Why out-of-home must quickly get to grips with mobile media


With all the benefits of personalisation that mobile ad networks bring, out-of-home must adapt to remain competitive.

One of the most persistent put-downs of the internet era is to tell someone they “don’t get it”. But even for those who do “get it”, the sad truth is that getting it doesn’t come with life membership. It turns out that, as technology develops, you have to keep getting it over and over again.

Simon Waldman, group product director at Lovefilm and former group director of digital strategy at Guardian Media Group, makes a similar point in his book Creative Disruption. The process of disruption, he says, shows no sign of slowing down, and coping with one wave doesn’t mean that you’re going to be okay, because another wave is going to be along imminently.

I was thinking about this because I recently attended a roundtable about the future of out-of-home advertising hosted by 3M GTG. Out-of-home did pretty well during the first wave of disruption caused by digital media. One of the unexpected effects of the internet was to give consumers unprecedented levels of control over their media experience, from pop-up blockers to PVRs, so unignorable media suddenly became more valuable, and no one has yet developed a way of allowing you to block out a poster.

More recently, the out-of-home industry has began to embrace digital media with enthusiasm, installing digital screens in shopping centres, in high-traffic areas and in the London Underground. Advertiser response has been positive for a number of reasons. Partly it’s because moving images are more compelling than static ones; partly because the new technology allows them to target audiences by day-part; partly because the ads can be changed when it suits the campaign rather than the poster company; and partly because the ads can include dynamic content that reflects what’s going on in the real world, making them more relevant.

With all the benefits of personalisation that mobile ad networks bring, out-of-home must adapt to remain competitive

But while this development is paying off to the extent that advertisers are demanding a quicker roll-out of more digital screens, and while there is clearly huge scope to increase both the number of the screens and their use, the next wave of disruption may already be about to break.

Smartphone uptake is growing dramatically and mobile ad networks such as Apple’s iAd are gaining traction. And when you have a medium that can deliver personalised, location-based ads into people’s hands, why do you need a poster? Or to put it another way, is mobile the new out-of-home?

The touchstone for the future of digital out-of-home advertising seems to be the film Minority Report; certainly it is for the work done by Dr Frank Shaw at the Centre for Future Studies. Dr Shaw’s recent report, which formed the basis of the recent roundtable, talks about the sort of personalised poster advertising seen in that movie, where the Tom Cruise character is identified by an eye scan and a personalised advertising message is delivered to him via the posters he passes in the mall. The technology to deliver this sort of experience is already with us, but the crucial question is whether it will scale. It simply isn’t possible to deliver a personalised experience to everyone passing through Oxford Circus tube station in the rush hour – there are simply too many of them passing the posters for any meaningful communication to happen. And while it may be possible to deliver that communication at times of lower throughput, you’re then giving up the reach that makes outdoor so attractive.


With a smartphone, on the other hand, the phone knows both where you are and what you’ve recently looked at on the internet. The growth of mobile commerce and the rise of near-field communications will turn your phone into a cashless wallet, meaning your phone will also know a big chunk of your shopping history. That’s an enormous amount of personal data already, without anyone having to have their irises scanned.

So if mobile is the next disruptive force about to hit the out-of-home advertising sector (and it is), what can the sector do in response?

The first answer must be to keep on digitising its sites. Although personalisation may be a step too far for the medium, greater relevancy will always be valuable. And there are still massive efficiencies to be derived from going digital.

The second answer is that the two media can work together; targeted POS advertising using information relayed from the phone to the screen via RFID (radio frequency identity) is already working. Going the other way, QR (quick response) codes allowing people to use their phones to get more information from a poster have yet to really take off in the UK, but a major reason for that is the lack of education around the technology. This is an opportunity for mobile and out-of-home to work together to their mutual benefit.

And the third answer goes back to the reason why outdoor was to some extent insulated from the rush to digital in the last decade. Outdoor is still as hard a medium to ignore as it always was; the glasses that block out the posters you don’t want to see are still some way in the future. l



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