When the outdoor industry last met en masse just over three years ago, it set itself a target - to become a 10 per cent medium before it reconvened in Barcelona. It is just a whisker away from achieving this ambitious goal.
Sadly, no such gauntlet was thrown down at this year's conference, other than an easy request by Jean-Francois Decaux, the co-chief executive of JCDecaux, for media owners to co-operate in sponsoring an outdoor advertising award at the Cannes International Advertising Festival.
This was a shame. One of the problems with conferences organised and paid for by the main industry players is they can become exercises in self-congratulatory backslapping and can lack any objectivity. On occasions, Barcelona 2004 seemed in danger of falling into this trap.
It was fortunate that there was a range of speakers from all parts of the wider advertising and client community to counter the gentle nature of the conference. The agenda was divided broadly into three main strands - research, client case studies and creativity. Given that question-and-answer sessions were lacking, it was the first of these three sessions that proved to be the most rewarding.
If the last conference in 2001 focused on growth, this one seems to have been about consolidating the position the outdoor industry has found itself in, with better research tools high on the agenda.
It was Ivan Pollard, a partner at The Ingram Partnership, who managed to elicit the most excitement from delegates with his presentation of Robert Heath's Low Involvement Processing theoretical research and how this could affect outdoor advertising.
In short, Heath examines the way the brain assimilates information in two distinct ways: explicit learning, such as memorising times tables, and implicit learning, which requires no effort. Heath argues that implicit memories -the minimum that can be expected from outdoor ads - are longer lasting. It is an attractive theory for the medium, which has been dogged by accusations that clutter diminishes its effectiveness.
Inclusivity was another important topic. Ken New, the chairman of Postar, announced that Tube and rail sites are now available on the Postar system and that buses, taxis, retail sites and leisure sites will join them by the end of next year. Given the changes in mobility and outdoor consumption, Postar has needed to evolve into more than just a measurement of roadside sites and this was a welcome, if overdue, development.
New also revealed that the industry research body had produced better data and site classification of its existing roadside sites. Postar has reassessed 120,000 sites over the past year, producing compelling evidence that coverage levels on outdoor were higher than previously thought. This raised the possibility that the industry might have undersold itself in previous years because of flimsy data.
The need for the outdoor industry as a whole to produce better research was highlighted by Stuart Cox, the media manager of Nestle UK and Ireland, who criticised media owners for providing clients with data that failed to tell the whole story. He also warned the industry of the danger of slipping into complacency now that outdoor is attracting larger budgets.
Nestle has shifted a considerable percentage of its adspend from its lead medium - television - into posters. In 1994, 95 per cent of its budget went on TV but this has now dropped to just 60 per cent. While Cox acknowledged that the fragmentation of TV audiences was a reason for this, a major factor was the way television companies treated their customers.
"Advertisers on TV, ITV in particular, have been shoddily treated and, while ITV is trying to address the issue with the appointment of Justin Sampson as the head of customer relationship management, it may be too late. I trust outdoor won't make the same mistake of taking us for granted," Cox said.
Phil Georgiadis, a founding partner of Walker Media, echoed this view.
"Outdoor needs to build stronger relationships with advertisers. There is more churn with advertisers than other media."
The problem of the creativity of outdoor executions was another gripe.
However, attempts to address this, with presentations from the Naked founding partner, Jon Wilkins, and the Bartle Bogle Hegarty chairman and worldwide creative director, John Hegarty, were not as successful as some had hoped.
Hegarty was optimistic that outdoor's strength as a mass medium meant it would become increasingly attractive to creatives. "Outdoor has an unbelievable advantage and will be one of the main drivers in creativity, rather than TV," he said.
While better research and coordinated marketing efforts have given outdoor a good news story to tell clients, the challenges it faces from consolidation, legislation and technology were merely touched on by Decaux at the end of the conference. Given that these could have a greater impact than creativity on the immediate future of the medium, this looked like a missed opportunity.
Nonetheless, given that the TV industry is only now preparing to found a marketing body, and the Newspaper Marketing Agency is still finding its feet, the theme of this year's conference, "taking the lead", proved an accurate one.
OUTDOOR CATEGORY Availability on Postar
London Underground 2004
Buses spring 2005
Taxis spring 2005
Retail summer 2005
Leisure end 2005