Media Forum: Is outdoor a tired medium?

Is the traditional poster medium in terminal decline, Alasdair Reid asks.

Out-of-home media owners have been whipping up a pretty compelling digital era sales pitch in the past couple of years - so compelling, in fact, that many believed the medium could weather even the toughest of economic storms.

The argument, in a nutshell, has been two-pronged. Prong one: people, not least the most desirable young and affluent demographics, spend more time out and about these days. Prong two: this same desirable segment of the population tends to consume less in the way of television, radio and print these days, partly because it's out and about (see prong one) but also because it spends an increasing amount of its time consuming digital media in some form or another.

In other words, outdoor's share of mind was likely to increase. And not only that, with television's relative demise, it was effectively becoming the only remaining high-impact mass medium. So there was every hope that the sector's share would continue to grow, even in relatively lean times.

It hasn't exactly worked out that way. Last week, the Outdoor Advertising Association announced that revenue for the first quarter of 2009 was £178.4 million, a decline year on year of 19 per cent.

Disappointing to say the least. But that was really only half the story. The OAA figures revealed that one part of the medium - digital screens - was bucking the downturn, having returned a 29 per cent year-on-year increase. And as if to underline a possible underlying trend here, the revelation coincided with news that one outdoor contractor, Clear Channel, had begun culling some of its traditional billboard inventory. Others may follow suit.

This is the traditional end of the sector - the 48- and 96-sheet panels we're used to seeing in rail and roadside environments. For some time now, it has been seen as the slightly unfashionable end of the business - with outdoor contractors far keener to talk about newer offerings.

So, is it time to admit that the future looks bleak for the old- fashioned billboard? Absolutely not, Spencer Berwin, the managing director of sales at JCDecaux, responds: "I think it's fair to say that everyone in the media sector has been finding things challenging - no-one is immune. But the good news is that we're sensing a fantastic undercurrent of confidence in the medium from advertisers and agencies. In terms of quality of inventory, the medium has never been better.

"When an advertiser is looking to build a brand there's often nothing to compare with a big, bold billboard campaign and a city like London, which offers arguably the greatest outdoor medium in the world. So the answer to the question is an emphatic no."

Richard Brooke, the communications buying manager at Unilever UK and Ireland, tends to agree. The company already spends a substantial portion of its outdoor budget at the so-called sexier end of the market - six-sheets in retail environments. But it also has a proud heritage in larger formats, not least where brands like Persil are concerned. "We have recently had strong campaigns in large formats and we'll continue to do that. Why wouldn't we? It's an impactful medium," he says.

And James Copley, the managing director of the outdoor specialist Kinetic, says that the medium should be applauded for making the most of the downturn in terms of improving the overall quality of its offering. "This is one example of how the industry seeks to provide better opportunities for advertisers," he says.

Absolutely, Tim Neligan, the managing director of ZenithOptimedia, agrees: "It is good that some roadside panels are being removed. I see this as a positive step because maybe in the past, some sites were built that perhaps shouldn't have been. Evidence shows that consumers' attention is easily won in the out-of-home space, where engaging advertising is actively sought out rather than avoided."

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NO - Spencer Berwin, managing director, JCDecaux

"Sectors have highs and lows and, in some ways, we've been here before ... There's life in billboards yet - just look at it in a wider context. For instance, whoever heard of anyone building a brand online?"

NO - Richard Brooke, comms buying manager, Unilever

"What we're seeing is not indicative of any underlying malaise. Outdoor contractors are always looking at their sites and if one is not working, it should be culled. It's an ongoing process in a medium investing in itself."

NO - James Copley, managing director, Kinetic

"Panel culling allows outdoor companies to invest in developing the best ... and is one example of how the industry seeks to provide better opportunities for advertisers."

NO - Tim Neligan, managing director, ZenithOptimedia

"Print media has responded to the current market by reducing pagination, so out of home is arguably doing the same thing. Rationalisation of plant will further improve overall quality, which is something the outdoor media owners have been doing over many years."