Phantom Goes Global

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AUCKLAND, Tuesday: Phantom Billstickers ceo Robin McDonnell writes: No, New Zealand’s billstickers haven’t launched an international subsidiary. Nor have we started pasting up posters in Oslo or Abidjan (yet). But we have been checking out some of the most exciting developments on the world stage.

This May, I have been in Toronto for the World Out of Home Association Annual Congress. This is the first in-person congress since 2019 as the 2020 and 2021 congresses were casualties of the pandemic. 

On the surface, this is a mutual admiration society of the big OOH companies and associations swapping notes on the latest model of corporate jet and working out how to pay the least amount of tax possible through their global subsidiaries. But there are also some diabolically intelligent, collaborative and creative people that can expand your world view. 

I’m here because I want to know what everyone is up to and to ensure our strategies are unique in market, which in turn sparks new ideas. Phantom Billstickers has existed on the fringe for over 40 years. We survive by innovating; we don’t just copy what others are doing. Phantom are the originators and we’ve been doing this since it was illegal, man. Those that follow rarely know how to innovate. 

‘NZ Town’ at the Congress consisted of a contingent from Lumo who are setting a high standard globally for pure play digital outdoor. And of course, I was there flying the Phantom flag for the world’s most innovative street poster company and reinventor of the premium framed street poster. It’s reassuring to see locally owned media leading the way. There were far too many Australians around so the best rugby banter was with the three South Africans at the conference. 

Spreading the word
It wasn’t all strategising and socialising. I managed to sneak out of the swanky AF hotel and stick up some Phantom Billstickers poetry posters by Janet Frame, Tustata Avia, Daren Kamali, Tracey Slaughter and Serie Barford. A friendly policeman caught me in the act of putting up a Tracey Slaughter poem outside the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. In a firm but friendly way, he pointed me in the direction of the more acceptable places to post posters in the less sparkly parts of Toronto. 

I used to think to myself, no way I’d want to be putting up posters by the time I’m 40. I’m somewhere north of that number now, and I can tell you there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. There’s still nothing that beats delivering a street-level message that surprises and delights the unsuspecting pedestrian. 

Down to business
Back at the Congress, highlights were hearing from US operators Scott Wells (ceo of Clear Channel) and Sean Reilly (ceo of Lamar), who is the grandson of founder Charles W Lamar. Lamar famously acquired the unprofitable Pensacola Posting Company on a coin flip. Had the coin toss gone the other way, Lamar would have ended up with the more profitable (at the time) Pensacola Opera House and the American OOH industry would be very different. Lamar is now one of the most profitable OOH operators in the world. 

Clear Channel and Lamar have huge classic format networks and have realised that, while digital conversion has significant financial upside for the media owner, innovating classic inventory is an important pathway forward for the industry. There are a number of factors that mean some of the best sites will remain classic and a multitude of reasons that will prevent them being converted to digital outdoor. 

The case for classic posters
Wells convincingly made the case that, just like digital online advertising, OOH can offer targeting, measurable impact, scale, simplicity, flexibility, transparency, accountability and the ability to nurture consumers. This was a refreshing angle that I’ve been banging on about for several years. 

Digital means so much more than the way the display is delivered. It should be harnessed at every stage of the supply chain. Reilly shared the secret sauce of a linear structure across their 200 US offices and a relentless discipline on operational excellence, something dear to us at Phantom. This renewed focus echoed calls from WOO president Tom Goddard at the start of the Congress to not forget classic formats and to continue innovating in this space. 

And it makes sense, given that 63% of spend on outdoor is still classic posters. 

While there is no doubt that digital punches above its weight, the percentage of inventory that has been digitised globally is still relatively small. Instead of shifting spend between digital and classic OOH, the industry can use the strength of digital outdoor to free advertisers from the shackles of digital online models. We can do this by demonstrating the real-world engagement power of the medium. 

What’s measured gets managed
Calls for unified and cohesive measurement and methodology featured frequently, along with entreaties for companies to collaborate with industry bodies. Perhaps it’s time for the local industry body in Aotearoa to break the hold of the triopoly of multinationals, rewrite their rules to include all formats, and to start collaborating. 

At the moment, this seems like a challenge. You’d have to ask the locally owned operators to cross their fingers and hope that a body that has done nothing to support and grow their segment of the industry – and has even advocated for outlawing operators that don’t fit their mould – will start to act in everybody’s interests. Forgive me if this doesn’t fill me with confidence. 

But let’s look at it positively. Australia’s award-winning CEO of the OMA, Charmaine Moldrich, was impressive in her ambition to unify the industry and create collaboration across the board. Under Moldrich’s expert guidance, a unified Aus-NZ OOH association starts to make sense. 

Where are the Kiwis?
There was plenty of engaging content from some of the globe’s major OOH buyers, and it’s a shame there wasn’t better representation from New Zealand in this space. I’d gladly pitch in to get better representation from NZ media buyers to educate on best practice for OOH purchase. Any takers?

Here were some of the stand-outs for me. Jeff Greenspoon, President of Global Solutions for Dentsu, spoke about accelerating growth for OOH in the digital economy. Keith Kaplan (Kappy), Global CEO of Kinetic, and Jeremy Male, ceo of US outdoor operator Outfront Media, had an engaging fireside chat on how Kinetic has reinvented the outdoor specialist model. It can be best summarised by the following quote from Kappy: “We don’t buy media, we activate audiences.” 

Rohan Tambyrajah, Chief Strategy Officer from PHD, and Adrian Skelton from the world’s largest independent outdoor specialist, Tailon, finished off day one with a presentation about harnessing the six forces of change to build the future of OOH. 

While not repetitive, the presentations from outdoor specialist agencies did echo some common themes about engaging with creative opportunities in OOH, making buying frictionless, and of course, having a unified and cohesive measurement model.  

Party time!
As usual, the social events were a highlight. A formal dinner and awards ceremony was held at the architecturally impressive Museum of Ontario. 

A big winner on the night was the Should have gone to Specsavers campaign from Tailon (which was executed by our billsticking mates at Build Hollywood in London). Stunning work that deservedly took out the award for best classic creative campaign. Proof that paste and paper still has loads of relevance in the age of pixels.

There you have it. The WOO’s first congress since 2019 was well worth the trip to Canada. It was great to take a step back and view the progress our industry has made in the last couple of years. And it was reassuring to see that New Zealand’s OOH sector stands comparison with the world’s best – and even beats it in a few areas.

Through the cloud of the pandemic there has been a lot of innovation, and there remains optimism for a sector that was hit pretty bloody hard by the lockdown era. 

If anyone wants more information about the topics discussed above I’ll happily spill the beans in exchange for coffee. 


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