Billboards don’t grope people, people do.

For those who are in advertising, and also in New York, you may have heard about the recent scandal involving the jewel in the crown of Times Square, Revlon’s Love Is On digital billboard.

Firstly I should say that I visit Times Square frequently, and have never once seen this majestic ClearChannel screen without a crowd of exhilarated visitors, peering gleefully up at themselves as they enjoy their moment of Big Apple fame. It joined the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge in the ranks of top New York tourist attractions – with folks including it in their must-see itinerary.

So it sucked big time when I heard that, in its twilight, it had been suspended. More shocking was the reason that New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton gave us all: that people were getting inappropriately touched while their attention was diverted.

Ok, now just a minute. Somebody has to say it: how can Love Is On get accused for inciting rape with a large digital screen that does little else but show a video feed of the people standing below? Inciting surprise and delight, maybe, but that it is the cause for opportunistic perverts to get their grope on is utterly ridiculous.

This argument is similar to the one our friends in the NRA have been bringing to the table for decades. Why ban guns when it is, actually, the trigger-happy psychos who are to blame for America’s high rate of violent gun crime?

The difference here of course is that unless the billboard actually proclaims the message: “Grope is On. Step right up. Get your gropes here” then Police Commissioner Bill needs to deal with the perverts in Times Square like he would any other crimes and not go around suspending legitimate and harmless advertising that was bringing more visitors and increasing the City’s ad revenue.

Those media owners and advertisers affected by this have been largely silent; perhaps because they don’t want to be branded insensitive to the very real issue of public sexual assault – however it is in my opinion that “Love Is On” has become a scapegoat for what is a growing problem in this area – brought on probably a lot more by the nude painted models who have set up shop there.

This post actually does have a point: don’t let this bump in the road discourage advertisers from owning not just the valuable real-estate in 2016, but more importantly to use it for the purposes of a “kiss cam” style video feed. People have been coming to Times Square for a year to see themselves up in lights, and the personal connection the brand makes with their adoring groupies below has no parallel in advertising, regardless of the channel.

Brands, get your Love On and make sure that billboard has a crowd-cam in 2016.

Anyway, here is the latest update if you care to follow this ongoing saga:

Mike GamaroffMike Gamaroff

GRPs of wrath: converging channels

For a long time, the media industry has clung tightly to their metric of effectiveness: the Gross Rating Point (GRP). It’s the number we put on how well our target audience was reached by the messages we’ve rained on them.

GRPS of wrathNowadays it’s easy to calculate these in each of the media channels respectively, even with physical or static placements like billboards.

TV is done with meters inside your set, online is done with an http request inside a banner and out-of-home is done by counting the number of people who walk past a billboard.

Simple, right? Well perhaps not so much. My whinge today is around some of the unfairness that prevails in the business – where some channels are getting rewarded with higher impressions than they deserve, and others that are being sold severely short. Maybe if more advertisers knew about these variances, you would see a shift in the allocation of media spend to something more… correct.

For example, in online advertising you have the surging phenomenon of fake impressions generated by software robots that pretend to strike a web page, counting up the impressions that were never actually seen by a human. 30%, 40%, 50% and climbing impressions counted, billed for but not delivered. That’s a whole essay on its own, so look it up if you don’t believe me.

Actually I’d like to highlight the positive side to this story, and that relates specifically to the valuable impressions being delivered but never counted.

Earned media has started to get measured more, largely on social networks where a lot of organic sharing happens. But there are other forms of earned media too, and these are as a result of the rapid and unexpected merging of media channels in recent times.

Let’s take the humble, underestimated billboard or public digital screen in an area like Times Square. Impressions in places like these are measured based on the amount of people who are physically there each day. A simple algorithm then slashes a percentage off the top to account for those looking at their shoes as they walk by.

However, one thing you will notice above anything else is that everyone has a camera here, and terabytes of jpegs are spawned into existence every day as a result. Thousands of these are shared publicly, and thousands more clearly showing the brand messages on the billboards.

Or how about in a sports stadium that is filled with all kinds of branded surfaces – from enormous digital jumbotrons, to markings on the field itself. Those impressions are counted based on the number of spectators physically at the game, yet an exponential number of people at home are seeing those same messages in the comfort of their own home on TV.

