Marketers lost their creative verve amid deluge of challenges

    Marketers entered 2022 riding a historic ad market rebound and with an eye set on the future, hyping electric vehicles, cryptocurrencies and the far-flung possibilities of the metaverse. Much of that optimism froze in late February with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a humanitarian crisis that amplified existing inflationary and supply chain pressures and made celebratory messaging a trickier needle to thread. Industry sentiment hasn’t recovered since and could worsen as the forecast for the months ahead remains chilly.

    Instead of bringing a fresh chapter for brand-building following two years of false starts, the first half of 2022 ultimately threw marketers into another holding pattern, one where creative innovation — which seemed on the cusp of a resurgence — was hard to come by. Rather than pushing the envelope forward, the overriding theme has been playing it safe, which might provide stability in the short term but could prove problematic as loyalty is tested in a quickly souring economy.

    “There’s just a general sense of uncertainty and fragility right now, which is preventing some of those longer-term bets from being made,” said Ewan McIntyre, vice president analyst and chief of research for Gartner’s marketing practice.

    The underlying aversion to risk in H1 was understandable. The crypto sector crashed hard in the second quarter, leaving a void of marketing activity in its wake, while auto manufacturers have been hesitant to hawk cars that won’t be available on the lot. The metaverse is a neat idea, in theory, but remains far from realization beyond light gaming experiments. Even its most ardent evangelists are tightening their investments to direct more energy to existing business fundamentals that are being tested in a shifting privacy landscape.

    The same back-to-basics instinct is one more segments have gravitated toward as macroeconomic obstacles piled up in the last six months, experts said. Meanwhile, media spending and CMO budgets have been sturdy in a broad sense, raising the question of where, exactly, brands are allocating their resources.

    “We’ve definitely seen a shift from brands that historically would be heavier in the traditional tentpole activations leaning more on programmatic, flexible investments,” said Leslie Lee, senior vice president of marketing at Vistar Media, a software company focused on digital out of home media. “There is a move away from these one-off, very flashy activations.”

    Flight to performance

    All things considered, the situation could be worse. Just as the ad market recovered at a faster rate than the general economy last year, it’s yet to match the dizzying fluctuations affecting the stock market in 2022.

    Global advertising revenues are expected to grow 9% year-on-year this year to $816 billion, according to the most recent forecast from Magna. That’s a downgrade from a prior target of 12% growth but hardly apocalyptic. Other media agencies, including GroupM and Zenith, have made similar adjustments to their full-year projections.

    “There is a move away from these one-off, very flashy activations.”

    Leslie Lee

    SVP of marketing, Vistar Media

    Dollar figures don’t tell the full story. Marketing expenditures may not have bottomed out in a meaningful fashion in the first half, but creative verve was curiously absent. Rebrandings were sparse and registered as minor, when they weren’t drawing jeers on Twitter. A handful of anthemic campaigns — especially from the cryptocurrency and Web3 worlds — garnered online chatter and accolades, but have ultimately fallen victim to the economic rout and lack of genuine consumer interest.

    In the background, much of media investment has seen a “flight to performance,” McIntyre said. Areas like retail media continue to boom as marketers try to prove their efforts can be tied to results. Gartner’s latest survey of chief marketers found that the proportion of budgets that go to brand versus performance is a roughly 50/50 split. That might make sense from a dollars-and-cents perspective, but doesn’t lead to a lot of eye-catching marketing that lingers in the imagination.


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