The Four Epochs of OOH: A Dress-Rehearsal for Programmatic?


Will Automation Drive the Next Stage of Digital Out-of-Home Media Growth? There Are More Questions, Than Answers.

NEW YORK, NY — The title of this piece ends with a question mark on purpose.

Why? The Law of Unintended Consequences. It’s the simple idea that our actions always create, according to Wikipedia, outcomes that are not the ones foreseen. Which begs the question: is programmatic advertising a reality that truly makes sense for Digital Out-of-Home (DOOH) media? And will programmatic become the dominant large-scale Out-of-Home (OOH) planning and buying paradigm of the future?

Honestly, while the programmatic drumbeat continues to gain momentum, I’m seeking more clarity. This isn’t because I’m an original gangster who wants to keep DOOH old school—far from it. Our future is more exciting, unpredictable and robust than ever, it’s because of this: while there is evidence supporting an ongoing role for programmatic advertising in DOOH, there are also severe systemic hurdles, significant industry legacies, and good old-fashioned politics in the road—and maybe that’s a good thing. Hence, “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” Programmatic advertising and DOOH could go nowhere, remain a tertiary blip on the radar, or it could blow up in ways yet unknown. Truth be told, we just don’t know enough yet, and that’s okay.

Here’s what I do know. The human race is on a journey into new territory in many ways. All areas of our people, planet and politics are experiencing some level of disruption. DOOH media, as a human instinct, parallels the same journey. The where, when, how, and what of DOOH has begun to rattle and hum as the medium finds its home in our brave new world.

In general terms, there is fundamentally more DOOH in our lives. More inventory, more diversity, more digital hardware. To date, this has teed up more dynamic ways to use DOOH, although most often it is creatively under exploited. There’s also an aspiration for more connectivity to the world around us as we evolve into a life driven by the Internet of Things (IoT). In our walk-by, stand-by, or drive-by environments, the relationship between DOOH and humans is becoming more demanding. This is true on both ends of the equation. People on the street are beginning to expect more immediacy and message relevance, while brands and the media try to figure out how to create and track engagement and attribution. It’s still early days, but for sure Digital Out-of-Home is changing with the world around it. Nevertheless, its obligation as a participant and contributor in the people’s space is more sacrosanct than ever.

Chaucer Barnes, Chief Audience Officer at Translation LLC, has been inspired by DOOH media his entire career and now calls the medium“In the World” (ITW). He sees it this way:

“I believe the marketing industry is on the cusp of a meaningful shift in the lines of demarcation where it regards creative and media expertise. The boxes we have used for the past few years to describe vertical expertise: “digital,” traditional,” and the like, are as obsolete as the rigid lines we used to describe channels: “digital,” “social,” “DOOH,” “linear,” “experiential,” etc. The lines between channels have been erased, we can all agree, yet the boxes they used to define remain stubbornly in the lexicon.

In a world where millions of people look to strangers for clues as to where Pokémon are hiding, holograms of long-dead rappers dominate both headlines and the memories of Coachella attendees, and Nike leverages the fervor of NBA all star weekend to create an immersive city-wide ode to NYC hoops, it couldn’t be clearer: an explosion in emphasis on experiences that can’t be had on the couch, in the car, or at the office makes DOOH an exciting new frontier, requiring a fundamental rethink of what it is, and who is licensed as an expert. To shed the false constraints and enable fresh, holistic thinking, I call this emerging frontier not “Digital Out-of-Home” (DOOH), but “In the World” (ITW).”

Barnes is on to something. We are all feeling this. As we are In the World and navigating a DOOH landscape that is dynamically alive, we are beginning to expect a certain level of clarity and specificity…the elegance that comes from a lack of waste.

As Barnes notes, we are on a cusp, a next step for DOOH that I believe follows four recent epochs for the industry – an evolutionary timeline marked by dramatic spikes in quality, content, abundance and now, automation. Soon we will find out if all of this growth has stacked the deck for a shift to DOOH programmatic advertising. I offer that it’s just not that simple. Programmatic advertising is not a lock.

