The Healing Power of OOH

May 2020

Published Exclusively in WARC

The latest Advertising Association and WARC Expenditure Report bought into stark relief the deep impact that COVID-19 has, and will, have on the advertising industry, and for OOH specifically.  With the public in lockdown, it was no surprise to see that OOH is expected to see falls in adspend throughout the rest of 2020.  Among the bad news there was one small spark of hope for the OOH in the report, forecasting that digital out of home, alongside cinema, will be the only channels to recoup their losses fully in 2021.

David Bowie once said that “the future belongs to those who can hear it coming” and while it’s a murky and muffled sound right now, if you listen carefully you can hear a sharp and bright bass note cutting through.  The sound of a future we need to focus our attention on.

Out of home has always been more than just an advertising medium and now more than ever, we need to take this opportunity to reset, re-educate and refine people’s perceptions of the medium, so that we can build a future that is more strategically valuable to brands, consumers, and our wider communities.

 A country in temporary pause

In OOH, we can contribute solutions to the challenges ahead in a myriad of ways but for the moment, as a country, we are temporarily paused, and we only need to look outside to see this in action:

TRAVELUK traffic is down by c.60% with some public transport such as London Underground and Rail down more than 95%. With people making only ‘essential’ journeys and working from home where possible, public transport hubs have seen a 71% reduction in visits overall.

SHOP: According to IRL Worldwide data, total UK sales year on year were consistent up until late February, but as the effects of COVID 19 took hold in early March, people’s shopping behaviour changed overnight. Stockpiling spiked between 8–21 March as consumers feared government lockdown which started on 23rd March. Seasonal factors also played a part in spend increases with good weather and Easter weekend falling earlier in 2020. The most recent two weeks’ worth of data suggests that overall grocery spend is returning to some form of normality as the panic buying and stockpiling subsides.

PLAY: All restaurants and cafes, pubs and bars, cinemas, theatres and galleries, museums, casinos, hotels and gyms and leisure facilities, and the UK’s festivals, gigs and sporting events are postponed or cancelled too.

We need to be ready for what is coming in the Near and Next, and the only way to do that is to be ready to adapt fast, learn as we go, and embrace change.

Changing human movement

In the OOH industry, we are governed by human movement, and human movement is the touch-paper of global pandemics.  Where we go, our viruses go too.  And with greater connectivity as a result of globalisation, we find ourselves in a new and likely forever-changed world of human movement.

But those changes will also bring great opportunity for positive change, as we have seen many times before in terms of the impact of disease on urban planning, and how we live and move in industrialised society.

Great leaps in technology, societal transformation, and innovation are borne out of crisis; finding new ways to heal our cities and communities is true OOH innovation, and never more needed. As the only media channel with a tangible physical presence in public spaces, the OOH industry has a significant role to play as we start to take our tentative steps back out into the world.

OOH is present on the streets where the densest populations exist. It’s job is to talk to people. But it is not one dimensional. It has multiple healing powers. And we’ve seen that in action with mosquito killing technology, extracting drinking water from the air and billboards that clean our dirty air.

As well as overt public utility, OOH is also the salve that is applied to brands in times of economic despair. After the 2008 financial crisis, brands needed to quickly heal and when we look at post-Recession media investment, OOH (along with TV) is the broadcast channel that appears to be the default channel for that healing. Because it generates vital broadcast reach, which in turn generates +20% in business effects.

It also makes all other media channels work harder (Press (+7%), Radio (+17%), TV (+17%), Social (+20%), Search (+54%)), and drives the most important brand values associated with OOH in a recession:

OOH is not just a billboard

So, OOH is already not just a billboard, or a bus, or a roadside 6-sheet, OOH is:

  • the community noticeboard – the familiar local structures that live within our space attachments
  • the vital information communicator
  • the helping hand when waiting in the supermarket queue
  • the soothing distraction in a tube carriage
  • the entertainer
  • the gaming console
  • the hologram
  • the content-provider
  • the AR trigger
  • the trustworthy brand builder
  • the real-time dynamic update
  • the footfall driver – and the footfall monitor
  • the nudge to purchase
  • the public utility cleaning our air
  • the low-touch technology
  • the reminder of social distancing measures
  • the national galvaniser
  • the icon

OOH is all of this and more. And ultimately, it can be the healer of brands, of consumers, of communities, and of all our public spaces.

What will the future hold for OOH

The future of OOH in the Near and Next will be whatever we dare to create, to invent, to question, to analyse, to think or decide it will be.  The worlds of technology, data, and partnerships will collide at scale, fuelled by good old-fashioned creative thinking. Innovation is after all, simply problem-solving having fun.

In tangible terms, the Near will be dictated by ‘the science’. Imperial College London is modelling possible scenarios for the easing of lockdown measures. And if we follow this approach, we can see how measures may be switched on/off over the coming months.

