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Data: Lockdown shreds UK ad spend

May 15, 2020

In what was a difficult month for businesses across the UK and the world, advertising spend on traditional channels reflected both consumption changes and new behaviours from homebound consumers, Nielsen data reveals.

As Covid-19 hit the UK in March, total advertising spend on traditional channels – which includes TV, press, cinema, out of home and radio – was £586 million (€663m), a decrease of -5 per cent compared to 2019. The week of March 23rd, when the UK officially went into lockdown, saw a dramatic shift in advertising: spend on press fell by 38 per cent to £15 million, its lowest weekly figure in 2020. Following the temporary closure of cinemas nationwide, weekly spend on cinema declined by 94 per cent, whilst spend on out of home (OOH) dropped by 22 per cent, and radio declined by 20 per cent.

Ad spend from the travel industry was the hardest hit (-48 per cent) as fears began mounting early in the month, thanks in part to high-profile issues such as isolated cruise ships seeing rapidly rising Covid-19 infections onboard. Ad spend in the entertainment sector also dropped by 17 per cent, and telecoms spend decreased by 15 per cent year-on-year, perhaps a surprise given the increased reliance on remote communication. These losses were not fully mitigated by rises from other sectors such as food, for which ad spend rose by 18 per cent (£8.4 million), government which increased its spend by 22 per cent (£7.5 million) and computing which saw increased ad spending of 41 per cent (3.7 million).

With everyone in lockdown looking for ways to keep themselves occupied, sectors that cater to this ramped up their spend. During the week of 23 March, there was an increase in advertising spend for online retailing (+208 per cent), mail order (+40 per cent) and leisure equipment (+37 per cent) as companies sought to sell products to time-rich housebound consumers.

While overall ad spend decreased, TV spend in March actually held up and increased by 4 per cent to £412 million for the total month, accounting for 70 per cent of total advertising spend. Nielsen data reveals that consumer goods companies Unilever (£10 million) and Procter & Gamble (£9.4 million) were the top two TV advertisers in March. Meanwhile, NHS England spent £3.9 million on TV advertising, while the supermarkets Asda, Aldi and Tesco spent £3.7 million, £3 million and £2.1 million respectively.

“March was the turning point in the UK, as the country initiated the lockdown to combat the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic,” advises Barney Farmer, UK Commercial Director at Nielsen. “This impacted the level of advertising spend across traditional channels. Cinema obviously took a huge hit, while TV fared relatively well in the first few weeks of March.”

“Looking ahead to the coming months, it’s clear these March results represent just the beginning of the shifts in spend we will continue to see. The question of which ad sectors will return and how much advertising spend will be injected back into the market will depend on many factors – the most important of which will be the Government’s guidance on what, when and how we can move about freely. The travel and tourism sectors, for example, which are typically big ad spenders will be waiting to see whether people can book or take summer holidays both at home and abroad. This will determine the marketing messages being run – or potentially lack of them.”


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