PLANET OUTDOOR: Which medium fears recession and clutter in equal measure? Alasdair Reid takes a look outdoors

No-one likes a downturn and you'd be mad to welcome a full-blown

recession - but some media owners have less to fear than others.



Take the poster contractors. When a downturn comes along, unit costs

leap to the top of the advertiser agenda - and when that happens,

outdoor (and other "secondary" media, such as radio and cinema) starts

to look very attractive. The medium's raw cost per thousand is in the

region of £1.40, compared with an average in TV of £7.40 - a

price differential of more than 500 per cent.



A decade ago, outdoor contractors worked similar numbers effectively and

although the medium took a hit along with the rest of the market, it was

a comparatively mild hit and the sector came out of recession with an

increased market share. This time, say some, it's poised to make an even

greater leap forward - because, leaving aside cost, it's in even better

shape than it was back then.



Ten years ago, the market comprised a load of provincial and often

amateurish contractors who, basically, fought over booze and fags spend.

Now the market has consolidated along international lines and is

dominated by four big, professionally run media owners: JCDecaux, More

Group, which is owned by Clear Channel, TDI, which rebranded in May as

Viacom Outdoor, reflecting its ownership by the US media giant, and

Maiden, an independent.



Consolidation has brought investment and professionalism and advertisers

have bought into the benefits. In the past decade, its customer base has

widened out of all recognition.



Can outdoor once again make the most of a downturn? "Why not?" Stevie

Spring, the chief executive of More Group, responds. "When advertisers

try outdoor as a proper branded medium - not just for launches, an

afterthought or campaign makeweight - they tend to come back for more

because they see that it works. And the fact is that 90 per cent of the

top 250 advertisers are now using outdoor as a central plank of their

branded advertising strategy."



Times may be tough in the short term, but outdoor may have one of its

long-term ambitions in its sights: a display advertising market share of

10 per cent. It's currently at around 8 per cent but in some market

sectors (such as, almost incredibly, FMCG), outdoor has already been

taking a share of about 9 per cent.



Some observers advise caution, however. They point out that the TV

market is more competitive and diverse this time around and it's

possibly in a more depressed state - so the price differential may not

be as blatant.



On the other hand, as Nigel Mansell, the managing director of the

specialist buyer Concord, points out, advertisers have been squabbling

with television contractors, particularly ITV, for the best part of a

decade now, and they're no longer tied into the punitive share deals of

the late 80s.



He comments: "Most of the major outdoor players are still predicting

revenue growth through the fourth quarter. What's happening is that for

many advertisers, outdoor has become their primary broadcast

medium."



Improving quality of plant is a huge factor and consolidation continues

to drive this: when newly acquired inventory is rebranded, the very

least that happens is that the sites get a new lick of paint. But the

big players have also been investing in new technology, such as

scrolling 48-sheets and electronic screens. The medium has entered a

virtuous circle.



Consolidation in the UK has all but run its course for the time being

(the biggest ongoing speculation obviously concerns the future of

Maiden) and this year has mainly been about bedding down deals and

tidying up the loose ends - for instance, Decaux's rebranding of the

Mills & Allen sites.



On the other hand, as Mike Segrue, a managing partner of Poster

Publicity International, explains, the international dimension will

continue to impact on the UK. He states: "Germany, for instance, is

going to become a real battleground. As yet, it's still dominated by

small, family owned companies. And then there's the whole of

Asia-Pacific and Latin America.



If you take an international perspective, consolidation is still in its

early stages.



"The big three already account for a third of the world's total

out-of-home market, which is significant - and it's a figure that would

be staggering in other media sectors - but there's probably some way to

go. We're putting together a network to reflect the leverage that they

have - we may not be able to match their power but we can try to match

their coverage - and to do centralised deals."



Even media owners - which, in the past, have viewed cross-border deals

as no more than ploys to leverage more discount - now concede that this

is all an inevitable consequence of globalisation.



So it's all looking pretty optimistic, isn't it? Media owners have even

begun to address advertisers' biggest traditional anxieties about

outdoor - its poor quality of audience research and its lack of

accountability.



