Stevie Spring interview
It is February as we sit overlooking Soho’s Golden Square from the office window of Clear Channel UK’s chief executive, Stevie Spring, high above. No doubt the main topic of conversation of the ants that are scurrying around far below us is how they are going to adapt to the introduction of Ken Livingstone’s congestion charges.
When we met last month it was a week before Mayor Ken introduced his road tolls to central London, but with her “always look on the bright side of life” attitude Spring has opted to sift out the benefits rather than dwelling on the possible disadvantages that such a move could incur on an outdoor advertising company based slap bang in the middle of the congestion charge zone.
“A lot of our people do travel around the city, but an awful lot of our work is done outside of the congestion charge time zone because it’s just impossible to clean a poster and maintain it during business hours. The journey time between structures is a nightmare. So an awful lot of our work is done overnight. Obviously, there is some stuff that has to be done in the daytime, so we’ve just had to register our entire London and South East fleet for the congestion charges. But I currently don’t have an accurate estimate on how much it’s going to cost. We do have a lot of LPG vehicles and we’re trying to re-organise them better. It will have some impact but I don’t think it’ll be huge on us.
“I think that London traffic is an exaggeration of traffic everywhere else, so, the more traffic and the slower people go, obviously the better for outdoor, because you get more grow time. I think that the tubes are completely full, the public transport options are soulless, you know – cabs and buses, from which, of course, you get a bird’s eye view of outdoor advertising. So I think congestion charges are good news.”
Dubbed the Ruby Wax of media due to her bubbly and energetic personality, Spring is feeling confident about the year ahead. And why shouldn’t she? For the last three-and-a-half years she has headed up one of the giants of the outdoor advertising industry in the UK and has overseen a significant period of consolidation for the company, which she says gives Clear Channel the most consistent national offering of any billboard company, following the Score Outdoor acquisition in May 2002 and the subsequent rebranding of all Score and More O’Ferrall billboard sites to Clear Channel Billboards.
“I’m feeling quite bullish at the moment. I’m feeling bullish about where we are and bullish about the outdoor marketplace in general. I know it’s all been doom, gloom and disaster and part of me thinks that a sense of closure to the sort of year and a half that we’ve had of “will they, won’t they” (the USA and UK’s armed forces going into Iraq), “will we, won’t we”, “where’s it going to go” will help. It’s whether it can all be over and done with in 48 hours or seven days or whatever. But, as I see it, there isn’t an underlying reason at the moment why businesses shouldn’t be quite bullish, because consumer spending is good. After all, people have still got to wipe their bums and eat and drink and make merry. And so, as long as people are still doing that, then the structure of the outdoor advertising business will continue to outperform the general media and, hopefully, we’ll continue to outperform outdoor.”
Spring joined Clear Channel UK as chief executive in 2000 and at that time the company was dominated by its strong Adshel street furniture business, which is now the second largest single media brand outside TV in the UK, controlling 65 per cent of all six-sheet bus shelter advertising, and its billboard division, More O’Ferrall, which was a strong regional player. However, the acquisition of Score Outdoor, which saw its total number of UK 48 and 96-sheets boosted to 11,000, established it as a truly national player offering consistent coverage across the UK’s major towns and cities.
“When I first arrived we had no transit division at all, the business was obviously dominated by the tremendously strong street furniture business and a billboard business that was incredibly strong in two particular regions, but was really struggling to have a credible national front. So we now have a very well balanced offer – we’re the strongest in taxis with Taxi Media, we’ve still got six per cent of six-sheets and that’s going well and we’ve been winning contracts and we’ve been developing the product, so it looks good. And now we’ve got the best billboard business in the UK, and certainly by a large margin it is the best in Scotland.
“So I think we’ve never been in better shape to have that sort of balance across outdoor and then we’ve got the bits round the edges that fill in the gaps. We’ve got the really strong retail now. We had nothing three years ago. We’ve got the Sainsbury’s contract now and we’ve got some really good shopping centres. In Scotland we’ve got St Enoch’s, we’ve got Ocean Terminal, all the major centres. So we’ve got a really good retail offer.
“I think that outdoor is in, by far, better shape than it’s ever been in before because of consolidation, because of technology, because of just having our people out and about more. So everything is conspiring to make outdoor stronger and we’ve had a very clear strategy to make the business balance across the range of outdoor formats.”
