Who really has the most to lose from an advertising recession?

In the wake of a slowdown in organic revenue growth in all the major holding company H1 results, it comes as no great surprise that some foresee another advertising recession on the horizon. However, in the wake of ever-greater competition within the media space, the key question is who gains and who loses out if this should come to pass?

M&A deal volume did fall during the last advertising recession in 2009, but the landscape has changed significantly in the intervening years. At that time, M&A in the sector was dominated by the large agency holding companies, WPP, IPG, Publicis and Omnicom. Today there are literally hundreds of companies competing, and acquiring, in the space. The most visible now are perhaps the consultancies and IT services groups, but there are also a large number of newer, often private equity funded, agency groups.

It does seem fair to say that WPP is battening down the hatches given it’s made some reductions to headcount in the first half of the year. Although WPP is certainly the biggest marketing business out there, that doesn’t mean it should necessarily be taken as a barometer for the whole industry.

Rather than preparing for a downturn, WPP’s competitors from across a broad spread of the marketing services ecosystem seem to be actively ramping up their investment in the sector. Deloitte Digital recently acquired Acne and Market Gravity, and has appointed its first ever chief creative officer. Accenture has also increased the pace of its acquisitions in the sector over the course of this year, acquiring businesses across multiple territories including Maud and Monkey in Australia, Intrepid, Clearhead and Wire Stone in the US, and SinnerSchrader in Germany.

Many of the entrepreneur-owned businesses we work with are also seeing very strong growth. One key difference is probably that they aren’t as exposed to the ad spend of the largest international advertisers in the same way as a WPP or Publicis, and they operate in different parts of the marketing landscape.

Some of the new players could actually view an ad recession as representing a buying opportunity. Accenture, for example, doesn’t have a large creative or media division so it wouldn’t be as vulnerable as the agency holding companies. It is also believed to have intentions of investing in the region of $1bn in building its Interactive business.

The industry does of course comprise many different kinds of services and not all would be impacted equally by an advertising downturn. Even now we are seeing a renewed interest in creative to drive engagement. Advertisers are becoming frustrated at the lack of impact that traditional advertising, both on and offline, is having on their growth and they seem increasingly to be putting this down to poor creative. This situation is exacerbated by a digital market in which it is becoming ever easier for consumers to turn off most ad formats altogether.

Other players that are showing strong growth are those that advise on digital transformation. This again comes down to giving brands new or broader options outside of more traditional advertising. In this case it helps advertisers to engage better with their customers at each touch point across the organisation.

Consider a high street bank for example. If it wants to change how it’s perceived within the market, completing a rebranding exercise supported by an ad campaign simply isn’t sufficient anymore. It needs to digitally enable the entire customer journey, whether that’s online or offline. Assisting large enterprises with this kind of ’digital transformation‘ is becoming an ever larger part of the world of marketing services, and is unlikely to be directly impacted by an advertising recession. On the contrary, it could potentially contribute to it as marketing budgets get diverted from advertising to digital transformation projects.

The received wisdom is the greatest threat faced by the media industry is the Google/ Facebook duopoly. There’s little doubt an advertising recession could strengthen the ‘big two’ online players to the detriment of other media groups and the agency networks. However, it is worth remembering some of the concerns that the big advertisers have voiced over the last 12 months relate directly to these tech platforms: the effectiveness of certain formats on their platforms, such as video, the lack of reliable and transparent reporting, and disquiet over exactly where their ads are showing up.

Unless these problems are effectively addressed it is possible that other media could take the opportunity to steal back some of their lost market share, or at least slow their decline – but it is hard to bet against Google and Facebook.

Julie Langley is a partner at Results International

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