Doctor Who Online, Sebastian J. Brook, and the Defrauding of a Community

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This piece has been updated twice since it was first posted.

IF YOU HAVE BEEN A VICTIM OF DOCTOR WHO ONLINE'S FRAUDULENT MARKETING PRACTICES, PLEASE CONTACT UK TRADING STANDARDS VIA CITIZEN'S ADVICE.

This isn't a particularly pleasant post, I'm afraid, but it's an important one. I've spoken occasionally about the fact that it's vital for freelance creators to be open about where their money comes from and how much they make, and especially to be vocal when someone rips them off. Today we have a case study in why that is: a high profile Doctor Who fansite that has been around for nearly twenty years, and that is serially defrauding members of the Doctor Who fan community by offering expensive advertising on the back of false promises, and that has gotten away with it largely because until now, nobody had actually reached out to the site's victims and collected their stories.

The site is Doctor Who Online, run by Sebastian J. Brook. It's a longstanding site, founded in 1996. They have an active forum and over 100,000 Twitter followers. Their podcast is up to its 349th episode. And the site is, in practice, a front for a series of breathtakingly fraudulent business practices designed to rip off small and independent business owners.

What follows is an explanation of how Doctor Who Online's fraud operates, and a compilation of the evidence I have gathered demonstrating that this is standard business practice for the site. Although I am not a legal expert by any means, it is my sincere belief that the site's business practices, as documented below, constitute fraud by false representation under UK law.

I would strongly and emphatically recommend against purchasing advertising from Doctor Who Online, visiting their site, participating in their community, or supporting any of their numerous affiliated businesses, which include mobile app development (generally $2.99 news apps that seem to scrape the RSS feeds of actual content creators, based on their app pages) and a variety of auxiliary sites.

But more than that, I would recommend spreading the word. Brook has, for years now, functioned as a predator within the Doctor Who fandom, victimizing literally hundreds of fans who run small businesses. He has been able to do this because it was not widely public knowledge that his site was a scam. By spreading the word, you help make it less likely that his next victim will be caught unaware.

If you have been a victim of this scam, meanwhile, I am told that the most obvious people to contact would be UK Trading Standards.

The Scam

Brook's scam follows an extremely well-rehearsed and consistent path. He contacts small businesses with products that might be of interest to Doctor Who fans and offers them advertising on his site, claiming that his users have been requesting content along those lines. Contact is generally made via Twitter, with a pitch describing supposedly discounted rates, although I see no evidence that any ads have ever been sold at the supposed "full" rate.

Even discounted, these rates are decidedly not cheap. Multiple people have sent me the following rate structure, which is consistent with the prices I was given when Brook contacted me in January of 2014:
3 x Months – 225x150 pixels (Medium Banner) - £400 / $639 - (normally £600 / $959)
6 x Months – 225x150 pixels (Medium Banner) - £600 / $959 - (normally £1200 / $1918)
12 x Months – 225x150 pixels (Medium Banner) - £800 / $1278 - (normally £2400 / $3836)

3 x Months – 952x60 pixels (Large Banner) - £600 / $959 - (normally £900 / $1438)
6 x Months – 952x60 pixels (Large Banner) - £800 / $1278 - (normally £1800 / $2877)
12 x Months – 952x60 pixels (Large Banner) - £1200 / $1918 - (normally £3600 / $5754)
These steep rates are justified on the supposed basis of the site's reach and the traffic they get (although, as you'll see, there is reason to have serious doubts regarding Brook's internal analytics). Multiple people report being promised thousands of clicks, while another reports a promise that advertising with the site would double their revenue. The offer is generally paired with offers of Twitter promotion, an editorial on the site's news page, and e-mails to their mailing list.

Brook engages in an aggressive hard sell regarding the ads, following up over and over again, offering further discounts if people book in short time frames, and avoiding taking no for an answer. (In my case he finally offered me the three month 225x150 slot at £150, which seems, in practice, to be his floor.) The aggressiveness of Brook's sales practices is frequently remarked and criticized by the people I've talked to, including one who alleges that Brook got "abusive" when he declined, although he did not still have the Twitter logs of this abuse.

When one finally caves to the hard sell, the performance is wildly below what Brook's lofty promises would suggest. In my case, the ad received fewer than a hundred clicks in its first month, a number confirmed with both Blogger's internal analytics and separately installed Google Analytics. Based on the numbers I have been given from other advertisers, this constitutes above average performance.

When Brook's clients express their dissatisfaction with this performance, he offers further perks, suggesting that one makes use of his Twitter or mailing list "free extras" or a free upgrade in the quality of one's ad placement. If they produce analytics showing the poor ad performance, he contests them, claiming a much higher performance; in my case, he claimed that I had gotten several thousand clicks in the month my ad ran. He generally does not respond to requests for further detail on his analytics. After the better part of a year's effort and several threats to go public with my analytics, I was able to secure a refund. This is an abnormal outcome.

Currently there are eighty-two small banner ads and eleven large banners on Doctor Who Online. Although Brooks's actual market rates are variable due to the haggling he engages in when selling ads, if one assumes Brooks is making £100 off of each small ad and £150 off of each large one per month (this is significantly cheaper than his "discount" rates in each case), that amounts to nearly £10,000 in monthly revenue that Brook is making by defrauding small business owners and Etsy sellers.

Evidence

At the time of writing, I have reports from twenty-seven people in addition to myself, all of whom have purchased advertising with Doctor Who Online and been disappointed with the results. In every case, the details are nearly identical: the same inflated promises, the same hard sell, the same general pricing, the same poor performance, and the same claims that Brook's analytics show better ad performance than the analytics of the people advertising with him. On top of that, there are numerous complaints of lengthy delays in ads going up, and of the promised extras (Twitter posts, mailing list ads, and an editorial on the site) never materializing.

