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False Positives

  • June 24, 2002, 12:00 AM EDT
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Thank heaven for Sumner Redstone. I was getting worried there for a while, what with all my friends looking for work, ad agencies laying off people like Shaq shreds Nets and every consumer under 30 joyfully oblivious to paid advertising of any kind.

Just in the nick of time, however, there was Viacom's big chief in Cannes last week, reassuring us that personal video recorders are a temporary blip on the road, nothing to worry about. He also declared the ad recession over, so please refill the wine glass and pass the Brie, cherie.

And three cheers for the broadcast networks, which fattened up like cats in a canary cage during the upfront and then rubbed buyers' faces in it. CBS, that bastion of humility, actually sent out a press release crowing about all the cash it stashed.

And special love to the analysts, whose forecasts are going up again.

We can all sleep better knowing that advertising, the quintessential American way, is back in business.

Except, of course, it isn't.

It's tempting to believe a guy like Redstone didn't get where he is by misreading the pulse of American commerce, and that network television's ability to pick advertisers' pockets again is a harbinger of happy days. But the truth is, media moguls, Wall Street superstars and network sellers (and buyers, for that matter) usually aren't living paycheck to paycheck. Theirs is not the real world but an Oz-like alternate dimension far gentler, even in its worst moments, than what most people experience as a matter of course.

My cousin, for example, who did integrated marketing for a big agency is still out of work after months of looking. A friend who is a veteran media planner and buyer is getting by on freelance, and a copywriter buddy is completing her first full year as an unemployed person.

I haven't polled them, but I'll bet their take on the state of the business is a wee bit more pessimistic than that of your average media baron.

I know the ad business urgently needs good news, and it's comforting to think that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't an oncoming train.

Except, of course, it is.

For one thing, it will take a year, minimum, until jobs return. I may be writing "The upfront is up" stories again, but I'm also posting "Layoffs continue" Web items without pause.

Second, it isn't really about spending or jobs. Those things are cyclical. Advertising still doesn't have a reliable road map for the future. It hasn't cracked the code of how to reinvent itself. And it is still clueless about how to use, measure or even describe new technologies and media.

Finally, we still have huge numbers of people flat-out ignoring advertising. Most of them are young, which is not a real positive sign for an industry that lives and dies by how well it persuades that group to consume.

So I hope ad folks listened to Sumner and then took a nice stroll down La Croisette. And that net work sellers celebrated their haul with great cheer in the bars of Gotham. And that analysts are having fun booking media interviews to discuss their revised forecasts.

Because when good times return, the industry will still be staring in the face of a very uncertain future.