Media Forum: Will outdoor boom in 2011?

Could the Olympic build-up trigger a bumper year.

In the next few weeks, as media owners begin inviting proposals from advertisers interested in sites within the so-called exclusion zones, we'll start to have a fair idea of the impact the 2012 Olympics will have on the outdoor advertising business. And, of course, there are those, not least within the medium itself, who believe that the sector could stand on the threshold of an unprecedented boom.

The exclusion zone guidelines, as devised by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, are fiendishly complicated. But the overall principle is rather simple.

There are areas around Olympic venues where Games sponsors can have first dibs on outdoor inventory - but the opportunity will be sold on a premium basis to the market as a whole. Outdoor contractors will be reminding advertisers, as negotiations proceed, that the ones most likely to succeed are the ones that demonstrate their unequivocal up-front commitment to the medium as a whole. In other words, the whole business could stimulate increased spend this year as well.

This market within a market is emerging at a time when the outdoor business generally finds itself in a chipper mood. Outdoor revenues grew by 12.5 per cent last year; management changes at the top of Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor (JCDecaux has been a model of stability) have bedded in; and the investment in electronic display technologies is at last delivering a product that is as reliable as it is aesthetically pleasing.

To cap it all, the medium's trade body (formerly known as the Outdoor Advertising Association) rebranded last week as the Outdoor Media Centre. It has been tasked with selling outdoor's strategic merits to media planners and their clients. The medium now has a mighty research arsenal to back up its arguments - and new audience data should be on its way soon.

So, clearly, it's time for dancing in the streets. As always, though, there's a minority viewpoint urging caution. Locog designated sites represent a fraction of the entire UK outdoor inventory - but overheated negotiations here could have a disproportionately negative effect on the market as a whole.

If you need historical analogies, look no further than ITV's less than consistent record when it comes to cashing in on Fifa World Cups.

Advertisers can be put off a medium by any hint of profiteering and the inflation it engenders.

But Roy Jeans, the chief executive of IPM, reckons that outdoor is well-placed. He says: "There are so many things happening. Digital is really driving the medium forward. It really is a lead medium for many advertisers these days - and the OMC will help remind people of that. And, of course, the Olympic Games factor will be important.

"After all, we've already seen advertisers making broad strategic planning decisions with one eye on the Olympics."

However, David Wilding, the executive planning director at PHD, isn't quite so sure. He explains: "I'm not personally expecting a huge demand for outdoor for the Olympics. The way the auction is being done seems to reinforce all the previous criticisms of outdoor - a lack of flexibility and transparency and a focus on volume over innovation.

"I suspect sponsors will conclude they'll have enough exposure already and many (rival) marketers will look for less conventional routes than standard outdoor."

But Steve Platt, the trading director of Aegis Media, is more upbeat. He agrees that success is by no means guaranteed, but adds: "With the Olympics looming large, the opportunity is there for outdoor to showcase its capabilities. Innovative new structures and advances in technology, particularly digital, are already visible on the streets and at transport hubs. Further enhancements are on the way in 2011. The challenge is to find effective and relevant ways to communicate with the out-of-home audience."

Meanwhile, Alan Brydon, the head of trading at MPG Media Contacts, while praising the OMC initiative, suspects that it will, at best, have only a slow-burn effect on the medium's fortunes. He adds: "Similarly, Postar 2 (planned new audience data) may well increase revenues to the medium, but I suspect it won't be immediate."

Where the Olympic bidding process is concerned, Brydon estimates that there's about £200 million of inventory packaged up, but only a £60-70 million of likely partner budgets. So demand stimulation may not manifest itself in quite the way that media owners envisage.

He concludes: "There's no reason to think that outdoor won't see a decent year, but no real reason to think it will be a bumper one."

YES - Roy Jeans, chief executive, IPM

"The medium is in good shape -with lots of interesting things going on. The OMC will help. The new body is a focus for research - and it will help remind people that clients see outdoor as a fantastic canvas."

NO - David Wilding, executive planning director, PHD

"The OMC relaunch is a very smart move. But to really get traction, it needs to get to grips with the issues outdoor is still perceived to have - inflexibility, a lack of transparency and a focus on a volume sell above innovation."

MAYBE - Steve Platt, trading director, Aegis Media

"The OMC is an example of the industry helping advertisers to understand where and why the medium is relevant. The signs are positive as long as the main players take advantage of the positive position they occupy."

MAYBE - Alan Brydon, head of trading, MPG Media Contacts

"If the relaunch of the OAA (as the OMC) has an effect on budgets, it will only be gradual. And as for the Olympics, there's a risk that normal advertisers may actually avoid out-of-home, fearing that an ordinary campaign will be drowned out."