AMBIENT MEDIA: The Business of Ambient - The power of ambient media is beginning to be understood by both clients and agencies - and not before time, Richard Cook says

In 1990, Virgin Atlantic wanted to launch its first North American service outside New York, from Miami to Boston. It ran a heavyweight awareness campaign on TV in Boston to promote this upstart British brand aggressively to the conservative American market.

In 1990, Virgin Atlantic wanted to launch its first North American

service outside New York, from Miami to Boston. It ran a heavyweight

awareness campaign on TV in Boston to promote this upstart British brand

aggressively to the conservative American market.

’After the campaign, it turned out that the awareness of Virgin in

Boston was pretty low,’ Will Whitehorn, director of corporate affairs at

Virgin Group, remembers. ’In fact ’pretty low’ is being kind. Only 8 per

cent of people could recall the Virgin name and any connection between

it and the airline.’

Virgin’s response was born of a mixture of good fortune and


Richard Branson, as part of his balloon fixation, had acquired an

advertising airship which happened to have a month out between

contracts. So, he put the Virgin logo on the side with a telephone

booking number.

’It was lit up from the inside - which was then a novelty - and it could

be used 17 hours a day,’ Whitehorn says. ’The results were really

spectacular. In the four weeks that it flew, awareness of Virgin in that

marketplace rose to 65 per cent. At a stroke, it became the most

successful campaign Virgin Atlantic ever ran.’

Ambient advertising had arrived - and now it has arrived in the UK in a

big way. The amount of money spent on ambient advertising in the UK this

year will be almost exactly twice what it was two years ago.

According to research by the poster specialist, Concord, ambient

advertising spend will pass pounds 64 million this year, up from pounds

54 million a year ago and pounds 32 million two years ago.

There is now a wide range of outfits selling ambient opportunities. The

outdoor specialist, Outdoor Connection, says fixed ambient posters now

account for 1.6 million panels. Players of all shapes and sizes are out

there - from companies specialising in one-offs, such as airline lunch

trays, to bigger players like The Media Vehicle, which has all but sewn

up trolley posters and floor graphics in every significant supermarket


The packaging of ambient has made a disparate medium easier to buy as

well as sell, fuelling the medium’s growth.

In fact, you can hardly escape ambient media these days. Someone,

somewhere, has tried to put an image on almost everything. Beck’s beer

even hired a 30-acre field and fashioned a 600ft-high bottle out of

specially coloured crops in an innovative appeal to advertising-weary

commuters on trains from Birmingham to London. It claimed an audience of

more than five million - not a bad return in these days of media

fragmentation. The difficulty of reaching large numbers through

conventional means helps explain the proliferation of ads on everything

from tube tickets and takeaway lids, to petrol pump nozzles and the

sides of cows.

The medium is increasingly talking the language of big business.

According to Concord’s research, during the first quarter of this year,

ten of the UK’s top 50 advertisers used some form of ambient media,

including advertising giants such as Unilever, BT, Kellogg’s and

Vauxhall. Kellogg’s had the single largest ambient budget over the

period, spending more than pounds 500,000 on trolley ads, phone-box

posters, floor ads and posters in CTN windows.

Unilever was the second-largest spender, with pounds 480,000 over the


’The bigger clients have undoubtedly realised that there is really no

limit to what can be a potential medium these days,’ Nick Welch, the

executive creative director of Ammirati Puris Lintas, explains. ’And as

long as the ambient media choices continue to surprise, they will

attract these clients who want their message to stand apart from the


Just how acceptable ambient is today has became clear with the launch of

agencies like Mother, which now use ambient advertising techniques not

just to advertise their clients’ products, but also to advertise

themselves to potential clients. They send out an Airfix model kit of a

soccer hooligan or pairs of edible knickers and thrash records as a self

promotional tool that impresses because it is seen to work. It has

already pulled in clients ranging from Coca-Cola and Unilever to


It’s no coincidence that one of Mother’s partners, Mark Waites, was an

early ambient media enthusiast, having pioneered the use of flyposters

by mainstream advertisers in the early 90s with his ’wedge of lime’ ads

for Sol. The success of these ads helped convince blue-chip advertisers

that an advertising campaign did not have to be in the centre break of

Coronation Street to work.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to see why their enthusiasm took so long

to develop. The fact is, spending on ambient media has had a steady,

barely noticeable progression until it made its last great leap forward

in 1997.

