EUROPEAN MEDIA: Preparing for recovery

As the economic downturn continues to affect adspend, Lucy Aitken says the only way must be up for Europe's downcast media owners and agencies.

Match the European country to the current diagnosis of its media: "booming"; "full of surprises"; "severely depressed". If you answered Russia for "booming", congratulations.

And "full of surprises" applies to France. Who would have guessed that Vivendi's Jean-Marie Messier was going to oust the Canal Plus chairman, Pierre Lescure? Or that, despite being in the middle of a recession, France would have such a buoyant attitude? Initiative Media estimates that there will have been 30 magazine launches by the end of the year in France; there were 14 in 2001. Magazines are being launched across all sectors, including a local version of Rolling Stone.

And "severely depressed"? Apart from being an apt description for anyone who managed to watch Big Brother and endure all the tedious column inches it spawned without killing themselves by the end of the sad and staid experiment (surely Europe deserves something new by now?), "severely depressed" in fact applies to Germany.

Out of all of Europe's markets, Germany, the biggest, seems to be going through the toughest time of all. Yesterday's big budgets are about as rare as an alcopop in a beer hall, and when agencies get excited by the discount supermarket chain Lidl increasing its budget by 14 per cent, you know things have reached new depths of desperation.

The financial problems brought on by the collapse of Kirch's pay-TV platform have even been cited in this report by both advertisers and heads of media agencies as the most significant event in European media this year.

In fact, all digital media have a lot to answer for. Not so long ago, Messier (yes, him again) was overflowing with enthusiasm about all things digital, and he wasn't the only one. Now, after investing in digital companies such as MP3.com in his determination to make the company a major player in online music delivery, Vivendi Universal is being broken up and sold off bit by bit. And the fiasco over the UK's ONdigital - which then became ITV Digital, which then became a knitted monkey and an overweight comedian and little else after it collapsed in the spring - has served as a warning to those who were gearing up to rush in.

It becomes tempting in times of recession for media owners and agencies to lose three of their most valuable assets: their imagination, a sense of daring and their sense of humour, which, despite formal credentials, are vital new-business tools. One blue-chip advertiser recently said: "This is a people business and if you can't get on with the people you're working with at the agency and have a laugh with them, it doesn't matter how good a deal they can do you on price." And the head of a UK media agency revealed that, if he were a client, he'd struggle to tell the difference between any kind of specialist, from management consultancies to agencies.

A good sense of humour - along with a salt cellar from which to extract large pinches - is also vital for those times when you hear the latest version of events on when things are going to improve. Interesting how everyone has an opinion, but no-one really knows. Even WPP's group chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, famed for his accounting acumen, has done a u-turn on his outlook. And Mathias Dopfner, the chief executive of Axel Springer Verlag, said that this was the worst "crisis" for Germany since World War II.

In these difficult times, everyone anxiously eyes up the competition, spotting the freebies and the fillers, the thickness of issues, the length of television ad breaks. And when magazines, supplements or television channels close, there is much nail-biting - who will it be next? Is there a chance it could be us?

Procurement pitches become more regular and spending becomes tighter and less frequent. However, that doesn't mean that media has to become pedestrian - as Kimberly-Clark's Oliver Cleaver puts it on page ten: "Hard times usually galvanise creativity."

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