The return of outdoor ads: is programmatic the future?

Unsurprisingly outdoor advertising was one of the channels hardest hit by the restrictions of the past 18 months, but now it’s starting to bounce back… and it’s more measurable than ever.

The pandemic saw a wholesale pivot in media consumption from out and about to locked down, and then back again. Here two experts from M.i. Media give their views on the channel’s prospects.

Jo Blake, Head of Investment, M.i. Media

Before the pandemic, OOH (Out Of Home) was a growing medium and there was optimism about the potential of programmatic trading and possibilities of audience-centric planning. 

Fast forward to 2021, confidence is once again building as OOH audiences return from lockdown-induced falls. Clear Channel data shows that Roadside campaigns have returned to pre COVID-19 levels and the continued increases in transport audiences reflect the steady return of commuters rediscovering the workplace and shopping areas. 

There’s growing optimism from advertisers, with ad spend increasing since Q2 and traditional formats selling fast for Q4. 

Renewed confidence in the medium is also evidenced by ongoing media owner investment in OOH, with both new entrants and existing ones upgrading inventory to more premium digital. As digital scale continues to grow, so too does the potential of connected DOOH (Digital Out Of Home) to deliver the right messaging in the right times and places, with contextual relevance of content and location increasing impact and recall.

From a trading perspective, increases in demand and the return of audiences at scale are likely to mean that pricing increases to pre-COVID-19 levels and beyond. I’m hoping that this is coupled with increasing flexibility to trade in different ways – CPA deals, less panel based more audience based trading and increased programmatic capabilities – so we can continue to deliver great value from this resurgent medium.

Andy Brander, Planning Director, M.i. Media

Part of the planner’s job is to be provocative, so rather than simply mirror others’ views I thought I’d take a contrarian stance. This does not mean I disagree with the others, merely peering through the looking glass to see what else I could see.

At a macro level, roadside audiences are back to previous norms but it’s not hard to think of ways in which life has not yet fully returned to ‘normal’. According to TFL, Monday 6th September saw the highest number of taps into the tube network since March 2020, as commuters come back to work. But keep the champagne on ice, because passenger numbers are still only around half of pre-pandemic highs. Working from home seems set to continue at least to some degree for many ABC1s (which must be affecting the audience profile of impacts delivered), and while the cumulative reach of a two-week poster campaign on the underground may soon be approaching previous levels, Global, the media owner responsible for selling TFL’s inventory, accepts that frequency is likely to remain suppressed well into 2022. Plan and negotiate accordingly.

Perhaps another area meriting pause for thought is the headlong rush towards digital. Now I’m not a (total) luddite, I too at times can make strong cases for DOOH based upon impact, smart targeting and contextual relevance; but where’s the harm in a dose of healthy scepticism? 

Media owners are commercial entities and have been upgrading traditional paper and paste sites to new digital formats because they can command a premium for them. Have all the advertisers swapping two weeks of 24/7 exposure on, for example, a conventional 6-sheet for 10in in a 60in reel done their arithmetic? If they are now enjoying greater coverage thanks to partial exposure on a greater number of digital panels then great, but are they sure that their value hasn’t been eroded by a loss of eyeballs from a higher cost per thousand?

And that’s before I touch on programmatic, whose targeting efficiencies and time-saving benefits are great in theory yet are likely to require credible data and planning scrutiny to ensure that OOH doesn’t fall into some of the traps that agencies and advertisers have had to grapple with in digital display.

If all of this comes over as overly negative, I don’t mean it to be. I love the reach and impact that OOH can deliver and look forward to helping to fuel the medium’s resurgence. But I also believe that there is merit in looking under the bonnet into the detail, and sometimes asking uncomfortable questions to ensure advertisers realise full value from the medium as it continues to evolve.

In summary

There’s no denying that after a tough period, OOH is moving forward with growing confidence. Innovation, returning audiences and growing demand all making for an exciting future… But as William Golding famously observed, “the future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”. So the best advice is to keep questioning and seek advice from trusted experts who might be better placed to provide the answers!