Outdoor: Outdoor at the crossroads

Outdoor has much to smile about, from the Olympics to a new research system and digital formats, Alasdair Reid writes.

Let's face it, few ads provoke fisticuffs. But a pre-Election one for The Independent did. Sort of. And it's an even more remarkable occasion when those fisticuffs (actually, it was more "heated confrontation") take place in the office of a newspaper editor and involve said editor and the son of the world's most powerful media baron.

Throw in a close bystander in the form of a flame-haired former editor of The Sun and you have a story good enough for ... well, The Sun itself. The News Corp European boss, James Murdoch (for it was he), was in The Independent's offices on other business, accompanied by his new lieutenant, the News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, when he took a detour to see Simon Kelner, The Independent's editor-in-chief.

"What are you (flipping) playing at?" Murdoch demanded angrily of Kelner. And the answer, of course, was advertising. Outdoor advertising.

The Indy's provocative campaign, "Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election. You will" was a reminder, yes, that politics can be a dirty business and, yes, that newspapers inhabit a dog-eat-dog world; but, supremely, it was a timely restatement of the power of outdoor advertising.

Timely, because the outdoor medium has been in a rather gloomy place of late. As with all media sectors, the recession has had a marked impact on income. According to figures from the Outdoor Advertising Association, outdoor revenue was £975.7 million in 2007, £938.7 million in 2008 and £782.1 million in 2009. This last figure represents an eye-watering 16.7 per cent year-on-year decline.

Happily, though, outdoor's share of the UK's total display advertising pot has held up relatively well. It took 9.83 per cent in 2007, 9.84 per cent in 2008 and 9.26 per cent in 2009 (numbers, this time, courtesy of Group M).

If, or rather when, things turn around (the OAA says Q1 outdoor revenue was up 14.6 per cent on last year), outdoor will have faith once again that it can fulfil its ambition of becoming a "10 per cent medium".

Unhappily, though, for outdoor, the downturn has been coupled with generational uncertainty; plus bigger-picture question marks about the whole structure of the medium as a sector set apart from the rest of the advertising industry, traded by two dominant specialist agencies.

The generational factor was most clearly manifest at one of the big-two specialists, Kinetic. This giant enterprise was created when WPP's Portland outdoor buying division merged with Poster Publicity back in May 2005 - and the five-year earn-out contracts for the PPL executives who were given management control have now matured. So the likes of Eric Newnham, PPL founder-turned-Kinetic global chief executive, have either moved sideways or moved on.

And that coincided with a bout of management musical chairs on the contractor side. The highest profile move saw the arrival of William Eccleshare as the president and chief executive of Clear Channel International (in other words, boss of all of the company's outdoor operations outside the US) but we also saw long-time CBS Outdoor stalwart Tim Bleakley arriving at Ocean Outdoor as chief executive; and the former Toyota marketing boss, Mike Moran, taking Bleakley's old job as managing director at CBS.

And then, to cap it all, the outdoor medium ran headlong into an Office of Fair Trading inquiry. This, arguably, has been on the cards for years, ever since the OFT (after long consideration) waved the Portland-PPL deal through. Since then, buying has been dominated by just two players, Kinetic and the Aegis-owned Posterscope, which together command upwards of 85 per cent of the market. The only other player of note is Interpublic-owned IPM, with less than 10 per cent. And the cause of marketplace plurality wasn't exactly helped by the demise, back in March of this year, of one of the sector's most feisty recent entrants, Gen Outdoor Media Intelligence.

Perhaps inevitably, buying-side consolidation has been mirrored by consolidation on the contractor side too. The most recent manifestation of this was the collapse of Titan Outdoor in January and the subsequent acquisition of its inventory (rail and roadside panels and digital assets such as the Transvision screens at the UK's main railway termini) by JCDecaux.

Which means there are now three major contractors - Decaux with 29 per cent of the market, CBS Outdoor with 23 per cent and Clear Channel on 22 per cent. The most notable contenders in the medium's long tail are Primesight and Ocean. So, two big buyers, three big sellers - and they trade within parameters not found in any other sector of the UK's media marketplace, with more generous levels of commission and volume incentives.

The OFT is to investigate these and other issues. Much, clearly, rests on that outcome - but a ruling is not expected until the back half of the year.

Meanwhile, though, the sector is feeling more reasons to be cheerful than six months ago. The medium comes into its own during great public events like General Elections. Or indeed, Fifa World Cups. The World Cup is particularly good for the medium not just because it delivers a spike in revenues but also because it brings the best out of the creative community. During big sporting events, there's no better ad for the enduring power of a medium than the medium itself.

And in that respect, the sector already has its eyes on arguably the greatest prize in a generation - the 2012 London Olympics. Outdoor will be a keynote medium for the games - in fact, it will almost be an official partner, with the organising committee taking options on all sites near event locations to ensure that official sponsors don't get hijacked by the guerrilla marketing manoeuvres of rivals.

And there's arguably even better news in terms of the industry's deeper structures. As the recession started to bite, contractors seized the opportunity to cull their older, tattier inventory. Now, as prospects improve, we're already seeing a new wave of investment, not least in digital formats. The focus where digital is concerned is big enclosed public spaces such as stations and shopping malls but we're also seeing the emergence of giant roadside screens in iconic locations.

Digital formats promise flexibility in terms of the ability to post topical copy (almost) at the click of a mouse, thus allowing the medium to sell its inventory by day-parts. They also promise more sophisticated interactivity, via touchscreens and the iPhone.

