OOH is back, but not as you know it

How does a medium recover from a historic crisis?

The Covid crisis will be studied by economists, sociologists and of course epidemiologists for years afterwards. Our own industry will be no different. The longer the crisis lasted, the more we realised that its effects would be profound and lasting.

Many have suggested that in terms of technology usage and development, Covid has had the effect of further accelerating the evolution of brand-to-consumer and business-to-business interactions and relationships. Innovations and trends that were happening are happening faster now or are coming to a head.

What is true for retail and the travel sector, to name two, is also true for media. But the impact of Covid is more complex than accelerated innovation alone.

Recent market data revealed what we all guessed - that the advertising industry had undergone a seismic shock in quarter two. A historic cliff edge in brand spend, the likes of which we’ve never seen and hopefully will never see again. According to AA/Warc figures, out of home saw a 70% fall in investment in Q2 (Nielsen put it at 85%) and was second only to Cinema (100%).

Our Kinetic Journeys data showed that at the height of the lockdown in April total audience impacts were 10% of pre-lockdown levels though some audiences remained particularly resistant to the storm passing overhead, for example supermarket and point of sale.

Ironically, OOH played a pivotal role in managing the crisis and uniting the country around the NHS, key-workers and community messages. It provided a platform for smart, empathetic communications to reach audiences at a time when fear and uncertainty were very real in our daily lives.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to dismiss what happened over the last two months as a short-term blip. The AA/Warc figures predict that OOH will be one of the fastest areas of media to recover as we ease out of full lockdown, but OOH advertising has been profoundly changed by the experience in a range of different ways.

The medium has been compelled to fast forwarded itself five years into the future, using the quiet period as a summer of innovation, bringing to fruition the benefits of the huge investment in digitisation that happened over the last decade.

In some ways this emphasises the established strengths of the medium but is also recasting OOH as a significantly different one.

The continued uncertainty about audience behaviour, working patterns, transport usage, local and regional lockdown means brands need flexibility and the certainty of audience data-driven campaigns that can flex and respond.

Covid is facilitating a rapid shift from the legacy panel system trading to audience-based automated trading and deconstructing rigid campaign contracts. For example, the current move from 90-day to less than 30-day cancellation terms is highly likely to be a long term feature.

Covid is also in effect redefining OOH as a responsive, post code-addressable medium able to localise campaigns fast at scale. The huge investment in digitisation and automation pre-crisis means OOH is well placed to deliver reactive, contextual and geographically tailored campaigns that can respond to Covid hotspots and behavioural events.

Brands are thinking about OOH not just as a national brand-builder but as a localised performance driver.

Not everyone has the luxury of working at home. But for many people, Covid has meant no more rush hour. As lockdown eases the UK is following the rest of Europe to near normal impact levels, but people are no longer where they were or necessarily following the same routines.

More road usage, less public transport, hybrid working patterns, less city centre and more focus on suburban and small-town targeting, could amount to a wholesale reimagining of OOH campaign planning. It will mean the sector will double-down on digital screen technology and real-time travel data usage enabling urban OOH to respond to short and long-term change to travel and lifestyle behaviour.

The downtime Covid created, has given agencies and media owners space to think. The result has been a tangible acceleration in systems development and integration of OOH with other media.

There are more subtle, but potentially just as important changes. OOH campaigns during the crisis highlighted how OOH enables brands to play a public service role – something that will be needed for months to come and may become ingrained in brand thinking.

Covid also highlighted the need for trustworthy, factually correct information. Brands are re-evaluating how media money is spent and what it funds. In this context being editorial-free, often carbon neutral and a net contributor to urban environments and cash-strapped local services places OOH in a strong position as a medium for good.

Covid has acted not as a form of creative destruction for OOH, but as the push that is taking it far faster towards its transformational goals and at the same time redefining its cultural, as well as commercial, role.

Alistair MacCallum is chief executive at Kinetic Worldwide

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