'It’s about the here and now' – Jean-Charles Decaux on transforming our cities with digital out-of-home

Smart outdoor advertising, combined with mobile connectivity and programmatic media, is reinventing the spaces we live in. Stephen Lepitak speaks to Jean-Charles Decaux to find out how his company is leading the charge.

Society as a whole has benefited from the evolution of mobile communications and the ability to link the world through online platforms. Mobile usage rises increasingly year-on-year, especially within urban environments, and with the emergence of 4G connectivity – and, going forward, 5G – this is only going to intensify.

Increasingly sophisticated digital out-of-home (OOH) technology is changing the role of the billboard, be it from digital billboards which can be altered in seconds to generate news trending messages, programmatic adverts that will only display certain messages depending on the temperature or location, or push messages sent directly to the phones and watches of people passing by.

We now live in an age in which OOH advertising can both exploit and aid consumers. The possibilities of engaging directly with the public and informing them in real-time of news, brand messaging and nearby discount opportunities can benefit both mass society as well as brands.

“A brand offering its audience to watch its latest exclusive video, prompted by an OOH campaign, needs to make sure that its targets can actually access the brand’s content,” explains Jean-Charles Decaux, co-chief executive of multinational outdoor advertising business JCDecaux. “It’s about the here and now – enabling the public to interact with brands wherever they are, whether on the move in a city, a transport hub, an airport.”

According to Decaux, his company is working on better connecting cities and offering telcos the ability to improve local mobile connectivity in order to build better city connectivity. “The dizzying speed at which mobile data consumption is increasing, especially in public spaces, demands that local connectivity be improved,” he says.

Efforts to improve connectivity include free Wi-Fi, as can be found in Düsseldorf, as well as improving 3G and 4G customer connectivity, for instance in Amsterdam which has over 200 bus shelters equipped with mobile connectivity cells, developed by JCDecaux.

The evolution of connected cities will depend upon the technology that is adopted by the masses and Decaux admits that guessing how platforms will evolve is very difficult. “The issue is more about being ready to embrace all possible technologies, and making sure that we know how to handle whichever the public actually uses.

“If anything, the digital revolution has shown that disruption can come from sometimes unexpected areas, so keeping an open mind is important and we like to test and learn before rolling out advertising solutions for our clients.”

He cites the example of near-field communications (NFC), once lauded as the major new technology to enable mobile-to-outdoor interactions.

“Experience shows that it’s still not the case and that NFC has evolved to address, effectively, other uses; transport, cultural information. So which is the best technology today for mobile-to-outdoor interaction? Our approach is to test them all, and chances are there will not be just a single answer to this complex issue.”

He denies the claim that the public is bombarded by marketing messages outdoors, and claims that OOH is “an exclusive media” that can allow brands to “dramatically” stand out from the clutter.

“Technology and connectivity will help to enhance what’s already there – and will be 100 per cent opt-in. The public will choose whether they want to interact further with a brand whose communication they encounter in city and transport environments,” he explains before claiming that despite the large audiences some brands already possess through owned media strategies, they will still need media and media specialists to help convey their messages.

“OOH is a unique medium for brands that want ownership of a location. For example, in major international airports or large public transport hubs, there are unique locations a brand can access and really own. The latest example of this is Tiffany and Co which has taken over the new Digital Time Tower in LAX’s new terminal. It’s a communication opportunity that’s truly unique and provides a form of ownership brands find very attractive.”

Finally, as with all conversations on digital media, the focus turns to data and what can be done with it.

“The issue is really about identifying the smart data from the big, voluminous and sometimes useless data. Marketing and advertising have always been about people and the way they behave, what they think, how they react,” explains Decaux.

“Accessing real-time behavioural data will be key to understanding more about the way people move around a city, the shops they go to, the apps they use when commuting, etc… and will thus provide valuable information to better target audiences. But people are not algorithms and all behaviours cannot be predicted mathematically. Asking the public what they think, how they react to a campaign, a new service, an innovation, remains extremely important.”

Making data actionable, as long as it is of good quality, is the ultimate goal of a brand utilising the opportunities of the connected city. In order to achieve an understanding of the personal facts and motivations relayed by that data, digital tools are being developed to offer insight, which for Decaux includes insight communities being built across the UK, Australia and France which allow audiences to offer their thoughts and reaction to brand messaging.

Never before have brand marketers had so much opportunity to communicate with their target marketplace and beyond – a truth that will continue to grow within the burgeoning world of the internet of things where, soon, living in the real world will entail being connected to the online world at all times in some respect.

This interview is published in The Drum’s Cannes issue, guest edited by Publicis Groupe chief executive Maurice Lévy.

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