Five by five: half a decade of creativity in digital out-of-home

It's the sixth year of the Ocean Digital Creative Competition, which celebrates the best and most creative digital out-of-home advertising. And, over the course of the competition's history, the medium has undergone sweeping changes.

New technologies have enabled ever-more creative approaches, increasing sophistication in programmatic has led to more flexible implementations, and market penetration of digital out-of-home has shot up as new locations have appeared around the globe. So what can we learn from previous winners and what trends have emerged in this expanding advertising space? We have picked five key areas where winning entries have demonstrated the potential of digital out-of-home as a medium - and how it has developed over the past five years.

Tim Bleakley, chief executive, Ocean

We set up the Ocean Digital Creative Competition to showcase the best, brightest and most creative work in the digital out-of-home sector.

As it enters its sixth year, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the past five years’ worth of awards. The contest has rewarded the creatives who are unafraid to try something new and work that is ahead of its time, and provided a platform for agencies and brands that have gone on to achieve success at the Cannes Lions.

Looking back, we can see how the awards reflect trends that are converging in digital out-of-home now: a focus on location, interactivity, technology, data and programmatic – all rolled into one, with a fantastic creative idea at the heart of it all.

And while it’s tempting to chase those trends, or use many of them at once, it’s also vital to keep digital out-of-home ideas simple while maintaining the core brand message.As we can see from the past five years’ worth of winners and runners-up, it is that simplicity and creativity that connect with consumers – and judges!


In recent years, there has been an explosion in the availability and quality of data. Consumers are sharing data through their smartphones and wearables, while businesses and governments are increasingly open to the idea of sharing their data: everything from real-time public transport information to up-to-the-minute weather reports are now freely available for agencies and brands to employ in their digital out-of-home creative.

As big data went mainstream, digital out-of-home campaigns have made use of it in increasingly sophisticated and inventive ways.

The 2013 awards saw Liveposter harvest a wide array of data sources for its Tate Britain campaign, from flight times to live weather information, serving relevant creative to Ocean’s Two Towers West screens.

The same year, the "Net-a-Porter live" campaign showcased trending products being bought around the world and where purchases were being made.

And, in 2014, Twitter UK’s first-place campaign for Topshop harvested the social media service for Tweets about catwalk fashion trends, showcasing on-trend products from the retailer in real time.

"We’re starting to see data used in digital out-of-home to power campaigns and provide more digital scale," William Scougal, the head of brand strategy at Twitter UK, says. "We’re seeing innovators in this space move away from engagement techniques that need people to be in close proximity to the site, such as motion sensors, to models that are broadly inclusive."

We expect to see data being used to underpin more creative digital out-of-home activity – such as this year’s Ralph Lauren Polo Red campaign, which used Ocean’s Score:Board tech­nology to serve up live score updates from Wimbledon.

The amount and availability of data is only set to increase in the coming years as digital out-of-home draws on information from an even wider set of sources, amplifying their effects and reaching consumers with targeted messages in real time.


Digital out-of-home offers a unique opportunity for consumers to interact with brands in public spaces. In 2010, the competition’s first year, British Airways’ innovative "Caribbean live" campaign invited passers-by to text a pair of holidaymakers questions about where they were in the Caribbean and see their live responses on the screen.

Similarly, 2011’s third-place "pennies for life" campaign for the MicroLoan Foundation encouraged passers-by to text donations in support of small business in Africa, in order to assemble a picture of a woman’s face on the screen.

The interaction between mobile and digital out-of-home has become more sophisticated as smartphones have proliferated. In 2012, Elvis scooped second place for its campaign for Compassion in World Farming: the public could "throw" apples using a web app and the accelerometer in their phone, which triggered an apple-flinging catapult on a pig farm.

The porkers could be seen enjoying their treat on Ocean’s Eat Street @ Westfield London screen via a live feed to a farm in Buckinghamshire. More recently, advances in technology have enabled digital displays to interact with audiences directly.

First place in the 2014 Interactive category was awarded to WCRS for its "if you can see it, you can change it" ad for Women’s Aid. Using gaze-recognition technology, the number of people looking at the screen were monitored, with the creative changing as the audience increased to amplify the brand message of how everyone can make a difference by not turning a blind eye.

As technologies such as facial recognition become more sophisticated, digital out-of-home will be able to offer more nuanced and intuitive interactions with audiences – and more opportunities for creatives to produce innovative work. "A lot of ideas used to require someone to scan a code or opt in or stand in a particular area to use near field communication.

It always felt like a barrier for people to get over, given that they’re waiting for a train or going shopping," Torie Wilkinson, the head of account management at WCRS, says. "What we managed to do with Women’s Aid was something that was eye-catching in its own right and had a very low bar to participation."


