Getting outdoors

By The Drum, Administrator

February 25, 2004 | 10 min read

The chances are that, by the time you arrived at work this morning, you’d already seen at least six poster campaigns. And that’s just if you weren’t looking for them. These days, poster advertising is everywhere: 96- and 48-sheets towering over you as you drive into work, 6-sheets peering out from every bus shelter, special builds while you shop. Even posters in the toilet of your local bar.

In terms of the outdoor sector as a whole, the success speaks for itself. By the end of last year, the industry accounted for almost 10 per cent of all display advertising revenue in the UK. The reason is simple: outdoor as a medium can reach consumers where no other medium can. And while television, newspapers and magazines continue to dominate audiences while they are at home, as soon as they step out the front door they’re in outdoor’s world.

Of course, outdoor advertising, in particular poster advertising, is no piece of cake. While a lot can be said for the positioning of these poster sites in the awareness they cause, the part played by the creative itself is a massive factor.

So just how important is it that poster advertising carries a strong creative concept? And what makes a concept a success when it’s used on a poster?

“Creativity is probably no more important in outdoor than it is in any form of advertising communication. But simplicity is key,” says Richard Kramer, creative director of Bristol-based BCLO. “Outdoor is my favourite form of advertising because it’s the purest form of advertising. You have to boil it down to the bare minimum.”

David McEvoy, marketing director of JC Decaux, agrees. He comments: “The outdoor medium is unlike any other medium, in that it doesn’t have any editorial. The power it has comes entirely from the creative. It’s a blank canvas, which has to be drawn on by the agency. I reckon 70 per cent of the effectiveness of outdoor stems from the creativity. You have to attract people, draw them in. Give them something they’ll want to spend time looking at. Unlike a television ad or a newspaper, it doesn’t have editorial context, it stands and falls by the standard of the creative.”

McEvoy is backed on the contractor side of the fence by Philip Vecht, chief executive of ADMEDIA, who remarks: “I think it’s vitally important to be creative in outdoor because in every other medium, radio, press or television, you expect to be advertised to, whereas with ours you are catching people where they don’t necessarily expect it. People interact with the poster and, because that interaction is visual, it is voluntary. You have to choose to look at it, unlike audio advertising where you have no choice. So it’s a softer sell and that’s why it’s so successful.”

“No matter how great a site location, without a decent creative it simply becomes wallpaper,” says Yvonne O’Brien, marketing director of Clear Channel UK. “So getting the creative right is the key to success. All the outdoor companies have worked hard to encourage advertisers and creatives to make the most of the medium, and as a result the outdoor industry has reaped the rewards.”

So how do you go about creating an outdoor campaign that gets noticed? What are the golden rules that separate the good poster campaigns from the dross?

Andy Cheetham, creative director of CheethamBell JWT, explains: “It’s got to be a really simple and understandable visual. As few words as possible, or none if possible. Something that people can read in three seconds as they drive past it. The rule with headlines is, three words if possible, five words max. Of course, we all have clients and problems that you can’t get round in five words. But a two- or three-word headline is what you aim for. Almost all our MEN ads have fallen into that.

“My big bugbear with posters is that creatives, when they are making a poster, or when posters are being judged for awards, they are being seen in totally the wrong environment. It can be something that looks great on the desk or on the wall but, when it goes up, within 24 hours your client’s on the phone saying, ‘I can’t see the logo.’ Every agency must have been through that. I have a pretty strict rule when it comes to sizing. I always go for a big logo, which, when people look at it on a desk, they might think is too big but when it’s up on the site you’re so glad you went for the larger size.”

He continues, “Simplicity. The fewer elements the better. The more striking the imagery the better. I was always told in my formative years that any more than three words on a poster was not a good thing. Striking imagery and a strong message is important. Unlike TV, though, it all starts and ends there in one hit. You can’t rely on copy to fill in any gaps.”

