Mark Thewlis is the approachable executive chairman of Clear Media, one of the largest and most influential out-of-home media players in the Greater China region.
In his 20 years of working for Clear Channel Outdoor and its subsidiaries in Australia, Europe and Asia, he has not only witnessed the rapid modernisation of the OOH industry, but has also played an active role in leading it.
Barry Lustig: How has the OOH industry changed from when you started your career?
Mark Thewlis: When I began my career in Australia 20 years ago, there were more than a few backwards ma-and-pa-style operations run by cowboys who made a lot of unfulfilled promises. OOH was there but not really a serious media business in those early days.
What you have seen, especially in the more mature markets, is a modernisation that had to happen, especially around accountability. The way we understand audiences and how companies communicate with them has changed dramatically.
BL: What have been the biggest shifts in OOH in recent years?
MT: Over the last two or three years, there has been a huge change where everything is immediate, everyone is reacting to the latest Twitter feed and campaigns are built overnight. All media channels have had to adjust.
Outdoor in particular is challenged to do this in a number of ways. In a traditional sense, it takes time to create and produce posters, ship them across the country and put them up on a billboard or in a light box somewhere. The physical time it takes to deliver a traditional campaign is a challenge for us. We are addressing this by improving our logistic functions and also by adding digital displays that allow more timely message delivery.
BL: What are the most important drivers of growth for OOH?
MT: The core fundamentals of being out and about are great but digitisation keeps us in the game.
Because of the digital revolution, creatives are used to working with multiple outputs, creating something for the web, mobile phones, for the telly, for YouTube. Doing something for a digital outdoor poster as well is just another point of output. So this has helped us.
From a Chinese perspective, our fastest-growing customer category is ecommerce. The big three, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, are the fastest-growing category we have going in China at the moment. We recently announced our first half results and ecommerce was 13 per cent of total sales. It was 6 per cent for the same period last year. These guys want to get back into the real world to draw people back into the cyber world.
BL: How important is data and data analytics to the OOH industry?
MT: Ten years ago, I met with a major electronics company in Japan that worked with smart cards for the train system there. Of course this company can read cards on the panel in the stations. But they could also read the data a lot further away than they let on. And that was a long time ago now.
This company knew everything about their riders’ credit history, buying history and what they were doing. Clearly there is a line everyone is trying to work out for what is right and what’s not. But the information that can be collected is colossal.
We are experimenting with programmatic buying and real-time bidding, but in an outdoor space it’s not one-to-one. We might have 50 people looking at the same space at a time. At the moment, for me, the data is the valuable part. What can we add, what can we learn that others don’t know that might be valuable in pinpointing exactly what ads we need to sell at what time? These questions are critical to our competitiveness.
BL: How focused is the OOH industry on measurement?
MT: Measurement will continue to be more and more important for OOH. Any outdoor company that wants advertisers to take them seriously needs to be working at it.
All measurement systems start with a large audience, then try to use their algorithm and eye- tracking software to create sample sizes and bring it down to a number. Most systems start with a gross audience number using things like traffic and pedestrian counts which gives you the number of people who have an opportunity to see a poster. This number is then reduced to the number of people who not only had the opportunity but did actually look at poster by using smart algorithms and technology like eye tracking software. Like any measurement system, it’s not perfect, but it’s always getting better.
We do a lot more research about the audiences for our panels and contribute to industry-wide research that helps justify spends. All of this has taken place in the last 10 years. The UK has had an audience measurement system for more than 10 years but it is only in the last 10 years we have seen it developed more globally.
That said, the sophistication of measurement depends on which country you are in. For example, if you look at a market like Australia, which has introduced an audience-wide measurement system about four years ago, this has increased the share of OOH, the usage, the professionalism. It is seen as the trade currency.
If you get into the maturing markets in Asia, like China, we are still a long way away from having an industry-based measurement system. We have created a measurement system just for our
panels, but there is no system that is industry-wide and really that’s an issue in the market now. We have maybe a hundred competitors in the cities that we operate in. No other major market would have anywhere near that number of competitors.
Getting the Chinese OOH industry together to create one common currency for measurement will happen, but it’s a number of years away.
BL: What’s next for digital OOH?
MT: Transactions. We are able to make contact with people at a bus shelter with Wi-Fi, QR codes, NFC and so forth that allow us to create that interaction with customers.
More campaigns are starting to use OOH to create a transaction, whether it’s to download a recipe book or a song. There is quite a lot of innovation going on at the moment around that space that’s powerful.
Interestingly, our sister company in Australia just put ibeacons on a large number of their bus shelters. These are small devices that interact with apps on smartphones that allow us to create more interactive campaigns for our clients. What comes out of that is quite interesting. I think you’ll see that the data we collect will be as valuable as the advertising spend.
BL: What’s next for the OOH industry in Asia?
MT: In addition to digital and technological advances, the other big opportunity for the Asian OOH industry is consolidation.
You still have a number of local operators who work on a country-by-country basis. At the same time, more advertisers are looking at the region as a whole rather than as an individual country.
The bigger players have tended to sit on the sidelines because they haven’t seen the right economics to acquire. The markets have slowed down in the last 18 months or so, and you are now seeing the hot money disappear. This is creating a much better environment for companies like Clear Media to go shopping.
Barry Lustig is partner of Cormorant Group, a brand and market strategy consultancy with a focus on Asia-Pacific