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Seize the Day

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Ithe summer, you can count on a sunburn. In an economic downturn, you can count on hordes of hungry agency types, media executives and consultants pleading with clients not to cut their marketing and ad budgets. Since these folks depend on marketing to make a living, the message isn't particularly compelling.

They resemble the salesclerk who tells you how good you look in the pricey designer swimsuit—no matter how badly it fits. Not surprisingly, most clients go ahead and slash their marketing allotment and feel pretty smart about it.

But then there's Microsoft and several other contrarian companies that seem to wait for tough times so they can advertise like crazy.

While the tech-heavy Nasdaq is gasping for air, Microsoft intends to spend about $1 billion—more than double what it spent last year—marketing sexy new products such as Ultimate TV and Windows XP.

"The competitive marketplace is always shifting, even in a downturn," says a Microsoft company manager. Insiders point to AOL Time Warner breathing down its back. But nobody should be surprised when the software giant exits the current economic doldrums with more market share than it had going in.

Lest the bean counters think this is a blip, IBM, another player in the hard-hit tech area, is spending big. It's pumping up ad spending about 60 percent to $650 million to keep rivals at bay.

Meantime, in the nontech sectors, both H&R Block and Nestlé say they are upping their ad budgets.

With less ad clutter distracting consumers and cheaper prices for media space, these opportunists smell a bargain. Sure, agency execs can say the same thing, but it has a different ring when it comes from a client with a billion bucks on the line.

By their actions, Microsoft and others are telling us that now is the time for the heavyweights to kick some collective butt. These companies were savvy enough to put aside cash during boom times; now they can spend it when their opponents are most vulnerable. As one envious CEO says, "You know the big boys didn't get there by following the crowd."

Agencies should be heartened by such developments and less cowed by clients that see ads as a luxury item. The trick is to find marketers with money in the bank and an opportunistic bent.

Yet ironically, Citigroup, one of the global giants, is dickering about ad budgets and media buys. Read the tea leaves, guys. This financial climate may offer a valuable chance to make your move as a brand leader. Hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass may seem prudent, but aggressive partners and talented professionals will gravitate toward the well-funded opportunists. The safe players will be left behind.

So it's up to ad agencies to stop whining about their overly cautious clients. Instead, they should go out and find some movers and vision-aries and help them grow. Then hang on for the ride.

Remember: when this worrisome business cycle eventually ends, the clever strategists that strengthened their positions will be running the show.