The Rules Change for Advertisers

With most advertising back on the air in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the ad industry is scrambling to determine how business has changed, what consumers want and what ads are appropriate.

Getting back to normal is not yet possible, and some see major changes ahead, in everything from how budgets are allocated to the mundane aspects of agency/client interaction.

A primary question has been when to bring ads back. Verizon, for one, is staying off the air for now. Others delayed their return—Sears, 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 are combing through their ads to weed out anything in poor taste and scrutinizing media buys to avoid environments—such as all-news—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 creative recruiter in New York, said the outlook is not to tally 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 de clines, the pitch process itself may 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 in Chi cago. “We’re all going to have to get used to teleconferencing.”

Bob Hanley, a partner at Creative Media in New York, found that some clients extended deadlines or reschedule meetings following the attacks. “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 ads the day after the attack, is focusing on restoring service to its customers. “People have had more important concerns [than marketing],” said Verizon representative John Bonomo. “It takes a back seat.”

Some clients lost control over the placement of their messages. Procter & Gamble, 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 attacks. One ad, for Olay Total Effects daily cleansing treatments, asks, “Why just wash away the day, when you can wash away the years?”

“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.

Round-the-clock news has been scaled back, but advertisers still must tread lightly. Monday Night Football, for example, will devote its halftime program tonight to world news. “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,” said Rich Hamilton, CEO of Zenith Media in New York.

Agencies are busy counseling clients on what to do. Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, is advising not to run sympathy ads. Instead, the shop is compiling a “clutter reel” of ads that might be controversial and running them by focus groups. Other agencies and clients created ads expressing sympathy and support for the victims.

Meanwhile, media shops are looking closely at consumers’ attitudes about advertising and consumption. Results are due today from a viewership study done by Initiative Media, Los Angeles. “What we saw [in previous crises] was 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, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy postponed issuing an RFP, and the CDC will not name a winner for at least another two weeks. Officials from the Department of Defense’s Joint Recruiting Advertising Program postponed pitches until Oct. 10-11, sources said.

When it comes to the economic impact, some experts urged caution. “As people digest what has happened, there will be improvement in sentiment,” said Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the WPP Group. “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. “All we can do right now is study the past and learn lessons that we can from that.”