The outdoor ad industry has been talking the digital talk for some time, but it seems reality is finally starting to match rhetoric.
The past year was marked by a slew of major launches - from the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 to the launch of two major networks of digital roadside billboards, as well as continuing digital expansion on the London Underground and mainline rail stations. Previously, the digital outdoor sector was a tale of two halves - highly targeted offerings such as screens in gyms or hairdressers that actually existed in the here and now, versus the grand plans of the big players that were mostly yet to come to fruition. Now the big boys have come out to play and digital outdoor is no longer just a niche opportunity.
Julie France, the managing director of JCDecaux Airport, says digital outdoor is still in its infancy but is growing. "The industry is on a digital journey and we're at the beginning of that," she says. "People have said that before, but the thing that is different now is that we're getting critical mass and ... that's what will drive it."
Posters and billboards are one of the oldest forms of advertising and the medium prospered in the 20th century as a complement to television - great for mass-market campaigns and iconic brand-building strategies. With flagging television ratings and falling newspaper and magazine circulations, this traditional strength of outdoor is more vital than ever. But digital adds an entirely new dimension - it takes outdoor into the 21st century and makes it sexy. Creative types have a brand new canvas to play with, while media planners have targeting opportunities their forebears could only dream of. It's outdoor on Viagra.
The digital outdoor sector is still in an era of experimentation and there is no standardisation. Most are silent, but the screens come in a bewildering array of types, from 48-sheet to four-sheet, portrait to landscape, animated to static, five-second slots to 60-second loops, and standalone to networked. Many creative agencies enlist the help of specialists such as Grand Visual and Rocket Renders to help navigate their way through this new world.
Neil Morris, the managing director of Grand Visual, recalls the "made to mix" campaign last year for Bacardi. He worked closely with the creative agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, the media agency Universal McCann and the poster buying specialist Kinetic. "It ran on nine networks and there were 140 individual pieces of copy ... so it was absolutely essential to have Grand Visual sitting there at the heart of the process," Morris says. Similarly, Ivan Clark, the head of digital at Kinetic, says he often plays an advisory role to creative agencies, telling them what is and is not possible with digital outdoor.
When the creative work is good, digital screens can be visually arresting. "Advertisers have the opportunity to reflect what they are doing on static posters, but in high-definition quality with moving images," Steve Cox, the marketing director at Titan Outdoor, says. Titan, which was a digital pioneer with its Transvision network, is planning to roll out 100 high-definition screens, about the size of the CBS Outdoor screens in Underground ticket halls, at London termini by October.
Streetbroadcast has the largest network of on-street digital screens, with 25 raised six-sheets in key shopping locations, and another 40 installations planned by August. The high-definition screens have run ads for clients such as the BBC with EastEnders and offer Bluetooth connectivity and, unusually, have sound as well.
In the past, digital outdoor was often an after-thought - just as a poster was frequently a re-purposed press ad, a digital screen was generally a piece of TV creative played without sound. Jon Lewen, the head of sales for Alive, CBS Outdoor's digital arm, says this has changed. The company now has 16 sets of digital escalator panels at Tube stations such as Oxford Circus and Victoria, with Piccadilly Circus and London Bridge coming online in August. "In the past 12 months, I've noticed a real step change in creative thinking about using our screens on the Tube," Lewen says.
"It's gone from taking creative that was designed for another medium and transferring it across, to thinking about the medium and coming up with creative work specific to that experience." The key thing with the digital escalator panels is that the screens rise at a certain angle and are linked, so copy can move from one to another.
Roadside, the digital proposition is different since the images are static to avoid distracting drivers. JCDecaux and Clear Channel have recently launched networks of digital billboards in prime locations such as Tottenham Court Road and Waterloo Bridge. The technology maximises the space for the media owner because it can rotate eight different ads, rather than the maximum of three typical to a scrolling billboard. In common with all digital outdoor, it also allows rapid copy changes, opening up the possibility of displaying different creative by time of day or day of the week.
JCDecaux's digital billboard network launched in February and David McEvoy, the marketing director, says advertisers are already playing with this feature from a creative stand-point. For example, Lucozade ran a campaign with the strapline "crack on with the day" that changed to "power through the night" after dark. Advertisers have also used JCDecaux's super-structure on the M4, the Torch, in this way, for example running a countdown to the Harrods sale and displaying changing creative for a "product of the day" for Waitrose. Day-parting is not yet available on Clear Channel's digital billboard network, which only launched in April, but Cennydd Roberts, the national sales controller for Clear Channel, says this is in the pipeline.
