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How 2020’s challenges have reshaped out of home and why data is key to its future

With consumers largely locked down, 2020 has been a challenging year for out of home advertising. But after a tough year for all practitioners, the adaptability shown by the sector’s specialists and the rapid adoption of new technologies provide cause for optimism for 2021.

In this video, The Drum talks to Matthew Dearden, chief executive officer of Alight Media and partner of The Drum Awards for Out of Home, about the trends of 2020, how Covid has reshaped OOH, adapting to changing consumer habits, and why rewarding out of home excellence is more important now than ever. You can enjoy some of the highlights of our conversation below.

What have been the major trends in out of home this year?

We need to remember that OOH is still the place that big brands land big ideas with the public all at once, it's still the place where the power of the public promise applies. And brands get out there and build their stature. So that even the chicest, most online brands, whether it's Apple or Facebook, or Google or the smaller startups, are big users of OOH because of the stature it continues to bring. But the way it delivers that stature has changed a lot.

So I have in mind, for example, the application of data. A lot of real-time and near real-time data has come into the way we plan and buy. Also, the extent of digitisation of OOH has been quite dramatic over recent years. The opportunity we've all got now is to make sure that we use digital out of home as a digital first medium, rather than as a really souped-up OOH scroller.

What I want to be seeing is people using DOOH the way it should [be used]: plan flexibly to location, time, events, audiences, triggers and so on in the way that any other digital medium would be. And we have some way to go on that, but the data, the connections, and the flexibility that DOOH has in the UK means that's ready to be done.

How has this year particularly affected that?

It's clearly not the year any of us wanted and from a business point of view, we as a new challenger in the business had to decide early on what our approach to this was. We still believe in our vision, and we've doubled down and invested harder to deliver it. We still believe in national coverage for OOH and DOOH, treating people and partners right and doing digital right.

The reason that I share those thoughts in answer to your question is that I think the opportunity in a year like this is to say, we've got digital into places that it wasn't before. That's one of our big missions, we've built out over 50 screens across the course of the year on 48s and hundreds of D6s, to get closer to truly national coverage. It's one of the big things that we set out to do this year and have done.

As an industry, there has been a lot of talk for many years about the use of data, smarter planning tools, even the dreaded P word – programmatic – or automation, depending on your point of view on it. What we're starting to see is that some of these tools are becoming a reality. I'm not a big fan of just copy-paste online RTB models. But if it becomes a tool that allows flexible, smarter data-driven planning, that is a good thing which is starting to become a reality. Alight and others in the value chain have started to invest in that and I'm really pleased to see the progress the industry is making. If we do it right, it can enhance the value for everybody in the chain, delivering smarter campaigns.

Is it true to say that out of home, perhaps more than any other medium is having to adapt to changing consumer habits?

Of course, during the second quarter, especially in April and May, OOH audiences fell quite a lot, but since then it has come back in ways that have been quite different. The way people travel has changed. So even though the total audiences are up, where those audiences are and how they behave has varied a lot. There's a lot of data that suggests people are working, shopping, playing near a home when they work. And that suits us as a media owner, our strategy is all about being where people actually live, work, shop and play rather than the major metropolitans. It also shows as a medium, the audience are out there and ready to be influenced.

Aside from audiences, there has been a big shift in the way people are using the medium and are able to book and respond flexibly. Whether it's classic paper, vinyl or digital, people are able to get the right deals with the right terms to respond to what's happening out there. They have campaigns that are tailored to the right audience, at the right place, at the right time. I'm hoping we will be able to see the application of smart data flexible planning, smarter, booking and buying to be able to get these much more flexible, targeted campaigns that give much more value to advertisers and make the medium work harder which is what we all want to see. Delivering value to the advertisers.

How have the other opportunities that you mentioned and the rise of more targeted local campaigns impacted how agencies and brands in particular are thinking about OOH?

