I have a hammer that belonged to my grandfather.

(Wait… I thought this blog was about outdoor advertising?) It is – don’t worry – I’ll get to that in a minute.

As we start another new year that is certain to be chock full of hype and hyperbole about technology, I thought it would be good to take a minute or two and give much respect to the humble billboard. That all-too-often casually dismissed, always underestimated workhorse of the media world. 

But first, about that hammer…

My grandfather spent most of his life working as a lineman for “Ma Bell”. For you kids in the audience, this was back in the stone age when telephones had to be connected by wires, and the phones themselves were so big and heavy you could probably defend yourself from a bear attack with one if you had to.

a picture of an old telephone

That meant that you had to have wires connecting everything together, and installing, maintaining, and repairing those wires was a full-time job for quite a few people. This was hard physical labor that took place outdoors in all seasons and was not without danger.

At one point, my grandfather touched the wrong wire and was electrocuted so badly that the rubber grip at the end of his hammer partly melted. He spent months in the hospital, miraculously recovered, and eventually returned to work, his hammer by his side.

an old picture of men on a truck
My grandfather, Henry Noll, second from the right leaning on the wheel. Circa 1920-something.

The other day, I was in the basement putting away Christmas lights, and I saw my grandfather’s hammer sitting on the shelf in my tool cabinet, and it got me thinking….

a picture of an old hammer

If I Had a Hammer:

The hammer is probably humanity’s first and most basic tool (just ask those guys from 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is a simple, elegant solution to a simple problem – how to increase the results of hitting something beyond what we can do with our hands. It takes all the force we can generate and concentrates it into a small space to create a major impact (ah… now you see where this is going). It’s good for cracking mammoth bones, grinding grain into flour, or shaping wood or stone into other tools.

a diagram of the force generated by a hammer

It’s also consistent and reliable. The hammer will do its job over and over, again and again, relentlessly. It will keep working regardless of the weather, the working conditions or the Wi-Fi going out. It will never get tired and takes an incredibly long time to wear out. It can even survive being electrocuted. That’s why the hammer has survived for millions of years. It is simple, straightforward and does its job very well.

(Enough about hammers and human history! Get to the point!)

If I Had a Billboard:

Billboards are the most basic tool in the Out of Home toolkit.

Like the hammer, they are a simple, straightforward, elegant solution to advertising’s most basic problem. Put the message in front of the audience and make sure they see it. Day in, day out, until the message sinks in. Billboards do that very well, and because of that, they haven’t changed much over time.

Like the hammer, the billboard packs a lot of force into a (relatively) small space. The billboard is a force multiplier. We’ve talked before about how not all impressions are created equal. It concentrates impressions in both place and time to increase the force of their impact. And it delivers that impact over and over again. It amplifies that force by repetition. It also has a multiplying effect on other media channels. Numerous studies have shown that adding Out of Home media increases the performance of other media channels. Shifting budget in your media mix to OOH will help improve performance with the same amount of money.

Like the hammer, the billboard will never get tired and never stop doing its job. Based on numerous studies, effectiveness for billboard creative peaks around eight weeks and starts to fade around twelve weeks as creative fatigue sets in for the audience. That’s a full quarter of messaging before you even have to think about changing things.

Like the hammer, the billboard is unfazed by weather or seasons. Blistering heat or freezing cold? Doesn’t matter, the billboard keeps doing its job. It is the very epitome of a workhorse – it just keeps going.

a picture of an outdoor advertisement for travel to mexico
(Yes, I know it’s not technically a billboard, but you get the point)

Now, lest you’re thinking of going all reductio ad absurdum on this, admittedly, ham-fisted simile, we’re not suggesting that a billboard is nothing but a blunt instrument capable only of clubbing the audience over the head with your message, far from it. A hammer can be quite precise and even delicate when need be. It is highly targeted and quite versatile – it can drive a ten-penny nail through a two-by-four or it can delicately align the inner workings of a fine watch.

And I’m sure some of you are thinking this is a gross oversimplification, and you’re not entirely wrong. When we look at Out of Home as a whole and consider the wide variety of media, the different ways it can be planned and activated, the different business results it can be used to drive it’s clear that OOH is more like a multi-tool (but we’ll leave that for another post).   Out of Home is a complex, layered, sophisticated, and versatile media channel that, when used properly, can be just as targeted and powerful as any other.

The Media Toolkit of the Future:

As we move into 2024 there will undoubtedly be lots of buzz and hype around digital this, and programmatic that. You won’t be able to go anywhere without seeing another article about AI (heck, I’m sure we’ll talk about it here at some point – it is important). It’s easy to fall prey to “shiny object syndrome”.

But it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes the simplest tools are the most effective. Sometimes, they work just fine the way they are. Their effectiveness may be optimized for incremental improvement, but for the most part, they work because they work. It’s easy to lose sight of this.

Even if we stripped away all the digital capabilities and technological fluff, billboards would still be just as effective. They would continue to put the message in front of the audience at the right time and place, with a major impact that can be repeated over and over.

In a world of laser-guided saws, Bluetooth-enabled tape measures, and smart toolboxes sometimes all you really need is a hammer.