The world of outdoor media, so often the unloved child of advertising, has suddenly become the exciting cousin.
In the new media landscape, outdoor is no longer purely the preserve of the static poster - it has evolved to become all-singing and all-dancing.
Digital outdoor may still make up only a fraction of the market, and much of the hype has outstripped the reality, but there is no doubt it is reaching a point where advertisers can take serious notice of the medium as it offers formats and functions never before possible.
The market is at a flux as the leading media owners are at varying stages of development and roll-out of their digital sites. But the principle behind the new technology means advertisers have far greater control over the time, location and style of advertising.
One of the greatest advantages is that digital technology frees the outdoor medium from the constraints of the two-week time slot - previously pretty much the quickest turnaround on offer.
Digital means advertisers can now be offered day parts, allowing far more customisation in terms of the location and specific messages shown at any given time.
This was evident when the Forrest Group opened its CityScreen site in Glasgow in December 2003.
"For the first time advertisers were able to specifically buy times of day that were better suited to their product," says Marc Keenan, Forrest's managing director. "So Carling only advertised between 5pm and midnight - responsible advertising if you like. The Sun took 7am to 10am only and featured the day's front page, which made good sense as 94% of daily papers are sold before 10am. And McDonald's could advertise at lunchtime.
This degree of fine tuning the message means copy can be changed according to the weather or if, say, a supermarket wants to push a certain line of food on a given day or part of a day: croissants in the morning, but wine offers on the way home.
However, Barry Sayer, chief executive of Clear Channel Outdoor UK, warns: "We're possibly at risk of getting carried away and thinking it's a TV screen - and it isn't."
He believes that digital's rise goes beyond its appeal as a more flexible medium.
"There are two sides to the digital revolution: the operational and the marketing. On the operational side, we're in an energy-conservation world right now, but we send trucks round all the sites. If you can send a signal wirelessly to change a panel, it's far more efficient than crews and trucks. There are also cost implications on high billboards where we have to use a cherry-picker truck - that costs £1,000 for one posting on one site," he says.
When it comes to pricing these screens, he warns that, despite bringing in more revenue, digital mustn't be overpriced.
"There's the cost versus return equation - it's not cheap to put up these screens," he adds.
Nigel Clarkson, national sales director at SMG's Primesight, agrees: "If you don't use it properly, there's a lot of money invested by contractors and spent by clients that could have bought a lot of traditional paper and paste. Clients do want to know about it - it's the next big thing. The danger is you put it up because you can, rather than because you should." He believes the industry is at a tipping point. So Primesight says it is in a "holding state", where the contractor is ready to go with its digitised offering but is waiting until there's a "clear need".
Others have proved more eager to jump on board. CBS Outdoor, which won the TfL contract for the Tube last year, now has three digital formats: LED buses in central London, escalator panels on the Underground and digital screens in Canary Wharf.
Nicky Cheshire is director of Alive, CBS Outdoor's digital division set up last year, which now has six dedicated sales people, as well as a new creative communications director. He says: "On the Underground we are introducing digital technology over the next year-and-a-half and investing £35m. This includes digital escalator panels (currently in three stations) and our aim is to be in up to 20 locations in total where we target people as they exit the station,"
It is also doing live safety trials of its cross-track projection this summer with the aim of rolling out 125 screens.
"You have to do it as a critical mass medium in its own right, not just the odd screen, so you can properly package it," says Cheshire.
Some locations lend themselves better to the digital format than others. CBS Outdoor has an advantage, as the indoor station environment is particularly good. Roadside locations can be more problematic and Clear Channel's Sayer says his company is still experimenting with Magink products - which look like paper but allow the image to be changed.
"It has all the operational benefits of changing remotely without falling foul of the traffic authorities - and it has been successful in changing messages on busy roads remotely," says Sayer.
"We have 10 Magink [sites] on the streets and it's a tester as much for the advertising industry as the road authorities. I would like to get more punch onto the screen, but it's an evolutionary process," he says, adding that the infrastructure is now on the streets with all its sites broadband-linked.
"I'd like to see more panels, but it's got to be a cautious approach at the moment. We will monitor the market demand and what's responsible with the authorities," adds Sayer.
Titan launched its first digital screen in 2001 and has benefited from an increase in rail audiences in recent years as the congestion charge has come into effect and house prices mean more young people are priced out of inter-city zones.
Pete Beeney, group head of Titan+ Digital, says: "We have 17 screens in 16 stations - all the major railway stations - but we're coming towards a finished network as we've run out of stations where it's applicable. Our knowledge is getting better and most advertisers have at least dipped their toe in the water. It was prestige brands initially, but now it's more mass market."
However, Beeney does see digital as the premium end of the outdoor market. "You need both the high end and low end, so it won't necessarily all change to digital. Location is key - it's no good if not enough people are seeing it," he says.
For JCDecaux, its primary focus for the next year is the run-up to the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow in March 2008 as it invests £10m in BAA airports.
