(For other news from the Reuters Global Media Summit, click on http://www.reuters.com/summit/GlobalMedia11?pid=500)
Outdoor advertising is proving surprisingly resilient amid Europe's debt crisis, although many companies are still wavering before committing to ad budgets for next year, the head of the international arm of Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc said.
Everyone is just feeling their way at the moment, said William Eccleshare at the Reuters Global Media Summit. The fourth quarter has actually held up extremely well, so we feel pretty good about this year and pretty nervous about next year.
Private-equity backed Clear Channel has U.S. and international divisions of its outdoor business -- which sells advertising on billboards, bus shelters and in airports -- as well as media properties, largely in radio.
Since ad spending closely tracks macroeconomic growth, companies like Clear Channel and its larger rival JC Decaux SA feel the impact of downturns early, especially as consumer confidence and spending wanes.
In 2012, the ad sector overall will be boosted by the London Olympics, the U.S. presidential election and the Euro 2012 soccer championship, which are expected to add about a percentage point of growth regardless of the wider economy.
Eccleshare said such events would provide a cushion for Clear Channel if there turns out to be weakness in demand for ads next year, but cautioned that the boost from the Olympics could prove short-lived and limited to the UK.
There will be an uplift followed by a post-Olympic hangover, he told the Summit, taking place at Reuters offices in London, Paris and New York.
Market research groups are expecting around 4 to 5 percent growth in the ad market next year, up from around 3.5 percent this year.
Against this tough backdrop, Eccleshare said his aim would be to improve Clear Channel's margins this year and next by focusing on operational performance and cost management.
Asked whether the company would seek to re-take the top spot from JC Decaux, which became the largest outdoor ad group by sales in 2010, Eccleshare said he would not chase market share at any cost.
I am much more interested in improving our margins than re-taking the top spot, he said. This is not a scale business, advertisers don't buy outdoors ads on a global basis.
As a result, Eccleshare said Clear Channel was unlikely to make large acquisitions to expand its footprint, but remained on the lookout for targeted deals to strengthen its position in markets where it is already present.
He cited as an example the recent deal in the Netherlands in which Clear Channel acquired Brouwer & Partners, a street furniture business, for $12.5 million.
Consolidation will continue to happen in our business on a market-by-market basis, he said.
Eccleshare said Spain and Italy were two markets ripe for change, while conceding that concerns over the European debt crisis would make it hard for a company or investor to move to buy assets.
He also downplayed the likelihood that JC Decaux would follow though on its long-stated aim of doing a major acquisition in the United States because its most likely target, CBS Outdoor, expected too high a price premium.
The CBS asset is for sale if someone is prepared to pay the right price for them, he said. The problem is that they have some unattractive contracts in the UK so no-one has made an offer at a price they would accept.
Shares in Clear Channel Outdoor closed at $10.52 on Friday.
Only about 10 percent of the company is listed, while the rest is owned by private equity funds Bain Capital Partners and Thomas H. Lee Partners.
(Reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris with Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton in London; Editing by David Holmes; Follow us on twitter.com/reuters_summits)