Jeremy Lee: Outdoor has been caught out yet again and it's getting tiring

By Jeremy Lee,, Thursday, 17 November 2011 08:00AM

The news that the FBI had arrested two former Posterscope chiefs over suspected fraud only sought to confirm the worst suspicions among cynics for a medium whose reputation for financial probity has often been the subject of finger-pointing and sniggering.

Jeremy Lee

Jeremy Lee

Aegis initiated the prosecution following an internal investigation, but it took five years before the apparent $19.7 million defalcation came to light. For an industry that has had more than its fair share of financial questions over the years, this is unfortunate.

And while the scandal, which involves two former Posterscope USA chiefs, Todd Hansen and James Buckley, who allegedly made fictitious accounting entries in order to hit bonuses, is isolated to America, it's not difficult to imagine there were a few squeaky bums among the seedier side of the outdoor community on this side of the Atlantic.

The recurring issue of exotic accountancy - sur-commissions, additional incentive bonuses and such like, though certainly not against the law - has thrown a dark cloud over the outdoor industry for too long. In fact, it seems to be so deeply and culturally ingrained that it's an integral part of its DNA.

I also think it's one that does the medium a disservice given the talent and the level of innovation - and in frequent instances, despite terrible odds - that outdoor media owners have invested in making their sites relevant and future-proof.

As Spencer Berwin, the managing director of sales at JCDecaux, points out this week, there is much to be proud of, particularly as we enter the key Christmas retail period. With digital outdoor now a national sell, media owners have strived to make their inventory more dynamic and attractive to advertisers way beyond the old paste and paper technology.

Of course, there have been errors and textbook British cock-ups along the way - the ongoing CBS Outdoor/Transport for London contract farrago, in particular, springs to mind - but, in general, the industry's people have worked hard to give it the credibility that it deserves.

In a sector that sometimes looks bereft - and increasingly so - of big personalities with a passion for the medium that they sell, outdoor continually punches above its weight, and talk that it has to rely on supplying agencies with enhanced remuneration or dodgy deals to maintain its share of advertising is surely a matter of regret for all concerned.

With the Olympics starting in eight months' time, now is surely the opportunity for the outdoor industry to show its true value and not devalue the key sites that it owns with the offer of ludicrous incentives that damage it and tempt the greedy with the promise of a fast buck.

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