In this scenario, the billboard impressions are being counted and reported back to the brand advertiser, and the TV impressions from the commercial breaks are being reported independently to create a combined total that is greatly underestimated. 

The GRPs earned from the physical media being displayed on TV should be credited to the originating channel (out of home) and should, in turn, command a much higher value. 

A higher value should mean a shift in spend, so it is a good thing that these previously undervalued channels are finally figuring out how to measure their true effect; which is the only way a brand advertiser will ever entertain the premium they deserve.

VR vs AR – for the OOH world

For the last couple of days I was at Siggraph in Los Angeles, California. It’s hailed as an interdisciplinary educational experience in the latest computer graphics and interactive techniques. It’s true, that is what it was. Virtual Reality was the star of the show, with a whole quarter of the exhibition area devoted to it.

But I am a real-world enthusiast – ironically with a deep running digital DNA. I love virtual reality, and I get a kick better than bath salts (I imagine) every time I put on an Oculus – doesn’t matter what cheap 3D Wolfenstein sequence I watch. But, I have devoted myself to a career in real-world media, and VR, with all its awesomeness, just simply doesn’t sit well with me.

Why, you ask? Well let’s look at it.

If you’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying a virtual reality experience with Oculus, or some of the post-millennial alternatives that have emerged lately, you will note the complete immersiveness – but before you get there, you will not be able to avoid the inevitable 3 hour queue.

Yes, that’s right. If you’ve experienced Oculus, you’ve waited in a queue. Unless you’re developer, you’ve made the decision to wait in line to see what all the fuss is about.

That’s okay, it’s new; people are interested in emerging technologies – of course the seminars you’ve been to that feature virtual reality headsets will have a long line of geeky enthusiasts. But to me, that is a problem for the future, not just the now.

When I experience VR, I think two things. 1) OMG, this is going to be the future, this is going to replace the TV and the console. Everyone and their mother will get home from work and slap on their headset and you won’t see them again until the next morning.

But 2) I think about our loyal brand advertiser clients, and what value they might gain from this important revolution. I think of the money they will spend investing in custom VR 3D or live-action experiences, and of course, at the very core of it, I will think of the eyeballs they acquire – which, as anyone in media knows, is the raw currency of advertising.

Building a 3D world of Pepsi or Coke that allow users to sail a boat down a waterfall of caramel sparkling liquid glory sounds incredibly immersive and engaging – and no doubt it is – but it won’t come cheap. Creating an experiential event that allows people to adorn a headset and immerse themselves in this psychedelic world sounds like a branding home-run, but what about the devoted souls who are waiting in line?

Let’s make no mistake. Virtual Reality is a one-to-one medium. Just like online. As much as I’d like it to be an Out-Of-Home media experience, it can never be. VR has its place in the home, and while I hope to see an Oculus headset in every household, it is going to be a medium that reaches the individual on a deep and personal level – no different to a gaming console today.

So what’s the good news? Well, there’s the very close cousin of the virtual variety of reality – and that is the world of Augmented Reality. They seem so closely related, yet they are quite different.

Yes, they both involve headsets (which are actually on their way to becoming not the clunky 80s space helmet, but something no different from a pair of Gucci shades). Simply put, VR involves the complete hijacking of a user’s senses and replaces them with an artificial or computer-generated world. AR, on the other hand, uses what you see naturally and overlays augmentations that enhance and adjust the world around you.

These are fundamentally different. Don’t take my word for it, just go and see what our beloved uncle Microsoft is doing with the Hololens. You really need to forgive Microsoft for Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 6. We all make mistakes. Donald Trump didn’t mean what you think he meant – he was talking about her nose!

Microsoft Hololens

The Hololens is where it’s at. An increasingly smaller headset allows you to view the world as normal, but overlay digitally generated features. Just like a smartphone; stretch a video screen onto a wall and watch a TV show, place a holographic ornament on your desk, or read your email on the refrigerator. This is a fundamental and majorly significant difference.

