Welcome to the twilight zone. In ambient media not everything makes
sense. This, after all, is the newest media sector which also turns out
to be the oldest. There were handbills not long after there were
printing presses and sandwich board men long before there were
infomercials or banner ads. Some of the graffiti uncovered at Pompeii is
probably evidence of a stunt marketing campaign from circa AD79.
It's elusive in other ways too. Everybody sort of knows what ambient is
but no-one can define it. And what seems at first sight to be relatively
small and insignificant on closer inspection turns out to be a vast,
rapidly expanding territory inhabited by a burgeoning number of mutating
lifeforms. And just when you thought that this was about sticking logos
in life's strange little nooks and crannies, you are reminded that it's
also about the very big work, such as wraps around whole multi-storey
Is this media's ultimate unchartable territory? Perhaps not. A new
report from the outdoor specialist Concord offers what it claims is a
definitive survey of the sector. The report, compiled by talking
directly to the 400 or so media owners active in this area, estimates
that the market was worth more than pounds 90 million last year and will
reach pounds 111 million by the end of 2001.
That's a year-on-year growth rate of 24 per cent.
But the Concord figures, some say, should be treated with caution
because they incorporate revenues from one of the fastest-growing
sectors in the advertising market - the new, big screen technologies and
electronic billboards popping up everywhere. Is the screen alongside the
departures board at Victoria station, launched recently by Maiden
Outdoor, really ambient media?
Perhaps. It's that problem with taxonomy again. You used to be safe in
assuming that ambient meant wacky and fringe. But is ambient, for a
whole list of reasons, actually beginning to merge with the mainstream?
The bigger outdoor media owners are starting to show an interest, and
specialists - such as Concord, obviously - are starting to take it very
Back in February, another specialist, Poster Publicity, launched a unit
called Tranzformer to operate in this sector. Craig Leiper,
Tranzformer's director, would agree that many ambient opportunities are
in areas where consumers now expect to see ads - for instance, shopping
trolleys. He adds: 'As the market matures and players grow in size and
distribution, a tier is developing where the 'mainstream' description
has a true resonance.
Witness the recent acquisitions of More Group. At the opposite end of
the spectrum, the one-man leaflet distribution person with an electronic
display screen perched on his shoulder giving out market information on
the streets of the city could never be described as mainstream.'
Steve Parker, the head of outdoor at Starcom Motive (one of the few
media specialists to negotiate directly with outdoor media owners), also
points to recent moves made by More Group - it took shares in Rock Box,
the student union and music venue media company, and Taxi Media, which
Parker agrees we may be seeing the emergence of two tiers here: 'There
are so many different opportunities and many of them have been around
for so long that we've started calling them traditional ambient and
referring to the newer ones as non-traditional.
The strength of ambient is its ability to concentrate a display message
on a specific audience within a specific environment - and it can do
stuff that other broadcast outdoor media can't do. You can take bits and
pieces of ambient media and with a relatively small investment you can
generate a disproportionate impact.
'The problem is perhaps that it's breeding so many opportunities, most
of which obviously have no historical data and can't offer
accountability. Some are becoming more accountable, especially the
elements that have been around for longer, and we are drumming home that
they must be more accountable.'
Parker, like many other planners and buyers, says confidence is also a
factor. Some of the ambient companies look and feel like fly-by-night
operators. If you don't believe that a media owner is going to be around
in six months' time, you're hardly going to regard it as a serious
mainstream player, no matter how good its proposition looks on
The litmus test is accountability, Glenn Wilson, a board director at
Posterscope, argues: 'Ambient includes things that are at very different
stages of their life cycle. When a new opportunity comes along, people
tend to use it mainly for stunt and public relations purposes but in
time it must become accountable and plannable as other media are or else
it will disappear off the radar.
'The big question is whether this sector can invest in the research to
drive its proposition forward. If not, the danger is that the sector
becomes devalued and seen as just more clutter. I think it has to be a
cohesive initiative on behalf of the media owners. It will take
investment. It will require the bigger media owners to stick their heads
above the parapet.'
The problem, of course, is that the sector is so fragmented. Everybody's
too busy fighting for crumbs to get the big picture - aren't they? The
ideal person to ask is John Scorah, a director of Media Initiatives, an
ambient sales house that's evolving into a media owner by taking stakes
in the companies it works for. It's probably the largest player in
Scorah has some sympathy with the two-tier notion - but, as always,
nothing in ambient is black and white. 'It's true that we shouldn't lump
together one-off stunts that will soon disappear into the ether with
things that have acquired some longevity,' he states - but he argues
it's hard to tell which is going to be which in the early days.
'A lot of people laughed at washroom ads in the early days. Why would
anyone want to advertise in smelly toilets? It's now seen for what it
is. It has a pure filter -it's either 100 per cent male or 100 per cent
female and it's a desirable young audience. These days, washroom
advertising is often the first thing to go on to a schedule and the last
thing to come off. The serious players are now looking at washroom -
look at Rock Box, for example.'
But will the prospect of bigger players joining the sector help drive
accountability up the agenda? Possibly, Scorah says, but this isn't just
a question of resource, it's about commitment too. 'It needs cash but
it's also about those who are interested in the sector and want it to
grow and are prepared to put money back in.'
