The Underground adland: After winning TfL's £1.1bn advertising contract, Exterion Media boss Jason Cotterrell lays out his subterranean vision

Will Railton
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Winning TfL is a catalyst for growth, says Cotterrell

City A.M. may thoroughly engross commuters during their morning Tube journey. But once you’ve alighted, navigating the bustling corridors and escalators of the Underground requires your undivided attention.

For the brands and companies which advertise on its billboards, London’s transport network presents a rare opportunity. “In the main, users are younger, affluent, in work, and less likely to watch TV because they’re busy,” says Jason Cotterrell, UK managing director of Exterion Media.

Last week, Exterion beat JC Decaux to win a contract worth over £1.1bn to oversee the advertising for TfL on its trains and in more than 400 stations across the Underground, Overground and DLR. Cotterrell tells City A.M. what commuters can expect to see in the coming years as he transforms “this gallery of modern life and pop culture”.

Why is the Underground so useful as a space?

It’s an incredibly important asset for us to develop. It’s essential to the way the city lives, breathes and works. The Underground, for me, is the only environment in the UK when you are up close to fantastic looking displays. That proximity and impact is awesome, and advertisers and marketeers recognise the power of those showcases and the audience they reach.

You want to change the way that out-of-home advertising (OOH) is bought and sold. What do you mean?

We want to move to an audience-led sell. TfL’s tender put an emphasis on the London audience, and we’re investing in a research tool and using a workshop panel to ensure we have lots of audience data.

The OOH industry talks about the specific audience seeing its adverts. But OOH advertising is still bought on the basis of geography and shape. We also think it should be bought on an audience basis, with a greater insight into who’s seeing these adverts. Our close relationship with TfL will give us near-time, if not real-time insight into who is looking at the adverts on our assets, and we’ll be able to plan and price our assets differently.

How will you balance traditional poster and digital advertising?

We like to call it “classic”. There’ll always be a paper product on our network because there are advertisers out there who want that positioning. And there’ll be ways to link that with mobile.

In terms of digital billboards, we are ensuring there is a distribution of them across the network, rather than a concentration in certain places. There’s a demand for them and we’ll be using large-format LCD screens, a new landscape product in the corridors, and a number of premium iconic displays – sites which make you think “wow” when you first see them.

The great thing about digital is that a business of any size can afford it. Local businesses can have adverts in areas close to them and buy space at key times to drive footfall.

How will data help you? Is it about understanding audiences better, or dynamic creative, which changes an advert depending on who is in its proximity?

Primarily it’s about understanding the type of audiences in those locations. That’s what we’re focusing on in the next six to 12 months. But we’re already using our Audience Behavioural Insights (ABI) tool, which anonymises and aggregates data from Telefonica’s O2 network for use by advertisers, to plan campaigns. We can change copy on billboards in real-time to alter the price of products featured in them. We’ve got to make sure that our copy is engaging and encourages people to interact directly with our poster sites. This could be through internet beacons, URLs or radio-frequency identification.

With more digital display, there’ll be more dynamic copy. In time, there will be the technology to understand who is in the vicinity and serve adverts accordingly. We’ve been working with platforms like TINT and My Appy to hook in social network feeds and content to our billboards.

If JC Decaux had won, it would have given your rival almost half of the UK OOH market. What does the win mean for Exterion?

Winning TfL is a catalyst for growth. We want to become a well known media brand, not just an OOH business. We will now be in the top two or three providers of advertising and audiences in London. We want to create a blueprint that we can take to other cities and authorities in the UK and across the world.

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