Sunday, May 25, 2014

Integrity and Manchester Confidential

Yesterday, Mark Garner, aka Gordo, asked me to write an objective summary of the perceived issues we have been aiming to highlight in recent weeks surrounding the advertising policy of Manchester Confidential. He promised that if I were to present an "honest, fair and not insulting" viewpoint, he would publish this on his website, and also respond. I decided against submitting this directly to Gordo for publishing, but hope that he will still respond to what I have to say. 

Anyone who takes any interest in Manchester's food and drink scene can't possibly have failed to notice the current feeling of mistrust and general dissatisfaction of some people towards the city's food writers and bloggers. You may have seen us vocally supporting blogging in general as we do think a lot of the perceived problems are not as great as is often made out. However, that is not to say that we do not think there is any truth in some of the criticisms or that every individual is acting with integrity.

One topic I see discussed often is the perceived lack of integrity surrounding Manchester Confidential's use of advertising, and I have seen this discussed both on Twitter and in the website's own comments sections. There appears to be a perception that ManCon gives positive reviews to businesses who choose to advertise with them but criticise or ignore those who don't. I have recently seen examples of the clients themselves getting some of the stick as a result of the negative feeling this perception causes. In addition, there have even been suggestions that the company uses high-pressure sales techniques in order to encourage businesses to pay them for advertising. It is this perception that I wish to discuss, and not whether any of these rumours surrounding ManCon's practices are factually accurate or not, especially given that I have no concrete evidence either way.

One of the practices that may be leading people to hold this perception is the paid reviews (or "advertorials") that appear on the site. These advertorials do not include any labelling indicating the fact that the reviewee is a client of ManCon, although with a bit of digging around the rest of the site it would usually become apparent to the reader that these restaurants are clients of ManCon's due to the weight of advertising. However, at first glance they could easily be mistaken for an independent review as the only difference in presentation is a lack of the usual 'score' and comments section.

These advertorials first came to our attention last weekend, when we visited Kukoos for a quick bite to eat which had very recently been featured in the ManCon Food & Drink section (see here). The restaurant was disappointing, and later discussing our experience with other Kukoos visitors on Twitter, the overwhelming consensus was that many people had had very similar experiences. We went back to look at the Kukoos review and realised it was in fact a paid review/advertorial, as confirmed by the restaurant (see below). We felt that we (and potentially many others) had been misled.


This is the core issue that we wished to discuss with Manchester Confidential: people feeling misled by these paid reviews could lead to a suspicion surrounding the rest of the site's content, hence the aforementioned perception of a lack of integrity.

Bailey did attempt to raise this issue with Gordo himself over Twitter. As per Gordo's request of presenting an "honest, fair and not insulting" point of view, I will not comment on this conversation and would prefer you to read the conversation here and draw your own conclusions (see here).

As a follow up, due to feeling generally dissatisfied with Gordo's answers, Bailey asked All Star Lanes to comment on another recent paid review (see here). We were not only interested in their answer, but were also keen to highlight to the restaurant that being reviewed in advertorials presented in this way can reflect badly on the business in question.


Skip forward a few days and we receive a visit from Gordo himself to our street food stall ¡Arepa! ¡Arepa! ¡Arepa!. For various reasons we have endeavoured to keep our business and blog separate but it isn't always possible and the majority of our customers are aware of our 'alter-ego'. I couldn't possibly transcribe the conversation we had with Gordo word-for-word, but the crux of it was that Gordo told us in no uncertain terms that if we should continue to interact with him and his clients, there would be negative repercussions involving him making it widely known that we were selling an "inferior product". Bailey asked for clarification as to whether or not he was threatening our business, to which he replied "Son, you mark my words: it's a promise".

This was quite a distressing exchange and with Gordo making it difficult to get a word in edgeways, Bailey did resort to telling Gordo to "F. off". This was regrettable and not behaviour that we would condone. At this point I stepped in to explain our concerns to Gordo - that we and many others feel that the way in which ManCon is run comes across as dishonest. Gordo challenged me to find any evidence of this dishonesty, and pledged to donate £1000 to a charity of my choosing should I manage to do so. For me, this would be an impossible task (how on earth could you prove how good or bad an experience a reviewer had on a single day?) but more importantly I feel Gordo is missing the point that some of ManCon's advertising policy and public conduct is toxic to the perception of all his site's content. He did accept my point of view however, and told me that if I presented my thoughts to him in writing, he would happily respond also in writing.

