In the past five years, £170m has been spent boosting outdoor stock - upgrading poster sites and introducing digital screens. This, along with the reduction in lead times for posting up campaigns to a matter of days, has put outdoor on a par with other media, according to the industry.
Meanwhile, the Postar audience measurement system claims to equal anything offered by newspapers, television and radio for accuracy and transparency.
Despite these improvements, however, some marketers and media buyers remain sceptical about the ability of outdoor to be as nimble as TV and press. They believe the medium is unresponsive, and lacks credible measurement systems.
Figures from the Outdoor Advertising Association (OAA) show that revenue in 2008 was down year on year in each quarter - no doubt providing food for thought for delegates at the trade body's conference earlier this month.
In response, the outdoor industry is arguing that its audience is growing strongly, as people spend more time in the ‘third space' outside the home. This is backed up by a study conducted
by outdoor agency Kinetic. According to its ‘Moving World UK' report, the regeneration of public spaces over the past decade has made urban environments more amenable to advertising. It claims the amount of time people spend out of the home has increased by more than 50% over the past 10 years.
James Copley, managing director of outdoor media buyer Kinetic UK, is staying positive amid the gloom affecting the sector. ‘The general trends are extremely positive for out-of-home advertising,' he says. ‘People are going out more as they see the urban infrastructure being developed. Stations, airports and retail spaces are being improved. We have got to keep going back to those trends. Here is a medium constantly growing its audience.'
It is a view supported by some marketers. ‘There is a long-term future for outdoor,' says Nokia UK marketing director Will Harris. ‘From a brand owner's point of view, it is the only mass-market medium left. You can't buy a spot on TV to reach pretty much everyone any more, but you can with outdoor.'
However, he adds the proviso that contractors will struggle to charge a premium price, describing outdoor as ‘almost an occult industry' that needs to improve the transparency of deals. ‘They have rebranded their poster sites. Now they need to rebrand the industry itself,' he says.
High hopes are being pinned on the introduction of digital screens at transport hubs and shopping centres. The technology used in the screens, which now account
for 8% of outdoor sites, offers greater flexibility, allowing creative to be run for nearby shops and services and day-part advertising. A campaign for Peroni beer run by Ocean Outdoor, for example, was shown on the ‘media wall' at Liverpool's Lime Street railway station between
5pm and midnight to target people going home after finishing work or heading out for the evening.
Digital screens also enable innovations in full-motion video. CBS Outdoor operates 900 such sites on the London Underground and plans to install a further 1000. The company helped create the UK's first live international outdoor campaign earlier this year for broadcaster Five, to back the launch of its Five US channel, with the strapline ‘Are you watching America?' The work used cross-track projectors along the entire length of a platform at Oxford Circus Tube station to show live footage of people in New York's Times Square.
Earlier this year, JC Decaux ran a nationwide four-week push for Cadbury's Creme Egg on digital bus-shelter screens. It used an interactive game where members of the public could ‘goo the egg' via a touchscreen to win points. The company also ran a digital screen campaign for flu remedy Beechams that went live only when the temperature dipped below 10°C.
CBS Outdoor managing director of sales and marketing Tim Bleakley cites these as examples of a revolution in outdoor. ‘A lot has been invested in the past two years and this has coincided with the slowdown in the advertising market,' he says. ‘Out-of-home advertising will come out of the downturn all guns blazing.'
However, some outdoor digital advertising initiatives have flopped. Tesco TV, the supermarket's in-store advertising channel, recently folded, illustrating the apparent limitations to the extension of digital screens across the third space.
Such blips feed scepticism about the industry's claims of reinvention. Questions over flexibility and inadequate measure-ment persist, and outdoor is having a tough time competing with TV, where ad rates are at a 20-year low.
‘Digital formats seem like a good idea,' says Tony Mattson, group business director in the planning team at media agency Universal McCann. ‘But in terms of meeting advertising and brand objectives, we're not seeing a huge amount of evidence that additional investment is resulting in the improvements you might expect,'
He points out that the falling cost of TV advertising means a brand with a budget
of a few hundred thousand pounds, which last year it might have spent on outdoor, can now afford to run a broadcast campaign. ‘We are finding for most clients, TV is the fall-back option,' he adds.
In addition, many brand tracker and measurement systems, such as Millward Brown, only pick up shifts in brand perceptions generated by TV advertising. ‘Other media can't affect them because the samples are too small,' says Mattson.
Sky's head of media planning, Steve Beckett, describes outdoor - on which the broadcaster spent about £15.5m last year - as a useful support medium for TV. He says it offers good value and that digital screens are making a big difference, as they can showcase the broadcaster's content.
Nonetheless, he believes that measuring effectiveness is a big challenge. ‘We are not always confident of the read outdoor is giving us,' he adds. ‘A better methodology of campaign reporting is needed. The industry should work toward this.'
Some maintain that the immediacy of outdoor advertising gives it an edge over TV. ‘We know our signs are right outside the shops, so people will consume our media,' says Nigel Clarkson, sales and marketing director at contractor Primesight. ‘On TV, you watch the ad the night before, so by the time you get to the shop the message is eight hours old.'
Brand owners are also being tempted by a combination of posters and Bluetooth technology. Primesight, for example, ran a poster campaign for Toyota in 25 Vue cinemas that invited people to switch on their mobile phone's Bluetooth function in order to download a music track. According to Toyota, there were 49,500 successful downloads.
According to Dave McEvoy, marketing director of JC Decaux, developments in printing technology have also improved the flexibility of static posters. He points to a Tesco campaign on price cuts, which ran
at the end of last year.
‘Tesco booked a six-week campaign. It delivered the copy on a Monday, and we printed and posted it by Wednesday morning on 8000 six-sheets,' he says. ‘You would never have considered outdoor capable of that before.'
He also points out that six-sheets cost £1.20 per 1000 views, compared with £5 for TV, offering the cheapest rates of any medium. ‘We are offering eyeballs at a quarter of the cost,' says McEvoy. ‘Because of the growth in our audience, the value we offer has got better rather than worse.'
However, CBS' Bleakley acknowledges that advertising is a conservative industry, and marketers and advertisers still need
to be persuaded that the outdoor sector really has improved. ‘We have to make
them more aware and educate them about how outdoor has changed, and what it is capable of,' he says.
According to the OAA, outdoor's share of display-advertising revenue - which
also includes TV, press and cinema - hit 10% in the second quarter of 2008, up
from 6% in 2000. However, in the context of the worst advertising recession in history, it will be a while before it becomes clear whether outdoor's investment in
new technology has paid off. n