Once upon a time, Chennai's skyline was crowded with billboards. In 2008, however, the government cracked down on the illegal hoardings. The ban, followed by an economic slowdown, left the outdoor advertising business in Chennai bruised and bleeding.
But like all things that go down and eventually make their way back up, Chennai's outdoor market too got up, dusted itself and has moved on.
Chennai got its first billboard in 1960. In the next 25 years, the local government gave permission for only 500-odd billboards. However, as per estimates, the number of billboards in the city would have easily crossed the 5,000 mark before the ban. Violations were the norm, even by the organised players, in terms of size and location.
Other outdoor formats did begin sprouting in the '90s. Besides billboards, there were bus shelters, bus back panels, railway stations' signage, centre medians and airport sites as well.
However, hoardings still ruled the city, taking away 80-85 per cent of the Rs 200 crore that went to the outdoor industry every year.
While this would have gone down significantly by volume today, it has not dropped drastically in value -- primarily because the cost of the OOH options available has shot up dramatically to fulfil the increased demand from advertisers.
The ban on hoardings had an immediate impact on outdoor spends. The size of the outdoor industry was reduced to half. Around 30-40 per cent of the companies, who spent only on hoardings, made an exit from outdoor advertising. The economic slowdown further squeezed the outdoor industry to Rs 50-60 crore a year.
The environment started becoming favourable only around mid-2009, mainly due to the launch of five telecom operators - MTS, Idea, Tata Docomo, Uninor and Videocon.
Today, the outdoor market in Chennai is estimated at around Rs 8 crore per month. In September and October, it is expected that the figure would touch Rs 10 crore, which means that the outdoor industry in Chennai would be around Rs 100 crore in a year.
Chennai's outdoor spends have always been above the national average. Even today, it's in a better position. If nationally, the outdoor industry accounts for roughly 7-10 per cent of the total advertising spends; in Chennai, it is in the range of 10-15 per cent.
The ban has had positive impact as well. Khalid Khan, CEO, Brainchild Solutions, says, "The Chennai OOH market has matured and has developed more offerings than in the pre-ban era."
After the ban, bus shelters and large-format wall graphics and wall stickers have emerged as the most popular OOH options in Chennai. "These two formats have emerged to be the most preferred ones - purely based on their widespread reach and ability to provide larger than life imagery," says Narendra Kumar Alambara, GM and office head, Starcom Worldwide, Chennai.
Pointing out another trend, D Muralidharan, managing director of the Chennai-based OOH firm, Metro Multimedia says that in the past few months, branding in railway over bridges (ROB) is in great demand; this is emerging as another sought-after media.
"These ROBs cut across the main arterial roads such as Mount Road, Dr Radhakrishnan Salai, RK Salai, Sardar Patel Road and IT Corridor. They give head-on visibility and are large formats, thus attracting attention," he says. These ROBs belong to MRTS (similar to the Delhi Metro), which runs inside the city from Beach Station to Velachery Station. Aircel and Airtel have booked most of the ROBs on long-term contracts.
Some of the other regulated mediums that have grown are bus back panels, traffic signal timers branding, EMU train exterior and interior branding, railway station and bus station branding, pole kiosks, foot over bridge (FOB) branding and airport advertising.
"As in Delhi and Mumbai, street furniture in Chennai too got tremendous focus after the ban on hoardings. All the remaining bus shelters in Chennai too will be developed as either hi-tech design or stainless steel design," Khan says, adding that ambient advertising in both formats -- traditional and digital -- has also picked up tremendously.
Alambara points out that while most advertisers rue the lack of large-format advertising options; some are also of the opinion that their advertising messaging is now better represented, given that the clutter is much lower.
Still to recover...
However there are still various issues that the Chennai outdoor industry needs to tackle. This includes a uniform code and proper regulations that are yet to be put in place.
Besides, designs of bus shelters are not uniform. Chennai has over 600 shelters, and different formats are being used and implemented across sites. Thus, advertisers are unable to use a common template across different shelters.
To top it, there is still a fear amongst advertisers that the illegal hoardings still exist. There are instances when illegal wall stickers and sites have been brought down by the Corporation.
Besides, advertisers also complain that the rates for OOH media in the city have increased ten- fold - putting OOH advertising beyond the reach of small advertisers.