Advertisers’ Return Finds Business, Market Transformed

Now that most advertising has returned to the airwaves in the chaotic wake of the terrorist attacks, the ad industry is scrambling to determine how the business environment has changed, what consumers want and what messages are appropriate.

Getting back to business as usual may be the goal, but companies are learning it’s not yet possible–and some wonder if it ever will be. Some see sweeping changes ahead, in everything from how budgets are allocated down to the most mundane day-to-day aspects of agency/client interaction.

A primary question has been when to bring the ads back. Some advertisers, such as Verizon, are keeping them off the air for the time being. Others delayed their return–Sears, Roebuck and Co., for example, did not resume advertising until Sept. 17. And many are rethinking what their ad budgets will look like in the future.

At the same time, companies such as Procter & Gamble are combing through their ads to weed out anything in poor taste and scrutinizing media buys to avoid environments–such as all-news formats–where consumers may consider their messages inappropriate.

As ad spending shrivels, searches for new creative talent have continued to dwindle. And reviews for large federal contracts, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Media Campaign, have been postponed.

Susan Friedman, a New York-based creative recruiter, said searches have slowed as advertisers rethink their spending. But she cautioned that the outlook is not totally bleak. “Clients are still looking for extraordinary talent,” she said. “Searches have not ceased in the wake of our national disaster.”

Moreover, as airline travel declines, the pitch process itself will likely change. “It is going to be much more difficult to have these meetings with four sets of [agencies] coming in,” said Renetta McCann, CEO of Starcom North America in Chicago. “We’re all going to have to get used to teleconferencing, to that momentary lag when you speak, and the other party responds. It’s going to be harder to put face with face, from client to agency and to the media with which we do business.”

Bob Hanley, a partner at Creative Media in New York, found that some clients refused to extend deadlines or reschedule meetings in the days following the attacks, while others chose to do so. “Old Navy, for example, agreed to take a [conference call] presentation over the phone,” Hanley said. “Normally, we’d be [at client headquarters] in San Francisco with six people.”

Verizon, which pulled all its advertising the day after the attack, is focusing more on restoring service to its customers than juggling marketing plans. “People have had more important concerns over the last few days than what telephone service to buy,” said Verizon representative John Bonomo. “I think we have to be cognizant of advertising, but at the moment, it takes a back seat.”

Some advertisers were dismayed to discover that they lost control over the placement of their messages of late. P&G, for example, was not given a chance to remove any of its five ads in People when the magazine decided to devote its entire Sept. 24 issue to the terrorist attacks. One ad, for Olay Total Effects daily cleansing treatments, asks, “Why just wash away the day, when you can wash away the years?” An ad by another advertiser for Post Honey Nut Shredded Wheat included a visual of an airplane meal tray.

“We were among several advertisers who were not given the opportunity to pull the ads, and we were really disappointed in that,” said P&G representative Vicky Mayer. “We are working with our agencies to review not just the messages in our advertising, but the placement as well.”

While the broadcast networks have scaled back their round-the-clock coverage, advertisers still have to tread lightly, especially considering the special events that are being televised. Tonight’s edition of Monday Night Football, for example, will devote its halftime program to world news.

“There are advertisers who don’t want their advertising placed in news programming at this point,” said Rich Hamilton, CEO of Zenith Media in New York. “A lot of the coverage has been inspiring, but some of it has been tragic, and it just is something some clients are not wishing to be adjacent to.”

ABC said the MNF change is for one night only and is not likely to upset viewers. “We want this to be as topical as possible,” said Mark Mandel, a representative for ABC Sports. “It is hard for me to believe in this special circumstance that to do something that is not totally football would be a turnoff.”

Some unexpected difficulties presented themselves, too. FedEx and Sears were among the marketers that fielded complaints after Bill Maher, host of ABC’s Politically Incorrect, referred to some of the U.S.’s past military efforts as “cowardly.” Both advertisers subsequently pulled ads from the show.

With so much uncertainty, agencies are busy counseling clients on what to do. Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, is advising his clients, which include Hewlett-Packard, Budweiser and Goodyear, not to run sympathy ads. “I don’t think empathy messages are necessary,” he said. “If you have something to do, then do it.”

Instead, Goodby is compiling a “clutter reel” of ads that his staff considers possibly controversial and will run them by focus groups.

Many agencies and clients did create ads responding to the crisis. Sandwich chain Subway aired a TV spot from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, expressing sympathy and support. Empire BlueCross BlueShield and Morgan Stanley were among the other clients to make similar gestures.

Of course, consumers are also wrestling with the aftermath of Sept. 11, and media shops are working steadily to understand how their attitudes about advertising and consumption might be changing.

Results are due today from a viewership study organized by Initiative Media, Los Angeles, to compare consumer reaction to Sept. 11 with those of prior national crises, including Oklahoma City, the Persian Gulf War and the crash of TWA Flight 800. “What we saw [in previous crises] was that the American population is pretty resilient,” said Carolyn Bivens, Initiative’s president and COO. “After a few weeks … audience viewership in the various dayparts returned to where it was before, with the exception of early morning.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, some federal contracts have been delayed as the government focuses almost exclusively on the national crisis. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy postponed issuing an RFP for its $145-155 million anti-drug campaign until the end of this week. The CDC will not name a winner in its $125 million Youth Media Campaign for at least another two weeks. CDC, based in Atlanta, must do so before the end of the month or risk losing the money, which is linked to the government’s fiscal year. Contenders are DDB, Seattle, and Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.

Officials from the Department of Defense’s Joint Recruiting Advertising Program were in Atlanta on Sept. 11 to hear a presentation from J. Walter Thompson, a contender in the $15-20 million business. All other presentations have been postponed until Oct. 10-11, sources said. But Anita Lancaster, a DOD representative, said nothing is set. “We are just in a holding pattern,” she said.

When it comes to the economic impact, some urged caution. “We had been saying there has been a recession in the sense of a sharp deceleration in revenue growth before the events of Sept. 11,” said Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the WPP Group. “What has happened post-Sept. 11 is that politicians who have denied that there was a recession have acknowledged that there is one.”

Sorrell said the short-term shock is understandable. “As people digest what has happened, there will be improvement in sentiment. But there is so much uncertainty at the moment that I don’t think you can come to any finite conclusions.”

Others were less sanguine. “We will never go back to business as usual,” Initiative’s Bivens said. “There isn’t a road map for this one. All we can do right now is study the past and learn lessons that we can from that.”