Billboards and outdoor advertising have come a long way from the displays used in our grandparents’ days. Billboards first came into use near the turn of the 19th century, once lithography had been invented and standard sizes were established. Among the early adaptors were Barnum and Bailey, who pasted up large posters to advertise their circus appearances.
“Up until the last 20 years or so, there was very little change in outdoor advertising,” notes Kevin Madrzykowski, lead regional executive in Charlotte for Adams Outdoor Advertising, the fourth largest outdoor advertising company and the largest privately held outdoor advertising company in the U.S.
“But in the last 20 years, there have been dramatic technological and other advances that have changed the entire dynamic of our industry,” he continues. “The poster product in use now is far more environmentally friendly; a different substrate has replaced the older environmentally-unfriendly pastes and paper. Modern signs are composed of biodegradable vinyl. Lighting has been made more energy efficient. And the newer digital messages can even adjust brightness depending on the time of day.”
“The innovation of digital billboards itself has been a tremendous game changer,” Kevin asserts. “Advertisers now want social media integration, activation of their brand, and interaction with potential customers. Digital displays have allowed companies to deliver a message unlike they have to this point. It’s exciting, and opens up the advertising market to a far broader spectrum of customers.”
Seeing the Signs
Madrzykowski’s first exposure to outdoor advertising came after college, when he answered a want ad for a salesperson at one of the larger outdoor advertising companies in the country. He hadn’t necessarily envisioned himself in sales, but in the interview he discovered he had a lot in common with the general manager. He got the job and worked in sales for two years before beginning his ascent in the outdoor advertising field.
Fifteen years later, Madrzykowski is now general manager of the Charlotte market for Adams, having worked previously for them as a sales manager in northern Virginia and as general manager in Pennsylvania.
Adams Outdoor Advertising operates primarily on the East Coast and in the Southeast, and it also has offices across the Midwest. The Charlotte region has 65 employees and is the only location in North Carolina. Its territory extends as far as Statesville to the north, Pinehurst to the east, just south of Rock Hill to the south and as far west as Boone. The office is centrally located on North Graham Street with good proximity to uptown.
When asked about the business, Madrzykowski is almost scientific in detail.
“We’re a tightly-regulated industry at the federal, state and municipal levels,” he says. “In Charlotte, we’re fortunate to have a large and effective inventory of billboards. But stringent state and municipal requirements make it very challenging to maintain existing billboards and nearly impossible to build new ones.
“To meet our customers’ evolving advertising needs, we are constantly looking for innovative ways to expand our portfolio, such as converting existing signs to digital displays or adopting whatever the latest technology might be.”
TAB Billboard Ratings
Recently the Traffic Audit Bureau for Media Measurement (TAB), an advertising trade organization, launched a new rating system called TAB Out of Home Ratings which is changing the way out of home advertising is planned, bought and sold. Similar to the Nielsen and Arbitron systems, it assigns a specific demographic rating for each billboard.
The new ratings allow out of home to become an audience-driven medium. Now, TAB Out of Home Ratings will help transition the industry from a legacy of selling based primarily on showings and locations, to accountability-based selling of the audiences that out of home campaigns actually deliver.
For the first time, out of home has scalable audience estimates that can be projected to the DMA or CBSA standard media market definitions used by other media. TAB out of home ratings can be compared and used in conjunction with the ratings of other local and national media.
“The ratings make it easier for planners to assess the power of out of home media when used in combination with other media,” explains Madrzykowski, “and, most importantly, provide a new level of accountability that will generate more confidence and use among both local and national advertisers.”
He cites an example: “If males ages 18 to 34 with a certain income and education level are being targeted, Adams can design a campaign that delivers that demographic based on the billboards selected and their ratings. From a measurement standpoint, the company can precisely measure how many times the target demographic sees the message, the cost per impression, and a variety of other performance data for advertisers.”
Outdoor advertisers have always been able to provide daily traffic counts for their billboards. Kevin explains. But while Adams could provide data on the number of people driving by certain billboard locations, it couldn’t offer any insight as to who those people are or what they might be thinking.
“The basis for our rating system is census data, which obviously can tell you a great deal about each market,” says Madrzykowski. “Legally, each citizen must complete a census form. The data collected reveal a lot about who you are, where you work, how much you earn, what your education level is, what your ethnicity is and how many kids you have. Our modeling takes this information and draws conclusions about lifestyles, especially how certain types of people move around the area. The demographics can then be applied to our inventory, specifically to tell us who views our billboards and when.”
