This town, is coming like a ghost town; can OOH survive Covid-19?
With the world confined to the indoors and the streets desolate, what chance does out of home advertising have? Creative director and OOH podcaster Hugh Todd examines the medium’s current challenges– and recent victories – in the time of coronavirus.
The haunting chorus from Ghost Town by The Specials is wailing round my head like a coronavirus ear-worm.
I’m catastrophising about all manner of things; the future of humanity, whether I’ll ever find fresh yeast, and how the outdoor industry is coping with very real ghost towns all over our isolation nation.
What does Covid-19 mean for OOH, a media that relies on people being, well, out of their homes?
Having spent the past three months talking about the brilliance of out of home with my pod-partner Dan Dawson on our podcast, Behind the Billboard, the OOH world is very much front of our minds. What does Covid-19 mean for OOH, a media that relies on people being, well, out of their homes, when the government is actively telling them to stay indoors?
Above: One of the billboards from MullenLowe London's Stay Home campaign.
Is it all bad news? Will there be ghostly, blank billboards for months to come? Or will we soon have brands back on those billboards, waving to the nation from bus sides (stuck in traffic again) and getting us to buy stuff?
More than ever, amazing creative work will elevate media space and bad work will fade into the background.
Dan, who’s day job is CCO at award-winning digital OOH production specialists Grand Visual, gives us a bit of insight: “With OOH going through its toughest quarter in living memory and global communities being asked to stay at home and away from public spaces, it feels there will be an even greater need for creativity.
There’s likely to be very high occupancy in the latter stages of the year on all OOH formats, traditional, digital and ambient. More than ever, amazing creative work will elevate media space and bad work will fade into the background. I expect to see more contextually relevant, mindset-sympathetic and consumer-centric copy than we’ve ever seen before… as well as advertisers being pushed onto formats that they don’t normally frequent.”
Brands that behave thoughtfully or entertain in a witty way during this crisis have an opportunity to stand out.
New formats are always an opportunity, just so long as you’re saying the right thing. Rosie Arnold, Co-Founder of Love/Fear agency, and creator of some of the most iconic billboard campaigns of the past 30 years, urges caution. “People not going out makes advertising feel slightly irrelevant, and spending money on advertising feel wasteful. It is tricky to create new work [but] brands that behave thoughtfully or entertain in a witty way during this crisis have an opportunity to stand out. I love the Tesco food love stories, it feels spot on. Also, the topical Guinness sofa ad and Netflix spoiler posters.”
Above: One of the speculative Netflix's 'spoiler' posters from a pair of creative students in Asia, and an unofficial Guinness ad created for One Minute Briefs.
The artist Mark Titchner’s billboard, ‘Please believe these days shall pass’ [below], is most apposite for 2020, even though it was created back in 2013. It sits nicely alongside other outdoor messages from the masses, stuff marketeers normally call UGC, but really it’s just hopeful humans being the caring emotive beings they are; clapping on Thursday nights for the NHS, drawing rainbows and putting them in windows.
It makes you think there’s something beautiful about our ability to find silver linings even in very dark times.
And, across the water, our European counterparts are singing from their balconies to one another. It makes you think there’s something beautiful about our ability to find silver linings even in very dark times.
Above: Mark Titchner’s billboard.
Tim Riley, Creative Partner at AMV, and writer of iconic posters for The Economist, John Smiths and Nike, strikes a positive note: “From what I can tell so far, outdoor still seems to be having an impact. Like everyone else, I haven’t been outside much for the last few weeks. I certainly haven’t been to Piccadilly Circus, and yet, along with millions of others, I’ve seen the Queen on her giant screen because I’ve seen it in social and in the papers.
From what I can tell so far, outdoor still seems to be having an impact.
I’ve also seen Mother’s AdShel praising key workers in that nod to Dave Trott’s classic Pepsi end line, because people have tweeted them. And I’ve also seen that nice campaign telling you to stay at home because I saw them on Instagram.”
Above: Three of Mother London's 'Grateful Britain' posters; the Queen's message to the nation; and MullenLowe's Stay Home campaign encouraging people to stay indoors.
