Digital outdoor has arrived. After years of talking up digital technology, the outdoor media owners are signing on the dotted line and a whole range of posters are already moving and changing at the advertiser's whim.
The four big outdoor players are putting their money where their mouths are. After recently pinning down the London Underground contract, Viacom has just pledged £72 million of spending on digital technology for the Tube. Meanwhile, JCDecaux, just picked by BAA for the new Terminal 5 contract at Heathrow, has promised at least £20 million to make the site an all-digital show by 2008.
Another of the big players, Titan Outdoor, already has its series of 15 digital Transvision screens across major rail stations. And Clear Channel has announced plans to transform ten key poster sites in central London, using new digital technology.
According to Chris O'Donnell, the managing director of Kinetic's Destination Media Group: "The investment that Viacom Outdoor and JCDecaux have outlined signals a step-change in the outdoor media sector."
For advertisers it means a new way of using the out-of-home arena. "Day- part buying, demographic targeting and tactical messaging are all part of the wider media lexicon but have not been embraced by outdoor, until now."
Most operators agree the potential for moving pictures and changing messages is best for sites that involve lots of consumer "dwell time", where people are hanging out for more than a few seconds. Rob Rosenthal, the buying director at Posterscope, says: "There's a balance to strike between putting screens up because you can and putting screens up because there's a good environment."
At Clear Channel Outdoor, the vision for the potential of digital is wide-ranging. By the end of September, it intends to have a network of ten digital/ink billboards, roughly 48-sheet in size, across London's prime high-traffic locations, including Vauxhall Cross and Cromwell Road. The new billboards will use reflected light (sunlight in daytime and front lighting at night) to display the image, rather than LEDs, which have proved tricky to make clearly visible in daytime.
Clear Channel will offer five advertisers and one news/traffic content-provider the opportunity to book the network under a one-year contract. Each ad will be five seconds long and shown simultaneously network-wide - the idea being that each car takes on average 30 seconds to move past each site and will therefore see all ads. It being digital, advertisers will be able to run multiple creative executions, which can be changed as often as ad needs dictate.
"What we're trying to do now is to say, 'let's put the poster down the telephone line'," Barry Sayer, the Clear Channel interim chief executive, says. He's not so worried about the restraints on movement where there's road traffic or the fact that his audience doesn't have a lot of time. "I think the real strength is a lot more flexibility in outdoor - retailers can come out with price changes, for example."
At Titan Outdoor, the chief executive, David Pugh, is concentrating on the company's Transvision network across major rail stations. "The critical thing about digital outdoor is location, it's the most important factor. If you have a technology that can deliver lots of advertising messages, you need an audience that has the time to consume them, quality time - stopping or waiting. If you can provide an entertaining package for them with news and advertising, there's a reason to keep looking back at the screen."
Transvision is sold flexibly. It can be bought by day, by day-part, by weather - some campaigns have been dependent on whether it's sunny, others on England's progress in the World Cup. Advertisers often use it as part of a campaign that aims to dominate a whole station, with floor media, conventional media and live promotions.
Then there's the possibility of Bluetooth downloads to consumers' mobile phones. When Coldplay launched their album, X and Y, Transvision viewers could download samples from it. Or there's "dynamic copy", where the advertiser can change the ad for different times of day, automatically taking information from the client's website.
JCDecaux is singing from a similar songsheet with its new contract for Heathrow's Terminal 5. "In Terminal 5, once you go 'on site', you have two hours or so of hanging around, looking for something to engage you," David McEvoy, the JCDecaux group marketing director, says.
The media owner already has a limited digital offering, with Showscreens in bus-shelters across the UK; it also sells Tesco TV. It has a digital presence in several UK airports too, including Gatwick and Heathrow. But Terminal 5 takes its digital offering to a new level. According to McEvoy, it is investing £20 million, with plans for 1,200 screens by March 2008. It also plans to upgrade the other terminals.
Elsewhere, JCDecaux is trialling Magink (which Clear Channel is using for its own new billboards) which complements technologies to emerge from its "Innovate" division. Among the fruits of Innovate is the Opinionator, an interactive poster that allowed Alien vs Predator fans to vote for the beast they tipped to slay the other. Another is a poster for Groslch that, at the press of a button, showed nearby bars participating in its "green light district" promotion.
In the UK, the biggest spender has to be Viacom Outdoor, which has pledged to spend £72 million on its digital roll-out in the London Underground. It already has digital displays on 25 buses and has had a taster of digital on the Underground, but this spending spree will make it the UK's largest single digital network, with 2,000 screens. Large-scale LCD screens will feature at 30 key stations, with digital escalator panels at 20 stations and 150 cross-track screens at 24 stations. All of this should be up and running by the end of 2007.