There's not really much else to say; as Gordo requested I have presented the facts, and to summarise: we asked a question regarding Manchester Confidential's advertorial policy and this resulted in quite an unpleasant threat being made to our business, although I'm sure Gordo could argue that there had been a threat made to his. So we await his response. I do have to say though, we don't intend to allow ourselves to be intimidated by Gordo's threats: should our business suffer any of the promised retaliations then we would be happy that this had been as a result of us standing by our strong belief that Manchester's food scene should be a fair, honest and independent level playing field.

EDIT 26/05/14: Since posting this article yesterday we've realised some of ManCon's clients could feel like we are criticising them by implication. We would like to clarify that we are not criticising them, in fact this post is not a criticism at all, it remains a simple recounting of facts. We would like to think that everybody understands that independent businesses need to advertise with major publishers like ManCon and they may not always have an option as to how those advertisements are presented.

EDIT 27/05/14:  ManCon have today updated their review guidance which can be found by clicking here. It is difficult to establish what they have updated on this 2012 post but it definitely now does include the line "we'll put from 27 May 2014: 'This article was produced in association with...'" when posting paid content. This can now be seen at the bottom of the aforementioned Kukoos advertorial.

As always with posts of this nature we'd appreciate it if you could leave a comment below with your thoughts as the inclusion of different outlooks really adds to the value of the post.

42 comments:

  1. Criticising teachers. What a scumbag. His hatred of education might explain "your the first person to be worried about that". Vile human.

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    1. The old "those who can't teach" argument is as old as the hills and us teachers get so much criticism it's like water off a duck's back now :)

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  2. I stopped reading ManCon ages ago, but just because the reviews never matched up to my experience, but because I also learned about how horribly they treat new writers (give us a free review & if it gets lots of hits, we'll pay you for the next one - but they never contact the writer again). I don't feel ManCon does anything good for Manchester, and so many other websites do - and other websites don't rely on cheap pop ups to make me accidentally click on ads.

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    1. It's interesting - have heard many people say similar things to you. As the biggest website of its kind I think the site will continue to be successful whatever happens.

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    2. that's what yahoo thought as well :/

      they still have to be relevant. and not shit.

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  3. His behaviour was unprofessional and threatening and as such should be reported. You have acquitted yourselves and if the reviews were honest then he would have had no need to threaten you. Keep up the good work I say and don't let this kind of corruption prevail.

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    1. Thanks for your point of view. It has always been our aim with the blog to be honest but to support those local independent businesses who deserve it, but sadly this is not the case with all those involved in food writing.

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  4. So appalled by this individual's behaviour. I personally do not use ManCon's reviews for the reasons highlighted above in this article - when I first moved to Manchester I visited a couple of restaurants on their recommendations and quickly found that the positive comments did not match up with my own experiences. I love reading your blog and find it very refreshing and informative. Shame on Gordo for thinking that threatening and personal attacks would dissuade you from doing what you enjoy and what we as readers keep coming back to read for a reason.

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    1. Thanks for your comments Liv. It's really nice to hear that you find our blog accessible and useful. I follow the majority of the food bloggers in Manchester and have found that most of them act with integrity and offer genuinely interesting points of view. This has helped us learn so much more about the MCR food and drink scene.

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  5. This has been an interesting piece, especially as I feel you asked an honest and justified question. Other media make it clear when something is an advertorial, therefore leaving it to the reader to decide how to react or act on it. If you follow Hollow Legs, an excellent food blogger in my opinion she also had an unpleasant run-in in 2011 (http://lizzieeatslondon.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/why-im-not-writing-for-london.html) - the conduct of an organisation and it's leaders has a big impact on my attitude to said organisation.

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    1. Agree, although ManCon being the biggest magazine of its kind I think does have an impact on the readership it gets.

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  6. I think that simply putting the word Advertorial at the beginning of any article that is paid for would clear this up and its a standard industry practice.

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  7. I think that simply putting the word Advertorial at the beginning of any article that is paid for would clear this up and its a standard industry practice.

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    1. Doing this would certainly give ManCon a defence against the bad feeling we've highlighted above.

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  8. As a casual reader of Man Con I can say I've never been confused as to which are reviews and which are advertorials. Also it seems to me the spark for all of this was you directly contacting their business clients questioning their choice to work with them. This would provoke a response from any business. Looks like you went looking for trouble and got it?

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    1. Hi Brian, cheers for your comment. Glad you haven't been confused but that's definitely not the case for everyone. In regards to your other comments, absolutely we would expect a response from any business regarding a complaint of this nature and as we state above, were indeed expecting a response from Gordo, but feel the way he chose to respond was unprofessional and unnecessary. Of course you're entitled to your opinions and can interpret our motives however you choose. That said, wouldn't you agree any company with a social media presence should be able to answer questions from their punters?

