Classic billboards face extinction - and that's a problem
As digital out-of-home screens steal the limelight, what's to become of the humble billboard, asks Stuart Taylor - and what does it mean for advertisers?
No one would disagree that the narrative around OOH media over the last five years has rightly been one of relentless innovation, transformation, and growth. With revenues growing in the low to mid - single digits annually, there have been a plethora of high quality new format screens, enabling dynamic creative deployment.
Indeed, when you consider the digital screens that have been mushrooming across UK city and town centres, shopping malls, rail stations, airports and elsewhere, attractive and elegant structures spanning highways and junctions in every major metropolitan centre, it's remarkable how far the sector has come in a relatively short space of time.
The old iconic phone boxes are being reinvented with a contemporary aesthetic and free-standing units are offering not just ad screens but free public Wi-Fi and community utility. Futuristic escalator 'ribbons' on the London Underground have arrived which offer huge creative potential, impact, talkability and consumer engagement.
DOOH screens offer brands welcome flexibility and new creative possibilities, superb reproduction, are illuminated sympathetically, and frankly, make brands look gorgeous.
The other side of this innovation, investment and development is a story less well told. Classic billboards, both 48 sheet and 96 sheet have been in steep decline for several years.
Industry estimates suggest that 48s have declined from 20,500 across the UK in 2010 to around 12,000 in 2018 a drop of 40%. For 96 sheets the numbers are even worse, from 2350 to 970 in the same period, a drop of 58%.
The reasons for this decline are well known: the natural process of urban regeneration across the nation has reduced the available land for large structures in city centres, the upgrade of many of the higher traffic sites to bright new screens that allow for multiple advertisers to use the prime real estate, the drive from the buy side to reduce prices, the increased investment needed to comply with additional health and safety regulation and the demand from commercial landlords for increased returns.
This has undermined the capacity to invest in new and to maintain some billboard locations. Ultimately it is a hard truth that the price point for billboards in the market now is simply not high enough for media owners to sustain them against the rising costs of maintaining and posting these sites.
We know how and why we have got to this point, but should we pause to consider if the inexorable decline of the billboard is good for advertisers? For decades huge global brands have been built using OOH in all of its formats of which billboards have played a significant part, with good reason and to great effect.
Broadcast advertising to not only the target audience, but to the wider total audience builds brands. Posters, with a backbone of large format billboards have been creating long term positive brand effects for years.
The audience and geographical coverage offered by DOOH screens of all sizes is increasing. An impressive 62% of adults in Great Britain see a digital OOH screen each week, but few brands have the budget to build audience reach in this way, and generally, DOOH screens are clustered in major conurbations.
It's classic OOH that forms the wide geographical bedrock of audience reach, with DOOH augmenting and amplifying that reach. OOH remains the highest reaching medium in Britain and it is this broadcast ability which attracts many advertisers to the medium.
Classic billboards allow for a much wider footprint, which is the driver for reach, so essential for broadcast brand building"
The opportunity for a brand to create impact and stature in the real world, unencumbered by competitors and other content, with no viewability, brand safety or measurement issues, and reaching with this trusted format into countless towns, conurbations, and high traffic junctions, is unique.
Billboards are the antidote to micro targeting, too much of which, as clients are discovering, leads to brands disappearing from the culture of everyday life.
Few clients would disagree that the under rated classic 96 sheet is arguably the biggest impact bang you can get for your buck, if this is what you are after.
Yes, digital billboards offer stature, impact and huge audience delivery in specific city locations and yes, the transformational advances that digitisation has brought to the medium are rightly applauded. But it's classic billboards that allow for a much wider and more comprehensive footprint across the UK, which is the driver for reach, so essential for broadcast brand building.
We cannot blame the media owners for not wishing to potentially lose money, they cannot sustain non-profitable locations. But we have reached a tipping point where billboard demand so outstrips supply, such is the value they offer, that they are sold out months in advance and inaccessible to many advertisers.
So, if they are in such demand, why are they shrinking so rapidly in number? Screens clearly offer media owners superior returns, which is ultimately reshaping the footprint of the OOH market.
If this situation is to change we need all links in the outdoor media chain to work out a solution so that there are enough well maintained, well located, value adding billboards in the market. Clients can't keep expecting the price to drop and should recognise that this format is under real threat and once gone, will never return.
The buy side must educate their clients on how the geographical footprint of the industry is changing and what effect this will have on the coverage and frequency of their campaigns with this format. The auditors have a role to play too, as do the media owners if this format is to survive.
It may seem counter intuitive for the world’s largest OOH buying company to suggest that we would consider or even allow fixed, structural inflation in a market where we are employed to drive value.
However, we believe that this may actually be in the long-term interests of our clients. We would welcome an open conversation with all parties involved, starting with our clients and their auditors.
Stuart Taylor is the UK CEO of Kinetic, WPP's out-of-home agency
Mediatel operate two essential services for the OOH industry. SPACE is a collaboration between IPAO and Outsmart and is the most comprehensive and up-to-date list of inventory in the UK. The RouteAPI is a SaaS solution that enables easy integration of Route audience data into client's systems. See mediatel.co.uk for more information.