Statistics suggest that a tepid recovery in marketing spend seems to be in the offing. As the sun shone on delegates arriving at Lord's cricket ground for ISBA's annual conference on Thursday last week, the question was whether the sunny mood would be reflected at this gathering of marketing buyers and assorted industry types.
Rupert Howell, ITV's managing director of brand and commercial, managed to be both cautious and optimistic. Introducing him, the ISBA director-general, Mike Hughes, endorsed ITV as "the only show in town when it comes to delivering mass audiences" - a diplomatic salvo in the current war of words over Contract Rights Renewal - as TV dominated the morning session.
In 2009, ITV managed to grow its advertising market share after 25 years of decline, Howell told delegates. ITV1's revenues would be up by as much as 20 per cent in April, with May looking "very good" too.
But the broadcaster's problems were "by no means over". Last year's return to profit "just means we now have a significant platform for changes that have to be made", Howell said.
Those changes include what transpires from the Competition Commission's review of CRR. To Howell's delight, the Tory culture spokesman, Ed Vaizey, used his talk to promise that a Tory administration would look to free ITV from regulations to help it succeed.
This would include "a look at CRR", but Vaizey, no doubt conscious of advertiser sensitivity, stopped short of pledging to rip up the established sales negotiation regime.
For ISBA's part, Hughes asserted that while CRR had "served advertisers well" since its inception, ISBA was no longer wedded to CRR. It did, however, want "a performance-based method of paid-for TV airtime", saying that it was "open to other ways of doing that".
But Howell wasn't giving up his mission to drive a stake through CRR's heart, adopting a strident tone as he told delegates that "all political parties agree that legacy regulation ... is putting investment in the UK creative industries at serious risk".
In particular, the current CRR model had "unforeseen effects" as it "punishes ITV for investing in high-quality originated UK content (in that) we get rewarded for volume". Advertisers needed ITV "to continue to invest in high-quality UK-originated content to deliver highly engaged audiences".
Other revenue opportunities for ITV, such as pay-TV, are being explored, Howell said. Product placement has Tory support, as long as it is subtle (see box).
One statistic in Nielsen's "science bit" on product placement's effectiveness had delegates talking: a US viewer survey revealed that ads paired with product placements in one TV show had generated double the recall and twice the purchase intent when measured against other programmes.
If TV was a dominant theme in the morning, a measured look at social media's effectiveness took centre stage later. David Sable, the chief operating officer of Wunderman, cautioned clients against social media's GMOOT or "get me one of those" syndrome.
Unless your social media drives a brand score or sells a product, demanding a Facebook page isn't always the answer, Sable said. The "dirty secret" about Burger King's "Subservient Chicken" viral was that franchisees "hated it" for its failure to generate sales.
But there's little doubt that social media is a growing channel to market for consumers. Several speakers, including Orange's Jeremy Morris, highlighted the differences between bought, owned and earned social media. Orange has developed what it calls a "Pistemap" that quantifies the link between all three on the consumer journey towards purchase.
Throughout the day, any anxieties over a double-dip recession, a hung Parliament and a slimmed-down COI budget were whispered, rather than fully aired. Indeed, there seemed to be a pact among speakers not to mention the "R" word.
David Jones, the global chief executive of Havas, speaking without notes in the manner of his client David Cameron, avoided the "R" word almost completely in his entertaining "Recession - winners, losers and the future" talk. Mark Hunter, the ISBA president and chief executive of Molson Coors, mentioned "recession" once in his address, but got away with it.
Hunter was one of the few heavy-weight clients present. If the raison d'etre of ISBA's annual get-together is to focus on client issues, this year's event felt thin on buyer participation. From a list of delegates that numbered more than 250, only a fifth of those could be classed as buyers. Some, such as Samsung's Mikah Martin-Cruz, were no-shows. The rest were looking for answers on COI budgets and what a hung Parliament would mean.
On future government spend, the COI chief executive, Mark Lund, could not give the agencies any clues, except to say that COI's recent consolidation of media buying into WPP's M4C was about integration and not driving down costs as "the cynics" believed.
As to the macro political issue, the industry was hoping "to avoid the ambiguity and inertia that a hung Parliament may bring", Hunter said.
If that scenario transpires, the carefully staged optimism of ISBA's forum last week will no doubt look premature indeed.
THE POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE
In his breezy presentation, the Tory Shadow Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, was determined to reassure both advertisers and broadcasters.
While broadcast "still represents the most effective way of advertising", Vaizey said, the internet was undoubtedly a cost-effective option.
On COI spend, Vaizey could offer little consolation. The budget for government ads would be under scrutiny, as with all spend. Agencies would need to make "a compelling case" for ads to be made and "expect a Conservative government to be like any of your clients, a demanding one who will want value for money".
The Tories want ITV to succeed and would "look to relax and remove regulation" surrounding it, including a review of CRR. While the party has "a good relationship with Ofcom", it would aim to reduce the amount of regulating Ofcom has to do.
The industry's self-policing of ads was the way forward, with ISBA "well ahead of the game in ensuring self-regulation is relevant", Vaizey said.
Product placement has Tory support too. There was laughter when Vaizey said this was partly "because we trust broadcasters not to rewrite the script of Coronation Street, so that a character comes into the Rovers and says: 'I can't get through the day unless I have a pint of Guinness.'"
THE AGENCY PERSPECTIVE - Jason Goodman, CEO, Albion
Soul Limbo, the tune for the BBC's Test match coverage, greeted delegates at Lord's. It was a reasonable metaphor for a conference that owed more to an analogue rather than digitally centric view of marketing.
The trouble with sessions titled "digital" or "integration" is you assume that these concepts are ancillary to mainstream marketing.
As the conversation moved on to channel, we wanted to know how many delegates were hearing the "bought media, owned media, earned media" triumvirate for the first time.
David Isherwood looked at how Renault engages with social media. Use humans and software and take the heat out of critics by diverting debate away from the social space.
In between the self-promoting admen, it was left to Keith Moor to walk through Santander's rebrand and share some serious data and ROI.
COI's Mark Lund gave the integration debate impetus in a difficult session, which pointed out that still too many senior marketers think integration comes after the creative idea.
The day ended with Thomas Gensemer, one of Barack Obama's digital advisors, who delivered the Obama election case study with style.