Digitising OOH will bring flexibility and interactivity to it: Annie Rickard

By Surina Sayal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In OOH News | April 14, 2009
In a conversation with afaqs!, Rickard, president, Posterscope Worldwide, talks about how outdoors have changed over the years, Posterscope's journey in international markets and in India, and the future of OOH globally

In an industry where women aren't seen in the top management too often, Annie Rickard leads from the front. On her second trip to Mumbai, the 56 year old bright and ambitious president of the UK-based out of home (OOH) communications agency, Posterscope Worldwide, talks to afaqs! about Posterscope India's swift progress in a short span of time. She keenly follows the outdoor market here and shares her thoughts and insights on the growth of the medium, new technologies, international markets and the future of OOH.

Rickard believes that technical innovation, offering advertisers interactivity and flexibility, combined with increased investment in the medium - all underpinned by more accountability - is a compelling offer to advertisers at a time when in most markets, more people are spending more time outside their homes.

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Having worked in the OOH industry for more than 25 years, Rickard seems as excited and optimistic about the medium today as she was on the day she started. Rickard was in her late twenties when she helped Harrison Salinson start up Posterscope way back in 1982, along with three other co-founders, she being the youngest of them all.

After all the other founders sold their stakes to move on, she stayed on with the company and in 1995, she became chief executive officer of Posterscope UK. Since 2001, she has led the development of the global network which is now Posterscope Worldwide, with a team of more than 600 people in 41 offices around the world. Posterscope UK now has billings of more than US $ 630 million.

Excerpts from the conversation with Annie Rickard:

Going back, tell us how Posterscope happened?

Prior to Posterscope, I was working with an agency called Collet Dickenson Pearce (CDP). It had been putting advertising on outdoors that had never been on before. The medium was dominated by cigarettes and beer. About 60 per cent of the business came from these two categories and they were booked long term - so one could never get the best sites.

CDP was doing some amazing work on cars, food and other categories but these were on less popular sites, yet everybody was talking about these. At that time, buying the medium was still quite disorganised. So, there was CDP creating these amazing ads, and yet all the ad spaces were taken up, and so they decided to start an outdoor company. I just happened to be there and that's when I worked with them on this venture. That company went on to become Portland.

Going further, I thought the only way I was going to be taken seriously was if I quit. Otherwise, people see you as the junior who worked her way through. I got more experience in the business and then one day, we set up our own company - what is now known as Posterscope. The idea of running my own business really appealed to me. We still feel as driven and as passionate about the business as the day we started. The organisation has a very distinct culture.

How's the short journey been for Posterscope in India? Why did the previous association with Percept not work?

With Percept, the relationship was led by Aegis Media. What Percept wanted was our expertise in the OOH business. I think they had a lot of clients which wanted the sort of accountability that we offer now. So they were very keen to have Posterscope. The agreement was made to set up an outdoor business. What happened with Percept was that there was a lot of early hype and not enough investment by either partner.

So for us it was better to cut our losses and start again on our own venture - 100 per cent owned - with the right team. So a divorce between Aegis and Percept was agreed upon. We felt that we would disassociate ourselves, since Posterscope is slightly independent. We believe in a long term approach and even if it takes slightly long to do something, we won't talk about it till we have something to show for it.

Posterscope India has made an excellent start now. In its six months here, it is now working with a team of 45 people in 16 cities and plans to expand to about 100 people in 30 cities by the end of 2009. We are working with more than 30 clients already. I think we've made a very good start in our six months here. We're providing some accountability with our mapping and monitoring tools.

We are currently debating on what would be the best areas for investment. We're definitely investing in more training. Some of our PRISM suite tools have been customised for India and a couple have even originated here, which I'm going to take and use in other international markets - one being the PRISM Monitor. This tool is great for markets with problems similar to India and China that have a lot of scattered outdoor media. Clients need to see posters going up and being monitored.

Posterscope India has contributed a lot. I don't think we've seen this much contribution this soon from anywhere else, except France. Well done Posterscope India - it is international already.

You've spent more than 25 years in this business, seeing it grow and evolve. What has changed in outdoor over the years?

What is interesting about the business is that it keeps changing every few years. The medium is changing but for us, the network is also changing, with new markets opening up and new opportunities being spotted. When we started, the medium was kind of on the edge of it - it wasn't very professional. There were old fashioned billboard operators.

The job was to bring some accountability into it, with us telling clients 'how do you know you're getting what you paid for?'. Now this is a given. We're going to the next level, which is the return on investment area. We've got to first base; we're making it more professional, pulling it together and making sure the client feels confident he is getting what he's paid for.

Outdoor is becoming something quite different in the new digital world. It can be interactive, it can be flexible in terms of different messages at different times of the day, and with the mobile, it can connect someone straight to the web, take a picture of a poster site and so on.

All research around the world says that when people get a class device like an iPhone, they are more than 50 times more likely to search the Internet using their phone rather than their PC. People are spending more time out of home and this is a growing trend in India as well. So at shopping malls and multiplexes, you've got this handset that can connect you to the web regarding an outdoor ad you saw. Thus, outdoor can become this catalyst of sorts for that connection.

