No 'back to school' adspend boost despite improving September forecasts

Agencies are cautiously optimistic as September spend forecasts show improvement.

Britain's Got Talent: returned to ITV this week after Covid-19 halted production for months
Britain's Got Talent: returned to ITV this week after Covid-19 halted production for months

The coronavirus pandemic has all but killed the September "back to school" season in the UK this year, despite steadily improving forecasts for how far media spend is expected to fall this month.

Various agency and broadcaster estimates shared privately with Campaign suggest that September will be down by between 15% and 20% year on year.

TV, still judged as the bellwether for how confident big-brand marketers are in investing in advertising, is expected to experience a smaller drop than the rest of the media market as confidence slowly returns. However, cinema (for which theatres have only recently reopened) and out-of-home continue to suffer the most challenging environments as millions of people continue to work from home. 

Figures from Walk-In Media, backed by MSQ Partners, estimate that TV will be down 14% in September, compared with an overall market drop of 17%. Even online channels, such as display and search, are expected to be down by double digits compared with last year, such is the continued distress among advertisers. 

TV -14%
Radio -15%
Press -20%
Out of home -35%
Online display -10%
Search -12%
Cinema -60%
Overall market -17%

These numbers are a slight improvement compared with previous estimates by Walk-In Media for September. A source at Omnicom, meanwhile, described advertising trends as having “improved materially” over the summer, with TV “only down” by 10% in August against a total market slump of 16%. 

Despite double-digit declines being reported favourably, these are far better figures than estimated at the height of the UK pandemic in April, when UK adspend was forecast by Warc and the Advertising Association to fall by 24% in the third quarter of 2020. This forecast was upgraded to a 20% decline in July.

Simon Davis, founder and chief executive of Walk-In Media and previous CEO of Blue449, said: “September is looking to be a point or two better than forecast as spend returns slightly faster than expected, but that still puts Q3 at around minus 20% as entertainment/leisure, retail and transport/travel advertisers continue to hold back spend. Looking forward, Q4 looks like being 8 points down, resulting in a full-year reduction of minus 16%.”

Campaign understands that Channel 4 is expecting September to be down by between 7% and 10%, having experienced a broadly flat August, according to a source close to the broadcaster. Meanwhile, ITV is expected to fare somewhat worse this month, having received a boost a year ago with an influx of spend around its Rugby World Cup coverage. 

Media buyers have universally reported that continued uncertainty among marketers over the pandemic, as well as confusion last month over whether children would return to school en masse in the UK, had effectively put a handbrake on many brands’ attempts at investing in "back-to-school" advertising activity. TV, in particular, has also been affected by significant disruptions to production schedules.

“There’s definitely an upward trend from where we were – we couldn’t have gotten much worse, to be honest with you,” a Publicis Media executive said.

“The problem we have with TV in particular is the broadcasters have given a lot of flexibility to clients to move their money around [with the suspension of many late-booking fees]. A lot of clients are coming on later to wait and see what happens, and it causes a lot of admin problems. July was very late, you have to remember people are still firming up plans for Christmas many months out.”

“Everything [in terms of TV buying] has been pushed by four weeks,” another source at Omnicom told Campaign. “The government [adspend, handled by Omnicom Media Group], is performing well because of public health messaging, obviously, and there is more noise from the grocers and cars are holding up. 

“But I honestly can’t believe this is September. There’s no normal autumn ‘back-to-school’ vibe… It’s incredibly difficult to get sight of the month ahead, plus clients don’t want to get caught out if there’s a second wave.”

This sentiment was echoed by an independent media agency boss, who said: “Loads of us who have planned to open offices are finding it much tougher under the current regulations. It seems to have been pushed back to October, when we’ll see a proper ‘back to school’ vibe where serious numbers of people are going back to the office and things feel normal. But it has been busier this week.”

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