Selling Off The Wall: Think you’re creative? Not everyone has what it takes to succeed in ambient media, says Delwyn Swingewood

Where would Commissioner Gordon and the citizens of Gotham City be without the bat signal to summon the Caped Crusader? In trouble, that’s where.

Where would Commissioner Gordon and the citizens of Gotham City be

without the bat signal to summon the Caped Crusader? In trouble, that’s


Ambient media has been around for quite some time, in both fact and


But it is only recently that the sector has started to claim some of the

respect it deserves. A decade ago, the humble beer mat was just a


Today, it qualifies as a clever ambient tool. And let’s face it,

’ambient’ is less of a mouthful than ’non-traditional-out-of-home’.

Several factors have contributed to the growing popularity of the

ambient media buy: the increasing cost of traditional media, audience

fragmentation, clutter and the demand for point-of-sale communication.

Compared with the mass appeal of poster advertising, ambient also offers

the ability to target tightly defined audiences. Clients across the

marketing spectrum have come to recognise ambient’s value and


’Attitudes are changing as agencies are under pressure from clients to

come up with innovative ideas,’ says Amanda Williams, a director of

Amber Media.

Mars, Nestle, Cadbury, Boots, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, SmithKline

Beecham and Boots have all added ambient into their media mix in recent

months. New-media advertisers find ambient appealing too. Last August,

internet service provider UUNET used ambient specialist Just Media to

project itself, literally, on to the BT Tower as part of a campaign that

also included space in The Wall Street Journal.

’No-one’s asking clients to abandon their core media activity in favour

of ambient,’ says Just Media managing director David Gibson, ’but it can

be used as a catalyst to lift the campaign out of the clutter. It’s

about getting the right mix.’

Michelle Ball, director of outdoor at MindShare, agrees. ’It’s about

creating a mood and reaching the consumer in the right environment,’ she

says. The Nicotinell ads below the No Smoking signs on the London

Underground are one example. The use of telephone kiosks for Warner Home

Video’s release of The Matrix is another. This stunt, by Phonesites and

Manning Gottlieb Media, played on a scene from the movie by wrapping

phone boxes to create the impression that one of the characters was

reaching out to passers-by.

In a similar, less recent example, Direct Line hijacked the Godzilla

movie by scattering the crushed remains of cars, complete with ’Godzilla

Alert’ cordons, around London.

Sometimes it seems as if almost any empty space can become an ambient

opportunity. Sony once used flip-top tables on trains to target

commuters travelling into London. And Cartoon Network even linked up

with New Zealand apple marketer Enza to decorate the fruit with stickers

of famous cartoon characters.

But ambient sales people occasionally risk disappearing up their own

highly creative backsides. Some ideas may be impressively wacky, but

just don’t work. Gin lightly sprayed in the air during a cinema push for

one brand had an adverse effect on former alcoholics in the audience.

And ’Eggverts’ quickly went bad for both client and audience.

Despite such miscalculations, outdoor specialist Concord reckons ambient

is the UK’s liveliest media sector, and estimates there are more than

200 contractors. Many are thriving. Just Media, which started in April

1995 with capital of pounds 500, now has a turnover of pounds 8.7

million and is expanding internationally. Jessica Hatfield’s The Media

Vehicle made pounds 11,000 profit in its first year, on sales of pounds

412,000. Last year Hatfield, who now has 40 full-time staff, posted

profits of pounds 1 million on sales of pounds 4.8 million.

Concord estimates spend on the sector was a mere pounds 10 million in

1995, rising to pounds 54.3 million last year. Spend for 1999 could top

pounds 64 million.

This rapid expansion has tempted outdoor giants such as Maiden, More

Group and Mills & Allen to venture into the sector. It has also

attracted a variety of entrepreneurs. Hatfield has a media agency

background. Anna Carloss of Cunning Stunts came from TV sales. Admedia’s

chief executive Philip Vecht was once a corporate lawyer. ’I had a steep

learning curve,’ admits Vecht.

’But I wasn’t encumbered with the baggage and mindset that a traditional

agency background might have given me.’

Advertising in the lavatories of pubs and clubs frequently has a

’laddish’ feel, and Vecht’s agency has arguably done more than most to

take washroom advertising to new ’heights’. Peeing on the chemically

activated face of a rock-star is certainly likely to catch the eye.

In fact, ambient is highly effective. According to The Media Vehicle,

which specialises in supermarket trolley ads, a four-week experiment

using branded and non-branded trolleys in Asda supermarkets revealed

that sales of advertised lines went up 15.6 per cent, while

non-advertised lines shrank by 2.9 per cent.

