AMBIENT MEDIA: Ambient Media comes of age - Urinals, petrol pumps and golf holes have lost their alternative image and are now viewed as a valuable part of the media mix

They had to shrug off all the gags. Pretend not to mind that their calls went unanswered in countless marketing departments and ad agencies. They had to look us in the eye and tell us honestly that our campaign would survive quite nicely without them - and that, if we wanted research,unfortunately we had come to the wrong place.

They had to shrug off all the gags. Pretend not to mind that their

calls went unanswered in countless marketing departments and ad

agencies. They had to look us in the eye and tell us honestly that our

campaign would survive quite nicely without them - and that, if we

wanted research,unfortunately we had come to the wrong place.

They had to perform all these thankless tasks - and others besides. They

may still have to for some considerable time to come. But something is

changing. Only now is the rest of adland starting to believe what they,

the practitioners, have always known - ambient media is no longer an

excuse for a string of lame jokes about Chinese take-away lids,

loo-seats, or whatever it happens to be. Ambient media is an

increasingly valuable part of the media mix. Just ask Rupert


Earlier this year, the media tycoon completed a massive dollars 457

million acquisition deal for the US media group, Heritage, the bulk of

whose business is Act Media, an in-store media group. Act was the

biggest player in the more developed and frenetic US market, which means

Murdoch is now the market leader.

’It just seemed like a vote of confidence for ambient media as a whole,’

Jessica Hatfield, the managing director of the UK in-store advertising

group, The Media Vehicle, explains. ’After all, you don’t often see

Murdoch investing in something that doesn’t have a real future.’

In fact, it’s not difficult to see the attraction. Spending on ambient

media has been soaring for the past couple of years. The poster

specialist, Concord, is forecasting a total ambient spend of pounds 10.5

million in the first six months of this year, compared with pounds 7.5

million for the same period last year, and just pounds 5 million in


This increased spend has been helped, in part, by the success of outdoor

events like last year’s Euro 96 soccer tournament. Yet while these

garner the headlines, what is underpinning the growth is the shift in

the way the medium is used.

Admittedly, its name does make it sound passive and unexciting but, in

reality, ambient media is broad enough to encompass the bold and brash,

as well as the fantastic and the bizarre. It’s perhaps best described in

terms of what it isn’t - vagrant advertising that doesn’t fall into any

of the mainstream categories. Within that broad range, however, it runs

the gamut from airborne ads to spots on shop floors, in golf holes, on

ticket stubs and other unexpected sites. And, unlike its mainstream

siblings, the medium derives much of its power from its proximity to the

product, that fact that its presence is so close to the point of


Ambient media, when it was thought of at all, tended to be viewed as a

fringe medium, best used as the basis of a PR stunt. Now, however, there

is growing support for the medium taking its place alongside mainstream

advertising as part of a mature media plan. And that, together with the

increasing presence of blue-chip advertisers in everything from floor

ads to petrol pump nozzles, is helping to rewrite the revenue


’I think there was a time when advertisers looked at ambient as an

opportunity to make a PR splash and not much else,’ Graham Bednash, a

cofounder of Michaelides and Bednash, concedes. ’And there is still a

great opportunity if you are the first to launch a campaign with

take-away lids, for example, and to milk the PR return. But I think

people now accept ambient as a medium and recognise that the media

strategy is responsible for how well itis used, in much the same way as

it is with other media.’

And that means being aware of how the medium should be approached.

Bednash is currently considering using ambient media in club loos - the

signs are placed at eye level above the urinals - as part of a new

campaign for Tango.

Here the attraction lies not so much in the initial ambience of the

presentation, as it does in its proximity to the point of sale. Whatever

the downside of that kind of positioning it does, at the very least,

address an audience at the moment it is at its most receptive and, if

situated in a bar or restaurant, for example, shortly before they make a

purchasing decision.

In fact, the targeting of the message is considerably more precise than


Hi-Tech Solutions, the Manchester-based pioneer of this service, works

with big-name venues like Whitbread, Rank and Allied Domecq, all of

which have extensive research data about their pubs and clubs. This can

be combined with youth research data such as TGI to provide a more than

adequate picture of youth behaviour patterns. It’s not particularly

complicated, but then it’s not a medium that needs to be. The trouble is

that, recently, the simplicity of this message across the medium as a

whole has been blurred.

’We had a tough time of it at first in getting to talk to the

supermarkets,’ Ninian McGregor, the international managing director of

Eyes Down Media, a floor advertising specialist, admits. ’Ambient media

didn’t have a terribly good reputation, and supermarkets are fed up with

hearing from people with get-rich-quick schemes.’

In the event, Eyes Down started out in central Europe, opening up in

Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, before securing a deal with

Sainsbury’s Savacentre in the UK in September last year. The hypermarket

group only went with the scheme after conducting two lengthy tests. Eyes

Down now operates in 13 Savacentre stores with a combined audience of

one million customers a week. Clients include Nestle, Unilever and Mars,

all of whom have booked repeat business.

