There is no denying that we live in the digital age, and the innovations in out of home media exemplifies how the new era affects our relationship with advertising. Digital technology boosts consumer interaction, provides advertisers with increased flexibility and, above all, looks impressive. So it should come as no surprise that everyone is jumping on the digital bandwagon.

“Digital and LED displays are becoming increasingly common within retail and transit environments, and there have been a number of innovative production techniques and interactive displays featured in street furniture campaigns in recent times,” says Helen Willoughby, CEO of the Outdoor Media Association (OMA). “Bluetooth technology has been used recently in Australia with a Nokia campaign on buses, and Australian operators closely monitor global trends in these areas and tailor new technologies for local markets based on advertiser needs.

“One of the benefits of digital technology is that it enables OOH to compete effectively within the ‘new media’ environment. Its use will also depend on regulations. For example, animated and moving images on screens are fine for internal environments, but generally not permissible on roadsides with a few exceptions. However, the rotation of static images is permissible on roadsides in certain conditions in Australia, as it is in the US, which may involve digital technology in the future.”

Digital is the current darling of the advertising world because it encourages consumers to interact with the ad, and therefore the brand, in a manner which would otherwise be impossible. From LED displays on billboards and LCD TV screens at shopping centres, to Bluetooth activated bus shelters and computer games in street furniture, the variety of digital options available is mind blowing.

One is the roll-out of a new paper, ‘electroluminescence’ (ELP), which uses light to alter the creative displayed in an ad. This new technology has been used across all formats, most effectively in the recent ‘Coke side of life’ campaign. For example, Adshel used ELP to feature angels presenting diet cokes during the day, who appeared to don tuxedos in the evening thanks to different parts of the paper lighting up. JCDecaux has created campaigns using digital screens, such as the one for the Telstra Next G video phone, which allowed audiences to view Foxtel channels from an ad panel or, in conjunction with the recent Australian Open, a computer game entitled ‘Roddick vs Pong’, which pedestrians could access from a Citylight panel. Numerous examples of Bluetooth-enabled street furniture and transit out of home advertising have been seen in the last two years, permitting users to opt in to receive information about a brand or campaign – a relationship building activity most marketers would kill for.

Anthony Xydis, marketing director at Adshel, is excited by an upcoming opportunity the company is taking on involving a network of LCD screens at Sydney Airport.

“We are looking at launching an LCD digital media network at Sydney International Airport, which will happen in the first half of this year. Digital media is often more powerful in indoor environments where there is an opportunity for a captured audience and we are really excited about this launch.”

Most of the major players in the OOH arena have some kind of digital division and, while this department may currently be relatively small, they are busy preparing for the digital revolution.

“JCDecaux Digital is only now beginning to make some inroads, but still remains a very small part of the entire sector,” says Ed Harrison, general manager of JCDecaux Australia. “In the UK market [digital] accounts for only three percent of total OOH spend, with optimistic projections of it becoming 20 percent within the next seven years. The key is reaching the ‘tipping point’ where the considerable capital investment required is justified by the revenue opportunities.”

David Lister, general manager – International at the Ultimate Media Group, believes that digital technology in the OOH category is a natural progression. “Motion has attention-grabbing qualities and using digital technology will reduce campaign copy changing costs and times, as well as immediately introduce new creative opportunities.”

But, above all, digital technology promises flexibility. “It gives marketers flexibility in being able to change messages almost instantly, which also allows for more topical creative being applied to the medium,” says Alastair Fysh, the general manager for Sales and Marketing at Network. “It will definitely enhance capability of the medium, and give buyers of the medium another dimension.”

Anthony Deeble, managing director at Outpost Media, believes that digital OOH in shopping centres is one of the most potent advertising messages you can buy, as the environment as well as the digital medium itself attracts greater awareness levels compared with static media.

“You can truly interact and engage with your target market at the purchase point with messages that are relevant on the day,” he says. “Only digital OOH can achieve that.”

Mike Tyquin, CEO Australia and New Zealand at Eye, believes that, on the whole, the progression into digital has been beneficial for the OOH sector.

