Revealed: what it takes to have an ambient media hit

Ambient media can get a bad press, with so many start-ups promising the next big thing in out-of-home advertising. Steve Hemsley looks at what it takes to impress agencies

Having sold advertising on rubbish skips, the construction industry senses more media spend could be coming its way.

Mobile cement mixers and those scruffy timber pallets carried around builders’ yards by fork lift trucks are among the latest ambient ideas being promoted to planners.

Media agencies are happy to listen because, in theory, any location or product is an advertising opportunity and clients want their out of home communication to be imaginative.

What the ambient media owners do not always understand, however, is that placing an ad on something out of the ordinary is not enough for advertisers. They need solutions that are also insightful and accountable.

The campaign using waste skips for 118 118 encouraged the public to throw away their paper telephone directories and is a perfect example of ambient activity which met the criteria perfectly.

However, being the first to brand a dirty cement mixer might seem a good idea to get consumer stand-out, but will the message be seen by the target audience? “Over the next 12 months, advertisers will be more receptive to new ideas but their marketing budgets will remain tight. Before they agree to anything different they must be confident they will be able to measure the results,” says James Davies, board director at Posterscope’s ambient division Hyperspace and the man responsible for the 118 118 skip work.

Hyperspace is approached all the time by ambient media owners, of which Davies estimates there are around 600. Two of the ideas he is currently testing are a poster which turns into a mirror when a person stands next to it, and a foldaway cardboard seat or step called a Coolstool. This has been manufactured by a packaging company convinced it has hit on a winner for the summer music festivals.

Drinks brands are among the most fervent fans of ambient media. Ads in pub toilets and on beer mats and matchboxes are common, but Scotch whisky Chivas Regal recently advertised on lift doors in bars and hotels in London and Bangkok.

The ads, created and booked by agency Cubo Brand Communications, show a man on one door and a woman on the other, each enjoying a glass of Chivas Regal 12. When the two doors close the glasses give the impression they are clinking together.

“We had to negotiate with each venue individually but when it comes to getting ads close to where consumers purchase the product, a hotel lift ticks the box. Chivas is all about bringing people together, so the movement of the lift doors brought the brand to life,” says Cubo founder Chris Walmsley.

The growth of the ambient market has boosted the entire outdoor sector which in the third quarter grew by 7.3% year on year to £213.5m (source: OAA). Yet it has always been difficult to accurately define ambient activity because it crosses into so many other areas. Is supermarket trolley advertising ambient media or not? Should the branding of the outside of a lorry be treated with the same respect as bus advertising when it comes to media planning? Warren Arthur, head of sales at ArticMedia, which sells advertising on a fleet of 10,000 refrigerated trucks, certainly thinks so. He is on a mission to change planners’ attitudes and to secure his first pan-European truck advertising campaign by utilising a fleet of vehicles crossing the Channel.

“Truck advertising has a stigma which is dissuading some clients but we have spent time and money making it a more measurable medium to satisfy client concerns,” he says.

“We combine Government statistics about where trucks go with data from our own satellite tracking system and the ads are seen by thousands of car drivers on motorways.”

The emergence of digital screens which can be placed in different retail outlets has generated substantial interest among clients and planners.

Interactive screen media owner i-vu received $6.3m worth of funding from Luxembourg based General Mediterranean Holdings in November and some of the money will be spent doubling the number of screens in UK hair salons to 1,200.More than 90%of the screens allow the viewer to interact with the content – of which around 15% is advertising – while they are having their hair done.

i-vu’s head of advertising, Sarah Whetham, wants advertisers to take advantage of the hours people spend in hair salons by linking with field marketing and brand experience agencies to encourage sampling and other experiential activity.

Ambient media will remain popular with clients looking for maximum impact from a limited budget because they can reach a large volume of their target market with limited wastage. The task for media owners is to ensure their ideas raise eyebrows for the results they can deliver and not just for being out of the ordinary.

The agency verdict

At TotalMedia, board director Nick Hammond says ambient media owners need to understand a client’s product, customer and market in the same way that planners do. “We are not interested in doing a stunt or placing advertising on something just for the sake of it.

Clients do want greater awareness for less spend, but the environment where the ads appear, however strange, must be relevant and make sense to consumers,” he says.

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