OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

It's as wobbly as a fridge full of Jell-O during an earthquake in San Francisco, as jittery as retirees whose life savings are invested in Enron and WorldCom stock, as nervous as contestants on American Idol about to face the wrath of Simon Cowell.

What could it be? Why, of course, it's Madison Avenue, trying to gauge the direction of advertising spending for the rest of the year.

Being so shaky is only natural after 2001, when ad spending fell for the first time in a decade - and by the biggest percentage decline since 1938, a Depression year no less. That's why executives at America's agencies were so relieved to hear that industry analysts were starting to change their forecasts for 2002 by revising upward their estimates for spending growth.

For instance, CMR, the division of Taylor Nelson Sofres that tracks ad spending, raised its prediction by a full percentage point, from a gain of 1.5 per cent to a gain of 2.5 per cent. In an interview with the European edition of The Wall Street Journal, Douglas Flynn, the CEO of the Aegis Group, revised his forecast from a decline of 0.2 per cent to an increase of 1.5 per cent. Lauren Rich Fine, the respected advertising analyst for Merrill Lynch, revamped her prediction from a decline of 1.5 per cent to a gain of 0.4 per cent.

All those more optimistic outlooks were expected to be mere preludes to the pronouncements of the executive considered to be the dean of the ad spending forecasters, Robert J Coen of Universal McCann, the giant Interpublic media buying agency. Coen, who has been tracking trends since Harry S Truman sat in the White House, makes his forecasts twice a year, in June or July and December, then periodically revises them as necessary.

In December, Coen estimated that ad spending in the US in 2002 would rise 2.4 per cent from the awful results of 2001, when spending fell 6.5 per cent from 2000. At the time, Coen was one of the few forecasters who predicted such a swing from the red to the black. So the anticipation was palpable on 10 July, when Coen was to offer up his latest figures at a presentation sponsored by Universal McCann and Interpublic.

Needless to say, it was a shock when Coen revised his estimate downward, to an increase of only 2.1 per cent, based partly on the uncertainty caused by the current revelations about scandals at more than a dozen once-respected corporations. The audience reacted as if Interpublic's John Dooner had popped up next to Coen, drinking a Pepsi.

"That will be the headlines, Coen said of his shift, and he rarely has made a more accurate prediction.

"Coen Ad Spend Predictions Go Down, the Advertising Age website blared.

"Stock Market Woes Weigh on Ad Recovery, Forecaster Says, the Dow Jones Newswires declared. "Top Forecaster Cuts Estimate for Growth in 2002 Ad Spending, The New York Times website warned.

Lost in the brouhaha, as Joe Mandese of Media Buyer's Daily pointed out, was that if Coen's forecast comes true, Madison Avenue will avoid two consecutive years of declines. And in Coen's first guess at 2003, he foresees a return to normality, estimating a gain of 5.5 per cent from this year.

If Coen's prediction for next year is accurate, US ad spending would total $249.2 billion, topping the record $247.5 billion set in the 2000 boom. That ought to settle some of those shaky stomachs in the executive suites.


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