As digital out-of-home sites proliferate, the importance of using key locations appropriately is becoming more and more apparent. Interactive digital out-of-home campaigns, for example, require communal public settings where consumers can participate in the action, as seen in the MicroLoan Foundation’s "pennies for life" campaign in 2011 and Compassion in World Farming’s "the world’s first real live feed" campaign the following year.

Both campaigns were sited at Westfield London’s Eat Street: a high-footfall area where consumers could stop and interact with the display on their smartphones. Similarly, M&C Saatchi’s "mind pong" campaign for The Brain Tumour Charity, which took third prize in the 2013 Interactive category, required participants to use EEG headsets to interact with the screen. The campaign lent itself naturally to a high-footfall, pedestrianised location.

"Location brings opportunity in terms of relevance and utility," Scott Hunter, the head of technology at Elvis, says. "Audiences can be given a personalised experience that is both useful and directly relevant to what they are doing at that moment in time." Creatives have also exploited the unique properties of different locations to augment and amplify their message.

For example, Liveposter’s campaign for Tate Britain in 2013 made use of the Two Towers West screens’ proximity to Heathrow to deliver targeted messaging to tourists, while the 2014 winning campaign for Topshop/Twitter utilised The Grid to deliver relevant messages to specific audiences close to Topshop stores across each of the UK’s major cities.

As digital out-of-home screens become more prevalent, skilful use of location to amplify campaigns will help creative work stand out in an increasingly crowded environment. "With the rise of Bluetooth low-energy beacons and wearable tech, this theme of responsiveness and contextuality will continue," Hunter says. "Audiences will be drawn into experiences through proximity-based messaging and interactions."


Programmatic in the digital out-of-home space is still in its infancy, but recent winners and runners-up in the Digital Creative Competition show the potential of real-time ad-targeting. The 2013 third-place winner, "Net-a-Porter live" from PSI and Havas Media, mined data from the Net-a-Porter website to showcase the top purchases around the world in real time.

In the same year, Liveposter, Posterscope and Total Media’s Tate Britain campaign illustrated the potential of programmatic targeting, drawing on real-time data from an array of sources to precisely target motorists passing Ocean’s Two Towers West screens.

Tourists were addressed in their native language, using Heathrow landing times as a guide to which flights would be arriving, while weather data allowed relevant ads to be targeted to conditions that led to more gallery visits. And ads could be adjusted to reflect slower-moving or static traffic.

"There are very interesting automated technologies and data sets emerging that can be brought together to create digital out-of-home campaigns. For example, clever use of weather, time of day, traffic and location data," William Scougal, the head of brand strategy at Twitter UK, says. "I think digital out-of-home can offer us new paths to relevancy and reach when partnered with the right data and the right amplification platform."

As digital out-of-home programmatic matures, brands will be able to tie creative to more specific criteria. For example, Carat and Posterscope’s campaign for Pimm’s this summer served ads during peak commuter periods when the weather reached 21 degrees. We’ll drink to that – and to reaching a wide audience in public spaces with real-time messaging.


From improved infrastructure to new creative approaches, the growth of digital out-of-home over the past five years has gone hand in hand with technological advances. With digital out-of-home offering a unique opportunity to showcase the latest technology in a public space, creatives have produced ever-more eye-catching work for digital displays.

Early winners saw digital out-of-home displays being used to highlight live creative, with the audience interacting through their smartphones – as in the 2010 winner, British Airways’ "Caribbean live", and 2012’s "the world’s first real live feed" from Elvis.

More recent success stories have enabled consumers to interact directly with digital out-of-home displays – with WCRS’s "if you can see it, you can change it" campaign for Women’s Aid employing the latest discovery in facial-recog­nition technology, gaze recognition, to track the number of people looking at the screen. As more people paid attention to it, the bruises on an injured woman pictured on the display gradually vanished.

Other winning campaigns that have yet to make it to our streets demonstrate the creative potential of new technologies – from 2012’s winning Toyota campaign by Glue Isobar, which seeks to integrate digital out-of-home with an energy-harvesting pavement, to Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s motion-tracking "spin the globe" campaign for British Airways.

Across all of these winning campaigns that have struck gold using new technology, there is one common thread: the experience conjured up by the technology and the creative idea behind it are as – if not more – crucial as the use of the technology itself.

"It’s important to remember that you don’t need to invent to innovate," Scott Hunter, the head of technology at Elvis, says. "You can combine proven existing tech in new and innovative ways.

The ‘what’ here is far more important than the ‘how’. We should be keeping the focus on the experience itself – creating something that is not only unique but also relevant to the user."

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

1 How Sainsbury's ads revolutionised the UK's food culture

Abbott Mead Vickers' press ads for Sainsbury's in the 1980s formed the most influential and culturally significant campaign the UK has ever produced, argues Paul Burke.

Just published