Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dow Holds Above 9,000. Home Sales Improve

Recession innovators extending lead over the pack. Mobile advertising gains.
In most parts of the United States, the recession seems to be losing steam and economies are beginning to stabilize, the Federal Reserve said today in a snapshot of economic activity from across the country. This assessment is based on the Fed’s latest “beige book” (PDF)which gauges economic conditions from 12 distinct areas of the country.

“Recession is over, economy is recovering — let’s look forward and stop the backward-looking focus,” John E. Silvia, Wells Fargo’s chief economist, wrote yesterday in a research note.

We're one-third of the way out of the recession, according to Kiplinger's Recovery Index, which tracks six key economic indicators. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) just said that sales of previously occupied homes rose 3.6 percent last month, the third straight month to do so. It was the highest level of sales since October 2008 and beat analysts expectations. Meanwhile, the Case-Shiller index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas, produced by Standard & Poor's, rose 0.5% in May from the month before, the first increase after 34 straight months of decline. If you’re keeping score, the median sales price nationwide is now up to $181,800, up from 174,700 last month -- still 15 percent below $215,000 a year ago – but a key positive trend to be sure.

According to Kiplingers, home prices may be bottoming out after two years of decline (some say they bottomed out six months ago), but at least people are buying stuff. Said the Kippies: "Home sales activity is a key indicator of the economy's health because buying a house involves such a large commitment of funds, reflecting confidence about the future. Rising home sales also show that banks are willing and able to lend, which is another requirement of a healthy economy."

But, what about the sky high unemployment rate? Oh that. Jobless claims are still at record highs, but since unemployment lags behind other economic indicators, that’s not the downer it may appear – provided you’re among the lucky few still working. Breaking from historical patterns, the unemployment rate -- currently at generation-high 9.5 percent -- is ONLY one to 1.5 percentage points higher than would be expected under one economic rule of thumb, Lawrence Summers, President Barack Obama's top economic adviser told the Wall Street Journal last week. Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost 6.5 million jobs, 4.7 percent of total employment. The unemployment rate has jumped five percentage points, while the economy has contracted by roughly 2.5 percent.

If you can take a moment to ignore the painful shrinkage to your retirement account, investments and college savings plans, the midsummer stream of earnings reports from major companies is refreshing, and so is the market's reaction to them. So far, July's quarterly results are reassuring in the macro view. Neither the economy nor the indexes are on the verge of backsliding, and they've helped push the Dow above 9,000. Some 61 percent of the companies in Standard & Poor's 500-stock index to report for the quarter beat analysts' forecasts.

White House budget director Peter Orszag and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke have all talked publicly about the unusual disconnect between growth and employment. Though today's disparity between growth and jobs is especially stark, a jobless recovery wouldn't be new: The past two recessions were marked by firms reluctant to resume hiring right away after demand recovered. The current disconnect could reflect an unanticipated surge in productivity -- companies finding ways to increase output with fewer workers. That could set up the economy to grow rapidly in future years. Rising productivity is the linchpin of economic growth and rising living standards.

As history shows time and time again, if the wisdom of the crowd thinks things are getting better, then they eventually WILL get better, because so much of our economy (and marketing strategy) is based on psychology, rather than true fundamentals. as we predicted earlier this year (“Recessions Can Spawn the Best Ideas”) companies that hunkered down during the depths of the downturn – rather than full scale retreat – are starting to show the fruits of those decisions.

Innovation Rules

Last week Apple Computer reported its best non-holiday quarter ever -- earnings up 15 percent -- despite continued malaise in the overall electronics sector. Meanwhile the U.S. financial markets leapt to their highest level since November on news that The Conference Board’s Index of leading economic indicators rose for the third straight month in June. While the increase was a modest 0.7 percent, the index hasn’t had a three-month win streak since 2004 and seven of the 10 data points it tracks showed improvement including building permits. The S&P 500 Index – in which 70 percent of companies have posted better than expected earnings -- is up 5.3 percent for the year and up 41 percent since its early March nadir. The broader Wilshire 5000 Index is up 7.5 percent for the year.