“When it’s well done, digital improves cut-through and message delivery and offers flexibility in terms of content delivery and scheduling. Having said that, there have been some fairly spectacular failures in the digital OOH arena, which have not helped the reputation of digital formats generally. Some of the things that are happening in Asia in particular are just crazy with huge investment in vast digital screen networks that just aren’t generating decent revenue streams because the media propositions are so poor.”

And it is here that Tyquin has hit upon the flaw of the relentless rise of digital technology. Simply because an out of home campaign now has moving images, bright lights and in some cases sound, it doesn’t mean the campaign will be a success. It all comes down to the creative and, of course, the positioning.

“Not unlike traditional OOH, whether a digital OOH format is good or bad really depends on the execution – that is the quality of message delivery and audience engagement,” Tyquin continues. “High definition images delivered in an appropriate time and place, which engage the audience, are usually a winning combination. Whether those images should be delivered on a paper poster or an LCD panel or some other form of display is the challenge for the individual OOH operator to resolve.”

JCDecaux’s Ed Harrison agrees.

“In many environments paper posters provide a much clearer image than is currently achievable with a digital screen,” says Harrison.

Outpost Media’s Anthony Deeble has been working with digital out of home for a while and, although he believes it can carry a very effective message, he warns that advertisers must ensure that content remains up-to-date. “Content needs to be regularly refreshed to facilitate consumer engagement,” he explains.

Other potential drawbacks relating to the technology include the fact that, currently, advertising via a digital medium requires heavy capital investment, although this is likely to change in the future. Also, as a medium, digital out of home solutions are still a relatively unknown quantity; however, this also works in the format’s favour: the unknown allows unlimited scope and advertisers need not be constrained by what has been done before.

But, as advertisers and consumers are drawn further and further into the digital age, will the classic billboards and posters that we know and love become obsolete? Undeniably, digital will continue to take a percentage of dollars away from traditional OOH formats, but figures from the UK and US illustrate that digital will in fact grow OOH share of total ad spend.

Helen Willoughby is sure that the digital era does not threaten traditional OOH formats, but will merely enrich them. “Digital, as with other new technologies, enhances the OOH industry as it increases product offerings and marketing opportunities. But it doesn’t alter the traditional formats; it merely uses them in a different way.”

Ed Harrison agrees. “Digital will only ever make OOH an even better medium; far from being a threat, it is a fantastic opportunity for all players. This said, ‘paper’ posters are going to be with us for a very long time to come!”

Mike Tyquin also does not consider digital as threatening to established OOH suppliers. “Our investment in and success with digital to date indicates that digital formats can attract new advertisers if they are well-executed and add value over that provided by traditional formats. At the same time it should be remembered that traditional formats dominate in terms of number of displays in the market and where the revenue falls and will continue to do so for a long time yet.

The most likely future for out of home is one where both formats will coexist, as each medium will be suited to certain campaigns, advertisers and creative. The brands themselves will dictate the terms of the relationship. Even more innovative, more interactive technological advances are on the horizon, however. Already there are reports that the majority of new mobile phones available in the US have the capability to download information from outdoor advertisements as consumers pass by. Eye’s Mike Tyquin believes that this is the direction OOH in which is headed.

“As OOH continues to explore digital and wireless opportunities a synergy between online, SMS and OOH media will emerge. Given the mobile nature of interactive technology and the ability of OOH to draw an immediate response from consumers, the two will increasingly complement one another.”

Adshel’s Anthony Xydis also believes that mobile and OOH advertisers need to work together to ensure success in the future.

“OOH is in a unique position now as we must align our objectives and our strategic direction with the challenges that are being presented by new media. Whereas five or six years ago some of the key issues facing the industry were more about levels of professionalism, and there was a lot of consolidation in the industry. Now we are really trying to align our strategy direction with new media and how we fit into that.”

Xydis’ interpretation of the state of the industry is very apt, and his vision of how digital will evolve in the out of home category is valuable to both OOH suppliers and media buyers alike. The introduction of digital technology has been pivotal in out of home’s recent period of growth and, if all goes to plan, will be pivotal in the industry’s continued development well into the future.

“I think digital media is still in its infancy in terms of development and adoption by advertisers,” says Xydis. “But the adoption of advertisers is growing and it’s growing rapidly, so we have to keep pace with that.”