Commentary

Half Full or Half Empty?

Year’s end is generally accompanied by feelings of ‘good riddance,’ leaving last year’s troubles behind and eagerly looking forward to a brand new twelve months of opportunity. And rarely has a year received a more passionate dismissal than 2001, laden as it was with terrorism and recession.

Trade articles featured quotes by industry leaders poetically drawing a line between the years. Lee Garfinkel in AdWeek: “2001: All things must pass. 2002: Here comes the sun.” And Andy Berlin, same publication: “2001: Yikes! 2002: Ah, that’s better.”

It’s in the blood of ad types, I suppose, to be optimistic. Since they’re in the business of selling anything, and doing it well, it is an occupational necessity to always see the glass as half full. And most of us would truly like to believe them; after all, optimists and pessimists look at the same world, but optimists have much more fun.

So most of us have toddled into 2002 believing that gray skies are gonna clear up, that the recession is a temporary interruption from the road to continuing prosperity, and that money will, as it did in the 90s, once again grow on trees.

I’m doing my best to remain optimistic, but what if that light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be the headlight of an oncoming train? There are at least a couple of good reasons to think so.

AOL Time Warner, the bellwether of the advertising industry, says “We're not counting on any advertising growth in 2002.” That’s the overall advertising market. What about online advertising? AOL believes that “the online ad market is expected to remain flat.” Yahoo!, the 899-pound gorilla, isn’t seeing the world much more rosily; recently they said they expect online ad sales to grow by less than 10 percent this year.

So if the big guys are predicting a flat year at best, where does that leave the rest of the industry? Once again we’re left with all the thirsty beasts of the jungle drinking out of one muddy and miserable waterhole. Not a pleasant prospect.

A short time ago the ad-supported model was supposed to drive the Web. Sites would provide content in exchange for eyeballs, and advertisers would gladly pay for eyeballs. But as of today, a cursory examination of the top 1000 websites (ranked by viewership) shows that almost 80% do not carry advertising. They’re making their money in commerce, and the Web appears to have become one big transactional marketplace. BizRate tells us that e-commerce grew by 36% in 2001, and that was supposed to be a BAD year.

End of story for Web advertising? Not at all. The folks that are selling stuff on the Web—and there are more of them every day—will soon realize that running ads near their point of purchase is a great way to sell even more stuff.

That revelation just may not take place this year, that’s all.

Keep your seat belts fastened.

-- Michael Kubin is co-CEO of Evaliant, one of the web's leading sources for online ad data.

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