OUTDOOR/AMBIENT: WHEN AMBIENT INVADES - Is it PR? Or is it sponsorship? And is it legal? Andy Fry studies beer mats and washrooms to size up ambient media

In the past five years, the value of the UK ambient media sector

has grown by more than 400 per cent, according to the outdoor specialist

Concord. In its Ambient Media 2001 report, Concord estimates that

clients spent £90 million on ambient in 2000; a figure derived by

talking to about 400 media companies.

With Concord's managing director, Nigel Mansell, expecting the

advertising downturn to hit outdoor six to nine months after TV, he

believes ambient could push close to £100 million this year -

before being squeezed in 2002. Even then, Mansell expects it to fare as

well as, if not better than, traditional media.

Although some observers say Concord is overstating the size of the

market, the fact is that many of the UK's biggest blue-chip clients have

now experimented with ambient. The top three spenders in 2000 were

Unilever, Mars and Nestle, which ploughed more than £6 million

into ambient between them. Other blue-chip clients to have weighed in

are Heinz, Kellogg, Procter & Gamble, SmithKline Beecham, BMW and


Despite such positive indicators, clients and agencies scrutinise media

more closely during an economic downturn. And it's clear that ambient

will need to answer some tough questions if it is to keep up its


For a start, there is a heated debate over what ambient means. Mansell

is happy to ascribe the term to most forms of non-traditional,

out-of-home media, arguing that the word is in now in common usage. But

for some, this doesn't go far enough. Steve Bond, the managing director

of the UK's other big poster buying specialist Posterscope, says: "There

are people out there who regard ambient as a swear word. The term is so

broad it tends to lump together different types of media opportunities

that have nothing in common."

The classic division is between strategic and tactical ambient


The former group tends to consist of media such as supermarket trolleys,

giant banners, phoneboxes and petrol pumps. The latter centres on

stunts, projections and fly-posters, where the goal is primarily to

generate PR or word of mouth - a form of experiential or viral


For Bond, it is not just the diverging marketing aims of the two areas

that makes a distinction important - it's the fact that "a lot of stunts

and fly-posting are illegal. There are people in mainstream outdoor who

believe association with stunts is bad for outdoor's prospects."

Likewise, ambient's low-cost entry point means anyone with a bright idea

and some capital can set up a company. In Bond's view, this creates a

divergence in the quality of ambient media groups.

Others believe ambient fails to define what they do. Richard Malton, the

marketing director of JCDecaux Airports, says: "There are ambient

elements to the work we do, but that doesn't explain the integrated

marketing opportunities we offer. We think of what we do as sponsorship

and promotions, because that helps inform our dialogue with


In Malton's view, the distinction between a six-sheet or ambient format

is irrelevant in the context of an airport; it is the use of the space

that matters. "You don't call a perimeter board at a football stadium or

a soccer shirt ambient media," he says. "You call them sponsorship."

In other words, ambient at point of sale, in airports or cinemas might

be better thought of as venue or event marketing. In the case of

JCDecaux's work on behalf of Ralph Lauren's perfume brand Romance at

Heathrow, floor media and seats wrapped in pink packaging were used to

drive traffic to a half-price promotion at a duty free shop, Malton

says. After purchase, an engraver was on hand to inscribe a message on


This comes close to the position taken by another leading buying point,

Poster Publicity, which argues that "complementary" media better

describes the opportunities available and their relationship with

established outdoor media. By contrast, Outdoor Connection's joint

managing director, Andrew Allerton, is in favour of the word ambient:

"You have to call it something. And I think the word still generates

excitement among creatives and planners who like to explore the


That said, he sees areas which need to be kept distinct: "Companies in

the digital outdoor area - plasma screens, LEDs, underground projections

- are keen to stay separate from ambient, and I think that's probably


Assuming clients and agencies get their heads round the diversity of

ambient, "the next big issue for a client is knowing whether you got

what you paid for," Bond says. "How do you know all your beer mats or

sandwich bags have gone where they are supposed to? Can you be sure all

the tatty leftovers of a campaign have been cleared away when it is


Mansell agrees that this is an issue for ambient, but thinks good work

is now being done by media owners. "Street Sites, which manages phone

boxes, has introduced detailed spreadsheet analysis of its inventory.

And Hi-Tech Solutions is barcoding posters in its washroom sites. Most

media owners are aware of what the client wants and, as buyers, we push

to improve standards."

The second issue is evaluating the impact of the medium - an area where

ad hoc research tends to be the benchmark, rather than standard industry

currencies such as NRS or Postar.

Admedia, which does a lot of work with motorway service washrooms, has

compiled case studies which attempt to isolate ambient's


For example, a unique telephone number or web address can be displayed

on posters to monitor response. Clients monitored in this way have

included Admiral, Mannesmann and QXL, which received 34,000 responses

and 22,763 registrations through a washroom campaign.

Admedia also claims it can monitor sales uplift by tracking electronic

point-of- sale data. In the case of Lucozade Solstis, for example, a

campaign involving 63 washrooms led to a sales uplift of 563 per cent

over a four-week period. And Admedia claims that all Lucozade brands in

the chill cabinet saw uplift as a result.

This call-to-action has also been investigated in the case of petrol

pumps. Alvern Forecourt Media claims that Epos data showed a 22 per cent

increase in sales for Van den Bergh's Peperami when marketed in this


Likewise, Kellogg's Nutrigrain saw a 117 per cent uplift on petrol

forecourts where it ran ads.

Allerton is positive about the data that emerges from Sure Group, which

provides ads on the front of small high-street retail outlets. There are

also emerging prospects such as Captive View's Viewrinals and


In this case, video screens in washrooms have sensors which can record

how often each ad is viewed.

There is an argument that says ambient, where campaigns generally cost

between £10,000 to £50,000, cannot be expected to meet the

same standards of proof as more established (and expensive) media - and

that this is just part of the risk inherent in the medium.

But Bond is unhappy with this notion. "Ambient is over-hyped. Many

clients try the sector once and don't go back. It's important to realise

that a lot of the same objectives can be achieved with traditional

poster formats where the media owners involved have credibility and the

research is proven. I don't want to see long-term outdoor relationships

worth millions suffer because a one-off ambient campaign worth £40,000 blows up."

Bond's concerns are understandable. And it is clear some clients need to

think hard about the way they approach the medium. Levi's might get away

with hanging jeans on washing lines above Camden Town, but not every

brand will look right in a gent's toilet or on a bin lid.

Ultimately, the ability to cut across traditional communication channels

is why ambient still holds such appeal. It also explains why outdoor

media owners and poster specialists want to beef up their ambient


Primesight set up Primesight Lifestyles while Poster Publicity has

opened Tranzformer. Among media owners, More Group has bought the

student union bar contractor Rock Box, while its parent Clear Channel

has a 30 per cent stake in the Media Vehicle.

All this might suggest that ambient is here to stay. The key question is

whether the sector is still riding on the novelty of being a new


How long before the public becomes oblivious to, or irritated by, this

invasion into every area of life?


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