I should stress, these twenty-six accounts were mostly obtained by contacting Doctor Who Online's current advertisers. All of these are people Brook has done business with in the last twelve months. If I had access to a list of former advertisers (a list I expect is rather long, given how dissatisfied his current ones are and how many explicitly state that they will not be renewing their advertising) one imagines I would have gotten even more horror stories.

In any case, here's some of the hard evidence I've got.

Brook promising "thousands" of clickthroughs on ads:




Similarly, I had a friend contact Brook posing as a potential advertiser, asking what sorts of clicks one could expect advertising on Doctor Who Online. Brook's answer:
Clickthrough rates vary depending on the banner design and positioning but on average we are currently getting between 1000-2000 clickthroughs per banner, per month on the homepage.
In marked contrast to those lofty promises, here's how that actually turned out for the advertiser Brook promised 2000-6000 clicks:



This is a common theme in dealings with Brook - his continual insistence that ads are performing far better than the analytics presented by his advertisers. Here's the actual analytics from that same advertiser over two and a half months of advertising on the site, resulting in exactly eight of his promised 2000-6000 clicks:



And there's plenty more stories of absolutely dismal results advertising on Doctor Who Online. Here's another Etsy seller's logs, showing that their ad got a grand total of sixteen clicks:



And the referral logs from someone who had an ad campaign showing that their site has only ever gotten forty-six referrals from Doctor Who Online:


Another advertiser's Google Analytics, showing eight clicks in a one month period from Doctor Who Online:




Here's the Google Analytics for the entire seven month duration of one seller's ad campaign, over which they got a grand total of nineteen clicks, putting them behind buttons-for-your-website.com and barely ahead of make-money-online.7makemoneyonline.com as a traffic source:


This one is the total pageviews that the dedicated landing page I made for the DWO ad got - just eighty-three clicks, one of which was me the other day making sure that was the page I thought it was:


And here's two weeks of Google Analytics data for my ad:


Brook, when I contacted him about this lackluster performance, claimed that "there have been 3091 physical clickthroughs since your banner started," and said, "I cannot explain why our stats were so different to yours, only that ours are reported directly from the server and have never come into question." This last statement may have been true as of February 24, 2014, when he made it, but it is clear that his stats have come into question repeatedly since.

Another site sent the following two pieces of analytics data to Brook (Twitter avatar edited out due to the source's request for anonymity):





Brook replied with the following screenshot of his own analytics. It is not clear from the screenshot what is being used to generate the data, although I've got a few more screenshots of him providing analytics data in the same format. In any case, it clearly does not track with what the advertiser was getting on their own site (site name redacted per request of the source):


These analytics are provided by something called GammaOnyx Trackster. Efforts to find out anything about this software were unsuccessful; it would appear to be a proprietary system created for Doctor Who Online, the accuracy of which cannot meaningfully be gauged, except to say that it is out of line with every single other analytics tool it has ever been compared with. 

As for the hard sell tactics, here's a pair of screenshots of their sales pitch via Twitter to one potential advertiser in which they simply spam him repeatedly with identical messages, sometimes several times in one day, even after he's said he's not interested:



