Commentary

Thinking Outside The Box

Here's a trick question: What's the biggest and one of the fastest-growing digital video advertising platforms? If you guessed online video, you were wrong. If you guessed "enhanced," or interactive TV, you're also wrong. If you guessed video games, or even mobile video, you were also out of the money. But if you were astute enough to look at the name of this new MediaPost publication, the Digital Outsider, you most likely guessed correctly. Yeah, it's out-of-home.

It's not surprising that outdoor doesn't come top of mind when people think about dynamic digital media, but the truth is digital technologies arguably are having more of a profound effect on the way people consume media outside the home or office, than on conventional "inside" media like TV, Internet-connected PCs, etc. For one thing, such technologies are making outdoor a video medium, giving it the same power of sight, sound and motion that television has monopolized for so many years. In fact, the major television networks are embracing vertical out-of-home networks as a major part of their expansion into a 360-degree, multiplatform world. And they are simply following the consumer.

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The truth is, people are far more mobile and transitory than they've ever been before. It's a trend that is making Madison Avenue look anew at not just out-of-home video, but all outdoor media. And it is a trend that is expected to ignite outdoor's share of total ad spend from a tepid 5% or 6% to potentially double that in only a few years. A big part of that is coming from digital technologies, and the ability of media companies and advertisers to reach consumers with contextual advertising messages in some of the most relevant places: places where they shop. Places where they relax, entertain and imbibe. Places where they mingle.

The shift is part of a profound cultural change that began happening well before the explosion of digital media technologies, and has more to do with the evolution of travel, lifestyle and workstyle patterns. This was first brought to my attention a couple of years ago by WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell. Speaking at UBS' annual media conference in New York about why WPP had reorganized its sprawling outdoor and "retail" media services businesses into a new centralized giant dubbed Kinetic, Sorrell cited trend data showing that the amount of time the average person spends out-of-home and away from work had grown from about 8% in the 1960s to about 18% currently.

Best of all, while digital technology is challenging the underlying model of most inside media, enabling consumers to evade all but the most engaging and/or intrusive advertising messages, it is creating some incredibly captivating advertising experiences out-of-home. Places where consumers historically were stuck and had little or no content available to them - on a treadmill at a health club, in a high-rise elevator, stuck in traffic, or yes, even in public rest rooms - have blossomed into a seemingly endless array of new video advertising opportunities.

The burgeoning out-of-home video industry has even coined a term to describe these captive media intervals: "dwell time." Dwell on that one for a moment, if you will. As I've already said, big media companies and big advertising companies already have. While WPP has formed Kinetic, Aegis Group has Postercope, and Omnicom has OMG. Publicis hasn't had the need to centralize its activities, but its Starcom unit already is among the Big 4 buyers, and I'd expect to see that centralization come sometime soon.

The media, meanwhile, have been reorganizing themselves around out-of-home video like crazy. Gannett acquired Captivate Network a few years ago, just when it looked like the market was getting ready to explode. NBC has Everywhere, a unit that is taking video, well, everywhere - from airplanes to taxi cabs. CBS, meanwhile, has jumped in feet first, acquiring Signstorey, one of the biggest and best-distributed of the in-store video advertising outfits, which it immediately re-branded the CBS Outernet.

I love that name, and if CBS CMO George Schweitzer hadn't already coined it, I would have used it to name this new publication, because it just about says it all. While the worlds from Madison Avenue to Wall Street seem obsessed with the digital media implications of the Internet, Schweitzer, and his CBS Outnernet colleague Virginia Cargill, have reminded us that it's also taking place offline, and out-of-home. The only obstacle facing the nascent medium is how to define its boundaries. Depending on your perspective, digital out-of-home media can be looked at as:

Television
Outdoor
Online
Point-of-Purchase
Mobile
Cinema
Experiential

The truth is, the medium has elements of all of those media, making the challenges for the industry's new trade association - the Out-of-Home Video Advertising Bureau (OVAB) - considerable. And it's not simply a matter of defining what the medium is, but how it should be measured, evaluated, marketed, sold and posted. OVAB has already gotten off to a good running start, but the ground will continue to shift as technologies, platforms and organizations continue to change. During MediaPost's recent Digital Out-of-Home Conference in New York, I asked a panel of experts what was the most interesting new out-of-home platform they'd run across. The responses included everything from a company that creates clouds in the form of advertising to video blimps encircling major metropolitan areas.

Every see the science-fiction classic "Bladerunner"? We're starting to live that future now. Or what about the adaptation of another Philip K. Dick work, "Minority Report"? We are actually beginning to reach the point where people don't just interact with out-of-home media, but it begins to interact with them.

The same privacy issues that are plaguing the Internet are destined to emerge in the outernet, as marketers and agencies seek to leverage personal relevance with contextual advertising placement. It's not all bad, of course. Some of it is fun, even delightful. If you have any doubt that people will like interacting with public video screens take a moment and check out some of the work Dale Herigstad, chief creative office of WPP's Schematic unit, has been doing for companies like Accenture. Dale, who was the consultant who helped "Minority Report" director Steven Spielberg come up with the "gestural" interface that Tom Cruise's character used in the film, is now creating giant, touch-panel screens in highly trafficked public areas -- where people are surprised, then engaged, when they realize they can touch and interact with the screen's content.

Digital out-of-home media is doing much, much more - creating mini-ambient environments around all the senses - touch, sight, sound, and even smell.

It's those innovations that are driving one of the most dynamic media marketplaces I've witnessed in nearly 30 years of covering this business. More dynamic, I would argue, than even the Internet.

It's already bigger than online video, according to the first emerging media report produced by Brian Wieser, director of industry analysis at Interpublic's Magna Global unit. Wieser pegs the medium at about $1.7 billion, and says it's growing at a rate (25%) that rivals online search. By comparison, he puts the much discussed medium of online video at less than half of that ($560 million), and the much trumpeted enhanced TV advertising medium at a mere $178 million. I can't wait to see Brian's revised figures when he releases the next edition of his emerging media report as part of Interpublic's semi-annual advertising outlooks next month.

If you ask me, Brian's growth projections may actually be conservative. Emerging media gurus ranging from Profitable Channels Steve Diorio to PQ Media's Patrick Quinn believe the market is growing faster than that, and there may already be upwards of a thousand vertical out-of-home networks already in the marketplace. Sound like the Internet? In fact, one of the most interesting new digital out-of-home media players for me is SeeSaw Networks, a company that is aggregating some of that long- and mid-tail marketplace to make it easier for advertisers and agencies to buy. Among the most intriguing parts of SeeSaw's business are the tools it is creating to enable buyers to do that. They're all online, with the kind of inventory management and user-targeting features that you'd expect from Google. Why Google hasn't moved into this space already is beyond me, but I'd expect to report on that announcement and day now.

So I hope you'll sample the early editions of the Digital Outsider and that you'll decide to subscribe. The writers will change from week to week. So will the content - ranging from trends, marketplace analysis, profiles, interviews, and how-to type material. One thing that will remain consistent, is its focus: It will always be outside the box.

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