We are seeing more data-driven use of OOH, whether it's targeting a particular location, or using data to know when to run particular copy or campaigns. We're also seeing people being much more flexible on time. Because it's a digital medium, people are more able to come in and say, what can I book for this afternoon or for tomorrow? And we're able to get creative live in a matter of minutes. DOOH is a really flexible medium that can be very responsive for the short term, as well as booking medium and longer term lay down campaigns. Sometimes clients need to know they've got the certainty and the value of booking ahead. But equally when there is a short-term response needed, we're probably the fastest responding medium to get creative live for clients.

Are brands in a position now to take advantage of this as of this minute? Or is there almost an educational element about going to those brands?

There's always going to be some education, whether we're a media owner or a specialist agency. It's always our job to help the advertiser and everyone else in the value chain to know what's open and what's possible and what can be done.

From the 2008 financial crisis, one of the learnings from that reapplies, which is largely about competence. Being able to see the way the government is investing heavily in job support, for example. Being able to see at least one and I think several vaccines coming through, they're not going to flick a switch and change the world overnight. But we can definitely see light at the end of the tunnel, we can definitely see reasons to believe that in a year's time, we'll be having a very different conversation.

The most important thing is to look back at what happened in that previous time the world turned upside down. What we saw then was brands who expected value when they bought media and those who did grew stronger, faster and bigger. Also, the market share gains as opposed to invested coming out of the curve is very, very dramatic. We're just starting to see some of the more forward-looking brands recognising that right now isn't just a short term tactical responsive moment, which it was earlier in the year when they were right to be cautious.

But we're also seeing that people are getting used to living their lives in this world. And brands and businesses are used to continuing to figure out how do we operate country grow. Those who are able to say, actually life and business has to continue safely and invest out of the curve, we know will reap the benefits in the future.

Given everything that you've spoken about in terms of pushing into new markets, and the challenges of 2020, does this now put people who are working in the out of home category firmly into the bracket of challenger businesses?

Challengers have more fun. We're, at the moment, looking for what we find frustrating in the market, how do we think it ought to work better for all layers of the value chain and what can we do to fix that? Which is quite an exciting mission to have. What's important to remember about the challenges is the strengths that are still true and still real. We're still a medium that big brands build huge stature and I'm a big fan of the way they do that across all media owners, not all buyers. We want to make sure that we don't throw the baby with the bathwater.

Also, as a medium I'd love to see us embrace, as a positive, the disruption of challenge that we have. We've done a really good job, particularly in the UK, leading the world in how we digitise OOH and getting a lot of volume out there. Part of our mission is to make sure that DOOH is a truly national medium.

However, we need to challenge ourselves in the way we think about digital. There have been some really good campaigns that are a digital first, 21st century native approach to using data and digital planning to get the right people, at the right time, in the right place.

Given everything that has happened this year, why is celebrating OOH success with awards so vital now, in particular?

In a year like this, it seems strange to celebrate. But we have to remain humble and recognise the challenges that so many people are facing. At the same time, we've got to the point where functionally most businesses have gotten through the challenges of what we need to do. What's going to be different about whether we're working from home or serving our clients differently, or a different business model. A lot of very difficult, heavy lifting has to be done functionally.

We're now working out as leaders and as people in organisations, how do we carry through that momentum and motivation over the coming months, even as we get out of crisis mode, but we have to learn to live with Covid. Part of what we need to do is maintain the motivation, the desire and the drive. In normal times, what I love about awards is when you leave a ceremony, you've met some great friends, been made jealous of outstanding work and inspired by what we, as an organisation can do, that still holds true now. We need that human connection, we still need to learn from the best work that others are doing and we still need the fuel to fire ourselves and others up to do the best work that we can do.

Awards are more important than ever this year, in getting that emotional fire going. Normally as a medium, we are a pretty social industry. Typically we would get that by meeting, by seeing, by talking and I think in a year like this, it's even more important that we have a chance to highlight and celebrate the best work and the people behind it.

Alight Media are a partner of The Drum Awards for Out of Home. For more information on the 2021 awards, head over to the website.

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