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Why advertisers are so keen to get outdoors

Outdoor advertising is in rude health and its digital revenues are up 30% year on year. So what's behind the success, and what innovations can we expect to see in the future? 

Newsline asked Mike Baker, CEO of the Outdoor Media Centre, to explain...

Outdoor media - it's easy to see the appeal on a day like today - blazing sunshine driving everyone out into the open air to top up the tans acquired on recent holidays. Too many tourists as always but what can you do? It's all good. 

The Vitamin D analogy first developed in our Power of 5 piece Sunshine and Propaganda still holds true. Vitamin D keeps us all looking and feeling good, with colour in our cheeks and a skip in our stride. In the same way, outdoor advertising is the Vitamin D for brands, keeping them in the public eye, reminding us all of the brands' vitality and presence. 

Brands in our public space are healthy, visible, reaching out to us, "mentally available". Brands that are not "out there" in the real world are pale and wan, out of sight and out of mind. 

That was certainly the sponsors' belief during 2012's outdoortastic Olympic Games, and the same view seems to have prevailed in Scotland this summer at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Reports from on the ground suggest a busy outdoor media landscape, including large and small format banners, airport welcome signage, wrapped buses and lively roadside activity. All this and more drove outdoor to healthy growth of 6.4% year on year in Q2. 

More good news this summer came from Cannes Outdoor Lions, where the UK's poster industry thrived, winning 18 creative awards. Cannes underlined the health of the medium worldwide, with outdoor being the sole traditional medium with more entries than last year, a rather impressive 5,660 in total. 

It wasn't just pretty pictures either - in the Cannes Effectiveness Lions Awards 2014, out of home had a spectacular showing, featuring in 44% of campaign entries and no less than 92% of shortlisted entries. In that respect, outdoor was second only to social media, which featured in every single shortlisted entry. For reference, newspapers and telly both featured in 58% of the shortlisted campaigns. The commentary suggested, "Outdoor seems to be increasingly a strategic choice for lower budget campaigns and may be a way to quickly achieve mass coverage in markets where television audiences have become fragmented." 

So what are the driving forces behind the growth? First, the sheer weight of advertisers using some form of outdoor in their media mix. According to Nielsen, 96 of the top 100 UK advertisers are finding a place for outdoor in their brand communications. 

The profile of that broad advertiser base expands and evolves over time, so for example both Asda and Morrison's featured in our top 10 spenders list, according to Nielsen this past quarter. That's the first time I can remember two supermarket groups being in the top ten. I hope it's starting a trend, since retail is a huge category for us to develop further. 

Secondly, the extraordinary level of investment by outdoor media owners keeps providing a stream of high quality opportunities for advertisers. I estimate £50m has been spent on new advertising equipment each year for the last five years, and this year is no different. 

The sheer investment is tangible evidence of media owners' confidence in outdoor's future. And again, there's evolutionary change in what is being offered. At the turn of the millennium, there were some 35,000 roadside billboards of various hues in the UK. Nowadays there are fewer than 20,000, as the media owners consolidate, cull poor sites, and drive for quality rather than quantity. 

Digital revenues, up a staggering 30% this quarter, lie at the heart of that development, and two thirds of the OMC's 35 members now have some digital in their offering. More than ten companies are solely or primarily digital, and the race is on to provide a compelling national footprint, expanding outside the capital. This proposition underlies, I'm sure, Ocean Outdoor's recent move to acquire Birmingham outdoor company Signature. 

With all the investment in plant, the industry is truly changing the urban landscape, creating iconic structures and placing unmissable signage in key locations. That new signage creates new urban fabric and adds an aesthetic wow factor to the skyline. It also changes the media landscape, empowering brands to connect with people in ways that were not possible even five years ago. 

Ad signage now sits seamlessly alongside directional signage rather than clashing with it, contributing positively to the ambience, and encouraging travellers and shoppers to interact in railway stations, retail malls, airports and subways. Those ad structures are nowadays very much part of the concept from the drawing board stage, as video interviews with franchise partners as diverse as TfL, Land Securities, Gatwick Airport, and Westfield Shopping Centres have confirmed. 

All this digital inventory can now be harnessed at scale by advertisers for single one-shot activity. There's no better example than the Missing People charity, who have found 200 people as a direct result of their appearing on digital signage - some of the missing phoning in personally after seeing an appeal in their area with their name and photo. 

It's a good example of showcasing what's possible when the industry works together to deliver a real and tangible benefit. Another recent example was the coordinated "Lights Out" campaign on digital signage which commemorated the centenary of World War One on 4 August. At six hours' notice, a dozen digital media owners mobilised to carry the campaign - the type of collaboration I'm sure we'll see much more of in future as advertisers get wise to the short-term opportunities which digital OOH now offers. 

It's true we are still some way short of real time programmatic buying, but the outdoor equivalents are wide-ranging, as innovative media planners continue to demonstrate. Pre-planned campaigns with ready-made copy wait to be triggered by a passing car of a particular marque (Mini), an NFC engagement (Despicable Me) or touchscreen (Fosters Smart Casual). Such triggers can include sports scores (Panasonic), train destinations (Eurostar), hyperlocal search (Google Outside), pollen count (Benadryl), temperature (McCains), local recruitment (Reed) and many more. 

There are three final factors which give us positive feelings for a bright future in out of home. The first is the ever growing audience - its sweet spot being young, urban, mobile, affluent, connected - now accessible through a range of smart tools such as Route. 

This light TV viewing audience makes an excellent counterweight to other media, offering incremental reach and frequency, and a balancing of impacts in key demographic groups. Outdoor delivers a quality national audience of massive scale. 

Secondly there's the context in which the ad is delivered - the active space, we call it, and the more we find out about this space, the more convincing the evidence becomes. It's not just contextual relevance, time, and proximity, although these are important too. We now know from skin conductivity research this year that people are 33% more alert out of home than when indoors at home. 

Intercept interviews in the UK's streets also tell us that seven out of 10 people you reach out of home are in active purchase mode - they are actually out there with the purpose of buying something, so you are catching them in exactly the right mindset. 

And finally there's the visual branding opportunity, because outdoor creates impressions that last: sumptuous large scale creative imagery which has a way of burning itself into our memories, and which we can access subsequently at physical or online point of sale. 

The visual sense is our strongest sense by far, using more bandwidth than all the other sense put together, and outdoor harnesses that bandwidth. According to media planning guru Les Binet of adamandeveDDB ("The Long and the Short of it"), the branding effects of outdoor are on a par with the branding effects of television. Who are we to argue with that?