July 2, 2001
Welcome to the recession. Have a nice day.
If I seem a tad flippant, it's only because I am a child of recession. Just as my parents' youth was conditioned by the Great Depression and World War II, so my cohort was raised with tightening belts and global economic crises. In 1973, I received my driver's license on a pre-dawn gas line. I started college amid Gerald Ford's "Whip Inflation Now." My B.A. was granted while Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigans against an oil embargo's chill. And I joined one of the world's great newspapers as the medium's woes goaded it into heartache.
I recall this not to prove my toughness -- a recession childhood cannot compare with the trauma of the 1930s -- but to help a new generation that's known nothing but Boom, Boom, Boom understand that change is wrenching, inevitable and a damn good thing. Recessions wring the excesses from organizations; winnow significant innovations from fanciful experiments; and focus people on real value and on core values, helping them abandon the neat-to-do in favor of the must-do-now.
In the media and marketing front, the last recession, roughly 1988 through 1991 in these conjoined sectors, helps foreshadow what to expect this time around:
Bye-bye, boutiques. Hard to believe, but in the 1980s the eyes of the agency business were glued to the startups. Baby shops lured big-name clients, on the premise that creativity created consumer attention. The recession cured the ad industry of that fantasy; today, only two of the high-profile boutiques from that era (Kirshenbaum & Bond and Wieden & Kennedy) remain independent. The current downturn started knocking out this era's boutiques, the dot-com agencies, more than a year ago. Yes, consolidation is inevitable. (Note to the next round's entrepreneurs: Sell out earlier.)
You don't have to work for the man. Another mystery for the ages: freelancing, especially in advertising, used to be a family shame. The last recession freed uncountable talent into the marketplace, unleashing a free-agent nation. This one similarly will untether employee from organization. Good people will become increasingly harder to hold -- more so because few will again trust the empty promise of options. Following your muse will become a more popular pastime than following your portfolio -- something you bosses out there may rue.
Niches come to nada. Yes, fragmentation is a fact of life. Consumers identify themselves in narrower and narrower ways. And indeed, the media that serve these slender slices of selfness are also growing thinner and thinner. But what did the last recession teach us? That it's hard to make money when you're skinny as a rail! It has nothing to do with quality; the New York city mag 7 Days was as good as it got, until the last slump killed it. Its staff must have felt the way the editors and writers of Business 2.0 feel, knowing they're to be survived by Time Inc.'s distinctly inferior eCompany Now. Worry not, 2.0-ers; 7 Days alumni now have some of the best jobs in journalism -- at larger companies.
Don't follow the money (unless you can bank it). Media and ad folk are peculiarly susceptible to stock market bubbles. In the "go-go" '60s, George Lois took his tiny ad agency public, pied-pipering dozens of others off a cliff of irrational expectations. The Saatchis put a global gloss on that stock-market scam and suckered thousands of investors before they went down in the last recession. The Internet-media sector was the Brooklyn Bridge of the '90s, the impossible promise, sold to the unwary. The lesson? Those who tout "the wisdom of the market" obviously don't know the market's SAT scores. Next time put an early "sell" on that puppy. (cf. "Bye Bye Boutiques," above.)
Things change. There's no such thing as a return to stability. After the last recession, newspapers transformed from a mass medium to an elite medium. Spawning hot shops consolidated into a global few. Big-ticket consumables died, while cheap thrills -- such as VCRs and premium cable -- came to reign. Expect more of the same this time around. TV as we've known it will gasp its last breath. (TV ad prices, which skyrocketed for a decade after the last recession, are going down.) Ad agency teams will have to add one more component to the copywriter-art director-account exec trio: the database expert. A few major-league magazines will bite the dust. And a wonderful time will be had by all.
Bye bye, bull. We hardly knew ye.
Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.
Copyright July 2001, Crain Communications Inc.