[Source: Imperial College London: Faculty of Medicine. Illustration of adaptive triggering of suppression strategies in GB, for R0=2.2, a policy of all four interventions considered, an “on” trigger of 100 ICU cases in a week and an “off” trigger of 50 ICU cases. The policy is in force approximate 2/3 of the time. Only social distancing and school/university closure are triggered; other policies remain in force throughout. Weekly ICU incidence is shown in orange, policy triggering in blue]

Whatever the shape of the unlocking it will inform our approach to OOH, with an assumed focus on local formats to ensure coverage against an audience more likely to be working from home than commuting on public transport.

To monitor these movements of people, a data strategy that focusses on the use of a raft of reliable data sources to derive valuable and actionable insights will be required.  At Posterscope, we call this the No Single Point of Truth approach, and the efficacy of our work for clients (and the industry) is testament to that throughout this period.

Going local

Although movement is limited, people are still getting out, to exercise and shop, albeit in their immediate locality.  The UK’s network of Digital OOH screens sits in the heart of many communities and can provide one way for brands to reach these local audiences, with the capabilities to convey contextual and relevant messaging tailored to the audience and the area (which we know can deliver an average +18% increase in brain response when displaying content that was relevant using either the location, the weather, the time or a live update as the stimulus trigger).

With the advent of social media and virtual events, however, it’s also not always essential for people to be at street level to see and experience the healing power OOH advertising.  In recent weeks, we’ve seen multiple examples of great healing OOH campaigns filling our social feeds and the national and local press, such as The Queen’s coronavirus speech illuminated on London’s Piccadilly Circus and the self-aware and overtly tongue-in-cheek campaigns from Emily Crisps and We’re OK Hun brands.  The latter campaigns questioned the wisdom of running out of home campaigns and in return garnered lots of publicity and social reaction.

A creative reset must come Next

It’s time to change how we behave creatively. Because the short-term and the long-term doesn’t have to be an either/or choice.

85% of CMOs (Dentsu Aegis Network CMO study 2018) believe that creativity and big ideas build brands and create emotional connections that will deliver long-term brand growth, yet only half of these CMOs think the industry is doing this well.  And the reams of evidence supporting creativity as the greatest effectiveness tool should be ignored at every brands peril.

Creative thinking has the power to inspire and connect and it has the greatest and most effective healing power (Orlando Wood’s key text Lemon illustrates this most effectively).  Great creative is landed in building powerful emotional connections, and “…great advertising is the best builder of trust” (Keith Weed).

Whether unearthing beautiful human insights, that in turn inform tight and powerful strategies, that then provide a platform from which to fire beautifully crafted and focused concepts, or reappraising product offering, whatever the area of business, the Next will find us learning to value true creative thinking again not as a ‘nice to have’ but rather as a reframed non-negotiable hygiene factor.

An acceleration in technological innovation

Public health will remain at the top of the agenda for the foreseeable future, and as a result, we will see an acceleration in technological innovation and the hastening of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

OOH will have a significant role to play in exploring such technologies because no other media channel can be a physical public utility. Cross-discipline exploration and partnerships must be considered because OOH is perhaps the only channel that has the opportunity to build innovation into solutions by applying technology and thinking from other disciplines; engineering, robotics, 3D volumetric display, AR (and AR-high streets), visual search, anti-viral materials, computer vision, data, gesture control, contactless technologies, low-touch technologies, facial recognition, voice search and biometric sensors.

Existing in the physical and non-skippable world is one of OOH’s greatest strengths, which also means that the industry must continue working towards sustainable and responsible solutions for brands in the out-of-home space.

Not least because in the simplest of terms, new research published in the journal Science of the Total Environment has found that long-term exposure to air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the COVID-19 virus” globally. We can help address this and assist with the healing of our air supply.

UK media owners are already developing extraordinary solutions for advertisers, and the roll-out of products with a long-term outlook towards minimising impact to the planet and our health should  be applauded and utilised.

The Next will see us all look deep into disciplines that exist outside of OOH and advertising, for it is there that we will find the most meaningful of partnerships, solutions, and innovations with real tangible purpose in our new normal.  Explorations will continue into synthetic bioluminescent lighting, alternative energy sources, pollution-eating algae, reflective inks, kinetic energy transfer, and many more will evolve at pace – driven by client and consumer demand, and our innate desire to invent responsible long-term solutions within our industry.

How advertisers can harness the healing power of OOH:

  • Reappraise the role and definition of OOH innovation and technology in your communications strategy. What is the consumer need?
  • Reappraise understanding of the multidimensional nature of OOH as it currently exists, and be curious about how you can help it evolve
  • Rethink creativity. Creative effectiveness was already in crisis – now is the time to be better
  • Be relevant – understanding mood is more critical than ever
  • Think smarter and embrace strategic thinking. OOH isn’t just a line of posters on a plan
  • Believe in local. The audience does
  • Demand innovations in responsibility, sustainability, and purpose

The future is not Google-able. (William Gibson). But it is buildable.

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