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By Katie Deighton, Senior Reporter

September 3, 2018 | 7 min read

Commercial murals have begun to flank the streets of global cities as advertisers find favour with the nostalgic power of hand-painted out-of-home. But with finite production resource available, is the trend a hipster flash in the pan or an enduring response to digital fatigue?

Look up in almost any city on the planet and the relics of advertising from a forgotten age present themselves as ghost signs. These old murals that once advertised defunct brands from the first half of the 20th century are often hidden by architecture or faded beyond recognition, yet a recent interest in their contribution to city skylines has revived the notion that painting an advert directly onto a wall isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Fast-forward to the urban hotspots of the 80s and 90s when the spray can was a weapon and city walls were a canvas. Locales such as London’s Shoreditch, New York’s Brooklyn and Germany’s Kreuzberg found themselves pockmarked with graffiti, which, over time, became accepted in the more palatable form of street art. As these areas gentrified, in came the money – and so too came the advertisers, armed again with paint buckets.

A trip to Shoreditch is still incomplete without a stroll past the ever-changing mural next to Village Underground or Steve Powers’ uplifting ‘Let’s Adore and Endure Each other’ artwork on Great Eastern Street. But now nestled among the artistic works are huge, painted ads selling fried chicken, vegan milk and artisan rum.

These murals are the result of a new, albeit rudimentary, media network: painted by artists, paid for by brands and hosted by landlords diversifying their real estate portfolio.

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WPP's Kinetic was one of the first out-of-home specialists to capitalise on this nexus. “We're all in the fight to grab attention and murals do that in a way that's absolutely second-to-none,” said Roshan Singh, head of KineticX. “It is exactly what old school out-of-home is incredibly good at doing: it's big, it's bold, it's impactful and you can't help but notice it, but it weaves in this element of artistry as well.”

Kinetic set about turning mural space into a clear brand proposition by legitimising the practice. Until five years ago, Singh contends, the platform was still associated with graffiti and its illegality, meaning only edgier brands were willing to spend cash on paint. So the agency went about building a “secure, stable” offering.

It pulled together a roster of artists and a network of locations, partnered with High Rise Murals and cemented health and safety practices to make sure all sectors could be sold on the sites. Now, even financial brands have entered into the space in a bid to soften their corporate image.

“This behind-the-scenes work allowed us to build and scale,” said Singh. “It reflected the media planning work that everyone was doing."

amex

One of the most popular of Shoreditch’s mural walls is on Ebor Street. Situated directly opposite Soho House’s east London outpost and opposite an Overground station it’s little wonder that brands flock to the site; KFC, Warner Bros and Patagonia are just a few of the names to activate there in the past two years. But it’s not an out-of-home agency that manages the site – it’s Appear Here, the company best known for handling pop-up retail rentals.

“[Mural space] is not a core part of our business,” said Alice Ratcliffe, Appear Here’s head of brand. “[Ebor Street] is definitely an outsider case. But from day one we've said that what defines a space isn't necessarily four walls – it's the audience you're in front of. That's anything from outdoor squares to rooftops. In this case we were working with the landlord on leasing a few spaces in the building next door.”

Landlords are a crucial part of the mural mix. Singh is conscious that Kinetic’s top four mural sites in Shoreditch have been completely booked until November since June, prompting the question: if murals become more popular among brands, where will they be painted?

The creation of new sites isn't necessarily the answer.

“It's very difficult to deal with people who don't have the heritage in this field,” he said. “A lot of these landlords and space owners have 10 years of using their walls for street art, meaning they know the artists, they know how it works and they know how to safely facilitate people around their sites. As we're seeing new entrants we're not seeing that same safety.”

kfc

Ratcliffe is confident space will open up as landlords catch on to the opportunity and more cash enters the conversation, particularly outside saturated areas and cities such as east London. She describes it as a “low risk option” in comparison to hiring out entire properties for branded pop-ups.

“It's just painting, [clients] have to return it to its original condition, and if [landlords] don't want any overtly political statements or anything that would be offensive, they've got that element of control."

Space is an issue that's also experienced across the pond in New York. Angel Saemai, a former media planner, opened Overall Murals with her husband in 2010. Although convincing brands to invest in sky-high paintings was "tough" eight years ago, interest has since surged and demand now outstrips the amount of blank canvas spaces available in certain areas.

"We've definitely been sold out of inventory months ahead of time," said Saemai. "It's important for us to constantly be on the look out to develop new premium wall inventory."

An easy solution would be to offer space outside of the city's premium areas; after all, Saemai says, New York is an "artistic hub" in its entirety. But ultimately, it's still Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan that brands want to be seen in.

superfly

If they can find the space it’s likely that brands will continue to invest in the revival of this old-school advertising until consumers lose interest. Murals are just like every form of traditional marketing in the sense that ROI is tricky to calculate, but the sight of locals and tourists stopping in their tracks to photograph and share a piece of outdoor is enough for many companies to warrant the investment.

But – are consumers really paying attention?

“I don't think many people are looking at these huge painted adverts and seeing them as anything other than adverts,” says Dave Stuart, who encounters the murals daily as a guide at Shoreditch Art Tours. “For a while there's a little frisson of excitement as they see artists on the ground with spray cans and up on ladders. People like to see that – it's always exciting to see artists at work.

“But once the artists have moved away from the wall and it is very apparent [the mural] is an advert, I don't see people photographing the adverts in the way I see them photographing murals.”

Perhaps this reaction, coupled with an outcry from street artists over the 'corporate vandalism' of their space, confirms to the industry a truth it has always known: no matter how beautiful, how emotional or how nostalgic its work is, it will never truly connect with the public in the way that art and culture can.

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