Broadcast travails mean boom time for billboard advertising

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Want a billboard for Christmas? Better hurry, they're almost gone.

Advertisers' concerns about the fragmentation of TV audiences and the tuning out of broadcast messages have driven demand for out-of-home inventory to levels unseen since the halcyon dot-com days of the late '90s.

"It's certainly tighter than it has been, but, you know, the economy's tighter than it's been as well," said Jack Sullivan, director of out-of-home media for Starcom USA. Other media buyers agreed that they're seeing a growing number of marketers add outdoor to their media mixes, or increase existing spending in the area.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago are more or less sold out through the end of the year, although there remains room in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Some buyers worry sites are getting picked over-and say it's not unusual for them to be booking locations into the middle of 2006.

The market's strength is largely credited to marketers' worries about the growing inefficiency of the broadcast-TV market-outdoor companies often market their offering as the one remaining mass medium. It seems to be working: According to the latest figures, the first half of the year notched 9% outdoor growth, according to TNS Media Intelligence; Nielsen Monitor-Plus reports a 6.9% rise.

To be sure, the current run on outdoor inventory isn't enough to significantly alter pricing, like the out-of-home boom in 1999, when most inventory was selling at rate-card prices as opposed to the typical 25% discount. But it is causing buyers to book desirable locations earlier-which means marketers often have to plan their out of home before TV.

Consider: An advertiser can likely buy commercial time with a few days' notice on TV, but a traditional out-of-home buy requires at least 60 days' notice. "If clients come to us two months in advance, it's hard to deliver what they want," said Eric Niemeyer, associate media director for Omnicom's Outdoor Media Group in Los Angeles.

`Anything new'

Much of the current growth is also being fueled by the increase in nontraditional out-of-home practices. Cinema advertising, for example, grew a booming 23% last year, according to the Cinema Advertising Council, and, said Mr. Sullivan, "there's a huge request on anything new-Bluetooth, events, bars, schools, cinema."

"It starts with the continual erosion of TV," said John Connolly, senior VP of out-of-home media at MediaCom. "You've got clients going back to agencies saying, `Stop selling me the same old 90/10 [mix of TV to other media] and start getting creative with my media planning and spending."'

Traditional out-of-home CPMs vary between $1.50 and $5 while network-TV CPMs run about $25.

But it's TV networks themselves hogging the out-of-home real estate, using billboards, posters, transit and nontraditional tactics to tout their new fall schedules. It's hard to put a figure on how much more the networks are using out of home, but sellers indicate they've seen an increase in the past several years-both in dollars spent and in the number of shows.

"They need to expand the audience-they can't just self-promote... on their own networks," said Jodi Senese, exec VP-marketing for Viacom Outdoor. Networks also typically load up on out of home in markets such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as a signal to their advertisers they're actively promoting the shows.

The strength of the medium is expected to continue as Nielsen readies the results of its first outdoor-measurement trial. The trial, which took place in Chicago, marries demographics to the government traffic counts the industry currently uses and is expected to be an integral part of a new out-of-home measurement system, along with a "likelihood to see" index.

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