Saturday 13 February 2021 7:00 am

Britain's billboards are lighting up despite lockdown restrictions

Nigel Clarkson is Chief Revenue Officer at Hivestack

The billboard industry – also known as out-of-home (OOH) advertising – earlier this month received a welcome shot in the arm comparable to the good news surrounding the UK’s vaccination efforts.

The latest expenditure report from the Advertising Association and WARC forecast OOH media channels will recover and expand significantly this year, with digital OOH expected to grow more than 50 per cent.

It’s quite the turnaround.  

In March 2020, when the Prime Minister ordered all UK residents to stay indoors, it didn’t look good for outdoor advertising. Ironically, it turns out that lockdown has been a busy time for the OOH industry.

We’ve all seen pictures in the press of a deserted central London, but looking at audiences outside the heart of London, and the city is still buzzing.

Over 20% of children are currently attending primary schools, and more than half of workers are unable to do their jobs from home, with neighbourhood stores and local retailers booming.

The UK has become more local, with people out exercising or shopping close to home, in places they wouldn’t have been before.

This means OOH audiences are still there, we just need the technology to find them.   

As the saying goes, “businesses should never waste a crisis”, and the OOH industry has been busy investing in the technology to deliver smarter, more flexible and better targeted outdoor campaigns, to reach and engage these evolving audiences – while also helping businesses in these challenging times. 

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Digital displays drive OOH revival 

With 2021 forecast to be a bumper year for outdoor advertising, much of the growth is being driven by digital OOH.

This includes digital bus shelters on high streets, huge digital billboards on roadsides, and digital screens in supermarkets, shopping centres, gyms and transport hubs – think airports, train stations and the London Underground.

Going back 15 years, a client would have bought a billboard site, pasted up their paper poster and owned that site for two weeks. When digital screens first started appearing ten years ago, they displayed a fixed loop with between four and six ads scrolling non-stop for two weeks. Now, all that is set to change.

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(Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The age of programmatic OOH

OOH has moved into a new era where it is powered by programmatic technology. It uses the same buying mechanism as online and mobile ads, and is similar to how most major currency and stock market trades are now made. Programmatic advertising uses multiple sources of data to execute decision-making in real-time, and across multiple data sets, at a speed and volume humans cannot achieve via traditional telephone or email booking systems.

Outdoor as an advertising medium works best when it is noticeable in large numbers, or on big sites for maximum impact, so the ambition of programmatic advertising is to deliver ‘smarter, not smaller’ campaigns. 

Programmatic uses a rich cocktail of data, including anonymised mobile location data, to target outdoor ads more tightly than ever, ensuring big budgets are delivered with greater efficiency.

A variety of data points ranging from time, geography, weather and news, to pollen counts, football scores, social media sentiment and real-time footfall, can be used to decide if a particular placement is right for a brand’s message. 

Programmatic OOH in action

With programmatic OOH, brands have far more control over the context in which their ads appear.

A hot chocolate brand, for example, could set up a £50k campaign that only activates when the temperature drops below 5°C, only plays out between midday and 6pm, and is only displayed on screens in close proximity to coffee shops or supermarkets that stock that brand.

Likewise, a campaign for an antihistamine product could be pre-programmed to only buy and display ads when the pollen count hits a certain level in London throughout the summer months.

The technology allows a certain timeframe and budget to be determined up front, with the flexibility to target by screen location, time and context, so clients can set and forget. In addition, using anonymised mobile data also enables targeting based on behavioural characteristics – whether it be coffee lovers, gym goers or online gamers for example – ensuring the right audience sees the most relevant ads.

The outcome of all of this is that the ads you see should be more relevant than ever before.

The result of smarter OOH ads will be more variety and relevance in the advertising messages we see in the world around us.

The digital screens we pass on the way to work that formerly had a handful of ads scrolling in the same order all week, may now display 100 different ads across the day, depending on the time and context.

Expect to see ads for coffee brands in the morning, TV shows from ITV or Channel 4 on the evening commute, alcoholic drinks on weekends, and health products linked to NHS trends.

Brands will be able to change their creative 50 times in one day, in a way that traditional paper posted campaigns can’t, to ensure it is relevant and engaging to the immediate audience.

The OOH industry is a huge net contributor to the economy. It generates millions of pounds for transport networks to keep the cost of travelling lower, funds bus shelters to make sure people are safe and out of the rain, and delivers huge revenues for local councils and authorities.

So it is good news for all of us that the DOOH media channel is heading for a billboard bounce back and a bumper year in 2021.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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