Media Forum: Is media's recession over?

Do revised forecasts herald an end to the downturn, Alasdair Reid asks.

Back at the tailend of March, those incorrigible optimists at Aegis revised their global adspend forecasts. The revision was upwards - globally, from 1 per cent (predicted growth over the course of 2010) to 2.9 per cent; with a similar adjustment, again to 2.9 per cent, for the UK in particular.

This rather reassuring conclusion tends to back up the evidence that's been emerging from the UK's TV market - year-on-year growth in the second quarter (from an admittedly chronically low base in 2009) is healthy, with May alone expected to be up over 15 per cent.

And Aegis has not been alone in rejigging its forecasts. ZenithOptimedia, which was predicting a 2 per cent decline in the UK market for 2010, now reckons on a 1.3 per cent increase. Globally, it has now fixed on 2 per cent growth. Similarly, Magna transformed its estimate of a 1 per cent UK decline into a growth prediction of 3 per cent for 2010. And the IPA's Bellwether Report reveals greater optimism and spend levels from marketers.

The conclusion? We can now be confident that the recession is finally behind us. Provided, of course, that we refrain from reading the information sources formerly known as newspapers. Because if we do peruse the odd story, we might discover that, even if they have a bit more money in their pockets, US consumers still seem slightly reluctant to spend; or that eurozone economic prospects are looking frightfully wobbly as Germany and Greece continue their squabble about how to manage Greek debt.

And talking of debt, there's the small matter of a one trillion pound hole in the UK economy - and if there's a hung Parliament, no-one will have the power to address this issue. But that's largely academic anyway, because neither of the big two parties have credible plans to tackle this issue - and our national AAA credit rating looks like sliding south whatever the outcome.

So, should we really be optimistic? Yes, on balance, Neil Jones, the director of commercial strategy at News International, responds. He comments: "I'm cautiously optimistic. The main worry is whether this is a double-dip recession - and a hung Parliament would be bad news for the economy. But we're seeing advertisers switching out of direct response into brand advertising, which is always a good sign."

Jones says that if you look at the display ad market in total, it was down 8.2 per cent against 2008 last year. This year, over the first two months, it's been up 6 per cent. National press was down 12 per cent in 2009; this year, it's up 10 per cent.

And, he adds, we're seeing the re-emergence of key categories. "Retail held up well last year but finance and motors were down. For us, and the market as a whole, it's good to see those categories coming back," he says.

Much of that is echoed by Mark Craze, the UK chief executive of Havas Media. He believes the market is looking more robust, even if some uncertainties remain. He says: "The sectors showing the strongest growth are TV, the tabloids and the measurable parts of digital. The recession is technically over but in the UK the big question mark is whether we'll have a hung Parliament following the General Election. The markets like certainty - so no-one can speak with total clarity until the election is over."

Absolutely, Lorna Tilbian, the executive director at Numis Securities, agrees. And yet, she points out, the signs from the US market are encouraging. She adds: "China may be the future, but the US will still be the engine for this recovery - and I think it's becoming evident that all of the major advertising groups have seen things picking up in Q1."

But Iain Jacob, the chief executive EMEA of Starcom MediaVest Group, argues that generalisations are becoming meaningless. He reckons we've arrived at a telling point in the market's evolution - and there will be some stark choices ahead for media owners, advertisers and agencies alike.

He explains: "If 2009 was a financial crisis, then 2010 represents a whole different type of crisis - an innovation crisis. The question being raised now is about where we and our clients find our growth. It's about extending brands into new areas and finding new ways to engage audiences. In 2009, all of that was put on hold.

"The age of media deflation may be over - because the base couldn't go any lower and because people can no longer justify their existence solely on the basis of cost reduction. But I'm not looking through rose-tinted spectacles - by 2011, it will have become more than apparent who's in good shape. It's a challenge for us all. Those who fail to innovate may struggle."

YES - Neil Jones, director of commercial strategy, News International

"Over Easter, we saw the biggest ever issue of The Sun - with supermarkets and DIY showing strongly. The fact that DIY is back is a good indicator - because that's discretionary consumer spend."

YES - Mark Craze, UK CEO, Havas Media

"The big dynamic from an advertising point of view is consumer confidence - and the signs are good there. In particular, we're seeing motors and finance coming back, and retail is flying. So we're optimistic."

We're seeing growth. It's looking more positive this year."

MAYBE - Lorna Tilbian, executive director, Numis Securities

"The US recovery seems to be across the board in Q1 and the US will continue to be the engine of recovery. But, for us, uncertainty exists around the General Election and the issue of national debt."

MAYBE - Iain Jacob, chief executive EMEA, Starcom MediaVest Group

"Some sectors will perform well, while others may fall behind. The market as a whole may look flattish. We're not going to see deflation - but the people who are going to see growth are the ones who are prepared to innovate."

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