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.
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 – 225×150 pixels (Medium Banner) – £400 / $639 – (normally £600 / $959)
6 x Months – 225×150 pixels (Medium Banner) – £600 / $959 – (normally £1200 / $1918)
12 x Months – 225×150 pixels (Medium Banner) – £800 / $1278 – (normally £2400 / $3836)
3 x Months – 952×60 pixels (Large Banner) – £600 / $959 – (normally £900 / $1438)
6 x Months – 952×60 pixels (Large Banner) – £800 / $1278 – (normally £1800 / $2877)
12 x Months – 952×60 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 225×150 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.
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:
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:
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:
Another site sent the following two pieces of analytics data to Brook (Twitter avatar edited out due to the source’s request for anonymity):
- “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 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.
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:
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:
- Do you believe that your advertising prices offer a good value for money?
- In an average month, how many clicks does a banner ad on your site receive?
- Have you ever sold advertising space at the normal rates quoted here?
- Can you explain why so many of your advertisers get wildly different analytics on their ad performance than you claim?
- Is £10,000 a month a roughly accurate estimate of how much advertising revenue you make?
- 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:
- The article contains numerous inaccuracies.
- I ignored the positive experiences I’d been related, which are alleged to be more numerous than the negative ones.
- 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.
In any case, I’d like to respond to these claims.
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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com
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.