Could it be, at long last, 2004? That wonderful year that Sir Martin Sorrell has promised for so long would bring the climbing out of the bath?

(Now that's an image to savour: Sir Martin, covered with bubbles, emerging from a tub surrounded by cases of Lux soap, Sunsilk shampoo and all those other wonderful personal-care products made by the Unilever client. Question: is there a WPP agency with a towel account on the roster? A washcloth?)

Indeed, the new year seems to be ushering in a decided change in outlook and attitude along Madison Avenue. Part of it is the belief that conditions genuinely are improving, particularly, as forecasters such as John Perriss at ZenithOptimedia and Robert Coen at Universal McCann pointed out last month, more businesses are beginning to signal they are willing to resume spending in realms such as advertising.

If those laggards can join the stalwart handful of marketers that has been keeping the ad industry from performing even more dismally - car-makers, fast-food chains, packaged-food companies, movie studios, brewers - a recovery might finally arrive after years of stop-and-stutter, false-start results.

And part of the change in the zeitgeist is attributable to the idea that agency executives, keen on sniffing out the latest trends, are starting to agree that gloom and doom are so, like, last year. Optimism is the new black, to paraphrase that arbiter of style Diana Vreeland. And yet, Americans, for all their native upbeat cheerfulness, remain reluctant to shower themselves with congratulatory praise, even if Perriss is predicting an increase in US adspend of 5.1 per cent this year from 2003 and Coen is forecasting an even better gain of 6.9 per cent.

"The outlook on advertising is good, but still a mixed bag," William Drewry, the industry analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston, wrote in a report. "Local advertising remains spotty; newspapers are improving (albeit gradually) and there continues to be no visibility on an improvement in radio. National advertising is still strong, but losing momentum directionally."

Gee, talk about your party poopers.

Some qualms about the 2004 outlook derive from the ability of folks with long memories - in advertising, that would be anyone over 30 still working, or anyone over 25 who has stopped drinking because beer has so many carbs - to point out the fact that a good deal of the expected stimulus is to be supplied by the calendar. That's a result of what's called the quadrennial effect, which sounds as if it might be the latest Robert Ludlum book being made into a film starring Matt Damon. Actually, it's the rising of the US ad-spending tide that has almost always occurred every four years after World War II, starting with 1948.

The Summer Olympics means a big boost in ad budgets, typically bigger than for the Winter games, whether from official sponsors or mischief-makers hoping to be "ambush marketers". Then there's all the spending by political candidates, especially in quadrennial years because the White House is also up for grabs. Perriss estimates that a full 17 per cent of the additional spending he forecasts for this year will be due to the quadrennial effect - meaning 83 per cent has to come from other sources.

So will 2004 bring the revival so desperately sought since 2000, or will the industry end up taking a bath instead of emerging from one? Watch this space.