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OOH advertising faces its Icarus moment – here’s what it needs to do to avoid falling

By Adrian Witter | Head of digital

July 26, 2018 | 6 min read

The Greeks had a word for it – hubris. Acting as if with impunity, without limits. Invariably, such behaviour is punishable by the Gods; when Icarus thought he could fly, armed with wings of just paper and wax, he flew too close to the sun, and plummeted to his doom.


JCDecaux's VIOOH offering

Digital media – the modern-day Icarus of our story – is at a pivotal moment. Plagued recently by challenges around quality, transparency and targeting compliance, brands and the wider industry are now beginning to align in their drive to clean up the “murky” digital supply chain - or risk plunging into the abyss of lost consumer trust. However, while traditional online digital media continues to grapple with these marketplace corrections, another medium is approaching a moment of truth in its own digital journey.

Recent developments in the OOH sector – including JCDecaux’s recent VIOOH launch – mean that mainstream automated buying of digital out of home (DOOH) is finally, almost, within reach. So, as the out of home industry becomes more akin to traditional digital media, what does it need to know to avoid its own Icarus moment?


Viewability has long been a thorn in the side of digital advertising and, despite best efforts by brands and trade bodies to rectify the situation, less than two thirds of UK display ads can currently be classed as “viewable”.

In contrast, traditional out of home trades on being inherently viewable – these are huge canvases that are positioned to be as visible as possible to traffic or pedestrians. The obstacle for DOOH to overcome is not whether the ad is viewable per se, but how to accurately measure impressions in the physical world when there are no cookies or click-throughs to lead the way.

To date, ROUTE has been the OOH industry gold standard for audience measurement, allowing advertisers and brands to ascertain the footfall for a set location and subsequently infer the “viewed impressions” expected over defined time increments. Additional data sources can then be layered on top, breaking down audiences by their attributable behaviour, and assigning them a unique value on a client-by-client or campaign objective basis.

From a small screen on the underground to an imposing road-side 96-sheet, there are exponentially more factors that affect the impact, and therefore the true value of a DOOH impression, than online. Because of the fixed nature of the medium, we can apply a score to inventory based on criteria, such as scale, screen orientation, and the length of time for which the ad will appear. As the move to automation accelerates, the OOH industry must effectively communicate this to clients and buyers alike, in order to avoid a blanket commoditisation of digital inventory that will result in the true value of sites being misunderstood.

To avoid an Icarus moment on this issue, we must clearly demonstrate the accuracy of the various measurement tools available to us, and build trust with advertisers accustomed to using online metrics to understand campaign performance.


Within the out of home industry there has long been a conversation about semantics; is it programmatic, or is it automation? Even if the word itself is secondary to the processes put in place, it is nevertheless crucial that we are clear that DOOH is not programmatic in the traditional sense. There is limited real-time biddable inventory, for example, nor is OOH a one-to-one medium - both factors that could seem to be a hindrance to a buyer or client looking to trace a line between ad spend and ROI.

In response to this, we are already developing new ways of connecting the dots; looking at time stamps on campaign play-out reports and cross-referencing with footfall or store revenues within a pre-determined location can give a clear indication of both the immediate and residual impact of a DOOH campaign. This real-world ripple effect is often replicated in an online environment as well – for instance, tracking search uplift or social mentions can indicate how effectively a DOOH screen is influencing the online behaviour by bringing the brand front-of-mind.

Leading client-side marketers, including Unilever’s Keith Weed and P&G’s Marc Pritchard, have been vehement in their expectations that digital advertising – whatever the platform – should be wholly transparent. As the “Gods” in our Icarus tale, it’s imperative we don’t anger them. Fortunately, DOOH has the opportunity to learn the lessons from online media and put transparency at the heart of its offering.


Even with the issues of viewability and transparency overcome, most crucial to the out of home industry succeeding on its digital journey is its ability to shift the mindset of those with the overall power in budget allocation – the planners. As a sector, it’s now paramount that we continue to educate planners more used to dealing in traditional digital inventory, about how DOOH can be a powerful addition to their existing media strategy.

It doesn’t have to be a difficult transition either; a short-form video, predominantly without sound, tailored to exist on social channels, could just as easily exist on a large format DOOH screen, and quickly leverage the long-term brand-building effects and mass reach that are the fundamental strengths of the OOH medium.

Ultimately, fully delivering on of out of home's digital promise requires an open dialogue, both within the OOH industry and with external partners. The complexities and nuances of the medium mean that there’s no immediate plug and play solution – but that means that the potential of an automated future is there for us to shape and determine.

If we can deliver on all the above, the opportunity for DOOH is sky-high – but unlike Icarus, our wings won’t melt as we climb.

Adrian Witter is head of digital at Kinetic UK

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