John Prescott is apparently very popular among outdoor media owners
these days. According to some sources, the failure of the Government’s
transport policy, as championed by Prescott, the deputy prime minister,
has been instrumental in boosting the medium’s audience figures. When
the nation spends half its waking life standing on platforms, waiting in
bus queues or sitting in traffic jams, there’s only one clear winner in
the media world.
Audience figures, Prescott-inspired or not, are merely one of a number
of positive indicators for the medium. Consolidation in ownership has
stimulated investment across the industry, allowing the medium to
overhaul its image just at a time when major consumer advertisers were
looking for an excuse to channel money away from TV.
All the graphs are on the upturn: audience supply, quantity and quality
of sites and client demand. And that’s before we even begin to consider
the dotcom bonanza.
It’s all a far cry from 12 months ago when we witnessed Maiden’s chief
executive, Ron Zeghibe, issuing yet another profits warning and claiming
that things looked bleak for outdoor in general. When a threat of
recession looms, he added, outdoor is the first medium to be knocked off
What a difference a year makes. Actually, it’s been more than a
At the time, there were those who believed Zeghibe was selling the
medium short. Even as he was speaking, a wave of acquisitions started on
an international scale (for instance, Clear Channel’s purchase of More
Group in 1998) was making an ever more powerful impact in the UK market.
And in just over a year we have seen Scottish Media Group acquire
Primesight and Baillie, Scottish Radio Holdings snap up four regional
contractors - Trainer, Parkin, Vision and Signways - and, perhaps most
important of all, JCDecaux buying Mills & Allen.
Bigger players bring bigger ambitions. Everyone wants to develop new and
better sites while culling the bad ones; and they are introducing more
and better illumination and new technologies such as the scrolling
48-sheets that More Group and Mills & Allen are putting so much effort
Julie France, the sales and marketing director of More Group, says it’s
about people too. ’Consolidation of ownership has led directly to
increased investment in plant and that in itself has had a tremendous
impact. But consolidation has also seen media owners bringing people
into the business from other media or other disciplines. The medium is
much more sophisticated when it comes to marketing and selling
It’s not only sophisticated, it’s single-minded. The medium is
rediscovering its prime virtues. While the television audience is
fragmenting, outdoor has staked a claim to be the last truly broadcast
medium, offering high-impact and quick-cover build. It has been
positioned as the ideal medium for new launches - such as dotcoms.
Dotcom companies have come from nowhere to become one of the medium’s
top four categories within the past 12 months. They are spending mainly
in 48-sheets but also figuring strongly in the six-sheet market.
According to David Pugh, the joint sales and marketing director of
Maiden, buoyant revenues are not just down to the dotcoms. He says: ’If
you look back 20 years, 70 per cent of revenue was booze and fags. Ten
years ago, less than 20 per cent of the top 200 advertisers used
outdoor. Now the figure is around 80 per cent. If you look at our best
categories, financial, motors, media and entertainment are all up at the
top. But if you look further down the table you will see a strong
performance from things such as FMCG. Growth is coming from
Pugh adds: ’It’s a combination of push and pull. We have a growing
audience and we can measure that audience with greater confidence. There
is also a cost effectiveness issue. We offer a typical cost per thousand
of between pounds 1.25 and pounds 1.50.
Radio is twice that and television at least four times that. In fact,
pounds 5 for TV would be the bare minimum.’
Disaffected television advertisers and newcomers such as dotcoms are
combining to make this a year to remember for outdoor. There are,
however, a couple of little clouds on the horizon. Many specialists warn
that the medium shouldn’t confuse good fortune with good management.
’There’s no harm in making hay while the sun shines,’ David Tallis, the
joint managing director of Poster Publicity, says. ’But they shouldn’t
think everything in the garden is rosy on the basis of one good
It’s masking a lot of inherent problems in the industry.
’Take out dotcom and take out the tobacco advertising, which has had
another temporary reprieve, and the market would be flat.’
Specialists say that media owners aren’t living up to their promises
when it comes to research. It’s fine being cheap - and that’s the reason
why so many FMCG companies are switching budgets into the medium from TV
- but does that equate to good value?
They also point to what they believe is a more serious problem: growing
pains in the six-sheet market. This sector, which includes bus shelters
and street furniture in shopping centres and other retail-friendly
environments, is the medium’s biggest success story in the past few
Alan Simmons, the chairman of Concord, believes you can have too much of
a good thing. He says: ’There are people who feel that the six-sheet
bubble will burst soon. In 1995, there were 32,500 six-sheet sites. Last
year there were 64,800. If the industry keeps up that pace it will turn
the six-sheet business into an absolute commodity market.’
Other specialists agree, pointing out that some of the problem stems
from the promises contractors make to local authorities when pitching
for street furniture contracts.
Some UK towns now have a ridiculously high number of six-sheet sites
while others are under-served. Some of the ’national’ packages offered
by contractors need close examination, buyers say.
Contractors, understandably, have little time for such nit-picking.
No-one, they argue, should be scared of the long-term gains that growth
can bring. Spencer Berwin, the group sales director of JCDecaux UK,
says: ’Some people are never satisfied, are they? I can remember when
they were complaining that the industry wasn’t investing enough in new
There are contractors who might be guilty of investing in poor-quality
stock but I always find it odd when I hear anyone in our business trying
to talk the market down. We certainly wouldn’t be making the investment
we are if we didn’t believe that the business was in excellent
Editor Pippa Considine
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