Pennies From Heaven

Forecasts for the health of the online ad industry for the next year or so continue to range all over the map, from modest growth to an "off the cliff" decline. Assuming the worst -- that the same wave of retrenchments, layoffs, and failures we're already seeing elsewhere in the economy continue for some time -- let me present a few survival strategies for those who see their positions in jeopardy. I learned these the hard way the last time we had a collapse, back in 2000-02.

1. Diversify your skill set. Most people working in the online ad industry have a mix of skills, given that this is very much a DIY (Do It Yourself) medium. For example, it's typical for managerial professionals to know something about the theory of advertising and direct marketing, something about Flash or HTML, and (increasingly), something about SEM, and other technical marketing methods. Ideally, this knowledge should be deep enough for people to jump in to fix a problem when called upon to. If times grow grimmer, it's likely that organizations will pare back marketing departments, relying more on outsourced services. This trend doesn't have to be a threat to your job, as long as you are the person who is actually indispensable. In tough times, you need to think of yourself more as a "Swiss army knife" than a single-purpose tool, even though your deep knowledge of one subject may be your main marketable asset in the job market.

2. Diversify your client base. Many people don't believe me when I tell them that in 2002 I was forced to give up my budding online marketing career and join a construction crew for a year, but that's what happened. It was my fault, because I didn't diversify my client base when I had the chance. So when my two main clients fell, so did I (and these were great clients). Nobody likes to service more, smaller clients (who typically can't afford to pay as much as big ones), but being able to do so is essential right now. This recession/depression isn't going to kill everybody; if you can bring that guy spending $10K a month on Google now to $50K or higher in six months, you'll both be winners.

3. Expect the unexpected. This is the broadest, steepest slowdown that I've ever seen. Combine it with long-term transformational trends in advertising that have been evident for a while, and the media landscape that emerges may be practically unrecognizable to us today, with many rock-solid institutions lying in ruins and newly emergent players ascendant. But while the players and methods may change, the game will be much the same. Established principles of marketing (and especially, direct marketing in its new form, which is PPC SEM) aren't going away, nor is the on-demand informational world we've all spent two decades building, or the intelligence and efficiency that such institutions as Google have brought to the marketplace.  

What this frightful time will end, however, is the bad old ways of agency-client relations. Clients are fighting for the lives of their businesses, and will be unwilling to tolerate outdated compensation models, inefficiencies, or waste of any kind in the media-buying or campaign-execution processes. I'm not particularly happy that it took a global financial calamity to reform Madison Avenue, but, to quote the old Great Depression classic, "Don't you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?"



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