by carly_mchugh | 10 June 2022 3:13 pm
By Sylvio Deluca
It is hard to imagine it was 23 years ago that the very first outdoor digital board went up in Canada.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The year was 1999 and a little-known manufacturing company called Tribar, who was specializing in speed radar guns of all things, put up a massive digital board on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Here is the fascinating part—while this board was obviously intended to generate advertiser activity, its primary purpose was to serve as a video screen for sports venue owners across the U.S. and Canada. Sports arena bigwigs were flown into Toronto and taken on a very casual drive along the Gardiner Expressway. This is where this “bright, shiny new technological marvel” would capture their eye and attention. The same as it is doing with audiences today.
What is also remarkable is none of the early pioneers in the outdoor digital category exist today. The likes of Hi There Media, Lightvision, Wild on Media, OBN, Media Alternatives and, of course, Tribar, have all been either acquired or sold their assets to current media owners.
The formative years of outdoor digital faced some challenges. All of the media owners had minimal placements, coverage was limited to Toronto, southwestern Ontario, and Vancouver, and the boards were all different sizes.
There were also different interpretations on what to call this new ad space. Was it video? Was it a TV? Was it outdoor broadcast? A few, such as Hi There Media and Media Alternatives, had some success in coming up with a generic branding name for this new category like Roadside TV or TV Boards. During the early 2000’s this worked, as TV was the king of the advertising world. Not much different than today, where digital is king, and outdoor digital is playing the same ‘name game.’
Like anything new, outdoor digital faced several questions by ad buyers and early scrutiny by government authorities. Buyers wanted to know if they could run a TV spot with audio (maybe they took that TV branding too seriously) or if they could only run on hot weather days, or if they could buy the whole ad loop and run a 60-second long form ad.
However, the biggest question of all: do digital boards distract drivers and cause road accidents? After that first Gardiner Expressway board went up, there was uproar from the media, politicians, and members of anti-out-of-home (OOH) groups. How could local governments allow these massive, bright, full-motion boards on roadways? Surely, these boards would distract drivers and cause countless accidents and deaths. The early outdoor digital pioneers persevered and argued fact over conjecture. One year after the first Gardiner Expressway board went up, an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) study reported a decrease in accidents on the Gardiner, year-over-year, not an increase. There was the proof. These boards did not cause car accidents or deaths. Over the years, this fact has been substantiated with countless studies and articles. However, it has not stopped groups from raising this very same concern in cities and towns putting up their very first digital boards, even today.
While competing against a sea of static billboards, the early outdoor digital sellers emphasized three things: These digital boards stood out and grabbed your attention, they were cool because they were different, and they all ran full-motion ad messages. Was that not the point of putting up a digital board so a spot could run with some motion like TV? This was, perhaps, best illustrated by Volkswagen’s new lime green Beetle car relaunch in the 2000s. A spinning and dynamic coloured vehicle that was just perfect for full-motion digital boards. However, full- motion was not for everyone.
Changing the game
In 2009, the trajectory of outdoor digital was forever changed. Astral Media announced the launch of 10 superboard digitals, all measuring 4.2 m x14.6 m (14 ft. x 48 ft.). This announcement was followed shortly thereafter by the launch of additional superboard digitals, all the same size, in Toronto and Vancouver. So, what we had was the first major OOH company to enter the outdoor digital realm. More importantly, they established the model that is still in play today. All their digital boards were (a) uniform in size, (b) the same dimensions as static OOH billboard formats that ad buyers were used to, (c) based on a standardized ad spot and loop, and (d) scheduled to run static spots (no full-motion) which would not require any conversion of creative from OOH billboards to digital ones.
Astral’s model of uniformity and standardization, along with coverage in Canada’s three major cities, proved successful. They kept it simple, made it easy for ad buyers to move their dollars to outdoor digital, and legitimized the category as the first major OOH company entrant. Shortly thereafter, the other major OOH companies followed. However, the clock was ticking for the early pioneers who did not have the financial resources and standardization to compete.
It’s important to highlight how things have changed on the manufacturing side as well. What made the early versions of outdoor digital boards attractive, was that they were less bulky, the colour and image output was crisper, they did not require the cumbersome cooling mechanisms used in indoor sports venue models, and they could operate in Canada’s wide-ranging seasonal temperatures. Words like nits, lumens, and pixel pitch have now become common language in the outdoor industry. Technology has also really accelerated in the last decade. Outdoor digital suppliers now offer boards with higher picture definition, front and rear servicing, longer warranties, self-monitoring cameras, software that raises alerts for any issues, among many other features. Prices have also come down considerably from the formative years, and there are a lot more exciting enhancements to come.
A shift in the outdoor digital space
The next monumental shift in outdoor digital occurred in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted OOH like no other media. Ad spend was estimated to be down by up to 40 per cent, indoor ad spaces remained mostly dormant due to closures and work-from-home policies, downtown city cores were eerily quiet, and ad buyers needed flexibility to adjust their campaigns based on ever-changing government rules. Static OOH billboards were not ideal for that, but outdoor digital certainly was. This was the perfect storm for a tool borrowed from the online digital world to take hold and provide fuel for outdoor digital’s growth. Yes, we’re talking about programmatic. While programmatic platforms existed prior to 2020, the pandemic changed its adoption by ad buyers and media owners, which resulted in a significant increase in revenue. It gave buyers the flexibility they needed along with the added benefits of audience targeting, dynamic scheduling, and easy access to outdoor digital inventory across all markets and OOH companies.
At the same time, OOH companies, along with the Canadian Out-of-Home Marketing and Measurement Bureau (COMMB), the industry’s measurement body, placed an increased emphasis on data. The industry has been making significant strides in this area and getting away from generic and non-descriptive traffic numbers by location to providing audience demographics, store lift, mobile re-targeting, and attribution models. Later this year, COMMB will unveil a new data set for its members, including detailed audience profiles by location, enhanced traffic measurement, average vehicular speeds, home origin DA, and more. Having standardized outdoor digital data and audience tools, for both ad buyers and sellers, will prove to be a game changer. Programmatic and data are two of the fundamental reasons why outdoor digital is projected as one of the leading media growth categories worldwide for 2022 and beyond.
In the last decade, there have been three major OOH transactions related to outdoor digital. The first was Bell Media’s acquisition of Astral in 2012. The second was in 2017 with Bell Media (Astral) acquiring Cieslok Media. The third was also in 2017 with Outfront Media acquiring Dynamic Media. As with any industry, as competitors become acquired, new ones arise. Through the last few years, key players like VENDO Media have risen, along with several independent regional and local operators. If we learned anything through the pandemic, it was that local or community-based OOH advertising is more important than ever, especially as audiences move away from big cities. It is the very reason that companies like VENDO are building out a Canada-wide model with expansive coverage in primary and secondary markets. They’re adopting the early Astral strategy of “if you build it, they will come.”
So, what happened to those digital board sites from the early years? Well, here is the interesting part—almost all of them are still around today, but with different owners. They are bigger, brighter, and shinier. They are also now all standardized in size. Everything old is new again, just like the OOH industry. One of the oldest advertising formats is hot again, and its rise is all because of digital.
Sylvio Deluca is COO of VENDO Media and formerly vice-president of sales at Media Alternatives.
Source URL: https://www.signmedia.ca/outdoor-digital-boards-welcome-evolution/
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