Why Outdoor Advertising Right Now is Like the Internet of 15 Years Ago


The billboard is, in many ways, the original advertising form as it was already widely used in Roman times. Between then and now, the humble paper outdoor ad probably hasn’t changed that much in many places, even if ads for gladiatorial contests are a little less common. Of course, we see increasing digitization of out of home (OOH) screens, even if the pace is well behind what we’ve seen in the world of newsprint. Just a few years ago, it was still said that outdoor advertising would never embark on another evolution. That is, like desktop and the mobile web, towards automation and data-driven buying (also known as programmatic). But the consensus in the industry now is that is changing with many more digital screens and programmatic options opening up interesting creative as well as media planning opportunities worldwide.

Just like with the web in the ‘00s, there is excitement and confusion in equal measure amid an explosion of new options and possibilities. And the similarities don’t end there.

How do we learn from our experiences with the web to ensure OOH reaches its programmatic potential while avoiding its missteps?

Programmatic Everywhere

 Part of the reason for OOH’s slower digitization is of course related to the investment required in the switch from paper and glue to giant screens. According to WARC research, the digital portion of global outdoor spend was still only 37 percent in 2018, so there is still some way to go. But unlike other channels, the untapped digital potential perhaps also explains the fact that OOH is still growing, averaging a yearly 10 percent increase through to 2021.

The desktop Internet of 2005 was also on the rise. And likewise, it brought the promise of more dynamic and interactive audio-visual ads. So far, that’s true for billboards too. Where the two differ is in the general advances we’ve seen in the past 15 years, with HTML5, APIs and the smartphone all high on the list and used in OOH right now. Crucially, these advances may be applied not just to media planning – arguably the bread and butter of programmatic buying – but also to creative.

So, for instance, we have billboard ads that adapt based on certain weather, time of day, traffic or any other number of conditions in addition to ones with creative that incorporates any manner of social, news or other content – updated in real-time. All of these elements sometimes come together, linking neatly with complementary mobile activity. This was the case with a campaign we worked on for Red Bull, showing live clips from an event on outdoor screens. Many viewers elected to watch the rest on their phones.

Out of Home in Darkness

But what about the dark side of the web – and advertising itself – we’ve become more aware of in recent years – fraud for example, or misleading claims, and clickbait in those ‘sponsored stories’ we sometimes see at the end of articles.

The truth is that many of these issues stem from self-service ad models such as those currently run by giants such as Facebook and Google. Since anyone can easily become an advertiser in a few clicks, there is a low bar to entry – and low risk versus the potential return to mislead or defraud.

Fortunately, nothing exactly like this yet exists in OOH. But it is certain that, as any medium becomes more available and accessible, the opportunity to abuse the system is there. Even as it stands, there are ‘brand safety’ scares in the world of paper and glue. To take one example, in the UK, a pro-choice (and as it happens, also pregnant) politician was location-targeted with a graphic anti-abortion ad placed within her constituency. The offending ad was eventually withdrawn, with the publisher “reviewing internal processes.” But all to say, technology isn’t the root of all ‘brand safety’ problems – in this case, the billboard wasn’t digital.

The case also brings up the question of privacy around campaigns in the outdoor realm. As with newer adoptees of programmatic, like TV and audio, how consent and data profiling works isn’t always as standardized or clear to the public as it should be. Most likely, for OOH, consent will center around our mobile devices since targeting for OOH campaigns invariably seem to revolve around our phones.

Still on the Launch Pad?

OOH is undoubtedly exciting right now. But that’s not to say there isn’t still much work to be done for it to reach its true potential. As quoted in Mediatel, MediaCom’s Head of OOH Trading Arran Javid notes, the sector is “still on the launch pad.”

Much education within the industry is still required for agencies and brands to fully grasp the capabilities of a channel, as explained above, that has been fundamentally changed by programmatic. This is reflected in a recent IAB/PwC report. Up there with education, consolidation comes up as another major roadblock. But progress there does seem to be happening all of the time, with more integrations popping up, such as those Broadsign is leading – most recently linking up with Clear Channel to expand its addressable reach.

What will the OOH market look like years from now? Even if the direction of travel is clear, the destination is anything but.

Let’s not make the same mistakes we did in display 15 years ago. And let’s ensure trust in the outdoor medium remains intact, as it becomes the next channel primarily traded programmatically.

About Author

After joining The Netherland’s first digital media agency, Advalue (later Reddion) in 1999, Melvin Holman built up a wealth of experience working on all sides of the industry. After learning the initial tricks of the trade on the agency side, he moved on to work in various roles at both publishers and ad technologies. Since joining Platform161, he has become heavily involved in consultancy, business development and project management. With his operational and technical skillset,  he has successfully integrated custom solutions for many partners, helping them to transform their media buying efforts, across all channels. He is currently leading the international expansion of Platform161 in North America.

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