It means, and I’m going to say it, your smartphone will be redundant in a few years. That’s right, the little magical rectangle that captured your imagination and practically owned your very existence when it was invented in 2005 is now facing extinction if you can soon wear its emerging nephew on your head and interact with all your apps in the real world around you.

If the headset is small enough, it won’t look stupid if you wear it to work and sit with it in your living room. If all of your apps like email, Skype, Facebook and video player is positioned neatly on your walls and around you, why ever take it off?

And if you use it like that in your home, what about when you leave the home? What if you walk down the street and see a huge billboard with a gorgeous animated Pepsi advert in a placement where no physical billboard currently exists?

If people are walking around with these headsets like they do now with their phones in their pockets, then the real world becomes the same rich canvas that the internet currently is now – with possibilities for advertisers that massively improve on any channel they currently have at their disposal!

If you are in outdoor media – or in any media for that matter – then Augmented Reality is the future – no question. The billboard today will still be there, only it will be digitally generated. You, your mother and your pet Spaniel will all have these headsets in a shockingly few number of years, and Pepsi – if you are listening – let’s talk about what that means for you right now.

Cannes 2015 Outdoor Roundup

So this year I went to Cannes. That’s the quaint village on the French Riviera where they have the Cannes Lions awards for creative in media and advertising.

Aside from some scary moments with my Uber and an angry taxi driver, it was a very interesting week.

I was specifically interested in the ideas in outdoor. A lot of unique concepts and case studies, and the winners were all deserving.

The judges must have really loved the Shot on iPhone6 campaign you might have seen everywhere because it won a Grand Prix. Apple searched online photos that people had posted to social networks and selected a few that were in were in just the right conditions to look good when blown up. Then they put them on outdoor placements around the country for all to see. The very nature of outdoor media itself made each static photo an explicit showcase for the quality of the images. There never was a better reason to advertise in outdoor.

Samsung Safety Truck. This was a great example of when outdoor media becomes functional. Almost one person in Argentina dies every hour from traffic accidents – 80% of them are on the roads – and these mainly from trying to overtake. An always versatile marriage of digital screen and front-facing camera provides following cars an HD view of oncoming traffic so they can decide better whether to overtake. If you want to win a Cannes Lion, figure out how to make advertising also help people. No judge can resist.

You might have seen this, Holograms for Freedom. In Spain, would you believe, there is a gag law preventing people from protesting. So they filmed people on a march, and then projected the video in a holographic blue lustre onto transparent screens outside the parliament building in a slick act of defiance. You could also upload your face onto one of the protestors if you wanted to participate also. Solve problems with technology in media and you have an instant winner.

Nazis Against Nazis. I guess this isn’t really outdoor but it involves Nazis getting owned so I thought I’d slip it in. Some people in Germany still haven’t received the memo and routinely march in support of their misguided ideals. To combat this annoyance, a group called EXIT Deutchland started a campaign to donate €10 for every meter the neo-Nazis marched to a cause aimed at steering people away from the cult and bringing those already in it back to Earth. Now they’re actually funding their own demise. Keep on marching folks.

Life Time Clock. Also in Germany, there’s been a drop in organ donations. People are dying as a result, so they put up this powerful giant hourglass for a guy called Kevin. The sand runs out in a few months, which is how much time he has left to live because of a fatal heart problem. There’s something both chilling but also riveting about seeing the sand of someones life slip away. It got national media attention and made an impact on the awareness of organ donation.

So some worthy winners and interesting ideas, and a lot of good being done for the world thanks to the creativity and ingenuity that media allows. If winning Lions is what you want, the method can be found in the artful application of technology, preferably in pursuit of some social good. Outdoor is rich with emerging possibilities, so expect some more wonderful ideas in the year ahead.

Brand loyalty is an actual thing. Who knew?

I’ve been in advertising my whole life. Even when I was teen, I worked part time at a local sign-writing company designing and also mounting the shopfront signage for local brick-and-mortar businesses.

Ever since then, it has always been me – and them. Me being the advertiser trying to get noticed and sell my stuff, and them being the people who need to be coerced, manipulated, persuaded and even scared into buying it.

Throughout all of my meandering through agencies big and small, in all these different countries, I always had the belief that advertisers were their own breed – incapable of themselves being affected by advertising messages of any kind. Because, after all, we are on the inside and know exactly the game that is being played with the minds of the public.

