I celebrated my 46th birthday recently meaning that I now have the privilege to say that I have spent exactly half of my entire life working in the beautiful medium that is out-of-home. In that time, we have seen tremendous change driven by technology, and the creativity with which it’s been applied by all the smart people in our industry.
When I joined the industry in 1999, the most disruptive technological shift underway was the introduction of email and the ability to communicate vital details, such as campaign schedules, poster despatch instructions, creative approvals etc almost instantly. This revolution swept through the industry in a matter of a few short years rapidly leading to the decline in importance of the postroom and the fax machine and speeding up the process of briefing, planning, buying and activating OOH. Other innovations such as digital printing led to shorter and more frequent campaigns as the speed of communication accelerated overnight.
Out on the streets though the medium remained relatively unchanged with billboards, bus shelters, transport media and ambient media all competing for dollars and eyeballs as they had for the decades prior. A few innovative formats began to appear around the early 2000’s such as scrolling displays, pioneered by JCDecaux, which began to replace the older ultravision/trivision formats with its spinning triangular blades that often got stuck or malfunctioned. These scrolling backlit displays became an incredibly popular format on the streets of the UK and Western Europe.
Between 2003 (ish) – 2006 everything changed. Flat panel TV’s and LED modules became commercially viable for enterprising media owners to purchase at scale and install on the walls of venues, inside bus shelters, in the aisles of supermarkets and more. This gave birth to a whole new sector, digital OOH. A new world of possibilities and challenges opened up.
What was the best display technology for any given environment? Should it have sound or not? What was the right loop length? What was the right mix of content and advertising? What was the right spot length and frequency? How to measure the audience? And on and on. Suddenly a medium that had traded in periods of years, months, weeks and occasionally days had the potential to be transacted in far smaller and more intricate ways. At the same time, the creative potential of the medium was supercharged by the ability to play animated and video content with the increased potential to tell stories through these new screens appearing all over the world.
This was the future, or so we thought back then. In late 2007, the iPhone debuted and with it the explosion in the mobile internet ensued. This led to huge amounts of experimentation around the role of smartphones/mobile with OOH over the next few years. Broadly speaking, two areas emerged which were most interesting to those in the industry. Firstly was the ability for OOH to act as an onramp for digital activity (via infrared in the early days, then Bluetooth and ultimately the QR code). Secondly was experimentation around the data produced by people using their smartphones in terms of what they were doing and where. In parallel, between 2007-2010 the concept of programmatic was being born in the online and mobile sphere meaning, amongst other things, that this kind of mobile location data was becoming available at scale.
Between 2010 and 2020 most of the innovation happened “behind the scenes”. The screens on the streets got bigger and better; the resolution, brightness and overall quality improving significantly over earlier screen technology, but the real changes were happening on the software side. The platforms powering almost all areas of OOH, from Inventory Management to Content Management, became more sophisticated, cloud based and connected. Along with improved standardisation, although we still have some way to go in this respect, this meant different systems could all talk to each other, making it more efficient to plan and buy OOH and delivering the kind of gains we first experienced with the introduction of email all over again, and with the potential for so much more – who doesn’t want to automate 100% of their OOH buying?
The introduction and maturation of the platform layer of the OOH industry has enabled new ways to activate media and creative in OOH that are scaling up rapidly today. The ability to activate OOH, optimise creative, or both at the same time, in digital OOH in real time in response to data signals such as the weather, flight timetables, pollen counts, or anything else that can be measured and made available as an API, has brought new capabilities and brands into the medium. Consequently, this is seen as a focus for future growth.
Taking stock of this phenomenal progress, in just 23 years OOH has reinvented itself, from a 100% physical medium, into a fully equipped and fundamental part of the digital media ecosystem. So, what’s next?
It’s always a bit worrying when you dust off the crystal ball as no one ever gets it all right! With that in mind, I’ll take a stab at what I think the next revolutions are going to look like in OOH.
Firstly, I think we will see a steady stream of improvement in screen technologies that will eventually drive down price to the point where almost all OOH will technically be some sort of screen, whether LCD/LED/Eink/Projection/Holographic or some technology that doesn’t exist yet today. There will be environmental benefits in making this leap too.
Secondly, I think we will see more and more adverts and content that is specifically created for OOH. The rise of 3D anamorphic content on digital screens is a great example of the power of creative that has been developed specifically for a medium and a location. We know from research that both 3D and dynamic content deliver improved ROI so another no brainer really – all digital OOH ads should be dynamic, 3D and designed for the specific formats and locations.
This is where prediction number three comes in and that’s the rise of AI. Let’s sidestep the existential risk questions (although hit me up on Linkedin if you want to talk about that or anything else related, ever since studying AI as part of my degree in 1996 I have been equal parts obsessed and fascinated about it). Ultimately AI is the route to how we ensure all campaigns are optimised to meet all the diverse KPIs both from a media and creative standpoint, delivering hyper relevance in targeting and messaging, while matching this to the supply in a way that ensures optimum yield for the media owners. Of course, we need to work out the balance and what our role is in the future of planning media with our AI co-pilots and the next five years will see a lot of experimentation in this area.
Finally, I think a lot about the ways in which our planet is changing, not just in terms of climate and everything that accompanies that but also in terms of the way we live, work and move around. Tomorrow’s cities might look like an evolution of today’s, but I would like to think they may also be significantly different. Autonomous vehicles, flying cars, remote working, hyperloop, sub orbital hypersonic flights, mixed use land zoning and many other facets will come together to create landscapes and cities that challenge not only our current models of thinking, but also the current OOH commercial models and infrastructure. This will be equal parts opportunity and challenge and the only thing I am certain of is that the evolutions that have shaped OOH over the last 23 years are more than likely to shape it even more acutely over the next 23 years. I look forward to reporting back then when I shall just be about to retire!
Ben is the Global Head of OOH media for dentsu. In this role Ben leads dentsu’s OOH scaled service and capabilities across the globe.
Ben has worked at dentsu for 23 years in various roles across planning, strategy, innovation and leadership across the UK, Russia, China, Japan, APAC and now leads dentsu’s global OOH effort.
Ben has spent half his career in the Asia Pacific region, most recently in Tokyo at dentsu Inc. where he spent five years helping to establish new OOH solutions such as Liveboard Inc., now Japan’s leading OOH SSP. Ben was also responsible for platforms and partnerships in the Asia Pacific region at this time, accelerating dentsu’s data & automation strategies.
In his current role Ben is bringing together the communities of OOH specialists from within the dentsu network to focus on partnering with brands to build OOH product and services that deliver meaningful progress as a force for growth and good.
Outside of work Ben spends most of his time bringing up his daughters, playing tennis, making music and continuing to study Japanese language.