After Blackout, Agencies Scramble

When the lights went out shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday, the blackout left some media outlets and agencies scrambling to continue to do business.

Most if not all agencies in New York City were affected, along with others in Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto. With power out from Thursday afternoon until, in many cases, Friday night, it wasn't a productive business day for most. It affected agencies large and small, although the larger agencies with offices throughout the United States were able to shift some of the load elsewhere to get through the weekend. Some weekend buys were affected, however.

At one large media shop, the decision to close the New York office Friday occurred late Thursday when it was clear the electricity wasn't coming back anytime soon. Other offices in Cleveland and Toronto, which had similar power problems, were also closed. But the company's emergency plan went into effect and the pace heightened at the other offices, said an agency executive requested anonymity.

"They're picking up the slack in other markets," the executive said late Friday. While an internal computer system was down, buyers were talking with stations and networks and the emergency plan was going well even without the New York server. It only affected some retail business.

"We're just working with it," the executive said. "We're fortunate that we have a large network of offices."

Other agencies were dealing with problems as well as they could. Some agencies, like Empower Media Marketing in Cincinnati, weren't affected by the electrical interruptions that impacted much of the rest of the state. Other agencies outside of New York were, however. Business continued at Campbell-Ewald at Detroit, although an employee who answered the telephone there Friday morning said she couldn't connect a reporter to an executive because of phone switching problems.

"And they're a little busy there, too," she said.

During the blackout, the much maligned and sometimes forgotten medium of radio enjoyed a resurgence. For New Yorkers and others cut off from the outside world by way of cable TV and the Internet, anyone with a radio was often asked what had happened to cut power and, more importantly, when was it coming back. Several stores that had battery power broadcast radio to update customers and passers-by. On Sixth Avenue, a street vendor with a boom box blasted all-news radio station WCBS's regular updates for what, even an hour or so after the lights went out, was already being called "The Blackout of 2003."

While it wasn't unusual for people to turn to radio for instant updates, the fact that it was for millions of people their only contact with the outside world helped return radio to the primary presence it had in an America without the Internet, cable or even broadcast TV. One banker, who with thousands of others fled lower Manhattan aboard a Hoboken-bound ferry about four hours after the electricity went out, said it was odd not being able to be in touch with the world.

"I've gotten so used to turning to the Internet to find out what's happening. I couldn't this time and it's so weird," he said.

Jeff Yorke, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said a massive blackout like Thursday's as well as blizzards and other disasters help spotlight radio's role as a mass media.

"It does harken back to a byegone era in a rather stunning way," Yorke said Friday from the NAB's offices in Washington, D.C. Yorke said that with all the talk about consolidation in the industry, radio stations did what they always do, serve the listeners in their local communities.

"It really brings to the forefront hometown radio," Yorke said. "When everyone else isn't there, radio is."

Because of the way radio is measured -- largely without the ability to track overnight ratings, like Nielsen's television service -- it will take a while to see how many people in the blackout areas tuned into radio. Arbitron's next quarterly book will be released sometime in September. Arbitron spokesman Thom Mocarsky said it was likely the blackout days would be broken out in the report. But Friday morning, he wasn't sure how much it would affect overall ratings.

"It's hard to say. It's one or two days at best. That's hard to show up on a quarterly survey," Mocarsky said. Arbitron's New York offices were closed Friday due to the blackout although Mocarsky said the company's Maryland offices weren't affected.

It appeared that some of the trades were also affected. Advertising Age's Web site said that its magazine publishing schedule would be pushed back a day to Tuesday. Adweek's Web site was down for a time Thursday and early Friday. MediaPost's offices in the Chelsea section of Manhattan were without power until late Friday and stories weren't posted until the weekend.

CBS MarketWatch spokesman Dan Silmore said the blackout really didn't affect the company or its Web site. When the power went out Thursday, the market had already been closed for a few minutes. With the peak of MarketWatch's business occurring during trading hours in the Northeast and the market's reopening (albeit on a lighter basis Friday), the company didn't have much trouble. Its systems and backup are located in two systems in the Midwest and serving existing ads wasn't affected.

"Anything that was up was served and no problem," Silmore said. The New York office and its ability to upload new creative was affected Thursday and into Friday, as employees weren't able to return to the New York office.

But still, as one ad agency executive reflected late Friday, being out of power for two days wasn't the end of the world. Agencies adapted.

"It's never great to have this happen, but it certainly could have been a lot worse," the executive said.

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