In out of the rain

Outdoor advertising is no longer the poor relation of television, writes Nick Walker

At the end of the Eighties, poster advertising had a bucket- and-paste image. Dislocated contractors and badly kept sites contributed to the notion that posters were a second best for those barred from the slick world of television, either, like tobacco, by government decree, or simply because television carried too big a price tag.

Even in 1991, only 62 out of the top 200 advertisers used billboard posters as part of their campaigns. By 1994, however, this figure had nearly doubled to 109. It's still moving upwards.

"TV is no longer working for some people," says David McEvoy, marketing manager of outdoor contractors Mills & Allen. "There has been such an improvement in the quality of sites and service. Nobody thinks of outdoor as flyposters flapping in the wind anymore."

The recession took its toll on advertising as a whole, but according to a report published by market research company MAP, confident growth is the theme for the outdoor industry. MAP says the market will expand to pounds 626m by 2001 - a growth rate of 50 per cent.

Of course, outdoor advertising accounts for a tiny proportion of overall advertising expenditure - 3.4 per cent in a pounds 10.17bn industry. Still, this share allots posters an annual worth of pounds 350m. "We are now being seen as an integral part of the advertising umbrella," says McEvoy.

There's no denying that the poster holds a certain power: you can't switch it off or turn over the page. The poster is part of the modern urban landscape.

Outdoor advertising covers three main heads - roadside, transport and ambient. Roadside advertising, traditional poster advertising and posters in supermarkets and so on, makes for two-thirds of all outdoor advertising revenue. Roadside not only eats the biggest slice of the pie, but, according to MAP, it has the greatest impact, with 33 per cent of respondents mentioning this type of outdoor advertising first. Transport - posters on buses and so on - takes up roughly a third of the market and is the fastest growing. The final slice is often referred to as ambient advertising - a catch-all covering everything from sandwich men to hot-air balloons. It is now thought to account for pounds 10m a year (nearly double the figure for 1994).

Television, print and radio have reams of research at their fingertips - Barb, NRS, Rajar, Jicreg - all of which instantly provide advertisers with information. A lack of any such qualitative and quantitative research has hampered the poster industry. In 1985, the industry adopted the Outdoor Site Classification and Audience Research [Oscar] as its standard. Before that, there was no research whatsoever. Advertisers were buying posters on faith. The system was upgraded in 1988 and Oscar II is now competing head-to-head with other media.

"This a massive move," says Roger Fernley, chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association. "We can show a client which consumers are likely to see a particular site. We are no longer measuring the opportunity to see, but the likelihood to see."

Outdoor advertising is a fragmented industry. There are some 150 contractors controlling the 120,000 or so poster sites around the country, but three players dominate - Maiden Outdoor (20 per cent), Mills & Allen (17 per cent) and More O'Ferrall (15 per cent).

The poster site hopes to be a power player before 2000. It's already high profile - since the first poster campaign by William Caxton in the 15th century for Pyes of Salisbury, we have had the Pretty Polly (the model's legs caused so many accidents at an Irish crossroads that it was taken down), the welcome controversy from posters for Club 18-30 and Benetton's babies and Aids death-bed grief. "It's interesting that supposedly more sophisticated media such as TV, radio and newspapers always turn to posters to get their message across," says McEvoy. "That, I think, says something."

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