Great outdoors can still improve

For years the outdoor industry was accused of some of the most basic failings – among them scruffy sites, frequent mistakes in posting and no credible audience measurement system. A general impression that most deals were done in the pub did little to help.

But at last week’s conference in Spain, StreetTalk Madrid, the last remnants of this down-at-heel image were swept away. Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising affairs at the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, highlighted some client concems lingering from the bad old days. These included excessive costs for unusual creative treatments and differing terms of business being operated by different contractors, plus some new concerns such as rising costs. But he agreed that the industry had earned great praise for its dramatic improvements in plant quality, the promise of world-beating research and new appointments to the trade body, the Outdoor Advertising Association.

It is a testament to these great strides forward that one of the most interesting arguments to emerge from StreetTalk Madrid concerned the more subtle issue of campaign planning.

According to Eric Newnham, managing director of outdoor specialist Poster Publicity Limited, and David McEvoy, marketing director of contractor Mills & Allen, current poster campaigns are not delivering the optimum results for clients, and will not until there is a wholesale shift in the industry’s general attitude to planning.

Newnham and McEvoy argue that ill-conceived prejudices and a worrying misuse of the industry research system Postar is concentrating campaigns in major towns and major roads only, threatening the industry’s status as a national broadcast medium.

Postar’s great strength over its predecessor Oscar is its increased rigour. Instead of measuring audiences in terms of the number of motorists and pedestrians who drive or walk past a poster site, it aims to measure how many people actually look at the site, depending on variables such as angle of the poster to the road (the visibility adjusted impact or VAI per panel).

But Newnham says: “Although we have a robust currency in Postar, the average campaign is still planned on more traditional values.” Typical briefs from advertisers ask for panels in towns and cities where the population exceeds a certain figure (often 100,000) and the VAI per panel must be above the national average.

With the example of a cut-off point at 100,000, significant towns such as Slough, Oxford, Cambridge, the whole of the Border TV region and all of Surrey are wiped off planning schedules at a stroke, effectively removing masses of potential ABC1s.

Obviously in larger towns and on busy roads, the VAI for a panel is markedly higher than the national average. However, Newnham says: “This focus on buying panels on the same roads in the same towns leads to huge duplication of audience and is tantamount to wastage… Duplication on the same roads will lead to a spiralling of frequency and a reduction of coverage.”

In addition to this, clients’ demand for high VAls is encouraging contractors to build even more sites in major towns and on major roads, increasing clutter. In response, contractors are also being forced to get rid of hundreds of panels with lower VAls because they are unprofitable.

As McEvoy says: “Once you get rid of a panel it is very hard to get planning permission these days to get it back. So do we keep these panels in the hope that people will plan properly, or get rid of them and lose coverage? The choice is with the industry.”

McEvoy also questions whether campaigns are being planned with the best balance of coverage and frequency. Following research into 60 Mills & Allen campaigns, he concludes that there is a high conversion from coverage bought to brand recall and that people can remember posters at much lower frequency levels than previously realised, particularly if the creative work follows the golden rule – “Keep It Simple Stupid”.

With the majority of coverage built up over the early part of the campaign, some of the most effective can last for seven days rather than the usual 14.

Coverage can also be optimised by better distributing the spread of sites around a town. Research shows more than 70 per cent of journeys are less than five miles long, so if posters are not bought within a reasonable driving distance of people’s homes, it is unlikely that audiences will be covered with an effective frequency level. These days, buying and selling practices focus on panels on a small number of busy roads with very high traffic flows and therefore the highest VAls.

Coverage is therefore concentrated into a very small geographic area but at very high frequency levels. A better way would be to spread the panels across the whole of a city, providing greater coverage and lower frequency.

As Newnham says: “If distribution becomes key to the planning of poster campaigns, posters can still claim to be the last broadcast medium. This will not be the case if we continue to concentrate on fewer locations and lose the ‘local’ heritage of the medium.”

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