I’ve never gone as far as installing an ad-blocker on my browser, because I still want to be exposed to what others are doing – but never did I stop to wonder what it must be like to truly be “them”. All I know is that advertising works, and people do look at them, respond to them and act on them and that’s why I have a job.

But then, recently discovered to my shock, what I thought was indifference to the fruits of my own craft turned out to be simply that I don’t really care much about stuff. I realized that if I did care about stuff, I would be just as affected and influenced by even my own advertising as the next consumer.

I love SkechersThis epiphany all started with a pair of shoes. Skechers to be exact. I put them on for the first time and not only did I feel better than James Brown, but I could also see more clearly than Johnny Nash. All the science I had learned about consumer psychology, brand loyalty and customer retention suddenly emerged from the dusty bookshelves of theory and I could feel what it was really like to be the primary focus of my clients’ hefty annual media spend.

Skechers are right in every way. I am someone with little time, little care for self expression and little patience for airport security. I despise laces with a passion; because they’re stupid, time consuming, old fashioned and also people hang themselves with them in prison.

I travel a lot, and if you added up all the minutes I’ve saved not having to bend down at airport security untying and tying my shoes while my name is being yelled over the PA system for last calls, you would have by now about 3 months. Ok, I’ve not used that saved time for anything constructive, but that’s not the point.

The black slip-on “Mens Work” ones I wear can easily straddle between casual, smart casual and formal (depending on the lighting at the place) so now I have a standing order with Skechers to get the same pair, over and over again every 3 months and that’s all I ever need to think about when it comes to footwear.

Now I get weirdly excited when I see a Skechers store and also a little disappointed that it’s not 3 months yet. I watch the Skechers online banner ad rotate a few times before getting back to my article – maybe just out of pure appreciation. If they did YouTube ads, I wouldn’t click skip. I’ve also joined the very generous loyalty club that gives you a whopping $10 back for every $100 spent. Skechers, you do too much.

Maybe it’s sad that I’ve never liked a consumer product as much (except for my Gibson Les Paul, but that’s my child, not a thing), but at least it proves that there’s a real point to my craft, and that advertising really is just a spotlight on what the people actually love.

Media dollars are best spent when we can predict with some certainty whether the consumer who views it will actually care about what’s being sold.

Touch, taste and feel: the estranged senses

Sometimes I like to get physiological when describing new marketing techniques. Brands always talk about driving engagement, or creating a connection with consumers or whatever, but what does that really mean? You could say it involves showing them something they enjoy seeing, and if your brand is in the picture then the positive connection is made.

But that tactic is at risk of being exhausted, and the perpetual desensitization of consumers to everything that you throw at them forces us to remain chained to the tactical drawing board.

musicMedia has shifted towards online because of the perceived advantages in measurement, but it has done so while shortsightedly sacrificing the many pleasure sensors consumers possess other than sight and sound. You can’t invent an 8th color in the rainbow, or a new musical note past G.

But the way to truly connect with a consumer has and always will be through our most primal vessels. That is our senses and instincts. We see colors that indicate the presence of food, and we become excited. We hear the sound of rain and are soothed because of what it means for our crops. There’s the sensory reward from sex because our species needs to bribe us with pleasure to propagate itself. When we taste sugar, we get an endorphin release notifying us that a rare ingredient in nature that boosts energy has been found and we should covet it. (Unfortunately for the nation’s health, that ingredient is not quite so rare anymore.)

So how can we start tapping into some of these senses and achieve the same direct association with the brand that is strived for with an amazing TV ad? Well, there are some companies who I think are doing that in an interesting way.

Vengo Labs is an innovative new approach to the ancient art of product dispensing. There’s a satisfaction like little else when a few quarters are flicked through a slot and the turny thing ejects a candy bar into the waiting bin below. Even though you scrape the skin off your wrist reaching into its bowels to retrieve your item, it is pain you barely notice because of the irresistible magic just witnessed. The connection we just made was between ourselves and a locked cabinet with a glass front – not a brand. Even the candy branding itself is lost because the wrapping has faded into the amorphous white noise of our daily surrounds.

