Media Steps trips up in the outdoor arena

Media Steps, an outdoor media specialist set up to sell ad space on stairways in train stations and sports stadia around the UK, has sold its business for £1 this week after putting up the “for sale” sign (MW last week). It listed on the stock

Media Steps, an outdoor media specialist set up to sell ad space on stairways in train stations and sports stadia around the UK, has sold its business for &£1 this week after putting up the “for sale” sign (MW last week). It listed on the stock market just last June, raising &£1.5m in the process, but it had spent all but &£75,000 of its money, following waning interest from advertisers.

Four giants dominate the UK outdoor sector: Titan (formerly Maiden), Viacom, JC Decaux and Clear Channel. Media Steps’ failure underlines how hard it can be to make headway against them, yet it is still possible for smaller, innovative companies to grab a slice of the action.

Although some blue-chip advertisers including Air Miles, Ford and Gillette used Media Steps’ network, few were prepared to do anything more than test the service. At best, the company was selling around 10% of its inventory of 386 sites.

The company failed to gain any real momentum. In November it admitted: “It is taking some time to win general acceptance of this new medium.” And in May it said: “The company is still to make any significant breakthrough in attracting long-term commitments from major advertisers”.

Media Steps chief executive Tony Jansen says one of its biggest problems was convincing media agencies to commit their clients’ budgets. Frustrated by their attitude, Media Steps had to bypass agencies and talk directly to advertisers.

“Steps are not the easiest thing for creative agencies to adapt to. It is unlikely agencies would go to the cost and effort of creating new artwork,” says Lloyd Keisner, managing director of Tabletalkmedia, which sells ad space on café table tops and coffee sleeves. But he adds: “Agencies are not unsympathetic to small, innovative companies. If you’ve got a good product they’ll give you time. They want to go to clients with new ideas.”

Indeed, Kinetic ran a Visa campaign with Tabletalkmedia on tables and coffee sleeves. The client was attracted by the chance of getting its message into people’s hands and into offices. It also fits with Visa’s wider push to encourage customers to use their credit card for smaller purchases. “It seemed apt to advertise on coffee sleeves and table tops in an outlet where core sales are made from lower-cost items such as coffee,” says Kinetic account manager Laura Moorcraft.

Meanwhile, Adwalker, which uses models equipped with computers to talk to customers in shopping centres and airports, has attracted advertising from the likes of Guinness, Disney and Microsoft. Although it isn’t expecting to make a profit this year, it is making steady progress. But group chief executive Simon Krisp says it is important not to appear as a competitive threat to the major companies.

“If you’re on their radar doing something similar you can’t expect them to be anything other than aggressive,” he states. Instead, his firm has been in talks about how it could work with the major outdoor companies.

Tabletalkmedia has also had a successful year. It is making a profit, and Keisner says that its main offering of tabletop ads is already selling well into next year. In June 2005, it launched ads on coffee sleeves in Coffee Republic and Benjys. It has sold more than 6 million ads and demand is growing. It recently booked its entire network of 1.2 million sleeves for the first time, with Visa and mobile operator 3 both running month-long campaigns.

Unfortunately for Media Steps, it was unable to make a compelling argument about its proposition. The unnamed private buyer of the two operating subsidiaries is now expected to change the business model of the company in an effort to attract more interest from advertisers.

Dominic Dudley

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