How Decaux saved outdoor from being just a wallflower

When JC Decaux introduced bus-shelter advertising 40 years ago, he laid the foundations for the strong outdoor sector we have today.

Last week it was The Sun’s 40th birthday. The week before, it was the Observer colour magazine’s. This week it’s the turn of the Daily Telegraph Magazine. And at the Outdoor Advertising Conference in Barcelona on Friday we heard of another development 40 years ago that has had a significant influence on today’s media.

The year 1964 was a fertile one for media. The Sun changed the face of journalism in Britain, though not until the original broadsheet paper had failed and been taken over by Rupert Murdoch. The Observer and Telegraph magazines made the colour supplement a way of life, following in the footsteps of the Sunday Times.

Radio Caroline, the UK’s first pirate radio station, was launched in March 1964, opening up the airwaves for Radio 1 and, later, for legitimate commercial stations. April this year marked the 40th birthday of BBC2, which pioneered targeted television in Britain by developing programme genres that the two mass-audience channels – BBC1 and ITV – had little room for. Today these genres command whole digital channels of their own.

What I hadn’t realised until last week’s Barcelona conference was that 1964 was also the year of the first bus-shelter advertising. This revolutionised the outdoor medium by encouraging partnerships between local authorities and outdoor contractors.

By agreeing to build and service bus-shelters in urban spaces in return for the right to sell advertising on them, the outdoor industry acquired a social purpose it had hitherto conspicuously lacked. That development – coupled with huge investment and high-quality design and lighting – has underpinned the modernisation and growth of the business.

Other media could always point to the benefits their advertising brought to the community. Newspaper and magazine ads kept down cover prices, providing a subsidy to readers, enabling publications to reach a wider readership. Television ads funded the whole of ITV, including its public service programming – such as documentaries, news, arts and religion. Outdoor advertising had no such cloak of respectability.

I remember a speech by the director-general of the Independent Television Authority in which he contrasted the benefits of TV advertising with the perceived problems of posters, implying that they spoiled the environment for no purpose other than to boost the profits of advertisers and poster companies. That was in the Seventies, long before the social partnerships between outdoor contractors and public authorities became commonplace.

Bus-shelter advertising began in France and was the invention of Jean-Claude Decaux, whose surname is displayed on poster panels across much of the UK, Europe and the US. JC Decaux is now the second-largest outdoor company in the world and its range of street furniture includes city information booths, advertising kiosks, newsstands and automatic public toilets.

Such practices are now standard in the industry but like the success of The Sun, it didn’t happen overnight, as Jean-Francois Decaux – the founder’s son – told advertisers, agencies and contractors in Barcelona.

“The industry said the six-sheet panels on bus-shelters were too small and it took six years for them to get established,” he said. Twenty years later, he said, it was the same story with public lavatories: “‘Why does a media company want to get involved with toilets?’ we were asked.”

Whatever the industry’s reluctance to embrace that vision, it has more than made up for it now, as the Barcelona conference demonstrated.

The main message – from the advertiser and agency speakers, as well as the poster companies – was that the UK outdoor business had been transformed in recent years, through consolidation and investment. And though there is cut-throat competition for contracts between the four major players – Clear Channel, JC Decaux, Maiden and Viacom Outdoor – the industry has substantially increased its market share.

According to the latest Advertising Association figures, outdoor’s revenue grew by 12.6 per cent in the past quarter, twice as much as the next medium. It now claims almost ten per cent of the media market, up from five per cent in 1990, and according to Jean-Francois Decaux, the UK’s outdoor industry is comfortably outperforming the rest of the world.

Some 80 per cent of the biggest advertisers now use posters regularly, though relatively few use it as the lead medium and some dip in and out too often for the contractors’ comfort. Research methods have improved too, giving greater confidence to most advertisers, in what once was seen as a cowboy medium. Postar has begun measuring audiences to rail and London Underground poster sites and will soon take in buses and taxis.

Forty years after the launch of The Sun and BBC2, TV and newspapers audiences are fragmenting, while the impact of outdoor is growing. Perhaps the main danger now – and one it should take seriously – is complacency.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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