Changing face of the Underground

This year marks the 10th birthday of one of the most groundbreaking deals in the history of outdoor advertising. Alastair Ray speaks to the people who have helped shape the first decade of advertising on the London Underground

A decade ago, a revolution started in outdoor.

The London Underground was an unexploited advertising opportunity. The London Transport Authority put little marketing resource behind their trains and tunnels.

But when TDI won the contract to sell advertising on the tube in 1994, all of that changed.

Not only did it bring a new, aggressive approach to selling tube cards, escalator panels and the like – it also brought a culture shock.

The new order’s tiepins and, of course, the rules on no drinking at lunchtime were a bit odd in the London media scene of the mid’90s.

American chief executive Bill Apfelbaum and his rules were perceived as weird, but gradually the industry got used to the new way of life and started to adopt many of his tactics.

Glen Wilson, a former London Transport Authority staffer who is now a director of Posterscope, says: “They’ve been quite catalytic in terms of how to do outdoor sales, the first ones to adopt a more US sales model.

“They were the first to have a fully resourced marketing department to give sales people ammunition.”

LTA was a very different culture; staff had a salary grade and people waited for the calls to come in. “It was the civil service, there was little marketing resource put behind anything. It wasn’t really sold; information was made available for people who might want to buy,” recalls Wilson.

Day one of the new order was 15 August, 1994.

Can-do culture

Fabulously wealthy and charismatic, Apfelbaum instigated a can-do culture. “First time in the office he knew everyone’s name,” says Wilson.

Clive Punter, joint managing director at Viacom Outdoor, says that when Apfelbaum was shown some black posters he asked what the teaser campaign was. “The guy said, ‘It’s not a teaser campaign, we haven’t sold the space.’ It was just an under-utilised opportunity.”

In the past 10 years quality of inventory has improved, marketing has got better and servicing has seen added investment. The advertiser base has been broadened to include national brands.

“You’ve got a much more commercial attitude,” says Wilson. “There’s less preciousness about the fabric of the stations and a realisation that this is a commercial revenue stream.”

According to Viacom Outdoor, the revenue to London Underground has tripled in the past decade. It claims a major role in changing perceptions of the business.

“Hopefully, the Underground is very much on everyone’s radar,” says Punter.

“We really set the standard for sales in outdoor and we’ve maintained that,” adds Viacom Outdoor’s joint managing director, Andrew Oldham.

Many in the industry would agree the biggest change is that the Underground has become less precious about the bricks and mortar of the network. That is no small task given the health and safety regulations that govern life underground.

“Now it’s a lot easier [to do specials],” says Oldham. “There’s very little we want to do that we’re not able to. What we’re really concerned with is getting approvals through quickly.”

JCDecaux’s Jeremy Male says that being an external organisation is probably an advantage, but that TDI/Viacom Outdoor has also pushed a little harder than LTA did.

“In large organisations it can be a lot easier to say no to an internal department; it’s less easy to say no to a contractor,” he explains.

The ability to bring the brand experience to the Underground has impressed Wilson. “I really like the outdoor promotions that try matching a brand with a need,” he says.

“Giving out water because it’s a sweatbox, for example.”

Innovative campaigns

Naked co-founder Will Collin cites the Yellow Pages Circle Line train, complete with branded livery, as the best piece of Underground advertising he has seen.

Male agrees: “Yellow Pages literally turned London yellow using London Transport assets with a combination of buses, Underground six-sheets and the Underground trains.”

Wilson’s favourite is the Nike tennis campaign at Southfields, with an artificially turfed platform and two rackets hitting a ball to each other, while BLM director Guy Abrahams cites the Shark Week promotion, the first time a tunnel mouth had been used as an ad format.

“That was really good in its time. It was simple – a very nice touch,” he says.

Abrahams says the achievement of Viacom Outdoor has been to convince people to pay for high impact ads that do not always make the most obvious sense when assessed on a cost per thousand (CPT) basis.

“They’ve successfully exploited the position.

The specials they offer are not sold on a value for money basis; what they sell is ultrapremium,” he says. “Some of these opportunities might be very low on capital media cost, but on a CPT basis, including production, they are high-impact, but high-cost, opportunities.”

Not surprisingly, Punter and Oldham dis-

agree, pointing to the PR value of executions such as the Carling buskers promotion and the impression they make on transport users.

“What’s the price of the wow?” asks Oldham.

“Wow can be worth a lot of money.”

Punter responds: “How do you quantify impact in terms of media? Impact is just unmeasurable.”

Lesley Butterworth, head of media at Dewynters, admits that rates may have gone up, but believes the Underground’s pricing remains competitive. “We’ve had to pay in rate terms, but I think they represent good value,” she says.

Viacom used up a lot of goodwill in promoting cross-track projection (XTP). The opportunity to change advertising through the day and use moving images was successfully sold and generated a huge profile, but had to be put on long-term hold due to problems with the technology.

Within the media industry Viacom took the blame, although responsibility for the technical infrastructure lay elsewhere. Male, who left the company a year before XTP was abandoned, says perhaps the only fair criticism was that the partner companies were not checked out properly.

Next challenge

After a successful decade, the challenge now is to retain the contract when it comes up for renewal in 2006. Tender details are expected in the spring, with a decision due in the summer.

To complicate matters, Transport for London has been making noises about integrating its media properties through a single sales point. The bus shelter contract is due to be renewed in 2005; tenders are out now.

Such a move may be immensely challenging.

It could just be sabre-rattling – some senior industry figures suggest it is highly unlikely. Oldham, however, is more positive about the long-term likelihood of a triple sell of underground, buses and bus shelters.

“At some point in the future you’d have to bet it potentially would be together,” he says. “I’m sure TfL will take a long-term view.”

Developing the network in the hiatus before renewal will be a challenge. And taking the Underground medium on to the next stage could be expensive.

Wilson argues that the key will be technology: Viacom Outdoor has a limited inventory, which it has successfully optimised.

It needs to create new opportunities for advertisers.

“I think we’ll see screens being used more. Screens are very attractive to a media owner. The biggest overhead for any contractor is the cost of posting. If you could take that out of the mix your margins go up,” he says.

Oldham says XTP will be back, but only when the consortium is structured correctly.

“XTP will happen; it’s just a question of getting the control back on the advertising side of the fence. That’ll come in the medium term. Digital formats will be on the Underground in five years,” he predicts.

Viacom’s contract was extended in 2000 and the company remains confident that it will retain it in 2006. “We don’t intend to lose it,” says Oldham

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