“The really interesting thing about our rating system is that it’s based on a ‘likely-to-see’ versus an ‘opportunity-to-see’ model. For example, a television commercial’s potential value to the advertiser is based on the ratings of the shows which are on when the commercial runs. It doesn’t take into account what the viewer does when the commercial comes on. But when we give a rating for the likely number of people who will view a billboard, it is based on whole series of factors comprised in a visual index.”
Before the advent of sophisticated ratings systems, it was difficult to determine the true effectiveness of outdoor advertising. With this new rating system—arguably the most sophisticated out there—Madrzykowski says Adams is on a level playing field with radio and television.
Using digital displays has also been a major advancement. “In advertising, the push now is for greater interaction with potential consumers. Advertisers want campaigns that integrate their social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as websites. Our digital displays enable companies to deliver on the promise of consumer interaction and engagement to an unprecedented level.”
Adams’ digital displays can now feature live Twitter feeds, show real-time updates about promotions, or broadcast messages to consumers using an RSS feed that sends information directly to the unit.
“You can take a photo, upload it to a designated site using a smartphone, and the photo can be displayed on a billboard. Billboards can even display real-time scoring for football or basketball games and the latest weather conditions,” Madrzykowski beams.
These innovations have taken outdoor advertising from being arguably the most inflexible medium to the most flexible available.
“Ten years ago, a bank wanting to advertise interest rates for savings accounts would have had a hard time using outdoor advertising. The signs had to be painted and installed, and if the rate changed, it would take at least three to five days to make the necessary modification. Now, you can post new rates using a wireless interface with the digital unit in literally less than a minute,” Madrzykowski snaps with his fingers.
“Think about consumer lifestyles,” concludes Madrzykowski. “We spend a lot of time outside of our homes shopping, commuting, playing and socializing. From a marketing standpoint, it makes perfect sense to provide advertisers with a way to reach consumers in these contexts. The optimal time to reach someone with a promotional message is when they are in position to act on that message.
“Imagine it’s lunchtime and you are hungry. You leave the office but haven’t decided what or where you would like to eat. A digital display advertising a special at a nearby restaurant could help you make up your mind.”
Driving is a dominant factor in Charlotte’s culture, as Madrzykowski points out. As advertisers seek ways to reach more potential consumers, the future is bright for the outdoor advertising industry, especially with new rating methods that allow companies to more accurately deliver an audience.
“Technological advances like TiVO, DVR and Satellite Radio have affected other media in similarly significant ways. Advertisers are focused more than ever on return on investment for their advertising dollars. Fortunately however, we have a growing audience and detailed information on how we reach them.”
Nationally, Adams has 100 digital displays out of a total inventory of 1,600 billboards. Charlotte has 19 digital displays in operation. Madrzykowski says digital billboards likely will not become a dominant part of their repertoire because of regulations involved.
But they will remain very attractive to advertisers because of the flexibility for message changes they offer, he says, and the real-time information they can display will continue to attract potential consumers.
“Our goal is to deliver the best return on investment for our clients’ advertising dollars. The bottom line is that people spend a tremendous amount of time outside of their homes in their vehicles, when they are making purchase decisions,” Madrzykowski says.
“Reaching them then and there is a tremendous selling opportunity—different than when they are cooking dinner, having a conversation or watching a ball game. When a person is alone driving, connecting them with a billboard message can be very powerful, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” he continues.
Adams has long-standing clients that use outdoor advertising as the foundation of their media plans because of this dynamic. Madrzykowski cites the ability to continue to develop new out of home advertising experiences, given the restrictive and in some cases outdated regulations in effect, as the company’s biggest challenge.
Recently, the North Carolina legislature addressed the contradiction that existed between state and city regulations, which according to Madrzykowski, “resulted in a scenario where we could remove little to no vegetation on property under NCDOT’s jurisdiction. These are vegetation concerns that did not exist when the billboards were originally constructed.”
“This duality created an environment where we could not maintain our assets properly,” says Madrzykowski. “For a business that survives by providing advertisers exposure on high-trafficked roadways, visibility is a must.”
The passage of Senate Bill 183, which pertains only to NCDOT Right of Way, alleviates some of this conflict by approving selective vegetation removal.
In addition to being an industry leader in the Charlotte region, Adams maintains a strong commitment to the community. Says Madrzykowski, “Adams is privileged to annually contribute over $1.5 million in advertising space to local non-profit organizations, community interest causes, schools, and municipalities. Additionally, many employees donate their time volunteering with these organizations.”
Madrzykowski sees a bright and dynamic future for the out of door advertising segment as it keeps stride with the social/technological developments across the rest of the spectrum.