ABM members see signs b-to-b recession is easing

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Despite the lingering slump in b-to-b advertising, the mood at last month’s American Business Media annual spring meeting was surprisingly upbeat. Most top media executives buttonholed at the meeting in Savannah, Ga., said the recession appears to be easing, but they remained uncomfortable saying this out loud—as if they didn’t want to jinx the recovery.

"It’s not all doom and gloom," said Robert L. Krakoff, chairman-CEO of Advanstar Inc.

In general, business media companies have cut costs so that any uptick will boost the bottom line significantly. But so many economic punches could still be thrown—the effects of the occupation of Iraq, terrorism and SARS among them—that executives are reluctant to predict the future.

"In technology, the picture is cloudy looking out beyond three months," said Ziff-Davis Media Inc. CEO Robert Callahan. "There’s no long-term visibility."

"The toughest thing is visibility," agreed Tom Kemp, chairman-CEO of Penton Media Inc. "Our customers are not looking much farther than month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter."

Some markets, such as residential construction, have thrived during the general b-to-b recession, and media outlets focused on those markets have benefited. Hanley-Wood L.L.C., for instance, publisher of Builder, felt comfortable enough to launch four publications in late 2002 and to acquire Public Works last month, said Peter Goldstone, president of the company’s magazine division.

But even hard-hit sectors such as agriculture are seeing an uptick. Chuck Roth, president of Farm Progress Cos., said the second quarter appears to be delivering the first year-over-year growth in 24 months. "People are beginning to feel some degree of stability," he said.

Most executives, however, said they don’t foresee any broad increase in advertising spending until real growth in the economy and in earnings begins to occur. "Historically," Krakoff said, "there’s a connection between GNP and marketing expenditures."

New members of the ABM executive committee were elected at the meeting. They are: James Watt, chairman-CEO of Watt Publishing Co. (chair); William A. Morrow, exec VP-operations, Crain Communications Inc. (vice chair); Hugh Roome, president, Scholastic International (secretary); Michael Marchesano, president-CEO, VNU Business Media (treasurer); Robert L. Krakoff, chairman-CEO, Advanstar Inc. (past chair); and Gordon T. Hughes II, president-CEO, ABM.

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