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How outdoor advertising is moving into the 21st Century

04 October 2017

I spoke to Stephen Joseph, Chief Operating Officer at Ocean Outdoor, about those possibilities, as well as what is happening in the OOH market.

Andrew Viner: Over the last five years, OOH has changed rapidly. Changes that seem intrinsically tied to technology that leads to marked changes in how OOH can engage with target audiences. Ocean Outdoor is one of the innovators of these technologies, including of billboards with outward-looking cameras. What are some examples of what this technology enables?

Stephen Joseph: I would split it into new opportunities for roadside and pedestrian spaces.

Firstly, for roadside, we have developed Vehicle Recognition Technology. This is a bespoke setup whereby we use camera technology to read cars’ license plates and derive relevant data points to allow targeting. Whilst no private data is obtained, such as driver name or details, there are 140 separate data points about the car itself.  From the most standard such as make, model and age to the more obscure such as boot capacity and the width between the wheel arches. It allows targeting messages towards specific drivers, down to the individual vehicle. For example, Renault used it to launch the new Megane by targeting hatchback drivers. Not only did it provide Renault with the opportunity to use a contextually relevant message but they only pay for the times that it played. Meaning zero wastage on the audience they are targeting.

It’s obvious that the application of this technology is not just about motor manufacturers. There is an abundance of demographic data, that when combined with the vehicle data, opens the use of this technology to every brand.

For example, if the audience is predominantly male then a perfume brand could promote the male fragrance and on the next display show the female scent if the audience shifted to predominantly female. 

The USP for Ocean is of course that we have locations that fit the physical requirements to enable the deployment of vehicle recognition technology. Large screens opposite traffic lights that have our integrated technology are few and far between. We have three so far and plan to have 10 by mid-2018.

In pedestrian settings, many digital billboards have adverts/messages that are about ten seconds long. They are looped together in 40 or 60 second segments. Our pioneering camera technology can use facial recognition to enable a brand to display the most relevant copy. For example, if the audience is predominantly male then a perfume brand could promote the male fragrance and on the next display show the female scent if the audience shifted to predominantly female. 3 years ago it used to just be able to tell if the audience was predominantly male or female. Today we can identify age segments, as well as judge a person’s general mood from their facial expression.

The anonymity of the individual pedestrian or person in the passing car is completely safeguarded.

There are other uses for facial recognition and the most famous campaign we ran was for Women’s Aid. It won a Gold Lions at Cannes and the campaign was picked up around the world. The subsequent publicity was tracked and in total 326.9m people saw the campaign, This used the cameras to assess how many people were looking at the screen. An abused woman’s face was shown of the screen and the more people that looked the quicker she healed, with a thank you message at the end. A brilliant idea and one that was the Launchpad for our ‘Look Out’ technology.

All of this happens automatically in split seconds and does not store any data. The anonymity of the individual pedestrian or person in the passing car is completely safeguarded.

Andrew Viner: Another area that is generating new possibilities is integrating data from smart devices. This, combined with camera technology that ‘understands’ what it is looking at, new technology that lets users interact with digital billboards and the ability to include personal smart devices in that setup creates many new possibilities. What are examples of how this can be used in communicating with audiences?

Stephen Joseph: Our most recent example of this was a campaign for March for Giants. March for Giants wanted to raise awareness and funds for their great work of protecting the world’s elephant. The campaign allowed people to customise their own elephant on their device and at a touch of a button have it appear on our large screens around the world. The concept was for the herd of the donated elephants to march across the globe. We used our international screens to ‘march’ the giants from Hong Kong, to Times Square (NYC), to Manchester, Birmingham and London. Again such a unique campaign became very popular and celebrity backing grew augmenting the effectiveness. And it all started with the idea of linking what people can do on their handheld screens and the large screens around them

Another example was for the recent Emoji movie from Sony Pics. In line with the fun nature of the film, the film used our Look Out technology at Westfield London and our other full motion locations, to allow all those passing by to stand in front of the screen and have emoji characters superimposed on their faces. A fun campaign where families could interact with the film and clearly then create excitement about seeing the movie! This was only brought to life due to two factors that are within our USP – full motion screens in high footfall pedestrian areas and Look out camera technology.

These are just two examples, but as you say, there are many more (social media feeds, Live video streaming, geofencing etc), and I think we as an industry – as well as companies and organisations on the buy side - have only started to scratch the surface of what is possible.