Analysts point to unexpectedly strong sales of Macintosh computers and a surge in iPhone purchases. We’ve been banging the “innovate when times are worst” drum for months here in this blog and Apple’s an example of why. Its products work and function the way the human brain thinks. {Disclosure: we have not financial or promotional interest in Apple Computer, Inc.). Apple customers – not corporate I.T. wonks or Indian outsourcing farms – control the customer experience.

“We’re making our most innovative products ever and our customers are responding,” said Steve Jobs, Apple CEO in a statement. Shaw Wu, a Kaufman Brothers analyst, told the New York times that Macs were “resonating with increasing numbers of customers, as it is arguably the best platform for what people do today, which includes Web surfing and creating and managing content.”

Thanks to the Web, the rules are dramatically changing in the music industry too. The Internet, not record labels, is increasingly calling the shots when it comes to promoting and distributing music. Physical album sales fell 20 percent to 362 million last year, according to Nielsen, but sales of individual digital tracks rose 27 percent to 1.07 billion – that’s right billion – more than enough to make up the shortfall.

Major record labels no longer have an iron fist on creating and selling professional music and getting air time on the radio. Polyphonic and other savvy startups are running their record labels like VC firms, by investing in promising bands, allowing them to record their own music and choose outside contractors to handle their publicity, merchandising, touring, etc. Instead of groveling for advances and praying for royalties if they create a hit, musicians share in all the profits from their music and touring. Guess what, they’ll also maintain ownership of their own copyrights and master-recordings. Can you imagine Sony, Warner or EMI cutting deals like that with up-and-comers, let alone their stars?

The year of the true multimedia campaign?

Three in four (74%) of advertisers using the Internet are doing so more than they did a year ago, while half (49%) who use print are using it less, according to a recent Linked In / Harris poll (PDF) of 1,015 ad agency and marketing execs nationwide. The poll not only found 69 percent of mobile marketers are using the medium more than they did a year ago, but more than half of online advertisers overall, are using the Web as part of a broader multi-media campaign. Just one in seven (14%) Web advertisers, are committing dollars only to online.

We’re not out of the woods by a long shot. But those who continued to trust their instincts, resourcefulness and innate sense of direction during the darkest days are going to be the first ones seeing the clearing through the trees.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ad Spending Plans, Economic Indicators Trending Up

Will agencies, consumers join the party? Business Week on the block.

Business Week is officially up for sale and there ain’t exactly a bidding war brewing for the once venerable bible of the business world. The nationwide unemployment rate closes in on a generation-high 10 percent and housing prices languish, yet new research indicates economic pessimism among marketers, and to a lesser extent, agency media buyers appears to have bottomed out last spring. NOTE: If you recall, we called the recession statistically all but over in this blog back in early April although we cautioned it could take 12 months or more for spending, confidence and decision-making to improve.

Ad spending was miserable in the first half of 2009 –- down nearly 15 percent according to Interpublic group -– but ad spending PLANS are now trending upward, according to a new report from Advertiser Perceptions Inc (API). API says Cable TV and outdoor media also are improving and now have more media decision makers planning to boost their budgets than to decrease them over the next six months, and while broadcast TV, radio, magazines and national newspapers all are still negative on balance, they are also all improving from low confidence points earlier this year.

"Leading the way are marketers, who are more optimistic than their agencies," said API partner, Ken Pearl, in a statement. API historically conducts big semi-annual surveys tracking the perceptions of advertisers and agency media buyers about the major media, including their confidence levels, but opted to conduct the confidence tracking more frequently this year to monitor an inflection point in the advertising economy.

The most recent survey, which is based on the responses of more than 200 media decision makers over the past several weeks, indicates that their plans for most major media are once again ascending, especially among marketers who seem slightly more optimistic than their agency counterparts.

Ad Optimism Is Improving For Most Media, High For Mobile/Online

MEDIA ....“OPTIMISM”...........STATUS........TREND
Mobile ......57............. Optimistic....Improving
Cable TV.... 17..............Optimistic....Improving
Broadcast TV.-7..............Pessimistic...Improving
Natl. Newsp..-36.............Pessimistic...Improving
Local Newsp..-47.............Pessimistic...Declining

Source: Advertiser Perceptions Inc. "Optimism" is defined by the number of percentage points separating the percentages of respondents citing plans to increase or decrease their advertising budgets in each medium over the next six months. Trends are based over three bi-monthly tracking reports conducted so far this year.

