Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Coming Transformation of the Media Ecosystem

There is a tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell famously defined it, for the old media world, driven as it has been by advertising dollars. This day of reckoning was coming, no matter what, but now it will be here sooner due to the current economic crises. 2009 could be the first year in a long time with an actual decline in total dollars spent in the US on advertising. And if it is, massive changes will finally take place in the relationship between media, advertising companies, and the public relations business.

Already a memo is circulating claiming that a number of well known print publications are close to failure. Here is a partial list, you'll recognize more than a few: Entertainment Weekly, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, SmartMoney, Men's Vogue, Teen Vogue, Nickelodeon, National Geographic for Kids, Sports Illustrated for Kids.

But the economic pain that publishers are going to experience in the next few quarters is going to bring down quite a few larger publications as well. An analysis of advertising spend as a percentage of GDP over the past 100 years shows that it has fluctuated between 1% and 3% but has been remarkably stable over the past 25 years at around 2% of GDP. This has been over a period when annual GDP has grown from 3.5 trillion to 13.8 trillion dollars (though not as large a growth when inflation is taken into account).

It is clear from the historical record that recessionary periods can put pressure on advertising expenditure both through a decline in the GDP and through a decline in the percentage of GDP spent on advertising. The last time annual Real GDP (which is to say, inflation adjusted GDP) actually declined was the beginning of the 1990s.

As you can see in this graph of historical real GDP by quarter and by year as hard as the early 2000 period was for us in tech, annualized Real GDP didn't drop. In both periods, however, advertising spending declined as a percentage of GDP -- in the early 1990s by .1% and in the early 2000s by .2%. So based on this historical record, media companies should expect a decline in the amount spent on advertising due to the current economic crises, and that decline may be especially severe as Real GDP is likely to fall in 2009.

But something else has clearly been going on in the last few years, even as the economy has been growing, which adds a third threat. From 2004 overall advertising spend as a percentage of GDP has declined by .1% in each year, dropping from 2.4% to 2.0% in 2007. From 2006 to 2007 this meant an inflation adjusted dollar decline in advertising. Arguably this decline is coming as the result of the changing spending habits of corporations within the overall marketing budget. As authors John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld argue in the HBSarticle Unanticipated Consequences
"...the shift from broadcasting to interaction within digital communities is moving the locus of control over meanings from marketer to consumer and rewarding more participatory, more sincere, and less directive marketing styles."
Marketers who are taking this seriously are shifting dollars away from advertising and into more engaging, more direct connection with markets.

If you take all three factors into consideration, a drop of $50 billion on advertising spend in 2009 is conceivable. The actual drop is likely to be less severe, but could be as much as 10% of total spend (which would be about $30 billion). If so, 2009 will be a watershed year for media.

Look at this from the perspective of the complete ecosystem. Tens of billions of dollars reduced from advertising spend means many fewer jobs at advertising companies and perhaps more than a few that fail. The loss of dollars into media companies will reduce the number of journalists, the number of pages, and probably the number of publications. This will then have an impact on traditional PR as there will be fewer journalists and fewer publications to pitch.

All of this is great news for bringing about a new world of direct company-market communications. It will accelerate the realization by companies that they can talk directly to their customers and prospects -- "more participatory, more sincere, and less directive marketing styles."

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