’There does seem to be a gap growing between agencies who want to take

the advertising further away from the point of sale and charge more, and

clients who want to bring it closer,’ McGregor says. ’That’s the thing

about ambient media owners - we want to complete the loop. We don’t

pretend to replace other advertising, but what we can do is close the

deal and make the glossy TV campaigns translate into higher sales.’ But

it is important to make a distinction between the types of ambient

advertising that help on a strategic brand level and those that perform

a solely tactical purpose.

Currently, the bulk of the medium falls into the second category. But

some advertisers have infiltrated the medium to help with their brand

positioning, especially if they are targeting youth brands. Nike is a

classic example of this. At Euro 96, the sports shoe manufacturer passed

on the opportunity to become an official sponsor, and concentrated

instead on waging its own guerrilla marketing campaign based on ambient


’We try to exploit what you could call the ’multiplication effect’ in

communications - where lots of small promotions and unusual media

choices, like hot air balloons around an event, all eventually add up to

more than the sum of their parts,’ Paul Simons, the chief executive of

Nike’s agency, TBWA Simons Palmer, says. In Euro 96 that meant

advertising on balloons and lampposts, as well as handing out

merchandise bags. The result was that Nike overhauled the official

sports footwear sponsor in terms of awareness.

Another of the major successes of that tournament was one of the

official sponsors, Snickers, which launched a heavyweight ambient

campaign to support both the sponsorship and the above-the-line work

that supported it.

These included taking over Wembley Park tube station, painting it

’Snickers green’ and covering any poster, wall beam or bin in range with

the logo.

The confectionery giant also printed thousands of hats, and made a

heavyweight presence on lampposts and taxis, one of the best established

of ambient media.

In fact, the progress made by taxis in the last few years could serve as

a blueprint for the rest of the ambient media market. About 62 per cent

of London cabs now carry advertising of some kind, which delivers some

impressive audience figures. Taxi Media, the UK’s largest taxi

advertising provider, claims that taxis deliver a central London

advertising audience of 9.4 million per month, heavily skewed in favour

of AB men, representing around a quarter of the total UK population in

this demographic. Growth in this particular market is also coming from a

newer area - the branded taxi receipt - which have attracted campaigns

from Scottish Widows, Eurostar and United Airways.

Elsewhere in the UK ambient media market, there is a remarkable growth

story emerging from the unpromising area of petrol station forecourts.

It’s an area that has attracted heavyweight players. The market leader,

the Norwegian company, Alvern Norway, is worth pounds 50 million and

already has agreements with 23 petrol companies in the UK, covering

5,500 forecourts. It makes units for petrol pump nozzles and has a track

record in 16 countries around the world. Revenues are split equally with

the host petrol companies.

’When we first set up, it was an exceptionally tough sell, and there is

still a lot of resistance to the idea of ambient media,’ Guy Beresiner,

the Alvern Norway sales manager, says. ’But that’s changing as we get

more blue-chip clients and as we develop research.’

It’s not just that the ads are helping to convert sales in the forecourt

shops either. There is some evidence that they are also helping with

brand awareness.

’We did an ad for Goodyear and in the awareness research that followed

the campaign it scored 11 per cent spontaneous recall, which is

unusually good for that kind of brand’ Beresiner points out. The client

base has also broadened from the car and fmcg brands that were early

adopters of the medium. Virgin Radio and Channel 5 have both booked

campaigns and financial services brands like Lloyds Direct and Norwich

Union have also started to use the medium.

Alvern has also entered into an alliance with Eyes Down Media to help

transform the complete advertising package in service stations. This

does have one in-built advantage over other forms of ambient media - in

the absence of any true pan-industry research, it does at least give

weight to car owners and drivers who, in turn, tend to be more affluent

than the population average.

This absence of research continues to cast something of a shadow over

the medium’s long-term growth prospects.

Although it is easy enough for fmcg brands to keep a track on how, say,

in-store advertising is impacting on sales, not every brand can be

appeased in those terms. For the medium to make real progress, it

probably needs to agree on some form of industry research.

’The problem is that we can’t get hold of the data ourselves, but have

to rely on the companies providing it,’ the AC Nielsen MEAL sales

planning manager, John Purcell, says. ’We would love to include the

data, but its up to the companies to decide how badly they need proper

independent research.’

The signs are that the medium is just getting to the sort of size where

addressing that kind of problem will become a priority. ’At the moment

we have to rely on research by clients,’ John Grant, the managing

director of Alternative Advertising, a company that owns a fleet of

mobile poster vans and hot air balloons, admits. ’But 95 per cent of our

work is repeat business, which indicates we are doing something


The other main innovations likely to increase ambient spend are creative

ones. Advertisers are already starting to do more than simply stick

their name and logo down. The development of 3-D images in in-store

advertising, for example, is already enabling companies to try to tie in

the ambient advertising more closely to the rest of their campaign, as

well as attracting new advertisers.

And then, of course, there will always be the new ambient opportunities

with PR angles to exploit. The first space station might already have

gone to Pepsi, the first egg, the first cow, and getting a candidate to

run in a general election for you has now been tried. But if there is

one golden rule of ambient advertising it is this: If there is something

that can be seen, then someone will stick an ad on it.

And before you scoff, remember that it might just work.


Jan-June 1995 #5m

Jan-June 1996 #7.5m

Jan-June 1997 #10.5m

All of 1997 =c#21m