As boom fades, time to advertise

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Madison avenue's forecasters predict slower growth in ad spending in 2001, but, when all is said and done, see yet another record year. That's wishful thinking. So many signs suggest the business cycle has turned south that it's starting to feel like recession. But there are things marketing people can do. One of the most important points is to remember that advertising and marketing matter more in bad times than good.

Advertising professionals are by nature public optimists, expert at selling goods and concepts even when they don't buy the premise. So we're not surprised at the public optimism of most industry executives despite the ominous signs of a slowdown. Nor are we surprised many people in the industry privately admit how nervous they really are.

One of the challenges of 2001 is simply the burden of making comparisons against an exceptional previous year. The single-digit growth in advertising spending forecast by Universal McCann's Robert Coen and Zenith Media's John Perriss will be startling if it comes true in a year that won't have the booty of the Olympics, election ads and idiotic but temporarily rich dot-com advertisers.

There are many signs suggesting things will get a lot worse before they get a lot better. But the issue isn't recession vs. slow growth. The question is how to market and advertise in what by any measure will be a tough year.

Marketing executives will be under intense pressure this year to cut spending to help the bottom line, and to dump brand building in favor of down-and-dirty promotion to move the goods. These are bad ideas.

Smart marketers invest in brand building regardless of economic clime. Marketers spent years during the boom telling consumers that brands are important. But brand values also hold true in tougher times. Brand helps keep your product from being another commodity bought only on price.

Now it can be told: The time to save money on advertising is when times are good, not when times are bad. When buyers need to be coaxed, advertising matters most.

Let others debate the nuances of worrisome recession vs. tiresome soft landing. The call to action for those in the ad business is to sell the benefits of investing in advertising and marketing in a difficult year.

This is the year where we'll see who believes in marketing. Let's hope you believe. Let's hope your competition doesn't.

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