Billboards and Beyond: Roadside Overview - Big billboards bearing up

Large-format billboards have had a tough year, but the market believes they will bounce back.

The traditional heartland of roadside media - 48- and 96-sheet billboards - has been having a troubled old time of it in recent months. So much so, that some observers have assumed that this was an underlying cause of the departures of two high-profile chief executives earlier this year - Stevie Spring at Clear Channel and Ron Zeghibe from what was Maiden Outdoor.

Ostensibly, their departures were prompted by very different circumstances.

Zeghibe walked because Maiden hit cashflow problems, broke banking covenants and faced bankruptcy. He left by the back door as the new owner, the US outdoor company Titan, arrived with a rescue bid.

Spring's departure was less clear- cut. There were rumours that she had been under pressure from the US parent company management on a couple of performance issues. She walked, it is believed, when the US began attempting not merely to set her priorities but to organise her diary for her.

But sluggish performance in the billboard sector, some observers believed, had already made both Spring's and Zeghibe's positions precarious. In Maiden's case, this is probably unfair. Yes, it was a big player in the billboard business, but buyers say that it actually traded strongly throughout the worst of its troubles.

They have less sympathy for Clear Channel, however. It's true that billboards have been suffering a long-term squeeze thanks to the rise of smaller, more intimate formats - notably street furniture six-sheets. After all, in 1995, six-sheets accounted for only 29 per cent of all outdoor sheetage; but by 2005, its share of the market had risen to around 60 per cent.

But some critics say that Clear Channel (and, to a lesser extent, its fellow multinational media owner JCDecaux) should have been using more of its vast resources to guarantee the status of billboards.

Spring's interim successor, Barry Sayer, who was drafted in from Clear Channel in South Africa, admits that billboards may need more attention.

But, he adds, don't underestimate this sector's power of resilience. All outdoor formats are in a historically good position, due to continuing audience fragmentation in other media.

He says: "Large formats are an exciting part of the medium. Big formats give stature and status, they build icons and big brands. If you are using large formats, the message it sends is that you are a strong company with powerful brands. You can capitalise on the medium's iconic status."

But Sayer admits mistakes have been made in billboards - too many different "attachment technologies", for instance: trivision sites, back-illuminated sites and scrollers. As well, obviously, as old-fashioned paper-and paste locations, some of which, he might have to concede, have been looking very tired in recent years.

He adds: "What we want to do in the future is to make it as flexible as the six-sheet medium - and that means spending more money on the structures themselves." Sayer says that he hopes to bring forward new investment plans - subject again to US approval. If they give the go-ahead, new funds will come on stream in the autumn, but, meanwhile, he's looking closely at what can be done within existing budgets, starting in London and rolling out across the country.

However, there are some observers who believe that 48-sheet and 96-sheet sites will need a lot more than a quick spruce up. Street-furniture six-sheets represent the intimate appeal of outdoor as a high-street medium; but these days, if you want to make a really big statement, you go to the supersize end of the scale - special-build sites and whole buildings wrapped in beautifully printed vinyl. Perhaps creatives are no longer in love with the old billboard sizes.

Catherine Bosworth, the development director at Kinetic, says that would be a harsh analysis. She points out that it has been a strange year for the outdoor medium as a whole - with the media owners focusing on a handful of mega-pitches, such as Transport for London's bus shelters, Network Rail and the London Underground. That sort of frenzied activity only comes around once a decade. These pitches have tied up a lot of resource and management time.

She says: "It has been a tough year for billboards, it's true, but they will come back. They do a good job, especially for things such as (new product) launches.

"It's also perhaps true that there has been a decline in demand for paper-and-paste 48s and there has been more interest in more premium opportunities. I think the media owners now need to go and sell the larger formats. There's a big marketing job to be done."

Some buyers argue that media owners fail to see the big picture. They would perhaps do better to concentrate on the audience that they reach rather than the inventory that they own - and perhaps they should work to make the purchase of simplified packages even easier.

But there's a continuing undercurrent of optimism in this market. Bosworth still thinks 2006 will be a good year - and roadside, billboards included, will play a large part in that. She concludes: "The medium may not reach its goal (of accounting for 10 per cent of all display adspend in the UK) but I think it's on course to achieve that in 2007."

COMPANY Four-sheets Six-sheets 16-sheets 48-sheets
Clear Channel 22 40,267 421 7,056
JCDecaux UK 64 13,394 163 9,088
Primesight 1 12,502 0 71
Maiden Outdoor 32 0 217 9,725
Streetbroadcast 218 878 0 0
Signature Outdoor 3 0 0 3
Total Panels 340 67,041 801 25,943

COMPANY 64-sheets 96-sheets Other Total
Clear Channel 1 1,594 15,636 64,997
JCDecaux UK 0 951 54 23,714
Primesight 0 54 0 12,628
Maiden Outdoor 4 1,007 16 11,001
Streetbroadcast 0 0 0 1,096
Signature Outdoor 0 3 0 9
Total Panels 5 3,609 15,706 113,445
Source: Outdoor Advertising Association.


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