The death of outdoor advertising, like that of Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated. The world's oldest mass medium not only continues to defy the obituary writers but, with the arrival of digital, looks like facing the future with health and vigour restored.
While ITV, once expected to hammer the final nail into outdoor's coffin, languishes in the financial doldrums, the medium vies with online as an area of huge potential expansion.
Last week, the Outdoor Advertising Association predicted significant revenue growth for the medium, fuelled largely by the investment in digital screens. Last year, digital accounted for about 4 per cent of total revenue. This year, that figure could reach 16 per cent. By 2010, outdoor could be generating £100 million from digital.
The catalyst for this was last year's award of the London Underground contact to Viacom Outdoor (now CBS Outdoor), a move that will see paper and paste gradually yielding to digital screens.
"Digital is here to stay," Glen Wilson, Posterscope's deputy managing director, insists. "Not only does it increase out-of-home's reach, but it allows you to do things that conventional outdoor never could."
For the moment, the only factors constraining digital's advance is advertiser concern about whether or not the technology will work and what the entry costs might be, given the millions of pounds being invested in it.
Some doubts arose at the end of last year when two of Clear Channel's new roadside digital billboards malfunctioned after rain leaked into their cooling fans. Clear Channel says this was only a glitch and that the screens now work perfectly.
"Even though these systems have been years in development, clients are bound to feel nervous," Ivan Clark, the managing director of Destination Media Group, says. "If you use this technology, you need an alternative in case things go wrong."
As far as costs are concerned, there is a growing belief within the outdoor sector that it must have the courage of its convictions when it comes to digital. "We have to be brave with clients," Roy Jeans, IPM's chief executive, argues. "We have to tell them that if they want this to work they have to support it."
1. CBS' transformation of the London Underground into the largest digital advertising network of its kind in Europe may also be the time when out-of-home digital comes of age. Not only will digital escalator panels greet passengers at 20 stations but there is also the creatively mouth-watering prospect of 150 cross-track screens.
"The Underground audience is growing every year," Tim Bleakley, the CBS Outdoor managing director, says. "And we can target it day and night with different messages."
CBS has spent more than a year selling the digital concept not only to advertisers who have shunned outdoor because of its lack of immediacy, but also to agency creatives who must learn the rules of engagement with a whole new form of commercial communication.
To give them a glimpse of the future, CBS created a mock-up of an Underground station near its Camden offices. It was there that the technology was previewed to hundreds of advertisers and creatives who visited it between July and December. A website is due to launch.
"It's early days but the reaction has been incredibly positive," Bleakley adds. "Many advertisers already using outdoor relish the idea of being able to speak to people in a different way. Other once-reluctant users, particularly those in the retail sector for whom immediacy and frequent copy change is important, are also showing interest."
2. The millions of pounds being invested by the other major players in digital technology underlines how seriously they are now taking the medium.
JCDecaux, winner of the contract for Heathrow's Terminal 5, is spending £20 million installing more than 1,000 screens across the BAA's airport network. This includes turning half the ad sites at Terminal 5 into 57-inch digital posters.
Titan Outdoor's digital charge is being led by Transvision, a network of large LED screens at 18 major UK rail stations. Now the company is working on what it calls "son of Transvision", which consists of smaller screens positioned on sites outside the Network Rail contract.
Clear Channel Outdoor is offering ten large-format digital billboard screens on busy traffic routes including London's Vauxhall Cross and Cromwell Road. They can carry multiple ads from five advertisers, as well as news and traffic reports that can be updated instantly and remotely.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- At a time of so much marketing clutter, outdoor digital screens are increasingly attractive for many advertisers. For one thing, they increase out-of-home's reach into new areas, such as retail sites. For another, they allow greater flexibility to promote such things as price changes and special offers that traditional posters cannot match.
- As with any hi-tech innovation, there are bound to be teething problems, which may worry advertisers. But given contractors' long experience of electronics, there is no reason why such glitches should not be swiftly overcome.
- Even though millions of pounds are being invested in digital screens, lower entry costs will make it available to many more advertisers. However, the out-of-home industry will have a finite amount of digital space to sell, and advertisers wanting to reach a specific audience at a particular time of day must expect to pay a premium.
- Digital outdoor screens - big, spectacular and high definition - represent one of the most exciting new media for creatives to conquer. This may be harder for mainstream agencies. The majority of outdoor digital work is currently produced by digital specialists.
- Simply adapting a TV spot for a cross-track screen is a waste of time. The message has to be communicated without sound (which commuters find intrusive). Moreover, the platform audience is likely to be viewing the screen for three minutes or more.
- Advertising on digital escalator panels, can be equally problematic. But it also presents an exhilarating creative opportunity. An escalator ride lasts around 60 seconds and, unlike a walk down a shopping mall, there are no other distractions. If the message is entertaining enough, the advertiser's reward is to get somebody's undivided attention.