Courage and compromise are needed to restore confidence

By Published on .

Sheesh! it's 2002. This time last year we all came back to our desks after the holidays only to find the phone had stopped ringing. Advertising Age's Jan. 1, 2001, special issue, themed "The Party's Over," caused some to doubt-including this journalist-the wisdom of what looked then like doom-mongering.

Ad Age Editor Scott Donaton and his team proved not to be Cassandras but prescient. In January 2001, the economy fell off the edge of a cliff in a manner that took virtually everyone by surprise, particularly industry analysts, who, mystifyingly, continued to forecast growth well into the summer months.

If advertising really is the accurate lead economic indicator that it proved to be both this year and during previous recessions, then clearly all eyes would do well to focus on the industry as a barometer for recovery. The hope is that, just as the vague, intangible sense of eroding confidence turned into a tangible problem last year, the process may be reversed in 2002.

In order for that to happen in the marketing and advertising communities, there must be from all parties a twin commitment: to courage and compromise.

It still seems a touch inappropriate to be talking of courage in relation to the advertising industry given the extraordinary displays of physical and mental courage we have all witnessed (particularly here in New York) since Sept. 11. But this is the business we have all chosen. We must work within its context.

To client companies and marketing executives, we wish the courage to believe in the value of advertising and the strength to argue its cause within the corporate boardroom in the face of skepticism from the chief financial officer and others. And then we wish them the courage to trust their agency partners and to commission work that dares strive to do more than offend the least numbers possible.

To ad agency big cheeses, we wish the courage to get together to come up with a unified stance on the issue of conflict-without which their future growth potential within publicly-held holding companies will be ever more restricted.

To agency personnel everywhere, we wish the courage to stand up for the ideas that you believe in despite the twin threats of personal job insecurity and the erosion of creativity that is the inevitable consequence of fear-induced decision-making by committee.

To members of the production community, we wish the courage to fight for those same creative ideas, but also a willingness to bite the bullet and run their own companies on a more business-like footing.

Without this attitudinal step-change, the future looks grim for a significant proportion of this community. The only sure thing is that the squeeze on budgets and margins will continue beyond the recession into any recovery.

And the compromises?

Media owners, those particularly in TV, might acknowledge that their airtime is over-priced-particularly in the light of audience fragmentation.

Agencies might recognize that the best solution for their clients' needs is not always the expensive 30-second TV commercial, and that the need to prove the effectiveness of advertising has never been greater.

Commercials directors might need to accept a slightly diminished share of the spoils if the companies that represent them are to exist as meaningful businesses.

And we all might need to acknowledge that individual job insecurity at all levels creates a whole series of tensions in client-supplier relationships that has largely been dormant for the past decade.

Many commentators and forecasters more knowledgeable than me predict the economy's recovery will begin in the second half of 2002. If that is true, advertising should pick up by the second quarter at least. What I wish for all of us more than anything else is the wisdom, courage and ability to help ourselves on the road to that recovery. Happy New Year.

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

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