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    2. You've not really made clear what your original motives were. To directly contact a business' advertisers questioning their relationship is not something someone would do without an existing gripe. The events as they're explained look to me like you began a confrontation in an underhand manner and are complaining now they have got out of hand. 'Questions from punters' is one thing, mischief-making is another.

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    3. That is one way of reading the situation, can't argue with that but people will make their mind up based on our conduct prior to this issue just as you have. Cheers.

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  9. Slagging off teachers, how original. Unprofessional and childish in the extreme. This idiot is paid to promote Manchester? I think I wilk stick with the bloggers as usual.

    P.s. did not know you were Arepa Arepa Arepa, need to track you down and eat good things.

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    1. Thanks for the words of support, the old hat "can't do teach" is a tired and irrelevant argument! Hope to see you soon! Make sure you introduce yourself so we can have a chat :)

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  10. I am not surprised with Gordo's behaviour. A reminder from his past http://lizzieeatslondon.blogspot.gr/2011/08/why-im-not-writing-for-london.html . I am also familiar with "a promise" he made towards a small operator due to his disappointment with the service side of the business (or as someone nasty might refer to as lack of freebies and preferential treatment, but I personally condemn any nastiness)

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    1. Agreed, there doesn't need to be any nastiness in our food scene. We do ask questions but because we want to stand up for the business that bring good things to the city and who are passionate about good food and good feeling! Here's a post we wrote about it! http://goodgobble.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/diy-or-die.html

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  11. Above everything else, I can't believe he's indignant at being labelled a bully when he shamelessly threatened you - and has the audacity to label your tweet to All Star Lanes (https://twitter.com/GordoManchester/status/470490360716984320) "abuse" when everyone can see in black & white it's a straightforward question. What's the problem with answering the question anyway? He's avoided clearing up what should be a relatively simple matter and turned it into a shitstorm.

    The reason I won't read ManCon is Gordo - nothing else. He has done more damage to his business by not staying silent (on a number of occasions, not just this one) than anyone else has. The fact that he threatened your business puts me off more than the unlabeled advertorials, but these are a problem too: it's standard industry practice to just stick a heading on there, why is it such a problem to do this in order to achieve transparency and give your reviews more weight and your whole business more integrity overall? I would never knowingly read a blog that didn't do this, ManCon are no exception. You've done nothing wrong in asking a few questions. You haven't made any suggestions that weren't ultimately true, after all.

    To reiterate though, it's Gordo that stopped me reading ManCon and made me unsubscribe from their newsletter. I'm sure publishers as odious as him exist elsewhere, but without the public profile - so I'm unaware as to how nasty the person whose pockets I'm lining really is. Maybe if he didn't threaten and bully people, patronise women, criticise teachers, lack integrity, lie, retweet his own self-important opinions on the ManCon account, self-publish unreadable dross, and generally wave his dick around, I would still be part of the not-so-loyal ManCon readership. He won't care - he has told me so before: he has thousands of readers to fall back on.

    Good for you for standing up to him. It can't have been a straightforward decision, and the more traders realise they can be successful without being ManCon-approved, the easier it will get. So this could be the start of something big :)
    Keep on at it, you're awesome. x

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    1. Wow!! One thing that has become apparent is that there are a lot of people who feel strongly about the way ManCon choose to run their business.

      Just wanted to say really though, thanks so much for your support over the last few days, we really appreciate it :D

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    2. Ha, maybe I went a bit overboard yesterday, but as someone below said, it's hard to express an opinion of someone like this without getting a bit angry/sweary - and I stand by everything I said. It's not a business I want to support, and it's run by someone whose pockets I would rather not help to line. It's so easy to avoid using ManCon; I just wish more people would realise that better written and more trustworthy reviews are available elsewhere.

      Good luck with everything, your food is ace and that's all that matters. We'll be coming down for a helping of arepas and ale on Sunday :)

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  12. I used to visit Manchester Confidential, and followed them on Twitter. This is the first time I have heard of the advertorials or the treatment of writers, and Mark Garner's attitude on top of this, with the Good Gobble bloggers that I trust, means I won't do so again.

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    1. Thanks for coming along and commenting on this issue :)

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  13. I kept trying to write a comment on what I think of ManCon and Gordo that didn't descend into insult. In the end I deleted several. I finally realised it's genuinely difficult to express an opinion of such a lowlife without resorting to words of anger or scorn. Mostly it's easy to ignore such individuals, but in this case, it's sad that there is such a sizable readership who have no idea about his shady business model, lack of transparency and bully boy tactics. A deeply unpleasant business run by a deeply unpleasant individual.

