Outdoor and Ambient Media

By The Drum, Administrator

July 8, 2002 | 12 min read

High impact street presence in Glasgow, courtesy of Score Outdoor.

In a market saturated to the point of bursting, how do you launch a new product with a bang? If you want to introduce a new brand, you don’t necessarily want it to show up on an old, traditional medium. Well, you might – but you still want that extra something. That extra va-va-voom that can make you stand out from your competitors (remember, they’ve tried it all before).

But the problem these days is that it’s often hard to find a medium that has not already been branded ...

...Picture it. A rocket bearing a fast-food giant’s logo has just launched into space. That very same evening a wide-eyed advertising exec is on the news telling the nation about an exciting new ad medium. Not the ad stickers on bananas (so last year). Not the logos on the vertical edges of stair steps (likewise). Nope. He’s talking about elevator commercials. Not just your fly-posters and sticker messages, but television sets in the lift. No longer will there be the agony of a reflective 15 seconds while you wait for the lift to find its floor. In fact, “People actually miss their floors,” enthuses the ad guy. “They get so caught up in the story.”

Perhaps? But a better way to spend your time in the elevator may be to try and figure out what could possibly be next in line for the corporate branding exercise that is so lovingly referred to as ambient advertising.

That is the problem faced by the new age of outdoor advertisers. Where can you now be seen where others have never been seen before? How can you get the ad-literate consumer to notice and remember your message?

Although the term - and the practice of – “ambient advertising” has been around for years, the category has exploded in recent times. Observers cite several reasons for this. First, soaring television rates coupled with the fragmentation of audiences. Second, the glut of promotional messages from conventional media. And, more recently still, a reduction in marketing spends by many brands and their enthusiastic ambassadors.

Roseanne Grant, a director at Score Outdoor’s ambient division, Score Think, says: “The leap to ambient is an indication of the state that the market is in. It offers better value for money and has the ability to stand out from the clutter. When budgets are being cut it is a different way to be noticed.”

However, outdoor, and latterly ambient advertising, is starting to become a victim of its own success. Samuel Johnson wrote in The Idler 243 years ago: “Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused.” And that was over a century before anything that could even be construed as an advertising industry existed.

Advertising works a bit like a virus: after its hosts are exposed, they become immune, so new strains of ad must then develop and grow. New strains are quickly replicated, adding further to the clutter, requiring yet more strains to emerge. Simply, the more advertising grows, the more it must grow to survive. Hence, the root of the problem: what can a brand do to get noticed, that has not been done before?

Ads infinitum. Or so it seems, as ever more inventive start-ups in the advertising arena, seeking to make their messages stand out amidst the traditional marketing clutter, slap commercial pitches on almost anything that doesn’t move – and increasingly on many things that do.

Mathew Bending, founder of Space and People, a company dedicated to utilising ... well ... space and people says that the key to outdoor advertising is innovation and creative quality and if you have neither of these, then all you are buying is real estate. A plot of land is a plot of land; it’s what you do with it that counts: “I was marketing manager of the Thistle shopping centre in Stirling. I was called by a cinema in Stirling to ask if I wanted to advertise my shopping centre at the cinema. I asked for details, the demographics, and customer profile, how long they stay and all the questions you would ask about a medium, and they couldn’t answer. So I asked them if they would like to advertise their cinema in my shopping centre. I can tell you that we get quarter of a million people a week through the door; I can tell you their demographic profile; I can tell you how long they stay, so you can link whatever film you have got to the customer profile of the shopping centre. They put the phone down on me. I realised that I was on to something.

“Independent, accurate, verifiable information is a marketer’s dream. Shopping centres use an Iris system that can actually monitor, in real-time and accurately, the footfall of any centre.

“The big shopping centres have a fantastic dwell time. The bright, attractive centres like Bluewater have a dwell time of four-and-a-half hours. Of the time spent in a shopping centre, most of it is spent window shopping, so actually having a promotion bang in the middle is highly effective. In a shopping centre you can see it, touch it, smell it, taste it and, god forbid, buy it.

“Ambient advertising is going to win. It is just a case of legitimising it, professionalising it and making it tangible. The main aim of any campaign has to be sales. Brand awareness is all very well and good but the days of just having two bored girls in baseball hats handing out leaflets is long gone. These things can be expensive to do, so you might as well do it properly.”

But it’s getting harder and harder to reach people, and where your brand shows up can often say a great deal about it, argues Mark Evans, director of Bhuda Creative Support. It often comes down to putting the right message out at the right time, and making sure that it’s in the right place: “People are looking for more measurability and accountability in their advertising spend. You can tailor your ambient strategies on a regional basis, something that advertisers couldn’t get from their above-the-line television spend. So, as a result, a lot of the advertising spend that was apportioned to television advertising is now being channelled towards more direct, regionally-tailored ambient campaigns.

“Ambient has a highly visible presence, and if it is placed in the right area and tied in with a good face-to-face experiential campaign it can help to communicate subliminally, drip-feeding the message over a longer period of time.

“But advertising has to be specific to its target now. You can no longer use a generic campaign and expect it to stick. The consumers are no fools.”

