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OOH media: Feast or Famine

By - June 07, 2021

Noomi Mehta, Chairman, Selvel One Group asserts that the future of Indian OOH is predicated upon the collective will and initiative of the media owning businesses to reinforce the medium’s competitiveness and accountability standards. Otherwise, there is the risk of the business becoming like “yesterday-men in the dream of tomorrow’s world”. Noomi advocates a 6-Step approach to strengthening Indian OOH in the current times.

Noomi Mehta, Chairman, Selvel One Group There is little doubt that OOH media has been under siege for a long time. The combined pressures of ever-changing regulations and demands for more money from the authorities have thrown our media into disarray and have made investments in new media more of a gamble and less of a planned investment. The decimation of the OOH industry in Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad when layered against the supposed “ban” in Delhi for the longest time, which was rapidly followed by similar actions against our media in Punjab, Jaipur and every now and then in Uttar Pradesh has revealed a disturbing pattern. It suggests a pre-planned attack against OOH by the respective authorities.

The continuously changing policy in Mumbai, which every few years brings fresh instruments of torture to be suffered by media owners gives finishing touches to what can only be described as a conspiracy against the OOH medium. It is important to realise this backdrop since it sets the scenario for any prayer for help or amelioration we pray for from the authorities to help us through the pandemic lockdowns. To put it simply it is unlikely that any serious help or reduction in payments will be extended. 

The message in my mind is clear. We are seen simply as the cow to be milked and milked for all we are worth, but there is a difference, we are neither holy nor revered. We are simply to be used, squeezed and forgotten. Left to loiter around in various neighbourhoods looking for scraps for our existence. 

The question that is often asked of me is will OOH rebound? To aspire to rebound to our previous pathetic state in my mind is an insult of the highest magnitude. We have long since passed our glory days of the 1990s. We no longer create brands, participate in strategy, mould creatives and partner clients in their growth stories. We had for a while succeeded in breaking through from the back entrance into the decision-making portals of Board Rooms. There was a time when we made a splash by introducing the new technology of large format Digital Printing accompanied by digital creativity in reformatting designs to different sizes. There was a time when we advised clients to shoot campaigns purely for OOH. That time has passed and like yesterday’s news we have been left outside the door. 

So, what then is the future? Are we slated to be yesterday-men in the dream of tomorrow’s world? The answer as always lies within us. If we want a future, we will need to forge it by the strength of our own hand. If we want to prosper, it will be by our thoughts and our actions, not by some government handout. There are no short cuts. There is no longer any place for one-up-man-ship. “I” cannot gain if “you” lose. If we are to succeed, we will have to remember “WE” not “I”, holds the key. We have allowed ourselves to be fragmented not just in ownership but in thought and deed. We have sought to curry favour, give handouts, kick-backs and use any and every method possible to get more than our fair share. Men eat when they are hungry, to eat merely to prevent another from getting access to that food is foolish and injurious. We are guilty of competitiveness gone mad. We pay more than we can afford, we sell for less than what we pay and all the while dream of a better tomorrow. But tomorrow will depend on what we do today, so we need to do better today. 

So much negativity and that too in the middle of a Pandemic? Well negativity has its advantages too, not least in a negative covid test report! The above is not meant to frighten, it is merely meant to reveal the real situation as it exists, warts and all. If we carry on doing what we always have been doing, it is not possible to expect a different result. We must change and change NOW. 

Sure, we can appeal to the different government authorities, but while we hope for the best, let us prepare ourselves for the worst. No help will be forthcoming. But, we can definitely help ourselves. 

STEP 1. “I will survive”. Say it, mean it. Tighten your belt, squeeze the last Rupee, reduce your staff, postpone any and every expense that can be delayed. Tread water, stay afloat, survive! This is the Second Wave, no matter how depressing you must expect the Third Wave and do what you can to prepare for it. Hopefully, there will be a pause between waves to get you a chance at some sorely needed revenue. Grab it, keep it, hoard it. Do not behave as though the Covid virus has vanished, stay cautious till the end of the year. Hopefully by then the vaccines would have taken root and reduced the crippling virus to tiresome bother. 

STEP 2. Understand what clients want. Not the agencies, the clients. They need to account for every Rupee spent, they need to justify their outlay on OOH media. Feel good factor, ego boost, larger-than-life are all well and good but the corporate purchase department is much more cold blooded than some excitable young brand manager and they are calling the shots more and more. Then there are the audit, internal audit and concurrent audit departments, wading through numbers backed by reams and reams of data on different sites collected over the years, analysed, compared and dissected. Offer discounts at your own peril, the record stays and lives in the cloud. It will be that much harder to justify an increase when times improve. 