Vengo have created a generic product dispenser with an engaging and interactive digital screen on the front. It’s fairly compact and designed for small stuff like candy, cosmetics and small consumer electronics. The interface for browsing and selecting your product can be completely bespoke, and allows brands to create a much deeper link between themselves and that primal joy of getting something tangible in return.

Online engagement and social experiences have traditionally been leveraged by brands to create meaningful connections with consumers, but this can only ever go skin deep. The idea of delivering this same engagement but with the immediate payoff of something real and satisfying is a sensible way to tap into new and, I think, even more potent sensory channels.

Vengo is not just a vending machine, but a powerful new way of engaging with consumers, and explicitly linking a brand with the primal instincts that govern our choices on a daily basis. It seems no matter how smart we get, it’s still sight, sound, taste, smell and touch that dictate our decisions in life. When brands get on the good side of these senses, it results in a rather well spent media dollar.

Digital Signage Expo 2015 Roundup. #DSE2015

Las Vegas, Nevada. Home of the Digital Signage Expo 2015.

It’s the world’s largest and longest running trade show, exclusively dedicated to showcasing innovative digital communications and interactive technology solutions. Launched in 2004, DSE was the first event dedicated to the digital signage market and has been a significant contributor to the growth of this fast-paced industry.

With the world of Out of Home media being gripped by the rise of digital, in both large and place-based formats, the DSE was a great place to see emerging technologies and learn about how marketers are taking advantage. Every kind of screen was on show, as well as more niche forms of signage such as holographic displays, transparent LEDs and some rather interesting configurations.

Aside from the impressive and engaging possibilities of multi-touch displays, allowing up to 10 fingers at one time, or the mesmerizing effect of transparent hi definition digital glass, there were also some really cool demonstrations of interactive 3D projections that had me captivated for quite some time.

An interesting outfit: Screenfeed. They are a comprehensive one-stop curator of live data-feeds that I’ve seen and an excellent facilitator for digital place-based campaigns – which are made ever richer and more relevant with live updating content. They have all the weather, stocks and news as you would expect, but also infotainment, sports, local events and an amazing variety of health and illness related content.

There was an impressive Smart Shelf branded by book company, Harelquin. Each product has a mini digital screen beneath which can be used for special offers or just to attract attention. But each product also has a motion sensor which detects when it is lifted off the shelf. The digital screen beneath it flips over to some more detailed information about the product, like a book synopsis or nutritional information in the case of a confectionary item.

The shelf is equipped with a camera sensor that tracks all manner of the customer’s positioning in front of the shelf, whether they walked past or stood for a while examining the products.

As you would expect, there is a comprehensive dashboard showing all of the customer activity during the day. Realtime stats tally up which products are being picked up and who is nearby. Then as if that wasn’t enough, check out this really neat heat-map showing which product are most popular and were picked up the most during the day. This gives insight like never before into precise consumer behavior and how they are interacting with your products.

Check out the interactive clothing mirror from Memomi. Stand in front of it, wave your arms to select colors. Try on different outfits, and even turn from side to side to see how they might look on you. I would imagine this is good for the clothing retail space, but you could get creative at a special event and make people look like superheroes.

The rest of the vast Expo floor showed off a wide variety of digital screen suppliers, each boasting an ever-increasing pixel resolution, and some or other improvement on the year before.

However, as marketers and advertisers, we’ve come to expect that screens will always improve in quality, that touch will become more responsive and that prices will eventually fall down. So what does all this really mean for us, and do we even need to care about the advances in digital signage?

The answer is very much a resounding YES. Ever since the first digital sign appeared, the media-buying world was only ever concerned with where it was placed, who owned it and how much it costed for the duration of a campaign.

LED boards are now flexible, and can be built to any size. It is now possible to place large format, immersive and interactive digital experiences in some of the world’s highest traffic and most populated places – but do so in the same manner as we would traditionally for a special build or experiential event.

What’s great about this is that we can spend more time dreaming up amazing experiences to interrupt, surprise and delight consumers on the go, and less worrying about whether the ideas are even possible in our market.

Thanks to the rapidly evolving world of digital signage, the sky is not even the limit.