What’s Next for Outsmart?

Turbulent Times at Outsmart Raise a Number of Questions for the UK Out-of-Home Media Sector

Turbulent Times at Outsmart Raise a Number of Questions for the UK Out-of-Home Media Sector

By Charlie Hugill, CHMedia Associates Ltd.

UNITED KINGDOM — It has taken just over 18 months for the UK out-of-home industry’s trade body to go from its previous, albeit modest, incarnation as the Outdoor Media Centre (OMC), to re-brand as Outsmart—involving an extensive strategic review of the sector and considerable investment in additional staff and overhead—only to come almost full circle back to its original reduced size and shape.

The sequence of events that led to this has been bookended by JCDecaux’s decision to leave the OMC at the beginning of 2015, and the recent news that they have joined the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) in July 2016. It remains to be seen if a stripped-down version of Outsmart will attract JCDecaux back into the fold. Stranger things have happened, and while not necessarily causal, JCDecaux’s part in this has not been without impact.

From the outside observer’s point of view, for a trade body to not include the largest player in its own market is fundamentally at odds with the concept of industry-wide unity. JCDecaux continues to participate in ROUTE as a “media owner guarantor” and also in initiatives around Outdoor Standards within the UK, but these are more inward facing than outward.

The announcement at the beginning of August, that Outsmart will no longer operate as a marketing organization, and will instead operate as a out-of-home trade association, is the latest in a series of occurrences few observers would have predicted, even this time last year.

It is likely that the increased funding for an expensive entity such as Outsmart will have been a key consideration for some of its members, especially those with their own capable marketing teams or those with private equity and VC backers. Whatever the reasons for the current state of affairs, a bright and unforgiving light is being shone on the UK’s seemingly fractious out-of-home industry.

Despite these inherent uncertainties, the UK’s out-of-home sector is in good shape and performing. Its revenue performance in the year to date is tracking well versus 2015. According to Nielsen, 54% of 2015’s total billings were achieved by the end of July 2016, with the all-important 4th quarter still to come. Indications are that in 2016 OOH should see overall growth of between 3% and 4%, according to data from Warc.

Internationally, the UK is seen as one of the world’s pioneering out-of-home markets. As for innovation and development, where the UK leads, others often follow. However, a post-Brexit-esque “Keep calm and carry on” approach may not be sufficient in view of current circumstances. There are several fundamental questions to be addressed.

What will be the future role of Outsmart “Version 2.0”?

In today’s state of limbo it’s much too early to say. At the time of writing, the Outsmart website has yet to be updated with anything other than campaign news, and still shows a full team of 10 staff. We will have to wait until the Board & Council Members meet to discuss—and with any luck agree—to the next steps in October.

Are outdoor media owners up to the task of marketing their own sector?

There is a wealth of really good marketing work being done by a respectable number of outdoor media owners, right across the spectrum. So, the talent to market the sector undoubtedly exists. The best of this output is positioned in such a way as to create a halo effect for the industry as a whole. Naturally, much of the effort is concentrated on each individual company’s activities, however, in order to market UK out-of-home in its entirety, a holistic approach will be needed.

What should the out-of-home media buying community be doing?

Given that the advertiser/agency/media owner relationship is a symbiotic one, now is a good time for all stakeholders to adopt a stance that encourages promotion of the whole industry and displays a united front, delivering a positive message.

Does the “OOH specialist agency” have an ambassadorial role for the sector?

As the principal channel via which budgets are allocated, through which the majority of business is written, and to which commissions are paid, it falls to the OOH specialist not only to carry on advocating for out-of-home in all its forms, but to be seen to be advocating OOH in all its forms. OOH specialist agencies are ambassadors for the sector and should behave as such, collectively and individually.  Furthermore, if they have specific demands or expectations to make of Outsmart’s members, none of whom are buyers of the medium, perhaps the time has come for the funding model to include a contribution from OOH specialists too.

Does the IPA have a contribution to make?

