Marketing has just experienced its own equivalent of the Minsky Moment, in the unlikely form of the IPA’s Bellwether Report 2008, third quarter.
This has little directly to do with the turmoil sparked in the wider economy by the collapse of the blue-chip investment bank Lehman Brothers – although the two are tangentially linked, and certainly aligned in their consequences.
For quite some time, the dramatic collapse of the international money markets was surreally unreal for most marketers (those outside financial services at least). To be sure, people feared the knock-on effects of a more or less severe recession in the offing. But day to day, the other shoe refused to drop: spend continued to be, well, spent.
Indeed, something very bizarre seemed to happen during the summer months: anecdotally, aggregated media spend was reported to have gone up year on year in June and July, after a poor May.
Fast-forward to the end of September, however, and the situation had been catastrophically reversed, with “annual marketing budgets … revised down to the greatest extent ever recorded in the Bellwether survey’s near-nine-year history…” according to the IPA. To add gloomy context to this already dreary picture, timely research from Billetts Media Monitoring has revealed TV ad pricing at its lowest level for 15 years. It’s game of ITV commercial director Rupert Howell to point out that this is the biggest buying opportunity for clients in years but few, alas, are likely to heed his suggestion.
So, the phony mixed messages of the last year have now been unscrambled and advertising is, once again, performing its traditional cyclical role as a harbinger of recession. In all probability the anomaly of heightened spend during the early summer amounted to no more than marketing directors unloading their budgets before they were taken away from them. How deep the engulfing recession will be, or how long, is anyone’s guess. But we can be certain of one thing: spending next year’s budget will not be such a problem; as there won’t be much to spend in the first place.
A little too cynical? Probably not. Martin Broughton, chairman of BA and president of the CBI, was surely right to remind us – at the recent ABTA travel trade convention – that the way out of this economic impasse is not to slash prices in a desperate beggar-my-neighbour attempt to stay afloat, but to play to a brand’s essential strengths. That, of course, implies spending money on it, even when it hurts. Sadly, the knee-jerk reactions from the car industry, some packaged goods companies and the public sector suggest this is not going to happen. Financial services might, in the circumstances, seem an excusable exception. In fact, it is just the opposite. Unfortunately, among those who have continued to advertise, quite a few of just don’t get it. How else explain the unreconstructed pre-lapsarian stuff that has been coming out of Halifax and Bradford & Bingley lately? Cover story, page 18; ABTA convention, page 8