My feet barely on the ground following my trip from Cannes, still somewhat dreary-eyed, I meet William Eccleshare, chairman and chief executive of Clear Channel International, in its retrofitted townhouse overlooking one of Old London’s most understated literary and historical icons, Golden Square in Soho.
As one might expect from one of the world’s most distinguished outdoor advertising giants, Clear Channel featured prominently at Cannes, showing off Le Grand Screen, mounted to the top of Le Grand Hotel. It was Eccleshare’s 28th trip to La Croisette, and while we reflected blithely on the festival, I’m here today to discuss the Renaissance of “out-of-home” advertising over the last few years.
It was one those rare occasions in my career where actually, what I said has come true
“It’s very very exciting,” he says. “I joined this business eight years ago and I remember my initial speech to the company, focusing on two things. The first, I said there was a fantastic opportunity for outdoor to really build its share of media, given the fragmentation in other media, and the fact that I thought the internet was being overvalued by clients. I thought that there was a big space for a mass reach medium as audiences were becoming harder to find. And the second thing I talked about was digital transformation, and how that was completely changing the face of our medium.”
Chuckling to himself, he adds: “it was one those rare occasions in my career where actually, what I said has come true.”
The proliferation of interconnected devices and high-speed internet, combined with the price of slimline screens plummeting to scaleable affordability, has seen the market share of out-of-home advertising totally boom in the last decade or so. The rise has been both rapid and transformational for the industry.
“You really look back over those eight years, and back then, three per cent of our revenue came from digital,” says Eccleshare. “Today in many markets it’s now over half. That does completely transform the business model.”
One metamorphosis of the industry today is the lead time of digital over poster campaigns, he says. “By the time you went through the development of the artwork, the printing, the distribution, the guys out in the vans with ladders and buckets of paste, you were talking probably six months between first saying ‘let’s do a poster campaign’ and getting it up. We can now do that in a week.”
Clear Channel and Mediacom have joined forces to deliver programmatic buying for out of home. We both agrees this is a flabby term, but Eccleshare explains.
“Think about it this way: even three years ago, the bulk of our inventory was being sold either on a four week cycle or a two week cycle. So, if you had 1,000 panels over a two week period, you were selling 1,000 sales opportunities. Those panels now become digital – you’re selling those same 1,000 panels, but you’re selling that space six times in a minute for 20 hours a day.”
“That means you have to automate, somehow or another, or you’re just not going to be able to physically do it, and you’re certainly not going to be able to get value. I am committed to developing a fully programmatic offer, but I don’t ever believe it will be 100 per cent correlated with programmatic online. They’re different media, they operate in different ways.
“But do I believe that sometime over the next two years we will get to fully automated trading desks? Then yes I do. Because that’s the only way in which we can successfully maximise the value of the digital outdoor opportunity.”
Despite the meteoric rise of digital technology and the dynamism it has gifted the industry – such as being able to sell spots by the day, week, hour, or weather – Eccleshare thinks that “sometimes we get overexcited about digital, and we don’t talk enough about the intrinsic benefits of outdoor as a medium.”
In an era of plummeting print revenue, fast forwarding through TV ads, brand safety issues, spambots and ad blockers, outdoor advertising has redeeming qualities that make Eccleshare happy. “We have a medium that you can’t fast forward, you can’t adblock, and is out there in a public space when more and more people are spending more and more time out of home. And a medium that has a fantastic opportunity to interact with the mobile device. It’s a happy coincidence for us at the moment. That’s why we’re happy.”
On that note I ask him about a list of jargony names of technology Clear Channel showcased at Cannes last week: “conditional-triggered content” or “hyper-local contextual relevance” to name but two.
He chortles slightly, then says “it’s all about the ability to use technology to improve the targeting of the advertising. The question is: is that necessarily a good thing? And it’s one of those things with technology, where I would say just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it. And I think there are some things that are really good – so for instance being able to put an ice cream ad on the screen when it’s a hot day. That makes a lot of sense to me, it’s a really good idea.”
However, he adds that targeting specific individuals based on their mobile data might not be “such a brilliant idea”, because it defies the essence of the medium.
“It may work in certain locations, but it’s not what outdoor is really about. Our medium is a mass reach medium, and I think over targeting – too tightly – actually loses one of the core benefits. When you’re looking at an ad on a billboard, you know that lots of other people are looking at it too. We call that the ‘power of the public promise’ – the power of being certain that this is a brand that has the confidence to be up on a billboard. That says something about that brand to me, which an individual ad on the internet doesn’t do.”
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.