William Eccleshare: Forget web banner ads, the future is the great outdoors

William Eccleshare doesn’t see outdoor advertising as old school or low-tech. Combined with mobile devices, he says, it offers unmatched visibility and engagement. He spoke to Margareta Pagano

Since the Stone Age mankind has been doodling on walls to advertise its trades. But it took a couple of millennia for humans to work out how to buy direct from the cave wall by clicking their fingers.

Commuters on the Oslo metro have recently been buying moisturisers and facepacks popping out at them from a virtual store on the walls of the Nationaltheatret station. Clicking worked, and sales of Coverbrands’ beauty products soared in the first week of the campaign.

On the Copenhagen metro, travellers have been buying books direct from a virtual Saxo.com bookshop displayed digitally on the walls of underground station, placing orders from their phones.

Going a step further, the Woolworths supermarket chain in Australia has turned bus stops into bus shops – letting waiting passengers order their shopping from display units in bus shelters. Amazon, eat your heart out.

The man dragging the cave wall into the 21st century is William Eccleshare, the British chief executive of Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, the US-owned outdoor advertising colossus that has nearly a million print and digital sites in 50 countries, reaching half a billion people. Not bad for an industry which Mr Eccleshare says has a lot of catching up to do to shed its rather tattered image: “Outdoors has suffered over the last few years because of the online revolution and the decline in print. But now our sites are coming into their own as new digital technologies are allowing us to be innovative and creative. We are the last remaining true form of broadcast,” he says.

Getting Lady Gaga signed up to advertise her latest album on huge outdoor billboards in cities around the world – simultaneously at the press of a button – was a coup for him, and great advertising for the industry itself, he says.

To counter perceptions that online is hip, outdoors isn’t, Mr Eccleshare warns brands considering online advertising that statistically, consumers are as likely to click on a banner ad on a web page as they are to die in an air crash. That’s telling them.

What’s more, he says the technology is getting more effective by the minute. As well as buying direct from walls, billboards or other “street furniture”, early adopters are moving fast into sci-fi territory – on billboards at Chiswick Towers, under the Heathrow flight path, you can read the flight numbers and destination of the planes above you. As he says: “If you can combine mobile with out-of-home campaigns like these which drive people to their devices, then it’s proving highly effective. And we can demonstrate to clients that they drive engagement. Mobile is the next big platform for advertising.”

Surprisingly, the US market, with its vast outdoors, is proving hard to crack. Outdoor accounts for only 4 per cent of all advertising in the US, partly because of the country’s tight regulations. Lady Bird Johnson, the former First Lady, championed the Highways Beautification Act of 1965 which restricted billboards on the nation’s highways.

Mr Eccleshare loves living in New York – “the second greatest city in the world” –although he still finds working in the US tricky. “We may speak the same language but American business culture is tougher; and the difference in regions is huge – Texas is as different to New York as Sweden is to Belgium.”

“In the UK I was used to people challenging me all the time, often showing little or no respect for my title. Not so in the US. Few people tell you what they think. They agree with you all the time, nod their heads in meetings and no one wants to step out of line. It was hard to get used to.”

 But he’s working on changing that. And it’s “bullshit”, he says, that Americans work longer. “They say they work so hard and don’t take so many holidays, but I’ve noticed all those public holidays do add up,” he says.

He’s a marathon regular and you can see it; he is as lean as a whippet, and when we meet at CCO’s Golden Square office in London he is raring to head back to New York and then on to China, a market he’s excited about, as is Latin America, which has “real energy”.

By contrast, Americans take an odd attitude to Europe. “They’ve basically written off the eurozone for a couple of years,” he says. “Difficult to get anyone to invest there; they see it as a dark place.”

Yet Mr Eccleshare thinks the UK – which has 60,000 Clear Channel billboards – is a “new emerging market”. He sees the Snuks – Sweden, Norway, the UK and Switzerland – as growth hotspots, innovative ones too.

Like all advertising businesses, CCO’s fortunes are closely aligned with GDP growth. “We see clients becoming more confident and for every £6 of GDP growth you get £1 spent on ads. If you believe in capitalism – as I do – then spending on advertising is the right thing to do as it gives consumers choice and knowledge.”

What the future holds for CCO itself is less clear; it’s owned by Clear Channel Media, which in turn is owned by the big private equity players Bain Capital and Thomas H Lee Partners. Some 12 per cent of “stub equity” is listed on the NYSE, valued at $3.7bn, (£2.2bn), so it’s a curious structure.

“There’s lot of optionality,” says Mr Eccleshare, borrowing some US-speak. “We could float more shares or do a trade sale. Whatever the owners choose, we will continue to grow and innovate.”

Wall Street estimates that CCMH – which includes the media business – when it reports its results today will show revenue of $6.2bn and profits of $1.7bn. Keeping up with the future takes money; CCO has spent more than $350m updating its infrastructure and the parent company still has $20bn of debt.

For Mr Eccleshare, big data is the issue of our times. “You can’t put technology back in the box,” he says. “However, I think that consumers will welcome the use of their data for better marketing so long as this is done with their explicit agreement. If it’s not, then you can expect customers to put their foot down and forbid information being used.”

William Eccleshare: life in brief

Education read history at Cambridge University

1978 Joined J Walter Thompson as a trainee

1990 Managing director of JWT

1993 CEO of PPGH/JWT in Amsterdam.

1995 Joined JWT’s worldwide board as director of global strategy.

1996 CEO of Ammirati Puris Lintas (Interpublic Group)

2000 Joined McKinsey & Co as a partner and leader of the European branding practice, leading major assignments in the media, technology and mining sectors before returning to the advertising industry

2002 CEO of WPP’s Young & Rubicam

2005 Chairman and CEO of BBDO Europe, Middle East and Africa 

2009 President and CEO of Clear Channel International

2012 CEO of Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings

Other Interests: Non-executive director of Hays plc and a governor of University College School. Married with three children. Runs marathons whenever he gets the time to train

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