MEDIA FORUM: Are multinational outdoor media deals the future?

Is outdoor the first multinational cross-border medium? And what implications will this have for the industry's structure? Alasdair Reid asks.

The marketing department at Masterfoods has been absolutely flabbergasted at the level of interest there's been in the deal it announced last week with JCDecaux. In fact, if it had known that there was going to be so much interest, it certainly wouldn't have ticked the box in the contract allowing JCDecaux to press release it. But it reckoned that the combination of the words "outdoor media" found in close proximity to the term "pan-European" (an eye-glazer at the best of times) would prove to be lethal.

Which was either careless or disingenuous on Masterfoods' part, because it is up there with an elite few advertisers that not only believe that this is where the future lies but are also prepared to put a bit of effort into making it happen. This select group also includes the likes of Unilever, which signed a similar deal with JCDecaux almost exactly a year ago. That agreement extends for five years, covering 22 territories across Europe and is worth £68 million. The four-year Masterfoods deal is worth £41 million and will embrace all of the company's international brands, including Mars, Snickers, Pedigree, Sheba and Whiskas.

The litany almost certainly won't end there. Other similar outdoor deals are believed to be in the pipeline and, indeed, as the big multinational advertisers have been in prolonged talks with other global media owners such as AOL Time Warner and News Corporation over recent years, the notion is not exactly new. But isn't it becoming apparent that it is only in outdoor that the talk can be walked? Multimarket deals in television, radio or even press might sound impressive in theory but the practice is clearly somewhat problematic. Has outdoor emerged as the only true multimarket sale that media owners can come up with?

Jeremy Male, the chief executive of JCDecaux UK and northern Europe, agrees no other medium can offer what outdoor can in terms of breadth of geographical coverage and consistency of asset. Which is all very well.

But surely this sort of deal, nice as it is in public relations terms, carries huge risks from a media owner point of view? Advertisers are motivated to take part only because of the prospect of ever greater levels of discount, aren't they?

Not necessarily, Male says: "Deals are primarily about growth in share and they certainly make sense from our point of view. There are a relatively small number of companies that have the degree of central control needed to make this work and we wouldn't contemplate doing it with a company that couldn't make it work. But agencies are supporters of this and clients are saying to everyone 'look guys, you have to start delivering a service that meets my requirements'." Also, it's true that they tend to be "umbrella" deals that merely recognise the sum total of activity that continues to be managed locally at a grass-roots level.

JCDecaux has taken the credit for pioneering in this field and it's true that its rivals such as Clear Channel have often appeared highly sceptical about the potential. Is that still the case? Robert Thurner, the group marketing director of Clear Channel International, agrees that outdoor has obvious advantages where cross-border deals are concerned. "The medium is more consolidated, to the extent that in Europe 60 per cent is accounted for by three companies - JCDecaux, Clear Channel and Viacom," he points out.

But Thurner insists you have to get the balance right - it must be done on the basis of a co-ordinated multi-local approach rather than attempting to impose a one-size-fits-all solution.

He adds: "It's a big mistake to overlook local market knowledge. Just because you can do a deal it doesn't mean you should. You ignore advertisers at your peril. We are sensitive to existing relationships and sometimes there is no substitute for local knowledge. You can never cut local people out of the loop - not the local agencies who plan and buy. You can't override that just for the sake of it."

So, given those boxes are ticked, how far can this thing go? Are we likely to see advertisers attempting to standardise their approach to creativity?

Thurner doesn't think so. "Cultural differences do exist and even at a very basic level, people perceive ads differently in different countries. Also, there are different sizes and formats as well as different standard campaign durations," he points out.

On the other hand, advertisers such as Levi's run pretty consistent creative work across the whole of Europe in the outdoor medium. Paul Bay, the director of consumer communications at Levi Strauss Europe, says that this sort of deal makes a lot of sense. He comments: "It's great value in building relationships at a pan-European level and it's true there's basic business cost-efficiency values to be had. In part, the value is to do with added value - for instance, flexibility in terms of timing and how we book and buy sites.

"But yes, there is potentially a problem of focus - and the dangers are real. It is possible that you can buy it cheaper at a local level. You've got to achieve a balance in terms of the quality of the sites. That's where local feedback comes in - when you do a deal like this, maybe you have to see it all the way through." But what about the creative angle?

That's not the issue, he says. "All you are doing is servicing a deal. It shouldn't matter what actually goes up. The importance of that is exaggerated. It's a traffic management issue."

Brian Jacobs, the executive vice-president and regional director of Universal McCann, was one of the first international media operators to investigate cross-border deals. That was more than ten years ago. Has he been surprised that the market hasn't evolved quicker? Yes, he admits, but all credit to outdoor in making the running now. "It has moved incredibly efficiently and quickly when you think about it," he says. "It's been pretty impressive for a medium that a few years ago people thought might be on its last legs. Now it has taken a real lead."

Nigel Mansell, the chief executive of Concord, agrees. In fact, the geographical scope of such deals is likely to grow. "The way the big three (outdoor media owners) are structured, it will evolve into a global opportunity.

Viacom and Clear Channel can already deliver in the US and JCDecaux is making inroads there too. There will be ways to trade favourably across all markets. There shouldn't be a downside - in fact, to happen at all these deals have to be win-win for advertiser and media owner. If a deal threatens to compromise local planning skills then it is wrong. But agreements are structured to avoid that - and, in fact, that's why they sometimes take so long to come to fruition. Any advertiser that intends to spend heavily in the outdoor medium will be looking at this - and yes, it will help the medium take a greater share of adspend," he concludes.