Why as budgets fall, the planner keeps onrising

When the IPA first unveiled its pompously titled Bellwether Report, it can barely have imagined quite how depressing its quarterly bulletins would become.

Yes, there is usually an attempt at optimism (this time round, there's a "modest upward revision" to marketing budgets) but for anyone whose bread and butter comes from traditional media, it's gloomy stuff.

The good news: business confidence towards marketing is picking up. The bad news: ad budgets across the year have seen the poorest growth since 2002. The worse news: ad budgets for traditional media have been revised down for the eighth consecutive quarter. A crumb, though: the rate of decline is slowing.

For traditional media (a phrase that, in itself, sounds a death-knell), this is surely enough to send a shiver through the order books. On the other hand, the flags are still out in the digital and direct marketing sectors. More than 11 per cent of advertisers now spend more than a sixth of their budgets on the internet; direct marketing shows the largest gain for 18 months. Money talks and many agencies flail.

As an aside: two senior execs at one of the best London agencies asked me over lunch the other day: "Why does Campaign write about direct marketing? That's not what Campaign is all about, that's not what the ad industry is all about." Uhmm. Ask a client about the attractiveness of an integrated direct marketing and digital offering with a strong customer relationship management suit and, while that might not be what advertising is all about, it's certainly what the future is very much about. No wonder some of the shiniest creative agencies are treading water.

Anyway, back to the crisis facing traditional media. Russell Davies - the winner of the Campaign/APG Battle of Big Thinking contest (page 26) - reckons that the genius of the original brief Wieden & Kennedy got from Honda (the brief that Davies worked on, the brief that begat "cog") was: "We want to pass Volkswagen in sales and reduce media spend every year."

As Davies says, the corollary of this is that you eventually get to a media spend of zero. Virals, improved customer service, advertiser-supplied content, improved product - Davies reckons there are more and more ways businesses can reach as many customers and potential customers as they do through traditional advertising, more cheaply. And then they can reinvest the savings back into the business. It's hard to argue against the logic, even though there are many, many brands that would wither without traditional advertising support.

So where does all this leave traditional media (and the agencies that create ads for it)? Readjusting their business models, naturally. Most media owners (and all the smart ones) now have a digital strategy and are fast developing more bespoke advertising solutions that offer tighter targeting. Most creative agencies are niggling about how to follow suit; some will get there, some won't.

But in the pursuit of a new business model that better serves the new world order, it seems as though the planner who can combine consumer insight with a real understanding of media and communications (traditional, digital and all the touch points around the edges) will move to centre-stage. Knocking the creative director off their pedestal in the process? I'm not so sure. But if the Battle of Big Thinking is anything to go by, they've got more than a fighting chance.

Talking of Russell Davies, you will be seeing his name much more regularly in Campaign from now on. He is taking over the column that has been occupied by the wry and urbane Simon Marquis. The marvellous Mr Marquis has done a wonderful job of putting advertising into perspective with his sage observations on the industry. Expect Davies to do the same from a digital-savvy planner's perspective.

claire.beale@haynet.com.

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