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Q&A: Digital transformation in the out of home advertising industry

(Image credit: Ditty_about_summer)

1. The billboard industry hasn’t traditionally been at the forefront of technology in advertising but we hear that this has changed – what’s new?

It’s in my job title: digital transformation! The Out of Home (OOH) advertising sector has undergone a huge technology-driven transformation in recent years which has unlocked new and exciting ways for brands to connect with consumers.  The most obvious change has been the growth of digital out of home (DOOH) - connected digital billboards and panels which are replacing posters and paste.  By way of comparison, an advertiser can buy 100,000 different ad slots on a single digital panel across the same two-week period that one single poster would appear on a traditional billboard. This has given them greater flexibility and creativity and has transformed the way they view our sector. Consumers can now therefore, expect to see more targeted, contextually-relevant and timely adverts when they are out and about.

Behind the scenes, technology is also enabling greater automation of our processes.  For instance, we are helping simplify the way our media is planned and purchased through programmatic buying technologies, similar to those already used in online media. We were the first in our sector in Europe to take our own programmatic solution to market which is something we’re incredibly proud of.

2. So, what are the biggest opportunities that technology brings to the OOH industry?

 Technology has revolutionised the oldest advertising medium into one of the most innovative and creative. Not only does it allow advertisers to reach mass audiences at a time when most other media is fragmenting, they can also dynamically change their ads in real-time to respond to the world around them. An example of this was the Budweiser World Cup campaign which had the potential to display over 1000 different pieces of copy based on who was playing, what happened in the game and the final result. In a recent Cunard Cruises campaign, we showed social influencer content in near real time on our screens and combined this with full motion video content courtesy of drone footage being collected straight from the cruise.

Brands are excited about this increased flexibility and creativity offered by DOOH, which is driving growth - last year alone, over 50 per cent of our revenues in several markets including the UK, came from our digital panels, up from 2 per cent less than 10 years ago. That’s why we’re continuing to invest heavily in expanding our digital networks: it’s what our customer want.

3. How does your role help the organisation to capitalise on this opportunity?

I joined Clear Channel International in the newly created role of Chief Digital Transformation Officer, to help the business build the capabilities needed to be at the forefront of this technological transformation.  I truly believe that change starts from within. For example, I work closely with our HR team to ensure we have the right skills needed to best leverage the technology, and also understand how this transformation is impacting the company’s culture. I also try to encourage a start-up mindset across the business, encouraging teams to be more experimental. To be a technology-driven company, you need to think like a technology company.

4. What challenges does the industry face in “transforming digitally”?

Transforming digitally doesn’t just mean upgrading all our billboards to digital screens. To be successful, we also need to make sure we have the right people with the specialist skills needed to use the technology in the most effective way. This means we’re increasingly hiring new talent from outside our industry, like coders, which can sometimes be a challenge. Culturally, however, we’ve seen a real positive impact in broadening our skill sets across the business.  Since hiring a few tech natives, for example, we’ve adopted some of their innovative ways of working, such as working in agile ‘sprints’ to deliver small incremental pieces of work. This means we now waste less time, make fewer mistakes and constantly evaluate the quality of the work we produce.

5. Smart cities are fast becoming a reality, is there a role for OOH in the connected city of the future?

Absolutely.  It’s not just advertisers who are looking for innovative ways to engage with their target audiences, cities too are wanting new channels through which to reach their citizens as well as providing solutions to make their day that little bit better. 

Cities are using our screens to deliver targeted messages to audiences in very specific locations and at the times of their choice.  Some are even using their interactive capabilities to tap into today’s e-democracy, by inviting citizens to share their views or cast their vote on a particular topic – such as in France, where 8,000 digital screens were used to gather opinions on the COP21 debates around climate change.  With more than 14,000 digital screens around the world, we can deliver messages to thousands of people in a matter of seconds, making OOH a vital communications channel in times of crises.  Our billboards were used to deliver emergency news and information to support Mexico City residents in the aftermath of 2017’s devastating earthquake, and in the UK and Netherlands for instance, our screens are used to broadcast missing children alerts. 

But OOH’s role goes beyond digital screens. We are enabling greater civic engagement through our advertiser-funded smart city solutions – from providing Wi-Fi hotspots to aid connectivity; interactive wayfinding maps and live bus timetable information to improve mobility; to sustainable transport solutions such as the public-sharing Smartbike schemes we pioneered some 20 years ago and today, electric charging stations.

With two thirds of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, we believe there is an increasingly important and varied role for OOH to support smart cities, and it’s incredibly motivating to be part of creating the future. 

6. Which new technologies do you think will be significant for the OOH industry (e.g. Blockchain, AI)?

I see the opportunities to use technology to further develop and enhance OOH advertising as almost limitless

In terms of emerging technologies, as the virtual and augmented reality solutions currently being developed for the gaming industry (by start-ups like Magic Leap) get adapted for use without specialist headsets, the boundaries between the real and virtual world will start to blur. This has the potential to add a whole new level of engagement and interaction to our campaigns. Blockchain is another emerging technology that has enormous potential to help us bring a level of transparency, trust and accountability to our industry that we are passionate about delivering to our customers.

Finally, I feel we have great opportunity to play a role in helping shape a range of new technology solutions, such as Internet of Things (IoT), Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and 5G mobile networks, into workable commercial solutions to address future cities challenges. This will make OOH even more relevant in a world of driverless cars and the sharing economy. 

Richard Cross, Chief Digital Transformation Officer, Clear Channel International
Image Credit: Ditty_about_summer

Richard Cross is the Chief Digital Transformation Officer at Clear Channel International.