Visual vanguard: JCDecaux's Spencer Berwin talks hawks, scaling and London's digital landscape

Will Railton
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We’ve moved beyond those first moments of excitement and now, it’s about scale, says Berwin

London's landscape is in flux. Almost 120 skyscrapers are in the pipeline, and the proliferation of bright digital billboards in train stations, roundabouts and bus shelters are transforming the capital’s aspect into something altogether more dynamic and enthralling.

Outdoor specialist JCDecaux is behind this massive digital roll-out. After winning TfL’s £300m bus shelter contract last year, the firm has started to build a network of 1,000 digital screens at bus stops in key retail spots in the capital. Chairman Jean-Francois Decaux has said that 50 per cent of the company’s UK ad revenues will come from digital by 2017.

“We used to get excited by someone building something shiny and new,” says Spencer Berwin, managing director of sales at JCDecaux UK. “We’ve moved beyond those first moments of excitement and now, it’s about scale.” The firm sees London as the centre of the out-of-home (OOH) universe, and has a business to help the capital’s startups develop outdoor advertising for its sites. And even as the medium moves towards digital, it circumvents a lot of the problems, like ad-blocking, which other channels are grappling with.

Berwin tells City A.M. why other media have embraced OOH, and why the poster will be around for some time to come.

Why is outdoor such a competitive channel?

In a media environment where fragmentation is occurring, it is difficult for any one media to reach a lot of people quickly and efficiently. You would have to approach lots of media owners in lots of different channels to reach the same numbers as outdoor advertising. JCDecaux’s daily audience stands at more than 390m people worldwide. You can’t skip an outdoor advert like you can with a TV recorder. What has changed is our competitive set, and the number of other media owners who use us as their medium of choice. Light TV viewers don’t spend much time watching TV, for example, but they can be reached outside their homes. And who would have thought that Google would become one of our biggest clients?

How is digital changing things for your clients?

There are three aspects to our digital strategy. The first is to have the best assets – 84-inch, state of the art, digital screens – in key retail zones. Each of the 25 bus stops on Oxford Street will have two of these screens on them.

The second is to use data to ensure we fully understand who is going up and down the street. Our platform Smart Brics is powered not only by Route, which is the industry audience measurement system, but also CACI, which provides shopper data.

Geofencing lets us demonstrate effect, numbers, how many times we are reaching people, and identify the best screens, panels and locations to get the best possible play-out for each client. It also allows us to manipulate an ad at the most appropriate moment. If Selfridges was running a campaign on Oxford Street, for example, and the social buzz indicated an increase in shoppers of a certain nationality, you could briefly change the advert to a different language while those people are in the vicinity.

The third component is our digital creative hub JCDecaux Dynamic, which launched earlier this year. It is headed up by Alex Matthews and Rick Burgess who came from BBH in February to provide technical creativity to work with clients to make the most of the medium. They developed Beakle, a platform we used in our Jurassic World takeover of Waterloo last year to allow consumers to use their mobiles to listen to sound synchronised with the video on the billboards.

Are big interactive pieces like the Jurassic World takeover always going to be one-offs?

What you’ve got in railway stations is dwell time. People spend 17 minutes there, so you can be more involving, and there’s a great opportunity for people to capture the experience on social media and amplify it, which is becoming increasingly important.

During last year’s Wimbledon championships, for example, Stella Artois used a drone and Oculus Rift headsets to create a pop-up simulator at Waterloo which allowed participants to fly like SW19’s resident hawk, Rufus, over the grounds. A digital campaign ran at the same time across our network of elevated digital screens, at Waterloo, Liverpool Street and elsewhere.

It’s very different to advertising on the street where you’ve got to be relevant and hit your message.

Are traditional posters over then?

No. The future is most definitely digital, but there are still a lot of advertisers who adore the classic values which classic OOH is famous for. Apple’s posters for the iPhone 6, for example, combine beautiful photos with high production values and key locations.

It’s about blending digital and classic. There are arguably still a lot of benefits to a classic poster, because it requires you to distill your idea down into a single visual and a few words.

Back in the day, if a creative agency couldn’t nail a car ad on a poster, the manufacturer would probably go elsewhere.

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