And here's what some of his advertisers say about their experiences:
  • "They consistently messaged me on Twitter for weeks, and promised 1,000's of clicks. Fortunately, I only signed a 3 month contract. I confronted them about it, and they said my tracker must be wrong. On there end I was getting a lot more clicks, but there is no way. They also promised me tweets that would get a lot more clicks plus a spot in their email newsletter. I have contacted them several times, and they keep saying they will send me their format, but have yet to do so." - Adam Speicher (Etsy Seller)
  • "I have not paid full price for my advert which I am glad off because I have not had an increase in Etsy traffic. I also haven't had the multiple tweets that I was told would happen. " - Source asked to remain anonymous
  • "Yes, I've fallen foul of this. I agreed to pay £300 for 6 months - after bartering down the amount considerably - and for my money I have received only 16 views (image attached) and no sales. I'm due to pay the final £50 instalment and now I wonder if I should refuse to pay it? He was very persistent with asking for payments, contacting me by both email and messaging on Twitter. Quite honestly I feel badgered.This is the last thing I need as I'm going through some serious health issues at the moment." - Anonymous
  • "I sent off a press release to a bunch of Doctor Who sites about my book, many of whom just put up a blurb about it, or politely declined the news story. I got an email back from Doctor Who Online asking if I'd like to advertise my book with them, and they'd give me special rates to! They gave statistics about how popular their site was, and it seemed like a good deal. I thought it over, and decided to advertise with them. Part of paying to advertise with them was that they would write a new story about my book on their site, the whole reason I contacted them to begin with. While they put up an ad for me, scrunched in with the rest of the giant block of ads they have, they still haven't put up the news piece, even after multiple emails about it. Not to mention sales were totally flat when I bought that ad. No change through the entire time the ad was on their website, and I could have put that money towards other things. I got a long string of emails from them after that, over and over asking me if I wanted to buy more ads. I didn't get what I paid for: my ad was lost in the giant sea of ads at the bottom of the page, which I can tolerate because they technically fulfilled their side of the deal on that count. But never writing the story about my book? Even a blurb? They never fulfilled what I paid for. I'm not advertising with them again. " - James Wylder, author of An Eloquence of Time and Space
  • "I was told that the traffic rate was very high on this site and the price for 6 months was discounted heavily. I looked at the site and though it was possibly a good place to try. I won't be renewing and have not seen any significant traffic to my site once the ad was uploaded I know this through my own site tracker as to what it was showing before and currently through the ad." - Anonymous
  • "I was charged best part of £550 for a years subscription to the site. Was told it would increase clicks etc. I have had 16 clicks in 7 months, working out at £34 per click so far. The laugh is they contacted me to renew my subscription in April, for another 6 months and I had to remind them I had paid for a year. I was angry that they 'forgot' I had a years subscription, this was an over sight apparently. I viewed it as an attempt to rip me off again. I have been contacted on a few occasions from other Etsy sellers asking for advise on if they should advertise with DR who online and always tell them to avoid!" - Anonymous
  • "We were hounded by Sebastian from DWO. He promised thousands of clicks for our playhouses. He told us that their blog was alive with chatter regarding purchasing our products. He quoted us £450 for six months ads. We got him down to £50 for one month. Once agreed it took a further two months for them to do the artwork for the ad. We have had no clicks from them. We have checked google anylitics. None of our sites visitors came from DWO. " - Steve Glover, of Mudputty
  • "I absolutely feel ripped off.  I grew tired of the upsell and the empty promises - and he hasn't made good on the bonuses - tweets etc.  I haven't gotten ONE SINGLE SALE at all through my website due to advertising with him.  The only sales I've made have been my friends and through Facebook advertising. I do have google analytics that shows very poor performance.  I even brought that to his attention when he was trying to sell me more ad space.  I paid over $1,769 for this. I just checked my google analytics and see no referrals from DWO... It's sad.  I really thought with the huge dr. who fan base, this would be great advertising.  I was very excited and willing to give it a try.  I paid for this last November and though it would take about 3 months to gain traction.  Nope.  it's proved to be a giant waste of money for me. I could have used that money on rent, food and my student loans.  Never again." - Anonymous
  • "I have only been advertising for a week and I'm really disappointed to notice that I get only 1 or 2 clicks a day. I haven't told them this as I started to wonder if my analytics data is wrong, his email yesterday stated I've had over 200 clicks. Yesterday I was clicking on my own ads and need to see if this is reflected in my analytics data." - Anonymous
I've also got this rather longer account from Lee Hesketh, the artist behind Launchycat
I was approached by them with claims that they'd received many requests from visitors asking about my shirts and art prints (which already seemed unlikely, but at the time I assumed they were merely trying to get on my good side), and offered an ad package with some free extras ("free" repeatedly and strongly emphasized, even though the extras were, frankly, a bigger incentive than the ads themselves). When I turned them down, they offered me a deal for half the price (still a hefty £200), but it seemed like a reasonable enough deal, and promised a chance at some much-needed exposure (I'm a freelance artist still trying to get on my feet and felt I could do with the publicity). An extra £50 was added to that afterwards for an offer to include my ad on their news and merchandise pages as well, which would, according to them "double my views". Fast-forward to a month-something later, I look at my Analytics and see that I've received a grand total of 5 or 6 clickthroughs from all the DWO pages combined. So, naturally, I send them and email, complaining about both the lack of clickthroughs so far and the fact that, in over a month and a half, they have made no move to contact me with regards to the promised ("FREE") extras - the tweets, review and newsletter mention. Their response essentially boiled down to "the extras were free, plus you have to write them yourself". They also claimed to have tracked "over 2000 clickthroughs" to my page, which is, frankly, ludicrous considering that my portfolio site hasn't had that many visits in total since it went online, nevermind since the ads had gone live. It's the sort of thing that would not have gone unnoticed. 
Now, I don't know about you, but personally, I wasn't comfortable writing reviews talking up my own products, which would then be repeated word-for-word as if they were coming from the folks at DWO. It's the sort of duplicitous advertising nonesense that I'd rather not be a part of, and certainly not the service I was given the impression I would be receiving. I wrote them a reply, politely explaining as such, as well as pointing out that, even if that weren't the case, even the ad aspect of the service was nothing like what I'd actually been promised, and hence I wasn't happy continuing the service. I ended the letter asking -again- for a refund. Their reply was essentially "no refunds, you have to write your own reviews, your banner will continue being live until the end of July", with no further attempts at compensation of any kind. I replied yet again, stressing some earlier points (including pressing my inquiry into the 2000 clickthrough claim, which was, at best, an extremely unprofessional bumble, or, more likely, deliberate misinformation altogether). Not too keen on continuing to press the issue, but unwilling to let it drop and have them continue treating other people in a similar fashion, I offered a compromise - if I received a partial, pro-rata refund for the remainder of the air time, I'd be willing to hold back on pressing the matter further. 
It has been over half a month since, and have received no further replies from them whatsoever. 
So there you have it. Misleading information, terrible customer service from the moment they had my money, no attempts to compensate for false advertising and a service that was nowhere near on par with what was offered. I also later contacted an acquaintance who had also been advertising with the site, only to hear much of the same (I'd rather not name them since the last time I mentioned it they were basically trying not to think about the lost money and the terrible experience).
I should note that Hesketh forwarded e-mail logs confirming this account.

Analysis

I have numerous other accounts and screenshots that paint similar pictures, but these are the ones requiring the least context, and the picture seems to me vivid enough at this point.

Much of this, of course, is not illegal. Brook's hard-sell tactics are intensely unpleasant, taking advantage of the fact that people are likely to want to avoid the rudeness of telling him to leave them alone and stop badgering them, but if that's how he wants to conduct his business, so be it. His supposed discounts off of "normal" prices that are never actually charged is dodgy, but is a practice routinely engaged in by grocery stores when they list sale prices, and so even that could be considered a legitimate, if deeply unsavory business practice (certainly UK consumer groups aren't fond of it). The repeated claim that his users requested content of the sort a potential advertiser provides is perhaps more difficult to believe, especially when applied, as it has been, to products with no evident relationship to Doctor Who. But even that feels like a minor indiscretion.

