Obelisks to Old Street: What next for out-of-home?

Will Railton
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SINCE the Ancient Egyptians inscribed their laws on giant stone obelisks, “out-of-home” advertising (OOH) has been grabbing our attention. Few commuters will have missed the “dino” domination of Waterloo Station earlier this summer – a project by Universal Pictures and JCDecaux UK to create buzz around the release of the blockbuster Jurassic World.

It was an arresting display of co-ordinated digital posters and life-size velociraptors. But with the advent of mobile, and the scope for advertisers to tailor messaging to the tastes of an individual via a personal screen, why is advertising in the public space still so effective?

Digital has doubtlessly given the medium a shot in the arm. “It is expected that digital OOH (DOOH) will account for nearly one third of all ad revenues in 2015,” says JCDecaux UK’s marketing director David McEvoy. DOOH is able to react to events in real time, and “serve different adverts to different geo-locations based on audience make-up,” he explains. Digital allows consumers to interact with OOH via social media, personalising messages and creating the content displayed on billboards in rail stations, shopping centres and the like.

As brands invest in location-targeted mobile ads, DOOH looks set to benefit, with ads becoming personalised for whomever is standing at the bus-stop or waiting at a roundabout. Bigger screens mean a bigger impact, as anyone who has driven around Old Street roundabout well knows, and the opportunity to coordinate cross-screen strategies is extremely appealing for brands wanting penetration both through mobile and out in the real world.

With sponsorship, editorial features and topical stories providing an avenue to engage an OOH audience more directly than a static billboard, content is emerging as the biggest driver of the medium, says McEvoy, “rather than the continued development of the infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, DOOH lends itself to the theatrical, and is constantly ripe for innovation. M&C Saatchi recently installed facial recognition software at London bus stops, discarding adverts if the audience exhibited a negative physical response. “We are not far away from being able to broadcast Audi adverts to traffic with a high volume of BMWs,” says Jonathan Lewis, managing director of Outdoor Plus.

For many, the grand spectacle of outdoor advertising will not fade, even with the inexorable rise of the personal screen. According to Lewis, OOH is able to speak more loudly, and more authentically to consumers. “Research suggests that mobile adverts feel invasive, but OOH catches your eye when you’re not doing much else – walking or driving perhaps. Because it is outside in the world, the messaging seems more tangible and real.”

William Railton is business features writer at City A.M.