Ambient media, when thought of at all, tended previously to be viewed as

fringe media best used as the base for PR stunts. Now, however, there is

a growing feeling that the medium should assume its place alongside the

mainstream pack as part of a mature media plan.

The difference is that people now accept ambient media, and accept that

whether they use the opportunities well or badly really comes down to

the media strategy, in much the same way as it does with other


George Michaelides, the managing partner of Michaelides & Bednash, and

an early ambient advocate, remembers first trying an ad on the back of a

bus ticket seven years ago, as part of a campaign for Mercury. ’It was

different then because we had to do everything ourselves,’ he remembers,

’and I mean everything - even talking to the printers who produced the

ticket reels. At that time, people didn’t think much of the idea of ads

on tube tickets, whereas now it has become a legitimate medium.’

However, once the big clients have got on board and accepted that the

particular opportunity works, the chances are that it has lost one

essential ingredient of any ambient opportunity - the chance to


’It’s hard not to see a continued proliferation of ambient opportunities

as TV, press and radio become more fragmented and media planners are put

under increasing pressure to deliver the correct target audience in the

most cost-effective and innovative way,’ one ambient media owner,

Nicholas Lees of Freight Media, explains. ’But paradoxically, some of

these opportunities rely totally on press coverage to be effective - the

laser projections, open-air sites like the Beck’s beer field and so on.

So, the fallout rate of these new ambient media will continue to be high

once initial surprise is lost.’

Last year, of an estimated ten new major ambient media initiatives -

from cycle posters to egg advertising, at least four have subsequently


’I think the good news is that there has been a growing realisation that

the 30-second TV ad is not the be-all and end-all of advertising any

more,’ Shaun McIlrath, creative director at FCA!, explains. ’The

struggle is more about using all the tricks you can to get publicity for

your client’s product. But that shouldn’t just mean launching ambient

stunts with no connection at all to what you are advertising, just for

the PR effect.

’For Siemens, for example, we ran an advertising campaign that focused

on the innovation of its mobile phone products. That was the


Within that we ran an ambient campaign using black-cab drivers, who we

paid to drop mentions of the phone into the conversation with their


It was the sort of thing that we hoped would be talked and written

about, but the fact is that it also made sense within that overall

product message of innovation. And I think that is important for any

ambient offering.’

’Many more clients are briefing for a campaign idea these days, not just

for a TV ad,’ Gary Fraser, an art director at Claydon Heeley, explains.

’That’s where ambient can come in, because agencies are looking for all

sorts of ways, in all sorts of media, to interpret that brief.’ Fraser

was behind a recent campaign for Organics Shampoo in which he assembled

open-air showers at London’s Vauxhall roundabout and persuaded Melinda

Messenger to shower in them.

Other recent headline-grabbing ambient executions have also demonstrated

equally astute targeting and understanding of the execution’s place

within the overall campaign. When Emap Radio wanted to rebrand its Kiss

FM dance music stations in eight northern cities, under the common name,

Big City, the brief to the media agency, Rocket, insisted that the

campaign target young men in their mid-20s. Rather than follow the rest

of the advertising world straight into FHM or Loaded, the agency opted

to create its own ambient opportunity.

Its solution bordered on the bizarre.

It involved heat sensitive stickers being placed inside urinals in pubs

and clubs across the north of England. As the target males paused before

relieving themselves, famous faces such as David Beckham and Liam and

Noel Gallagher would appear, complete with suitably rude messages. ’Give

Beckham a warm welcome’, was a personal favourite.

And this campaign has lived on in the media far longer than the stickers

themselves. Increasingly, though, that PR benefit is just a pleasant

bonus - with the fragmented state of mainstream media, the men’s

washroom is just about the most cost-effective place to target 18- to

24-year-old men. And that, as much as the novelty of the execution or

the excitement of the planning, is why ambient media are here to stay.