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How to make a 3D billboard ad people won’t forget

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By Amy Houston | Reporter

September 8, 2022 | 8 min read

3D billboard ads are arguably the hottest thing in advertising right now – so for marketers wanting to make their own mark on the trend, The Drum has gathered experts to learn how to produce them.

Nike 3D billboard 02

Nike Air Max Day’s 3D billboard / Nike

Anamorphic billboards first began popping up in Asia just a couple of years ago, with some of the most notable activations including giant 3D waves breaking over Seoul’s Gangnam District and an enormous cat presiding over passersby in Tokyo.

Since then – and thanks to social media – these illusions have grown in popularity, wowing people all over the world, and this has led to many brands wanting to have a go themselves, including Nike and Balenciaga. This is where people like Samuel Guillotel come in.

Guillotel is an art director at creative company 20Something. Giving us some insight into how these outstanding out-of-home (OOH) ads are actually made, he tells us: “Cinema 4D is the standard [program] within the industry. We also use Houdini for specific things because there’s more depth.” Octane, Unreal Engine and Adobe Suite are also other go-to tools popular with agencies.

These apps enable people to model, render and create 3D assets for clients. Traditionally, the tech is employed in SFX, gaming and VR/AR. It’s clear these assets can be fairly easily redeployed in the real world with some specialist expertise that many agencies are rushing to adopt.

With all the new tech “you can see exactly the full spec [of the 3D work], but as a smaller representation.” This enables the creatives to preview the work right away, which is “game-changing” as they can develop time frames and send them to clients in a day or two, whereas before the process took much longer due to all the various calculations. “It demands a lot of attention, but the technology is getting stronger.”

He adds that the difference between Houdini and Cinema 4D is the level of detail that can be achieved. “Cinema 4D is nice as you can do pretty much everything, but with Houdini there is so much more depth – more calculation, more technical specs, you can get more control.”

With Cinema 4D the results can be somewhat unexpected, but with Houdini, you can predict what the final render will look like a little more. He adds: “We use Cinema 4D for lighting, shading and composition, and then we render with Redshift.”

The process of creating this work can be lengthy and requires microscopic attention to detail if they are to look realistic. For Subway’s recent 3D interactive billboard, making the sandwich look as edible as possible was key – they even spent time photographing individual bits of lettuce and got up close and personal with different variations of bread.

Next, it’s crucial to select the right space for the billboard. No matter the brand, it’s the impact that counts: where will it be seen by the most amount of people? “We always try and make one or two bits that will end up in the news,” explains Ash Prentice, senior creative at Above & Beyond.

With the tech constantly evolving, the opportunity for creatives to bring brands to life in a hugely entertaining and memorable way is pretty cool.

“It’s an industry on the cusp and it will continue to thrive. I’m a big believer that the advertising world as we know it will change because the traditional spaces are shifting from normal billboards and user experience (UX) to interactivity,” notes Guillotel. “It could be a filter on Instagram. It’s not new tools – they’re just being developed. It’s a new playground really.”

What exactly is it about 3D billboards that brands are loving so much? According to Blunt Action’s co-founder Ethan Jakab, one facet of their popularity is social media. “These types of ads go can super viral when they’re captured from the intended angle,” he says. “They are a lot more eye-catching in person than a standard ad. People have grown so used to seeing billboard ads everywhere their whole lives that now seeing something that’s a little bit different, a little bit of an optical illusion, catches their attention.”

Of course, with every marketing push there are many KPIs and targets that need to be met – a stumbling block with these types of activations is what actually constitutes a ‘success.’ “The biggest measure of success is social virality,” continues Jakab, adding that if the post isn’t blowing up then “the effect is probably not hitting as strong in person.”

It’s been established that 3D billboards are the thing of the moment, but can the trend keep up the momentum? Or will people begin to tire of it? “It’s not just a billboard with a good line – this is something that boggles the mind. You look at it, rather than just walk past it,” adds Tim van der Mee, senior creative at Above & Beyond, before stating that “every brand loves a new technique,” but if it gets done over and over it has the potential to become “boring” to some.

Potential repetitiveness aside, it’s a sector that 20Something sees sustainable growth in – so much so it recently announced a separate department to create and promote its 3D offerings. “We felt like it was a very progressive thing as a company, instead of outsourcing all this stuff, to develop the skill set in-house,” says Will Thackar, co-founder at 20Something.

Regardless of longevity, it is an exciting time for creatives in this space. “Technology is rapidly accelerating; you’re always trying to stay on top and experiment with different things,” concludes Jakab.

“Eventually there’s probably going to be fully hologram, biometric billboards. For now, we’re staying with this 2D screen that has the 3D effect, and there’s still a long way to go with that.”

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