In the midst of the world’s obsession with new media, it is easy to
overlook the fact that all sorts of other new media opportunities are
emerging. Lumping them into a single group stretches classification to
its limits but, for the sake of brevity, ambient media has come to be
accepted as a catch-all term. However, it covers a spectrum that runs
from insubstantial and gimmicky to eye-catching and effective. And that
spectrum is becoming ever more cluttered.
Growing numbers of people are looking to bring advertising into
environments where previously there was none. Like ancient alchemists,
their aim is to turn unpromising material into gold - or at least into
lucrative channels of communication.
According to the annual Ambient Media Expenditure survey by the outdoor
specialist Concorde, spend on ambient was pounds 66.3 million last year,
up 22 per cent from pounds 54.3 million in 1998. Food, at pounds 14.1
million, was the highest-spending category.
’It’s still going like a train as a sector and it excites people,’
Concord’s managing director, Nigel Mansell, says. ’But you need to have
the right creative idea and where it is positioned is so important.
Anything that’s new, people always want to be the first.
It’s the kudos you get. But you also hope for an effective PR spin-off,
making for a very effective use of cash.’
It is fair to say that media planners and buyers view ambient in a more
positive light than they did a few years ago. Often, though, it is still
considered to be something of an experiment, which can make some clients
’I’m a great believer in keeping back 5 to 10 per cent of the budget to
do something different,’ MediaCom TMB’s account director, Jennifer
Hewitt, says. ’But it’s always the first thing to get cut.’
The reason why it often faces the axe is accountability. Most of the
serious players are prepared, indeed eager, to provide research in
support of ambient media. But the actions of a few fly-by-night
merchants still damage the standing of the sector as a whole.
’More and more blue-chip advertisers are throwing bigger budgets at
ambient but they also expect it to be more accountable,’ says Blade’s
national buying manager, Sara Hayes, who is probably the biggest single
buyer of ambient in the UK.
The issue of accountability clearly rankles with a number of the leading
ambient specialists, some of whom even view the term with distaste. ’I
hate being part of the same bracket as that ambient media which is
unresearched because we and our clients have spent a fortune on
researching it. We recognise that we need to be accountable because
that’s what the clients and media planners want,’ Admedia’s chief
executive, Philip Vecht, says.
Admedia concentrates on washroom advertising in large shopping centres
and motorway service stations. Vecht says that the effectiveness of the
medium can be measured in a number of ways. He cites direct response
mechanisms such as telephone numbers, sales uplifts in the advertised
products at nearby stores and independent market research as the three
main ways of evaluating the impact of a campaign.
Media Vehicle’s chief executive, Jessica Hatfield, is also aggrieved
whenever she encounters the blanket assumption that accountability is a
problem for all ambient media. ’Every single person who has levelled
that criticism has never bothered to find out what we do,’ she says.
A quantifiable impact on sales is an inducement for advertisers. One of
the great benefits of many forms of ambient media is that it can be
found at or near the point of purchase. In other words, advertisers can
persuade consumers at the most propitious time - just as they are about
More Group, the UK’s largest outdoor advertising company, targets
shoppers in this way through its ambient advertising division,
MoreTrans. Late in 1998 it acquired a company called Postal Facilities
which has 1,500 poster panels (known as PostAds) on Royal Mail
post-boxes in petrol station forecourts across the UK. About 90 per cent
are within two metres of the petrol station entrance, giving consumers a
final nudge towards a product.
They are said to be effective at targeting highly mobile 16- to 34-year
olds, most of whom will not need to make weekly supermarket trips.
Retailers are informed in advance about which products will be
advertised so that they can stock up.
’There’s a direct relation between advertising at point of sale and
sales figures,’ MoreTrans’s group head, Brendan Terrill, says.
Bag Media which, as its name suggests, specialises in advertising on
bags, also claims ambient allows advertisers to reach audiences when
they are in the right place. As well as offering space on carrier bags
given away by shops, the company has signed up a network of sandwich
bars and cafes - more than 1,000 in London alone - through which branded
sandwich bags, serviettes, takeaway cups and paper bags are
This has proved a popular medium with dotcom advertisers keen to raise
their profile in the City. Toyzone and Lastminute.com have been among
the e-commerce companies to try this approach. ’We like to call
ourselves desktop media,’ Bag Media’s director, David Landsberg, says,
referring to the fact that many workers eat lunch at their desks.
Advertising of this kind is eventually destined for the bin, which may
be music to the ears of Trash Media’s chief executive, Anthony
Over the past year or so, Clews has spent pounds 1.1 million developing
advertising opportunities on litter bins, which he sees as a step up
from advertising in washrooms. Contracts have been negotiated with the
likes of Road Chef, Welcome Break and Granada, and advertisers of the
calibre of Coca-Cola, KitKat and Walkers Crisps have signed up.
