Can the Spanish sun melt the hearts of the outdoor players?

OUTDOOR. CONFERENCE: As delegates prepare for some quality time together in Barcelona, Mark Banham asks whether the outdoor industry can forget the feuding and focus on furthering the medium

Believe it or not, the upcoming Barcelona outdoor conference – organised by trade body the Outdoor Advertising Association – has a lot more riding on it than a chance for the industry to get together for an upper-class version of a package holiday.

Although some outdoor players are bound to see it as such, and treat it accordingly, the outdoor industry is facing issues that the conference desperately needs to address.

Possibly the most creative and accountable sector of this thing we call media, the outdoor sector is nonetheless rife with infighting, one-upmanship, and downright malice, and any client or agency representative attending the conference in September – of which there are record numbers – may find the big outdoor players treat them to a smoke-and-mirrors public relations exercise worthy of the great Harry Houdini himself.

The truth is, the big players in the UK – JC Decaux, Clear Channel, Viacom Outdoor and Maiden Outdoor – are not exactly on the best of terms, and this is forcing an industry that could be great, to weigh in as good with the potential to be great.

It’s not that outdoor as a medium has not been punching above its weight; it has, with a 10.4% growth until the end of 2003. The sector achieved a 9% share of all display advertising spend – with a little more co-operation between the major players, it’s probably fair to say that it could have broken the “magic” 10% margin.

There’s the Jerry Maguire moment – mention what shouldn’t be mentioned in the hope that wrongs will become right.

But asking an advertiser to show the outdoor industry “the money” is going to take more than presentations and slide shows; it’s going to take harmony and cross-owner co-operation, and as many will tell you, the time when the various competitors across the outdoor industry reach that stage is far from near.

If we simply talk from a UK perspective, this year is set to see the dirtiest street fight between the big four over the London street furniture contract. There’s an elephant in the room, everyone knows it’s there, but everyone will be talking about it in hushed tones over the sangria and paella, and certainly with nothing less than expectant victorious noises in front of the assembled advertisers.

Steve Cox, head of agency sales at Viacom Outdoor, thinks that Barcelona will be about a collaborative effort to push the outdoor advertising sector forward, even if the main players will eventually try and cut a larger section of any enlarged ad spend by clients for themselves.

Even though the image may be that outdoor players are at each other’s throats, he says that when it comes to pushing the wider medium, the major owners are extremely focused.

“We are very competitive with each other in terms of trying to attract new sales revenue and trying to attract new contracts, but we won’t get to 10% by squabbling over our slice of the current outdoor cake. We’ll do it by actively trying to persuade advertisers and media agencies that they should be investing some of the money they’re currently investing in other media with us,” Cox says.

“I think we have a more grown-up view of that than we used to, although it may not sometimes come across that way.”

Alex Thompson, chief executive of outdoor advertising specialist Portland Outdoor, believes the collaboration process has moved on and will only become stronger during and after the event.

“There’s a need for collaboration, but I think it’s working out already,” Thompson says.

“The media owners now tend to be part of multimedia, multinational concerns and the senior managers often come from a broader background than was perhaps the case in the past. I think the media owners are pulling very hard on the same oars. I think that everybody chasing the same fish around the same pond is not the future.”

The facilitator

Acting as referee in this unlicenced bout is the Outdoor Advertising Association, the official trade body for the industry.

Although it may not have the resources of the Radio Advertising Bureau, it is just as passionate about promoting its ascension on clients’ media schedules.

Alan James, chief executive of the OAA, says: “Our members know that by working together they can certainly increase volume and share. The scope, scale and level of innovation of what the medium can offer advertisers and agencies is now quite amazing.”

Cox says: “The only way the OAA can achieve anything is for them to act as a facilitator, and get us all around the table, and that’s what happens.

This is probably why the conference doesn’t sit under the banner “The year of in-fighting”, but rather the more advertiserfriendly mantle “Outdoor taking the lead”.

Thompson thinks that although old rivalries do occasionally present themselves, the success of the industry has forged some harmony: “We’ve all moved on in leaps and bounds in terms of the way that we speak to each other and are rather more broad minded about sharing issues rather than keeping our own cards close to our chests.”

In the UK alone, not even broaching the subject of continental Europe, where Decaux, Clear Channel and Viacom Outdoor battle for supremacy, Stevie Spring, chief executive at Clear Channel, still thinks the actual shop-floor activity conducted by outdoor media owners is hugely competitive – and always will be.

However, she says the industry is slowly but surely collaborating on issues that do not involve price-sensitive information.

“At the trading level, we are fiercely competitive,” Spring says.

“I will sit here thinking that every pound that goes on a Viacom bus should be either on my taxis, or on my six-sheets.”

So far this year we have seen the battle for the 10-year West Midlands bus shelter contract, worth a reputed £100m, a coveted prize taken by Clear Channel specialist Adshel after a protracted battle with Decaux, Viacom and Scottish Media Group’s Primesight.

The resulting win was met by whispered snipes from the – no doubt sore – losers that the maintenance of the sites would surely severely cut profit margins, an accusation that Clear Channel resolutely denies.

As if this were not enough, the body blows will be delivered later this autumn when the London bus shelter contract, tendered by headline-grabbing Transport for London, reaches maturity.

The current holder of the tender is the aforementioned Adshel, which aside from bidding for TfL’s street furniture contract, will still control the 40+% of London’s six-sheet panels that it owns.

Still, rather than hold back, Viacom Outdoor, current holder of the London Underground contract and the contract for London bus sidings, and Decaux have been engaging in a bottle-throwing exercise that would put an average pub in London after an England versus France fixture to shame.

Monopoly fears

This is even before TfL decided that it may dispense with the separate London Underground contract when the tender for the business next presents itself.

It is touting a possible amalgamation of the tube, bus and bus shelter contracts that could lead to an individual winner controlling a virtual monopoly on outdoor advertising across the central London heartland, a deal that would damage a competitive process, doing clients and their agencies no favours.

Most will tell you that this is bluster at best, but even bluster can lead deals to derail, and clients to question the place of outdoor on their schedules.

If outdoor is proud of its record of taking spend from television in the London area, then it may not be for much longer because of TfL’s abrasive action.

Despite the competition for contracts, Spring thinks the amount of collaboration that goes on in the sector is underestimated.

“I think you would be surprised at the huge areas where we are fiercely collaborative.

“I don’t just mean in marketing outdoor over other media – if you sit round a council table of the OAA, everyone recognises that it’s our joint job to grow the outdoor sector compared to other mainstream media. We will fight for a slice of an enlarged cake, but we have to enlarge the cake first.”

Viacom’s Cox is hopeful that the focus in Barcelona will be on moving forward and hopes there will be a concerted effort to push the sector, so clients walk away feeling that outdoor delivers.

“I think that one of the things that will come out of Barcelona is absolute proof that if you do advertise in outdoor it will benefit your business,” Cox says.

The benefits of outdoor is what owners and agency representatives have to push to advertisers from the moment they hit Barcelona.

Let’s hope that the gloves don’t go back on until they are safely back in London and it’s business as usual

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