Reimagining OOH to engage post-lockdown Britain

This piece first appeared on Mediatel.

As restrictions lift and the UK starts to open, brands now face the challenge of engaging a post-lockdown Britain. Consumer behaviour has undoubtedly changed, with local communities growing in importance and areas outside of the traditional media hubs coming to the forefront.

As an out-of-home media owner that was created with the mission to help bring truly national audiences to advertisers, we are well versed in understanding the importance of where audiences are. The pandemic has thrown a huge challenge for the industry into the centre of the ring: the need for media planning and buying to reflect the huge changes in consumer behaviour and audiences.

As audiences for roadside OOH are largely returning, it is a powerful medium for brands to re-connect with consumers; the challenge for everyone involved is to create, plan and buy campaigns that work in the “new normal” world that is emerging.

On our panel at the recent Future of OOH digital event, we put this challenge to leaders from the worlds of creative, media planning and local business.

James Murphy, co-founder of New Commercial Arts, said that trends already in play have become even more marked, hurried along by lockdown.

Quoting William Morris – “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” – Murphy talked about the growth in premium on the creative itself, as consumers move faster than ever between their worlds of work, family and leisure time. Time is even more precious and the need for both useful information and inspiring content is even greater.

In this intense battle for consumer attention, Natalie Bell, MD of MG OMD, talked about planning having never been more interesting, and going ‘back to basics’. She said her teams have had to return to the simplicity (or not!) of understanding audiences, using the more sophisticated tools now available.

Revealing that OOH is her favourite medium, Bell agreed with a point made by Murphy that OOH is rallying and strengthening on two fronts – national brand building, and digital & dynamic opportunities. She also emphasised the importance of location for OOH, with the context of the medium really making the difference for brands.

Given the importance of place, we were also joined by Louisa Harrison-Walker, interim director of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce. She echoed Bell’s thoughts around going back to basics, explaining how she’s seen more collaboration during the crisis in the city’s business community than ever before.

I am always impressed by the brilliant work and new opportunities that come out of times of crisis; on a personal level, I do believe that this is a chance for us all to choose how to behave and build our businesses in the future.

For Sheffield, the fourth biggest city in the UK and with a hugely diverse range of entrepreneurs and businesses, it’s about further diversifying the business and creative base, and using media such as OOH to stimulate recovery.

The role OOH played in the depths of lockdown has been well documented – it was often the medium of choice for messages of support for the NHS and keyworkers, was utilised by sporting teams to rally communities and acted as a canvas for brands who had the courage to keep connected and use OOH to make consumers laugh.

Murphy talked about the power of OOH to be truly public; whilst other channels might be moving to increased audience targeting (valuable of course in its own way), there’s no other medium that can help you shape a national and public conversation quite like OOH.

He added that it’s no mistake that it’s been central to government communication throughout this period; when a brand finds itself at a political moment, be that as a reaction to society or a change of strategy, OOH can paint your message in a big, confident and charismatic way.

Bell’s colleagues at MG OMD’s specialist unit OmniGov have been working with the government on its campaigns; she credits the flexibility and dynamic nature of digital out-of-home as part of the reason the medium has been so high on the planning list.

From allowing targeted messaging across the UK when restrictions were being lifted at different paces, to ensuring the new Enjoy Summer Safely campaign was used thoughtfully as local lockdowns varied, the combination of fame and digital capability has worked very effectively.

This combination of strengths is being used by Bell’s wider client set as well; she referenced Specsavers as a brand using DOOH to advertise live appointment availability to drive footfall whilst managing flow and capacity.

So how do these approaches sit alongside the big changes in where people are living and working? COVID-19 has of course brought about a huge shift and whilst some pre-lockdown behaviour is returning, we are also seeing changes in the way people structure their working and personal lives.

One of our founding principles at Alight is serving truly national audiences, ensuring we are developing and investing in media assets for those who have traditionally been under-served. This reimagining of media outside of the traditional hubs such as London, Manchester and Birmingham brings under-championed areas such as South Yorkshire to the forefront.

Having completed the build of state-of-the-art classic 6 sheet panels across the region, with digital to follow, we are keen to talk to brands about the value of audiences in this region and the important part they play in national campaigns.

It’s clearly a challenge to re-focus OOH planning to match the new audience behaviour, and Bell guides us to follow the data. We’re lucky in this industry to have a number of outstanding data offerings from the specialist OOH agencies, allowing planners and clients to do exactly that: use fresh data to structure smart media plans that reflect ongoing behavioural changes.

When it comes to creativity, Murphy called for brands to be sensitive, reflecting the varying mood across the country. We have to be prepared to face this ‘patchwork’ situation for some time as individuals and communities react to the ups and downs differently.

We all have experiences that demonstrate this both personally and in business – some weeks are better than others at the moment, and it’s important to keep a level head, as well as confidence in what we do: the fundamental strengths of our medium remain.

As an industry we need to work differently to give advertisers confidence in OOH – for example, we are dynamically pricing through actual audience data. This flexibility, combined with new attitudes to audiences and planning, shows a fresh approach to the medium.

As Murphy said, no media can challenge OOH when it comes to building presence and charisma; as society rebuilds confidence for business and appetite for consumption, there is no better medium than OOH for brands to re-establish connections with consumers and build back right.

Matthew Dearden is CEO at Alight Media

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