Andrew Viner: From my perspective, it seems like you are integrating data and data analysis with what has traditionally been an almost purely ‘analogue’ experience. Creating a system that is moving towards some of the capabilities usually associated with online programmatic advertising. All while using channels that have a proven record of high impact and little to no issues that affect online advertising at the moment, like ad blockers.

Stephen Joseph: I think that is true. It also gives companies and organisations new ways of connecting with their audience in ways that add value to all involved parties, including us.

For example, we offer a product called SimpliFi, which is sponsored, superfast, free WiFi, available to anyone in proximity to our screens. For the 160,000 people who have used it during the first six months, it is free WiFi, for the sponsors – and us - it’s a chance to connect directly with the users and through that access to new data and insights.

It also gives companies and organisations new ways of connecting with their audience in ways that add value to all involved parties, including us.

Andrew Viner: I want to switch our focus to the OOH industry for a while. While the figures clearly show that OOH advertising is moving towards digital dominance, what are some of the challenges that still need to be overcome to realise its full potential?

Stephen Joseph: One area is a re-orientation of the buying chain in the OOH market in order for buyers to be able to take full advantage of the new opportunities. It might come as a surprise to outsiders, but outside of online and mobile, advertising often moves slowly when it comes to integration of new technologies. To this day, much of the buying of OOH advertising still happens through emails and phone calls. Innovation and proven successful campaigns help, but there is still some way to go, I think.

We have developed a couple of new systems, called Playbook and Playcheck, that are aimed at automating the process and providing best in class accountability. They can be integrated directly with buyers’ systems through an open API and offer the benefits of big data analysis and better measurability and accountability. We are purposefully agnostic when it comes to the brief to our tech developers – the market has not yet settled on a truly standardised platform and therefore until that happens we remain open for everyone to plug in to ours directly.

From our point of view, this is a step towards making OOH capable of delivering full programmatic advertising capabilities, but I think that point might still be five years away right now. Automation is a challenging enough ambition for all operators and stakeholders in the industry but we are making great progress so watch this space.

Andrew Viner: This is a space populated with many start-ups. It is hard to go a month or two without hearing about a new, revolutionary company or solution. What is your take on where the digital OOH industry is at the moment.

Stephen Joseph: I would definitely agree that there is a lot of companies and a lot of news. Some of the hype is warranted, but it is also a bit of a Wild West scenario. I think that was partly why the industry decided that there was a need for regulatory oversight in the form of standards to ensure that companies could deliver on what they were promising and we all had a fair base on which to make statements regarding our inventory and accountability.

One of the niches we have seen develop is platforms that are essentially saying to companies, ‘hey, come and buy OHH advertising space through us’. That often leads to competition with some of the big advertising agencies, who also do this kind of thing, and subsequent pivots.

Another active area is content management, including designing and writing the code needed to take advantage of the new OOH possibilities. These companies pitch both agencies and companies, saying ‘look, OOH is so much more than posters now. You need both creative and IT capabilities to take full advantage of this. Let us do those parts for you.’

Generally speaking, the industry is maturing, but many of the companies in the space are learning as they go but how else do we lead the new frontier. I love meeting and hearing what each of these companies are doing as ultimately we share a vision of better creative and great advertising on our media channel.

Andrew Viner:  Finally, I wanted to ask about where you see the industry OOH going from here?

Stephen Joseph: We have just begin to scratch the surface of what is possible when it comes to interactivity between users, their smart devices and digital billboards. While the scope for growth in the vehicle recognition area might be limited, simply due to a shortage of appropriate places for the screens, OOH targeted towards pedestrian audiences has huge potential for growth. You add that to a data driven and audience impression sell and whilst the end product may not look wholly different, the route to purchase and the decision drivers behind that purchase will mirror more closely online and mobile decision drivers. In effect you get the best of both – data driven audience impressions without the adblock or negative content risk.

Whilst they have their own media channel to protect and grow it will be very interesting to see what the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook will do in a few years.

Looking to the future, the next development will be something wholly different – holographic technology is coming along and the application alongside screens in retail destinations is one glimpse of where OOH product development could go. We can’t talk too much of this but we are always looking at new ways of doing things. All of this tech development and data driven buying brings OOH into the sights for some of the big tech companies out there. Whilst they have their own media channel to protect and grow it will be very interesting to see what the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook will do in a few years when they search elsewhere for eyeballs on screens. I think it could possibly involve getting involved in OOH through M&A. In the meantime there are lots of things we need to do to keep the OOH and DOOH share of media spend at a stable level and indeed grow it. In years to come when we look back at this time then the market shares will tell the story of whether DOOH and the multi millions of investment globally did what we intended it to do.