These deals have been done direct with clients because, to Clews’
irritation, media agencies have been slow to warm to ambient. Clues
says: ’We’re sticking our neck on the line to provide a new platform.
But there is a sheep mentality among the agencies.’ But media agency
caution is understandable - frittering budget away on the unproven would
only incur the client’s wrath.
This sheep mentality has created opportunities for ambient media sales
operations. Last year, for instance, the ambient specialist CPA formed a
joint venture with the former More Group sales controller John Scorah.
CPA Scorah sells ambient media for smaller players in the sector,
including six-sheet posters for the car parks group NCP and advertising
on lorry trailers. Vodafone has already signed up for the latter and one
of the interesting elements to this form of ambient is that the route of
each trailer can be tracked and relayed back to the client to provide a
picture of regional coverage.
’There are a lot of smaller ambient companies that just don’t have the
expertise,’ CPA’s founder, Carl Pickford, says. ’We can look at what
they’ve got, tell them what’s wrong and how to improve it.’
A rival company in CPA Scorah’s territory is Amber, a sister operation
of Payroll Media and Marketing which sells advertising on the back of
large organisations’ payslips. Amber’s approach is slightly different in
that it sources ambient opportunities, fitting the product to be
advertised to what it considers the most appropriate media. ’It’s almost
as if we become the temporary media owner and it takes away all of the
hassle for our clients,’ Amber’s director, Samantha Yates, says.
Amber has also been working with Chelsea Football Club trying to sell a
package of ambient opportunities at the club’s ground. Although the
Unilever-owned Calvin Klein Cosmetics had shown some interest, the
company backed out - perhaps dismayed at the negative publicity Chelsea
received last year thanks to a hard-core hooligan element - so the
opportunity is still going begging.
Putting together a package of ambient advertising certainly boosts its
impact. Hatfield says: ’It’s surrounding the consumer with an
environment of persuasion.’
Blade’s Hayes feels that the increased use of ambient packages - such as
TicketBoy’s car park package - show that advertisers are becoming more
accepting of them and less anxious about how the public will react. She
adds that the falling cost of digital printing and high quality plasma
screens look set to offer advertisers some very innovative options in
the next few years.
The likelihood is that ambient will continue to become more mainstream
and that it will undergo more research. In the meantime, it will still
offer clients the chance to carry out PR-driven stunts such as Qantas
Dreamtime’s campaign orchestrated by the media consultancy Cunning
Stunts, which featured two ’passengers’ asleep in a perspex box placed
in Trafalgar Square.
NEW AMBIENT MEDIA
You may feel you’ve seen and heard it all in terms of what advertising
media is available, but a whole host of new possibilities have sprung
up. Last month, the washroom media specialist CPA unveiled its ’Talking
Poster’ which has a light sensitive microchip in its frame. Up to four
minutes of dialogue can be recorded and is activated by the arrival of a
person at a urinal, for example. Levi’s was the first advertiser to use
the medium, with creative by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and included snippets
of dialogue such as ’Touch my twisted side seam’ in keeping with the
Taxi Media, in association with BT, has developed PhoneSite Exteriors,
with claims that this will allow for a high standard of advertising on
the outside of phone boxes. Nestle’s KitKat brand has signed up for a
significant PhoneSite campaign, bought through Blade, with a spend of
more than pounds 500,000.
Cabvision, meanwhile, is trialling in-taxi TV and the point of purchase
advertising specialist The Media Vehicle is experimenting with a 3D
Imager which projects colour images up to 20 inches high into mid-air.
Trials are taking place at the Trafford Centre mall and advertisers
which have signed up for the launch include Ben & Jerry’s Ice-Cream,
Walkers 3-D Doritos, Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade, Becks Beer,
Smints and Tetley Tea.
New products from Laser Grafix include large water screens and huge
inflatable screens on to which companies can project their logos to
brand sponsorship of outdoor events.
TOP 15 AMBIENT MEDIA ADVERTISERS 1999
ADVERTISER SPEND (pounds k)
1 Mars UK 2,617
2 Vodafone Group 2,511
3 Unilever 2,033
4 Nestle 1,590
5 Kellogg Company of GB 1,380
6 Westbay Distributors 773
7 Novartis Consumer Healthcare UK 750
8 Motorola 510
9 Compaq Computers 500
10 Rothmans UK 490
11 DDD 462
12 UIP 418
13 The Whitbread Beer Company 410
14 TV Licensing 404
15 Lawyers Compensation Advice Centre 384