“It's imperative that we begin to shake up the way we think about traditional media,” commented a reader of Joe Mandese’s popular MediaPost column. “It's a fallacy that each medium is an island unto itself. We must move into a new phase of using all the media we have available to us in concert with one another.

Said another poster: “Being in Media ad sales it is good to see a positive trend at last. This generally means that business is starting to move past the current recession. Since the Fall is buying season it would be nice to hear something other than ‘no budget’”.

Let’s hope marketers and agencies are putting their money where their mouths are and focusing on the road ahead, not the rear view mirror. Just make sure you folks stay off your cell phones when driving.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

You Can Stimulate Your Way Back to Stability

But you can only invent your way back to prosperity.

“Historically, recessions are a time when new companies are born and great companies separate themselves from the competition,” quipped Thomas Friedman last week in a NY Times editorial.

Amen to that, Tom, who opined further: “We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability, but we can only invent our way back to prosperity. We need everyone at every level to get smarter.”

Getting companies smarter is more easily said than done these days, but it’s happening and not just at Google, Amazon and Facebook.

The Times’ Friedman still believes America, with its unrivaled freedoms, VC industry, research universities and openness to new immigrants has the best assets to be taking advantage of this moment – to “out- innovate our competition.” Unfortunately, most corporate coffers are nailed shut. Easy bank financing is a faded memory and venture capital is going through a seismic contraction.

“Personally I think the funds have gotten too big. Our biggest challenge is to think smaller and make smaller, smarter investments,” noted VC icon, Alan Patricof of Greycroft Partners at a recent venture investing conference in San Francisco.

According to the National Venture Capital Association, investment in venture capital funds shrank to $4.3 billion in the first quarter of 2009, from $7.1 billion in the same quarter of 2008. That’s a whopping 40-percent drop, but some experts think it’s a blessing in disguise, because it lowers the flow of capital into these funds. There won’t be as much excess money chasing bad deals and the VC industry may start seeing double digit returns some day. NVCA says investors are seeing about six-percent annually on their money over five years, down from 48 percent annually at the start of this decade.

With easy bank financing and easy VC money a thing of the past, organizations large and small are going to have to keep operating smarter.

More proof against cutting back on ads in a downturn

Just as cutting back on innovation during tough times comes back to haunt you when better times return, dramatically cutting back on advertising can be severely damaging to your market share and reputation.

Two recent surveys surveys of banking and retail consumers by research firm, Ad-Ology, found advertisers who cut back substantially during the downturn are building negative brand association. For instance:

• 48% of respondents agreed such advertisers “must be struggling”
• 12% of responds agreed “they may not be in business much longer.

Could good ol’ common sense be making a comeback? Read below for two examples.

Pearls of wisdom from the common-sense department

Generic Web site names that are self-explanatory deliver much higher click-through rates than a more abstract or clever name, says a new study by Memorable Domains. The study compares three sites using AdWords pay per click campaign for ads for electric bikes. “” got 45 percent more clicks than “” and 105 percent more clicks than “”

Why? Experts says the self-explanatory site name makes sense and reassures prospects to see search terms reflected in a Web site address.

Tech companies: research says disclose price info if you want to make the sale

Many marketers are reluctant to disclose prices online, but that’s what many prospects want. According to a 2008-09 Marketing Sherpa {} survey of 3,108 decision makers. Eighty-nine percent agreed that a technology vendor got the sale or inside track for a sale at their company because they were more open than rivals about their pricing.

There’s never been a better time to re-examine every way you do business, from selling into new markets, supporting existing customers and developing new products and services. But, while your immersed in financial navel-gazing, remember, you’ve can’t neglect to keep the advertising and marketing faucet turned on. And while you’re at it, make sure you tell ‘em exactly what it is you do and how much you charge. It’s just a matter of how (not how much) you choose to invest your marketing dollars in explaining your value proposition.

Turning the spigot on and off as business conditions fluctuate isn’t the answer. Your customers will see through the ruse during good times and forget about you when times get tough. Not only will you fail to separate yourself from the competition, but your competitors will start separating you from your long-time customers.