We need to provide data to clients, numbers that they can use to justify spends. “Attributability” is the new buzzword and they need to know how much of the final sale can be attributed to OOH. A glib answer like “a hell of a lot” does not cut much ice with cold blooded accountants. We must learn the numbers game; we must master it and to do that we must invest in it. The more data we give the client to justify their spend, the more they will spend. We know the value of our medium, but we are unable to convince others because we cannot give the numbers required. Let us then invest in numbers, let us master the measurement game, let us give the clients what they have been asking for all these years. Let us invest in the best research possible so that our study and numbers reveal not just superiority in methodology and study but underlines the basic importance and superiority of the OOH medium itself. 

The investment in measurement will also give us a scientific reason to invest in locations, thereby improving our chances for commercial success. 

STEP 3. We must rebuild the trust our clients had in us. We need to stop the tendency of resorting to “fire-sales”, for that only reduces the value of our sites, it unsettles clients who tend to believe that they have earlier been taken for a ride. We must find the courage to say NO to unreasonable requests from clients and their agencies. Under-cutting rates assures of a race to the bottom. We must be able to present the credentials of OOH media to the clients at an industry level, without seeking personal gain from the presentation. IOAA needs to have a team capable of doing this independently. 

Our SoP needs to be communicated far and wide and the salient parts made into a one sheeter for quicker understanding of relevant points for clients. But, more than anything else we need to be able to behave in an ethical manner and not like a horde willing to do anything to get ahead. IOAA must stand for something and I believe it should stand for all the right things in OOH advertising. The stamp of IOAA must always be respected and carry weight beyond any of its member constituents. 

STEP 4. We must be represented in corridors of power in the various government departments. This can easily be achieved by a roster of carefully chosen consultants, preferably selected from the roster of retired bureaucrats who know the ins and outs of government machinery. We have been trampled upon for far too long. We have our views and they must be heard and respected. We need to work from inside the government and bolster our chances at influencing policies by using the power of own medium.

An all-India campaign on one of the several burning needs of society will go a long way in establishing the relevance of our medium and our ability to communicate and influence behaviour. We need to use our strengths to establish our points of view. 

STEP 5. All the above costs money, a lot of money. But, not doing it will cost us more than money, it will cost us our relevance in the advertising mix. Our percentage has been dwindling steadily and it is high time we corrected this. What has been suggested would need an annual budget of Rs 12-15 crore. The benefit would be in hundreds of crores of Rupees. As a business decision it would be a no brainer. 

STEP 6. If, in fact, the business decision would be a no brainer, why haven’t we done it yet. It is because we have so far been too clever for our own good. “Let the others do it,” is our individual motto, “I will step in and eat for free at the table when the feast is ready”. But then everyone in OOH is too clever by half and everyone is waiting to eat for free. This means no one steps forward to do anything. It is time to stop this nonsensical behaviour. It is time to join hands to work together, to believe in one another, to collaborate. The ocean of opportunities available are far too great for any ship to make a difference by fishing alone. Instead of working against each other let us work towards ensuring success for all. To be able to carve out a sizeable chunk of the advertising pie for OOH media, we will require our collective will and wisdom. 

The Pandemic has shown us how quickly the winds of change can blow away yesterday’s favourites. The print media are in dire state, cinema advertising has been wiped out, radio has reduced impact and TV too without IPL has lost a lot of sheen. Yes, some of them have recovered faster than OOH, but we have seen how quickly the Urban Indian Youth, that much coveted diaspora in marketing, change their viewing preferences. They want to watch what they want to watch, the instant they think of it, and OTT allows them to do just that. Their world of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, TicTok, YouTube all accessed through their ubiquitous smartphones are rewriting the rules of the game. We need to look carefully at this new world and find synergies. This will require investments, huge investments which perhaps no single player in India can afford at the moment and finance is already difficult due to the weak sentiments prevailing on our current state of affairs.  

Are we ready to work jointly to recreate an atmosphere of trust, openness and generosity to enable our industry to rise and rise? Or do we, to meet our own selfish ends, circumscribe all efforts, refuse to participate and simply wait to sit at the table while the famine in our industry rages. There is a banquet waiting for us all if we work united towards a single plan of progress. What say you ladies and gentlemen? Are you ready to party?

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