Don Sperring, group digital strategy director at JCDecaux, says: "Transit environments are the early adopters of this technology and Terminal 5 is the tipping point of these screens. This isn't an advertiser-driven strategy. It's more that we believe the market is ready for digital and we're using the catalyst of T5 to drive that change. The cost of the technology is also coming down."
One criticism levelled at digital is that the format has been underused, but Sperring thinks this will change.
"There's been some dumbing down and digital screens are often used as a digital version of a scroller, but once we have a more broad-scale channel, it will follow that more creative and dynamic offerings and virtual networks can be created," he says.
As the creativity improves, other issues reveal themselves. Neil Morris, managing director at content specialist Grand Visual, says: "Some of the hurdles are technical ones about standards.
"There is no standard for many aspects [of digital] so if you want to buy a campaign across four networks, you need four different technical standards. Who's going to go to that effort? You have to be nimble and agile to manage this."
As the digital outdoor options become more bountiful for advertisers, so too does the creativity. While there may initially have been a danger of over-hype, a more healthy level of realism has hit the market - so there is now significant interest without outrageous promises.
THE CHALLENGE OF CONTENT CREATION
Digital out-of-home throws up some interesting issues for content creation. A new area of creativity, it does not sit easily within the present agency set-up, hence some confusion - and some would argue a lack of real creativity - in terms of what is now possible.
In terms of the existing departments such as TV, radio and print, many agencies struggle with where best to place digital out-of-home. Although the "moving images" element may push toward TV, it takes more than simply running a TV ad without the sound to get the most from the medium.
Ivan Clark, managing director of Kinetic Destination, says: "The creative agency has to be the custodian of the creative output. Sometimes clients are supplying flat artwork and getting that animated, but I don't think that's strong enough; they should storyboard them and then get a specialist to produce it. It's not as clear to creative agencies and there is a lack of experience on producing creative - particularly digital escalator panels; those need to be bought from specialists."
Titan has a dedicated designer who discusses the best approach with agencies.
Pete Beeney, group head of Titan+ Digital, says: "We say it's more like what you're doing online - mostly about attracting the eye without sound. It has to be quite distracting."
Neil Morris, managing director at Grand Visual, says that, because digital outdoor is such a small market, many creative agencies are less willing to dedicate specific roles to it.
But he adds: "At the moment, outdoor digital is only about 5% of the outdoor market and outdoor is 10% of the total ad market, so it's only a small part of the whole advertising world, but it has a very high profile."
Don Sperring, group digital strategy director at JCDecaux, says: "It will be interesting to see which of the creative fraternities takes hold of it. Some would argue web creatives are the closest, but there is a vacuum in the market at the moment in terms of the creative resource."
So while the specialist hot shops are currently creating much of the most interesting work in digital out-of-home, as distribution grows and clients and agencies become more aware of the possibilities, it will reach a critical mass where more creative agencies move into the fold.
When BMW released its updated X3 model at the end of February 2006, its key aim was to build awareness. With model updates rather than a full launch, it is often harder to build excitement and get consumers' attention.
Suzanne Gray, advertising manager at BMW, says a large part of the target audience is the suburban commuter, so it made sense to run a rail campaign. But to generate extra excitement and interest, it opted for an integrated campaign - which ran for two weeks in October last year - through Titan.
As well as having posters along the key commuter routes, when passengers arrived at their destinations they were confronted by a car on the concourse.
It was hooked up with a plasma screen so people could sit inside and "drive" the car across an off-road course, like in a video game.
"More than one million people looked at the car again and the Transvision screen drew attention on the station platform. The clever bit was massively raising its profile and making it personal and interactive. The Transvision feed from the experiential activity showed people doing it and it also maintained a scoreboard that made people look at what was going on," adds Gray.
The scoreboard showed who was completing the course fastest and a prize was given for the overall winner.
"Digital outdoor took a low-key experiential activity and put it on a different plain; it made it much more viable for us and easier to sell the proposition internally.
"The time invested suddenly became more worthwhile," says Gray
SEGA'S VIRTUA TENNIS 3
The launch of Sega's tennis computer game in March made maximum use of the digital screens being offered via CBS Outdoor's digital escalator panels. The campaign, designed by Grand Visual, involved escalator passengers witnessing a 20-second virtual mixed doubles tennis rally playing from either side of the escalator.
The virtual tennis stars have included Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova. This has been the first campaign on the digital escalator panels where the screens on the up and the down side of the escalators are linked in the same creative.
Neil Morris, Grand Visual managing director, says: "The execution creates a sense of theatre. Sega was attracted by the dynamism and quality of graphics the product has for an outdoor audience - that couldn't be done before. Entertainment brands will be early adopters - a product that's a moving image lends itself very well to promoting these types of products."
Phil Lamb, UK product manager, Sega Europe, said: "The campaign reached well over 20 million people and has been received very well - the sales figures speak for themselves. Upon launch, the game entered the UK Video Game Chart at number four and has maintained a top five position. Sales are steady and we are sustaining the momentum up to the start of the British tennis season."