The general consensus seems to be that the Great Recession will end sooner than later and, even if we’ve got some permanent scars, most of us in Internet Land will get back to business as usual.

But what if that’s not the case? What if online publishers should be preparing for a protracted period of little to no growth in online ad spend?

John Mangelaars, a Microsoft VP for the EMEA region, promoted that notion at the IAB Europe’s Interact Congress in Brussels last week, suggesting that online ad budgets will not recover for several more years.

According to a post on Clickz, he told the audience:

From a Microsoft view, we don’t believe budgets will go up any time soon, and I’m talking the next three years.

According to Mangelaars, the recession isn’t the only culprit. He noted that “A lot of laziness has gone away. If marketers are reaching their goals with [their current budgets], why would they spend more?

He has a good point. There was never any guarantee that budgets would increase perpetually, recession or not, and the very same efficiencies that internet advertising can create ironically may indeed help savvy marketers achieve their desired results with lower budgets.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any shift taking place within the pie.

As reported by PaidContent, a recent Forbes survey of advertisers found that 53% of the respondents planned to decrease their ad spending on ad networks over the next 6 months. If this is reflective of a broad trend, it’s not good news for publishers reliant on ad networks. But 42% of the respondents indicated that they’d be increasing budgets for viral marketing campaigns online. So there’s always opportunity.

While we can all hope that online ad budgets resume healthy growth in the near-term, smart publishers will realize that growing revenue is not impossible if you know where budgets are growing and where they’re shrinking. By being nimble and following the money, you can grow your piece of the pie even if the pie itself isn’t growing.

Photo credit: DigiDi via Flickr.