CAMPAIGN REPORT ON OUTDOOR & AMBIENT: Big shots - Banner ads that hang on scaffolds have their fans, but their enemies are the local councils. Juliette Garside reports on how the sector is battling through

There is a bitter war being fought out in the heart of London. And depending on who wins, the face of one of the world’s biggest cities could be changed forever.

There is a bitter war being fought out in the heart of London. And

depending on who wins, the face of one of the world’s biggest cities

could be changed forever.

If you happened to be in Trafalgar Square in early March you couldn’t

have avoided noticing a giant ad draped on scaffolding on the former

NatWest building, promoting the web recruitment agency

The banner’s size made it hard to ignore, but very few people would have

had a chance to see it. It did not have the necessary planning

permission and, when Westminster City Council threatened to slap an

injunction on NatWest Group, the contractor Scaffoltising and Stepstone,

it was taken down.

Over the past year, contractors in the banner business estimate that

there have been roughly 50 such ads erected in the UK - some legal, most

illegal. The numbers here are paltry compared with the hundreds that

appear in the US and continental Europe each year, where this outsize

form of advertising is a familiar part of cityscapes.

A combination of hostile council officers and conservative landlords has

until now prevented it from making its mark here. At Westminster

Council, where enforcement officers are ruthless in their pursuit of

contractors acting illegally, banner ads have the rather sinister name


But big drapes have, nonetheless, arrived and if the ten or so

contractors working in this field have anything to do with it, they are

here to stay.

Despite the obstacles, Kickers, Virgin Mobile, Dockers, BT Cellnet and

Apple have all pumped money into the medium.

Opinions vary as to why attitudes to banners have changed. According to

Peter Barnett, who has just set up Alfresco Media and who previously ran

the UK operation of the German company Blow Up Outdoor, the interest of

many media people was sparked by a big outdoor conference which took

place in Madrid in 1998. Barnett had been there the year before and he

was struck by the giant images he saw draped on scaffolding.

Harry Torrance, commercial director at the banner contractor Mega

Profile, says until recently there haven’t been enough companies with a

professional attitude operating in this area. It has been mainly

dominated by one-man bands making a fast buck by putting up ads without

talking to the local council. Like the Trafalgar Square episode, the ad

has to be pulled down within days and the advertiser ends up on the

wrong side of the law. Not the kind of people media buyers want to trust

their blue-chip clients’ adspend with.

Torrance says: ’This business is about risk management and


The thing that has prevented it from taking off in the UK has not been a

lack of demand. It has been held back by a lack of understanding of the

planning issues and a lack of companies with the skills to interface

between two almost diametrically opposed businesses - constructors and

developers on the one hand and the advertising community on the


Mega Profile was set up two years ago and has impressed media buyers by

its professional attitude. It was the first banner ad contractor to join

the Association of Outdoor Advertisers, and one of its first moves was

to hire planning consultants and planning lawyers. ’We’re in this for

the long term,’ Torrance says. ’It means having the patience to follow

complicated planning procedures and lobbying the more conservative

councils to change their attitude.’

Applying for planning permission is a slow process. Councils often take

up to three months to make a decision on a planning application and, if

the contractor chooses to appeal when permission is denied, the final

decision can take another 12 months. Banner contractors put up the ads

and submit their applications at the same time. Councils tend not to

require the ad to be removed before a planning decision has been made,

by which time the scaffolding is ready to be taken down anyway.

Mega Profile is taking as many cases to the appeal stage as it can and

is hoping to involve both councillors and officers in the planning


If enough of its appeals are turned down, the company will take its case

to the European Court where it will claim that the London authorities

are acting anti-competitively by not allowing the city to benefit from

advertising spend in the same way as elsewhere in Europe.

Others argue that the emergence of these big ads is the result of

landlords’ increasingly open ideas about what looks acceptable.

In the past six months Maiden Outdoor has been allowed to hang huge

banners in railway stations and put 20-metre square block ads on the


The managing director, David Pugh, says: ’Property owners are becoming

less conservative about what they will allow and this has coincided with

the increased demand for ambient media.’

Glen Wilson, the board account director at the planning and buying

agency Posterscope, which has bought banner space for Virgin Mobile and among others, says the increased interest in banners is

part of the general migration of advertising pounds into ambient media.

However, he believes that if advertisers are to continue spending money

on banners, research needs to be done into their effectiveness. ’It has

to become a lot more accountable as a medium,’ he warns. ’There is very

limited audience data.’

Demand is outstripping supply and contractors can charge a premium for

these ads. Mega Profile has a Cromwell Road site that is ten times the

size of a 96-sheet poster, which costs pounds 70,000 a month, not

including production. A normal, 96-sheet Cromwell Road site costs pounds

40,000 a month.

But once the initial excitement has died down, advertisers will want to

know what return they are getting for their investment.

Barnett says: ’The rates are quite buoyant and they reflect the demand

and the limited supply.

As more sites become available prices will get lower.’ But finding more

sites will be hard. He and his fellow contractors will have to conquer

the likes of Westminster first.


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