Commentary

Will TfL Finally Put The Digital In Digital Outdoor?

Outdoor has always talked a great digital game, but to me, it's not always delivered. I was lucky enough to be taken to an exhibition in which London Underground showed what was likely to appear on its outdoor sites over the next few years. That must have been a decade ago, now, and the projectors working across tube platforms have been spotted here and there but ask yourself this -- where's the digital in any of those digital screens you pass on the escalators? Are they not just posters that can be automatically replaced? One static image replacing another?

The reason is more one of investment than appetite among advertisers, I would imagine. However, as Exterion Media (formerly CBS Outdoor) is reaffirmed to the TfL outdoor contract for the tube, overground rail and DLR, one can have cause for optimism this will change. Incumbents don't usually signal major change, you may be forgiven for thinking, but in this case Exterion just might. The deal between itself and TfL is effectively a renegotiation around a revenue share rather than a fixed fee for access to the outdoor locations. The key here is that Exterion is believed to have lost money on the deal during and after the global financial crash as revenues declined, but the monthly cheque still had to be written. By working together on a revenue share, each side is saying they believe they can invest in the future with shared risk, rather than Exterion taking on all the unknowns.

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While this is happening JCDecaux is rolling out a thousand digital screens across key bus shelters in the capital's plushest areas, typically near shopping centres. It now makes perfect commons sense for Exterion to do the same on the underground, overground and DLR. The transportation outdoor scene is a hotly competitive industry where neither of these two rivals will want to be seen lagging behind.

So with the bus shelters going digital and the rail stations having already partly been digitised, but with much room for improvement, one can only imagine that neither will want to be seen as the laggard. The difference is that the revenue share with TfL can only make investment make better sense.

So, you may be thinking you already see digital screens on the escalators at some key, high-volume stations, particularly those near shopping areas or theatres in Zone 1. That's true, but let's go back to our original question. Have these just made it simpler to change posters? Have they simply give the billboard guy less work to do as they change from on ad to the next every few seconds?

My point is, they don't actually do anything digital. There is obviously far more scope for targeting travelers by time of day and the seasons, combined with what's going on in the neighbouring area. But where it strikes me there is huge room for digital improvement is data. Not so much on customers but rather the advertiser.

Is there any point, for example, putting up a poster for a sold-out show or for a laptop for which the nearest store has no stock availability? Wouldn't that space be far better utilised for shows you can sell tickets for or an alternative model which you do have in stock? Those clothes you're advertising. It might pay to look at the changing demographic using the same tube station throughout the day. 

Even for long-term products or services where the offer will remain the same, what about some interaction with the screen? That static ad for the latest commuter page-turner, what about some live comments from readers? Has the author been interviewed, has he or she got anything new to say about the book, any news on it becoming a movie? I don't know the details, but what I can tell you is that I'm always astounded about the effort to get digital screens put in place and then treat them as the holders of static images which simply replace one another on a loop.

Put it this way. I was in a high-end car dealership the other day and the cars, which were typically coming in at north of forty or fifty thousand pounds, had iPads next to them. I rushed over excitedly only to find that in most cases they simply showed a static page of price details. No explanation of what extras the car had on them or what could be added. No configurator to see what it would like like in a different colour with different alloys and certainly no video of it being let loose on the public roads. The tech is there. It just hasn't been rolled out yet.

I can't help but feel this is exactly what is happening with digital outdoor -- and hope that this new revenue share between TfL and Exterion Media will usher in an era of greater digital innovation. 

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