MEDIA FORUM: Whose fault is it that posters have lost their edge? - A new report says posters aren't as effective as they were. But is it right to put all the blame on the creative departments, Alasdair Reid asks

There used to be this theory that creatives loved the poster

medium. As theories go, it was just about plausible. It was apparently

all about the purity of the medium. No distracting editorial clutter for

a start - stand-alone advertising. But it's also to do with the fact the

billboard is a big canvas just crying out for a big idea.



The theory was pretty well borne out by the evidence of the industry's

showcase creative awards. Outdoor has always been a small medium with a

big heart. A medium that always made a disproportionate impact. Not

least on the careers of young Turks in the creative departments.



Time, perhaps, to revise the theory. According to new research from the

outdoor specialist, Concord, poster effectiveness is at its lowest level

for ten years. Average awareness of poster campaigns has traditionally

stood at around the 35 per cent mark but last year, according to the

Concord survey which was undertaken by Ipsos-ASI RSL Signpost, a poster

campaign is likely to impinge on the consciousness of only 29 out of

every 100 passers-by.



This change seems mystifying. The locations of poster sites don't change

much so we can discount environmental factors. The contractors have been

investing in and upgrading their services and presentation values have

never been higher. Audiences are up as journey times are increasing,

owing to the rising levels of traffic chaos in cities.



But Concord thinks it knows the reason - a decline in creative standards

and, in particular, the growing practice of taking press ads (or, in

some cases, the end stills from TV commercials) and merely blowing them

up to poster size. Some advertisers do it in an attempt to guarantee the

thematic unity of their campaigns - using outdoor almost as a teaser

medium for forthcoming press and TV work.



However, there is also a suspicion that there is cost cutting and

laziness involved here. Some observers also maintain that posters just

aren't cool within creative departments anymore. Is it true?



David Patton, the vice-president, marketing, of Sony PlayStation, hopes

not. PlayStation has been an award- winning user of outdoor and Patton

certainly doesn't approve of the practice of "blowing up" press

work.



"For us, outdoor is about being impactful and arresting. It plays a

different role to press, which is about conveying information. You can

build off the same platform in terms of ideas but creatively they are

separate," he states.



However, some advertisers are less purist. Paul Philpott, the marketing

director of Toyota, comments: "From our point of view, it depends on the

poster format. When you're considering work for mega banners or golden

square formats you have to have dedicated creative. But we've also taken

press work for the Yaris and RAV4 and run it outdoor, mainly on

48-sheets, and it has been tremendously successful. It all goes back to

the briefing process. If you brief upfront for both press and posters it

can work. Where it can become compromised is when you want outdoor but

you only brief for press."



But the awareness figures are still alarming, aren't they? Stevie

Spring, the chief executive of More Group, isn't so sure. "You can't

talk about total average awareness in this way," she argues. "You have

to look at individual categories. For instance, the awareness for

advertisers in the financial sector is always much smaller than for the

entertainment category.



We've been running our own research monitor for seven years now. It

takes in 200 campaigns a year and it always debriefs in terms of

category. In the past year, we've started to see a positive differential

- the number of campaigns scoring above average in their category is 80

per cent this year compared with 60 per cent last year."



Spring does admit, however, there might be a perception problem with

smaller formats such as six-sheet. Some people are tempted to think that

they are just for the people in the bus queue and thus they can be

treated as an intimate medium. Some agencies do believe that press-type

ads can work. "That's just so wrong. They are seen by all passers-by.

They have to be regarded as small posters. It's something we are aware

of and it's something we're not afraid of saying to agencies," Spring

says.



Annie Rickard, the chief executive of Posterscope, agrees that the

Concord analysis is simplistic, though she argues that whichever medium

you look at, creativity is hardly enjoying a golden era. "I do accept

that creativity is more important in outdoor than any other medium. And,

of course, this has never been truer than today when the medium is so

much improved that bad work is just more difficult to miss. But let's be

clear. Advertisers today mostly use outdoor as part of a total

communications strategy. To consider levels of awareness in outdoor in

isolation as a test of the medium's effectiveness is missing the point.

That might have worked in the days when outdoor was used mostly for

branding, but not now that the emphasis is on return on investment in

the hard measures of sales effect or attitude shift rather than

awareness. The fact that business is coming regularly from an ever

widening advertiser base is surely testament to this."



But could there be a touch of wishful thinking here - and across the

outdoor industry at large? Adrian Holmes, the chief creative officer of

Lowe Lintas & Partners, should know better than anyone. He was chairman

of the judges at this year's Campaign Poster Advertising Awards. He

states: "There was a lot of good work on show this year but the layer of

cream wasn't very thick and there was a lot of skimmed milk underneath.

To be honest, I think our industry has collectively abandoned the ground

rules for making a poster - and I think the point about a lot of work

being press ads on steroids is well made."



Holmes doesn't believe there are any simplistic reasons for this. But he

does believe that creative fashion has a big part to play - there has

been a stylistic reaction against clarity and simplicity in the creative

community. He concludes: "The indecipherable and unappealing is now seen

as leading edge. So we get a lot of work with too many words, that is

poorly laid out with ugly photography and bad typography. Work that is

just plain ugly."



He concludes: "The creative people responsible for that approach are

deceiving themselves. The truth is that no-one's got any time for the

indecipherable and unappealing. Clarity and simplicity are great assets

in advertising communications and the truth is that it's easier to be

obscure. Creatives should make more effort and choose what is actually

the more challenging option."



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