Ambient is media’s Stealth Bomber. Its “low-observation” characteristics give the medium the ability to penetrate sophisticated defences and knock out even the most heavily defended targets.
Ambient, once regarded as a rag bag of loosely related strategies is now media’s fastest growing sector, according to Ambient Media 1999, published last July by Concord. Revenue has grown from £10 million in 1995 to an estimated £64.4 million in 1999. Factors contributing to this growth include audience fragmentation, clutter and the increasing cost of traditional media.
“Ambient media is in your face, without you being aware of it,” says Carl Tooney, director of National Vehicle Advertising, which offers national advertising opportunities on a fleet of lorries. “Marketers are looking for new ways to grab consumers’ attention,” he says.
Though understanding of ambient has come a long way in five years, it is still an umbrella term for formats at diverse as fixed posters in washrooms and supermarket trolleys, mobile posters on lorries, sky writing, and advertisements on bus tickets, postcards and take-away lids.
However Sara Hayes, national buying manager at Blade, says the industry has woken up to the fact that different ambient media opportunities have different USPs. “Ambient is being taken increasingly seriously for its intrinsic advertising value,” she says.
According to Hayes, buyers choose washroom posters or petrol pump nozzles if they are looking for a long lasting campaign. If they want to reach a certain audience when it is more receptive to advertising messages, they could choose a health club campaign or if they need to be close to point of sale, they could go for trolley panel ads.
Targeting by stealth
Like the Stealth Bomber, ambient’s unique ability to “fly under the radar” makes it an invaluable weapon when it comes to targeting media savvy 18-to-34 year-olds.
“Young people have grown up being bombarded with ads,” says Garfield Smith, managing director, Boomerang Media. “Postcards put the consumer in control. They decide if they want to take the postcard away or leave it in the rack.
Smith says that advertising messages on postcards benefit from the positive association with the venue at which young people are socialising. And while cinema foyers, bars and health clubs are not entirely clutter-free, Smith says: “The shutter to the ads we generate is lower than if this target audience was viewing TV ads.”
Boomerang recently worked with the Central Office of Information on a postcard campaign for The Royal Navy and Royal Marines. The double sided postcards were distributed through cinemas, universities and health clubs. One side of the postcard contained an image from a cinema or TV advertisement, while the other contained a prepaid response mechanism.
“No one thought, ‘we’ve got a couple of thousand pounds left from our budget, let’s have a fun postcard campaign’. Ambient was an integral part of the campaign,” says Deborah Valentine, PR manager at Boomerang Media.
The ability to get close up to the target audience at the point of purchase is another unique feature of ambient media. The Media Vehicle specialises in trolley and floor poster advertising through links with retailers such as Tesco, Asda and Safeway. Jessica Hatfield, chairman and chief executive, says research shows that 75.5% of purchasing decisions are made in-store and The Media Vehicle’s ads reach 92% of UK households each week.
“If a company is spending £12 million on a new product, the ad must be in store. If it isn’t and competitors knows it isn’t, then that company is in trouble,” says Hatfield. She believes trolley ads have moved into the mainstream media in a way that other forms of ambient, such as stunt media and guerilla marketing, have not.
“We are bought and sold in the same way as traditional media,” she says. “We have ratecards and we undertake research. I love stunt media, it has massive impact, but you can only have a naked lady on the Houses of Parliament once.”
The naked truth
Paul Booth, managing partner at Space Mountain, agrees. “If an ambient media format has attracted blue-chip brand names on an ongoing basis, then it has become part of the mainstream media, as opposed to the medium just being used as a clever one-off stunt,” he says.
Space Mountain targets young people, with disposable income who eat on the go. The company sells space on the lids of take-away containers and has attracted clients including the Paramount Comedy Channel, the COI and TV Licensing.
“In the past the challenge was to make sure that ambient formats stayed on the schedule when it came to commitment time, rather than being dropped, having served the purpose of demonstrating thoughtful planning to the client,” says Booth. “Adlids now attracts clients because they deliver huge numbers of young, upmarket adults, not because they are ads on takeaways.”
On the other side of the media fence, Gerry Boyle, managing partner at Zenith Media, questions if ambient really has become part of the mainstream media. “If you think about it in the traditional sense, then it probably hasn’t, but we can’t afford to be so limited. There are 101 different ways to communicate with consumers, not just five. Media strategies must take account of all relevant opportunities and ambient is often one.”
Nigel Mansell, managing director of Concord, believes ambient is being taken seriously, but not because it has lost its quirky image. “It’s good that ambient is seen as quirky. The medium isn’t going to be used to launch products, but it’s at the creative edge and is a cost-effective winner.”
The need to keep coming out with fresh ideas led Hatfield of The Media Vehicle to launch CentreVision last year. The new company runs a network of digital broadcast screens in premium shopping centres around the UK, offering advertisers the chance to reach 20 million shoppers per month. There are four different programming schedules every day, each one tailored to a different target audience. So, for example, advertisers are offered broadcasting slots from 4.00pm to 6.00pm to target teenagers.
Proving ambient’s punch
Hatfield puts a high premium on research. CentreVision measure effectiveness and penetration of advertising messages in conjunction with RMS. The research includes exit interviews to measure recall and evaluate its impact on customer behaviour. “We’ve had research from day one,” she says. “Without accountability, how can you expect advertisers to see ambient as an integral part of the mainstream advertising schedule?”
However, for many smaller companies, providing research is a luxury they can ill afford. Portland Outdoor works on a variety of campaigns with ambient contractors. Anya Casey, account director, says: “The problem for many contractors is the research would cost as much as the budget. Clients do ask for information, such as the demographics of a pub being used for a beer mat campaign, but it’s hard to provide.”
Casey believes the situation is steadily improving. “Now that many of the larger ambient contractors no longer have to reinvest money back into the medium, they are reinvesting it into providing research,” she says.
Portland Outdoor does not have a dedicated ambient department, but according to managing director Alex Thompson several planners and buyers have ambient expertise. He says ambient finds its way into outdoor almost by default.
Hayes of Blade believes ambient is often cla-ssed as outdoor. “The audience delivery of most ambient opportunities can only be measured by the methods applied to mainstream outdoor.”
In late 1998, the UK’s largest outdoor advertising company, More Group, took over Postal Facilities, a company that specialised in PostAds – poster panels on postboxes. Postal Facilities was absorbed into MoreTrans, the part of More Group which deals with ambient advertising.
Brendan Terrill, group head at MoreTrans, says: “The reality is that small ambient companies are established by people who have a good idea and who can develop it in the early stages. But long-term success requires an infrastructure and resources that only a large company can offer.
“We already have a national infrastructure of 300 operatives who go round posting our sites. We can absorb the costs of adding, for example, the 1,500 PostAds fairly easily, but for a small company to do this would wipe out their profit.”
The commitment of outdoor giants such as More Group to the sector, as well as the innovative and well-researched work of many media independents, has all helped ensure ambient’s place on mainstream media schedules. Mansell at Concord is confident the sector’s popularity will grow. But he concedes its growth will eventually be superseded by internet advertising. However, Mansell believes ambient’s creativity, combined with its ability to target young audiences, makes it the perfect medium for dotcom advertising.
“Research shows that young people don’t respond to sheet bill boards, they see them as platforms for big corporations,” he says.
So maybe media’s Stealth Bomber will still own the skies on the back of the dotcom advertising explosion after all.