The credit crunch needn’t be a creative crunch

Not a lot of blog activity this year, I’m afraid, due to pressure of work. Exactly how long the work will keep flowing though is something that’s quite difficult to predict. We’re clearly entering a significant period of recession and one of the first industries to feel the pinch is always advertising. In fact, advertising spend is usually a very good barometer for the overall health of the economy.

At the UK Conservative Party’s annual conference earlier this month, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne made an interesting observation: “In the private sector when times are tough you take out the overheads. The consultants are sent packing and the advertising budget is cut. Government should do the same. We are going to put caps on Labour’s wasteful consultancy and advertising bills.”

At one level, of course, Osborne is right. Businesses do cut back on advertising in a recession. But it’s a mistake to view this practice uncritically and assume that their decisions are somehow based on logic or common sense. In a time of intense competition – when many businesses are fighting for their very survival – effective marketing communications can make the difference between life and death. Some would argue that it’s the time to expand the advertising budget rather than contract it.

Creative agencies and media buyers find that fewer clients are spending. And those who are tend to be spending less. Although this can be disconcerting – perhaps the money isn’t there for that high-profile TV or poster campaign – every creative cloud has a silver lining. We’re all forced to think more laterally about communication strategies. For people such as me who work on behalf of a number of smaller, niche design, advertising and direct marketing agencies, it’s no great shock, as I’m frequently told that budget is non-existent anyway. And that’s in the good times.

The good news for marketing communications professionals is that the landscape of the late noughties recession will be completely different the one we encountered in the early nineties. Seventeen or eighteen years ago, email hadn’t yet become a ubiquitous feature of business communication and the web was something only familiar to computer geeks and nuclear scientists in secure bunkers. These technologies mean that an advertising message can now potentially be sent instantaneously and at virtually no cost. So cutting back on advertising spend needn’t necessarily mean cutting back on advertising.

My prediction (hardly a revelation) is that for the next 18 months we’ll see a further downturn in traditional press and TV advertising, which spells bad news for mainstream media outlets, media buying agencies and publishers. But we may well see an upsurge of interest in the already booming media of email, online forums and social networks. TV and press advertising tends to be based on a tried-and-tested formula, whereas credibility and effectiveness in the newer media demand more inventive and ingenious solutions. Perhaps there will be work for the creatives who can supply them?

© Phil Woodford, 2008. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford lectures in advertising and marketing in the Faculty of Continuing Education at Birkbeck College, University of London.