OUTDOOR ADVERTISING PRIMER ALFRESCO

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Get ready to turn the other cheek. "America has lost its dominance in outdoor advertising," says Steve Grounds, creative partner at Grounds Morris Campbell in London. "In the '60s, you could see how good America was, and through the '70s you could see how good the U.K. became. So I think the U.K. took that mantle, and we haven't given it back since."

It's almost enough to make a visitor from Stateside slightly defensive, especially when the 41-year-old copywriter throws in other tidbits about the American inclination to shout at consumers, whereas British ads supposedly engage people with wry, subtle wit. But he and his professional partner, art director Rob Morris, 43, intend no slight. They've written a book called Great Outdoor, recently published by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The oversized if slim volume takes a loving look at over 100 mostly North American billboards, from Burnett's ads for Altoids to Chiat/Day's seemingly timeless work for the Nynex Yellow Pages. Great Outdoor, say its authors, is not merely another coffee table book with superb creative work. (Morris had already gone that route five years ago, when his and Richard Watson's The World's 100 Best Posters was published by Open Eye.) This time, a basic analysis of billboard genres was called for. The book is "primarily for younger creative people who wonder where to start when they get a brief to do a poster campaign," Morris says. (To these Brits, "poster" and "billboard" are synonomous). "By having our book there, they can see there are all these approaches to tackling the problem."

Grounds Morris specializes in outdoor advertising only in that the agency's founders, who started their own shop almost three years ago after individual stints at Saatchi & Saatchi, Collett Dickenson Pearce and a joint creative directorship at Coleman Euro RSCG, have become authorities on the topic. They frequently lecture about the art of the billboard at trade conferences.

"Actually, we're mainly a television team," emphasizes Grounds. But he confesses he often devises a new spot by first trying to come up with a great idea for a poster. "There's no hiding behind snappy executions and through-the-roof production values when you do posters. You have one image and five, maybe seven words. Your creativity is laid bare, because so much hinges on finding that special idea. Almost by definition, if the idea works as a billboard, it is campaignable."

A professed love for TV notwithstanding, Grounds and Morris will do more outdoor advertising if their own predictions are any guide. The outdoor medium is on the brink of a renaissance, they believe. "With digital TV coming along with all these channels, the question becomes, how do you attract and hold the attention of the consumer [with TV spots]?" Morris points out. "With posters, people literally can't turn them off. Also, our cities are becoming more congested. Traffic rates in London were clocked at an average 10.9 mph last year. With people sitting in traffic, some billboards now represent just about the cheapest 30-second commercials any advertiser can hope for."

Grounds believes that as TV audiences become more fractured, budgets for commercials will decrease, and production values will inevitably come down. "There'll hopefully be a proliferation of great cheap commercials, but this is also a great opportunity for outdoor," he says.

The theory sounds good, but there's precious little pudding to provide the proof right now. Travel from Heathrow airport to the center of London, and then around the city for a few days, and you'll find that outstanding billboards are, surprisingly, few and far between. Grounds concedes the point, but applies it to much of British advertising, outdoor or not. "We're coming out of a recession here, and clients are still reluctant to take risks. That's going to change. Gradually, you'll see better ads all around."

What puzzles him and Morris about the current outdoor trend, particularly in the U.S. and France, is the sheer number of posters with a picture of a model and a fashion logo slapped on it. "So you see this person in the photograph, and in a corner it says 'Ralph Lauren.' There's no idea going on. As a consumer and as an advertising man, I want to see something that gives you a feeling and a tone of voice for that product, and something that engages the brain. What is that Ralph Lauren poster saying? That the brand is there, no more. So what if it is? For us, that wouldn't be good enough."

To drive home the point, Morris and Grounds break out the boards for their brand new Lee Cooper jeans outdoor campaign. "Hard to be parted from," reads the headline, and the visuals show, for instance, a pair of Lee Cooper jeans in a taxidermist's display case. The Lee Cooper execs -- the brand is not to be confused with Lee jeans -- liked the idea enough that they've agreed to run the campaign in 37 countries.

Some of the executions will run as magazine spreads, but their creators still prefer to think of the ads as billboards. "One great thing about posters," enthuses Morris, "is that it's literally the biggest thing a creative will ever get involved in." Trust Grounds to provide the punchline. "Even bigger than most

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