Freedom of Information request: advertising for clearing

Rowland Manthorpe made this Freedom of Information request to University of Liverpool as part of a batch sent to 140 authorities

This request has been closed to new correspondence from the public body. Contact us if you think it ought be re-opened.

The request was refused by University of Liverpool.

Dear University of Liverpool,

Under the Freedom of Information Act, can you please tell me how much money you spent on advertising for clearing in 2019.

Can you please provide subtotals for the following categories (feel free to break them down further if that's appropriate):
1. Facebook
2. Instagram
3. Google - that is, search advertising
4. YouTube
5. Snapchat
6. Twitter
7. Other social networks (please specify)
8. Amazon
9. Online - that is, on websites excluding social networks, or those websites those listed above (this includes advertising using Google's ad network)
10. Television
11. National newspapers
12. Local newspapers
13. Magazines
14. Posters and billboards
15. Radio
16. Public transport billboards

Can you also provide an example of an ad in each of the above formats.

For the online forms of advertising, can you also tell me how many clicks each advertisement received. Can you also provide any other data you have which indicates the engagement with each ad.

For Google advertising, can you list which keywords you advertised against. Can you please indicate the cost-per-click in each case.

For Facebook, can you please supply
- A list of the interests and/or demographics you targeted
- If you used custom audiences, where you derived the data to make that custom audience from

Can you please provide this information in an Excel format.

Thanks for your help!

Yours faithfully,

Rowland Manthorpe

foi Uof Liverpool, University of Liverpool

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Manthorpe

This is to acknowledge receipt of your request for information from
the University of Liverpool.   Your reference number is FOI/2019/363. We
will review and process your request as soon as possible.

We will respond within 20 working days of the day we received the
request.  You will hear back from us by 4^th October at the latest.

Yours sincerely

 

Kirsty Rothwell
Freedom of Information Officer / Data Protection Co-ordinator
Legal & Compliance

University of Liverpool, Foundation Building, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool L69
7ZX

 

The information in this email and any attachments is confidential. Unless
you are the intended recipient, you must not read, copy, distribute, use
or retain this message or any part of it. If you are not the intended
recipient, please notify the sender immediately.

 

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foi Uof Liverpool, University of Liverpool

1 Attachment

FOI/2019/363

17^th September 2019

 

Name:  Rowland Manthorpe

By email to: [FOI #602192 email]

 

Dear Mr Manthorpe,

 

Thank you for your email of 7^th September requesting information
concerning spent on advertising for clearing in 2019. 

 

Can you please provide subtotals for the following categories (feel free
to break them down further if that's appropriate): Facebook, Instagram,
Google - that is, search advertising, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Other
social networks (please specify), Amazon, Online - that is, on websites
excluding social networks, or those websites those listed above (this
includes advertising using Google's ad network), Television, National
newspapers, Local newspapers, Magazines, Posters and billboards, Radio and
Public transport billboards.

 

Can you also provide an example of an ad in each of the above formats?

 

For the online forms of advertising, can you also tell me how many clicks
each advertisement received? Can you also provide any other data you have
which indicates the engagement with each ad? For Google advertising, can
you list which keywords you advertised against. Can you please indicate
the cost-per-click in each case? For Facebook, can you please supply a
list of the interests and/or demographics you targeted and, if you used
custom audiences, where you derived the data to make that custom audience
from?

 

The requested information regarding spent on advertising for clearing in 2019 has been withheld under Section 43(2). Section 43(2) states that: “Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).”

 

This information has been withheld owing to the prejudice that would occur to our commercial interests on account of competitive institutions becoming aware of our intentions and activities with regard to student recruitment as clearing is now a core element of the UK recruitment cycle.  

 

Section 43(2) is a qualified exemption and as such a public interest test must be performed to establish the harm that would occur from disclosure, and where the balance of interest lies.  We recognise that release of information concerning how the University spends its money is always considered to be in the public interest and that the public should be aware that financial operations of the University are being conducted appropriately.

 

However, the University competes in a competitive market environment in
terms of recruiting high calibre students to the University’s student
population. To disclose the information requested would affect our ability
to be competitive in the area of student recruitment by providing other
institutions with otherwise un-disclosed knowledge concerning our
recruitment strategy. Consideration is also given to the harm disclosing
this information would be likely to cause, combined with other information
already in the public domain (mosaic effect) or possibly released at a
future date (precedent effect).

