A bus fare to remember

If the nature of advertising is changing, why are agencies not doing more to put TV advertising on transport – where audiences are truly captive?

SBHD: If the nature of advertising is changing, why are agencies not doing more to put TV advertising on transport – where audiences are truly captive?

More than enough has been written about the New Sort of Advertising Agency and how it differs from the Old Sort of Advertising Agency. There is, however, an entire sector of underresourced and underexploited advertising potential, the likely growth of which could prescribe the character of a new breed of ad agency.

That sector is transport. Call it public transport if you like, but I bet the new breed of advertising agent won’t – the term is too resonant of years of public sector neglect of our railways and London Underground systems.

Which is precisely the reason that it has largely been overlooked as a modern advertising opportunity. All right, there are posters, but, with the greatest respect to the likes of More O’Ferrall, the 48-sheeter is hardly at the cutting edge of marketing development.

And nobody is going to convince me that those posters opposite the platforms of Underground stations are effective transport advertising. As you slow to a stop on the tube, the edge of a glossed, bulbous woman’s mouth might hove into view, like a giant goldfish. You crane your neck into the darker depths of the aquarium to see if you can trace the full extent of the horrors of the monster – or what message it might portend – before the train starts again and the mouth/goldfish swims off.

Of course, proponents of this advertising will argue that it’s not for the people on the train at all – they have their own little peeling posters selling secretarial agencies and, for some reason, poems – but for those waiting on the platforms.

I would argue that this does not qualify it as transport advertising. It should, more accurately, be known as lack-of-transport advertising. The same goes for the poster sites on bus shelters and, for that matter, on the outside of the buses. In the case of the latter, the message is presumably aimed at those who are walking or those at the bus stop who can’t get on (and people in cars – who are angry to be stuck behind the bus and who are receiving far more personal advertising messages through their radios).

What must be an enormous, underdeveloped market in the age of proliferating hi-tech media is travel advertising, as distinct from transport, or lack-of-transport, advertising. In other words, advertising that is aimed at the traveller – the person who is actually in the act of travelling – and which is rather more imaginative than a picture of a Polo on the wall opposite.

There have been some bright ideas in private-sector travel. The sponsored magazine – pioneered by irrepressible old hack William Davis – was a simple and enormously lucrative advertising concept. But, in the age of digitalisation, where are the TV screens? The premium seats of some airlines have miniaturised screens and advertisers have not been slow to take commercial advantage. But there is also huge opportunity on the ground.

Eurostar, the Channel tunnel train service, endeavoured to set itself up to provide the passenger experience of a good airline. But – wouldn’t you know it? – when I phoned at the weekend to ask whether television was available I was greeted with incredulity.

No one could accuse British Rail of being the hottest property in marketing developments, but if privatisation ever gets off the ground – or any higher than buried – then this might be one significant revenue earner that private sector talents could bring to bear. For that matter, if Labour wins the next election, it could be one public sector reinvestment that would more than pay for itself.

Interestingly enough, a transport system that the Tories did get around to privatising shows that what I would call travel television does work commercially. Some research published this week demonstrates that a nascent bus television service is delivering the goods for advertisers.

The research was carried out for The Original Passenger Picture Show (TOPPS), which launched an on-bus television service for 800 vehicles in the Midlands and North-West last November, and was conducted by Jigsaw Marketing Services and Susan Riley. It demonstrates that brand and advertising awareness increased for three out of four advertisers.

In two out of four categories researched, advertisers on TOPPS performed significantly better than the rest of the category and an average of 50 per cent of all people who recognised any of the ads claimed, when asked, that they had seen them on TOPPS.

By the by, a separate survey demonstrated that 38 per cent of bus passengers were 14 to 24-year-olds, while only 13 per cent were over 65, which somewhat flies in the face of the notion of the bus being the preserve of low-consuming OAPs.

The implications for the development of this market elsewhere are enormous. And, piquantly, it will be driven by the very technology accused of threatening the existence of mainstream broadcast television advertising.

It was last summer that Proctor & Gamble chairman and chief executive Ed Artzt shocked the advertising universe by declaring that there might be no place for traditional TV advertising in the brave new multimedia future.

In the age of interactive TV, the argument goes, viewers will not only be making a choice, but will be vested with the power of almost every other TV job from programme controller to production editor. And few of them are going to choose to fill their schedule with ads. So why not take TV advertising to places where the viewer does not exercise such control and, more importantly, is susceptible to being sold things? This week’s research shows that 65 per cent of respondents said their main reason for using buses is to go shopping, against just 20 per cent who said that the main reason is to go to work.

The manner in which such media can be developed from video to broadcast seems practically unlimited. Programming transmitted from the cable stanchions on electric railway track. The ability to place orders with interactive technology. Even lack-of-transport locations – such as airport departure lounges – are potent.

Which brings me back to the new kind of ad agent. Forget the creatives. They’ve got their poster sites. The really useful creativity in the travelling media will not be directed so much at what the ad looks like as where and how it is placed.

Step forward the media buyer. Not the clapped out old rate negotiator from the heydays of TMD or Aegis, but the entrepreneur who is going to drive the development of television throughout the transport infrastructure. This breed of media buyer will need to anticipate transport developments, be in the vanguard of interactive technology and explore joint ventures with and possibly ownership of transport operators.

Now that really is creative.

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