One or two hearts skipped a beat towards the end of last month when it became apparent that availability in the outdoor market towards the back end of the year had begun to dry up almost entirely.
Here, surely, was the sign we'd all been waiting for, hoping and praying, all through the thankless months of 2009. Could an end to the downturn be in sight?
Then, last week, we were given cause for more sober reflection, with the news that CBS Outdoor had contrived to part company with its managing director, Tim Bleakley. Not so long ago, CBS Outdoor was reckoned to be one of the slickest and most forward-looking of outdoor contractors - now, the circumstances behind Bleakley's departure might make some observers wonder whether it has perhaps lost its way in the UK market.
And that's not all, unfortunately. Scratch the surface of the story about hardening demand and you find worrying suggestions that all is not quite as it seems here either.
There's every indication that lack of availability in outdoor is currently being determined not by an increase in demand but by a marked decrease in supply, with outdoor contractors using the downturn as an opportunity to cull poor quality or poorly performing inventory.
This reduces maintenance costs, while increasing yield (and profitability) on the remaining stock. Which is fine - but there are worrying rumours that outdoor contractors may have been contemplating joint initiatives not merely to formalise existing gains but to push them further than the market would naturally support.
That, added to the (some might say usual) litany of festering rows in the trading arena, certainly goes some way to qualifying the good news emerging from the sector.
Which is, you could also ar- gue, a great shame. Theoretically, the growth prospects in outdoor, which has been positioning itself as the last broadcast medium, should be bright.
1. In private, buyers have been scathing of CBS Outdoor this year. Its troubles, they say, began when its highly rated UK chief operating officer, Andrew Oldham, resigned (at that stage without another job to go to) in May 2008. Oldham had been instrumental in the company's winning bid for the London Underground contract, largely on its promise to upgrade a significant proportion of inventory to digital formats. This was positioned as a "heritage project" linked to London's role as the host city for the 2012 Olympics.
But upgrade costs have been punishing and US management has insisted that yield per screen is maintained at as high a level as possible. Unfortunately, this policy has been undermined by weaknesses on the operational side (too many screens out of action for prolonged periods, advertisers say), leading to patchy campaign delivery.
Bleakley resigned last week to "pursue other commercial ventures", the nature of which have yet to be disclosed. His duties will be covered, on a temporary basis, by Colin Leahy, the managing director of CBS Outdoor Ireland.
2. Since May, when it was revealed in a New York Times article that Titan was having trouble meeting its mandatory payment schedule to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, it has been assumed that the company has re-narrowed its focus to its core US market. This theory was given extra credibility when, in August, Titan sold all of its UK roadside panels (8,600 of them, mainly 48-sheets) to its rival Primesight.
3. There are also changes on the way at Clear Channel, whose new international boss, William Eccleshare, joined last month. The UK chief executive, Barry Sayer, has announced he is leaving to join a consortium bidding to buy Independent News & Media's outdoor business.
4. There have been significant moves on the personnel side at the big poster specialists too. At Posterscope, Steve Bond was last week promoted to group chief operating officer and Glen Wilson also moved up to group managing director. But it's at Kinetic that more significant changes are expected, with the current senior management team reaching the end of earn-out agreements undertaken when WPP created the company with the acquisition of Poster Publicity in 2004. The most senior departure so far this year was Mike Segrue, Kinetic's global chief client officer, who resigned in July.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- It's tempting to argue that we're faced with business as usual in the rich and strange world of outdoor advertising. But there's a growing feeling that this autumn's mixed messages are accompanied by unusually ominous undertones.
- There's a mistaken assumption among outdoor practitioners that the rest of the advertising community neither knows nor cares what goes on in their semi-detached world. And when this assumption proves illusory, there's always the time-honoured fall-back position, which has been to close ranks until the trouble goes away. After all, it has always worked in the past. But there will come a time when push comes to shove.- It has been rumoured for months that Sir Martin Sorrell is now minded to conduct a root-and-branch review of his WPP subsidiary Kinetic. Any moves in that direction would have to be applauded.
- When something begins to waddle like a cartel and quack like a cartel, it will, perhaps, one day, begin to excite the attentions of the Office of Fair Trading. No-one wants that - but it's also true that some advertisers have begun to lose patience with the outdoor business.
- That said, some advertisers applaud the investment made in new formats and stronger traditional site locations from the likes of Clear Channel and JCDecaux.