 

A negative impact on our market position would make it harder for public money to be utilised prudently and would have the effect of distorting the marketplace we operate in. Universities are now subject to UK Competition Laws so engaging in the exchange of commercially valuable information with competitors, which an FOI disclosure would be considered as, would leave us open to investigation by competition authorities. It is the view of the University that, at this time, the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.

 

If you are unhappy with the way we have handled your request for
information, you have a right under Section 50 of the Freedom of
Information Act to ask the University to review it; however, you must do
so within 40 working days of the date of this response. Your request
should include our reference number and explain the reason for requesting
a review. Email [University of Liverpool request email] or write to the Freedom of Information
Reviewer, Legal & Compliance, University of Liverpool, Foundation
Building, 765 Brownlow Hill, Liverpool L69 7ZX.  We will respond to your
request for an internal review within 20 working days of receipt.

 

Following an internal review, if you remain dissatisfied with the handling
of your request, you have a right to appeal to the Information
Commissioner at The Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House,
Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF. Telephone:  0303 123 1113
www.ico.gov.uk.

 

There is no charge for making an appeal.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Kirsty Rothwell
Freedom of Information / Data Protection Officer 
Legal & Compliance

University of Liverpool, Foundation Building, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool L69
7ZX

 

The information in this email and any attachments is confidential. Unless
you are the intended recipient, you must not read, copy, distribute, use
or retain this message or any part of it. If you are not the intended
recipient, please notify the sender immediately.

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Dear University of Liverpool,

I am writing to request an internal review of your handling of my FOI request 'Freedom of Information request: advertising for clearing'.

There is a strong public interest in showing how universities spend public money and student fees, as shown by the ongoing debate on university funding. More recently, there has also been increased public interest in university admissions, with a review into this subject by the Office for Students being backed by the education secretary. This information could help that review see how clearing operates and factor into its recommendations on the timing of clearing.

There is also a public interest in ensuring fair commercial competition in a mixed economy, which favours transparency on questions of procurement.

I am therefore very disappointed in your decision.

I also believe the decision reflects neither the exact circumstances of the advertising market nor the ICOs guidance on the subject.

In your response, you argue that releasing information about marketing for clearing would prejudice your commercial interests.

This is incorrect, given the facts of this case, for the following reasons.

1. The University makes money by providing courses to students. It does not seem possible that this information would discourage students attending university -- as ads are known to cost money, the University would not advertise at all if it believed that was the case.

2. The University has a commercial relationship with the advertising platforms (both online and offline) on which it places ads. It would harm the University’s commercial interests if releasing information about marketing caused the price to go up. This is not likely to happen, because:
- As I am asking for the total sums spent on different forms of marketing, I am not asking for price information, which could conceivably be used to drive up the University’s price per ad
- Even if the University did release the price per ad, this should -- according to the ICO’s own guidelines -- causes - prices to fall, by “promoting competition in procurement via transparency”
- In the case of online advertising, prices are set algorithmically, based on the total demand at that time. - Revealing the total spend would therefore not impact the price
- In the case of online advertising, you are competing against every conceivable advertiser at that moment, not just universities. Releasing details of spend is therefore extremely unlikely to raise prices
- Clearing for 2019 has already passed, so this is not relevant to existing negotiations. What’s more, as clearing will not happen again for another year, when the price will have changed, this information is unlikely to be relevant

There is an instance in which prejudice might occur. The University is in competition with other universities for students. It could harm the University if other universities changed their advertising expenditure as a result of the disclosure, thereby outcompeting the University for students.

However, this does not outweigh the public interest in releasing the information, for the following reasons:

1. The ICO’s guidance states that there must be a “causal link” between the disclosure and the prejudice claimed, you must be able to show that this harms you commercially by reducing the number of students on your courses. As students decide on numerous factors, including location, the reputation of the university and the number of places available at the time, the causal link in this case will be weak. There is also no evidence to show that the university “market” operates in this way.

