The humble bus medium, long derided as one of the shabbiest parts of the media mix, could finally be shedding its down-at-heel image and gearing up for growth.
Ironically, perhaps, it has taken a US company to bring modern and innovative thinking to advertising on this very British feature of city and rural life.
In under three years, TDI has built its share of the UK bus market to a virtual 100 per cent monopoly. Having taken control of advertising on the London Underground and London buses in 1994, it has gradually acquired smaller bus contractors in the rest of the UK, most recently Leeds-based Buspak, bought in January.
This dramatic industry consolidation gives buses, though still a small part of the total outdoor market, a much better chance in the media pecking order. TDI is preparing to exploit its supreme market position by selling buses as a national medium, not a regional one.
The company has just launched its first sales packages based on TV regions (two national and one based on the UK’s 13 biggest conurbations) backed by its audience delivery research Busads, which was previously only available for London campaigns (MW May 29). National bus campaigns can now be bought from a single buying point with a single phone call, in contrast to the situation three years ago, when national campaigns were scarcely feasible. Then, a specialist buyer would have had to go through five companies and regional coverage was based on percentage of fleet.
Mike Baker, TDI marketing director, says the company’s strategy will now be comparable to that of the radio industry.
He says: “We are offering the opportunity to buy nationally, with national research, backed by generic marketing for the medium. This is what radio has done, and it has shown big growth, bringing in new advertisers. There has to be a parallel with what we are doing.”
TDI’s emergence as a “one-stop shop” for all bus campaign buying, crucially is linked to the company’s transformation of the medium’s downmarket image by attracting “sexy” advertisers.
There has been a prejudice against the use of buses among advertisers and ad agency creatives, based on the social group which uses buses to travel.
Jeremy Male, TDI managing director, says: “There’s a perception that users of buses, generally C2DEs, have an impact on the advertising. But that’s nonsense.”
Male points out how buses are mobile poster sites, passing through the busiest shopping streets with the potential to be seen by all social classes, particularly motorists stuck in slow-moving traffic. He highlights the upmarket fashion and fragrance advertisers, such as Calvin Klein, DKNY, Armani, Diesel and Dolce & Gabbana, which all use the medium.
“If you can have an advertiser like Christian Lacroix using buses, any snobbery debate must be over,” he says.
The company has introduced creative innovations such as “shrink-wrapped” buses, where the vehicle is completely covered in a vinyl ad for six- or 12-month campaigns, and “mega-rears”, where the whole back of the bus is taken over by an ad.
Other innovations on the horizon include more framing of regional bus sides, allowing posters to be quickly slotted into place instead of being glued. This will mean two-week ad campaigns (already available in London) are feasible.
Chris Morley, chief executive of specialist buyer IPM, says the specialists are generally positive towards TDI’s reforms. “TDI’s style is typically American – very customer-oriented, very forward-looking. Buses used to be the ‘dodgiest’ part of outdoor, but TDI has done a fantastic job.”
But he cautions: “We might be slightly wary of their market size. There is always the risk, when someone is in that sort of position, that they will manipulate the market and crank up prices.”
Yet he accepts that TDI has a long way to go before it is in a position to abuse this power, as it will always face competition from other forms of outdoor, such as 48-sheet and six-sheet posters.
TDI argues its relaunch of buses as a national medium will build the whole outdoor advertising spend. It points to advertisers such as Trebor Bassett, which complemented a TV campaign for Maynards winegums with extensive bus advertising.
Francis Goodwin, managing director of poster contractor Maiden Roadside, says: “It will drive the whole sector forward, bringing more revenue for outdoor. If you have strong media owners you take more of the cake collectively.”
Yet TDI faces a balancing act between marketing itself as a “mobile poster operation”, to rival roadside, or as a media option in its own right, deserving a slice of spend separate from the traditional “poster” budget.
As a mobile poster company TDI has a variety of arguments. For example, buses travel along built-up high streets where large-scale posters fail to get planning permission; buses go through historic towns and cities, where posters are barred on grounds of appearance; bus advertising is less likely than poster advertising to end up juxtaposed with a competing advertiser.
Yet however determined TDI is to sit apart from the rest of outdoor, it will still catch cold if the roadside market sneezes. If poster rates fall when tobacco advertising is banned, for example, and a large amount of cheap sheetage becomes available, TDI will certainly lose out. The ugly duckling of the outdoor industry may be turning into a swan at long last, but there could be a few growing pains along the way.