7 Words or Less: 30 Years in Out of Home

As EMC Outdoor celebrates 30 years in business, it occurs to me that our journey mirrors the trajectory of the “Outdoor Advertising” industry and Big Tech.  Some of the notables as I take a walk down memory lane bring back fond memories of how much change has occurred to bring our medium to the forefront of a rapidly changing ecosystem. 

The 1990’s

When EMC was launched in 1991 the Outdoor business was mostly bulletins and posters, some shelters and bus signs; non-traditional, dare I say radical media, were Mobile Billboards.  Even the term Out of Home (OOH) was not used frequently to denote our industry, and it was usually an afterthought, representing 2% of media budgets on average.  Maps were still put together by hand – with semicircular dots on paper.

The accepted system of measuring impressions was still Daily Effective Circulation (DEC), a number derived by taking the number of cars that passed a billboard and multiplying by 1.7.  Most plans were made for a minimum 3 – 6 months and were put together well in advance.  When it came to producing artwork, hard copy proofs were standard, waiting days or even weeks for them.  Presentations, proposals, and contracts were all still done on paper, mostly delivered by mail, fax, and occasionally email – if you were lucky enough to be using a server that could handle those huge 5-megabyte files.

As EMC (founded as “Electronic Marketing Corporation”) was getting started we conducted traditional and event marketing campaigns using OOH media for branding awareness and to support B2B strategies at trade shows. We were a proud partner of Fujifilm USA as they became the official partner of Walmart’s photo services country wide (that was back when we used cameras and film).  The nascent telecom industry was gathering annually in Geneva to herald the industry’s technological innovations and we worked with companies such as Qualcomm, Sun Microsystems and Cisco to amplify their products and services at this worldwide event.

The 2000’s:

The new century was launched under the ominous shadow of Y2K and fraught with the potential catastrophic failure of computer clocks being reset to 1900, affecting many mission-critical synchronized functions. But once we got over that (and over our new century celebrations) things took a turn for the better.  

The new decade began a period of growth and expansion for Out of Home media in terms of recognizing its powerful role in a marketing plan, redefining what Out of Home was, and adding significantly to the media types available. The OAAA, already a strong industry advocate, ramped up its efforts educating politicians, agencies and members to its benefits and role as a core media buy.  New media offerings started popping up all over the place, expanding city and regional footprints with a broad spectrum of options for brands to consider as part of a multi-touch consumer journey.  Out of Home blossomed, adding dozens, if not hundreds of other media formats along the way – from vehicle wraps to projection media, from gas station toppers to dry cleaning bags. 

Meanwhile the rapid advance of technology was also enabling major changes. Software developments allowed big advancements in how Out of Home media was evaluated, presented, and considered – spreadsheets, powerpoints, pdf’s and digital mapping tools all changed the look and feel of the planning and buying process, and importantly, the speed with which it could be shared. The need for speed turned a sleeping industry into an agile competitor for more ad spend with an integrated marketing strategy, tapping into creative canvases and delivery where we live, work and play.

During this time EMC is continuing to buildout our B2B marketing strategies, while also expanding into national brand awareness campaigns and transforming its early event programs by producing more experiential, customized mobile tours and street team activations.  Nationwide Insurance launched a new corporate tagline “Life comes at you Fast” in 2004 with a high-profile projection on HQ Columbus, wrapped buses and airport advertising.  Comdex was the equivalent B2B Tech annual event like CES is today and Nortel dominated the show in 2003 with a key question appropriate for its time:  What do you want the Internet to be? In both cases, these brands took a risk with a sizeable OOH spend that leveraged the creative power of the medium to a mass audience, in multiple markets or gathered in one place for a week.   

The 2010’s:

This decade can be summed up in one word for the Out of Home industry; that word is “digital”. The 2010’s see a huge surge in the availability of Digital OOH media (DOOH).  What starts off as a few hundred digital billboards in major markets rapidly expands to other markets and other media formats. Initially there were concerns about traffic safety, shared advertising space and measurement.  Overcoming these issues by demonstrating the flexible and creative elements of DOOH, advertisers have come to appreciate and demand the digital formats.  The ability to speed to market was leveraged by brands and authorities, in the case of the FBI most wanted, bridge collapse in Minneapolis, amber alerts and more early on.  The digital screens also offered the public a way to engage with outdoor screens and conversely the digital screens became capable of detecting mobile user behavior. 

The other digital revolution came about not because of the media itself, but because of smartphones. New audience behavioral profiles could be modeled in the real world, introducing a new level of information for planning Out of Home campaigns. Demographics greatly expanded as a result of the behavioral data; media plans became more highly targeted.   Geopath, on behalf of the OOH industry, revamped its measurement methodology to incorporate the physical, demographic and mobile data in weekly impressions, providing OOH rationale to garner a larger proportion of the ad budget based on its ROI.

EMC campaigns during the roaring ‘10s were a reflection of the digital revolution.  We sped to market a campaign in just 4 days from RFP to launch using digital media for Zendesk; we worked with emerging brands like Chobani in 2011 that wanted to engage consumer love with twitter handles prominently featured on their copy, novel at the time.  We crafted pop up activations at the Superbowl for Sprint, in SoCal for Bud Light Lime launch, in multiple markets with a Mt. Rushmore fabrication for Visit South Dakota and more, driving 1:1 consumer engagement with the brands.  Rapid advancements in the field of medicine, biotech and devices were launched at major meetings and companies such as Merck, Stryker and Gilead Science used OOH as an integral part of their communication strategy.

The Future:

The profusion of digital screens has allowed for another industry paradigm shift: the rise of Programmatic OOH (pDOOH). While we are still on the leading edge of this change, it’s clear that it will reshape the industry in fundamental ways. New attribution methods – again made possible by smartphones – will allow Out of Home’s effectiveness and ROI to be measured in ways that we couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago. This evidence will lead to OOH finally taking its place as a full partner in strategic media plans, rather than an afterthought.

Social media campaigns continue to thrive with Out of Home providing a backdrop for the message, amplifying the message with image or tagline.  The issues surrounding privacy, with GDPR & cookie regulations, will fundamentally change planning capabilities.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) will profoundly change engagement between brands and consumers.  And Covid has shaped marketing strategies from the big, worldwide campaigns to more localized, granular and cost-effective campaigns…at least for now.

The best is yet to come.  At EMC, we eagerly anticipate what lies ahead and are challenged by our partners to leverage the medium for the best outcomes, with deep reach and response.  We are a collaborative team eager to drive creativity, innovation, and strategic think with each media plan.  We will use all tools, strategies, and media at our disposal to continue to elevate our medium to its highest value in the relentless pursuit to effectively reach audiences at scale with strategic, data driven and measurable campaigns. 

Join us on our journey ahead!

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Betsy McLarney
Betsy's passion is to drive the success of collaboration, for the mutual benefit of all. 1 + 1 can equal 3 when all parties contribute towards a bigger goal. Betsy enjoys good food, good company and a good sense of humor!

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