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Forecast: UK ad market to rebound from pandemic losses

April 29, 2021

The latest Advertising Association/WARC Expenditure Report, which collects advertising revenue data across the entire media landscape, forecasts UK adspend will grow by 15.2 per cent in 2021 to reach a total of £27 billion (€31bn). This will recover the entirety of 2020’s £1.8 billion decline and is expected to precede a 7.2 per cent rise in 2022, by when the market will be worth a record £29.0 billion.

Ancillary forecasts suggest the UK is on course to achieve the strongest ad trade recovery of any major global market this year, and this puts the UK economy in a position to bounce back strongly post-pandemic, as every pound invested in advertising generates six in GDP.

Adspend growth forecast for all media in 2021

Particularly strong results are expected for the media most adversely affected by the pandemic, namely cinema at +266.8 per cent, digital out of home at +52.3 per cent, and traditional out of home at +14.5 per cent. Online classified investment is set to rise by a fifth (20.4 per cent), supported by increased recruitment activity arising from brighter economic prospects this year.

Other media are not expected to recoup 2020’s losses until next year, however. This is true of TV (up 8.8 per cent in 2021), direct mail (up 6.4 per cent) and publishing disciplines encompassing national news (up 7.3 per cent), regional news (up 3.9 per cent) and magazine brands (up 6.8 per cent).

Online display – inclusive of social media and online video – is set to see growth accelerate this year (+13.4 per cent), as is the case for paid search (+18.4 per cent). Taken together, these two sectors are expected to account for two-thirds (66.4 per cent) of all UK advertising spend this year, up ten percentage points from a share of 56.2 per cent in 2019.

The full picture in 2020

The latest dataset includes final figures for Q4/FY 2020, which show spend on advertising declined by 7.2 per cent to a total of £23.5 billion last year. The decline in 2020 was softer than that following the Great Recession at the total market level, but most media owners recorded significant reductions in spend. In a positive end to last year, spend rose 2.6 per cent during the final three months, resulting in the highest quarterly total on record (£7.0 billion).

The key findings for 2020 show a strong shift by advertisers into online video, social media and search markets, in a move part-reflective of the rapid acceleration of e-commerce, as lockdowns forced consumers to purchase goods and services from home. Spend on paid search went up 7.1 per cent, online display rose by 10.4 per cent, and TV VoD was up 15.7 per cent. There was a small increase (0.5 per cent) for online newsbrands, though other media saw sharp declines.

The UK’s advertising industry was well-positioned for the challenges of the lockdown, as it already had one of the most developed digital ad markets in the world. The UK’s average weekly value of e-commerce spend rose 47.1 per cent in 2020, to £2.1 billion, which equated to 27.9 per cent of all retail sales latest year – ahead of key international markets. For the first time, the UK was the country with the largest e-commerce share as a percentage of total retail spend. China’s equivalent figure was 24.9 per cent, the EU was 20.0 per cent, and the US was 14.0 per cent.

Among individual product categories, Government adspend grew 37.2 per cent during 2020 as public health messaging was deployed in the effort to combat Covid-19. As normality returns, this spend is expected to fall back in 2021, with growth instead expected across the other main consumer categories, notably services (up 22.0 per cent), industrial (up 19.8 per cent) and financial (up 20.2 per cent).”

“Advertising investment has mirrored the rapid changes seen across the economy over the last year, primarily the acceleration provided by lockdowns towards e-commerce across all sectors able to sell online,” notes Stephen Woodford, Chief Executive, Advertising Association. “The pandemic accelerated trends that were already changing the market, evident for several years. The UK’s sophisticated online advertising marketplace helped to keep the economy moving and, no doubt, supported businesses, large and small, to stay connected with consumers who were no longer on the high street. SMEs that had little or no online presence quickly adapted to serve their customers via online platforms and more sophisticated online businesses increased their investment behind these.

“Across the economy that advertising serves we saw remarkable innovation and agility, which helped to lessen the economic impact as firms adapted to keep serving their customers, despite the disruption. The predicted growth this year of 15.2 per cent is good news, with every £1 of advertising spend generating £6 of GDP, this will be a welcome boost for jobs and growth in the wider economy.”

“The data from 2020 were unlike any we have seen in our 40 years of market monitoring,” added James McDonald, Head of Data Content, WARC. “Save for a flock of online pure-players, the majority of media owners surveyed by WARC experienced their worst trading climate in living memory. This was true at both the financial and the human level – many will not witness a full recovery until 2022 at the earliest.”

“Agile formats with short lead times were seen to flourish last year, particularly within social media and e-commerce environments, the latter benefitting greatly from stay-at-home orders and well-established logistical networks. Media owners in these spaces are expected to build on good 2020 results this year, though the situation will be more challenging across the remainder of the landscape as ad investment continues to favour performance marketing.”

Media 2019 £m 2020 £m 2020 year-on-year

% change

2021 forecast year-on-year

% change

2022 forecast year-on-year

% change

Search 7,814.9 8,369.0 7.1% 18.4% 10.8%
Online display* 6,404.5 7,070.8 10.4% 13.4% 7.9%
TV 4,930.0 4,350.0 -11.8% 8.8% 2.1%
of which VoD 451.7 522.7 15.7% 14.3% 13.9%
Online classified* 1,399.0 975.6 -30.3% 20.4% 2.2%
Direct mail 1,383.0 909.0 -34.3% 6.4% -7.3%
Out of home 1,300.8 699.1 -46.3% 36.9% 19.2%
of which digital 694.0 414.9 -40.2% 52.3% 24.6%
National newsbrands 996.2 755.0 -24.2% 7.3% 0.5%
of which online 317.1 318.8 0.5% 10.9% 7.7%
Regional newsbrands 719.5 470.1 -34.7% 3.9% -1.0%
of which online 238.8 183.3 -23.3% 7.3% 5.5%
Magazine brands 654.5 461.9 -29.4% 6.8% 0.1%
of which online 264.1 199.4 -24.5% 15.8% 4.6%
Radio 702.7 613.9 -12.6% 12.9% 2.4%
of which online 49.3 46.8 -5.0% 14.0% 5.6%
Cinema 299.1 54.7 -81.7% 266.8% 61.1%
TOTAL UK ADSPEND 25,283.1 23,458.1 -7.2% 15.2% 7.2%
Note: Broadcaster VoD, digital revenues for newsbrands, magazine brands, and radio station websites are also included within online display and classified totals, so care should be taken to avoid double counting. Online radio is display advertising on broadcasters’ websites.

Source: AA/WARC Expenditure Report, April 2021


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