A view from Mark Henson, Primesight

Is digital dumbing down out-of-home?

We must encourage the quest for great classic poster design.

TBWA’s Peter Souter once said, "posters used to be what young creatives cut their teeth on". Note the past tense. It seems that for those whose ad experience is firmly rooted in the digital innovations of the 21st century, a striking static poster or print ad may seem like a relic.

As tech is competing with the purest form of the oldest medium, static out-of-home, have we forgotten how to create classic posters? When was the last time you saw and remembered a classic poster such as the Landrover Hippo ad or the 500cc series that turned Fiat’s fortunes around?

The Landrover Hippo ad

At its simplest, a poster must engage its audience and that audience needs to remember the brand and the message. In other words: Does it inspire? Does it work? You might be able to produce a stunning piece of creative, but will the consumer remember which brand it belongs to? The best posters manage to do both.

As an industry, we are reliant on great art (and copywriting) to sell our medium and yet our ability to actually influence this is limited. The young art directors that provide our lifeblood are riding the wave of short AV format, in-app messaging and consumer generated content. For most, the thought of producing a simple, impactful idea with a picture and a few words must seem like a foreign world. Few will remember the classics from The Economist, Wonderbra and Nike.

We are tasked with the same challenge any established brand faces; how do you renew interest in something that isn’t new?

"If you couldn’t see the brand easily then changes were recommended. The method still works but the science has moved on"

For the OOH industry to thrive, it is imperative we encourage the quest for great classic poster design. To this end, the whole industry is reaching out to the creative community with initiatives including JCDecaux’s Creative Review Art Showcase, Ocean’s Digital Creative Competition and The Ultimate Canvas, a CSR creative collaboration between Primesight, Talenthouse and Campaign – all aiming to challenge creatives to express their ideas in a fresh, simple and powerful way.

The second half of the challenge is to make sure audiences recognise the brand on the poster. For advertisers with OOH heritage, this is easier to achieve as they tap into latent recognition through consistent use of fonts, logos, colours and overall design. The likes of Sky, McDonald's, Vodafone and Specsavers all build on their established visual assets.

For others, science has an important part to play to ensure an audience with limited exposure recognises the brand.

In less technical days, draft posters were printed out on A4, put on a music stand, then walked past to simulate passing a billboard in a car. If you couldn’t see the brand easily then changes were recommended. The method still works but the science has moved on.

PrimeDesign, a creative evaluation tool used by Primesight’s clients, works on the premise of identifying parts of the poster most likely to be noticed in the first three to five seconds, reflecting the typical time the passing audience will have to see the poster.

Working with similar technology as Google Goggles, it produces heat maps and allows advertisers to see which components of the poster are most likely to be noticed. Subsequent changes vary from minor brand logo or text edits to full scale revamping of the design, as happened with Mastercard where the original poster design, resembling a print ad, was completely replaced by a poster with genuine impact.

The original ad, which resembled a print ad
The new ad, which had a much higher impact

Science is not only enabling clients to hone their poster creative but with understanding too, helping to separate a poster creative from a print design, which are often wrongly lumped in together within one creative brief. Posters are not dressing to fit in like press – they are dressing to impress.

Poster creativity has always been a balance between art and science. Too much artistic freedom and you can risk losing brand recognition, whilst too much science can strangle creativity. The scientific tools are available to ensure efficacy but we must also do everything we can to encourage, support and applaud great new artists. They are our future.

Mark Henson is head of marketing and client communications at Primesight