Media Forum: Is 'old' media on the mend?

Is ad revenue growth returning to traditional media, Alasdair Reid asks.

You'd be a fool to mess with WPP when it comes to media revenue projections. These are the people who took the artform to a whole new level - and reinvented the language of recession while they were about it. The last downturn, if memory serves, was bath-shaped, complete with all manner of contoured ridges and non-slip nipples.

And yet there have been murmurings that the group's latest report, This Year, Next Year, published a couple of weeks ago by the WPP subsidiary Group M, was overly pessimistic. In a nutshell, its analysis for traditional media sectors is that "demand had almost stopped slipping".

Jeez. Interestingly, the report acknowledges its cheerless role as a harbinger of bad news. "By our previous gloomy standards, this merits a national holiday," it continues, in a less-than-convincing stab at gallows humour. Especially as the report makes every effort to eradicate even the hint of a smile. It goes on to argue that mainstream advertising's traditional linkage to more general economic performance indicators has come slightly adrift - and that this is an irreversible structural step-change.

In other words, cancel that holiday. Unless, of course, you're absolutely determined to be more upbeat - in which case you'll be reaching not for the sleeping pills and the big bottle of discount own-label vodka, but for a copy of the IPA's Bellwether Report.

Granted, this is more vague when it comes to sector-by-sector analysis, but it does feel able to reach a cheerier conclusion - main media advertising budgets are seeing their strongest upward revision for more than seven years. And ZenithOptimedia's regular report on the UK market suggests a 2 per cent rise in TV revenues, but not until 2008.

No-one doubts growth in digital channels will continue to outstrip all other channels - but for the more traditional sectors, there are surely reasons to be cheerful. Simon Daglish, the director of national sales at GCap, certainly thinks so. And with good reason - GCap announced last week that July's ad revenues are likely to be up by 14 per cent year on year. He comments: "Things are looking brighter. We've seen two quarters of very good growth, but we still need to be cautious. Having said that, the outlook for next quarter is good."

And he points out that some of radio's recent woes were actually self-inflicted - consolidation in the medium has cast a long shadow, not least because of problems arising from the creation of GCap itself.

Chris Pelekanou, the sales director of Guardian News and Media, is similarly upbeat - but he points out that the quality end of the newspaper market has been relatively immune from the downturn. He adds: "Anecdotally, we get the feeling advertisers are beginning to reappraise the medium and are remembering how powerful it can be. We're still able to deliver a fantastic audience that can be segmented for advertisers in lots of exciting ways."

In TV, however, the signals seem less clear. Mark White, the executive director of sales at five, certainly isn't about to break open the bubbly - but he does admit he's sensing a change in mood. He says: "There's a little bit of a feeling that when something is new, everybody feels they have to do it. There was a lot of talk about the money TV was going to lose to the internet, and it became a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone was trying it to see how it worked. Now, though, people are reassessing the contribution TV can make to their business."

But the magazine business is gearing itself up for a boom autumn, as Jessica Burley, the managing director of The National Magazine Company, explains: "Upscale international fashion has been very positive. The young women's market, too, has been very encouraging thanks to the large number of fragrance launches we're seeing this autumn. The last time there were this many launches was in the mid-90s, so that is having a positive effect on advertising. We're also seeing strong performance in the domestic sector. So it's all very positive."

YES - Simon Daglish, director of national sales, GCap

"Whenever you get a wild movement of money in one direction, it always naturally swings (some way) back in the other direction again ... There is a renewed confidence in traditional media."

MAYBE - Chris Pelekanou, sales director, Guardian News and Media

"To be fair, the quality end of the newspaper market hasn't been that badly affected. People are far too quick to assume papers are finished. They're not. There are still huge positives in this medium."

MAYBE - Mark White, executive director of sales, five

"Coming back? Well it couldn't have gone any further away, that's for sure. I think it's true there has been a reassessment of the real difference that TV can make to a business, rather than focusing just on price."

YES - Jessica Burley, managing director, NatMags

"We've been doing well, particularly in upscale markets. All media have been realising it's important to remind everyone of their strengths. With the growth of digital, everyone has needed to restate and re-establish their credentials."