Natural selection: New year likely to winnow media crops

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The greatest thing about predictions is no one remembers to look back a year later to calculate their rate of accuracy. Even if they do, it's easy to shrug off such criticisms by pointing to the inability of just about anyone to accurately forecast anything, from weekend weather to stock-market fluctuations.

With expectations about my soothsaying abilities thoroughly damped, let me offer my predictions (some annoyingly vague, some painfully specific) for the advertising, marketing and media businesses in this first year of the new millennium.

* The economic softness will make for a tough year, and even the optimistic forecasts now being offered will be revised downward. That said, smart marketers will see the downturn as an opportunity to change how they do business, to weed out weaker rivals and to encourage innovation.

* Unfortunately, some marketers will continue to view advertising as an expense rather than an investment, and they will forsake long-term branding efforts as the economy weakens in favor of redirecting marketing budgets to short-term promotions and the bottom line. These same companies will later be surprised to emerge from the downturn in a weakened position.

* More advertisers and TV networks will turn to product placements, but their attempts to disguise them as natural, entertaining extensions of programming will not fool viewers, and a backlash will begin before the year is out.

* Newsstands will experience the start of a much-needed thinning out of titles as weaker magazines that have subsisted on trickle-down advertising while ignoring the circulation side of the equation go out of business. Particularly vulnerable: the second tier of the "new economy" magazines. Along with money-losing start-ups, the downturn will knock out a few venerable nameplates, with the entertainment and women's categories looking particularly vulnerable.

* True North Communications will be bought, sold or merged in the first quarter.

* Internet advertising will finally move beyond the banner into richer multimedia forms. As a result, while ad spending by desperate dot-coms levels off, spending by traditional marketers in online media will rise sharply.

* The pace of dot-com deaths will continue as many of the well-known Net players currently hanging on for dear life finally give up the ghost. Ones to watch include, and eToys.

* "Survivor: The Australian Outback" will start strong but interest in the show will wane before the finale. As a result, the reality trend itself will begin to peter out. And not a moment too soon.

* Despite all the talk about the lack of duplication between their client lists, AOL Time Warner will not realize much synergy in ad sales. Marketers will continue to evaluate and buy the media properties of the combined company on an individual basis. Related prediction: Falling short of their expected growth rates, the former Time Warner operating units will be forced to cut costs to meet their new parent's aggressive profit targets.

* Y&R will continue to struggle for at least the first half of the year before beginning a slow, steady recovery. Ditto Lowe Lintas & Partners.

* I-shops will be consolidated. I'll second a prediction by my colleague Bradley Johnson that Omnicom Group is likely to orchestrate a merger of some of the interactive agencies in which it is an investor.

* O, The Oprah Magazine will grow at a startling rate, clearly establishing it as one of the most successful launches of all time.

* While self-regulation will be encouraged by the Bush administration, there will be stepped-up pressure from Washington on the issue of violent content in advertising and entertainment, leading to more concrete industry proposals to shield kids.

* Starcom will continue to win nearly every media review in which it competes.

* Burger King's account will go into review (yes, again).

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