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
"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
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
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."