Media's optimists still have a lot to feel anxious about
A view from Gideon Spanier

Media's optimists still have a lot to feel anxious about

Sir Martin Sorrell has complained of a misplaced "Don Draperish" optimism in the advertising industry, even as the WPP chief executive reported another set of record annual results.

Leaving aside the fact that the fictional Draper was hardly the greatest optimist (the Mad Men character was haunted by his relationships, had alcohol problems and lied about his past), Sorrell is not alone in feeling cautious about the outlook, although all the forecasts continue to point to steady advertising growth in the UK and globally.

The uncertainty about the UK’s vote on European Union membership on 23 June is the biggest short-term worry. The widespread assumption that Britons will opt to remain looks complacent at this stage.

The fear must be that if the Brexit debate continues to escalate, it will undermine business confidence and advertisers could turn off spend – although it’s worth noting that industry folk appear evenly divided on what the likely impact will be, judging by the straw poll in our feature.

There are other issues inside the ad industry that are contributing to a low-level hum of anxiety in conversations with media agencies and owners.

One is the ongoing investigation by the US Association of National Advertisers into agency rebates and transparency, which has got media people worried on this side of the Atlantic.

Maybe it’s because the ANA probe has been going on since October in high secrecy, with the results not expected until next month. Or because there have been signs of tension with the agencies as the bosses of the big six holding groups are thought to be split on whether to meet the ANA together. Or just because one of the companies working on the ANA investigation is the London-based media auditing and research group Ebiquity.

Some think the ANA’s forensic probe is bound to discover some malpractice by agencies after it expended all this effort; others say advertisers would want to sweep it under the carpet. In any case, it hardly suggests that all is well behind closed doors.

Digital ad fraud and ad-blocking is the other problem exercising media chiefs. When the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, demands action on ad-blocking (albeit by calling for a roundtable of industry leaders) and there is chatter about US federal authorities investigating, it’s a sign that the media industry is in danger of losing control of the debate.

It’s enough to make Draper weep. Lucky that this is an industry full of anxious optimists.