Editorial: The lack of panic shows this downturn is different

In adland - as in the world at large - the tumultuous state of the global economy seems both unreal and surreal.

Not only is it hard for anybody to get their mind around a US Treasury proposed rescue plan costing £380 billion, but life seems to go on pretty much as normal. Consumers are still consuming and mortgages are still being paid.

The marcoms business is in the midst of a phoney war. Agency networks report dips in spending by car and financial clients - scarcely surprising now that borrowing has got a whole lot harder - but panic buttons aren't being pressed.

Whether or not the nerves of agencies and clients will hold is an open question. The events of the past three weeks mean that what should have been just a cyclical downturn will turn out to be much more serious and less predicable. As Maurice Levy, the Publicis Groupe chairman, puts it: "This is a situation that's never been seen before." And, as he rightly points out, it remains to be seen whether the many will be forced to suffer because of the greed of a few.

For agencies, the impact will be patchy and will vary from sector to sector. It won't be a good time for those shops handling small development projects or secondary brands. These assignments will be the most vulnerable as clients redeploy their resources around their big bankable brands.

The worry is that agencies will be slow to adapt to changing circumstances. Attendance at an IPA seminar on advertising in a downturn was disappointingly low. No great surprise, perhaps, when agencies were in the middle of fee agreements struck several months earlier and the problems within the US sub-prime market looked like a little local difficulty.

For some, there will doubtless be some rude awakenings next year after those agreements have expired.

Never has it been more important for agencies to be doing some prudent housekeeping and maintaining a strong balance sheet in order to get a proper return on investment.

Nor has it been more vital to convince client procurement specialists of the price that will be paid if brands are not properly supported during harsh economic times.

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