Death of the classic billboard - industry reaction

15 Mar 2019  |  David Pidgeon 
Death of the classic billboard - industry reaction

From the reinvention of phone boxes into digital ad units that provide free wi-fi, to escalator 'ribbons' on the London Underground offering new video and creative opportunities, out-of-home is in the midst of technological transformation.

For brands the arrival of digital screens - many of which are now being plugged into the programmatic world - this delivers new opportunities and improved aesthetics, while for the media owners it's a chance to compete with the online world and grow market share.

There's a catch, however.

"The other side of this innovation, investment and development is a story less well told," writes Kinetic's CEO Stuart Taylor in a guest op-ed this week.

"Classic billboards, both 48 sheet and 96 sheet, have been in steep decline for several years."

We know how and why the industry has reached this point - and in Taylor's article you'll see why media owners cannot be blamed for the problem - but should we pause to consider whether the decline of the humble billboard is actually good for the advertisers?

Taylor's article certainly sparked some debate in the OOH community, so Mediatel followed-up with different players in the supply chain to consolidate some of the wider views.

"Taylor has articulated a very real challenge," says Primesight's director of insight and innovation, Mungo Knott.

"Digital OOH advertising is great, but that doesn't mean that classic OOH is not."

Knott says in the classic large format market there is a "fundamental problem" of price being the driving competitive focus whilst effect is undervalued. Yet Primesight's tracking studies consistently show that the campaigns which include classic billboards come out top for public awareness.

"That's exactly because their strength is the same as it ever has been, providing a constant presence across the country as an ever changing, but always contemporary backdrop to the physical space in which we travel," he says.

Meanwhile, Nigel Clarkson, Exterion's UK chief revenue officer, says the industry is right to be worried.

"All the academic data from Byron Sharp, Les Binet and Peter Field has proven that brand equity is in decline across all the major global brands," he says, as clients chase short-term immediate impact and "vanity metrics" in performance marketing.

"Billboards are being removed at real pace," he adds. "That decline affects the beautiful simplicity of OOH - ownership for two weeks of a massive audience, massive national cover and frequency, and maximum impact."

(On the plus side for Exterion, however, is the "sharp increase" in interest on bus advertising - "after 10 years of it being the year of the mobile, this is the year of the bus!" Clarkson notes.)

For the advertisers there is also a growing concern. Clare O'Brien, head of media effectiveness and performance at ISBA, the trade body for UK advertisers, says one of the organisation's key priorities is to promote a diverse, high-quality media environment that offers choice for advertisers.

"Anything which reduces that choice is of concern, particularly where there is a clear advertiser demand," she says.

"The classic 96-sheet billboard is a key channel for brand building and for achieving mass reach and it would be a shame if the option wasn't available anymore."

Taylor, who will retire after six year's as CEO of the WPP-owned Kinetic in June, concludes his article asking for the issue to be opened up for debate. That's clearly begun. So too, it seems to us, the start of Taylor's parting shots to industry.

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