In total, the outdoor advertising division of Clear Channel employs 1,000 people across its Clear Channel Billboards, Adshel and Taxi Media divisions and, according to Spring, she can post a six-sheet or clean a bus shelter as well as the next man (or woman).
So, where is outdoor advertising going? What is the next big innovation?
“That’s an interesting question and it’s one that we spend a lot of time sitting in dark rooms with towels over our heads sweating over, because where’s the next Adshel? It was a fantastic idea. As an outdoor company we have to ask how do we go about getting the very best advertising sites in city centre locations – because we’re not always going to be able to get planning permission for them. We have to offer councils a fantastic public utility concept that says ‘we’ll give you so many public utilities in exchange for the advertising rights on those utilities’. That’s the way you get onto Sauchiehall Street or wherever. Then we have to tweak them and introduce new and better products to ensure that we keep the contracts.
“In the large format market there are all sorts of technical innovations coming on, like being able to print onto vinyl, so you can do mega-banners, like LED sites, sites on different structures and different pieces of architecture.
“But the problem in the real world is that, at the end of the day, we are humble property folk and what we deliver is on behalf of clients, because we don’t have any editorial, we haven’t got a flash front cover, we haven’t got a star DJ, we haven’t got a TV programme; what we’ve got is location, location, location. If I, through my relationships with the various councils, manage to get a fabulous location I could put a fabulous frame around it, but at the end of the day it’s down to the client to make that framework work by putting a fabulous piece of creative on it.
“So the creative agencies have to work with the client to determine whether or not, as an advertising vehicle, that site is going to stand or fall. If I then say I can deliver the same number of eyes but through an LED screen, through a plasma screen, through a whatever, then, yes, there is some added value through the movement, through the change of copy, but currently there’s a big difference between the cost per eye of static and the cost per eye of an LED screen. Frankly, no client on earth is going to pay that premium in the vast majority of cases.
“So, I think the next really cataclysmic change will be a form of electronicing, because when electronicing is full-colour, affordable, then we’ll have a terribly efficient method of copy-change, both in terms of rotation and in terms of client – either timeshare, where you could have morning/lunchtime/evening – so it becomes a sort of sophisticated scroller, if you like, in the panel. And it becomes operationally much more efficient than sending boys out in the pouring rain to change posters.
So, while technologies continue to develop, what of the media companies that own the media?
“I think that the consolidation in outdoor now is such that all of the players who are in the game are in it for the long term and they have invested the GDP of a small country in terms of product development and product upgrade and service delivery upgrade and marketing upgrade and research upgrade. I think we’ve got a very different scenario now. Viacom and JCDecaux are big international players and are all very serious about it. I wouldn’t dream of slagging off any of the main competitors, because they are all serious players.”
“I suppose Score was the last jewel in the crown. And frankly, for us it was the perfect geographic fit because all of the areas where Score were strong were the areas where we were less strong, on the whole. And our three big areas of strength were where Score were nowhere, so it was a perfect fit.
“The only player that’s possibly left floundering is Maiden, because they are UK-only and they are dependent on one large landlord, so they’re quite vulnerable.”
So, will the next big story be that Clear Channel has added the Maiden sites to its portfolio?
“I think what we have at the moment is three national billboard operators. Before, we had two national billboard operators and two regional ones. If there was further consolidation we’d go back to two national operators and I think what would happen is, we would end up with a netting-down effect of the number of billboards. Invariably, what would happen then is you would get a lot of smaller contractors starting up. You’d get all of the entrepreneurs coming back in and starting again from scratch. So there can be further consolidation there.”
“Whether there’ll be consolidation at the global level, on a global scale is another question. You’ve obviously got Viacom, which, because of their large TV interest, is the largest. We’re next and then JCDecaux almost doesn’t appear in terms of the scale of the business. Obviously, in outdoor Clear Channel is the largest, but we’ve got three relatively equal sized players. But in terms of the market capitalisation of the three companies there is a gulf between Clear Channel, Viacom and JCDecaux. Anything could happen, they could merge, purge, or whatever. But I think it would be quite expensive.”
After speaking to the optimistic Spring it is difficult to remember that the US and UK are now at war and that the global advertising economy is finely balanced, with nobody knowing which way it will go. Whatever happens, it’s a good bet that Clear Channel UK’s boss will continue to be up beat and you could say have a spring in her step, but that would be too corny.