Media planners love digital outdoor because it combines the traditional strengths of outdoor as a broadcast medium with unique targeting opportunities. Day-part and week-part advertising is not just a chance for creative directors to come up with snazzy designs for day and night, it's also a serious media planning opportunity. A campaign targeting commuters can just run during the morning rush hour, while an entertainment brand can target evenings and weekends, and an alcohol brand can simultaneously maximise its return on investment and meet its social responsibility by only advertising after a certain time of day.
For example, Magners has a year-long contract to advertise on Piccadilly Lite, Clear Channel's short-term LED digital screen at Piccadilly Circus, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights only. Roberts says this screen, which is one of the few roadside sites with moving images, was one of the first short-term outdoor opportunities in the UK.
Traditional outdoor campaigns run for two weeks. This has evolved partly because media agencies have evidence that this is enough time to build solid exposure to a message within a target audience. However, the other reason is simply a matter of practicality - it is difficult for media owners to sell small chunks of space and it is not feasible to send armies of contractors out with rolls of paper and buckets of paste to change the copy every few days. Media agencies are chomping at the bit for the greater flexibility offered by digital outdoor, so the industry is likely to see more short-term, tactical ads as well.
Lewen says advertisers are seizing the opportunity to run short-term campaigns and this is opening up new business opportunities for the industry. "Recently, B&Q advertised on the Underground for the first time ever and we did a three-day campaign for them to promote their sale over a long weekend," Lewen says.
"Historically this would have been only on TV and press because you couldn't run an outdoor campaign for three days." Camelot is another short-term advertiser that has run brief campaigns promoting the National Lottery rollovers across several digital sites, including the Tube network, Piccadilly Circus, and on JCDecaux's digital billboard network.
Digital is transforming the face of airport ads as well. The headlines have focused on Heathrow Terminal 5, which, irrespective of any problems with its baggage handling, offers state-of-the-art ad opportunities with banks of 57-inch screens. In fact, JCDecaux has put up more than 400 digital screens around the country, including Glasgow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, and plans to install another 200. Rival Eye Corp also has digital screens at its airports, including Manchester.
France says digital means that airport ads can be tactical as well as strategic. "There is a perception that it's long term and very corporate but it doesn't have to be," she says.
The company has AAR research showing how people's mindset changes as they check in and progress through security, then relax with a spot of shopping. France points out that an airport concourse is effectively a shopping mall, a fact American Express used in a recent campaign where it ran different messages on screens outside different stores.
Similarly, both JCDecaux Airport and Eye Corp ran short-term campaigns for MasterCard targeting Manchester United and Chelsea football fans travelling to the Uefa Cup Final in Moscow.
On top of all this, digital outdoor still offers an abundance of niche targeting opportunities, from I-Vu's network of hairdressing salons to QJ Media's screens in gyms. Avanti Screenmedia has a network of bars, a space that Clear Channel will shortly launch into with a forthcoming product it has dubbed Socialite.
Last year, the Outdoor Advertising Association forecast that the digital outdoor advertising sector would be worth £187.8 million by 2012, and account for 12 per cent of the total outdoor advertising market. That would be a massive uplift from £47.5 million and 5 per cent in 2007. Digital changes the rules of the game for both media and creative and is bringing about a vastly different advertising landscape to that of today. The industry has a long way to go, but the digital journey is now firmly under way.
THE KEY PLAYERS
- 16 sets of digital escalator panels at key London Underground stations, with Victoria and Oxford Circus recent additions to the network and Piccadilly Circus and London Bridge due in August. Roll-out to be 90 per cent complete by the end of summer 2008.
- 170 LCD screens in ticket halls so far, with 55 more due by the end of July.
- Cross-track projection launched at the end of June.
- Planning to install 100 LCD screens at London termini by October.
- Piloting LED billboard at London Olympia.
- Network of ten LED roadside billboards launched in April, with another ten due in the fourth quarter.
- Planned launch of Socialite, a network of portrait-shaped screens in bars.
- Digital roll-out at BAA airports around the country, including Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Glagow, with 400 out of a planned 600 screens so far.
- Network of 15 LED roadside billboards launched in February, with another five launching over the summer.
- Has 29 digital screens at Manchester and East Midlands airports, including two new large-format digital sites at Manchester installed in March and May this year.
- Network of 25 on-street LCD six-sheets; installing another 40 by the end of summer.