Spenser Berwin, the group sales director at JCDecaux, comments: "Over

the past year the amount of research we have done in the medium in

general, and here in particular, has been monumental. I'd challenge

anyone who really knows this industry to show us where we've been

lacking when it comes to research."



David Pugh, Maiden Outdoor's managing director of marketing and sales,

is similarly upbeat on this topic: "The launch of Postar Lite (a desktop

version of the medium's audience research and campaign planning data)

was a huge step forward," he says.



So where's the catch? There has to be something worrying the medium -

aside, that is, from the recession. Not really, Spring responds: "Our

only real concern, especially with ambient growing the way it is, is

clutter.



Anybody who has sizeable numbers of people going through or going past

their door is looking to out-of-home ad revenue as an additional revenue

stream. The danger with all this activity is that it could become more

like a classified than a display medium."



But there is a rather more bleak recession scenario doing the

rounds.



It's outlined by Segrue: "The downside is the question of what happens

in the future when outdoor media owners are all subsidiaries of big

multimedia corporations. By definition, outdoor will be the most

insignificant medium they own.



"So what happens in a really tough downturn? Which media do they spend

the most resources defending? And which the least? The worry in some

people's minds is that in tough times, they'd let outdoor fall into

disrepair.



So while consolidation might currently be delivering a better product, I

think everyone can see the danger that we might end up with a worse

product than we'd otherwise have. Let's just hope it doesn't

happen."



TRANSVISION: ENGAGING COMMUTERS



Most train passengers spend an average of 16 minutes on a station

concourse, making them receptive to advertising messages during that

time.



TransVision on Maiden sites works by showing a rolling eight-minute

programme of constantly updated news and information from ITN,

interspersed with ads. Typically, there are seven of these programmes

every hour. In June 2001, Continental Research conducted an extensive

study of TransVision. The aim of the study was to quantify the level of

impact of the site and to investigate how people were relating to

TransVision.



Two hundred interviews were carried out at Victoria Station over a

ten-day period among regular rail users. Continental Research recorded a

positive attitude towards the screen in terms of both aesthetics and

content: 61 per cent showed spontaneous awareness of the TransVision

site and 67 per cent displayed high awareness of ads as part of the

screen's content.



Overall attitudes to the screen were very positive, with 90 per cent of

all respondents agreeing that it provides useful information. What's

more, ITN's presence engendered positive attitudes towards the brand. By

involving people in this way, it is likely that they are more receptive

to advertising.



OVERALL ATTITUDE TO SCREEN CONTENT (%)

Eye-catching and impactful 27

Positive mention of news/headlines 26

Good/good idea 26

Useful/helpful/informative 13

Would like wider range of ads 11

Criticism of screen content 11

Entertaining/interesting 8

Passes the time 8

Weather forecast 5

Sports coverage 4

Mention of Parliament/cabinet news 2

Other 26

Don't know 2

Base: all respondents (194).

Source: Continental Research for Maiden.

Agree Agree Mean

slightly strongly

% %

Provides useful info 39 51 4.3

Makes waiting for train less boring 39 48 4.2

Good place for screen 39 48 4.2

Brightens up environment 46 39 4.1

Clutters up the station 7 2 1.9

Base: all respondents (194).

Source: Continental Research for Maiden.



HAS POSTAR LITE GOT MIGHT? - Clare Conley asks if Postar Lite is the

answer to the outdoor industry's prayers.



Postar Lite is a good idea in principle for those who know about it and

use it - and therein lies the problem. Most of the target audience of

media agencies and clients still rely on outdoor specialists to supply

the information supposedly ready at their fingertips online.



The aim of Postar Lite, a summary version of the heavyweight research

tool Postar, is to provide easily accessible information that

non-specialists can use in the early campaign planning stages to create

a better brief, free of charge. This should push outdoor as a medium

higher up the agenda for planners and clients alike, ultimately leading

to the outdoor industry overtaking its current 8 per cent share of

display revenue to meet the 10 per cent target it has set itself.



