Marketing in 2009: A survival guide

When I started covering marketing for the Star Tribune’s business section in 2003, I spent the first few months meeting people in the advertising, marketing and PR business.

And I bet 90 percent of them had a story to tell about the terrible time they’d just been through: 2000 and 2001, when the dot-com collapse, followed by 9/11, sent the whole marketing business spiraling into its worst period since the Great Depression.

It was remarkable to hear so many different people describing this common disaster, like listening to the survivors of a terrible fire or flood recount their experiences.

Now here it is six years later, and the marketing business is once again facing historic challenges. Ad spending is predicted to be down in 2009 for the third straight year, the first time that’s happened since — the Great Depression.

And this time, instead of covering it as an outsider, I’m living it as someone in the business.

I’m not complaining. After all, my old business — newspapers — is itself in a historic downturn. Conditions are the worst they’ve been since — well, you know.

I’m basically hopeful. When the government confirmed recently that we’d been in a recession since December of 2007, my reaction was, great — we’ve been in it for a year, so we’ve gotta be that much closer to the end.

Still, with times as they are, all of us need to work smarter and harder than ever to deliver value for our clients. Here are a few things I’m keeping in mind as I look toward the next 12 months.

Engage with your customers. The decline in traditional media is real and permanent. Newspapers and television are cutting staff monthly; radio (with the exception of public radio) long ago gave up any pretense to being anything other than a medium for lowest common denominator messaging.

Smart marketers will find ways to cultivate interaction with their core consumers and insert themselves into conversations that already exist in online forums. It’s a great time to be a Web developer or social-media expert.

Think big. We all need to do the basic blocking and tackling; that’s a given. But in a time of chaos, bold moves carry less risk. And they’re the best way of breaking through the communication clutter, which is worse than ever.

Make your own news. The bar for news coverage has never been higher. With editorial staffs and news hole depleted, traditional news organizations have less time and space to pay attention to your company. Take time to figure out what you’re really doing that’s new and different. You’ll be ignored otherwise.

Serve your clients. Treat them like your livelihood depends on it. Because, after all, it does.

With hard work and a little bit of luck, I’ll be around to tell my survivor story when we’ve finally stopped using the phrase “the Great Depression” in every conversation about the economy.

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