Contemplate the Bottom.

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There’s an iconic New Yorker Cartoon from the late 90s that has a man and woman tucking their toddler son into bed for the night.  The husband is saying, “Of course he looks peaceful – he’s lived his entire life in a bull market.”    I think of it as I talk to many young and not-so-young people in the digital ad business:  indeed, many of them have lived their entire professional lives in a bull market.  But right now they don’t look so peaceful.

To call the news cycle anything other than grim would deny the obvious.  There are media company layoffs, the capital flow has begun to ebb, financial and automotive advertisers are in freefall, and the stock prices of some of our digital mainstays are taking a beating.   It’s very natural that the workforce would tend toward deep concern, if not hysteria, at such hard times – especially if they had not seen them before.  It would also be natural right now for company management to demonstrate leadership by offering perspective, guidance and mentoring to their people, to shepherd them through the valley and up onto the next ridge.

Problem is, the current economic cycle and period of growth in our space have been so good for so long that very few managers and company leaders have ever seen truly bad times.  When I’ve floated this concept to others in the business, they point to the internet bubble bursting in 2000 and the retrenchment that hit again in 2002 after 9/11 attacks.  Hard times, right?  In terms of our industry, these were interruptions, not recessions.  We’re now seeing a major economic event and a new world order when it comes to the media business.   This is different, really different.

But as Jack Nicholson famously said in As Good as it Gets, “I’m drowning over here and you’re describing the water!”

Enough.  It’s time for those of us in leadership and management to take the people who work for us to the edge and look down.  We’ve got to contemplate the bottom.  When people don’t know where the bottom is or what it might look like, it consumes and suffocates us – it stifles our creativity and ambition.  It becomes all we talk about, all we read.  And it can prompt some pretty whack decisions.  So let’s contemplate it now.

Fact:  Weaker players in our space will go away.  Stronger companies will acquire them or they will just run out of gas.  There will be consolidation, but there has always been consolidation in every industry, and in the media business.  Time and Warner weren’t always part of the same phrase.

Fact:  There will be more money spent in online advertising in three years than there is today.  Significantly more. Those who will be temporarily displaced in our business will be part of a reshuffling of the deck, not the downsizing of the industry.  Those inside the echo chamber of the industry blogosphere and Sand Hill Road may not see it, but that’s the reality.

Fact:  Competition will intensify on two fronts.  Even though our business will grow, there will be many, many people migrating from mainstream media jobs and competing for spots on the raft.  And we’ll have to compete harder for the respect and affection of big time advertisers.  Along with their increasing investment in digital, they’ll bring higher expectations around professionalism and delivery.  If you’re willing to grow professionally and reinvent your skill set, you’ll do great.  Rest on your laurels and count on your “digital experience” to carry you and you will most surely be road kill.

Fact:  The business media will continue to beat their breasts and gnash their teeth, and will be assuring us of how bad things are long after they start to improve.  But even at the worst moments of this recession, companies and individuals are innovating, creating new value, reinventing themselves to be bigger, better, smarter and stronger – positioning themselves to dominate 12-15 months from now.  Somewhere somebody’s doing a great deal, solving a big business problem for an advertiser, creating a new approach.  The dogs bark, but the caravan rolls on.

There.  That’s our ‘bottom.’  Show this column to your team members and start getting excited today about how you’re going to actually turn this economy to your advantage; make decisions that will make your people and your company even stronger.  To do less is to choose to be a victim.

I’ll leave you with the slogan I refer to every single day:  Expect Nothing.  Blame No One.  Do Something.

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