2011: How “real” is this rebound?

It’s the first quarter of another business year, and optimism fills the air. 2010 was great; some TV groups even paid bonuses again. CES opens this week, and new gadgets bring fun-filled “forward-thinking statements,” a euphemism for the always-positive, wild ass guesses of entrepreneurs. The press is trying to be positive, including an interesting, albeit misleading New York Times story about advertising entitled “After Two Slow Years, an Industry Rebound Begins. The recession’s over. Let the good times roll.

During the financial crisis and its aftermath, most advertisers reduced spending in virtually all forms of media, even those that had been enjoying strong growth in ad revenue. Now, a recovery seems to be taking hold on Madison Avenue and conditions are widely perceived as improving.

“This is more like it,” said David F. Poltrack, chief research officer at the CBS Corporation and president of the CBS Vision unit. “After two years that have not been pleasant for any of us, things are looking up.”

Mr. Poltrack’s boss, Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS, said he had already looked at some results for the first quarter of the new year and, for the company’s local businesses, the increases were “equal to what they are in the third and fourth quarter” of 2010, “which is pretty remarkable.”

Nancy Hill, president and chief executive of the Four A’s, the trade association for ad agencies, told the Times “I believe that economic improvement will be consistent and robust in 2011; the signs are all there.” With 10% unemployment, home prices falling along with consumer confidence, and gas prices going up, I’m not sure where Ms. Hill is getting her stats.

The article rightly notes that this year is likely to bring rapid growth for spending on ads in new media, resumed growth for spending on television advertising and struggles for print media, particularly newspapers.

But what’s really odd here is the way marketers speak of new media opportunities, while the reference of the article is clearly traditional media. New media doesn’t need a “rebound;” it’s been growing steadily as new applications are created every other week. So what’s this “rebound” all about? Old media needs the rebound, but a few notes about TV doesn’t make that connection in the article.

Steve King, chief executive at the ZenithOptimedia media division of the Publicis Groupe, told the Times that the amount of money spent on ads in 2008 will not be met and exceeded until 2012. That doesn’t bode well for 2011, nor does it shout “recovery” or “rebound.”

We have got to be careful where we’re getting our information these days, because truth is the only thing that will really help us in the long run. It’s dangerous and a waste of time to think that we’re ever going back to the way things used to be — not even close.

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