OUTDOOR/AMBIENT: Outdoor and Accountable - The outdoor market has long suffered from accountability issues. But new rigorous research is helping

Do you know how long the average man spends in the urinals? Jessica

Hatfield, the group chief executive officer of the ambient specialist

Media Vehicle, can tell you with confidence that it's 90 seconds.



Hatfield's interest in men's personal habits is, of course, strictly

professional. Because when you're working in the increasingly cluttered

environment of outdoor and ambient media, every last research detail is

an important weapon in the fight for credibility.



The accountability issue has dogged the outdoor industry for years.

Outdoor lacks the editorial context of press or television - people

don't choose to consume posters in the way they choose newspapers or

television programmes, so the relationship with the consumer is

difficult to assess.



Until relatively recently, the outdoor industry did not do itself any

favours.



Measurement of poster exposure was based purely on traffic movement,

providing random statistics that were overstated and, in the end,

discredited.



Add to this the inherent problems of outdoor media - posting dates were

unreliable, sites were often covered in graffiti, ruined by flyposters

or wrecked by rain - and you have an industry lacking the rigour and

discipline to compete with press and television.



Postar (Poster Audience Research) was set up five years ago to address

criticisms levelled at the outdoor industry, signalling a new era of

professionalism in the medium.



'Outdoor has made tremendous strides,' Carole Kerman, the chief

executive of the planning and buying specialist Outdoor Connection,

says. 'But so it should. Media owners are big companies and they have

the resources to provide the right research. Advertisers don't want

vagaries - outdoor had to tighten up.'



So far, Postar measures only roadside posters, judging exposure by how

many people will have looked at the site and registered the message,

rather than merely the number of people passing by.



The organisation has just completed a meticulous classification survey,

categorising every panel in the country in terms of its size,

visibility, height and angle to the road. As well as looking at the

sites themselves, Postar has also carried out research on the way people

respond to them.



For a new survey, drivers have been given special glasses - fitted with

custom-made cameras - which track their eye movements as they pass

poster sites.



And to check that the ads have been posted at the right time and in the

right place, a new electronic barcoding system has been devised, which

sends all the relevant information back to the head office.



Even once the posters are in place, the monitoring system does not

stop.



For moving sites, a new modem is being developed that detects when the

mechanics have broken. Once the problem has been spotted, many of the

sites can be restarted remotely, while the remaining problems can be

promptly fixed on-site by local teams.



Outdoor giants are certainly bringing accountability to the fore.



JCDecaux has undertaken a new research initiative to measure the

effectiveness of moving posters in terms of their impact on the public.

David McEvoy, JCDecaux's marketing director, comments: 'Posters are the

most accountable medium; we just haven't been very good at marketing

ourselves - perhaps we have got a bit of a chip on our shoulder.'



Meanwhile, More Group is testing a system called Postaweb, in which a

date- and time-coded digital photograph is taken of every poster as it

goes up. The photograph is then uploaded on to a website

(www.postaweb.co.uk ), which clients can access and see for themselves

where their posters are located.



McEvoy presents a solid defence of the outdoor industry's progress since

it started taking accountability seriously. Five years ago, he says, 30

per cent of the top 200 clients used posters; the figure is now 90 per

cent. And not so long ago, 50 per cent of poster advertisers were

tobacco, booze and cars; now these stalwarts make up only 15 per

cent.



But the accountability argument is not over yet. Matthew Carrington, the

chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association, admits that

'inevitably, there are gaps'. And Helen Tridgell, Postar's managing

director, concedes: 'It is difficult to measure, because of the sheer

size of it and because people remember a poster but not the site they

saw it on.'



For ambient media, accountability is even more of a thorny issue. Steve

Fuller, a board account director at MediaVest, states bluntly that

ambient's level of accountability is 'none'; while John Billett,

chairman of the Billett Consultancy, says: 'Some of it is interesting,

but some of it is a dog's breakfast - it is a real pot-pourri.'



Hatfield refuses to accept these criticisms. 'Nothing is more

accountable,' she comments. 'It is researched diligently to a level that

can withstand boardroom scrutiny.'



Her biggest success story after six years in the business is supermarket

trolley advertising. With an impact similar to the more traditional

point-of-sale medium, it is relatively easy to monitor sales increases

attributable to trolley ads. However, that doesn't make the claims any

less impressive - Hatfield maintains that trolley advertisers make a 500

per cent return on their investment.



Media Vehicle has just expanded into 400 doctors' surgeries with

Healthtrack, a television screen showing programmes and advertising.

Healthtrack is linked to the queuing system so that patients are forced

to keep an eye on the screen if they want to know when it's their turn

to see a doctor.



'I love the captive markets,' Hatfield says. 'I've got them and they

can't move.' And patients appear only too willing to be held captive:

sur-gery exit polls show that 8 per cent of 'chief shoppers' think

Healthtrack is a good idea, while prompted awareness of advertisers was

as high as 30.6 per cent.



Accountability is, however, still troublesome for many ambient

campaigns.



Their success is measured in column inches rather than awareness studies

because research is often unjustifiably expensive - especially when only

a single stunt is involved.



In defence of the ambient market, Fuller argues: 'The lack of

accountability makes it more interesting. You can't see the figures but

you can see if it's worked, and it's always a good fall-back if a client

wants innovation.'



Most advertisers, however, look for accountability as well as

innovation, and the outdoor industry is doing its best to accommodate

the demands of clients and potential clients.



But, as Tridgell admits, there is still a long way to go. Postar's

in-depth knowledge of the roadside market is useful (as are the figures

for bus shelters, cross-tracks, ambient, etc), but until the industry

has found a way to combine research from all the outdoor formats, a true

picture of its accountability will remain elusive.



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