WHILE travelling to Kinetic’s office in Bloomsbury, it hit home just how prevalent out of home advertising is.
There are 30 screens as you stroll down the escalator towards the underground at Bank, each beaming a different message. Sat on the train, averting eye contact, your eyes are drawn to the adverts next to the tube map. More adverts ascending the escalator at Holborn. A bus advertising this pulls up to a shelter advertising that, below a billboard for something else. Somehow, they’re everywhere, and yet you never really notice them.
That’s partly why out of home is so successful, says Stuart Taylor, chief executive of Kinetic UK. Unlike more invasive, directed, web-based advertising, “it’s not intruding in whatever you’re doing, reading or viewing – which is most annoying for people. Out of home advertising works subliminally, you take it in subconsciously.”
There have been three major deals in out of home this year, one of which is the most lucrative advertising contract in the world: the £1.1bn London Underground contract, won by Exterion. JCDecaux is digitising 1,000 London bus shelters, and Clear Channel is converting old phone boxes into wifi hotspots with screens. The art of out of home advertising is going through a renaissance, through a combination of huge new contracts, technological advances, and human capital.
“It’s a real period of transformation, and that’s because of a reduction in static, classic panels – paper and paste or vinyl – and the introduction of screens,” says Taylor. “You can show more than one advert at a time and they’re easier to maintain. You don’t have to pay a bloke with a bucket and a ladder to put a new banner up every time – you just ping it over.”
The falling price of hardware has benefited the advertising industry greatly. “Landlords and town councils are becoming more hungry for revenue – there are countless sites being turned into outdoor screen locations,” says Taylor. Discussing the Exterion TfL contract, he is excited about the introduction of so-called “ribbons”, that is, “a screen that runs all the way down, like one long screen, rather than individual panels. You can make a screen any shape, any size you like.”
Clearly it’s not all about screens. Like all advertisers, whether digital or physical, out of home is on a data drive to improve the customer experience. Rather than the sorts of retargeting and (often) invasive data useage of digital advertisers, out of home is using sophisticated telco data to adapt to a consumer’s surroundings, and beam an appropriate message.
Taylor gives the example of a favourite British pastime: the weather. “When it rains, or when the temperature rises, people do different things, they behave slightly differently – so it’s those data triggers that influence how you can perhaps project a different message. It’s adaptive. If the weather gets nicer we can put out commercials for beer, or ice cream, or t-shirts or anything that suits those conditions.”
The primary technology within out of home isn’t data though, it’s about “seamless human interactions” with adverts. One example is “Meshh” technology, which is a sort of hyperlocal wifi that can be used in conjunction with screens at bus stops, airports and the like. “Once you’re in a hotspot, you can join a network, where you’ll be directed to a branded content homepage with a downloadable coupon, or a movie trailer, or similar.
There are many layers to out of home – certainly more than first meets the eye. It’s not a case of just throwing up a billboard. Taylor says that changing attitudes towards demography are helping to drive the new direction of out of home. “We’re concentrating more on ‘mindset’ than just demographics, and the way it’s changing now is towards intent to purchase. It’s all very well saying beer is drunk by young men, but you might only drink once a week, on a Friday, and we’re targeting you on a Monday. It’s totally irrelevant”.
There are increasingly sophisticated data analysis and science techniques to enable advertisers to target people when they’re in the mindset to buy – “of course it works far better with digital than out of home, but, because we can now squirt different messages to different screens at different times, we’re becoming more sophisticated.”
But why is out of home so successful? Billboards have been around for nearly 200 years, after all. Although return on investment is “notoriously difficult to measure accurately… big companies like Coca Cola, Warner Brothers, and Unilever all invest a very significant portion of their budget, because they know it works,” says Taylor.
If it didn’t work they wouldn’t do it, but the near omnipresence of out of home advertising, combined with the expanding populations of major cities, has helped fuel its growth. “There are more people taking the tube, more people on the buses. The population of London and cities in general is increasing. So unlike engagement in other media, which is in decline, the core available audience for advertisers is going up and up.”
Taylor uses the totally wrappable buses designed by Heatherwick Studios (not “Boris Buses”, I’m corrected) as an example of why it works so well. “We’re big fans of those branded buses,” he says. “Anything that moves catches your eye, draws attention, and holds attention much better than a static image. It’s softer and more subtle, but no less powerful, and almost never irritating. You can’t turn it off, you can’t block it, it’s not costing you data, it’s not interrupting you.”
As consumers spend more time “out of home”, the opportunities for advertisers will continue to grow, and weave the background of our cultural fabric. “Imagine the tube tunnels as you walk through without any posters on them – it would be horrible. Out of home is familiar,” says Taylor. “We want to see them– and let’s face it – we’d miss them if they were gone.”