OUTDOOR/AMBIENT: REPACKAGING OUTDOOR

The proposals in the Communications Bill enable outdoor to be sold with other media. Alasdair Reid investigates how this and other factors may change the landscape of the outdoor industry.

There's not much in the Communications Bill about outdoor advertising.

Which is odd, really, when you think about it, given that this is the medium of choice for most politicians. Or maybe not so odd. Outdoor isn't mentioned for the simple reason that, by and large, the medium doesn't carry any editorial - proof, if ever any were needed, that politicians are far more obsessed with rhetoric than about the well-being of the industries they seek to regulate.

But this is not to suggest that the Bill is an interest-free zone for the poster business. Far from it. One of its central guiding principles - that electronic media should now be opened up to US ownership - could underwrite another evolutionary leap for outdoor in the UK.

If enacted in its current form, the Bill will almost certainly mean the US-owned outdoor companies Viacom and Clear Channel will seek to do what they do in the US - sell outdoor alongside broadcast media, notably radio.

First, they'll have to buy some radio. So, given the go-ahead, many City analysts expect frenzied speculation about the big three radio outfits, Capital, Emap and GWR, especially as players in other sectors may have radio on their shopping lists as well.

Roger Parry, the chief executive of Clear Channel International, says there are clearly synergies between the two media, both in terms of what can be offered to advertisers and in terms of using outdoor to promote radio stations. He won't be drawn on the details of likely targets but he does say that there are important caveats here. The price must be right. "It's true that radio prices are getting to the point where they are sensible and that Capital at £4 (a share) starts to look more sensible than it did at £10. You have to remember that while the synergies are there, they are fairly modest, so people won't pay silly prices," Parry insists.

Both Viacom (or more particularly the Infinity company Viacom bought a few years back) and Clear Channel were radio owners in the US before they moved into posters. So they know the business inside out and they're certainly not going to be sold a pup. However, there are some attractive prospects out there. A Capital bid might make even more sense for Viacom - it owns everything that matters in terms of advertising in, on and around London's trains, tubes and buses. It would be well placed, you might think, to extract value from London's top radio station.

"There will be opportunities for US-owned companies to broaden their horizons, certainly," is all that Clive Punter, the joint managing director of Viacom Outdoor, is prepared to say.

And it will also be crunch time for the third big player, both globally and in the UK - JCDecaux. As it's French-owned, Decaux has for years been able to buy radio interests in Britain but it has never appeared wildly enthusiastic.

"The marketing spin in the US has always been that radio and outdoor complented each other because they were both media that were consumed out of home," Jeremy Male, the Decaux chief executive for northern Europe, explains. "That argument has not exactly been refuted but it has been marginalised."

Decaux, though, also believes there's something in the Bill for it. In a general atmosphere of liberalisation and light-touch regulation, it believes it might get the chance - at last - to buy Maiden, the UK's only significant independently owned contractor. "If there's potentially one ITV, there's certainly scope for more consolidation in outdoor," Male insists.

Many in the market will take issue with Male's analysis of the synergies that can be worked between outdoor and radio. Cross-promotional opportunities are manifestly attractive. Giving unsold inventory over to your radio stations not only improves ratings but can firm up demand, and therefore yield.

Secondly, there is plenty of scope for constructing cross-media packages, especially for advertisers targeting twentysomethings who are light TV viewers because on most nights they're out in town having fun. You hit them with radio in the morning and early evening and posters when they're on the move. Job done.

Catherine Bosworth, the head of outdoor at MindShare, states: "Although they are very different media, they do work well together. One is sound, the other is pictures and radio can enhance the strength of outdoor to reach people when they're out and about."

Some observers believe there could be another area the medium will benefit in from a new sense of direction - it will stop obsessing about the fact that, compared with other media, it doesn't have the digital bells and whistles to play with. It hasn't helped that the ambient crowd have been babbling on about LED and plasma-screen gimmickry.

A good example of ingenuity being put to more modest but achievable ends is the new Chameleon system from Decaux. It uses a simple gauze-like screen to ensure one image is seen in natural light during the day, another different execution during the hours of darkness.

Refreshingly, it works. So, for now, it's all about getting back to basics, isn't it? Maybe, Stevie Spring, Clear Channel UK's chief executive, says.

"It's what you put on boards that's important, not how it's delivered," she asserts.

Punter agrees. "Yes, there has been a steer back to fundamentals. It's about stuff that will allow outdoor to deliver the best it can to advertisers," he says.

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