Chill winds cooling economy aren't generated by the media

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Let's set the record straight: The media didn't cause this slowdown in the U.S. economy, and it certainly can't provide the path out of it.

The mere notion that a pack of reckless journalists decided to sound an alarm, which the public then reacted to by clamping shut its wallets and sinking the economy, is laughable. In journalism, you sometimes delude yourself that your words have more power than they actually do. Other times, you are shocked to discover they have more influence than you ever dreamed possible. But the media share no blame in causing this current economic climate.

It's true there's a psychological component to what's happening in the marketplace. But consumer confidence doesn't sink because of some media fiction; it sinks when the consumer's neighbor loses her job and the consumer's own company issues a warning to the Street, and the consumer decides maybe now isn't the best time to buy that new car.

There are always those who would prefer to shoot the messenger, but the bad news on the doorstep is entirely factual.

Here's a sampling of headlines from the March 13 New York Times, a day like too many others in recent months: "Markets plunge in wide sell-off"; "The bear roars back for a run on Wall Street"; "Ericsson sees quarterly loss, company's first in nine years"; "Job cuts are planned at Arthur D. Little"; "Crown Cork & Seal warns of losses; shares tumble"; "Scripps says first-quarter earnings will disappoint"; "Ciena tumbles on earnings concern".

There also was some smattering of neutral business news that day, but the closest thing to good news was the headline over the ad column: "True North reassures analysts about its outlook in a slowing economy," it read.

The New York Times didn't cause any of these stories; it simply reported them. Such headlines may help sink consumer confidence, but again, it's the message that's to blame, not the carrier.

Nope, headlines didn't cause the economy to slow, and they can't cause it to speed up again. What the media (including Ad Age) can-and should-do more of is seek out and report on those companies finding ways to innovate and thrive in tough times, or at least those positioning themselves to prosper from the inevitable upswing. In our rather broad backyard, every marketer, media company and agency has to deal with the slowdown in its own way based on the degree to which it is impacted. But there are some common elements to all success stories, themes that are also common in their absence from case studies of business failures.

What seems most obvious is that a long-term outlook matters. Even smack in the middle of the economic boom of the late '90s, it was apparent that marketers' commitment to branding would be severely tested in an economic storm. It will become increasingly evident as this year wears on which marketers are standing by brand-building and which are turning to promotions to move product or shaving ad budgets to mask bottom-line damage.

Wall Street typically responds favorably to layoffs and other belt-tightening measures. And it's true many companies can afford to shed some of the layers of unnecessary fat added over the last five years. Smart companies will refuse to cut into muscle or to back away now from long-term initiatives that advance a long-term strategy, even if there's no short-term return.

Now is the time for companies to invest in marketing, to strengthen their brands, to experiment with new forms of media, to continue to figure out how the Internet-which already has changed people's lives and habits-will impact marketing communications. It's time to gain market share at the expense of rivals, to encourage creativity, to launch new products and line extensions based on actual consumer needs rather than a desire for more shelf space, to figure out whether their messages and mediums still fit the changing profile of America emerging in early census data.

So far, there's little evidence of creativity. The opportunity is evident, but the innovations not yet apparent. Calls to move Internet advertising beyond the banner have been answered with bigger banners. Threats to traditional TV advertising have been met with calls to disable the technologies or integrate commercial messages into programming.

Surely the brightest minds in a business centered on creativity can do better than that.

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