Media: All about ... Outdoor turmoil

Recent management changes have unsettled the sector, Ian Darby writes.

Bill Apfelbaum, the chairman of Titan Outdoor, was ill last week. The bullish American was in the UK to unveil his company's strategy for the mess he inherited from Maiden, but was laid low with a dose of the flu.

Somehow, Apfelbaum rose from his sick bed to make his speech at the official launch, a recovery that could be a metaphor for the fortunes of Maiden, and outdoor as a whole, in recent months.

Activity in the market has been frantic in recent weeks - starting with Titan's buyout of Maiden in May at the knockdown price of 20p per share. Since then, we have had Viacom's recapture of the London Underground contract, further management shakeouts at Clear Channel and a statement by the industry measurement body Postar that it is working on a long-term project to reshape its research.

First-quarter spend figures offer grounds for optimism, showing that outdoor was the only major media sector aside from online to be moving in the right direction. Outdoor and transport advertising spend rose 3.6 per cent on the same quarter in 2005 to £220.5 million, according to the Advertising Association - good news as the sector tries to hit the magical 10 per cent share of display advertising.

But despite the positive signs, some argue ownership changes and management fallout at the large contractors have created confusion in the market.

1. Last week, Apfelbaum's Titan acquired a majority stake in AdBus, a company specialising in bus-side media. The deal is interesting for advertisers, some buyers say, in that it will offer some competition for Viacom, the leader in transport media, and puts Titan on the front foot for a change after bad publicity over its rail contracts.

The deal has led to the creation of a joint venture with AdBus, Titan Bus, which gives Titan access to 300 bus companies. Apfelbaum seems fixated with buses, having recently concluded a similar deal in Ireland. Apfelbaum says: "We will be looking at revenue growth to double the industry. We have a running start because we have kept most of the sales people." There is one slight catch, perhaps - he has no sales director. Titan recently hired Steve Atkinson to fill the role, but he is tied to The Mail on Sunday, where he is the deputy ad director, for several months. Despite Maiden's fragility, Titan has emerged with a market share that is estimated at around 14 per cent.

2. Clear Channel has also been in the headlines over recent months. It could be accused of carelessness in losing its two most senior UK executives - the chief executive, Stevie Spring, and the managing director, Julie France. Yet the US company seems to have at least affirmed its commitment to the UK market with its purchase of Van Wagner. The company, under the caretaker management of Barry Sayer, has restructured its sales team under the group sales director, Rob Atkinson, yet some say it needs clearer UK leadership - and soon. However, it has unveiled major investment in digital screens and is the market leader, with some outdoor specialist estimates giving it a share of 26 per cent, moving up to around 27 per cent with the Van Wagner deal.

3. Viacom Outdoor retained the London Underground contract - vital to its fortunes in the UK. The deal is worth around £800 million over the next eight-and-a-half years and Viacom has committed to a substantial investment programme with £72 million to be spent on upgrading the 33,000 Tube advertising sites, introducing 2,000 digital sites at 30 stations and installing 150 cross-track projection screens at 24 stations. "What it is doing with digital is very impressive and looks like moving the medium forward," one observer says. Viacom's market share is estimated at 23 per cent, putting it neck and neck with JCDecaux.

4. JCDecaux, most agree, has had a quietly successful few months. It missed out on the London Underground contract in a head-to-head with Viacom, but otherwise has scored some notable successes with new format launches, such as its Torch on the M4, and the creation of Open, its strategic planning unit, under the former Media Planning Group strategy director, Craig Wills. Most vitally, some outdoor specialist companies say, Decaux has got its sales force in order under the command of Spencer Berwin, the managing director of sales. Berwin added to his sales strength with the appointment of the former Maiden national sales director Max Eburne.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- Some bemoan the dearth of specialist outdoor sales talent at the outdoor contractors and say that this could hamper the medium in the short term.

- However, most agree that when this issue is resolved the media owners, generally, are investing enough in the medium going forward. Viacom and Clear Channel's investment in digital screen technology offers new potential for advertisers.

- The commitment of the two major US media owners to the UK market was also shown through Viacom's agreement to invest £72 million in the London Underground infrastructure and Clear Channel's acquisition of Van Wagner.

- The rebirth of Maiden should also be good for advertisers. Nick Jarman, the managing director of Interpublic's outdoor specialist unit, IPM, says: "Short-term, there a few issues to address; Titan and Clear Channel both have to staff up in some key areas. On the other hand, there is the prospect of exciting times ahead; Titan is very ambitious and will give Viacom Outdoor a run for its money in the transport market."

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