The Herculean task of making people lift their heads up

Gabriel Schmitt, co-chief creative officer, FCB New York
Gabriel Schmitt, co-chief creative officer, FCB New York

Thoughts on the state of out-of-home advertising from the 2023 OBIE Jury Chair.

Creating a billboard that was simple yet compelling enough to grab the attention of people obsessed with their own devices (no judgement at all) was already one of the great advertising challenges of our time. 

Then came the pandemic. 

For two-ish years, we were all masked up, walking as fast as we could to the closest drugstore or market, rarely stopping to engage with other people, much less the outdoor advertising around us. And if we did, we saw mostly information regarding the pandemic or endless varieties of campaigns proclaiming “We’re in this together.” 

When people began to leave their houses again, there was a sense of cautious optimism and a general looking-up. This created an opportunity for out of home ads to once again be more than informational or supportive; they could try and awaken other dusty emotions. The rub? Because life had been so very complicated, they had to keep it simple to be heard. 

OOH has always been the art of trimming excess – and coming off the pandemic meant having to be more thoughtful than ever about creating ads that were not only simple, but profoundly simple. If the No. 1 rule in billboards used to be “convey your message in 7 words or less,” it’s now more like “create something that’s understandable in a nano-second and impossible to ignore.” 

Whether or not we prefer the new rule, it does open the door to some exciting new creative interpretations and risks. 

The challenge is being neither so simple you blend into the background (the world is a pretty spectacular place when you look around – it’s easy to get lost), nor so disruptive that you become annoying.

So, do you go “traditional” and trust a handful of words and a static idea to break through? Or do you create an attention-grabbing spectacle that makes people stop in their tracks, lower their phones and have a memorable experience with the brand? 

I think that the answer is both. 

As jury chair at the 2023 OAAA OBIE Awards, I am super excited to see the work that’s resonating in this unique era. Of late, I’ve seen brilliant “traditional” OOH, like British Airways’ new Business/Leisure campaign. But I also saw Adidas defy norms with a swimmable billboard for women in Dubai. Both are effective, both stop people in their tracks and both take their own creative risks within simplicity. 

So, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. And I strongly urge you to check out the OBIEs. The amazing jury they have put together and I are excited to see the countless ways that our industry took risks this past year – beyond the basics of trying to create something that makes people look up and feel something. 

The future of outdoor advertising depends on people taking those risks, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help them get recognized.

Gabriel Schmitt is co-chief creative officer of FCB New York.

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