OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

As Madison Avenue lurches into the new year, there's one question on everyone's mind - other than, of course, whether the inevitable Pepsi-Cola commercial starring J. Lo will or won't include Ben Affleck. The question is: so when is the recovery getting here already?

For months, agency managers eagerly have anticipated the arrival of better times, their expectations fed by increasingly optimistic forecasts from leading analysts.

"The advertising trends are pointing in the right direction," Lauren Rich Fine, who follows the industry for Merrill Lynch, wrote in a report released earlier this month.

Signs of improvement abound, ranging from robust demand for commercial time during Super Bowl XXXVII, to be played the weekend after next, to upward revisions in estimates for growth in ad revenues for media such as newspapers and radio to anecdotal evidence that advertisers are finally starting to ask their agencies to produce additional spots for ongoing campaigns instead of re-running the same pitches continually.

Even magazines and the internet, which were lagging notably behind their counterparts in the media, are beginning to report improved ad sales.

Still, a pervasive sense of malaise lingers, clinging like the socks to the towels in the "before" shots in those ubiquitous American TV commercials for dryer sheets. Some reasons for those doubts are not unreasonable; you're entitled to worry if, for instance, you're an employee of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles still waiting to learn from the top brass at the Publicis Groupe what kind of job you'll have in 2003 - if you have one at all, that is.

Then, too, there are the gloomy, if not doomy, pronouncements emanating from the executive suites of the agency and media giants. Sir Martin Sorrell's admonitions against expecting any type of sustained recovery until 2004 are almost well enough known by now to be included as counterpoint to A Cockeyed Optimist during community-theatre productions of South Pacific.

New voices are joining the chorus line, too, such as Adam Broadbent, the chairman of Emap plc, who only last week declared during a conference call with reporters "I don't think we see any potential for an upsurge in ad revenues this year", Reuters reported.

And, needless to say, the spectres of war or terror, or both, continue to loom large. Disclaimers such as this one, included in a report by the Media Markets Daily newsletter on the 2003 outlook from the Newspaper Association of America, are becoming standard operating procedure: "The obligatory caveat continues to be economic uncertainty surrounding the possibility of war with Iraq."

For all that, there are myriad signs that the bottom has been touched and the upturn, slow and bumpy as it may be, is under way. Maurice Levy, the chairman and CEO of Publicis, says his agency company is in line to meet its profit-margin targets. Sumner Redstone, the chairman and CEO of the media conglomerate Viacom, describes the outlook for advertising this year as strong.

And in a report card for the US economy, Business Week gives Madison Avenue a solid "B" grade for its growth prospects, citing the gathering momentum in spending growth in important ad categories such as automobiles, packaged goods and movies.

Naturally. Just think of the vast sums Hollywood must spend this year on promoting all those upcoming films with J. Lo and/or Ben.

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