In May 2003, taxi passengers in Edinburgh began to notice that “someone” had begun to put TV screens into their taxis, and the TV screens were showing them ads as they travelled to their destination. In April 2005, taxi passengers in Glasgow will also begin to notice that TV screens are appearing in their cabs too. These screens will carry a varied mix of content, ranging from short films to news and weather updates and commercials, to keep taxi travellers entertained as they snake through the increasingly bad city-centre traffic.
The mystery men that have been installing 15inch, high-resolution flat screens into many of the taxis of Scotland’s two major cities are business partners Mark Greenhalgh and James Neilson, the brains behind Cabtivate.
The two have invested around £400,000 in developing Cabtivate’s product and will officially launch its in-taxi advertising medium across the central belt of Scotland in April, at a lavish agency bash at Edinburgh’s Dominion Cinema.
At launch, the company, which is part of Independent Taxi Services (ITS), will have at least 30 screens in taxis in Edinburgh and at least 20 in taxis in Glasgow. From here on in they will increase the number of cabs carrying the system by around ten per month. This rate of growth will be aided after a deal was signed recently with LTI black cab manufacturer John Paton Group, which will see the Cabtivate system available as an optional extra for purchasers of new cabs. The incentive for any driver to get the system installed is that over the course of four years they can earn more than £10,000 in revenue for running the service, which they can offset against the cost of their new vehicle.
However, the majority of people watching Cabtivate’s screens will be blissfully unaware just how far the company has come in a relatively short space of time.
Greenhalgh’s story of Cabtivate starts back in 1996, when he was asked by former Edinburgh-based radio station Scot FM – now Real Radio – if ITS could put together an audio system whereby when a taxi passenger opened the door of a cab Scot FM would begin to play for them to listen to during their journey. Greenhalgh and his team devised a system and presented it to the board of IRG, the then owners of Scot FM, as part of the marketing director’s marketing plan. Scot FM loved it. But within days the deal that promised much fell through when the marketing director left Scot FM, and the deal was shelved.
It was back to the drawing board, but Greenhalgh and Neilson knew that they had the germ of what could become a very big idea indeed.
Fast-forward to early 2001. Since 1996 Greenhalgh and Neilson had expanded the audio system in to an audio/visual system that could now carry not only sounds but also high-quality live action pictures. In May 2003 they launched a pilot scheme in Edinburgh taxi cabs, with clients such as Scottish Courage, Edinburgh Fringe, Royal Bank of Scotland and Warner Bros on board, to fine tune the system and ensure that the hardware involved was reliable, and that it would not cause any problems for drivers that are keen to have their cabs on the road 24/7.
Greenhalgh said: “The trial was meant to last for 12-months to work out any hardware issues, but it lasted for 18 months while we ironed out hardware issues. That said, the good thing is that during those 18 months digital media moved on at a pace. A system running off just 12 volts wasn’t available two years ago, but it is now. There is a lot of hardware out there now and it is much cheaper, so we expect that that will bring competitors to us into the marketplace. We expect a competitor to enter the marketplace in a round six to 12 months, but by that time we hope to have achieved critical mass. Our ramp-up of the system from April will be very rapid.”
Greenhalgh recognises that Cabtivate’s strength does not lie in the hardware, but the application of that hardware. The content running on the Cabtivate system can be updated at the touch of a button back at their Forth Street HQ and most of the new content is sent to taxis carrying the system through the GPRS network. For content where the file size is too big to send via GPRS, Cabtivate has introduced an innovative system whereby they have a number of wireless land bays positioned at petrol filling stations around the city that automatically updates the on-board system with the new video images, or whatever new content Cabtivate wants to put onto the system.
Greenhalgh and his sales team of five have been taking the Cabtivate medium to agencies across Scotland during the pilot scheme and he says that so far the response has been wholly positive. One of the earliest to acknowledge the strengths of Cabtivate was Sara Maclean, previously of Faulds, who is now a director of the company.
Greenhalgh said: “When we first started to plan Cabtivate we went round to all the Edinburgh agencies and said, this is what we are planning to do. We took their comments on-board and went away and developed the prototype system. We took this to show agencies in Edinburgh and they liked the system a lot. We also did a London road show to take the system to agencies in London. We saw 19 agencies and they couldn’t fault it, except for one guy who said it might be better for us to have a ‘mute’ button instead of a ‘pause’ button, because even if a person mutes the system they are still seeing the images. It was a fairly obvious comment, but you often need somebody to say it before you realise just how obvious it is. So we changed the system.
“We also asked agencies how they want to buy it and how they would like us to sell it, so we now have a medium that is in the kind of shape that agencies want to buy it in.”
The system is sold in ten-second sections and it is not sold around any particular content, but at a specific audience. So say you are Bank of Scotland and you want to target the business community, you could choose to have your ads on the system in taxis close to the major railway stations at peak commuter times in the morning and early evening.
The system is highly flexible, but perhaps Greenhalgh, and Cabtivate’s, strength lies in realising that the danger of digital media is that it can sometimes become a little too clever and gimmicky for its own good. He cites Tesco TV as a prime example of where the digital medium is falling down, because the fact that something can be done is over-shadowing whether it should be done.
He said: “We know how digital is emerging and, arrogant or not, I think we’re at the front of that. Digital outdoor is not going in the direction we think it should be going. There’s a lot of nonsense around at the moment, such as Tesco TV. As a consumer I go shopping with my wife and if I’m not watching the ankles of the person in front I am trying to sneak away to more interesting parts of the store. The last thing I want to do is watch TV ads. Where’s the exposure in that. You can see a tin of peas flashed up and that’s it. It’s like Forecourt TV, which went bust. I mean when you’re filling your car with petrol you’re too busy watching the number on the pump to watch a TV screen. Digital media can work in different formats in supermarkets – like at the point of sale.”
Another selling point of Cabtivate is that it is 100 per cent accountable. The client can see if someone is turning the system off during a particular advert and alterations can be made to counter that. Likewise data can be supplied so the client knows precisely how long their ad was running, in how many cabs, and how many journeys those cabs made during the pre-defined period. In this, the age of accountability, surely that is a big selling point of the system.
With so much money invested in the Cabtivate system Greenhalgh has high hopes for his company and the taxi-screen medium itself. Within the next year he expects his sales team to number 12, and to have grown to 15 people by year two when they will be selling the medium on a UK-wide basis. The company is also working on technology that will enable viewers of the Cabtivate system to be able to print out vouchers in the cab to use in accordance with the ads on screen at relevant outlets.
“We would want to be considered as a mainstream medium within the next two years,” said Greenhalgh. “We expect to be able to offer national space within eight months. The licence for Birmingham is there now, and we expect to have licences for the system in place for Manchester and London in the next five to six months.
“Over the last 18 months we have proven the concept of the product and we’ve cleared our route to market. New taxis drivers come on every month in regular numbers, so that is how the system will continue to grow. The drivers can see that by buying a taxi with the Cabtivate system installed makes good business sense for them.”
So, it seems that with local content planned in the form of news, weather, short films and ads, taxi journeys in Scotland are set to get even more exciting. But does this mean the end of the days when you’re journey is filed with pearls of wisdom hurled at you from your driver? Only time will tell.