And he adds that it's too early to tell what the big outdoor companies
think of ambient. Scorah says: 'The big companies don't have the
internal systems to develop some of these opportunities. There is no
point in having research and development guys working in a sector where
maybe one in 20 ideas actually work. They let other people do that and
then come in when the time is right.
'But will they run them as well as the original companies? Will they
want to? A lot of the big companies are interested in the new electronic
display technologies that are basically out-of-home broadcast
opportunities. They are being lumped in with ambient but are they
really? It's not ambient in the way that putting branding on opera
glasses is ambient.'
Wilson tends to agree with that. 'The bigger media owners are interested
in acquisition when there's a natural fit with their existing portfolio
but there's not a great deal of evidence that they want to buy into golf
holes or washroom panels. To me, ambient is about small formats and
ubiquity. It's not really something for the bigger players,' he
David Pugh, the marketing director of Maiden Outdoor, points out that
the company has been doing ambient for longer than most people give it
credit for. Maiden has the contract for all Railtrack stations and the
train operating company stations and offers opportunities such as floor
advertising, washrooms and ticket barriers.
But, perhaps, Pugh illustrates the general philosophical stance taken by
big media owners towards ambient when he affirms his dislike of clutter:
'Generally speaking, outdoor has to guard against covering every
available space with advertising. I can understand why some are tempted
but if we create clutter it will cancel itself out and it will be
difficult for advertisers to achieve standout.'
But what about the most important factor in the ambient equation -
Are they taking ambient more seriously? Or will it always be too
off-the-wall for most of them?
As one media specialist puts it: 'If you want to know the truth about
ambient, for most clients it's there to add spice to the same-old TV
campaign and the same-old media plan that's been in place for God knows
how many years. They take upwards of pounds 5,000 and see how much fun
they can have with it. All they want is a little bit of coverage in
Campaign and the Evening Standard.'
Some would admit there's a little bit of truth in that. Or, at least,
there was in the past. But more clients are willing to consider
ambient-only campaigns or ambient-led campaigns - and they're especially
willing to listen to the arguments of planners who insist that it can be
used cleverly (and relatively cheaply) to plug gaps in an overall media
As Wilson says: 'Among clients, there is a general awareness of ambient
media. They do expect to see proposals added on and it tends to be
planned on the back of general outdoor campaigns. Some are early
adopters by nature but as to whether ambient can take the next step
forward, I'd have to say it yet again: you can't get away from the
AMBIENT MEDIA DEFINED BY SECTOR
1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001*
TRANSPORT: 5.0 7.8 13.1 17.0 24.6 32.2
Underground, train and bus stations, airports, car parks,
bus stops and buses, etc.
LEISURE: 3.4 7.8 11.4 14.9 21.0 25.0
Cinemas, sports stadia, pubs, restaurants, health and fitness venues,
theme parks, music venues, park playgrounds, etc.
POINT OF SALE: 5.0 8.9 15.3 16.8 20.2 24.5
Shopping centres, petrol stations, supermarkets, CTNs, post offices,
banks, etc. (Does not include point-of-sale six-sheets.)
ROADSIDE: 2.0 4.0 7.1 11.4 15.6 19.1
Ambient advertisements consumed alongside or close to the roadside
including: mobile six-, 48- and 96-sheets, phone box posters, bench and
bin posters, etc.
OTHER: 2.0 4.1 7.3 6.3 8.7 10.6
Schools, universities, colleges, public libraries, hospitals, police
departments, ambulance services, council offices, corporate HQs,
exhibition centres, etc.
TOTAL: 17.4 32.6 54.3 66.3 90.1 111.3
AMBIENT MEDIA DEFINED BY FORMAT
1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001*
POSTERS: 5.8 10.9 19.2 22.6 41.0 52.4
Fixed posters in locations ranging from washrooms to supermarket
trolleys, telephone boxes to schools, exhibition centres to pubs
and music venues, etc.
DISTRIBUTIVE: 6.1 10.5 14.9 19.2 22.4 27.2
Tangible and distributed ambient media: car park tickets, takeaway lids,
petrol sales receipts, airline tickets, carrier bags, bank receipts,
boarding cards and wallets, bus, Underground and rail tickets, deli-
tickets, retail till receipts, taxi receipts, wage slips, etc.
SPONSORSHIP: 2.0 4.5 8.6 11.1 10.6 13.4
Opportunities include: Underground and train stations, whole trains,
airport lounges, playgrounds, public service departments, aeroplanes,
golf holes and pins, etc.
SCREENS: 0.1 0.7 1.2 4.7 6.9 7.5
Shopping mall video screens, petrol forecourt monitors, projections, LED
MOBILE POSTERS: 1.9 3.2 5.2 5.9 5.9 6.6
Posters on: lorries, vans, bicycles, barges, sandwich boards, etc.
AERIALS: 1.5 2.8 5.3 2.8 3.3 4.2
Ads in the sky ranging from sky writing, balloons, airships, blimps,
towed banners, etc.
TOTAL 17.4 32.6 54.3 66.3 90.1 111.3
Note: all figures include production.