Billboards and Beyond: Transport - Underground

Exploiting digital will be the main game for the winner of the biggest media contract in the world.

By the time this is published, we should all know the outcome of the pitch for one of the plum media contracts in the world - Transport for London's Underground business. The two remaining contenders, JCDecaux and the incumbent, Viacom Outdoor, certainly hope so - the new ten-year contract kicks in at the start of August.

A decision was originally due to be made in December 2005, but the bidders were kept on tenterhooks as winter became spring. Ideally, the winner would want a little more time to get its proverbial ducks in a row - it's not just the largest media contract in the world, worth an estimated £1.2 billion over ten years, it's a great showcase for the medium, seen each day by thousands of commuters, visitors to the capital and, by night, by those out on the town.

The audience is special - metropolitan and affluent - and so, according to research, is their state of mind. The Underground environment is one of the few in which consumers say they welcome the distraction and entertainment that advertising can provide. So much so, that the contract is regarded by TfL as one of the more significant ways in which journey experience can be enhanced - though some commuters might argue that cutting out a few more delays might be an idea too.

And recent research shows that if you add up all the time Londoners spend exposed to advertising across all media, one-third of that exposure is accounted for by the Underground.

That's a phenomenal share of mind - and it's one of the reasons that Underground advertising has grown at twice the rate of the rest of the outdoor market for at least the past decade.

Inventory hasn't grown, but demand and yield have.

As the new contract shapes up, that growth is set to accelerate. The Underground's marketing director, Chris Townsend, is on record as saying that more rewarding advertising will be part of the drive to maintain a world- class travel system. And for rewarding, read moving pictures.

This has been on the agenda for years, of course, but progress so far has been disappointing. There were plans to introduce cross-track screens in stations, but a trial in 2002 progressed no further when Viacom's then technology partner, DHJ Media, went bust.

Then in 2003, as part of Carling's sponsorship of busking on the Underground, plasma screens were installed at ten West End stations - but they were stripped out when the sponsorship ended.

Recently, there has been a trial installation of escalator-side digital screens at Tottenham Court Road station, running creative work akin to the animated graphics-style executions commonly found on the internet.

Whoever wins the contract will be expected to take digital to a new level, but it's not the only avenue the medium is exploring. For instance, Viacom has taken down conventional panels and replaced them with complete tunnel wraps - delivering more square feet of advertising inventory. But digital is the main game and the big challenge will be a creative one - agencies can't just hope to re-purpose TV ads because, for safety reasons, sound cannot be used on the Underground.

FACT FILE

MAJOR PLAYER: Viacom

WHAT'S NEW: Digital screens, tunnel wraps

CASE STUDY - Aviva

Client: Aviva
Media owner: Viacom Outdoor
Brief: Few people had heard of Aviva, despite it being one of the
largest global insurers. Outdoor was used to target financial
influencers as they travelled through Europe and to highlight Aviva's
position as a forward-thinking company
Budget: £300,000

Target market: City and business community, financial consumers.

Sector inventory used: Burst one - fully wrapped Bank travelator (12 weeks); Bank whole platform (four weeks); 133 x 48-sheets; 11 x 16-sheets.

Burst two - London Bridge whole platform (four weeks); eight x 48-sheets; 11 x 16-sheets.

Wider outdoor inventory: Eurostar, airports.

Other media: Programme content created on CNBC; forward-thinking sections created in quality press; Aviva channel created for PDAs; online discussion forums hosted; debate and awards sponsored as part of the World Economic Forum at Davos.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).