Launched at the Outdoor Advertising Association's conference in

Barcelona five months ago, admittedly it is still early days for Postar

Lite. And the fears of specialist outdoor agencies anxious it would

result in a loss of business for them have so far proved to be

unfounded. First, because not many media agencies and clients appear to

be using the tool themselves; second, those that do still need to get

figures from outdoor specialists who pay to use Postar, so that the

projections make sense. And third, specialists are still needed to carry

out the complicated buying process involving multiple contractors per

campaign.



More marketing is needed, Peter Whelan,the head of outdoor media at

Outdoor MediaCom, says. But he believes Postar Lite is fundamentally a

good research tool. He says: "Awareness of Postar Lite is not as good as

it should be and a lot more marketing is needed. It is a bonus for any

agency, giving information on cover and frequency that allows them to

develop briefs more, but people are not using it. They will still turn

to specialists even for the basics."



David McEvoy, the marketing director of JCDecaux, which launched ten-day

campaigns as a response to the introduction of Postar Lite, adds his

voice to the call for more marketing.



"As an industry we haven't marketed our audience research as well as we

could. We have spent money on improving the product but not telling

people about it," he explains.



Clients and agencies are using the site regularly, according to Postar's

managing director, Helen Tridgell, who adds that users are asked to

register, but declines to give any numbers of registrations. Evidence

that Postar Lite may have contributed to the growth of outdoor's share

of the market is also anecdotal.



"It will add to the general increase in confidence. It's not about

showing that it has generated 'X' amount of revenue but rather it will

contribute to the whole trend of increased revenue," Annie Rickard, the

chief executive of PosterScope and chairman of the newly created IPA

Outdoor Committee, says.



A system such as Postar Lite is by nature evolutionary and Tridgell

admits that the site has been tweaked since its launch but claims the

adjustments were so small "you probably wouldn't know unless you were

using it everyday".



Bigger changes are on the agenda though, and Sue Cox has been appointed

as the training and development manager to visit member companies and

agencies to formulate a development plan over the next month, while

spreading the word about Postar Lite.



One of the drawbacks of the five-year-old Postar, which provides

information for the Lite version, is that it still covers only roadside

posters, which account for an estimated 80 per cent of all billboards.

However, at the Barcelona conference it was announced that Postar will

include more sites - supermarkets, buses and railways - by the end of

2002. Whelan says: "The development of Postar is one of the key issues

in outdoor as it tries to become more inclusive.



The trouble is, as outdoor grows in size, it will be a constant struggle

to update it."



Adding more sites is the next step, Tridgell says. And a new travel

survey will update the information Postar Lite provides about coverage

and frequency levels and pave the way to other forms of outdoor. A user

group, chaired by Posterscope's buying director, Mungo Knott, meets six

times a year to recommend developments for Postar. Tridgell adds: "We

want to make Postar Lite interactive so we can find out what people want

and develop it accordingly."



Improving the coverage and frequency level data should make Postar Lite

far easier to use, Steve Bond, the managing director of Posterscope,

says. Media agencies are only using the system "occasionally" and not

nearly as much as they could, he adds. "When planners start the process,

they need to know the numbers, generally provided by specialists as

market updates, to get to a particular coverage and frequency, which is

difficult. But on the whole, it is very user-friendly."



All these developments will help the outdoor industry in its



quest for greater accountability - to demonstrate its effectiveness to

both clients and media agencies. The outdoor industry has welcomed the

new Postar Lite and even altered its own offerings in response, in the

case of JCDecaux.



All who have tried it agree it is useful and has great promise, but

again the accusation is made that the outdoor industry tends to speak to

itself.



The question of how to promote Postar Lite, and outdoor media in a wider

sense, needs to be answered.



THE LOWDOWN ON POSTAR LITE



What is it? A web-enabled planning system using Postar data.



What does it contain? Listings of all the contractors' roadside sites by

size and region. A campaign planner with 31 target markets and a

facility to choose campaign period and month.



What do you do? Input your brief, add planning costs (which your

specialist will supply), press Submit and wait for the results.



Where can I find out more? Go to www.postar.co.uk.



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