The Year in Reviews

From an account movement perspective, 2009 came in like a lamb and went out like a lion. The volume of sizeable accounts shifting or launching reviews greatly accelerated in the last four months of the year, after a relatively quiet first eight months, according to Adweek research. Still, the year ended with significantly fewer accounts moving compared to 2008.

The 154 creative and media assignments that shifted or launched reviews last year represented a 7 percent drop from ’08’s total of 165, Adweek research found. (Adweek considered accounts that spent at least $20 million annually in major measured media.) The aggregate media dollar amount, however, grew 39 percent, to about $20.6 billion, from $14.8 billion in ’08.

Not surprisingly, industry search consultants attributed the volume decline to the recession. Richard Roth of Roth Associates described the syndrome as “recessionitis,” or clients stopping to gauge the impact of the recession on their businesses. Added Russel Wohlwerth of Ark Advisors: “People were fixated on the recession.”

The increase in total dollars moving stemmed from a handful of global media reviews for the likes of Unilever (with an annual worldwide media spend estimated at $2 billion), Reckitt Benckiser ($1.3 billion), Hewlett-Packard ($1 billion), Nokia ($500 million) and Danone ($500 million). Such big-ticket contests inflated the dollar total considerably, making ’09 appear more robust than it was. Interestingly, the aggregate dollar amount matched 2005’s non-recessionary total of $20.6 billion, when some 158 accounts moved.

As usual, the client desire to cut costs drove many media contests last year. “It’s the biggest bucket [within marketing budgets] and the perception is, ‘I can achieve savings,'” Wohlwerth said.

WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell also cited “vicious price competition” in media reviews during a presentation four weeks ago at the annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in New York. “It’s a zero-sum game clearly and it’s dangerous,” Sorrell said.

Coupled with the drive to wring out savings is a need to be more efficient. With that in mind, clients that employ different media agencies in different parts of the world in some cases sought to consolidate their businesses with fewer shops.

Last year’s account movement started to pick up in September after a quiet first quarter (when 26 accounts shifted or began reviews, compared to 29 in Q1 ’08), a more active second quarter (when 34 accounts moved vs. 28 in Q2 ’08) and an unusually slow summer. Adweek research tallied 19 account moves between June 1 and Aug. 31, down 34 percent from 29 such moves in the like period the year before.

In September alone, however, 13 accounts either began reviews or shifted — up from seven the year before, Adweek found. Among the September ’09 movers were Verizon’s Droid, Mars’ Snickers, Yum! Brands’ Pizza Hut and Kraft Foods brands Crystal Light and Tassimo.

Since the beginning of that month, the activity has been up significantly, with 45 accounts shifting or going into review through Dec. 31 — up 41 percent from 32 in the same period of ’08. Late-year activity included media and creative reviews for Chrysler, a Cadillac creative review, a review of creative and media planning duties on Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol and Motrin brands, and the shift of creative duties on Kraft brands Lunchables and Maxwell House.

“The business as a whole was slow and then just magically in September things started popping,” Wohlwerth said.

It was around that time that the stock market showed signs of improvement and some economic forecasts improved, thereby allowing clients to exhale a bit, according to Wohlwerth. Roth further described the client movement as “better get going because when 2010 arrives, [clients] want to be ready. Basically, it was the echoing of things they knew they wanted to do.”