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 Stepstone.co.uk.
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
Thetrainline.com 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.