Exciting times in the out-of-home advertising business. How bizarre, some say - the poster, after all, is the oldest and crudest advertising medium there is, and it's surely ill-suited to the digital challenges of the 21st century.
For others, its untroubled prosperity is hardly surprising, precisely because it is untainted by the fragmentation phenomena that tends to trail in new technology's wake.
Out-of-home may not always be clever, but its enduring virtue is that it certainly can be big. Big ideas in formats almost as big as buildings and, perhaps most importantly of all, big audiences. Run a decent-sized poster campaign and soon just about everyone in the country will have seen it. You can't say the same even of TV these days.
And out-of-home now covers a whole spectrum of opportunities - some of which are small, niche, targeted and clever. Digital too - for instance, the screens, marketed as "destination media", that you find in all sorts of environments, from shops to gyms and hairdressers.
No wonder, then, that outdoor has grown year on year for 20 consecutive quarters and is set to become a £1 billion-a-year medium in the UK for the first time.
And in recent weeks, it has become apparent that outdoor is determined to instigate a revolution in the oldest and, you would have thought, most technology-proof parts of its business.
Old-fashioned posters are about to benefit from the most radical makeover in their history - a combination of "dry posting" techniques and new large-format electronic screens will soon, according to the contractor JCDecaux, make paper and paste a thing of the past.
1. JCDecaux heralded its dry posting programme as "the most significant change to the ad-vertising industry since posters began", when it unveiled the initiative at its "Creating the Future" conference in September.
It is upgrading almost 10,000 paper-and-paste sites (9,000 48-sheets and 900 96-sheets) to accommodate a new posting technique in which a glueless, one-piece poster can be fixed in and out of a new frame system. These one-piece posters will be made out of biodegradable materials or recyclable vinyl, which, the company claims, will also offer more vibrant colours and clarity of reproduction.
This new technology clearly won't do away with the need for fleets of men in vans traversing the country to post campaigns - but it will, the company argues, mean that a campaign can be implemented far more quickly than ever before - in theory, resulting in the creative work being up in front of the public for longer.
2. JCDecaux has also upped its commitment to the digital revolution - from next spring it is introducing 20 wholly electronic 48-sheet equivalent displays in central London, with a promise to make this technology as widespread as possible, as soon as possible - although it has not announced any detailed targets on this.
3. JCDecaux's announcement wrong-footed Clear Channel, its main rival, both globally and in the US. Clear Channel's response was to maintain that it already had plans to introduce dry-posting techniques, but was acting more responsibly by waiting until it was sure it had found the most appropriate system - it is trialling five techniques. It questioned whether JCDecaux had really found a system it could rely on over the long term and also implied that some of Decaux's green claims were being overplayed.
4. Meanwhile, CBS Outdoor has shown its determination to stay at the technological forefront of the out-of-home industry, with the public trial (at long last - it was originally due in 2002) of XTP, a cross-track projection system. Three of the units have been installed facing platform five on the southbound Victoria Line at Euston. Provided the test outcomes are satisfactory, 150 units will be rolled out across 24 major London Underground stations in early 2008.
5. CBS is already pioneering electronic image escalator panels on Tube station escalators and other LCD large-format screens in concourses. As these are centrally addressable, new campaigns can effectively be "posted" at the click of a mouse - and copy can be changed on a day-part basis. And, as with JCDecaux, CBS is using this new technology to trumpet its green credentials - the old-fashioned paper-and-paste business, it says, generated 4.1 tonnes of waste.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- The spotlight here is very firmly on JCDecaux in particular. The company is perhaps overstating its case when it hails dry-posting as the most significant change to the advertising industry since posters began - but, still, if it lives up to its promise, it will deliver yet another enhancement to the out-of-home medium.
- But Decaux absolutely has to deliver this time around. There will be widespread anger in the industry if it doesn't - because the company has a less-than-happy record in living up to its hype. Agencies point in particular to the company's promise in 2000 to replace all of its 10,000 billboard sites with new, Sir Norman Foster-designed structures within five years. Only 200 ever appeared.
- If it doesn't deliver this time around, this initiative will seriously backfire.
- The contractors will doubtless be hoping to recoup some of their investment through better yields on inventory. Advertisers, as always, will demand value for money. Contractors will argue that new techniques ensure creative work is in public view for longer.
- But, longer term, electronic billboards have a far greater potential when it comes to charging a premium - for instance, by selling day parts.
- Roy Jeans, the chief executive of IPM, comments: "There will be all sorts of econometric models being constructed around town to work out if revenues will follow investment, but actually, I think that, all other things being equal, outdoor will continue to do well."