However, the biggest story of all in outdoor this year is likely to be the launch (probably in the fourth quarter) of the medium's upgraded audience research system, Postar. This, the Postar managing director, James Whitmore, says, will represent a true "quantum leap" - and will allow advertisers to think about and plan the medium in an entirely different way.

It will cost £19 million over six years - that's four times the price tag of the current system. Ipsos-Mori is the lead research contractor and it's attempting something that has never been done before. For a start, it is using GPS meters to track the travel patterns of a panel of 10,000 respondents. That data will be married up to the most thorough audit to date of contractor inventory in terms of location, orientation and visibility; and also wedded to general traffic and people flow data.

It will allow all formats to be measured - not just the roadside sites that previous research currencies have focused on. Contractors argue that this will allow advertisers to target a demographic group and follow it through different environments - instead of buying that audience piecemeal in individual outdoor formats.

And, the contractors add, it will prove that, contrary to what some rival media sectors have been saying, outdoor still has a growing audience. TV sales points have been arguing recently that, during recessions, people tend to spend more time at home watching the telly - and the Barb ratings might bear that out. But as Dave McEvoy, the marketing director of JCDecaux, puts it: "People are as mobile as they ever were, if not more so. The new Postar will be about proving what we already know - that we have an incredibly strong audience."


Brand: Nike
Campaign: Write the future
Contractor: Clear Channel
Location: Cromwell Road, London
Creative agency: Wieden & Kennedy
Specialist agency: Kinetic

Pete Edwards - founder, Edwards Groom Saunders

"As a fan of the rawer end of the footballing spectrum (and clearly being a miserable old fart), I'm not quite as carried away by the hyperbole and excess of the threeminute film (at the heart of this campaign). But I am impressed with the explosion of the idea in so many channels, and how there appears to be a neat marriage of content to the message context.

"The Cromwell Road execution is another brilliant example. Who other than Nike could have created such impact? This seems a logical yet wonderful and dramatic extension of the film's narrative, truly taking an idea beyond its launch format - with the sense of permanence, scale and talkability of Mount Rushmore. It cements Nike's connection to the World Cup - even though it's a less than official partner.

"My only amusement is that of the curse of the celebrity-based campaign. Is that not Rio 'crocked' Ferdinand's face I spot in profile? And isn't that also the diminutive form of 'Theo - the-unselected'?"

Brand: The Independent
Campaign: General Election, 2010
Contractors: JCDecaux, CBS Outdoor
Location: Nationally on roadside billboards and Transvision, and on the
London Underground network
Creative agency: Beattie McGuinness Bungay
Specialist agency: Posterscope

Dom Woolf - client investment director, Starcom

"This was a really well executed outdoor campaign. As with most memorable out-of-home campaigns, its beauty lies in its simplicity. Most outdoor ads surrounding the Election were pretty negative, so it was refreshing to see an advertiser pick up on the Election furore but with a different angle to appeal to its core demographic.

"The copy had great stand-out and made you stop and reappraise the brand. The ads ran on digital formats and the bright white background couldn't help but grab your attention. It clearly demonstrated flexibility and immediacy by running all of its activity on one day across premium high-traffic roadside, rail and Tube formats. This helped give the campaign a heavyweight feel.

"Most importantly, the campaign worked. Not only did it amplify the effect of The Independent's free distribution, it also helped increase its month-on-month Audit Bureau of Circulation figures for April and May.

"Overall, the ad provided an acknowledgement of intelligence and empowerment that would have really appealed to the target audience. Not to mention the additional PR it achieved."

Brand: Ford Galaxy
Campaign: New model launch
Contractor: JCDecaux
Location: Airports, malls, rail stations
Creative agency: Ogilvy
Specialist agency: Kinetic

Steve Stretton - creative partner, Archibald Ingall Stretton

"At first glance, this is weak. The headline is a car favourite and the image is hardly inspiring.

"But it sort of doesn't matter. Ford doesn't want you to just look at it. It wants you to play with it. Then it wants your child to play with it too. The top screen keeps Dad happy with information and video about the new Galaxy; and the bottom screen keeps the kids amused with games.

"Technologically, this is fantastic. It engages the target audience(s) in a way I've never seen before. Hopefully, the agency is using the poster to collect data too. If it is, then I really think I have just seen the future. Digital, interactive, outdoor direct marketing. Now there's a new awards category. And with a better creative execution, this could have been the first winner."

Brand: NSPCC
Campaign: Butterfly
Contractor: CBS Outdoor
Location: London Underground
Creative agency: Saatchi & Saatchi
Specialist agency: Posterscope

John Messum - creative director, HMDG

"Ask me to name my all-time favourite posters and, well, how long have you got? Ask me whether I can remember any great cross-track projection posters and my shortlist will be long on short and short on list. Alright, XTPs have only been around since 2007 - but they are a great idea.

"So why am I so uninspired by the recent ads I've seen on them. The Dixons ad ('... then go to Dixons.co.uk and buy it') is a great idea and, rightly, won a Pencil. But does it benefit from a bit of animation? Not really. This NSPCC ad was OK - it made use of the fact that there's no sound on XTPs.

"But generally XTP ads seem to be rehashed, animated versions of static posters or bits of film with very little thought to go with them - probably because the sites have been bought last minute, with little or no time for creative departments to come up with a good idea or, little or no production budget with which to produce it.

"XTP represent a fantastic opportunity. At the moment it mainly seems to be a missed one."