A view from Jeremy Lee

Digital advertising dealt Outsmart its final blow

Outsmart's announcement that it will downsize leaves the outdoor trade body looking rather diminished, says Jeremy Lee.

The days when the outdoor industry used to depart en masse to a sunny continental city for its annual beano seem a very long time ago. With the departure of media industry legends Mark Craze and Alan Brydon, chairman and chief executive of Outsmart (its trade body) respectively, they now look even more distant still.

While, in the spirit of the times, maybe a modicum of succour might be found in some quarters to the fact that two more old, white men might have been consigned to advertising history, the pair leave the outdoor trade body looking rather diminished. 

In fact, the pared-down Outsmart will no longer function as a trade marketing organisation at all, instead operating as a trade association – although quite how that manifests itself we’ll have to wait and see. For Craze and Brydon, who re-launched Outsmart from the unsexy Outdoor Media Centre less than a year ago, there must be a feeling of a job unfinished given that they’d only really started to gain some momentum.

But back to outdoor’s sunny Mediterranean days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, the big talking point was when outdoor was going to achieve its ultimate goal of taking 10% of net advertising revenue. It is to the credit of all the sales points that it managed to achieve this goal, in spite of the inexorable rise of the Internet. And according to the most recent figures from the Advertising Association/Warc it remains in rude health – outdoor is predicted to grow by a further 4% in 2016. 

It’s a corollary, however, that that same "internet advertising" – whatever that is (more of that later) – might have dealt Outsmart its final blow. When JCDecaux decided to pull out of the organisation, Outsmart’s ability to put on a united front looked more problematic – suggestions that Exterion Media was also considering its position as a member would only have piled on the pressure.

When the French-owned outdoor giant later decided to join the Internet Advertising Bureau – a move that looked like it was rubbing salt into the wounds – it looked more profoundly wounded.

The rationale behind the move, according to Spencer Berwin, JCDecaux’s UK joint chief executive, was that its estate had become increasingly digitised and digital contributed to nearly 50% of its revenue. Ostensibly, there’s some logic to his move then – although radio, television and newsbrands have been digitalized, a word that is increasingly redundant, for many years now and have continued to operate their own effective trade marketing organisations.

Moreover, there aren’t many outdoor media owners that haven’t invested heavily in digital sites – for example Primesight with its considerable investment in its estate of digital 48-sheets or Ocean Outdoor with its clever use of number plate recognition technology on digital sites. Insiders say, therefore, that it’s possible that JCDecaux would rather be allied to a trade body that posts even bigger year-on-year growth figures – according to the AA/Warc, it will grow 12% this year – or, as some suggest, looks somehow sexier or shinier. 

Ultimately, perhaps JCDecaux’s move also reflects the blurring of lines between the trade bodies, as each have extensive "digital" presences in their own right. Much like the DMA, the IAB is a horizontal trade body that relates to every medium in specific ways. But it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for those old days when all outdoor owners felt confident enough to fight on their own terms rather than under the misnomer umbrella term of "digital advertising".