Outdoor industry is acquiring street wisdom

Some 20 or so years ago, before someone realised what a terrible liability this represented, I was TV air-time buyer at J Walter Thompson for a brief period. At that time the TV buying process operated on a set of rudimentary principles between companies and individuals who were, at best, described as gifted amateurs.

Most agencies had yet to realise the profit potential inherent in media buying and most programme-focused media owners regarded airtime sales as rather grubby and best left to the barrow boys on the first floor.

Ten years later, when International Poster Management was born, I very soon discovered that compared to outdoor, ITV airtime trading had been a model of discipline and professionalism. Most larger media owners were run by gentlemen amateurs, and buyer and seller were engaged in a sectarian warfare which succeeded in suppressing the true value of the medium in terms of communication and business potential.

The pace of change in outdoor since those days has been fast.

Street Talk 98, which takes place in Madrid next week, is a milestone for the outdoor industry. It represents the greatest opportunity for the medium to shrug off its crusty old cocoon.

The conference programme has been designed intelligently to give clients only the information they need. No sales pitches. Early sessions from the Henley Centre and top agency bosses take the broadest possible view of the communications issues facing advertisers today.

Other big “set pieces” include an interview with government minister Nigel Griffiths, insights into the communication process from Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s John Hegarty and GGT’s Trevor Beattie, plus results from new advertising effectiveness research initiatives.

An Incorporated Society of British Advertisers wish list and three chaired sessions for customer feedback, provide ample opportunity for delegates to slag off the industry and air its perceived shortcomings from the floor. We wouldn’t want things to get too cosy.

And then of course, there’s Postar. As much the catalyst for change brought about by buyers, as was the concentration of ownership by enlightened sellers, Postar is increasingly taking centre stage for it’s provision of audience measurement based on probability of seeing rather than opportunity to see. What other medium allows it’s audience to grow by 40 per cent without telling anyone (due to traffic growth) and then discard two thirds as “unlikely to look at the ad”?

This may seem foolhardy to those selling the “probably in the room with the set switched on” idea of measurement but this is a sign of prevailing confidence and maturity within the outdoor industry. We are determined to get the truth across about audience behaviour and that’s good new for advertisers .

Of course, at this type of event, some of the old folk lore is bound to get an airing. I expect the customary references to greater accountability, more transparency and the future role of specialists to surface nostalgically and steal a few headlines.

But this conference is like the smooth stone whirled overhead in a sling. Rather than making fun of David’s size (outdoor), why not try watching the expression on Goliath’s face (TV) instead.

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