The coronavirus pandemic likely has led to a lot of grim conversations between publishers and their advertisers, breaking the bad news about cutbacks to their media spending.
It's unfortunate, considering that almost every publisher is reporting a surge in web traffic. I'm also looking for equivalent data about print readership, though a recent report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. indicates that U.S. consumers planned to spend less time reading print newspapers while in quarantine.
Amid the incessant reports about falling ad sales and job cuts, I look for signs of recovery that will help ailing publishers improve their sales. One of the few positive reports came from Procter & Gamble, the marketer of brands such as Tide, Charmin and Cascade, which spends an estimated $10 billion a year on advertising.
The company is among a handful of marketers whose sales have surged during the pandemic. As a maker of cleaning products and other household goods, it saw a 10% jump in U.S. sales during its March quarter — the highest growth in decades for a company started in 1837.
During its earnings call last week, CFO Jon Moeller talked about plans to boost its ad spend as people spend more time watching TV and looking at websites.
"There's more media consumption occurring right now than probably there has been in three or four years," Moeller said in a conference call. "Changing that model doesn't really make a lot of sense. I don't just mean TV, but digital consumption as well.”
P&G's experience isn't applicable to every advertiser. The company is still allowed to sell products in grocery stores, pharmacies and mass merchants. It also makes products that are in high demand during a pandemic: soap, disinfectants, cold medicine and of course, toilet paper.
However, the company's report reminded me of how every crisis creates opportunities that are important for publishers to identify, and shift their sales strategies. Meredith, the publisher of titles including People and Better Homes & Gardens, is one example of a company adjusted its incentives for advertisers by expanding its sales guarantee program.
Like every media outlet, publishers are pressed to show the value they offer advertisers. That includes reaching key audience groups, raising brand awareness, driving a direct response and helping them with their other marketing goals. Even as advertisers see an abrupt decline in the ultimate benchmarks, profit and sales, they are formulating strategies for the recovery.
I've read several studies that show consumers want to hear reassuring messages from brands during the pandemic, which explains a lot of the uplifting commercials that currently air on TV. Those same advertisers want to hear reassuring messages from their media partners, including publishers.
As dismal as the news has been in the publishing industry, it's no time to panic. I say that as a person who lived in Los Angeles during the riots, started a business newspaper in Mexico City before the devastating peso crisis and worked across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11. I was at a custom-publishing startup that flamed out as the dot-com bubble burst and at Lehman Brothers before it collapsed into the biggest bankruptcy in history.
These crises faded into history, and I suspect the pandemic will, too. It's time to keep pushing forward.