For perspective let’s look at the “Four Epochs” I have witnessed over the past 30 years:


For decades we printed on paper and painted on wood. When I started in 1986, hand-painted bulletins required a 90-day lead-time for production, a 3-month media minimum, and were installed the “month-of”, meaning it was okay for your copy to post at any time during that month. Image quality also varied market-to-market—sometimes wildly. By the early 1990’s digitally printed OOH vinyl was the norm. This brought speed, accuracy and efficiency to what had been a slow, uneven and laborious process. Quality became a selling point. While everyone loved (and still loves) the beauty and craftsmanship of hand-paint, in the end the scalable promise of elevated quality attracted new brands, created more confidence and drove new revenue for the industry.

Traditional Out-of-Home Billboards Were Painted


1996 was potentially going to be the worst of times for Out-of-Home, yet became the best of times. The removal of Tobacco from the pool of OOH advertisers literally proved The Law of Unintended Outcomes. Wall Street predicted the end of Out-of-Home—how would we survive without Big Tobacco revenue? Numerous pundits speculated on the “Death of OOH.” Many of us were worried about our future. Some of us suspected the liberation of key inventory to new categories, including movies, healthcare, fashion, financial, and tech would drive value and release dormant equity—and it did. Dramatically. The Bull Market/ boom of the late 1990’s helped, as did the already well-established “Quality Epoch” of digital printing on vinyl. The outcome blanketed city streets with a visual variety in the Out-of-Home space that had vanished with the onset of TV. This fresh new Out-of-Home content delivered a broader reflection of what was societally and culturally new and now. OOH became hip.


The Quality and Content Epochs of the 1990’s worked their magic to create new demand pressure for Out-of-Home across most major markets as we walked into the 21st century. Additionally, new digital hardware became more affordable and legislatively doable. This combined to force supply in multiple footprints. Public spaces like airports and transit stations realized incremental revenue opportunities were at their disposal while the ongoing need for public funds created political openness to OOH expansion. The appetite for Out-of-Home on private property also increased, which resulted in more OOH in malls, and sometimes even on large high-rise buildings without permits. The demand pressure was and still is significant, especially in major markets. The result is a new abundance and variety of formats, footprints and often digital messaging in the public space.


If the DOOH industry put all of its clients in a room and asked for feedback, we would hear two things. First, We like you—there’s an affinity for the medium. It’s proof of life and most brands love seeing their name in lights. They love the quality, the content, and the abundance of the medium. Second, Hurry Up! It simply takes too long to plan and buy DOOH Media. The industry has yet to deliver an agnostic end-to-end automated planning and buying tool. The major players are attempting to build their own but no one has completely unlocked a solution. Meanwhile the urge for speed, access and simplicity seeds the attraction of programmatic advertising. I get it. And I know we’ll get there faster, and more accurately because we’re all working towards it. Automation is our current Epoch. Something more will happen on this front. Soon.

Technology impacts our world at an exponential rate. This was noted very clearly by Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity of Near. Exponential trends experience a “knee of curve” phenomenon where change accelerates almost vertically. I believe our Epoch of Automation is approaching this stage. Exciting times…

Where it will take DOOH is still open for debate. For a century, the medium has been tasked with the command to locate an audience and put signs in front of them. We do this very well. Digital Out-of-Home has always been about real estate, multiple short-term moments of real estate. Wherever automation leads us, the notion of a fully-programmatic, impressions-driven reality will need to be tempered with the necessity of place, people and their right to public space.

I don’t have a final answer to the question of programmatic advertising and DOOH, but I do have more questions. Have we asked the public yet? Have we confirmed our base assumption? Do they want it? Do they want highly-curated, hyper-contextual messages delivered dynamically with the expectation of engagement and trackable attribution metrics? Or do they want simple posters, elegant branding messages that plant a flag in their subconscious by engaging what is a subtle yet powerful dialogue within the people’s space?

I remain open to the unknown…and The Law of Unintended Consequences.

*as it appeared in ScreenMedia Daily


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