Bargains Abound in Media Abandoned by Weak Sectors

With Spending Down, Advertisers Getting More for Their Money

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Need to get a client on local Denver media with just two days' notice? Normally it wouldn't be easy. But Mary Price and her team at Richards Group did it with nary a hitch, a testament to the (let's be nice) intense eagerness of media outlets to unload ad inventory in tough times.

"There was no issue getting the clients on air," said Ms. Price, principal-brand media at the independent Dallas agency. "I would say the spot market -- both TV and radio -- is definitely the softest we're seeing."

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Media buyers hesitate to drool, of course, but these days it's nearly impossible to keep the saliva from flowing. Thanks to the economy, nearly every type of media can be had for a relative bargain. And media outlets will turn somersaults to keep money flowing through the door.

"I don't even know where to begin," said Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch. "Everything is so soft. It's generally pretty much a buyer's market everywhere you turn."

It's no secret that in these times of economic strife, media vendors are under more pressure to fill ad inventory. Nielsen recently reported that U.S. ad spending fell 2.6% in 2008, with local and national newspapers, local and national magazines, local and national radio, web display advertising, local and national broadcast-network TV, outdoor, and even coupon inserts all seeing spending declines. In all, according to Nielsen, the nation's top 10 advertisers in 2008 spent 15.1% less on the media they typically use to run their commercials. Of the major categories, only cable grew.

Digital weak too
Technology only muddies the picture. "Digital and social networks are where the action is, but even these are not drawing premium prices," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of the College of Communication at Boston University.

To find the best deals, said Steve Calder, chief media officer at Interpublic's Mullen, "follow the footprints of the sectors that are most affected, and that's where you're going to find the bargains." He recommended tracking down vacancies left by sectors that have been most affected by the economy: autos, financial services, retail and travel. "These are the places with the biggest gaping holes in coming ad inventory, and those are the places, conversely, where you're going to find your best opportunities."

According to Nielsen, automotive marketers in 2008 were -- no surprise -- heavy investors in mass-reaching media: network and cable TV, national magazines and national newspapers. Financial-services firms bought media in similar fashion. Travel marketers' biggest spending was in national magazines.

TV continues to get the most scrutiny, just as it normally gets the most ad dollars. In recent weeks, the marketplace has frozen as buyers try to determine if they have the wherewithal to use canceled second-quarter options to purchase so-called scatter ad time in the weeks ahead. Mr. Calder suggested that, based on buying patterns of the three categories he cited as weak, one might seek bargains in available inventory in sports events and other big-ticket items on the national-TV docket.

Search still strong
When it comes to online, buyers say search marketing is holding up, but other areas are seeing price declines. "The search marketplace hasn't seen the declines that others have," said Linda Thomas Brooks, president, Ingenuity Media Group, the media arm of the Martin Agency. "Maybe that's reflective of the marketplace or clients going with the tried and true, people retreating to what's safe." Elsewhere on the web, Mullen's Mr. Calder sees portals having a tougher time in the marketplace. "There's a lot of inventory to sell, and the pricing is coming back down to earth," he said.

Print faces one of the toughest roads of all. The medium's travails are well-documented. Much classified advertising -- once the lifeblood of newspapers -- has moved online, and important categories such as auto are drying up because of economic pressures. At magazines, luxury advertisers have cut back as consumers have less to spend. Among print outlets, "their page levels have really declined," said Ms. Price, and as a result, some publications are open to renegotiating pacts. "We had negotiated a couple of clients pretty early last year in the fall and August and September, and the bottom dropped out in October," she said. "We reopened negotiations in January and came back" with "significant bonus paging."

Just because everything is cheap doesn't mean you need to buy all of it. After all, budgets are still tight. So buyers are looking to media that are reasonable in rates and still carry reach. "Cheap does not always mean effective, although it helps," said Michelle Abdow, a principal at Market Mentors, a West Springfield, Mass., agency. She is looking less strongly at newspapers, which she said continue to charge high rates for declining circulation, while rival media "are willing to play the 'let's make a deal' game."

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