Media Forum: Is it a case of digital deja vu?

Is the dotcom bubble about to pop for a second time, Alasdair Reid asks.

Time to wake up to the sound of Sonny and Cher, with their evergreen hit, I Got You Babe. It's Groundhog Day (or week; or year - at least it will be in 2009). According to Sly Bailey, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, we're about to enter a rerun of the period around the turn of the century when the dotcom bubble burst.

It is not going to be pretty, especially for publishers, and it threatens to undermine the "situation hopeless but not serious" siege mentality that has seen them through more than a decade of extremely challenging times.

For publishers of all shapes, sizes and ambitions, the current cloud's silver lining was supposed to be somewhat digital in nature. The big newspaper groups and consumer magazine companies can justifiably argue that they've made great strides along an evolutionary path that will insulate them from the worst effects of a downturn.

They've made substantial investments in online content and have restructured their whole organisations accordingly. So they are well-placed to grab an ever larger share of online spend, and the beauty of this strategy is that digital spend is absolutely recession-proof.

Or so we thought. Bailey's prognosis, at last week's Association of Online Publishers conference, is that online adspend is by no means immune to recessionary pressures, and the squeeze will be made all the more painful for the fact that the BBC is committed to further digital expansion.

She wonders whether publishers have made enough progress in monetising their new audiences. "For the lucky, we should expect consolidation and, for the less fortunate, failure," she predicts.

A gloomy outlook, but is she right? Alison Reay, the digital media director at Telegraph Media Group, does agree that there might be some shake-out, with only the strongest brands surviving. But she believes we'll see more of a "structural correction" than a rerun of the dotcom boom and bust.

She says: "There is no doubt that the level of growth will be less than the 30 per cent we have enjoyed over the past five years. However, there will be growth for 2008 and agencies and advertising associations are already predicting between 10 to 15 per cent in 2009.

"Publishers should continue to invest in multimedia technology to grow existing and new audiences which can be monetised."

Much of this is echoed by Paul Keenan, the chief executive of Bauer Consumer Media. He reasons: "If media spend tightens up further, we will see advertising moving to higher ground, behind established brands that both consumers and advertisers know and understand. It is these properties that will consistently prove their value for money and have the potential to remain premium. The prospects are positive for media companies with strong, branded web properties."

However, Chris Locke, the trading director at VivaKi UK, isn't so sure. He explains: "Some publishers know what they're doing in the online space but many are still struggling. The big problem for all traditional media owners is that they're very expensive compared with other portals and they still don't know how to sell digital. They're still asking the offline traders to bundle it in with what they're selling. It doesn't work. They're treating it as a commodity."

But Andrew Walmsley, a co-founder of i-level, disagrees. He thinks publishers are well placed, and the important thing is that they've been successful in building online audiences.

He concludes: "There are two things that are different this time. Firstly, digital is far bigger than it was. In 2001, a lot of advertisers hadn't yet established a profitable model. They have now, and these channels will continue to make them money so they will continue to invest. Secondly, the gap between consumer usage and advertising exploitation is still significant. Money follows audience so its share will continue to grow."

NO - Alison Reay, digital media director, Telegraph Media Group

"At the Telegraph, we are well-placed to take advantage of market changes. The ability to offer integrated multimedia solutions will separate the winners from the losers in this market."

NO - Paul Keenan, chief executive, Bauer Consumer Media

"The challenges of 2008 are very different to 2001. Digital has matured and is in a disciplined and accountable world where advertisers expect to see real connection with their consumers and real creativity."

MAYBE - Chris Locke, trading director, VivaKi UK

"It's still hard for publishers to monetise their digital stuff. They have dedicated online people but they struggle. So they give it to the offline traders, who end up asking you if you want a belt to go with those trousers. They have to find a way of selling you the belt separately."

NO - Andrew Walmsley, co-founder, i-level

"Money follows audience and digital's share of consumer media usage continues to grow. Newspaper and magazine publishers are well-placed. They have made the changes needed to deliver digital content."

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