Of course, some may argue that washroom and trolley advertising can’t

strictly be described as ambient. There are plenty of debates over the

matter, but the consensus seems to be the ambient market can now be

roughly divided into three categories.

First, there are stunts - those one-offs that can generate enormous

amounts of TV and press coverage. Emap’s FHM has benefited from such


A series of stunts, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, planned and bought

by Motive and executed by ambient or ’guerrilla marketing’ agency

Cunning Stunts, included projecting a naked Gail Porter onto the Houses

of Parliament and hanging an enormous bra and knickers in Oxford Street.

The giant pants - also draped over Eros and Waterloo Bridge - were

designed to highlight last November’s lingerie supplement.

But according to Rachel Stott, a director of outdoor specialist Poster

Publicity, stunts need to be special to succeed. ’One-offs aren’t so

unusual these days. Clients want more than a picture and a few lines in

the trade press. So don’t do something just for the sake of it.’

The second category is ’mainstream’ ambient, the sort of campaigns that

make use of petrol-pump nozzles or payroll slips. They don’t produce a

’wow’ factor but deliver thousands of point-of-sale impacts. Amber and

its sister company PMM are specialists in this area.

The third category, scaffold ads, comes closest to traditional outdoor

and is also coming into its own. As the scaffolding goes up, so do the

ads. These temporary sites can be stunning. They dominate the landscape

and create enormous interest. Advances in production mean one-off vinyl

posters can be produced cost-effectively, increasing the chances of

these ads getting on the media schedule. Bacardi, Diesel and Tennent’s

are among clients that have used them.

A downside of ambient is that it lacks research. There’s no agreed model

for coverage and frequency. Some agencies offer their own research, but

buyers used to working on cost per thousand will take some convincing to

go on gut feeling. ’Ambient challenges the way traditional media works,

you need to make your own opportunities rather than buying those on

offer,’ says Williams.

Ball says her department is trying to put together some ideas for a

research initiative with the Henley Centre, but lack of data is making

progress difficult.

Despite this lack of conventional research, there’s general agreement

that ambient works. Initiatives like a poster for Canesten anti-thrush

treatment on the back of a lavatory door or Cartoon Network stickers on

apples catch people unaware. Far from being intrusive, ambient seems to

be welcomed by consumers, mainly because most campaigns strike during

people’s ’down time’ - when they’re not really concentrating on anything

else. Far from forcing their way into the consciousness, they can be

absorbed without resistance. A poll of shoppers on Oxford Street by

Alban Research found 47 per cent of those questioned liked this

’livelier, more innovative and eye-catching’ form of media.

Jonathan Naggar, co-founder of Admedia, thinks the sky’s the limit for

ambient. ’The sector will continue to boom as ambient media becomes more

professional, tempting a greater number of clients from all sectors to

try it.’

Such is Naggar’s optimism that he forecasts: ’Soon it will be dangerous

for clients, agencies and poster specialists not to apportion a section

of their budgets to ambient media. Those media that can prove

significant sales uplift and achieve brand standout are bound to



There may be a lot of buzz about ambient - but is it a genuinely

attractive option for sales people? The sector is certainly growing but

although outdoor specialist Concord estimates there to be more than 200

ambient contractors, the majority are small companies, possibly

employing five staff at the most.

It’s clearly an area for entrepreneurs and go-getters. If, like The

Media Vehicle’s Jessica Hartfield or Admedia’s Philip Vecht, you have an

idea you are passionate about, you might be advised to go for it. On the

minus side, Concord reckons that most new companies set up to take

advantage of the sector do not survive very long.

Still, if you fancy flexing your creative sales muscles, Amanda

Williams, director of Amber Media, offers a few tips.

1 Be experienced. You’ll need to think on your feet and be prepared to

sell a medium that people will challenge you about.

2 Be motivated, confident and persistent - and make sure you’ve done

your homework. You’ll have to convince the client that your idea will

work. And to ensure it’s original, you must keep up to date with the


3 Be creative. You’re selling concepts, not cost per thousand. Ambient

is an interesting and consultative sell, but not for the


You’ll need to use your own initiative and work on it.

4 Be patient. Press and broadcast sales can be fast and furious but

ambient sales take time, sometimes even months.

5 Be prepared to work in a small agency. The sector is still relatively

new and can’t match the scale of television or publishing.

6 Don’t be complacent. You’re not working for an established title or TV

department where there are regular bookings. Some clients will book

regularly. Others will come and go so quickly you won’t have time to


7 Don’t expect any guidelines - half the time you’ll be flying by the

seat of your pants.


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