Richard Grisdale, creative director of Ad One, agrees that the message must be simple and to the point. So much so, in fact, that his agency often uses outdoor as a testing board for creative concepts, even if the campaign will not be running in that medium. He says: “Advertising has to be relevant and intrusive. Posters have to be particularly intrusive in order to deliver their impact in a second. When you conceive an idea, it has to carry across all possible media. Putting an idea on a poster is a good way to test it because it has to get the message across quickly. Even if we don’t use outdoors in the mix we use posters to test ideas.

“I think it is a challenge in that it really does crystallise your thinking. You can’t expand the message into lots of copy, you have to carry the message in five words.”

Vecht, at ADMEDIA, also believes there is a lot to be said for understanding exactly what environment your campaign will appear in, and making the most of it. He explains: “It’s not right to say that outdoor is one category. Take washroom posters. Some people say that washroom sites are outdoor because they are posters but you can’t compare a poster that someone’s going to be standing in front of, and giving their full attention to, for 55 seconds to a poster that people pass at a bus stop or on the underground. People are missing a trick if they don’t realise that for 55 seconds that person will be looking nowhere other than that poster.”

Coming up with a punchy visual to convey the brand message is clearly a crucial part of creating a poster campaign, but is there more to it than the visual itself? Nowadays, with so many posters out there, advertisers have to concoct more daring ways of attracting attention from the public. Recent history is packed full of examples of unusual outdoor campaigns, from talking washroom posters to hologramatic bus-shelter posters that change in front of the consumers’ eyes and special build 48-sheet campaigns with actual cars emerging from them. So how important is it to be innovative in outdoor advertising?

“Innovation is important because if you don’t innovate you disappear into the morass of ‘me too’ advertising. However, you mustn’t be innovative at the cost of the brand,” says Grisdale. “One of the biggest problems we face is ‘me too’ advertising. People are comfortable with what’s gone before and insist on coming out with something that’s basically nothing better than wallpaper. Very few clients understand the importance of standing out and looking different, though this is beginning to change.”

Kramer at BCLO believes that agencies shouldn’t rely on new tricks to attract their audience. He comments: “I think it’s very important to be innovative but you can’t rely on those 3D tricks and things because budget and time don’t always allow them. There have been some fantastic examples of when they have worked in recent years, though.”

The importance of creativity and innovation doesn’t seem to be in dispute when it comes to producing the perfect poster, but it’s not just the ad agency that takes part in the process. The outdoor contractors also have their part to play when it comes to creating new and innovative campaigns. But how close is the relationship?

Cheetham, for one, has nothing but good things to say about the contractors, singling out JC Decaux for particular praise. He says: “I think posters have come a long way in the past few years. JC Decaux has changed the market incredibly in recent years. They’ve made street furniture look good, they’ve back-lit posters and their policy of quickly replacing broken glass has reduced vandalism. In the old days posters would be stuck out in wastelands but now they’re part of the street. They keep in touch as well, and I’m sure they’d be in the office more often if we asked them to.”

“They’re normally quite willing,” remarks Kramer. “They appreciate the importance of being inventive. Outdoor is no longer just about 48-sheet posters. It doesn’t just rely on the tried and tested routes. That’s what makes it particularly exciting these days.”

However, there is still a feeling in some quarters that the creative process could be helped by an increased communication between agencies and contractors.

Aryeh Tel, managing director of The Big Poster Company, thinks that agencies could do with having more information about the outdoor medium they are creating for. He states: “Communicating is always important. If creative agencies would know which outdoor sites they’re going to put the creative on, it would work much better. Widely speaking, an agency is used to creating a campaign for a 96-sheet or 48-sheet site and then adapting it for other sites if they need to. I think if they knew the sites they were going to be appearing on from the start then it would be much better.”

Grisdale would like to see more effort from the contractor side of the fence, commenting: “When I worked in London we worked on the More O’Farrell account and they were very proactive and creative people. Now I don’t see that so much. I’d like to see a lot more lateral thinking from the contractors, to be honest. I’d like to see them offering more creative formats.”

It certainly seems that the outdoor medium is here to stay. And with more and more sites cropping up all over the country, it’s clear that creativity is key to getting the most from your poster. It’s going to be interesting to see where the medium goes next, as the ideas keep coming.


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