In the Big Easy, the party is most certainly over. It is Lent, and Bourbon Street is littered with the debris of the earlier day's festivities. The air is humid and sickly sweet with the stench of spilled wine and beer. Picking their way through the rubbish are groups of men and women wearing the uniforms of business-blue blazers and trousers. They observe the waste with knowing looks. They've been here before; they know Fat Tuesday well. They are advertising and media executives attending the American Association of Advertising Agencies media conference and trade show just a few blocks away, and they all seem to be talking about one thing: the boom that has now gone bust.
In New Orleans, the constant refrain is: "It's worse than we thought it was." The marketers are talking about canceled media orders, options being exercised by large marketers, dwindling audience shares for programming and multiplatform deals that have not materialized.
"It sucks," says one top media executive, who was so dispirited he requested anonymity. "This is an advertising recession."
Ed Erhardt of ESPN/ABC Sports leads a group of suits on a tour of the French Quarter. There's Les Margulies, formerly the international media director of BBDO, now with One Media Place, and his colleague Bruce Thomas, and Steve Grubbs of OMD. They pass blazing neon signs that read "World Famous Love Acts" and "The Golden Calf." Music barks out of huge speaker systems, lights flash on and off, but no one is inside any of these places.
"It's a ghost town," says Thomas. "The streets overflow with the leftover excesses of Mardi Gras and last year's dot-com overpromises," Margulies mutters, suddenly inspired.
At Pat O'Brien's bar, they run into Page Thompson of DDB, who is quaffing one of the bar's famous Hurricanes in a tall cup, drowning his sorrows as it were. "Things don't look good," says Thompson. "Not very good at all." The others nod, and shrug. What can you do? Someone notes that it is Ash Wednesday, a day of sacrifice, of giving things up. No one likes to hear that. The humid air seems to hang even heavier.
"It's time to sit back and digest," says Kevin Coyne of Bates, who is one of the worried, but not overly so. "If you are gobbling things up, you have to stop for a moment and say, `I've had my fill.' That's what we are doing now, digesting. Then if we're ready, we'll go back out there."
"Oh, get a grip guys!" says Annette Cerbone, formerly of OMD but now with Discovery Channel. "Is it sluggish out there? Yes. Will it affect the upfront? Of course. Are we crossing our fingers? Absolutely. But we've been here before. We'll get out of it."
Fred Sattler, the media director of Doner, arches an eyebrow and whispers conspiratorially. "All of this talk about recession," he says. "It's part of a hidden agenda to raise taxes."
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