The IPA Outdoor Group is well-placed to take on the collective ambassadorial role for the sector as a whole within the advertiser and agency community. The Group’s members have the necessary gravitas and longevity to be taken seriously by the wider marketplace. It is to be hoped that discussions currently underway with Outsmart are fruitful and that achievable aims are agreed by all those concerned.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the way the out-of-home sector markets itself overseas and internationally?

There are numerous examples of out-of-home trade bodies operating in other countries, many of which were based on the model created by the original Outdoor Advertising Association in the UK. The USA, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, The Philippines & Nigeria, all have active OOH trade bodies. Significantly, in each case membership of these organizations includes all major vendors, which  Outsmart cannot currently claim, since JCDecaux’s departure.

Out of many comparable organizations with direct relevance to the UK’s out-of-home sector, FEPE International presents an admirable example of a practical solution. FEPE  operates as an association of companies involved in outdoor advertising in countries all over the world. After some persuasion, JCDecaux and Exterion finally became members in 2012, underpinning the truly representative nature of FEPE’s role. FEPE’s inclusive approach welcomes all those who are engaged within the out-of-home sector, large and small, and whatever the nature of their involvement. Media owners, suppliers, agencies are all eligible and subscriptions are reasonable. Those involved in deciding the road ahead for Outsmart could do well to take a leaf out of FEPE’s book.

Is it time to establish a Digital OOH industry body, as distinct from the current generic approach?

This topic has raised its head on a few occasions in recent years and the industry remains undecided. The last time the debate came up was well before any hint of a downsized Outsmart and news of JCDecaux joining the IAB. Whatever appetite there may have been then for a separate Digital OOH industry body in the UK, seems to have dissipated, at least for the time being. In reality, the prospect of replicating what has happened in the USA, where the Digital Place Based Advertising Association (DPAA) was founded 10 years ago and now has more than 60 members, seems remote.

Rick Robinson, in his recent piece for this publication, echoed Chaucer Barnes’s opinion that the “boxes we have used for the past few years to describe vertical expertise: “digital”, “traditional” and the like, are as obsolete as the rigid lines we used to describe channels: “digital”, “social”, “DOOH”, “linear”, “experiential”.” This applies to the UK as well. To spend any time on creating a separate DOOH body, at this critical moment, would be an entirely unnecessary distraction.

Looking ahead, there is a generally-held view amongst industry insiders that the UK out-of-home sector should not lose sight of the less “exciting” but still essential aspects of the work undertaken by the erstwhile Outdoor Media Centre. These include lobbying local and central government, monitoring planning legislation, environmental issues, health and safety, and media expenditure analysis, amongst others.

Ideally, these should be combined with a continuation of the good marketing and research work already initiated by Outsmart, but done in such a way as is affordable and appropriate. To take a look at how the membership is structured, with a view to widening it to include the major buying points, is a popular suggestion too.

Only time will tell if the nirvana of a consensus-driven UK out-of-home industry body is to be achieved—but there is now a genuine window of opportunity to do so. We all hope it is not beyond the capabilities of those individuals who are steering the industry, to step up to the plate and prove themselves equal to the challenge.


Charlie Hugill has worked continuously in the Out-of-Home sector for over 30 years, as both a media owner, and as a planner/buyer of international OOH campaigns. Since 2012, he has run his own independent consultancy, CHMedia Associates Ltd., operating as a resource for media owners and advertisers requiring subject matter expertise in what continues to be a diverse and varied segment of the international media landscape.

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1 Comment

  1. Mark Webb September 1, 2016 Reply

    Really interesting article, Charlie, on an interesting subject for UK OOH. OOH is OOH and whether it is in a digital or classic format seems a distraction to me. Both are going to be around for some time to come although the pace of digitisation will probably accelerate, I think that classic formats will simply take on a different job / role in the mix. I also believe that any industry body needs to be fully inclusive to add value. Fingers crossed on that one !

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