As many advertisers were forced to cut back last year, so media owners probably comforted themselves with the thought that no part of the industry was immune to the effects of the UK's deepest recession since the 30s.
However, the latest research shows that digital media have, to some degree, managed to ride the storm. According to Nielsen, overall internet adspend rose from £461.4bn in 2008 to £506.3bn in 2009 - a 9.7% year-on-year increase. While half of the UK's top 100 online advertisers cut their media spend in 2009, more than 80% of them increased their internet investment; many of them attracted by the prospect of solid ROI at a time when they were striving to cut marketing costs.
'Advertising budgets overall have been slashed, but nonetheless advertisers want measurable returns,' says Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB). 'They have had to use the budgets they do have really wisely and have learned more in the process.'
Whether the downturn has acted as a catalyst in this process is a moot point, but many industry figures believe that internet advertising has started to come of age in the past two years.
'There's obviously a macroeconomic picture of a move to digital from traditional channels over the last few years, and I think the recession has only sharpened that,' says Chris Clarke, chief creative officer at digital agency LBi.
Ironically, the increasing refinement of brands' online marketing abilities, allied to a general trend of online price deflation, has helped to take some of the edge off the growth of spending on digital (here excluding search, but including social media, affiliate marketing, mobile and online display in general).
Overall, financial services was the biggest-spending sector on internet advertising, though many of the biggest individual online advertisers were in the telecoms and media/entertainment sectors.
O2, Hutchison 3G, which owns 3, and merger candidates T-Mobile and Orange all increased their investment in web- based marketing. In the number-one spot, O2 remained by far the country's biggest single online advertiser, allocating £15.2m, or almost 27% of its total media spend, to this platform.
O2 senior marketing manager Neill Garfield identifies social networking and the mobile internet as key emerging channels. Nonetheless, he refutes the suggestion that spend has been shifted wholesale out of traditional media and into online.
'Often, it's the reverse,' he says. 'Online channels are now at relative saturation, so we are investing in offline channels that stimulate online demand.'
The COI, the UK's biggest advertiser last year, was also the second-biggest internet advertiser, boosting its internet spend by 45% to £10.4m. Nonetheless, its digital budget still accounted for less than 5% of its £218.3m overall media bill.
Some of the more dramatic changes at the top of the list include the doubling of internet spend at Virgin Media, Hutchison 3G and Moneysupermarket.com. However, Capital One provides the most notable example of a strategic shift among the top 20 advertisers.
The US credit card company was in the headlines in March when it scrapped its UK offline direct marketing programme and moved a proportion of the money saved into online communications. This was reflected in a 53.6% increase in Capital One's internet spend to £2.9m, meaning this channel accounted for 99.98% of all its media spend, which fell as a whole by more than 65%.
More for less
Regardless of the effects of the recession, there appears to be a growing belief among brands that increasing adspend does not guarantee marketing success. By its own reckoning, Moneysupermarket.com, the 10th-placed online advertiser in the list, spent 22% less on its marketing last year, including search, but was still able to attract 14% more customers.
'For us, it has become less about how much you spend and more about what you say and how you say it,' says Ian Williams, the brand's director of communications.
In a handful of sectors there was a sharp reduction in internet adspend. While they continue to make extensive use of the channel, media/entertainment brands collectively cut their budgets for online marketing by almost 16%.
Other sectors where big falls occurred include retail, which spent 42.3% less, and the property and pharmaceutical sectors, which made reductions of 45.5% and 55.2% respectively. However, while property and pharmaceuticals cut their marketing across the board last year, retailers raised their budgets overall; this suggests that online price deflation has enabled advertisers in this sector to make significant savings.
The figures compiled by Nielsen do not include a breakdown of information on the separate online advertising platforms. Nonetheless, some upward trends across digital marketing can be easily identified.
For example, mobile internet use is growing rapidly, as smartphone handsets offer users a greatly enhanced online experience on the move. The mobile advertising market is still relatively small, but is beginning to generate fresh revenues and helping to cannibalise those of other sectors.
'Mobile internet is here to stay,' says Garfield. 'Inevitably, that will eat into media consumption in other channels, mostly from print. As transactional capabilities improve in mobile, this may even affect consumer retail and internet retailing.'
Big advertisers whose internet commitment remained relatively small in 2009 included Procter & Gamble and Unilever, each of which assigned 1.4% of their overall media budgets online.
However, they also committed more than in the previous year, and the expected ongoing rise of social media and mobile look set to extend major FMCG players'
'The growth of mobile and maturing of the social web as an advertising opportunity have underpinned a growth in digital spend from the more reticent sectors,' says Rhys Williams, managing partner at digital agency Agenda21.
As relatively recent additions to the online advertising portfolio, mobile, pre-roll video and social media are still in their initial growth phases, and are therefore likely to make an even bigger contribution in 2010, particularly as their interplay with offline media is explored.
According to IAB figures, online was the only media channel to grow during the first half of last year. TV and press adspend may have been squeezed, but the notion that digital and traditional forms of advertising operate in isolation from one another has been questioned recently.
'Advertisers understand the combination of opportunities online and how they fit with traditional media,' says the IAB's Phillipson. 'They are thinking of digital as the platform that runs through that entire media schedule.'
Sir Martin Sorrell has suggested that the picture presented by next year's equivalent figures could be very different from this one. The growth in digital marketing is unlikely to stop as the economy continues to recover. Smart marketers will continue to invest their budgets where they can achieve the biggest returns and if innovation in digital continues, the industry will continue to thrive.
Price deflation: the ups and downs
While most of the brand-owners in the list spent more online in 2009 than they did in 2008, price deflation means this is not simply a case of online up, offline down.
Mainstream print and broadcast channels are turning over less than recently, but falling rates may mean brands are using them as much as, or more than they were.
'A lot of our clients want to move away from broadcast and narrowcast, but they still spend healthily on TV - it is just that it has got cheaper in the last couple of years,' says Chris Clarke, chief creative officer at digital agency LBi.
Similarly, a surplus of inventory means online rates have fallen, explaining apparent cutbacks made by the 19 advertisers in the top 100 that reduced their digital budgets. Most of these made cuts across the board, but Tesco, Hewlett Packard and Thomson spent less on digital while growing their wider media budgets.
'Everyone is getting more bang for their buck,' says Rhys Williams, managing partner at digital agency Agenda21. 'The average cost per thousand online has gone down and I can't see it going back up. It means advertisers don't have to spend as much to get the same sort of impact.'
Sainsbury's just failed to enter the UK's Top 100 online advertisers table despite increasing its internet marketing spend by 297% to £771,000. Fiat also bolstered its online advertising budget in spite of the recession with a 230% year-on-year increase to £702,000. Kraft grew its spend by 120% putting it in 104th position.
American Express slashed its online marketing spend by 43% year on year to £1.2m. British Airways also slashed its budget by 8.9% year on year placing the airline at 59th in the table. Holiday operator Thomson slashed its budget by 66% year on year to £992,000.
Nielsen has improved the methodology used to work out the top 100 online advertisers for 2009. The new data is based on a Netview panel. Each panellist is given a meter and every time they view an ad online, it counts as one impression which is projected nationally. Previous surveys used a combination of figures from ABCe and declared information from the sites themselves. This tended to lead to inflated spend data. The new system creates a more robust methodology and removes the inflation factor. However, it means there is as yet limited comparative data with the previous year.
The figures are for display advertising and all figures are estimated costs based on a number of factors including rate card and industry discount factors. Details of the full methodology are available from Nielsen.