Celebrating the Renaissance of Out-of-Home Advertising

Editor's Letter From the Art of Outdoor Special Report

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"Labour isn't working." A simple tagline that encapsulates the power of outdoor. At least it does if you're a Briton of my age or older, because for us the billboard that carried that message changed our lives.

The image that accompanied that now famous tagline was a snaking line of supposedly jobless individuals. The poster was the brainchild of the Saatchi brothers, or at least so it's usually claimed. The client: Britain's Conservative Party, which back in 1978 was trying to unseat the Labour Government.

Art of the Outdoor
Art of the Outdoor
Actually the image didn't depict jobless individuals. It was composed of 20 volunteers from a London borough branch of the Young Conservatives, who were photographed over and over again (such was the world before Photoshop) to create the impression that there were hundreds of them and to make the point that almost 3 million people were unemployed and that the problem would get worse under the Labour Party.

The ad's designer, Martyn Walsh, has since claimed, in an interview with the BBC, that Charles Saatchi and the Conservative politicians who were evaluating the hurriedly put together campaign, actually didn't particularly like this execution, preferring efforts that focused on the troubled health service. But the ad went up, and unfortunately for the Labour party, one of its leading lights decided to denounce it as dishonest given that the people in it were, essentially, hired hands -- and not unemployed at all.

That politician's public rebuke, of course, created a media firestorm in which the poster was endlessly debated on TV, on the radio and in print. The poster framed the debate and caught the popular imagination, and politicians on both sides cited the billboard as a critical factor in enabling the Conservatives to topple Labour, ushering in 11 years of government by Margaret Thatcher.

It was a polarizing 11 years, years in which the individual was elevated in importance over society, free market economics became the governing philosophy for most everything, trade unions were weakened or even demolished, national assets were privatized and unemployment rose. Whether you agreed or disagreed with the policies, this was a time when you knew who was in charge and you felt it every day.

Maybe it's a bit over the top to attribute all this to a billboard, but the ad was seen as enough of a factor to be voted as Campaign magazine's poster of the century. The tagline "Labour Isn't Working," is so much a part of the country's culture that it's been revisited endlessly, and is yet again making its way into headlines today in Britain's newspapers and blogs, as the ruling Labour Party once again faces bleak economic conditions and a Conservative Party growing in confidence daily.

But the poster's legacy as far as adland is concerned may be that it highlighted to the entire marketing community the power of a simple, well-chosen message and image. It proved that you don't need a big media budget to get a lot of buzz -- and that a carefully chosen message in one medium can quickly become a free message in multiple media. One billboard was worth billions, at least to Mrs. Thatcher and her friends.

Today the media world is a lot more complex than it was in Britain in 1978. The explosion of TV channels and the advent of the internet -- among dozens of other new channels -- has seen to that.

Labour isn't working
The outdoor industry itself has changed dramatically: Where it used to be a local business, with sites owned by dozens and dozens of different operators, it's now by and large controlled by a handful of major players, allowing advertisers to roll out national and even international campaigns at a stroke, and leading to the investment of billions every year in architect-designed street furniture and digital billboards that are, in many locations, fast becoming out-of-home video networks. And, as if that weren't sufficiently sci-fi, mobile-phone technologies are turning billboards into interactive destinations, too.

Yet, for all this change, outdoor's biggest asset today may be that as audiences on every other channel are split into ever decreasing fragments, it can still operate on a mass, broadcast level. And, just as that "Labour Isn't Working" billboard ended up as an accidental case study in the power of integrated media, so today's out-of-home efforts are increasingly often integral parts of bigger digital campaigns. Indeed, it might seem somewhat odd to an industry outsider who was unfamiliar with the latest phenomena -- such as brands emblazoning billboards with just their Twitter addresses -- to note that outdoor is enjoying a renaissance right now, driven, at least in part, by digital shops. Creatives are clearly enjoying the ability to link the mass-market power of a poster to the personal power of the internet.

Even with this digitization and integration of the medium, simplicity remains the essence of great outdoor -- which is why it is often cited as such a pure test of a creative's skill. Can you distill the essence of the sales or brand message into a single, instantly understandable, affecting image? (The answer, in the case of so many of the campaigns within these pages, was "yes." What could be simpler than TBWA's "The world's thinnest notebook," for the Macbook Air, which was accompanied by a side-on shot of the product, or BBDO's "Get a world view. Read The Economist," accompanied by an ostrich's head emerging from the sand?)

Leo Burnett Toronto's James Ready campaign did it all. Ad Age was fortunate enough to be part of the Obie jury, and it would hardly seem to be revealing too much of the off-the-record debate among the judges to say that the assembled leaders from the creative and media worlds were unanimously impressed by this effort.

The campaign for the discount beer featured more than a hundred billboards in Ontario that seemed rather quaintly homespun and incomplete. The message: "Help us keep James Ready a buck. Share our billboard." The idea was to stress the cheap price of the beer, by asking consumers to help the company keep its advertising costs down by splitting the expense of the billboard. Consumers could go to the brand's website, where, under the headline "help us, help you, pay less," they submitted their own words and images to appear on the billboards. Their offerings went up on the billboards alongside a message thanking them for helping to keep the beer a buck.

James Ready
The message is simple and effective. James Ready costs a buck. The billboard is very much the center of this campaign, but it also appealed to the Obie judges because it is such a perfect marriage of the power or a mass medium with the interactivity of the internet. It's consumer-generated content, but not in a forced, fad-following way, but instead in a really organic way. It was consumer-generated in a way that not only brought humor and life to the ads, but also created a bunch of advocates for the brew. In fact, the website offered tips on how to create coasters, flying discs and dartboards out of a James Ready cardboard carrying case, or how to customize a hat or T-shirt with labels peeled from the company's bottles.

Notably, it also recognized that consumers get the ad industry -- they weren't really asked to pay for the billboards, but they understood the concept. It spoke to consumers as if they're knowing participants in the marketing world, instead of in an us-and-them way that simply attempts to co-opt Joe Public's creativity as well as his wallets.

It checks a lot of today's boxes -- integrated, interactive, consumer-generated -- but the James Ready campaign was more than that, it was the rare case of an ad campaign that can actually be said to be an idea in its own right. Apart from being an Obie winner, it's already scooped several other big awards, and surely there'll be more statues heading to Toronto soon.

So here it is, the first annual Art of Outdoor from Ad Age and Creativity. It incorporates all the Obie winners -- hey, why do all the filtering and evaluating when the experts have done a lot of it for you? -- but also several dozen campaigns from around the world that impressed Ad Age's outdoor reporter, Andrew Hampp, or the ever eagle-eyed editors of Creativity, in the last year. We'll revisit it next year, so we hope you won't be shy about sending us any clever out-of-home creative that you see in the coming months.

And, while Naomi Klein might not agree, we think this stuff is art as well as commerce. From the sheer craft of the Luxor highlighter ads -- a history written within a story -- to suspended scuba divers to an enormous egg breaking as dawn hits Chicago, this stuff brings our landscapes to life and makes us notice things in new ways. We enjoyed putting this together, and we hope you enjoy flicking through it.

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