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Outdoor advertising, now making more impact indoors

Old-fashioned billboards still attract plenty of eyeballs – and now they're shared online

outdoor advertising liquid billboard Havas Middle East
Havas Middle East’s ‘Liquid Billboard’ won a Grand Prix, the highest prize in the advertising world, at the Cannes Lions awards in 2022

The advertising industry is quick to embrace new technology. Much of the current buzz is around artificial intelligence, data harvesting, programmatic ad serving and algorithmic optimisation.

You’d be forgiven for thinking marketers care only about online channels and digital media.

Personally, I’m a sucker for old-school, offline, out-of-home (OOH) advertising: billboards and hoardings, lampposts, motorway bridges and more.

Outdoor advertising remains essentially physical, and often large-scale. A creative director once told me that there was no feeling like driving with his kids past a billboard, pointing up and saying: “I made that.”

Other media are confined to boxes, whether on TV and computer screens, or in newspapers and magazines.

But out-of-home can work outside the box. Sometimes literally, when the top of a graphic extends beyond the confines of a billboard to emphasise the tallness of a new building, or when the headlamps on a car promotion light up at night.

The Mena region is fertile ground for creative outdoor advertising. In the Gulf, where few buildings are more than a couple of decades old, there are lighter restrictions on placing marketing next to historic structures.

Some of the region’s high-profile architecture even has advertising built in. Think of the Burj Khalifa’s ability to light up with branding, or the giant projection screen that is the “sail” of the Burj Al Arab.

Middle East audiences and clients are receptive to unconventional advertising, which encourages creative agencies and outdoor advertising firms to experiment.

There is a lot of road traffic, and all those drivers and passengers are potential audiences for hoardings.

In the years before social platforms, OOH’s reach was limited to people who had physically seen the ads

If outdoor advertising is engaging, people take pictures of creative executions and share them on social media, magnifying their reach.

For these reasons and more we have seen some great outdoor work come from the Middle East in recent years.

Havas Middle East’s “Liquid Billboard” won a Grand Prix, the highest prize in the advertising world, at the Cannes Lions awards in 2022. The concept was a transparent box filled with water that people could swim in, and was created to promote the sportswear company Adidas’s full-cover swimsuit collection. 

This year, the top OOH prize at Dubai Lynx, the regional version of Cannes Lions, was won by “The Lost Camel“. The creative agency Livingroom Dubai and its client Emirates Development Bank 3D-printed a camel from plastic discarded in the desert to highlight how many animals die each year from eating rubbish.

In another notable campaign at this year’s Lynx, VML Casablanca and Wunderman Thompson helped Moroccan NGO Jood turn used billboards into tent coverings for survivors of the September 2023 earthquake.

All of these campaigns were shared widely. In the years before social platforms, OOH’s reach was limited to people who had physically seen the ads. Now more people experience them online than in person. Not only does this extend the reach of a campaign, but it also makes it more measurable through tracking social impressions. 

There are other ways to measure the effectiveness of billboards and other outdoor ads.

OOH companies use traffic data from government transport authorities and mobile phone companies to gauge how many people pass a billboard in a given time period.

It is even possible to use facial recognition software to see who is looking and what emotions they are feeling.

But these methods are expensive and imprecise, and measurement has long been a challenge for OOH media.

Another pain point is the environmental impact of billboards. Not all are transformed into something as worthy as tents for earthquake victims. Not all are recycled. It takes electricity to light billboards at night, although solar panels are common in the Middle East.

While campaigns such as the Last Camel are meant to be showcased online and at events such as Cop28 (where the camel had her own stand), regular billboards require advertisers to make work that strikes a balance between being memorable and being simple to understand, as commuters flash past.

Not all creatives get this right, and there are plenty of ads that are frankly terrible. Too much information, bad designs, unreadable copy and more.

But next time you are on the road, look around at the billboards and beyond.

Take a moment to notice where advertising has been creatively integrated into the urban landscape. Snap a picture and share it, even. Somebody made that.

Austyn Allison is an editorial consultant and journalist who has covered Middle East advertising since 2007

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