Monday 16 January 2017 8:41 am

Goodbye Piccadilly: A short history of the Piccadilly Circus advertising billboards

On only a handful of occasions in its 100-year history has the hotchpotch of billboards at Piccadilly Circus been intentionally switched off during peacetime.

Most famously, when Winston Churchill died, and later, Princess Diana. The advertising space, recognisable around the world, is symbolic of the national mood; it wears black when we mourn.

But today, minus the iniquity of tragedy or war, the power to the patchwork Circus ceased. Decades of retrofitting will be replaced with a single screen, beaming new messages onto the streets below.

Tim Bleakley, chief executive of Ocean Outdoor, the agency which organises the advertising on the board, understands the magnitude of altering a landmark. “It has this magnetism around it, I’d argue it’s the most famous advertising in the world,” he says. “Piccadilly’s iconism is linked to its longevity. The board has evolved not just as London has; it’s been there as the world has evolved around it.”

Supplanting something as significant as the advertising at Piccadilly Circus, albeit temporarily, is an unenviable task. The last time all the lights were out for any sustained period was from 1939 to 1949, when Churchill ordered the blackout to muddle the logistics of the Nazi bombing raids blitzing the city. Since then, other than the charity campaigns London Lights Out and Earth Day, the display has barely jittered.

Vasiliki Arvaniti, portfolio manager at Land Securities, which has owned the Piccadilly Circus site since the seventies, says that the lights will be off for approximately nine months. “What we’re doing is quite significant work, we have to take down the existing six screens, and the structures which hold them and replace it with a whole new structure, which is why it’s taking so long. It’s never been done to this scale before.”

New tech

The new curved, ultra-high definition 4K resolution screen aims to futureproof the space, while retaining the familiar patchwork aesthetic. The screen being installed – one of the biggest in the world – will cover some 790 square metres, making it bigger than a full-sized tennis court (670 square metres). It will also be one of the most technically advanced in the world, offering live video streaming, lifestyle updates such as weather and sports results, and real-time social media feeds, ensuring the space stays at the forefront of innovation, while offering new opportunities for brands and advertisers.

One such innovation is localised wifi which, when combined with the ability to update the brand message in real time, provides the capability to alter adverts based on consumers within the area. “It’s fast,” says Bleakley. “Coca-Cola, for example, can log on at any given moment, see a large group of Spanish tourists and change the copy of the ad from ‘hello,’ to ‘buenos dias.’ There will be car recognition, so, if it’s a car brand advertising, it can serve ads based on the vehicles passing by. For those brands, it’s an exclusive tech club. They’ll be members of a world first.”