The problem is that these minor indiscretions leave Brook with little credible cover when it comes to the big one: the fact that his ads simply do not offer anything like the performance he claims when selling them, and that his analytics don't match up with anyone else's. Even granting Brook the benefit of the doubt and assuming that his traffic information is not simply fabricated - which is, to be clear, still the simplest explanation - the frequency with which his analytics have been questioned and the number of unsatisfied customers he has ought have raised serious questions in his mind about the accuracy of his analytics. But nobody who has raised these issues with Brook has gotten anything resembling a plausible explanation for the fact that his seemingly proprietary analytics differ from those of every single other source of analytics on the planet. And he keeps making the claims without a seeming care in the world.

Even if Brook's inflated numbers are simply the product of a technical error on his site, however, this would constitute fraud under UK law. The Fraud Act 2006 defines the crime of Fraud by false representation as making "false representation" in order "to make a gain for himself or another." A false representation is defined as one that is "untrue or misleading" in which "the person making it knows that it is, or might be untrue or misleading." The mass of data collected above, most of it entirely from his current advertisers as opposed to the many who have stopped advertising with his site, is more than enough to justify the assertion that his analytics data "might be untrue or misleading."

Response from Doctor Who Online

I contacted Doctor Who Online to let them know that I was planning to run such an article and asking if they had any comment on the accusations, their response was as follows:
Hi Phil, 
We of course refute your claims and feel no need to make any kind of statement. Our matter with you was resolved - you were unhappy and we refunded you. 
I believe that your statements account to defamation of character especially the point of us behaving fraudulently. We take those accusations very seriously and will seek legal action if necessary. 
The DWO Team  
I subsequently asked them the following questions on Twitter:

  1. Do you believe that your advertising prices offer a good value for money?
  2. In an average month, how many clicks does a banner ad on your site receive?
  3. Have you ever sold advertising space at the normal rates quoted here?
  4. Can you explain why so many of your advertisers get wildly different analytics on their ad performance than you claim?
  5. Is £10,000 a month a roughly accurate estimate of how much advertising revenue you make?
  6. About what percentage of your advertisers renew their ads with you?
I got no response.

Despite their bluster, I think the number of reports received and the consistency among them speaks volumes. It is, simply put, impossible to believe that Brook does not know full well that his site's ad performance doesn't match up with the lofty promises he makes when aggressively selling them, or that he does not know the analytics data he provides to his clients is badly flawed, if not outright fabricated.

But I'd like to reiterate what is, for me, the real and biggest horror here. The bulk of the ads on Doctor Who Online are not big companies with massive advertising budgets. They're indie authors trying to get attention for their books. They're Etsy sellers making TARDIS-print bow ties. They're small clothing boutiques catering to plus-sized goths. They're artists and t-shirt designers and local conventions. In any case, they are the little guys. This isn't a site making its money selling ad space offering One Weird Trick to Cure Spectrox Toxaemia. It's a site making its money defrauding the Doctor Who fan community, specifically and deliberately targeting people like you and me.

And that really has to stop.

Update #1 (6/24/15 at 2:47 PM EST)

I've gotten multiple reports of Doctor Who Online contacting people who have retweeted this article with some variation on the following claims:
  1. The article contains numerous inaccuracies.
  2. I ignored the positive experiences I'd been related, which are alleged to be more numerous than the negative ones.
  3. A half-made claim that points out that many of the accounts were anonymous without really coming out and saying what's wrong with that.
I'm also hearing reports that they are blocking people on Twitter who retweet this article, which is exactly the sort of measured and reasonable response to criticism you'd expect.

In any case, I'd like to respond to these claims.

First of all, what inaccuracies, Mr. Brook? Come on. Be specific. What's untrue in this piece? I'll happily update it to present your side of the story. I did ask you for it multiple times in writing the piece, after all. If you dispute this, dispute it. Don't just send people private messages insinuating things. Hell, Mr. Brook, I'll give you right of response. Send me a refutation of my claims and I'll post it, unedited, right here. 

Second, there was not some large mass of positive experiences I ignored. I got precisely one e-mail from an advertiser who was outright satisfied with their ad. They provided analytics showing a one day traffic spike, which was not directly linked to Doctor Who Online. Given that months-long advertising campaigns do not really work on one day traffic spikes and that there were no analytics, this did not seem to me to be much of a defense. 

(Incidentally, how is it Mr. Brook proposes to know how many e-mails I got and of what sort? This is at best ridiculous and at worst staggeringly creepy.) 

Beyond that, I'd like to be clear about the numbers here. I contacted all eighty-two of the site's current advertisers with a cold e-mail asking if they'd been ripped off by Doctor Who Online. I got twenty-four responses saying that yes, they had. That's 30% of their current advertisers who responded to a cold e-mail. That is a shocking number. I don't think there's any number of satisfied customers that makes the number of horror stories I got much less disturbing. And the stories are still rolling in, as ripped off small business owners tweet the story and let people know. "I'm a curate's egg" is not a meaningful defense; Mr. Brook needs to address the accusations here, not dismiss the large number of people who are angry at him on the grounds that some people aren't angry.

Finally, regarding the anonymity, I can explain this one for Mr. Brook very simply: they're scared. Because they're Etsy shop owners and hobbyist crafters, and they don't have the stomach for a long, public fight with someone like Mr. Brook. They're scared by the hard-sell tactics, they're scared by the lies, and they're scared that if they speak out, like I did, Mr. Brook will just start badmouthing them in private messages. Which he did.

But all of this ignores a larger question. Mr. Brook knows, at this point, that at least 30% of his current advertisers think he ripped them off. He knows his analytics data doesn't track with any reputable source. He knows numerous advertisers have gotten unsatisfying results from their ads with him. And he knows a lot of his advertisers are scared of him. Much, though not all of this, he's known for some time.

