; should there be rain, we would collect unsold. Apart from those two conditions, there was no reason to collect unsold. But I think the system has now changed.
We learnt that you paid dearly for being a major executor of the “no unsold copies” policy of The Punch. What were your experiences?
When I left The Punch, Mr. Ted Iwere who was the Executive Editor/Director of the Daily Independent gave me a call in 2004.
Why did you leave the The Punch?
What really happened was that immediately after the no unsold copies policy, the sales figure of the newspaper dropped. You know the agent had to pay before supply, so the sale dropped. The management felt that the circulation department was not doing enough, and that the place had to be reorganised. I can recollect an incident when the chairman of the newspaper told us, myself and Mr. Olorunshola, that if not because of the moral aspect of it he would have sacked the two of us because the sale had dropped. We explained to him that it was because the agents were paying for only the copies they could sell. In fairness to Mr. Demola Osinubi, the managing director, he felt otherwise. He came back after the chairman left and told us that we should try our best, that things would still be normal.
At that point, we felt that anytime from then, we should leave. Along the line, Mr. Remi Sotonwa was seconded to the Circulation department to come and take over the place. I did not know his brief, but when he came, because of the way he was trying to run the department, I felt I should go on leave. I applied for my leave, but he did not want me to go, saying he wanted to get grasp of things. Eventually, I was allowed to go. I went on leave, but when the leave was about to end, I got another letter telling me that I had some unspent leave which I should proceed on. I continued my leave. In fairness, they were paying all my money as at when due at the time. Again, when that one ended, they said I should proceed on another leave. I continued and they were still paying me. At that point, I calculated my remaining unspent leave and reasoned that they might tell me to spend the remaining days of my leave and… That was when I resolved that the best thing to do was to leave the system. I resigned and it was accepted.
I was at home, less than three weeks after I left The Punch when Mr. Ted Iwere called. He said, “My name is Ted Iwere from Daily Independent. Can you come over and let us work?” I honoured the invitation and he told me, “My brother, I want us to work together.” I told him you don’t know me and… He said he had heard a lot about me. “I want us to work together and I want you to start work today,” he said. I said I was not there with my CV and he said, anytime, I had it, I should submit it to the Admin Manager. He called the Admin Manager and told him that “this persons has joined us.” It was much more later that I got to know that it was Akanimo Sampson, a colleague at The Punch that recommended me to him.
With every sense of responsibility, I felt that every copy produced must be duly accounted for. So, because of this, I started having issues with the circulation people I was working with. The agents learnt that I had joined Daily Independent. When I got to Daily Independent, the agents told the circulation people that I would sack all of them. They told the agents that I said I would repeat what I did to them in The Punch, in Daily Independent. That is talking about the “no unsold copies” policy. The agents felt they suffered so much during the introduction of the policy and that they would ensure that I did not get the job. They felt I did not allow them to make their millions as they used to.
One day, I was with Mr. Iwere in his office, and one of the agents called from Lagos Island. He told Iwere that if he wanted them to sell Daily Independent, he had to relieve me of my job. Mr. Iwere asked what I had done and he could not justify it. They were on the phone for a long time. He said I had to remain that they could not dictate what to do to him. I must say the so called aggrieved agents were just few in number because I have friends among them. Anytime, I asked the circulation people who had not rendered his account to do so, there would be text messages sent to Mr. Iwere that the newspaper was not selling because I was there. The man said it did not make any meaning. That was how I survived. At that point, I made up my mind to operate as an outsider to any media organisation.
*Concluding part on Wednesday.