Nina Salmon of Leap Media agrees: “Everyone likes to be entertained. Theatre is so universal. If you can take that to the streets and entertain the customer, then they will remember it. It will engage an emotion. There is no better way to market a product than actually getting the face of that product directly in front of the face of the consumer in a memorable format.”

Unlike the bulk of British businesses, which grind to a halt because of our calamitous transport infrastructure, outdoor, ambient, guerrilla marketing - call it what you want - can make money from the train strikes and traffic jams. One such company that can profit from others’ frustration is Coolbillboards. The company, which was set up only last year, is just one of a plethora of agencies looking to storm the UK’s busy ambient market.

Coolbillboards offers private drivers the chance to elaborately brand their car with an advertiser’s message (for a small fee, of course), utilising the driver’s habits, movements, lifestyle and car. The company already has 20,000 vehicles on its database and has run branded cars for a number of big name clients.

Hamish Brown, one of the company’s founders, says that buses and taxis are already starting to become a bit jaded, and this is just an automatic extension: “Driving around in a branded car, it is amazing the recognition that you get. People stare, they point, they give you the thumbs-up. You just don’t get that with taxis - they have been around now for a good ten years and have just become part of the scenery.”

“If it was a family message, say a computer game, then we could brand the message on a people-carrier – a people-carrier that is going on school runs and going to shopping centres. If it were a sporting message perhaps we would put it on a four-wheel drive or on Jeeps. For a youth-orientated product we can put it on Beetles or Smart Cars, but obviously of great importance is not just the medium but the location too.”

Coolbillboards offers its clients a tracking service to add accountability to the medium and allow the branded cars to be traced via a GPS system. But accountability, for some, is where outdoor advertising often slips up.

Gavin Hollywood, founder of PosterPlus, a company that specialises in inflatable billboards – boards that can reach the sites other boards can’t (already proving their worth at the Highland Show and in signing up for the Open Golf) – says that the traditional outdoor advertising industry is simply not accountable enough: “Outdoor has been growing, but it’s not been growing fast enough because of its accountability – or the lack of it.

“We need to drag the business on, both collectively and as individuals, and make sure that systems are put in place to heighten accountability, because that could help us all.

“One of the shrewdest buyers of outdoor space is Ryan Air,” continues Hollywood. “Outdoor works well for them because it tells the consumer exactly what they need to know - £9 a flight to Dublin. But because of this lack of accountability, they do checks themselves. They come over from Dublin and ask the various media owners to take them out on a site tour of the billboards. They will have a record of every site that they have booked and, if there are some sites that aren’t posted or others that are ripped and torn, then Ryan Air is looking for extra credit. They are making sure that their money is well spent. But, really, they shouldn’t have to do this.”

Furthermore, Hollywood feels that there has been a lack of investment and innovation in the outdoor market, which is vital to keep it fresh. Something that the new companies arriving on the scene are keen to address:

“It is important that the industry looks outwith its own boundaries and into the realms of other countries - Europe and even the States - for fresh ideas. People are looking for value for money, they are looking for new ideas. This is not unique to the outdoor market though; people want value for money on the radio, television and in press adverts. They want black and white, full-colour, inserts and everything else. But, if you look at 48-sheet posters, nothing has changed since 1972 – size, paper nor quality. On the whole, it hasn’t changed in over 30 years. It’s too easy for the big players not to change. If the outdoor industry wants to continue to grow at the rate it has, now that advertisers are looking at outdoor as a regular medium then the industry needs to do something about accountability, quality and all the other problems that surround it.

“We have got to the point where we have driven it on and made it fashionable again but we need to get it out of the rut that it’s stuck in.”

The Headrest Advertising Company was founded by Douglas Robertson just over a year ago, offering advertisers a cheap and, literally, in-your-face advertising medium. The idea was simple: brand the headrests in taxis. However, as technologies have evolved so have Robertson’s ambitions. Having applied for a worldwide patent for his new venture, his company will install mini-plasma screens in the backs of headrests in the fleet of taxis that shuttle businessmen and tourists alike from Glasgow Airport.

“It is an opportunity to up-weight traditional media spend,” says Robertson. “We have targeted the airport with the data player because of the customer base that utilises the taxis. We could, for example, run weekly campaigns for a hotel chain (“phone now for 50 per cent off your room”) or for current events.

“If you are sitting in the back of a taxi you are going to watch it. It’s exclusive, it’s captive. Where else can you target such a captive audience? The television can obviously give you hundreds of thousands of potential customers, but this can be highly targeted and, again, the audience is captive; they have nothing else to do. You cannot avoid it. It is a cost effective alternative.”

If the idea takes off, then Robertson hopes to roll it out across the UK airports and then, with the patent applied for, the world, as they say, is not enough.

So, as next year’s adventurous start-ups plan to throw the (already altered) outdoor rule book out with last year’s branded banana skins, one of today’s most respected advertising figures shares one final thought. Martin Sorrell recently made the point that the biggest innovation in the outdoor advertising market was the mobile phone ... Now bear that one in mind as you write up your business plan to brand the local pool orange in honour of Sunny Delight.

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