The screens allow for some clever creative, as demonstrated by Sega with cars racing up and down the screens. But most important is the way advertisers can use the technology. Nicky Cheshire, the director of impact and digital at Viacom Outdoor, says: "McDonald's could use it to advertise burgers for lunch and salads in the afternoon, TV companies to promote that night's programmes, the Evening Standard to show breaking news - there is so much flexibility and we have a captive audience."
At Titan, Pugh is cautious, believing that "dwell time" is important. "The key is finding the right locations in other environments," he says. Titan is looking to expand digital screens to other parts of the rail network, with plans to extend a version of Transvision to major commuter stations around London over the next year.
Pugh believes that the opportunities for roadside are limited and at JCDecaux, McEvoy believes roadside is not the happening thing. "It's early days for roadside development, it's an emerging sector," McEvoy says.
Sayer is far more strident about how much of outdoor could one day be converted to digital, though there's no set time frame. "Now that we've conquered the resolution and the daytime issue, there could be a time when all billboards are digital," he muses.
FOUR OF THE MOST-TALKED-ABOUT DIGITAL OUTDOOR CAMPAIGNS
BBC PLANET EARTH
Creative agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Media planning agency: PHD
Outdoor specialist: Kinetic
Media owner: Titan
Strategy: BBC News 24 provides editorial for Titan's Transvision network of 15 major railway station digital screens, so the BBC knew the advantages when it chose to advertise its new landmark wildlife series, Planet Earth, earlier this year. The scale of the sites, coupled with the movement on screen, provided the impact that it was looking for.
Execution: Transvision's "Dynamic copy" allowed Planet Earth to be flexible, using ten different pieces of creative, each showing a different aspect of the programme. Marking the largest UK "bluecast" to date, consumers could explore Planet Earth on Bluetooth-enabled mobiles or text through to receive video clips.
Results: In the two-week campaign period, more than 18,000 sends were delivered to commuters' mobiles via Bluetooth or text requests. According to David Pugh, the chief executive of Titan Outdoor UK: "Transvision is a great medium for reaching people in 'going home' mode. The BBC used that to great effect to promote Planet Earth and, by doing so, created an 'appointment to view'."
Creative agencies: Walsh Trott Chick Smith, Grand Visual
Media planning agency: Walker Media
Outdoor specialist: Posterscope
Media owner: Viacom Outdoor
Strategy: The Independent aimed to drive daily sales off the back of that day's lead news story, with a brand-building campaign. The immediacy and cutting-edge nature of the Underground's new digital escalator panels at Tottenham Court Road was an ideal fit for the newspaper.
Execution: A new ad ran each day over a fortnight in March this year. The design agency Grand Visual took digital feeds from The Independent every evening when it went to press, then the creative was uploaded on to screens.
Results: Generic research by Viacom Outdoor has found that 73 per cent of travellers watched the digital ads all or most of the time as they travelled up or down the escalators, describing them as "entertaining" (78 per cent), "engaging" (73 per cent) and "innovative" (85 per cent).
Nicky Cheshire, Viacom Outdoor's director of impact and digital, says: "The Independent has maximised the tactical flexibility of this medium, with a creative treatment that answers key strategic objectives."
Creative agency: TBWA\London
Media buying agency: Manning Gottlieb OMD
Outdoor specialist: Posterscope
Media owner: Clear Channel
Strategy: SingStar is a karaoke-style PlayStation2 game that gives points to players who sing in tune. In June and July 2005, in order to promote SingStar to younger consumers (within the Playstation2 brand campaign "freedom"), Sony used Clear Channel's Adshel bus shelters in major cities in the UK.
Execution: Using a combination of traditional posters and specially fitted screens and microphones, the bus shelter showed the PlayStation game, while two professional singers invited the public to join in and sing songs at the bus shelters.
Results: According to Making Waves, the communications agency that created the SingStar bus-shelter activity, the Adshel bus-stops became the place to party, with activity going on seven days a week, between 9.00am and 5.30pm.
Rob Atkinson, the group sales director of Clear Channel Outdoor, says: "This campaign successfully reached the teenage and youth audience required by the client. By taking the game to the UK's streets, it captured a traditionally hard-to-reach youth audience."
Creative agency: Haygarth
Media agency: MediaCom
Outdoor specialist: Posterscope
Media owner: JCDecaux
Strategy: In November 2005, in order to demonstrate the features on two new mobile phone models (the N70 and the N90), Nokia ran a campaign across the UK on JCDecaux Showscreens.
Execution: The ads used the largest Showscreens, measuring 42 inches, which were also the first portrait-format displays. Consumers used LED buttons to choose a phone, then browse demos of the phones' functions and information on handset purchase.
Results: The initial campaign achieved an average of nearly 8,500 interactions per day and was so successful that it was extended for a further six weeks, running for three months in total.
JCDecaux's group marketing director, David McEvoy, said: "Showscreens have moved outdoor from simply showing an image of the advertised product. Nokia's inventive and ground-breaking campaign gave consumers a real understanding of the product through interaction and engagement."