Commentary

Digital Outsider: Ryan Laul, Hyperspace

When Aegis Group's Posterscope division, the largest out-of-home media services network in the world, began seeing an explosion of new, digital media offerings, it saw an opportunity for rapid growth. Enter Hyperspace. No, not the warp speed reference used in science-fiction, but the name of a new Madison Avenue shop devoted to emerging out-of-home media opportunities. The strategy paid off. The unit, still small in scale relative to the big traditional outdoor media billings of Posterscope, has tripled in size in the past 12 months, and has create a unique presence in the market as a full-service media shop devoted to emerging digital out-of-home media platforms and campaigns. In September 2006, just prior to its public launch, Aegis tapped out-of-home wunderkind Ryan Laul to serve as managing director of Hyperspace in the U.S.

Digital Outsider: All puns intended, explain how and why you entered Hyperspace?

Ryan Laul of hyperspaceRyan Laul: A few years back, we began seeing companies like Lamar, Clear Channel and others rolling out digital billboards, and a lot of outdoor operators were beginning to make a big push into digital technology. Then we starting seeing all these new networks launching and realized this was a piece of the pie that nobody was really focusing on. Television departments couldn't really handle it, and it didn't fit into regular outdoor buying groups, so we almost came up with it by default.

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At the time, I was working on a special project for TV Guide to help them launch their new magazine format. We worked with [Premiere Retail Networks] to help them launch in some grocery stores, and then we started diving a little deeper into place-based networks. We were lucky, because we also had Motorola as an account, and they were interested in exploring new media technologies. So we began investigating Bluetooth applications and we also began experimenting with some digital substrate technologies. Our clients wanted to try these new things, so we decided to create a special projects group. Then we realized this really was an emerging new media category that was forming, and we decided to build a new group around it.

 We launched Hyperspace internally in 2006, and began taking it on the road in 2007. The timing was great. We were a little bit ahead of the curve, and that has given us a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Yes, there's not a lot of [digital out-of-home] business being done right now, but it is growing fast, and we believe that it will begin to accelerate as the market begins to saturate with digital displays.

Billboards used to be painted on wood panels not too long ago. Now we have digital display technologies. We're not going to go back to painting on wood panels. We are going to move forward into the next generation of technology. Things like holographics and motion detection technologies. And we figured we would be doing our clients an injustice if we didn't get out in front of these developments.

DO: Tell us more about some of the new technologies you are beginning to experiment with.

Laul: We're looking at motion-activated projection and motion sensor displays in which consumers can actually interact with an out-of-home campaign. We're certainly doing some of that. But we're also working on interactive campaigns that utilize text messaging and things we can apply now. We're looking at other new technologies that we can bring to clients who want to be the first to try something new and be a trend setter.

DO: What's the wackiest new technology you've come across recently?

Laul: That's hard to say. Right now it's almost like, and I hate to say it because it's a cliché, but it's almost like 'Minority Report' stuff. Those technologies are already here. Interactive, motion-sensitive projection and display technologies. They are here, and they are relatively easy to deploy. The real issue is cost. But as the cost of the technology comes down, and as we get better at using them, you will begin to see them applied. It's really amazing, because you literally don't need a wall. You can project signage on a roadside without a bulletin board. You don't need a physical structure, you can just project an image. I mean, just look at the overhead shots from the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing. Each shot was covered with LEDs and overhead illumination. Buildings are now building elements in for LED images and projections. It's just lighting and display, but it will bring us the ability to project and display images almost anywhere. Right now, we're limited by cost. This is high-tech stuff that costs an exorbitant amount of money, but as the costs come down, and as people get better at managing the technology and understanding how to marry an image to it, you will see more of it deployed. It may come down to the point where you can have a digital storescape. We've already begun doing things for MTV and also for iShares. Basically, you take over a vacant storefront and you can put a projector in it, or LEDs, or monitors. It depends on the storefront, but you have to think of it as a blank canvas and how you can use it.

hyperspace logoDO: A lot of agencies are exploring digital out-of-home technologies. What differentiates Hyperspace from the others?

Laul: As far as I know Hyperspace is the first digital out-of-home specialist agency in the U.S. We have probably an 18-month head start on other people. We've been learning about the technology, but we also have an 18-month head start in terms of booking business, which is not something other people can say. We also have proprietary research that supports what we are doing. It shows that digital signage, in almost every case, is more attracting to the eye, and more engaging than other formats. There's a ton of great data that supports what we are evangelizing. There are a lot of different formats out there, and it's still a new space, but we believe our clients can take advantage of that. Our whole mantra is client education. We wanted to make sure clients are not intimidated by new technology or the rapid pace with which digital displays are reaching the market. We've taken the time and done the due diligence to understand the technology, and I'm on the road all the time talking to our clients directly. Unlike [WPP's] Kinetic, or Omnicom's OMG, we don't have the advantage of being connected to creative agencies that can drop a big concept in our laps, so we've had to become aggressive at pitching and developing ideas and a new way of thinking about out-of-home media. And we've become the experts on what formats work best in different locations. You don't want to run a 60-second spot on a mall kiosk where people are walking by and spend maybe six or eight seconds looking at it. But in another environment, like a health club, you can do long-form formats because the experience and the dwell time are completely different.

DO: Describe a typical day in the life of Ryan Laul.

Laul A typical day for me involves a lot of interaction with all the Posterscope offices -- in the U.S. and around the world -- where we are managing campaigns that are running for out clients. A lot of what I do involves bringing new ideas and new technology to our clients and getting them excited about future campaigns. And new business, of course -- pitching and winning new clients and showing them what separates Hyperspace from other agencies.

We're in an extremely niche environment right now, but it's growing fast. It's becoming more of a global strategy, too, and that requires interacting with my counterparts in the rest of the world. The myth is that the U.S. is one gigantic market. The reality is that it's actually many markets doing different things with digital display, and my job is to work with Posterscope worldwide to make sure we marry all of our disciplines and create a more unified media service.

DO: How would you characterize the state of the out-of-home video industry right now? Is it mature like traditional TV? Is it the Wild West like online and mobile video? Or is it somewhere in between?

Laul: I think we've come much further, much quicker than other new media. I think we've made giant steps over the past year, and a large part of that is credited to [the Out-of-Home Video Advertising Bureau]. I sit on their agency advisory board, and it is really taking off. The last meeting I went to had about 40 people attending it. That's about twice as many as were at their meetings in the beginning. They're making great strides in digital out-of-home measurement and in reining in all the vendors and helping to make the marketplace more manageable from our point-of-view. In the beginning, it was almost intimidating for a client to take a look at this space, because there were so many networks, and every one of them was being measured and evaluated differently. OVAB is helping to standardize ways of looking at these networks, and that is very exciting.

Consumers are also becoming a lot more comfortable with it. I wouldn't say it's the biggest year for advertising in terms of the growth in billings, but we're still pushing forward and growing in size. And in a way, the slowdown might be a blessing in disguise, because it is allowing us to catch our breath and digest the sudden growth of the industry.

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