2. The ICO’s guidance specifies that “the severity of the prejudice that may happen also affects the weighting.” As the causal link is extremely unclear, the severity is also likely to be limited.

This being the case, the strong public interest in revealing this information means that the exemption to the FOI Act should not be engaged.

I look forward to your response.

Regards,

Rowland

foi Uof Liverpool, University of Liverpool

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Manthorpe

This is to acknowledge receipt of your request for an internal review of
our response to your recent request (our reference FOI/2019/363).  

We will respond within 20 working days of the day we received the
request.  You will hear back from us by 28^th October at the latest.

Yours sincerely

 

Kirsty Rothwell
Freedom of Information Officer / Data Protection Co-ordinator
Legal & Compliance

University of Liverpool, Foundation Building, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool L69
7ZX

 

The information in this email and any attachments is confidential. Unless
you are the intended recipient, you must not read, copy, distribute, use
or retain this message or any part of it. If you are not the intended
recipient, please notify the sender immediately.

 

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foi Uof Liverpool, University of Liverpool

1 Attachment

FOI/2019/363/IR

 

Name:  Rowland Manthorpe

By email to: [FOI #602192 email]

 

Dear Mr Manthorpe,

17^th September 2019

 

Thank you for your email of 30^th September requesting an internal reviews
of our response to your recent FOI request.

 

Original request and response

On 7^th September you requested information concerning spend on
advertising for clearing in 2019. 

 

Can you please provide subtotals for the following categories (feel free
to break them down further if that's appropriate): Facebook, Instagram,
Google - that is, search advertising, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Other
social networks (please specify), Amazon, Online - that is, on websites
excluding social networks, or those websites those listed above (this
includes advertising using Google's ad network), Television, National
newspapers, Local newspapers, Magazines, Posters and billboards, Radio and
Public transport billboards.

 

Can you also provide an example of an ad in each of the above formats?

 

For the online forms of advertising, can you also tell me how many clicks
each advertisement received? Can you also provide any other data you have
which indicates the engagement with each ad? For Google advertising, can
you list which keywords you advertised against. Can you please indicate
the cost-per-click in each case? For Facebook, can you please supply a
list of the interests and/or demographics you targeted and, if you used
custom audiences, where you derived the data to make that custom audience
from?

 

On 17^th September, we responded with the following response.

 

The requested information regarding spent on advertising for clearing in 2019 has been withheld under Section 43(2). Section 43(2) states that: “Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).”

 

This information has been withheld owing to the prejudice that would occur to our commercial interests on account of competitive institutions becoming aware of our intentions and activities with regard to student recruitment as clearing is now a core element of the UK recruitment cycle.  

 

Section 43(2) is a qualified exemption and as such a public interest test must be performed to establish the harm that would occur from disclosure, and where the balance of interest lies.  We recognise that release of information concerning how the University spends its money is always considered to be in the public interest and that the public should be aware that financial operations of the University are being conducted appropriately.

 

However, the University competes in a competitive market environment in
terms of recruiting high calibre students to the University’s student
population. To disclose the information requested would affect our ability
to be competitive in the area of student recruitment by providing other
institutions with otherwise un-disclosed knowledge concerning our
recruitment strategy. Consideration is also given to the harm disclosing
this information would be likely to cause, combined with other information
already in the public domain (mosaic effect) or possibly released at a
future date (precedent effect).

 

A negative impact on our market position would make it harder for public money to be utilised prudently and would have the effect of distorting the marketplace we operate in. Universities are now subject to UK Competition Laws so engaging in the exchange of commercially valuable information with competitors, which an FOI disclosure would be considered as, would leave us open to investigation by competition authorities. It is the view of the University that, at this time, the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.

 

Reasons for internal review

On 30^th September you asked for an internal review of our response, as
follows.

 

There is a strong public interest in showing how universities spend public
money and student fees, as shown by the ongoing debate on university
funding. More recently, there has also been increased public interest in
university admissions, with a review into this subject by the Office for
Students being backed by the education secretary. This information could
help that review see how clearing operates and factor into its
recommendations on the timing of clearing. There is also a public interest
in ensuring fair commercial competition in a mixed economy, which favours
transparency on questions of procurement. I am therefore very disappointed
in your decision.  I also believe the decision reflects neither the exact
circumstances of the advertising market nor the ICOs guidance on the
subject.

