From New Digital Age: Freedom day poses a unique opportunity for brands to become an integral part of the return to public spaces

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Last week, all restrictions in England put in place to stop the spread of Covid-19 were lifted and industries that previously had remained closed or were severely restricted are now allowed to reopen again. What’s more, the latest IPA Bellwether report anticipates a much stronger expansion in GDP this year and predicts there will be a brisk recovery in household spending as a result of consumers saving during the lockdowns. 

With this reopening, advertisers have the opportunity to be an integral part of the return to public spaces and accompany people on their journeys back to normal. As a result, Out of Home (OOH) advertising is predicted to boom. Not only is it projected to outgrow the ad market in 2021 and into 2022, but forecasts show its value is to increase by 57% in the UK. 

NDA spoke with the Chief Client Officer at Talon Outdoor, Luke Willbourn, who explained how they’ve seen a positive return to market from brands as the UK opens up. Commenting on how digital and OOH are growing back stronger together, he said: “Reach and activation continues to drive the channel, which means delivering campaigns that utilise multiple formats and deliver reach, but crucially finding audiences where they are in this new context. Digital OOH revenue is at around 60% and growing, but traditional sites remain crucial as we find audiences are still active locally.”

Skyrise Intelligence which uses telco data to pinpoint precise target audiences has witnessed a similar trend, as Jonny Whitehead, Board Director commented; “In the next six months we are expecting to see budgets increase in OOH as lockdown restrictions lift. OOH is a great way for brands to reach consumers at scale with meaningful impact. The first few months will be interesting, as some businesses move to a hybrid model of working from home and from the office, but already we are seeing an increase in commuter travel and with audiences increasingly on the go, brands will need to be incorporating digital OOH into their marketing mix.”

The return to OOH has been gradual over the past few months, with Talon seeing lead times for traditional sites at 3-4 months, showing that agencies and brands are back and planning in advance. “Audiences will return to more hospitality venues as they reopen, and 80% of consumers are saying they are comfortable shopping. The reset gives huge opportunities for brands across the OOH channel, reflecting the incredible resilience, collaboration and agility shown by OOH over the pandemic. We are also now very well placed to deliver technology and data advances for integrated media targeting alongside online advertising as brands seek to reconnect with their audiences.” Willbourn adds. 

Digital acceleration 

With Covid-19 having accelerated digital by seven years, OOH is even smarter and more precise than ever before. Mobile network data provides a level of accuracy and scale that wasn’t available in OOH prior to the pandemic in the way it is now. “Advertisers can identify the optimal times and places to reach an audience based on up-to-the-minute travel patterns, and measure the effectiveness of their campaigns like never before. All without the use of any first or third-party IDs.” comments Whitehead.  

This shift to digital is something that is being seen across the adtech ecosystem, as Mike Campbell, Director, Adtech for agencies and brands at Xandr highlights: “The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an acceleration towards programmatic in the advertising industry. The rate of acceleration will diminish following ‘Freedom Day’ given the immediate necessity for consumers to shift online will have disappeared, but higher rates of digital adoption will continue.” 

Yet it’s not just technology that has changed due to the pandemic. The UK’s largest online property website, Rightmove, saw a 126% increase in people considering properties in village locations and a 68% rise in people searching for towns as people escaped to the country during the first national lockdown. 

“The pandemic has changed some things forever, for example those that moved out of cities and bought houses in the suburbs will not be rushing back to studio flats – so those targeting their advertising at large millennial segments may find their audience is less interested as they now behave more like GenX audiences.” said Campbell. 

Brands should take caution 

However, concerns around new variants of the virus have led to warnings from health ministers that the UK is “opening up” too soon. And while mask wearing is no longer mandatory, some businesses and 40% people are opting to keep them on. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” Amy Jackson, Business Director at Incubeta comments. “Keeping up with a digital strategy is still so important and budget growth on channels such as social, pay-per-click (PPC) and display advertising suggest it’s still a competitive digital world,” she adds. 

This sentiment was shared by Campbell who thinks while OOH will take back some share of ad spend, it’s unlikely to recover over night. 

Jackson echo’s this concern, “Freedom Day has a dark cloud over it for many brands, as ultimately the transition back to high streets will be a slow one. An omni-channel strategy will set up most retailers for any outcomes, allowing them to respond to a sudden increase in footfall or decrease in online sales with speed and agility.”

Highs for the high-street

So how has the high-street fared following ‘Freedom Day’ and what effect has this had on online sales? 

New insights from Blis found retail footfall is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, yet spending is – and then some. When non-essential stores reopened, shoppers returned to physical stores and online sales fell. 

The Blis data goes on to show that verticals such as retail, transport, and food and drink haven’t been uniformly affected. “There has been increased footfall in Department Stores (+24%), Pubs (+6%), and Supermarkets (+6%), whilst any decreases have been relatively minor; Train Stations saw the biggest drop (-4%).” Alex Wright, Global Insights Director at Blis adds. 

However, Wright goes on to say how other factors such as the weather and the end of the school term are likely to have influenced these findings. He concludes; “Indeed these insights indicate moderation among consumers rather than a gung-ho expression of freedom. For example, the decline in QSR visits may be contributing to the decline in cases – a cause rather than consequence – while supermarket visits continue to be ‘essential’ and so increase in the face of a slower Covid decline as consumers avoid visiting unnecessary additional venues.”

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