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Closer together

06 Apr 2020  |  James Whitmore 
Closer together

Recent pro bono effort from the UK OOH industry, with production by Grand Visual

No matter how unpromising the circumstances, opportunities abound for those with imagination and courage, writes Route's James Whitmore

I am about to turn out the lightbulb that was my career.

Click.

It is an odd way to end. Locked down, waiting for a replacement to be found.

Early each morning before work, I take my allotted daily exercise. I live in the centre of town and my walks are limited to a three mile radius. I cover a surprising amount of ground. Everything is closer together than you might think.

Quiet streets and empty time allow for reflection.

One thing that springs to mind is something from thirty years ago, when people trusted me to plan their advertising campaigns.

I persuaded an alcohol brand to buy every single bus shelter ad in Scotland.

In those days, the poster people had a yen to align their fortnightly sales periods to start once everyone returned to work in early January. It sometimes meant a “spare week” was left between Christmas and New Year. Advertising in the run up to Hogmanay might have registered with the brand manager and me but the media owner was only too happy to offload the unsellable period for a peppercorn sum.

On my way to celebrate the new year with my family, I stopped off in Glasgow for a site tour. I claimed the petrol on expenses at what I seem to remember was a madly generous rate of 33p per mile. A just recompense for the sacrifice of interrupting my holiday for a few hours.

If you are unfamiliar with Glasgow city centre, I should say that it is set out in a grid pattern that sits on a hump. The sightlines are astounding. The impression of seeing the same ad again and again is unforgettable.

It was not obvious that there was a great deal of traffic. Nor did the people in the streets appear to fit the advertiser’s profile of a target consumer. But there were bodies about and it was close to Hogmanay.

In those days, the world was a more complex and unforgiving place. You had to prove two things. That the ads had been seen and that more product had been sold than was normal for the period.

I shan’t insult you with the answer as it is obvious.

The lesson is that no matter how unpromising the circumstances, opportunities abound for those with imagination and courage. (I refer to the brand manager.)

We are in a period of drastically reduced travel. Comparing the figures for a number of developed economies, it would seem that overall volumes are at best, only 15%-20% of what they were.

At the same time, visits to supermarkets and other permitted outlets are up. Clearly large numbers of people are leaving home. But they do so rarely.

That alters the equation for OOH ads. It means that frequency will be hit far more than cover.

There is an audience but less opportunity to get the message across.

Normally, OOH works as a frequency medium. Cover builds rapidly. Thereafter, repeated trips will accumulate more and more impacts for a campaign. The message can be dispersed with appreciable distances between signage. In effect, the population travels to see the ads.

Now that people are travelling less often and over shorter distances, a different approach may be required. The accumulation of the message will happen over a small number of shorter trips. It is time to think anew about how to have the most effect.

Maybe you won’t want to buy all the bus shelters in Scotland, as that would be highly unoriginal. Perhaps take every bus in Birmingham, all the screens in Surbiton, every retail ad in Wrexham and so on.

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My first job in advertising was in the production department of a national newspaper. It was the early ‘80s.

Display ads would arrive as metal plates.

If you threw one at a colleague, it could take their eye out.

For all I know, it might have been the origin of the superlative “blinding”.

Today, the most damage an ad might inflict is an imperceptible electric shock from a smartphone.

Sub-tingling?

It is perhaps a way of looking at the change in the impact of advertising over the past forty years.


James Whitmore is managing director of Route, the audience measurement body for out-of-home

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27 May 2020 

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