MEDIA FORUM: How will war affect media plans and consumption?

How is the situation in the Gulf affecting the way agencies do business? Has it changed the way clients or media owners act?

Predictable, perhaps. Hours into the conflict and there were already reports of disarray and mass retreat. And the evidence was there for all to see in ITV's main evening news bulletin last Thursday. The extended bulletin that ran from 9pm to just after 10pm. Not a single ad break in all that time. Where had all the advertisers gone? Was it the network's decision not to run breaks? Was the programming just too important and weighty to allow for interruptions by mere advertisers? Or were the advertisers themselves actually running for cover?

A bit of all three, as it turns out - and, one way or another, it's now unlikely that there will be any ad breaks whatsoever in the main ITV news until the end of April. Which is an awful lot of revenue going begging. So, yes, war is hell - and from the air-conditioned perspective of the London media community, lost revenue is about as hellish as it gets.

From a marketing standpoint, the implications of Gulf War II could be far reaching. Look, for instance, at the other conflicts it has engendered, such as the political one between the Anglo-Saxon world and France - though can there be a more significant cultural phase shift than the demise of the French fry? Americans will continue to eat skinny chips, of course, it's just that from now on they'll be called Freedom fries. Will French car sales now loose all their va-va-voom too? And how about the life-or-death struggle between CNN and Sky News, with a second front involving News 24 and the ITV News Channel?

Just what will the impact be on the industry? Not just from a macro-economic standpoint, but on a practical, day-to-day level. How is life being affected in the business? It's true that some advertisers have been pulling campaigns, Kelly Clark, the chief executive of MindShare, says. He states: "That's most often the case with global US-based marketers, who might decide to cancel activity for a while and then look at coming back. Some will want to avoid news and current affairs environments and focus on sport and entertainment and lighter content. Advertisers most directly affected are in the petroleum, energy and travel sectors, and luxury goods may also decide that advertising is inappropriate in the early stages of a conflict."

He says that there has been less reaction from UK-based clients, especially those that are in any way retail driven. For them, it's largely business as usual. "We are working with clients hour by hour to implement individual clients' policies. The point about this is that there has been a long build-up and we've had plenty of time to talk to our clients and look at what happened in previous relevant circumstances. We've been able to put contingencies in place," he says.

And what about individual market sectors? Andy Roberts, the executive UK buying director at Starcom Motive, says that on the TV side, the main concern is how to handle short-term changes in schedules: "The point is that this has hardly been a surprise, it's merely the culmination of a long period of uncertainty. Very few clients have long-term visibility and you can't divorce this from what's happening in the broader economic arena."

Roberts says it will be interesting to see how media consumption patterns are affected. His feeling is that there will be additional media consumption across the board - he doesn't think many people will not get an evening paper or not watch the news because they have been on the internet.

"Longer term, if things do drag on then you might find the issue arising of advertisers not wishing to be associated with negative editorial. But, I'm afraid to say, the truth is that it's really business as usual. You get on with things, don't you? Most forms of consumption are unaffected unless (the conflict) is happening in your own backyard and media consumption actually goes up."

How about the press market? Tim McCloskey, the managing partner of OMD UK, expects newspapers, especially the qualities, to put on circulation as people seek out coverage and comment. He can also envisage the celebrity sector doing well as people turn to OK!, Heat and the like for escapism. Youth and entertainment sectors, unless reliant on revenue from affected sectors, should hold up.

He adds: "Some clients may benefit from some extra distress space because there are bound to be holes in some media owners' inventories. In the meantime, we anticipate the clever and confident media owners will put up cover prices, chase only necessary and profitable volume and hope, maybe even pray, war is short and property prices and consumer confidence are not dampened too much."

On a more cynical note, he thinks that many media owners will use the excuse of the war to revise sales forecasts for this year that have been way too optimistic. Key sectors such as recruitment and finance have been in the doldrums for a while. Others, such as motoring, after successive years of record sales, have cut back advertising in anticipation of lower sales. Government expenditure is also significantly down year on year.

But none of these is directly attributable to the Gulf and all have been foreseen for a while. Falls in travel, tourism and related service industries, luxury goods and luxury good retailers are going to hit many publications hard, he adds. Again these falls were predictable.

Steve Allan, MediaCom's chief executive, points out that we've had more warning about this one than any other comparable event in recent history.

Where contingency plans were needed, they were already in place. "If you're asking me, does the agency feel any different, then the answer has to be no. Especially when you think back to the way things felt on 12 September 2001. When you came in that morning you felt definitely something had changed," he states.

Allan agrees that, on the TV side of things, it's true that airtime is moving around but it's nothing like it was during the last Gulf war. Contractors are largely being sympathetic to certain advertisers who have legitimate reasons for being cautious, but not to others who just want to move away from the news environment. Which, in any case, is kind of difficult. In the press, some sites have been dropped and issues have been bigger so ads are further back.

Allan adds: "Consumer must-have categories aren't really affected - food, drink, pharmaceuticals. The overall tone hasn't really changed. As far as clients are concerned, it's consumer confidence.

If the war is short and sharp, with the right outcome, then that will definitely be a positive factor for business. But I don't think that will fundamentally change the economic outlook. It will be one more thing dealt with, certainly, but the point is that the war didn't create the economic downturn in the first place."

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