How does this not matter to him?

How does he look at the evidence and accusations above and not feel absolutely sickened by the devastating effects of his business practices? When he sees people complaining that they spent money they should have put towards rent and student loans on ads with him that didn't work, when he sees people say that his badgering hard sells have negatively affected their health, when he sees 30% of his advertisers think he's a con artist... how does he just blunder forwards insisting that everything is all right and badmouthing the article?

I don't know the answer to that. Just like I don't know the answer to the question "why don't your analytics line up with anyone else's" or "why do you keep selling ads based on figures you know are at best dubious?" Or "are you going to offer all of the other small business owners who think you defrauded them the same refund you offered me?" 

But I know you can find Doctor Who Online on Twitter at DrWhoOnline, and you can e-mail them at mail@drwho-online.co.uk. And you can ask them those questions, and any other questions this piece has raised. And you can keep asking them until you get a satisfying response.

Because so far, Mr. Brook hasn't given one.

Update #2 (6/27/15)

Mr. Brook has finally offered a public response, which is, as promised, reprinted in its entirety below.

We were not going to respond to Phil’s allegations due to advice from other fans and friends in the community, but as per his comment about ‘ending this today’, we wanted to do just this and clarify a few things:
We refute any claim that our advertising packages are in any way fraudulent; we simply offer banner ads on the site for companies to promote there products, services or events.
Rates:
Our rates are based on a number of industry standard prices for online advertising, and we do offer discounts and promotions throughout the year to help out advertisers. Regardless of the critique from Phil that they are steep, we do have high profile advertisers who pay these prices and who have been with us for over 10 years.
Clickthrough Stats:
In regards to clickthrough stats, it is almost impossible to give an exact figure as every campaign is different and there are a number of factors dependent on this; relevance, position, how eye-catching the art is e.t.c. We can only go off of averages and in the rare situations that a potential advertiser asks about clickthrough stats we give averages based on previous campaigns.
In any case where there is a discrepancy with stats we will look into it. This doesn’t happen very often but in the interests of transparency we are currently looking into a new system which links into Google Analytics so that advertisers can have logins and instant and transparent access to stats.
Dissatisfaction:
The vast majority of our advertisers are incredibly happy with our services and we will be putting up some testimonials on the site over the coming weeks as further evidence of this.
Unfortunately you cannot please everyone, and whilst we try to maintain a high satisfaction level, it is inevitable that some campaigns may not work out. We are still committed to working with those advertisers to find out what went wrong and why and we encourage them to contact us at: advertising@drwho-online.co.uk
This does not strike me as a substantial or adequate response for several reasons. I outline many if them in this comment, but I'll address the big ones here.

First and foremost, the claim that "the vast majority of our advertisers are incredibly happy with our services" is simply impossible. I got 30% of the site's current advertisers to respond to a cold e-mail confirming that they felt ripped off by the site, with exactly one advertiser who could actually be described as "satisfied," and who had, to my eyes, misunderstood her analytics data (which she provided). That kind of response rate simply would not happen if the vast majority were "incredibly happy." It would only happen, in fact, if the vast majority were "absolutely furious."

Second, it's clearly the case that people complaining about their ad performance is a pretty common experience. I've got two instances of it documented above, among your current advertisers. There are more who didn't provide me useful screenshots. And "looking into it" would appear to consist of nothing more than quoting numbers from the mysterious "GammaOnyx Trackster," numbers which would appear to be two orders of magnitude off from those provided by any recognized analytics system.

And this is the real problem. Doctor Who Online markets their advertising based on numbers provided by GammaOnyx Trackster. They have clearly gotten enough complaints about these numbers to know that GammaOnyx Trackster is not giving good information. And they continue to blindly cite its numbers when asked.

That is, under UK law, fraud.

And yet when this fact is raised with Doctor Who Online, their response is one of denial, generally simply blocking people who ask them about it on social media.

Clearly, in other words, this is not something they have the slightest intention of addressing unless forced.

To wit, if you have been the victim of Doctor Who Online's fraudulent marketing of their advertising, and especially if you are UK-based and thus in the same country as them, I recommend you contact UK Trading Standards via Citizens Advice. Instructions on how to do so are here. Point them towards the evidence I have here. Point them towards me; I'm happy to furnish them with more. And ask them to help stop this.

No, actually. I don't just recommend it. I beg you to do it. Please. Sebastian Brook is clearly not going to stop ripping off small business owners in the Doctor Who community unless he is forced to.

Comments

Matt Marshall 2 years, 1 month ago

I didn't even realise people still clicked on ads in this day and age! Have you had any luck on other sites out of interest, Phil? Is there a control point for how many people would click on an ad for a blog?

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osmie 2 years, 1 month ago

It sounds to me as though Mr Brook may be — and it can only be willfully, because no one can sustain this misconception for more than a month otherwise — counting banner *views* and reporting them as banner *click-throughs*. For a site of his size, 2000 views per month seems wholly reasonable, and if 1% of those views result in a click, you've got your 20 clicks per month.

This interpretation makes the math work out, but it doesn't excuse the ethics. A view is not the same as a click-through, and ad buyers know the difference. You'd expect to pay a lot more for an ad which generates 2000 clicks (out of presumably 200,000 views) than for an ad with 2000 views (producing maybe 20 clicks).

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Not even that explains it; he reports his pageviews separately as being in the 1-2 million range per month: http://www.drwho-online.co.uk/About/#dwostats

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Matt Marshall 2 years, 1 month ago

Are they up on every page in a fixed place, or are the ads in rotation though (as I'd assume). I imagine not every ad is on every page every time.

