CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/COCA-COLA - Can Coca-Cola realise the true potential of Piccadilly Circus' site?

If you're a Londoner, or even a tourist for that matter, you will be familiar with the enormous digital billboard that towers over Piccadilly Circus.

Over the past few years, the board has evolved from a collection of static neon signs to a series of hi-tech animations for advertisers such as Sanyo, McDonald's and Nescafe.

As striking as it is, the Piccadilly site has never been a high priority for advertisers and it's certainly never been a medium that has required the dedicated services of a creative agency.

However, Coca-Cola, one of the advertisers that uses the site, has decided to take the billboard seriously. The company is currently holding a pitch through the AAR and will award Campbell Doyle Dye, Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest or Michaelides & Bednash the task of developing more elaborate, and possibly more interactive, content for the site.

The earliest pictorial evidence of the site being used is a photograph from 1909, which shows an illuminated Perrier sign. Almost a century later, things haven't progressed as much as some would like.

Luke White, the executive creative director at Coca-Cola's agency, McCann-Erickson, says: "I don't know why people don't do more with these sites, because they can essentially show ads, just with no dialogue or sound. In New York they've got these screens everywhere and they run TV campaigns on them."

White points out that as Piccadilly Circus is a popular meeting place it is pedestrians and not motorists who get the full effect of the billboards and so there is scope to complicate the executions shown there.

Carolyn Nugent, a group account director at Poster Publicity, also sees scope for more ambitious work. "The Piccadilly billboard is part of the landscape and it has been used more innovatively recently," she says.

"But the advertisers that use moving digital content are certainly the ones who do the more interesting and eye-catching work. Do people really remember the other sites such as TDK?"

Although Coca-Cola is tight-lipped about its new strategy, the fact that the company has decided to isolate the task rather than incorporate it into the remits of its existing roster agencies suggest it has big ambitions for the billboard.

As such, the company is believed to be considering enlarging its site.

In order to do this, Coca-Cola would have to buy more space from the site owner, Land Securities, via its leasing agent the Marketing Department.

At present, the Nescafe sign is vacant, but this would not be as attractive as the McDonald's and Sanyo signs that are positioned beneath and adjacent to the current Coke display.

The Bartle Bogle Hegarty creative director, Russell Ramsay, would welcome the move. "The more interesting and different the methods they use to attract the attention of consumers, the better," he says.

"The Piccadilly billboard tends to say not much more than 'this is a famous brand'. If Coca-Cola could take three other sites and have a big billboard it would be interesting."

Ramsay adds: "I think sites such as Piccadilly Circus have moved billboards on a step, but the advertisers on there almost fight with each other.

You have to consider what the advertisers that surround your site are doing and, generally, it's something that I don't think creatives bear in mind often enough."

Whether Coca-Cola can really unlock the possibilities of the Piccadilly billboard remains to be seen. But encouragement can be taken from Vodafone's use of the Coventry House billboard that sits opposite it. As from last week, visitors to the Vodafone website can create a message that will appear on the site at the date and time of their choosing.

This is a far cry from the dancing logos that Londoners are used to.

Hopefully Coca-Cola will follow Vodafone's lead, and with a dedicated agency on board, maybe it can change the face of the Piccadilly billboard forever.

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