Media Perspective: Downturn highlights that outdoor's sums don't always add up

You've got to admire Steve Atkinson, the group sales director at the outdoor company Clear Channel. Explaining the decision to reduce its roadside billboard inventory by 16 per cent, Atkinson displayed silky lyricism in putting this down to a "flight to quality".

Nothing to do with it being space that the company couldn't shift, but more a bid to scrap the sites that weren't working hard enough for advertisers. Which may well be the case but I'm left with the suspicion that outdoor generally, and roadside formats especially, are struggling more than most.

With word doing the rounds that other outdoor companies are looking at selling off some of their roadside assets, could this spell the beginning of the end for a prominent, but much derided medium? Probably not, but the signs aren't good.

Good things can come out of a downturn and one such thing is that advertisers are undoubtedly reassessing the value that media channels can deliver. I'm getting the sense that they are gravitating towards media that can involve and emote and outdoor, with its lack of editorial content, could struggle in this context.

Having said that, the outdoor industry, which can still appear to be an old-fashioned backwater, is at least attempting to get its house in order. I'm still not convinced that it has done enough to sort out the transparency issue (merely pointing out that other media is also traded in an opaque manner is just not good enough) but evolutions in Postar, the industry measurement system, and heavy investment in planning tools from the media owners have made the outdoor world more accountable and easier to understand.

Yet the sums in some sections of the outdoor business don't seem to add up. Titan has renegotiated its Network Rail contracts and Lord only knows how CBS Outdoor will make a generous margin on the £800 million it stumped up to secure the London Underground contract.

All of which is no reflection on the key players in the business. CBS, for instance, deserves great praise for the leaps and bounds in which formats on the Underground have come on and I love some of the special build and large formats on offer. For instance, Clear Channel's portfolio, bought from Van Wagner, is still capable of creating standout.

Yet I'm left with the sense that outdoor can be a tricky and inflexible medium to invest in. And with other media channels working so hard to build their reputations (Thinkbox unveiled its TV spot to promote the medium this week), this could count against outdoor.

More fundamentally, in an increasingly cluttered world where everyone is so distracted, what role is there left for roadside billboards? An increasingly marginal one, I would say.

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