Do you know how long the average man spends in the urinals? Jessica
Hatfield, the group chief executive officer of the ambient specialist
Media Vehicle, can tell you with confidence that it's 90 seconds.
Hatfield's interest in men's personal habits is, of course, strictly
professional. Because when you're working in the increasingly cluttered
environment of outdoor and ambient media, every last research detail is
an important weapon in the fight for credibility.
The accountability issue has dogged the outdoor industry for years.
Outdoor lacks the editorial context of press or television - people
don't choose to consume posters in the way they choose newspapers or
television programmes, so the relationship with the consumer is
difficult to assess.
Until relatively recently, the outdoor industry did not do itself any
Measurement of poster exposure was based purely on traffic movement,
providing random statistics that were overstated and, in the end,
Add to this the inherent problems of outdoor media - posting dates were
unreliable, sites were often covered in graffiti, ruined by flyposters
or wrecked by rain - and you have an industry lacking the rigour and
discipline to compete with press and television.
Postar (Poster Audience Research) was set up five years ago to address
criticisms levelled at the outdoor industry, signalling a new era of
professionalism in the medium.
'Outdoor has made tremendous strides,' Carole Kerman, the chief
executive of the planning and buying specialist Outdoor Connection,
says. 'But so it should. Media owners are big companies and they have
the resources to provide the right research. Advertisers don't want
vagaries - outdoor had to tighten up.'
So far, Postar measures only roadside posters, judging exposure by how
many people will have looked at the site and registered the message,
rather than merely the number of people passing by.
The organisation has just completed a meticulous classification survey,
categorising every panel in the country in terms of its size,
visibility, height and angle to the road. As well as looking at the
sites themselves, Postar has also carried out research on the way people
respond to them.
For a new survey, drivers have been given special glasses - fitted with
custom-made cameras - which track their eye movements as they pass
And to check that the ads have been posted at the right time and in the
right place, a new electronic barcoding system has been devised, which
sends all the relevant information back to the head office.
Even once the posters are in place, the monitoring system does not
For moving sites, a new modem is being developed that detects when the
mechanics have broken. Once the problem has been spotted, many of the
sites can be restarted remotely, while the remaining problems can be
promptly fixed on-site by local teams.
Outdoor giants are certainly bringing accountability to the fore.
JCDecaux has undertaken a new research initiative to measure the
effectiveness of moving posters in terms of their impact on the public.
David McEvoy, JCDecaux's marketing director, comments: 'Posters are the
most accountable medium; we just haven't been very good at marketing
ourselves - perhaps we have got a bit of a chip on our shoulder.'
Meanwhile, More Group is testing a system called Postaweb, in which a
date- and time-coded digital photograph is taken of every poster as it
goes up. The photograph is then uploaded on to a website
(www.postaweb.co.uk ), which clients can access and see for themselves
where their posters are located.
McEvoy presents a solid defence of the outdoor industry's progress since
it started taking accountability seriously. Five years ago, he says, 30
per cent of the top 200 clients used posters; the figure is now 90 per
cent. And not so long ago, 50 per cent of poster advertisers were
tobacco, booze and cars; now these stalwarts make up only 15 per
But the accountability argument is not over yet. Matthew Carrington, the
chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association, admits that
'inevitably, there are gaps'. And Helen Tridgell, Postar's managing
director, concedes: 'It is difficult to measure, because of the sheer
size of it and because people remember a poster but not the site they
saw it on.'
For ambient media, accountability is even more of a thorny issue. Steve
Fuller, a board account director at MediaVest, states bluntly that
ambient's level of accountability is 'none'; while John Billett,
chairman of the Billett Consultancy, says: 'Some of it is interesting,
but some of it is a dog's breakfast - it is a real pot-pourri.'
Hatfield refuses to accept these criticisms. 'Nothing is more
accountable,' she comments. 'It is researched diligently to a level that
can withstand boardroom scrutiny.'
Her biggest success story after six years in the business is supermarket
trolley advertising. With an impact similar to the more traditional
point-of-sale medium, it is relatively easy to monitor sales increases
attributable to trolley ads. However, that doesn't make the claims any
less impressive - Hatfield maintains that trolley advertisers make a 500
per cent return on their investment.
Media Vehicle has just expanded into 400 doctors' surgeries with
Healthtrack, a television screen showing programmes and advertising.
Healthtrack is linked to the queuing system so that patients are forced
to keep an eye on the screen if they want to know when it's their turn
to see a doctor.
'I love the captive markets,' Hatfield says. 'I've got them and they
can't move.' And patients appear only too willing to be held captive:
sur-gery exit polls show that 8 per cent of 'chief shoppers' think
Healthtrack is a good idea, while prompted awareness of advertisers was
as high as 30.6 per cent.
Accountability is, however, still troublesome for many ambient
Their success is measured in column inches rather than awareness studies
because research is often unjustifiably expensive - especially when only
a single stunt is involved.
In defence of the ambient market, Fuller argues: 'The lack of
accountability makes it more interesting. You can't see the figures but
you can see if it's worked, and it's always a good fall-back if a client
Most advertisers, however, look for accountability as well as
innovation, and the outdoor industry is doing its best to accommodate
the demands of clients and potential clients.
But, as Tridgell admits, there is still a long way to go. Postar's
in-depth knowledge of the roadside market is useful (as are the figures
for bus shelters, cross-tracks, ambient, etc), but until the industry
has found a way to combine research from all the outdoor formats, a true
picture of its accountability will remain elusive.