With the US Stuck Inside, Where Does That Leave Out-of-Home Advertising?

Budgets are shifting, rather than being eliminated entirely

In some locations, outdoor ads are no longer the prime real estate they once were. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Key insights:

With shelter in place and stay-at-home orders all over the country, people from California to New York aren’t spending much time outside.

With those directives in place, few cabs dot the streets, subway cars have been left deserted, highways are nearly empty, buses carry fewer passengers and restaurants have shuttered. That means the prime spots for out-of-home advertising, such as signs on top of taxi cabs, subway advertisements, billboards and bus shelters, are no longer attracting the consumer attention they usually do.

Michael Provenzano, the CEO and co-founder of Vistar Media, a programmatic technology company that focuses on out-of-home advertising, said it’s not so much a shift away from OOH in general, but rather, a move toward different locations.

“We haven’t seen a loss of budgets yet, and we haven’t seen reduction or pauses, we’ve seen shifts,” said Provenzano. “We help a lot of our clients make recommendations on where they should shift their money.”

And as certain locations, such as public transport and billboards on the side of nearly empty highways, see a major drop-off in foot traffic, others have seen an uptick.

“There’s less people visiting a cinema or an airport right now, but there’s obviously a lot of people going to grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations,” said Provenzano. In working with clients, he said that consumer behavior patterns have shifted, and with it, there are other locations that may be more valuable than they once were.

What’s been perhaps most important for the OOH industry is to evaluate the situation as it changes. A location that may still be valuable one week could be less valuable the next, depending on changes in traffic and consumer behavior.

“Like every industry, OOH is currently navigating the COVID-19 crisis in real time,” said Anna Bager, president and CEO of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, in a statement. “This is an extremely challenging time for businesses and families everywhere, and it is too soon to know exactly what the impact of this crisis will be on OOH in the near term. I can say with confidence that the fundamentals of our industry are strong, and we are taking this day by day.”

That’s where the benefits of operating with programmatic advertising come in, according to Provenzano. He said that Vistar works with a “variety of data partners to better understand consumer movement patterns where we essentially should be placing out-of-home assets.” As behavior changes during the coronavirus pandemic, Provenzano said the ability to track those changes and make adjustments accordingly will be a key to success.

“The whole point of programmatic is to be flexible, to dynamically change your decision making at the moment,” he said. “One of the most valid data sets right now is because of COVID-19, people are changing their movement patterns.”

With those shifts, Provenzano said there have been fewer marketers looking to make upfront buys of a certain space, like a billboard, and are adjusting their spending patterns day by day. More than ever, it’s less about a particular space and more about reaching an audience where they are and Provenzano said that oftentimes means being forced to “embrace uncertainty” and be willing to make quicker shifts than they normally might.

As marketers continue to reevaluate budgets, some pullback is inevitable, but any negative effects that OOH may feel aren’t limited to just that arena of advertising.

“Everyone’s getting an impact right now across the advertising space,” said Provenzano. “Any brand is going to apply scrutiny to marketing spend right now.”


@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.