Across the pond, it's business as usual and still just as ugly

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Sometimes normal life can be so damn weird that-with genuine respect to Mayor Giuliani-I am not at all sure I really want to be getting back to it.

So it was that, the week after the terrorist attacks, I found myself at sea in a force six gale in the general vicinity of the Island of Guernsey, somewhere between France and the English port of Southampton. It was the 11th annual Marketing Forum aboard the P&O cruise ship Oriana. (Sadly, the American Marketing Forum, due to depart Sept. 12, was canceled.)

For those of you not familiar with it, the sadistic idea behind this event is to take some 800 marketers (and potential suppliers to those marketers), lock them up on a ship for three days, assign them a dozen or more back-to-back "sales pitch" meetings with each other all day, plus blind-date breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and, if they have a spare moment, lay on a vast array of workshops and seminars to further tax their brains.

Marketers go free to be sold to; agencies pay plenty to sell.

Mix in three days of onboard meals, two evenings worth of George Michael and Bee Gees tribute acts as cabaret, losing one's shirt in the casino, and watching 40-something marketing directors flailing around the dance floor, and clearly the Marketing Forum is not for the fainthearted.

En route to Southampton, London was a little subdued. But, unlike New York, London has lived with Irish Republican Army terrorism for 30 years. The bomb scares elicit resignation rather than the mass panic we have seen in Manhattan. London's Soho was rocking on Saturday night, alive with conspicuous consumption. TV was normal, and so were the commercials (as ironic and funny as ever). If there was a surfeit of understatement and an absence of violence in the ads, it wasn't because of the tragedies in the U.S.; it was because that's how it always is.

U.K. media owners are in trouble, but that has more to do with the looming recession than the terrorist outrage.

ITV, the dominant terrestrial TV network, is suffering its bleakest year in memory. Ratings are down, but that's nothing compared to ad revenues. Marketers and their media buyers are taking revenge on what they have long regarded as an arrogant ITV for years of spiraling airtime inflation.

Newspaper circulations are, almost without exception, down. The market is in long-term decline, although the tragedy, of course, gave broadsheets and tabloids alike a blip of increased interest.

However, magazines still appear remarkably fat, particularly in the luxury goods and fashion sectors (perhaps the three-month lag for monthlies is a factor here). Even the ad agencies have not made the scale of layoffs we have witnessed on this side of "the pond." Yet.

Clearly, underlying the business-as-usual feel aboard the Oriana and in London, business was absolutely not normal. In private, media owner attendees at an International Advertising Association lunch in London (the Newsweek, Business Week, International Herald Tribune, Time, Forbes, CNN and Fortune set) admitted they were happy to be out of the office and away from the phones ringing with bookings cancellations.

Aboard ship, marketers and agencies alike admitted to sudden cancellations of even signed-off advertising campaigns. They were doing so, they said, out of a sense that things were going to get worse rather than acting on any hard evidence. The suspicion is that many are using Sept. 11 as an excuse to mask already faltering businesses.

The message was very clear: Even though London is far enough away for the general population to get on with their lives, it is not far enough away for the business community. The compound effects of the incipient recession, the U.S. tragedy (with 300 British dead), and a feeling that "London could be next" will all contribute to a grim run-up to Christmas-unless George W. Bush can restore confidence and kickstart the American economy, by which the rest of the business world is fed.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity.

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