Visitors to Asia are usually struck by two things: a sense of vibrancy and the messiness of a just-do-it business culture. Asia's out-of-home industry is like that, only more so: vibrant, booming, adventurous and open to technology, but messy, unregulated and lacking in areas such as research and accountability.
That hasn't stopped advertisers and agencies from exploiting the medium with some eye-catching and effective creative work, which has been internationally recognised.
Adidas won a gold Lion at Cannes this year for its vertical football work through TBWA\Japan; J. Walter Thompson in Malaysia won the outdoor Grand Prix for its missile car; Asia's most unmissable erection was behind arguably the continent's media event of 2003, FT Asia's launch. Mediaedge:cia was responsible for wrapping a skyscraper in the famous Financial Times pink - one of the biggest posters ever constructed.
Much of the growth is underpinned by booming economies, where mobile, urban, young populations are out and about, making them natural consumers of out-of-home media. And, as broadcast media fragment and new outdoor technologies come into play, so the outdoor medium grows.
But trying to post a campaign, especially in more than one market, can be difficult. The market in Asia is fragmented and in some countries, such as China, there are dozens of suppliers.
There are promising signs of consolidation, with big international players such as Clear Channel and JCDecaux building a presence in the region, as well as regional outfits such as the Tom Media Group setting up shop.
JCDecaux went into Asia in the 90s and is now in Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. "In general, the different outdoor markets in Asia are becoming more homogenous," Glenda Long, the regional sales and marketing manager for JCDecaux Asia, says. The appearance of international companies is leading to the establishment of some standards in the market. JCDecaux is already creating "customised regional marketing solutions" through its One Stop Shop organisation.
At Initiative, the international strategic director, Chris Wright, says JCDecaux's moves into Asia are welcomed. "Outdoor is expanding rapidly," he says, "and in JCDecaux there is an international player that is clearly committed to bringing more innovation into the market. We are looking for JCDecaux to inject options into TV-dominated markets."
Clear Channel has chosen to focus on Singapore and China, where it has a joint-venture company, Clear Media, which claims to be the biggest outdoor company in the market. According to the chief executive of Clear Channel International, Roger Parry, the company does not believe in pan-Asian offerings. "Advertisers want to be able to buy the best locally," he says. It is, of course, true that each Asian market has very different characteristics.
Some, such as Japan, are stable and suppliers can run profitable businesses, but "in India, you invest in good products and someone will just erect something next door", Parry says.
China, now full of international brands and agencies vying for a place in the boom economy, has found a substantial spot for outdoor. It represents a whopping 18 per cent of total advertising in the country. The chairman of Clear Media, Steven Yung, explains that other forms of media in China have been limited by state ownership.
"By definition, outdoor becomes the mass media of China," he says. And it has been growing more than healthily. While the total advertising spend is growing by 12 per cent year on year, outdoor is up 16 per cent. Given that China accounts for 50 per cent of Asia's growth, that's quite a claim.
The three big centres in China where outdoor is at its most sophisticated are Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Unlike some Asian markets, where a proliferation of neon signage means ads often need to be long term, there is a wide availability of short-term contracts. There are also more creative solutions in evidence. With the Olympics coming to Beijing in four years' time, there is an added momentum to the territory. "It's happening in every sense," Yung says.
But not everywhere. Singapore has recently seen declines in outdoor and Japan's outdoor market went backwards in 2003 with a 9 per cent decline, according to figures from Dentsu. Compared with European markets, "it's infinitely more fragmented, with several tiers of brokers and middlemen between an advertiser and its agency and the owner of the site", Martin Hadley, the director at MindShare Japan, says.
There are some signs of recovery in the market, but the one area of outdoor that is undoubtedly healthy in Japan is transit advertising, which is heavily influenced by the huge number of commuters travelling on the transport systems. The level of demand for some spaces is so high that Japanese railway companies have lotteries to determine which advertisers can have the privilege of buying their advertising space.
There is innovation, too. "Developers and brokers are creating new outdoor advertising spaces with new urban developments and are open to more complex and creative media solutions," Hadley says. And advertisers are combining outdoor with events and sampling, such as a sampling exercise centred on a 3D reconstruction of the Baileys TV ad in Sapporo.
In Thailand, renowned for its super-sized billboards, they now have technology to create billboards that are part light box, with moving elements. Little wonder, then, that out-of-home spend is up 25 per cent in the first half of 2004, according to Nielsen.