A small round of applause then for social. We don’t need to actually be outdoors to appreciate outdoor work. Much like the people helping other people, we have platforms helping other platforms. Social and OOH are natural bedfellows. Of course, it’s not all great. Some brands thought a clever ‘distancing’ of their logos would do… what exactly? A self-congratulatory ad-wank that helps nobody. As Trevor Beattie neatly observed, “Not now advertising”. In times of pandemic it seems brands, too, need to be ultra-hygienic, with punters watching their every move (from the confines of their home).
Of course, it’s not all great. Some brands thought a clever ‘distancing’ of their logos would do… what exactly?
This marshalling of the landscape is echoed on LinkedIn where brands are being called out for empty messages as opposed to helpful and hopeful work. Actions over ads are rightly lauded, with BrewDog, LMVH leading the way. Please God, let’s hope in six months there isn't a rash of award case studies with the obligatory piano music and opening title ‘We were asked to do a poster…’ Yuk.
Above: Some unhelpful social distancing posters, and BrewDog and LVMH's more considered, and useful, approach of manufacturing hand gel for medical workers.
The standout piece of work though has to be the serendipitous flipping of the NHS logo by St Luke’s, with SHN standing for #StayHomeNow. It’s doing what all the government comms is doing, but in a big, ballsy, classic billboard way. It’s clever, simple, subversive. It has impact and cut-through. It’s iconic and it’s massively PR-able. In fact, it’s all the things all great posters should be.
I’ve always had a proactive nature and fortunately saw the answer lay in the NHS logo itself.
Richard Denney, ECD at St Luke’s and the man behind the SHN idea (which is now also a t-shirt, badge, press ad and even on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square) will be a worthy first guest in series two of Behind the Billboard, when we’re back up and running. “I’ve always had a proactive nature and fortunately saw the answer lay in the NHS logo itself,” says Denney. “I messaged Al Young [St Luke’s ECD] who helped with the ‘Don’t send our NHS backwards’ message, and by Sunday afternoon our SHN call to action was well and truly away.
Global Media took it on, giving it more eyeballs across their portfolio of radio station’s social channels and also donated the most incredible outdoor media space.
“The incredible part was seeing it take on a life of its own with tons of people across the nation owning the message themselves. Global Media took it on, giving it more eyeballs across their portfolio of radio station’s social channels and also donated the most incredible outdoor media space. ClearChannel UK also donated some amazing space too, sharing our rainbow OOH posters and, within a week, it had become iconic, with people on early morning runs or on their way home from work posting on social media.”
There is a beauty and power in posters that other platforms cannot offer.
Rosie Arnold thinks outdoor will always outdo other platforms, no matter what the climate. “There is a beauty and power in posters that other platforms cannot offer,” she says. “The simplicity of messaging and the fact you cannot turn them off has long meant it is the media for changing opinions, often political, [and] it seems the perfect media to provide information and change behaviour.” AMV’s Riley concurs: “OOH is still a brilliant medium. If you use it well [and] if you create something with impact, it will get talked about, it will get shared, and it will have a life and a ROI way beyond its original budget. It was ever thus. Even more so in the time of coronavirus.”
Above: St Luke's reversed NHS logo which has been ever-present during the UK's coronavirus crisis.
It seems, even under the cloud of Covid-19, outdoor still has the power to not only cut through culture, but to reach into our lives without us even leaving the front door. Will that front door be opening any time soon, though? With the curve flattening ever so slightly there are glimmers of hope. But will things have changed out there?
Billboards are a wonderful opportunity to celebrate.
“I think brands have to recognise what we have all been going through,” says Arnold, “and billboards are a wonderful opportunity to celebrate. Maybe there’s a campaign that tries to encourage some of this thoughtful behaviour - brands could come together and all produce rainbow images. Imagine that, coming out of isolation to see beautiful rainbows everywhere! I hope none of us ‘go back to normal’. This is a lesson for humanity; respect nature, cherish your loved ones, look at our values. This means brands, too.”
For now, we live in hope, indoors, saving lives.