The Toronto Public Library Is Thinking About Getting Into the Ad Business
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The Toronto Public Library Is Thinking About Getting Into the Ad Business

Why that's a bad idea.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6131001289/"}Corey.Gudgeon{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

There are some who hope Toronto can advertise its financial troubles away.

Early last year, the Toronto District School Board briefly flirted with a scheme to install ad-displaying video screens in schools, before abandoning the idea. Last summer, the TTC signaled that it might be interested in allowing corporate sponsors to name subway stations. More recently, with encouragement from the Fords, city council passed a new comprehensive sponsorship policy that will guide any future attempts to attach corporate names or logos to municipal property. And just last month, city council agreed to look into the possibility of putting billboards on city-owned buildings.

Now, at last, the ad men are coming for Toronto Public Library.

At its meeting tonight, the TPL board will consider a proposal to create an advertising policy for Toronto’s libraries [PDF]. The reason such a policy doesn’t already exist is that the library system hasn’t needed one: TPL sells some ads in its printed program guides, but otherwise it has only ever allowed sponsorships.

The idea would be to start slowly, by hiring a contractor to sell ads that would be printed on the backs of due-date slips. With that accomplished, the library would hire a consultant to look for other advertising-sales opportunities that would, in the words of library staff, “maximize revenue and minimize impacts to the delivery of core library services.”

The TPL board is as politically divided as the rest of Toronto’s municipal government, and the advertising idea originated when members were debating the library’s 2012 budget. In its ongoing quest for efficiencies and revenue, the board wanted to exhaust all possible options for folding private-sector money into the library’s chronically underfunded operating budget, and asked library staff to look into several suggestions for helping balance the books. Advertising in the library was one of them.

And sure, some ads on the backs of due-date slips aren’t going to ruin the library. It’s not as though the proposal is for all of us to be forced to watch 60-second commercials at the circulation desk each time we check out a book.

Even so, this is not a very good idea.

The city agency that has historically had the most success with advertising sales—in other words, the best possible example of an ad-supported operating model for a municipal entity in Toronto—is the TTC. By selling ads on vehicles and in stations (but not on transit shelters—those belong to Astral Media, and they’re a whole other story), the commission raises a considerable sum of money each year. But not as much as one might think.

The TTC doesn’t profit directly from ad sales. Instead, it farms the business out to a contractor, Pattison Outdoor. Pattison sells the ads, keeps some of the money, and then gives the TTC a cut. In 2011, the TTC’s budget documents put the payoff at about $20 million. (At the time, the TTC’s advertising contractor was CBS Outdoor; Pattison took over in 2012.) The commission’s total expenses for the year, meanwhile, were over $1.4 billion. The ad money is helpful, no doubt, but it’s not making all the difference in helping the TTC stave off service reductions and fare hikes.

And that’s the TTC, a huge agency with a captive audience. TPL, a much smaller organization with less reach, could only reasonably hope to raise a tiny fraction of that amount, and it would likely end up accounting for an even more miniscule slice of the library’s total operating budget.

Another difference between the two organizations is that the TTC is in a business where selling ads is an accepted practice. That’s not true of libraries. TPL staff studied other systems and found very few major municipal libraries that have any kind of advertising program. Toronto would be setting a precedent, and the board should think seriously about whether this particular thing is something they’d like our city to be known for.

And so, to recap: selling ads at TPL wouldn’t significantly buffer the library system from cuts. It would, at minimum, clutter up the backs of due-date slips. It would also be an unusual strategy that would raise eyebrows in other cities. Whose interests, then, does this proposal serve?

Advertisers would get a new venue for reaching customers, so that’s a modest boon for them.

The contractor who ends up selling the ads would get to pocket a lot of the revenue, so that’s great for those guys.

But the biggest beneficiaries of all would be politicians who are reluctant to spend tax money where it’s needed. Every proposal to privatize public assets is ultimately an attempt at easing the financial burden on voters, which can be good optics. In cases where the payoff is worth the loss of the asset, a sale isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if we’re going to start selling off any part of Toronto’s public libraries—even a very small part—we should make sure the price is commensurate with their value.

The price ad sales are likely to fetch is far too cheap.

Read the board report on the proposed advertising policy here.

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