 

In your response, you argue that releasing information about marketing for
clearing would prejudice your commercial interests.  This is incorrect,
given the facts of this case, for the following reasons.

 

1. The University makes money by providing courses to students. It does
not seem possible that this information would discourage students
attending university -- as ads are known to cost money, the University
would not advertise at all if it believed that was the case.

2. The University has a commercial relationship with the advertising
platforms (both online and offline) on which it places ads. It would harm
the University’s commercial interests if releasing information about
marketing caused the price to go up. This is not likely to happen,
because:

- As I am asking for the total sums spent on different forms of marketing,
I am not asking for price information, which could conceivably be used to
drive up the University’s price per ad

- Even if the University did release the price per ad, this should --
according to the ICO’s own guidelines -- causes - prices to fall, by
“promoting competition in procurement via transparency”

- In the case of online advertising, prices are set algorithmically, based
on the total demand at that time. - Revealing the total spend would
therefore not impact the price

- In the case of online advertising, you are competing against every
conceivable advertiser at that moment, not just universities. Releasing
details of spend is therefore extremely unlikely to raise prices

- Clearing for 2019 has already passed, so this is not relevant to
existing negotiations. What’s more, as clearing will not happen again for
another year, when the price will have changed, this information is
unlikely to be relevant

 

There is an instance in which prejudice might occur. The University is in
competition with other universities for students. It could harm the
University if other universities changed their advertising expenditure as
a result of the disclosure, thereby outcompeting the University for
students. However, this does not outweigh the public interest in releasing
the information, for the following reasons:

 

1. The ICO’s guidance states that there must be a “causal link” between
the disclosure and the prejudice claimed, you must be able to show that
this harms you commercially by reducing the number of students on your
courses. As students decide on numerous factors, including location, the
reputation of the university and the number of places available at the
time, the causal link in this case will be weak. There is also no evidence
to show that the university “market” operates in this way.

 

2. The ICO’s guidance specifies that “the severity of the prejudice that
may happen also affects the weighting.” As the causal link is extremely
unclear, the severity is also likely to be limited.

 

This being the case, the strong public interest in revealing this
information means that the exemption to the FOI Act should not be engaged.

 

Our internal review response

We uphold our decision to withhold the information under section 43(2)
(commercial interests) of the Act. 

 

The UK Higher Education sector is a highly competitive environment and
recent regulatory changes have increased competition. How a University
markets itself to potential students, its success in recruiting students,
and how we do so, directly affects both reputation and financial position
and as such is commercially sensitive. How we direct funding to create an
online marketing strategy provides the University with a possible
advantage compared to those competitors who undertake this activity less
effectively. Details of tactical marketing activities/funding is not
shared between institutions nor are they publicised or made public in any
way, particularly in the case of social media. If a competitor institution
knew the details of our online advertising and the channels we were
advertising on, it would be able to make decisions regarding the level of
expenditure required to compete per channel, or whether to try and compete
at all.  Even the release of a total figure for marketing spend would
provide competitors with the insight to match and potentially exceed the
University’s activities. The amount spent on marketing with Google,
Facebook and Twitter reveals the importance placed on each outlet and the
amount that competitors need to spend in order to obtain greater
visibility in that outlet.  This is confirmed by ICO decision notice
([1]FS50668371), which confirms the ICO recognises causal linkage between
marketing expenditure and the ability to attract the number and quality of
students desired.

 

I conclude that section 43(2) was correctly applied and the public
interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in
disclosure.

 

Following an internal review, if you remain dissatisfied with the handling
of your request, you have a right to appeal to the Information
Commissioner at The Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House,
Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF. Telephone:  0303 123 1113
www.ico.gov.uk.

 

There is no charge for making an appeal.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

James Fox
Associate Direct, Legal &Insurance Services/Freedom of Information
Reviewer 
Legal & Compliance

University of Liverpool, Foundation Building, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool L69
7ZX

 

The information in this email and any attachments is confidential. Unless
you are the intended recipient, you must not read, copy, distribute, use
or retain this message or any part of it. If you are not the intended
recipient, please notify the sender immediately.

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