Citing Mixed Signals, Agency Chiefs Say Network Ad Vitality Remains Uncertain

The heads of two top media agencies acknowledged that pricing on scatter inventory was soft in the fourth quarter, but not to read too much into that as a forward indicator -- at least not yet.

"The fourth quarter is almost by definition soft," said Jon Mandel, co-chief executive officer of New York-based MediaCom. Mandel and Bill Cella, chief executive officer of Interpublic's MAGNA Global USA, spoke Monday morning during a panel at the first day of Credit Suisse First Boston's weeklong media conference.

Cella said that fourth-quarter scatter wasn't good for network and local TV, and that the first quarter is turning out to be nothing to write home about either.

"It's been a very tough fourth and first quarter," Cella noted. Mandel didn't take much stock in some networks' pronouncements about scatter, noting that one network in particular hadn't gotten its budgets in yet when it said things were strong.

Mandel said that he doesn't get concerned about consumer confidence, a yardstick by which many in and out of the business measure how the economy is doing. He said that he was more concerned about another yardstick that has an impact on media buying.

"We don't really see any corporate confidence," Mandel said.

He said that jobs are way off, that the auto industry isn't healthy, the magazine industry is having woes and that some television and radio markets are doing OK but others aren't. He said that some out-of-home media is strong but as for the in-store market, "you could drive a truck through it."

Mandel said he couldn't even tell you what's going to happen in the second quarter.

Both Cella and Mandel were bullish on the future of local cable TV and its ability to target thanks to a network of interconnects, and said they didn't think PVRs would dramatically change the way advertising is done overnight.

With a Gross Domestic Product that some economists think will top 4 percent, neither Mandel nor Cella was optimistic about advertising growth outpacing GDP. Cella said that when the economy was in the tank, network TV in particular had no problem coming up bigger than GDP. But he said advertising would probably grow 3 percent.

"I don't even know if I'd go that high," Mandel said.

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