Decaux makes an issue out of size

Outdoor specialist JC Decaux is to enter new territory offering ‘super sites’ in London. Is bigger better and can Decaux make it big?

Size matters. At least it does to advertisers, claims JC Decaux as it plans to enter the UK’s large-scale billboard market, currently dominated by US company Van Wagner (MW August 9).

In a departure for the company, which has built up a specialism in street furniture sites, Decaux is seeking planning approval for five large panels in key London locations within the north/south circular areas. It plans to offer five backlit sites, measuring 60ft x 15ft, from November 1. The sites are understood to be priced as a package at £100,000 for two weeks, plus production costs.

JC Decaux marketing director David McEvoy says: “Decaux has taken the decision that there is a market in London for these sites, as a lot of clients are asking for them.”

McEvoy denies speculation that Decaux intends to offer clients up to ten sites, saying: “Five is the right level for us. They are the quality that our clients expect with every single site in the centre of London.”

He admits Decaux has also been testing scaffolding sites, again in response to client demand. But he adds that the company “has not gone actively searching for sites”.

Research conducted by Outdoor Connection on giant banner scaffolding sites shows industry revenue from this sector grew by 689 per cent between 1998 and 1999 to a total of £2.76m. Only five giant banner sites existed in 1998, increasing to 41 in 1999. Clothing and accessories – sectors traditionally associated with magazine advertising – have been the biggest spenders in the medium.

Industry experts believe Decaux wants to carve out a stake in large formats, seeing them as a potentially lucrative premium-priced market.

Poster Publicity business development director James Copley says: “The fact that Van Wagner has been successful in ‘super sites’ shows there is a market. Decaux probably thinks if Van Wagner can do it, so can we.”

Outdoor Connection joint managing director David Payne agrees that there is a burgeoning market. He says: “I think it’s what the market is crying out for. Advertisers are demanding these types of sites.”

Van Wagner, which launched in the UK in 1999, has about 60 large-format sites across London. The sites, which can be sold individually or as part of a package, include 85ft-long lightboxes.

Van Wagner sales and marketing director Kevin Shute says: “There’s an awful lot of very average poster sites in this country. Van Wagner is trying to give advertisers the chance to rise above the clutter.”

He claims that in London alone there are 10,000 48-sheet sites, 21,000 six-sheet and 2,500 96-sheet sites. “Decaux is an outdoor street company – 50 years of heritage. For it to move into these huge sizes is almost an acknowledgement on its part that there are too many six-sheets in London,” says Shute.

He claims Decaux is being forced to look beyond the six-sheet “commodity” market because of over-supply and competition from the likes of Adshel. But McEvoy denies this is the case and says the six-sheet market has been “exceptionally robust”. He adds there is potential growth for Decaux in this area by continuing to win local authority contracts.

Posterscope managing director Steve Bond agrees: “Everyone is under pressure to increase revenue. Decaux is looking to get revenue from new media by encouraging dormant advertisers or new advertisers.”

He refers to the More Group as another contractor that has developed a new form of site – Golden Squares – which measures 20ft x 20ft (compared with a standard 48-sheet which is 20ft x 10ft) and offers clients something new that stands out from the crowd.

Copley suggests Decaux’s move is an attempt to protect its relationships with key site owners and to prevent Van Wagner offering more lucrative rental agreements.

McEvoy denies this is the case.

But Bond has words of warning for Decaux: “Next year is going to be a difficult one. I question the timing of it [Decaux’s move]. Van Wagner isn’t selling these sites ahead of the market, it is selling about the same time or slightly later.”

Copley agrees: “When the market is not very strong these things get hit early, because there’s such a premium on them.”

But Van Wagner’s Shute maintains that super sites should hold their own in recession because the medium targets London-based affluent consumers with money to spend, whatever the state of the economy. He compares the medium to London’s Evening Standard, which in the past has continued to attract print advertisers in a recession.

Bond has another warning for Decaux: “Planning in this country is so archaic it doesn’t encourage these kind of initiatives.”

Shute admits planning permission can be difficult to obtain as there is no immediate advantage for local authorities, unlike six-sheet sites for which contractors build bus shelters.

Not all outdoor contractors see super sites as a potential revenue stream. Maiden Outdoor managing director David Pugh says: “Maiden’s approach is to put key London sites into other packages of 96 or 48 sheets. Going into a totally different format may provide a stand out for an advertiser, but runs the risk of not being connected to the rest of the campaign by consumers.”

Poster contractors appear to be taking the old adage – it’s not size that matters but what you do with it – to heart in responding to advertiser demand.

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