Opinion: Perspective - Why advertisers really need to hold their nerve

Justin Billingsley, the shrewd and ad-savvy marketing chief at Orange, has been telling me about his favourite ad. It's a Coke ad from Argentina, eight years old now, and it wouldn't win many creative plaudits.

It was launched at a time when the Argentinian economy was in freefall. There was deflation, leading to hyperinflation, frozen bank accounts and half of the population were officially living below the poverty line. The country was broken. People were angry. Businesses pulled out. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, not only carried on investing, it increased its expenditure. And it launched an ad called "Para Todos". You can watch it on YouTube. It cemented Coke's hold on the region.

Of course, there are many reasons why Coke weathered recession there - and didn't just survive, in fact, but thrived. The company did all the sound things you'd expect in such a climate, trimming expendable costs. But "Para Todos" perhaps made the real difference between survival and success. It's a simple ad based around the idea of belief, trust and optimism. It was a message of support and confidence amid all the bleakness and depression, and it was underpinned by continued investment by Coke in the Argentinian market when other big brands were lying low.

Observers reckon the ad played no small part in establishing Argentina as one of Coke's biggest markets and in securing an emotional loyalty there to the brand that is only bettered by Mexican consumers.

Looking at the latest adspend figures from Nielsen in this week's Marketing, perhaps there are some learnings to be had from the Coke experience.

According to the Marketing tables, in 2008 there were predictable - and in many cases understandable - cuts in ad budgets by advertisers in sectors that felt the grip of recession early. Cars, telecos and media companies all moved quickly to rein in spend.

Naturally, controversy is already focusing on the fact that the figures show COI is bucking the trend and is now only a modest poster campaign away from being the UK's biggest advertiser. Frankly, agencies and the commercial media have much to thank COI for in these lean times, so I won't dwell on the political debate that is likely to result.

The UK's biggest advertiser, Procter & Gamble, spent 10 per cent less than 2007, at £179 million. Meanwhile, rival Unilever increased spend by 3.6 per cent last year to £91.7 million. Interestingly, the beleaguered banks threw ad money at their crippling problems, beefing up spend as they scrambled to reassure customers and restore confidence. But across the board, adspend fell by 5 per cent.

At a time when media costs are falling, the Nielsen figures must be treated with caution; advertisers can in many cases enjoy the same levels of exposure for less money so were able to cut budgets without losing voice. And the best advertisers and the best agencies are working harder than ever to amplify marketing messages using free channels.

Again, a reduction in measured adspend does not necessarily indicate a reduction in exposure, a lack of faith in the power of advertising or less business going through agencies' hands. So the cuts, where there are cuts, are not necessarily bad news (except for commercial media owners).

And it's possible that for some companies, last year's adspend cuts were a quick knee-jerk response ahead of a more considered approach to battling through the downturn. Spend patterns across this year will tell us more about how the biggest marketing guns see the long-term value of sustained advertising.

Interestingly, over at Orange, Billingsley saw his adspend drop by 20 per cent, though as the new Gold Spots strategy suggests, that's by no means an indication the brand is retrenching its communications. But for the record, Coke increased its adspend by almost 10 per cent last year. Perhaps it knows something.