Media Headliner: Baker hopeful of better times ahead for outdoor

After plummeting adspend and an OFT probe, the sector needs a strong leader. Maisie McCabe meets the OAA's new CEO.

Before Mike Baker took up his new role as the chief executive of the Outdoor Advertising Association, he wanted a few days' holiday. Owing to the twin forces of the British Airways strike and volcanic ash, he opted for a relaxing break in Brussels and Ghent rather than seeking more exotic climes. He didn't want anything preventing him from reporting for work last Monday morning.

Baker, who admits his redundancy from CBS Outdoor in 2009 after 12 years in international marketing roles came as a disappointment, if not a surprise given the economic climate, replaces Alan James at the OAA. As the leader of the trade body, Baker will be required to manage a range of interests, and former colleagues are keen to stress his ability to inspire others and encourage co-operation - they say he's better at playing doubles tennis than singles as evidence of his willingness to be a team player.

While Baker is well known and respected in the outdoor space, he does not have the wider profile and agency experience of someone such as Thinkbox's Tess Alps. Yet his understated style perhaps belies his 20 years of media marketing experience spanning outdoor, national newspapers, magazines and TV, and a strong understanding of how outdoor works in the media scene.

An ex-colleague says Baker's level of output and energy is just what the OAA needs and his marketing experience suggests the role of the OAA and its leader will be to expand beyond moderating internal issues. Jeremy Male, the chairman of the OAA board and chief executive of JCDecaux, says he wants the organisation to be "more on the front foot".

Baker says the OAA hasn't always been required to play a lead role in marketing outdoor. "In the past, the big players have felt they could do it better themselves," he explains. "Outdoor is more diverse than other media and historically that diversity has meant the media owners have kept marketing spend within their own coffers."

If Baker wants to develop unified marketing and research programmes, the industry is supportive of a stronger and more prominent OAA. A senior executive at an outdoor specialist says: "I hope that the role embraces broader responsibilities and is just as much about promoting the medium as dealing with internal issues."

Earlier this year, the OAA ran a major consumer marketing campaign created by Beta. One of its copylines, "Career women make bad mothers", prompted a ferocious backlash from working mothers and the influential Mumsnet, and was pulled from poster sites.

The campaign came on the back of a difficult two years for the outdoor industry. After 21 consecutive quarters of growth, the medium saw nine successive quarters of ad revenue decline until Q4 2009. However, Baker insists outdoor now has the opportunity to reverse this trend and build its share of the display market because it delivers "high coverage and frequency".

"In the past 18 months, outdoor has gone backwards," Baker admits. "It had reached almost 10 per cent of display revenue but it's now closer to 9 per cent. All of that was driven by the downturn and by clients reducing spend. But there has been double-digit year-on-year ad revenue growth during 2010. I think we can come back to 10 per cent and beyond."

Baker says outdoor will grow its share because consumers are spending more time outside than ever before: "Through IPA TouchPoints, we can prove that there is an increase in the time people are out of home. If you're looking to reach an affluent and young audience, outdoor is perfect."

Despite the recent setbacks, the OAA and the outdoor industry have grown significantly over the past ten years. According to the OAA's figures, the industry took £697 million in ad revenue during 2000 and while it reached a peak of £975.7 million in 2007, it still managed £782.1 million in 2009 during the worst recession for 80 years.

The OAA has also grown during this time, increasing the number of members from 19 in 2005 to 34 today. Baker insists the industry is no more consolidated than it was five years ago and says he hopes to bring new members into the fold. "Mobile media threw its lot in with the Internet Advertising Bureau but there is still a chance for them to link with the OAA," Baker explains. "Outdoor and mobile work incredibly well together."

It will be interesting to see if Baker's inclusive attitude to OAA membership and commitment to thorough research can counter outdoor's reputation as being part of the shady side of the industry. Industry insiders insist this image is unfair and, last week, the Office of Fair Trading gave them the chance to prove it by launching an investigation into the sector.

The OFT intends to look at consolidation, both on the buying and selling side, as well as the volume deals paid by media owners to outdoor specialists. Baker says he needs to "speak to all the parties" before commenting fully on the investigation but adds that "arrangements between two companies (such as sur-commissions paid to specialists by media owners) are not the OAA's business".

The way he approaches the probe could be a good indication of whether the OAA chief executive will become a more decisive and high-profile role. If Baker the tennis player can use his first serve to end the suspicion surrounding outdoor, which he insists is unfounded and outdated, then we will have a good indication of what's to come.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 55
Lives: Swiss Cottage, London
Family: Wife, Rima; two children: Christopher Omar, 19, and Lana, 17
Most treasured possession: Still having a few good friends
Latest book read: We Are All Made Of Glue by Marina Lewycka
Favourite campaign: Orange Gold Spots
Motto: Take nothing for granted

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