Media Owners Resigned to ’08 Shortfall, Brace for Tougher ’09

Many media sellers finally gave up on meeting their 2008 targets last week, after the continuing financial meltdown sent Lehman hurtling to liquidation, Merrill into a fire sale and AIG into the arms of the federal government. Now media players are girding for intense battles over share of shrinking ad budgets.

Michael Rooney, chief revenue officer for the Dow Jones consumer media group They’ll tell you, of course, that conditions could be worse. The magazine and newspaper executives who rely most on financial advertising, after all, have been reducing their expectations all year. Moreover, Lehman spent a mere $1.2 million on advertising last year — so media companies aren’t losing a marketer on the scale of, say, a Detroit carmaker. And despite the consensus that there’s a long way left until bottom, publishers are pitching the surviving financial companies to come on strong right now.
“In the finance category, I feel like we’ve already felt the downturn,” said Michael Rooney in an interview with Adage, the chief revenue officer for the Dow Jones consumer media group, which includes The Wall Street Journal. “The financial category, which obviously is our core, has been down all year. So we are not expecting anything in the short term that’s having a big effect on us.”

“During these times — and they experienced this in 2001 and 1987 — there’s a flight to quality,” Mr. Rooney added. “We are experiencing that now as well, where people say, ‘Look, I’m going to work with fewer companies and do more.’ That puts a lot of demands on us. I need more added-value programs, I need more big ideas, I need more events.”

Several executives at other newspapers said they anticipate a campaign from Bank of America once its acquisition of Merrill Lynch, a $37.1 million ad spender last year, is a done deal. Bank of America has been calling around about placements, they said, even if it has not secured any while the deal remains pending.

On a tear
But they don’t deny that the stakes are huge or that much more damage lies ahead. Financial advertising had been on a tear, growing 5.9% to $9.2 billion last year from $8.7 billion in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Its growth stalled in the first half of 2008, totaling $4.5 billion and only matching the $4.5 billion spent in the first half of 2007. Look for a big decline in the second half of this year — and ripple effects pressuring budgets even for those not directly involved in the meltdown.

That financial-ad spending decline is also expected to drag down the overall U.S. ad market, which had been anticipating a meager 2% gain for the whole year despite the Beijing Olympics and the presidential election, according to the latest projection from forecasting dean Bob Coen. He will revise that projection in December but declined to comment last week.

Bruce Goerlich, Zenith Optimedia’s president for strategic resources in North America, is working on a new forecast due for publication in early October. “It doesn’t make things look good,” he said. Marketers’ uncertainty about sales is the biggest threat, he said. “If you’re uncertain about that, obviously what you’re going to do is cut back your spending.”

American International Group, which is being bailed out and taken over by the federal government, has already pulled all its corporate advertising from TV for the rest of the year. The company spent more than $50 million in the first half of the year on TV, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Network executives declined to comment last week.

TV and cable networks contacted for this story were all quick to decline comments on the outlook for the year, following last week’s turmoil.

No relief online
Even online, usually everyone’s favorite bright spot, a 27% decrease in spending by financial-services companies dragged overall internet image advertising down 6% in the first half, Nielsen Online said last week.

Ad-industry analysts appear more concerned with the domino effect of such distressing news on consumers. The moves “could affect unemployment drastically over time, which affects travel and credit cards and consumer spending. I think there is more of a long-term effect for us than there is short term,” said Donna Speciale, president-investment and activation at Publicis’ MediaVest USA.

Financial and insurance advertising is National Geographic’s fourth-largest category — and it came in 13.5% short though August, according to Claudia Malley, VP-U.S. publisher there. That’s before these latest, dramatic blows to the market. Ed McCarrick, worldwide publisher, Time magazine

“We’re going to see a big hit,” Ms. Malley said. She predicted that the magazine would finish the year down in the high single digits.

As the cuts loom and land, National Geographic is trying to prepare for the next cycle, Ms. Malley said. “There are other challenged categories,” she said. “Before this happened we were seeing slipping in other key categories. Our whole focus is how we get ourselves positioned to be first at the gate when the advertiser is ready to tell their message.”

Cutting costs immediately
That means talking to clients and agencies about the National Geographic brand, the magazine’s ability to target within its audience and assemble integrated programs, Ms. Malley said. But “positioning” also means cutting spending now. “Do you need to make that trip or could you make a conference call?”

Merrill Lynch has been a very strong advertiser with Time magazine, said Ed McCarrick, its worldwide publisher. “We’re sorry to see Merrill Lynch fall on hard times,” he said.

But those still standing had better advertise themselves boldly before the crisis ends, according to Mr. McCarrick. “Bank of America is going to have a story to tell with the Merrill acquisition,” he said. “I’d be out there talking about those brand values, relating to the customer not to be nervous. Times of adversity are the time to go out and herald the values of your brand. When it turns, you will be in that much stronger position.”

Mr. Goerlich, the Zenith executive, reinforced that notion. “All the research shows that if you maintain or increase your spending in a recession, you increase your share.”

To that end, perhaps, the ACE Group of Companies bought a full-page ad in the Journal last Wednesday, Claudia Malley, VP-U.S. publisher, National Geographic promoting its “balance sheet strength” opposite an article about the government’s takeover at AIG.

But financial companies don’t necessarily need such costly media buys. Last week Raymond James e-mailed individual investors to say, in effect, that they better stick with them. It cited the recent dark news for the futures of “once-stalwart” financial-services firms Merrill Lynch and Lehman Bros.

“It is natural to question how other financial-services firms are faring during the credit crunch, brought about by the turmoil in the housing industry and subprime mortgages,” wrote Raymond James.

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