OUTDOOR/AMBIENT: Outdoor meets ambient - Once believed to be the wacky medium, ambient is looking more mainstream, Alasdair Reid writes

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

buildings.



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

seriously indeed.



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

is self-explanatory.



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

paper.



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

ambient.



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

argues.



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 -

advertisers.



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

schedule.



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

accountability issue.'



AMBIENT MEDIA DEFINED BY SECTOR

SECTOR/COMPONENTS

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001*

(pounds m)

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

SECTOR/COMPONENTS

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001*

(pounds m)

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

screens, etc.

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

Sources: Concord/bladetracker.

Note: all figures include production.

*Industry forecast



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