Media Spotlight: Outdoor hots up as Maiden's rail contracts expire

As the incumbent, Maiden potentially has the most to lose, Alasdair Reid reports.

Now and again, you get a stark reminder that outdoor isn't really like any other medium. It doesn't carry any editorial content and the outdoor contractors don't own their own properties. It's as if The Sun was actually owned by WH Smith, and Rupert Murdoch was invited to pitch for the privilege of running it for a while.

Even the biggest outdoor contractor owns little more than a database, a sales team and a posting operation. The posters go up on other people's property.

There's a constant churn process as local authority street furniture contracts or small-scale transport opportunities come up for grabs. And every now and then you get a lot of very big contracts becoming available at the same time.

We're in just such a period and the stakes are high because the most prominent pieces of business are held by Maiden Outdoor. They cover the three rail-related sectors that were previously run by British Transport Advertising before BTA's sale to Maiden in 1995. Included are Network Rail-owned sites in the UK's major stations and the roadside sites situated on the vast tracts of rail-related land owned by the company. There is also a portfolio of properties owned by the 12 train operating companies that run the UK's 24 rail franchises.

This could have major implications for the industry's pecking order.

Network Rail roadside alone represents 8 per cent of the UK's total inventory of 35,000 larger format billboards. And the stakes are, of course, high for Maiden - 25 per cent of its revenue comes from stations and train operating company properties and a further 12 per cent (by number, not revenue) of its billboard estate comes from Network Rail roadside.

This has led to its competitors becoming more than a little mischievous. As one rival explains: "I can't see what Maiden can take from any of this. The bidding will be highly competitive, given that the companies involved alongside Maiden this time around are large multinationals that will take a long-term view about the strategic value of having this business, whatever it takes.

"The owners are duty bound to achieve best value and, like it or loathe it, that usually means the most impressive numbers over the short term. Maiden will have to offer so much in reduced terms that it will lose a chunk of revenue or it will lose out altogether."

If this is the case it has major implications for Maiden's survival as an independent company. It is the only major UK outdoor operator not owned by Clear Channel, Viacom or JCDecaux.

Maiden bosses dismiss such talk out of hand. They point to the fact Maiden has a good record with the rail properties it has developed, including the pioneering big-screen Transvision sites at stations.

David Pugh, the managing director of Maiden Outdoor, points out that the company has successfully retained half of the 24 train operating company franchises during recent weeks. "If an incumbent has a strong historical record and fresh ideas, then it has nothing to fear from the procurement process," he states.

Many in the market agree that some of the Maiden-bashing doing the rounds is pretty silly. But they will admit privately that the tendering system can be fraught with dangers. It is, after all, led by procurement people who the week before will have been buying rails and sleepers or dealing with maintenance contractors such as Jarvis.

Andrew Oldham, the joint managing director of Viacom Outdoor, agrees that some elements in the market have become over-excited: "We are obviously pleased that we have taken GNER and Mersey Rail (from Maiden). But we know that we won't win everything. Nor will Maiden lose everything. As long as our share increases, I will be happy."

Oldham does think, though, that this process could be instrumental in altering the way that these contracts are structured - perhaps incentivising more innovation from the outdoor companies, for instance in introducing new and better types of format.

The good news for advertisers, Alex Thompson, the managing director of Portland Outdoor, argues, is that this sort of process tends to keep quality on the agenda.

He says: "One of the great benefits of contractors becoming part of large conglomerates is that the medium is in better shape than ever before and the competition between the big players is one factor in that."

But Thompson insists that this shouldn't be seen as a slight on Maiden: "Maiden in particular has done a good job and has prospered in the face of the theory that there might be no place for it in the longer term. That sort of talk has just made it raise its game."

Which, for Pugh, will be gratifying to hear. He concludes: "We are confident in our approach because we have an excellent track record and while everyone else may be arguing that this is a situation in which Maiden has a lot to lose, we look at these tenders as an opportunity to grow our business."

CONTRACTS EXPIRING

Network Rail major stations (contract expires October 2004; tender due 1 March, result before end of July). Worth an estimated £18 million per annum to Maiden.

Network Rail roadside (contract expires October 2004; may be broken up into several smaller contracts; tender document due in April). Biggest single billboard owner in the UK.

Worth around £15 million, held by Maiden.

Train operating company franchises (due for renewal at various times, which commenced early 2003). Maiden was the incumbent on all 24 contracts.

It has retained First Great Western, South East Trains and National Express Group. Viacom has picked up GNER and Merseyrail. Others are still to be decided.

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