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    1. Thanks for coming along and commenting on this issue. There are a lot of people who have expressed similar opinions :)

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  14. Hey Arepa! Arepa! Arepa! Had your food at the Friday Food Fight and it was awesome! Nothing ManCon could publish would take away the greatness of your food. I'm not a reader of ManCon as I prefer to go on word-of-mouth. After following this whole episode, the guy sounds shady, rude and insulting. I have no intention of ever reading ManCon. Anyway, keep doing what you're doing with those Arepas!

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    1. Thanks so much! Makes us so happy when people say they enjoyed our food so thanks for that :)

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  15. Hope you guys are OK - people who counter questions with abuse are generally fools or liars. The odd person can be both.

    I think you should take some comfort in that the mancon website just isn't as influential as many seem to think it is. Most people don't turn to it to guide their dining habits - as some have mentioned above people familiar with it might read it to see what's opening but don't trust it. This isn't necessarily because it's biased - often it's unreliable because it has bad reviewers.

    The biggest problem I have with its operations is that it has advertisers that waste money on adverts that are little use at best and can be unhelpful at worst as hype can bring short-term gains but unrealistic expectations can be toxic. Can understand why people would want help with it being so hard to set up a business - also can understand why there's some defensiveness from mancon here, if advertisers realised how little the site is trusted then it's business model would be in trouble.

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    1. Thanks for the comment John and the support you've shown us over the last few days!

      Re your third point: Was saying a similar thing yesterday - with the rise in social media and review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor "everyone's a critic" these days and in my opinion a restaurant's money is best spent on making sure their product is top notch for everyone who walks through the door.

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  16. I enjoy Manchester Confidential's reviews but I certainly wasn't aware that a lack of score equates to a paid advertorial.

    It seems at best a generous assumption by the editorial staff that readers realise the difference and the discomfort in their and the associated businesses in discussing it on Twitter really disappointed me.

    Hopefully all the Twitter feedback will make them reconsider the approach. I've raised an ASA complaint in the meantime - the guidelines are pretty clear:

    http://www.cap.org.uk/~/media/Files/CAP/Help%20notes%20new/Advertisement_features.ashx

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    1. If you could come back and let us know what response you get that would be brilliant. Thanks.

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  17. Completely agree with Jules' last point: restaurants.... and basically ANY businesses in ANY field should concentrate on the quality of the product and the delivery. Simple as that. All PR companies will tell you, word of mouth is over 70% of your marketing. It's valid for Apple as well as the local bakery. Keep your customers happy with a good product and good service and they will tell all. The opposite is also true.

    Now on this overall, more specific issue being discussed here... I never really used this website anyway. Without looking much into it, all the "highlighted" stuff never seemed to be my kind of thing (Disneyland type venues, living venture bars...). It always stank of big money and appearance and never of authenticity. And for me that's the key thing: authenticity!

    You can talk to the highest person in your local business. You can't do that with big firms. Ultimately, you will never speak to the All Star Lanes boss. I don't even think he's aware of the issue. But Gordo, and everyone else, can speak to Arepa!x3's bosses. They are ultimately answerable for their product and their service and you can confront them directly if you have an issue. It really does my head in that the majority of people do not realise the consumer power that lies in trading with local, independent businesses. Or more importantly, that the majority of people do not even care to have consumer power at all.

    Anyway, I digress. You've raised valid questions, maybe the clients should be left out of the conversation but ultimately the guy is his own worst enemy and his 13 employees should have realised that by now, surely. But they decide to stick with it... Draw your own conclusions.

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  18. We are a split mancon readership household. The bloke doesn't read it, due to the shockingly sycophantic content and I only read it to determine where not to eat. If I see a gushing article on Mancon we tend to avoid it like the plague. The pitfalls of advertising via advertorials....

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  19. I agree completely that ManCon could and should be clearer with their paid editorial and that they run the risk of misleading readers. I also find it difficult to imagine they weren't aware of this until you brought it up, given how overtly other publishers label such content. However, I guess it's for the ASA to decide whether they've actually done anything wrong or not.

    On a separate note, I think it's tragic just how quickly something like this can explode. A lesson in making mountains out of molehills. At the end of the day, we're all passionate about food and probably wouldn't know each other without it. Silly really that there are some who feel the need to insult and threaten people within their own community.

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  20. Apologies to the last user who left a comment. I've removed it as it isn't relevant to this discussion.

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  21. Reviews aside....from a digital perspective ManCon's website is SHOCKINGLY poor, inaccessible, unresponsive and way way way too many pods, sliders, heros. etc You would think if they were such a 'big' organisation they could afford to improve it...... just saying.

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  22. Just wanted to comment on this to make sure its still on the first page when you google mark garner, gordo or the confidentials. People need to see this.

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