Outside Influence

Outdoor media’s ability to embrace technology is attracting hi-tech companies as they look to portray a more human face. How have dot-coms bridged the tobacco ad gap?

Outdoor media’s claim to be “the last broadcast medium” is an important part of its proposition. Its ability to deliver mass audiences across the UK has enabled it to grow steadily as part of the brand-building armoury. At the same time, technological advances are allowing outdoor media to become far more targeted and deliver specific audiences.

These apparently contradictory trends are most evident in the phenomenal growth in dot-coms’ outdoor spend. According to Poster Publicity, this sector’s ad spend rose by 1,600 per cent last year to &£16m. It predicts this will rise to &£84m by the end of the year.

Outdoor Connection estimates dot-com spending on outdoor advertising reached &£23m last year – 80 per cent of which was in the final quarter.

Whichever figure is the more accurate, online companies have clearly seen something important about a medium which many people see as the most traditional of all.

So why are the movers and shakers of the virtual world spending so much money on ads in the physical world? Maybe it’s because posters are so real.

“Brands are trying to build a real-world presence. By advertising through outdoor, it makes them feel closer to people. Posters don’t demand anything, they’re easy to use, and they’re not intrusive,” says Henley Centre consultant Michelle Singer.

“A lot of people like a bit of relief from using technology.”

To prevent consumers from “switching off” brands when they turn off their computer, outdoor maintains a brand’s presence, and can even extend the saliency of online advertisers. Promoting the convenience of online shopping to frustrated high-street consumers, or last minute travel to harried commuters, can be a powerful strategy.

There is growing evidence that posters can drive website traffic. Poster Publicity cites a campaign by Prudential – with the strapline “The man from the Pru will come to you” – that ran in spring 1999. The website address only appeared in the outdoor executions, allowing the posters’ impact on hit rates to be tracked. The number of hits per month rose from an average of 200 before the campaign to 8,000 – with 100,000 hits overall.

It is not only in the consumer market that technology company spending on outdoor is booming. JC Decaux Sky Sites managing director Don Sperring says: “Airports are seen as hi-tech environments, and technology brands are at the cutting edge. We have been successful in attracting ads from the hardware side, and from brands such as PalmPilot, Vodafone and Nortel. This has helped to reposition the airport as an ad environment.”

Right across outdoor and out-of-home media, a shift is occurring in terms of how they are perceived by advertisers and agencies and the nature of sites and opportunities available. Technology is bringing about major changes to panels, creating a more modern, even cutting-edge, ad channel.

“We are constantly looking at out-of-home, which encompasses developments such as plasma screens, digital TV and virtual technologies. We feel it is part of our role to see know these things might help advertisers. Our work is not confined to billboards,” says Outdoor Connection managing director Carole Kerman.

Conventional panels are using more technology, such as scrolling panels and improved illumination. For example, Decaux is planning to increase illumination of its 48-sheets from 30 per cent to 80 per cent in London and 60 per cent elsewhere. Meanwhile, local authority enthusiasm for funding street furniture through partnerships with contractors has seen an explosion in six-sheets, which will rise from less than 30,000 in 1995 to 70,000 sites this year.

On the big screen

Technology is creating other opportunities. CentreVision has introduced a network of more than 20 big-screen digital TVs that reach at least 20 million shoppers per month. These are being managed to deliver four distinct audiences according to the day of the week and time of day – adding to the range of TV screens already available in shopping malls, stores and post offices.

Kerman believes these new channels need to be planned and bought as out-of-home, rather than broadcast, media. “We are better placed than TV media buyers, who probably don’t want to get involved in this. These new channels fit neatly with out-of-home,” she says.

Her company believes these technologies will soon migrate beyond their current locations.

Steve Wilson, managing director of Blade, the UK’s largest outdoor buying specialist, agrees: “Councils are becoming more business-oriented and responsive to the ideas people are banging on their doors to tell them about. There is also the Government initiative to increase Net access on the street, which will mean lots of new kiosks. These are going to fall into outdoor’s remit,” he says.

This increases the range of sites that outdoor specialists can buy, at a time when consolidation in the traditional market is reducing the number of buying points. Wilson says: “Fifteen years ago, we had 130 roadside contractors to deal with. We still have the same number of contractors, but only five are roadside. The rest are ambient media owners.”

Increasingly, it is the specialists which are using technology to research outdoor and out-of-home activity. “For these media, audience measurements are largely non-existent,” says Wilson.

Initiatives such as visibility research – which involves using infra-red retinal scanners to measure where pedestrians and drivers look when they pass a panel – are bringing hi-tech solutions to the traditional poster world.

These scanners have had the effect of reducing the opportunities to see (OTS) figures Blade uses to attract advertisers. “It has opened a debate because other people have said we are crazy to reduce the OTS. But that is what clients want,” says Wilson.

He says: “Research is going to take us into an untried and untested environment, but one which is going to offer clients more information, flexibility, and better targeting.”

Posters in motion

For JC Decaux Sky Sites, technology played a significant part in persuading BAA to renew its &£200m contract. As part of its pitch, it offered a package of new initiatives such plasma screens. “We are looking to introduce a series of them at the point of sale. This will offer non-broadcast moving images. They take all the elements of a poster and make them move,” says Sperring.

The company is testing an interactive plasma panel, called InfoPoint, in Paris. Using digital voice-automation technology, an on-screen hostess can explain to travellers where to find specific retail outlets or information points, with a map of how to get there shown on-screen. “It is a 21st-century approach – integrating advertising and services,” Sperring says.

Not all of the advances in outdoor are technology-based. One of the most striking is Mega Profile’s introduction of 300 to 1,000 sq m hyper panels on the sides of construction sites and buildings.

Commercial director Harry Torrance says technology clients are significant users. “The dot-com spend is important to us. At the moment, it is 50 per cent of our revenue base.” The contractor has exceeded half of its 1999 turnover in the first quarter of 2000.

Torrance believes hyper panels such as these have unlocked advertiser demand that was held back by the complex contracting structure. “There were five or six small operators putting up posters. The message I got from media buyers was that there was a lack of trust, confidence and reliability. We are able to offer that,” he says.

In Glasgow, even the Strathclyde Police has apparently expressed an interest in using Mega Profile’s city centre site.

Dot-com bonanza

With the loss of tobacco ads, the outdoor industry clearly needed to find a new advertiser base. It is the industry’s good luck that the dot-com bonanza came at a time when it had more panels available than ever before. But outdoor has also worked hard to bring its inventory into line with the demands of cutting-edge clients.

Poster Publicity joint managing director David Tallis says: “Outdoor is now better marketed and researched. Investment in the medium will see the presentation upgrades and new products being launched. We believe the oldest ad medium is improving with the very latest developments in new technology.”

It is not easy to stay on top of these developments. In fact, without the technology available to outdoor specialists – in the form of intranets and Web access to data – planning and buying the range of media now covered by outdoor and out-of-home would be labour intensive.

By all accounts, the changes driven by technology have only just begun. “We have seen tremendous change over the past five years. The split in how clients are deploying their outdoor budgets has changed a lot over the last year. We are offering more non-mainstream opportunities for clients than ever before,” says Kerman. It seems outdoor is going online.

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