It's certainly possible that it's a genuine error and that the analytic software is counting every time the ad image is accessed from the server as a 'click'.

I recently moved my own website and put in a redirect from the old site to the new one. Now I get huge spikes of traffic from various sites. I get excited and follow the link back, to discover that it's because that site embedded images directly from mine, and now every time they access that page, every single image access sends a ping to my new site due to the redirect. I'm really not sure how to deal with that, as it's annoying me, but I want all traffic to go to a particular page as the structure has changed which means that it needs to be a permanent redirect like that!

On the flip-side, I've put in 'related post' widgets, it looks for all the world like the link is on my site, but if someone clicks on it, it bounces them via linkwithin (or whatever it's called). Clicks from a site won't always look like they come from that site if there's widgets or off-site hosting involved.

That's sort of off-topic, but the point is that webstats can do funny things and you've always got to be 100% sure that what you think you're looking at is actually what you're looking at.

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osmie 2 years, 1 month ago

> he reports his pageviews separately as being in the 1-2 million range per month

Well, so much for my theory. I have no idea where the 2000 figure might come from, save possibly "whole cloth" or "thin air."

> webstats can do funny things

And yet it's still up to the webmaster to know how to read their own webstats, and correct any honest errors as soon as they're pointed out. It sounds as though this site has been misrepresenting their logs, in the face of evidence, for years.

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Chris 2 years, 1 month ago

Hmm, my comment got swallowed, so forgive me if this info comes up twice in slightly different forms...

According to Alexa.com, http://www.drwho-online.co.uk is currently ranked at #623,580. To compare, http://www.philipsandifer.com is currently ranked at #348,846.

The takeaway is that you should be selling advertising to them.

And since I'm sure this post is going to generate page views for them today, if osmie's hypothesis (with Matt's additions) is correct, then we should expect to see a surge in click-throughs today as well.

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Chris 2 years, 1 month ago

To the point that the clicks may appear that they are coming from some other site, I have two comments:

1) it looks like they are flat links in the HTML, though there is so much garbage constantly loading on that site that it's hard to tell exactly what happens when I click, but...

2) even if the clicks appear to come from somewhere else, advertisers should still be seeing ~2,000 additional visits from anywhere, which they are not.

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nexstarman 2 years, 1 month ago

Ever since reading about his Regenerative Website on radw in 1999, he`s not worth the powder.

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Froborr 2 years, 1 month ago

I can give a point of comparison! For the past couple of weeks I have had an ad roughly the size of the smallest Doctor Who Online promises in the sidebar of every page on Mark Watches, which (according to the proprietor when I interviewed him last year) receives ~100-200,000 visitors a day depending on what he is currently covering.

I have been getting an average of 5 clickthroughs a day.

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Froborr 2 years, 1 month ago

Sorry, my bad, that's visitors per week, not day.

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arcbeatle 2 years, 1 month ago

"Ever since reading about his Regenerative Website on radw in 1999, he`s not worth the powder."

I think I need... Everything about this post explained to me. I mean, I googled "radw" so not that anymore.

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Neo Tuxedo 2 years, 1 month ago

I believe that your statements account to defamation of character especially the point of us behaving fraudulently. We take those accusations very seriously and will seek legal action if necessary.

I, of course, read that paragraph and immediately thought of the letter sent by the firm of Goodman Derrick & Co to Ian Hislop on 29 April 1971.

We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd. His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issue of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory. We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter.

Mr Arkell's first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.


I wonder what Brook's attitude to damages will be when he sees that the nature of your reply is the same as Ian Hislop's was 44 years ago.

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Scurra 2 years, 1 month ago

I think it was Richard Ingrams (or possibly even Peter Cook) rather than Ian Hislop (he's not quite that old!) who made that immortal reply. But your point still stands (and yes, that was my first reaction too.)

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Mags 2 years, 1 month ago

You may want to add a link pointing small businesses towards Trading Standards, as if there is evidence of misspelling they may be able to build a case. There is also the option of the Small Claims court. https://www.gov.uk/find-local-trading-standards-office

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SK 2 years, 1 month ago

if there is evidence of misspelling they may be able to build a case

Pedantry is harsh these days.

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nexstarman 2 years, 1 month ago

rec.arts.drwho was an active internet forum in the late 1990s, Philip Sandifer used to post there. the "Regenerative Website" was an early Brook project. "Not worth the powder" means he's a waste of everyone's time.

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arcbeatle 2 years, 1 month ago

Thank you!

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Dan 2 years, 1 month ago

But fair.

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tvstudies 2 years, 1 month ago

Come on this is ridiculous Phil. He has a long standing community of advertisers who have stayed with him for many years - that is obvious. If you have a bee in your bonnet about him go to him directly, because all you are doing here is throwing slander and defamations around. (British law treats internet chatter as slander, not libel.)

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Fully 30% of his current advertisers wrote back with horror stories. That's a shockingly high hit rate for a single cold e-mail. All of them, as I note, providing the same account. With numerous pieces of hard evidence of Sebastian's claims of performance not actually materializing.

This isn't throwing slander and defamation. This is a well sourced article that, frankly, demands serious answers from Sebastian. Answers that are, as of yet, spectacularly lacking.

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tvstudies 2 years, 1 month ago

This is on your biased say so.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

It's very easy to throw words like "bias" around, but they don't actually do anything to refute the hard evidence.

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tvstudies 2 years, 1 month ago

You haven't given any 'hard evidence' just unsubstantiated allegations. What is your beef? are you jealous of the site's long standing and success, because if Mr Brook was as you said, he wouldn't have survived this long.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

I've given numerous screenshots showing the disparity between the ad performance Brooks claims and what his advertisers get, and ten separate testimonials offering matching accounts of the fraud. Please, explain how this is not hard evidence.

