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PartnersFebruary 22, 2023

How out-of-home advertising has survived through the ages


While most legacy media forms have been decimated, out-of-home media has grown markedly in recent years. Duncan Greive finds out how on The Fold – now in partnership with oOh!media.

The story of out-of-home advertising is as old as that of advertising itself. The idea of having large scale communications across words and images, in places people congregate at scale and in public, manifested all over the world. It was there in papyrus posters in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, and there in rock wall paintings in India, and there again in posters for Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop in China around a millennium ago. 

Pre-literate society used painted symbols to attract business for the basics of mediaeval life like bakers or ironmongers, while the arrival of the printing press saw wider distribution of poster advertisements, culminating in wildly successful 19th century campaigns for Pears soap, inventing modern branding along the way. 

From the beginning, the medium was challenged by an ever-increasing array of challenger approaches, from print ads in magazines and newspapers to audio from town criers to radio to video ads beginning with television and currently interrupting a Twitch stream or presaging a YouTube video near you. What ties together almost every one of those mediums is that its arrival represented a boom, but that over time familiarity and competition slowed its growth or, in the case of all the analogue forms, presaged an ultimate decline.

An oOh!media bus advertisement (Image: oOh!media)

All except one. out-of-home media revenues grew 10% last year, according to OOHMAA, the out-of-home Media Association of Aotearoa, part of a long-term trend which saw sector revenues double between 2014 and 2021, according to Advertising Standards Authority figures supplied to The Spinoff. While all the traditional mass mediums have gone backwards in recent years, from print to TV to radio, out-of-home has bucked the trend, giving some credence to its claim as “the last of the truly broadcast platforms”. 

I think hints at why it has endured and expanded in parallel with the growth of digital media (while also becoming digital media in its own right). In an era in which everyone curates their own media diet, out-of-home is the only medium which retains the power to plausibly reach something like the whole population.

For decades it was easy to achieve through television, print or radio, but with successive waves of internet, smartphones and social media, an individual’s media consumption became maddeningly complex, and demographics started to behave very differently. Yet through it all, consumers continued to leave their houses and travel to different locations. When they did, out-of-home was waiting – and increasingly waiting with digital surfaces, intelligent data gathering and internet-enabled delivery of campaigns. It’s what has made the oldest advertising medium in the world also its most adaptable. 

I sat down with Nick Vile, the thoughtful and progressive GM of oOh!media, one of New Zealand’s biggest out-of-home providers, to get a sense of the possibilities of the medium, where it has come from, and where it’s going. 

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Duncan Greive: During a period when a lot of legacy media has shrunk, out-of-home is a very rare non-internet media form that’s actually risen in scale. What has driven that?

Nick Vile: It’s an interesting medium, because we do exist within the community. But unless you make a specific inquiry around what it is, then it does exist in people’s lives. As we’ve seen traditional media decline and the fragmentation of media the one constant in everyone’s lives is that they do spend time out-of-home, they do commute, they go and watch the kids play sports, they go to the movies, they go out for dinner. 

So when they’re not looking at their iPad or their phone, when they’re in the out-of-home environment, then that’s the opportunity to capture people’s attention. And the role of out-of-home has really evolved with the advent of technology, and digitalisation – we’ve really seen it play a much more diverse role in terms of the way that advertisers are using it as part of the media mix.

That digital piece is really, really interesting, in terms of technology enabling a much faster turnover of sites, and ultimately, the campaign can be distributed far more quickly and widely than it might otherwise have been during the static billboard era. 

I think digitisation has definitely enabled advertisers to use the medium in ways that they’ve never been able to. The old way of buying out-of-home was by location. I always use the example of Coca Cola, and then subsequently Hyundai, on the Orams building as you’re coming over the Harbour Bridge. They’ll own it for years, which was great at the time. 

But out-of-home is transitioning from a position where people would buy a specific location, to actually focusing on the audience that they’re reaching, regardless of the location. And so digitisation has enabled that, but it’s also enabled advertisers to be much more flexible with the creative content. For example, using weather triggers on days, like today, where you wouldn’t want to be selling ice cream, but you might be wanting to sell umbrellas or raincoats.

With the advent of programmatic, you can actually change your messaging within minutes, but have it all automated and all related to whatever the many, many different triggers are, that are relevant to your brand or to your service or to your product. 

What are some examples of both the kinds of data that your sites can generate and campaigns that have made really intelligent use of that data?

A really good one would be the Electoral Commission at the last election. They were really wanting to avoid a situation where people left the voting decision right to the very last minute – they were wanting to spread the load, basically. So they ran a campaign with us nationwide, targeting ad panels that were in very close proximity to polling booths. It was advising not only that, hey, there’s a location nearby, but that at that moment, the queue was a specific length, much like when you’re driving down the motorway now, and see different timing for different routes. So that was a really good example of integrating the data that they were collecting around the pressure that was they were experiencing at polling booths, and encouraging people to get in ahead of time.

That points to out-of-home media as the last bastion of the monoculture – everyone sees the same thing if they’re in the same place. Is there something important about there being at least one media form that we’re all looking at? Is it something the creative agencies are using as well as they could be?

It really is the last medium that you can reach a mass audience, a mass audience at scale. You can reach them quickly, you can reach some very cost effectively. And from a creative perspective, really understanding that mood of the nation and using that flexibility to craft your creative so that you’re you’re you’re really tapping into the emotions and the mood of the nation.

Are there examples of people taking surfaces and utilising some of that new dynamic environment in ways that feel like they’re pointing to the future of where this all might go?

Because of the role that our home has played within the broader media mix, I don’t think the right amount of attention on creative execution has been focused on the media. There are lots of examples with people just taking newspaper ads, and magazine ads, and putting that up on a billboard and thought, well, that’s, that’s doing the job.

I think now, if you look at all the data through the media agencies, then out-of-home is now the number three media within that mix, behind digital and TV, that we’re playing a more important role. I was talking to an ex CMO [chief marketing officer] yesterday, who was discussing this exact point – why don’t people use the medium correctly? And the point we got to in that discussion is now that it’s becoming more and more important, and more and more on the radar of the CMOs in the market, then they will actually demand better creative execution. 

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.

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