This trend has already started in Japan and China because they've got a lot more technology built into their handsets. They use it to buy tickets, to buy a McDonald's burger - everything. They're just that further along. It will happen here. It's a global world - you can't stop trends from happening and so, while we took 25 years to go from paper and paste to a screen, you've got both here at the moment. It'll just leapfrog over a lot of the learning and may take about five years instead of 25 years, just like it happened with cable and the Internet.

We'll still have some of the traditional stuff, I think, but at the same time, all these changes will happen as well. I'd like to think that OOH can remind, build brands, impact, make brands famous and broadcast but at the same time, we also have the opportunity for connectivity and engagement. It can be the old and the new, all at the same time.

In India, outdoor is governed by local authorities, where there are a number of issues faced by media owners and agencies. How different is this scenario compared to international markets?

Many international markets are comparatively well regulated. It would be good to have a bit more collaboration from all sides here too, so that the opportunity will be to develop something quite stunning in terms of technology, architecture and design. The trend is seen in many markets, especially by JCDecaux, where they've used famous architects to design bus shelters that are distinctive to the city. The design in one city will be quite different from another. They've also used popular architect and designer Norman Foster to design one big site which is a landmark in London and really quite beautiful.

All research suggests that when you do that, the public likes it, it beautifies the city and it reflects well on the local authorities. I think the real trick is to encourage collaboration between all parties so that you can really get the best out for the medium and for the city as well, rather than just have everybody working in isolation, which doesn't make sense anymore.

How has the recession affected Posterscope and OOH as a whole?

In a lot of markets, outdoor is growing well and second only to the Internet. However, this growth has slowed down quite drastically in some markets and some markets have seen no growth even this year, but we're not going backwards anywhere.

Television is under pressure, Internet is under pressure and so is radio - we're (OOH) still not under pressure. Our view is that the recession gives you an opportunity in a sense to deal with all this new technology and engagement. We should optimise these new technologies during this recessionary period and emerge out of the recession.

I see it as a challenge for us and it's forcing us to accelerate change. Even in the UK, where we are very well established, we are going to change our business, look at our structure and get ready for that connectivity and engagement period.

What do you think the future of OOH is going to be like? Where is it headed?

It is increasingly going digital with interactive devices, talking posters and moving walls. I was showing a team a science fiction film, Minority Report, and cut into it with a wall of moving images - no one could tell the difference.

The future is digital. For example, different messages can be projected at different times of the day; there can be movements and interactive bus shelters. There's a retail opportunity as well with the mobile - that's really the picture. Look at gender eye recognition that will scan eyes and play messages accordingly for males, females, youth and seniors. These technologies are now possible and are being used.

It's all about convergence of technologies. Another example of this is where we did advertising for brands at ski resorts, on ski lifts, tables, umbrellas, walls, and then even on the ski runs (ski slopes) - a skier is filmed as he goes down with the camera attached to him.

Later, he can see a replay of him online, coming down the ski run and he'll see the ad again. So the online and OOH world is sort of converging and increasingly being talked of online. There is a more 'coming together' of the two worlds now.

An ad for T-Mobile was done, not by us, but it was brilliant. It was an activity done at Liverpool Station in January, where a group of people started dancing and many more joined in till the whole place was buzzing. Others were taking pictures and videos on their mobiles and some others were filming the people using their mobiles.

The company then converted this into a TV ad. So, it was experiential, out of home, mobile, TV - all rolled into one and I thought it was brilliant. It was one of those moments when you see something and go, 'Wow, I wish I'd done that'.

Recently, for Adidas at the London Marathon, we had digital screens at certain points in the race. People could send a message to the runner and the runners were tracked by a device in their shoes. You could use that device to put a message on the screen and as the runner went past the screen, he saw the message for him from somebody in the crowd. That's mobile and out of home connecting. This could be done here, too, at the Mumbai and Delhi Marathons.

Going further, which are some of the markets that Posterscope sees great opportunities in? Also, where does an already advanced market like UK head with OOH?

In terms of opportunities, it has to be Asia. China is a very important market. America is also significant; because OOH is still only 3 per cent of the ad spend there, while it is 9 per cent of the ad spend in India, 9 per cent in China and 9 per cent in the UK. So overall, I think there's a lot of opportunity in most markets at the moment.

Outdoor has to reinvent itself. Just as it has been doing, it will now have to do it for digital. Also, the UK market is very challenging. With Posterscope UK, we've expanded the role to the streets, experiential, events, all come under the OOH umbrella as well now.

UK's a tough market but we have 42 per cent of the market share. Not bad for a woman, eh? (Laughs). I remember overhearing two blokes in a bar when we set up the company in 1982. They were saying something about 'That girl'. They said, 'She won't go anywhere; she'll be gone in 18 months'. That was me they were talking about. I often think about that when they said 'that girl' and 'being gone in 18 months'. And I think - 'Well, 25 years later, here I am - discussing Posterscope and its operations in India'.

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