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tvstudies 2 years, 1 month ago

How are we to know that you haven't just made up these "testimonials" given that you give no information as to who they are? In any case, you got refunded. If he was such a person as you allege, he wouldn't have refunded you, would he? You strike me as the sort of person who would buy something on eBay, not pay for it, but leave negative feedback because the item wasn't delivered to you, within 24 hours.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, I'm just going to leave this one here as a nice, shining example of the desperation required to defend these practices.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

Much better said, Phil!

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Mags 2 years, 1 month ago

Harsh on typos, harsh on the causes of typos. (In this case the fact this site's comment boxes really don't like iPad users.)

More seriously, if this post wants to be helpful it should link to the ways in which customers can legally reclaim the fees where they have evidence of misselling

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Mags 2 years, 1 month ago

That would also counter the claims of bias about this post by putting the evidence to neutral parties whose day job is to decide if someone has been fraudulent to their customers. In the UK, firms can be forced to stop trading if they have broken the law.

Admittedly, that's less 'fun' for internet bystanders to watch, but it is more long-term.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Yes, thank you; adding the link now.

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tvstudies 2 years, 1 month ago

Don't be silly Philip, you just want the last word, each and every time. It strikes me that the advert didn't work for you (for whatever reason, maybe, just maybe there isn't an audience for your writing?) and you blamed Seb and DWO. That's my last word, you can say what you like afterwards.....

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Anna Wiggins 2 years, 1 month ago

Gosh, 'tvstudies' is such an adorable little sockpuppet.

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DrWho OnlineAdventures 2 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

Consequences will never be the same!

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Kit Power 2 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, tvstudies, attacking Phil on his integrity... He has no conceivable reason to take this type of action with no good cause, and literally everything to lose if he's exposed as lying about any of this. I'm not sure how familiar you are with the iceberg principle as relates to cold email surveys, but let me put it like this - 30% response? That's an awfully big iceberg tip.

I mean, what are you saying is Phil's motivation here? Spite? After he got a refund? I can think of a lot of possible reasons why Phil's data could be correct. I'm really struggling to construct a scenario for Phil be making all this up...

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tvstudies 2 years, 1 month ago

Ian Hislop was 11 in 1971. Nice try, wrong cigar.

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tvstudies 2 years, 1 month ago

Er, but it's OK to denigrate the character of Mr Brook?
30% response? But with NO ONE ELSE NAMED. Therefore it could be 30% of crap.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Weren't you leaving?

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Aylwin 2 years, 1 month ago

Only in the sense of a Nigel Farage resignation, clearly.

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Aylwin 2 years, 1 month ago

I'm intrigued by this one. A hastily regretted and retracted official Dr Who Online response? A comment that was meant to be posted under the tvstudies username but inadvertently logged in on the wrong account? Or what?

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

Yes, it is okay to denigrate the character of Mr. Brook. I'd also like to denigrate the film Mr. Brooks, but that's not immediately relevant to the conversation.

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

Only Phil can know for sure. Pretty sure he can see deleted comments, anyways.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Not actually an account affiliated with Doctor Who Online, despite the name. Will say no more, in deference to the deletion, but I wish they'd undelete it.

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Aylwin 2 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Aylwin 2 years, 1 month ago

Yes, I suppose I shouldn't really have asked. Vague speculation rather than seriously seeking an answer, but either way.

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Nick Cooper 2 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Nick Cooper 2 years, 1 month ago

A remarkable and very through piece of work, Philip. As you suggest, a 30% disatisfaction rate is appalling, and I think it can safely be assumed that there will have been others who are unhappy but did not respond for a variety of reasons. Of course, there may well be those who get enough click-throughs for their own purposes based on their own analytics, regardless of whatever Brook reckons they're getting, but that doesn't justify the apparent misrepresentation to those who aren't.

I think the most telling detail is Brook's claimed reliance on "GammaOnyx," which obviously does not exist outside of his own site....

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Adam Speicher 2 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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xec tilus 2 years, 1 month ago

There's nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality.

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Froborr 2 years, 1 month ago

So, besides the obviousness of "tvstudies" sockpuppetry, I'd like to point out that Oni Hartstein, who runs the U.S. conventions Intervention and ReGenerationWho, linked to this article on Facebook and she and her commenters independently confirmed portions of this story, with their names attached. So that particular line of spurious, pathetic defense for Mr. Brook is done with. I am curious as to what he'll try next and what he'll name his sockpuppet.

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G Cooper 2 years, 1 month ago

A remarkable dismantling of an appalling marketing system - I'd just like to quickly comment on your remark that "His supposed discounts off of "normal" prices that are never actually charged is dodgy, but is a practice routinely engaged in by grocery stores when they list sale prices, and so even that could be considered a legitimate, if deeply unsavory business practice" - I believe this sort of thing is actually illegal, and supermarkets are certainly a lot more careful about it now that they presumably were when that Guardian article was published a couple of years ago.

According to the Committee of Advertising Practise website, you can't advertise price reductions like this unless they're genuine - judged based on whether the service was last offered at that price, whether it was offered at that price for a substantial period of time, and whether it's been at the lower price for longer than the higher price. If these aren't true, you have to actually say exactly when the higher price was offered - nowadays you see offer labels in supermarkets saying things like 'higher price applied between xx/xx/xx and yy/yy/yy' frequently. Details and case examples can be found at https://www.cap.org.uk/News-reports/Media-Centre/2014/Making-price-comparisons-with-previous-prices.aspx#.VY1bdlJv5Vl - this is all in the code on non-broadcast advertising and direct marketing, which I believe applies here since the claims were made in emails direct to consumers.

In short - I believe that this aspect of the scam is also illegal, not just dodgy business.

