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?