MagnaGlobal, a media researcher, predicts that worldwide spending on out-of-home advertising will expand by 8.3% in 2011 to about $26.4 billion, faster growth than that seen for other non-internet forms of advertising (see chart). Spending on digital billboards and posters is expected to double in the next five years, to $5.2 billion. William Eccleshare, who runs the international operations of Clear Channel, an American firm which is one of the largest out-of-home ad companies, thinks that in some countries more than 90% of its business will be digital by the decade’s end.
His arch-rival, Jean-Charles Decaux, the boss of France’s JCDecaux, agrees that there will be a significant switch to digital, but mainly inside airports, railway stations, shopping malls and other controlled environments. Ads in bus shelters and other outdoor spots at risk of vandalism will take a lot longer to move away from paper, Mr Decaux thinks. Digital displays already account for about one-quarter of his company’s sales in transport hubs, but for less than 5% in street furniture and billboards.
Mr Eccleshare dismisses such provocative talk, noting that Mr Decaux has repeatedly talked of big acquisitions in America—where it is a weak number four in the market—without anything happening. He acknowledges that there will be consolidation in the highly fragmented industry, though he expects it to take place within, rather than across, national borders. For instance, China has 60,000 out-of-home advertising firms, many of them microbusinesses with one or two signs, and is clearly ripe for rationalisation.The pace of the switch to digital is but the least of several areas of disagreement between the two men. JCDecaux boasted in February that it had overtaken Clear Channel to become the world’s largest out-of-home ad company, with revenues of €2.4 billion ($3.2 billion) last year. “It is rare that a European media company is bigger than an American one,” says Mr Decaux. Because his group is less indebted than the others, Mr Decaux says it could consider buying the American operations of CBS Outdoor, the world number three, or indeed those of Clear Channel itself, if the opportunity arose.
Advertisers constantly talk about wanting to “engage” with consumers, so they are taking great interest in the potential for interactivity that digital technology will bring. JCDecaux, for example, is offering a free iPhone application called U snap: when a consumer sees a poster (paper or digital) for something that attracts his interest and takes a photo of it on his phone, the app recognises it, gives him product information and discount vouchers and directs him to the nearest retailer.Clear Channel is so optimistic about digital posters because it believes they offer enormous potential for making advertisements more effective. Advertisers can tailor their pitch to the time of day: McDonald’s can advertise its sausage and egg McMuffin at breakfast time, change to its regular Big Mac fare at lunch and follow that with ads for apple pie and ice cream during teatime. They can also react to events as they happen: when Spain won the football World Cup last year, digital billboards in Madrid, sponsored by Nike, showed the result within seconds.
Such Big Brotherish software would no doubt detect a satisfied grin on the faces of out-of-home advertising bosses as they contemplate the next 18 months, in which a string of big events will boost their business: the Rugby World Cup, the American presidential election, the Euro 2012 football championship and the London Olympics. Wherever you go—the street, the subway, the airport or the bus station—there will be no escape from ads linked to these events, and the out-of-home advertising firms will be raking it in.Then there is “gladvertising” and “sadvertising”, a rather sinister-sounding idea in which billboards with embedded cameras, linked to face-tracking software, detect the mood of each consumer who passes by, and change the advertising on display to suit it. The technology matches movements of the eyes and mouth to six expression patterns corresponding to happiness, anger, sadness, fear, surprise and disgust. An unhappy-looking person might be rewarded with ads for a sun-drenched beach or a luscious chocolate bar while those wearing an anxious frown might be reassured (some might say exploited) with an ad for insurance.