(Disclaimer: I am no expert on this field - this is based on my own experience of clamping down on this in recent years and my reading of the rules on the CAP website; I'm happy to be corrected if I've misread the rules)

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curlyjimsam750 2 years, 1 month ago

My understanding from a friend who used to work in a shop where they did this is that you can advertise a "sale" but there have to be at least two weeks of the year when you have the "normal" prices. This was several years ago though. I may be wrong.

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camestrosfelapton 2 years, 1 month ago

To be fair Ian Hislop was 11 in 1991 and 2001 also...

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camestrosfelapton 2 years, 1 month ago

tvstudies: why would Philip Sandifer bother to make up this story? It isn't a story that advances any of his interests [unless people are actually being defrauded]. He doesn't make money out of a new role of consumer watchdog. You have already said in an earlier comment that the post if defamatory - so Philip S is (if you are right) actually risking financial lost when he posted this. Does that make his claims inherently true? No, but he provides sufficient detail that everything he has said is highly plausible.

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Anna Wiggins 2 years, 1 month ago

For the record, blogger's admin interface does not let you read deleted comments.

Anyone who was signed up for email notifications will have gotten a copy of the comment though. Internet never forgets, and all that.

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Lou Lou 2 years, 1 month ago

If the advertisers thought there might be a chance of getting their money back and were seeking advice do you think they would want to be named and go public? Perhaps not.

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

I'll tell ya right now, tvstudies, you lying no-good punk! And we know who it's coming from, because we backtraced it! And I know who's commenting and who's doing it, and you've been reported to the cyber police!

And if you come near this website again, GUESS WHAT.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Man, I hope nobody ever realizes how pathetic my Blogger moderation tools actually are...

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

As I said, I wish they'd undelete it. It was a good comment.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Ah, Arkell v. Pressdram. The greatest legal precedent ever.

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drwhoonline DrWhoOnline 2 years, 1 month ago

We were not going to respond to Phil’s allegations due to advice from other fans and friends in the community, but as per his comment about ‘ending this today’, we wanted to do just this and clarify a few things:

We refute any claim that our advertising packages are in any way fraudulent; we simply offer banner ads on the site for companies to promote there products, services or events.

Rates:

Our rates are based on a number of industry standard prices for online advertising, and we do offer discounts and promotions throughout the year to help out advertisers. Regardless of the critique from Phil that they are steep, we do have high profile advertisers who pay these prices and who have been with us for over 10 years.

Clickthrough Stats:

In regards to clickthrough stats, it is almost impossible to give an exact figure as every campaign is different and there are a number of factors dependent on this; relevance, position, how eye-catching the art is e.t.c. We can only go off of averages and in the rare situations that a potential advertiser asks about clickthrough stats we give averages based on previous campaigns.

In any case where there is a discrepancy with stats we will look into it. This doesn’t happen very often but in the interests of transparency we are currently looking into a new system which links into Google Analytics so that advertisers can have logins and instant and transparent access to stats.

Dissatisfaction:

The vast majority of our advertisers are incredibly happy with our services and we will be putting up some testimonials on the site over the coming weeks as further evidence of this.

Unfortunately you cannot please everyone, and whilst we try to maintain a high satisfaction level, it is inevitable that some campaigns may not work out. We are still committed to working with those advertisers to find out what went wrong and why and we encourage them to contact us at: advertising@drwho-online.co.uk

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

Nah, I used to have one of these places back in the day too, I know you've basically got just a "shut up button" and that's about it.

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Almost got scammed! 1 year, 6 months ago

Currently in discussions with Mr Brook regarding ad space on dr who online. I can confirm as I type these comments I am getting the exact sales patter which your article states. The price has now dropped from £400 for 3 months to £200 for 6 months in the space of 1 day after initially stating my interest and then not replying to a message from last night. The numbers quoted to a novice in online advertising (like myself) are at first, very appealing....Apparently Mr brook has had many inquiries regarding my products...how exactly? And can dramatically increase my sales? As usual I do a bit of research before I part with any money and hey presto, I googled Sebastian J Brooke and to my utter delight found this site...thankyou!

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Sebastian J Brook 1 year, 5 months ago

We have testimonials from our advertisers, here:
http://www.drwho-online.co.uk/Advertising

We now also guarantee all ad bookings so that if the advertiser doesn't make their initial investment back by the end of the campaign, we will refund them in full. Nowhere else offers this kind of guarantee, and it is testament to our belief in our service.

- Seb

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carl 1 year, 5 months ago

Hi

I just had an email from his and I was very close to purchasing his ads, I even offered to give him commission instead of me buying adverts and he refused, which I though was ODD, so I googled his name and this site was #1 on google, so after reading this, think it's just saved me about £200, the site has a good alexa rank of 54k but not worth the expensive fee.

Anyway thanks for the posts

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Sebastian J. Brook 1 year, 5 months ago

Hi Carl,

You forgot to mention that you were also offered a money back guarantee - as previously stated in our reply on here, which is now standard with all news ads taken out with us.

Anyone else doubting our packages can read testimonials here: http://www.drwho-online.co.uk/Advertising

You can also rest assured that we offer a money back guarantee with all new campaigns; in the event you don't make your initial investment back by the end of the campaign timeframe, we will refund you in full!

2016 marks our 20th year online - we stand by our packages and the guarantee is there to further demonstrate our credibility.

Seb
DWO

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carl 1 year, 5 months ago

Yes You did offer me a money back, so I can agree to this. However perhaps to give you more credit as 27 people saying its a scam seems a bit much.

So why not offer a free trial i.e. 1 week of free advertising per unique advertiser, or head over to digitalpoint forums, and offer free advertising for honest reviews, this will enable you to prove that this site is a load of BS,

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