Outside somewhere, in a time long ago, before even Jean-Claude Decaux had pasted his first poster, the Romans were using the walls of Pompeii to advertise tourist destinations, local shops and political campaigns to the visiting masses.
Fast forward 2,000 years or so and outdoor, the world’s oldest medium, continues to demand our attention. A series of innovations helped make outdoor the UK’s fastest-growing traditional advertising medium last year, with annual revenues nearing £1 billion. Almost a fifth of these revenues were generated by digital screens, all of which have only been made in the past decade.
Such investment continues to drive the sector forward. Already in 2013, we’ve had the launch of Route and its GPS data-tracking of 28,000 people. And, last week, young upstart Amscreen promised nothing short of an "outdoor revolution" after partnering with the face-tracking specialist Quividi.
It means visitors to many petrol station forecourts can now be served real-time ads based on gender and age, in addition to time, location and proximity.
It’s all exciting stuff, but as with any form of personalised ad targeting, it carries inherent dangers of provoking a consumer backlash. And with Amscreen’s latest development there is no escaping its similarity to those dystopic scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.
'At least Tom Cruise’s character had to have his retinas scanned before being served personalised ads'
As one media buyer dryly notes, at least Tom Cruise’s character had to have his retinas scanned before being served personalised ads; today, you are simply queuing to pay for petrol.
In reality, the technology "detects" faces as opposed to "recognising" them. No images are ever captured – thus, it is hoped, negating any privacy concerns.
Amscreen’s chief executive, Simon Sugar, is certainly not underplaying its significance. He believes the combination of the new targeting capabilities, fused with the company’s own consumer insights, sets the company - only established in the summer of 2009 - well ahead of the game.
There’s much talk of the ability to offer day-part targeting, live feeds, reactive advertising as well as automated localised content.
"JCDecaux and CBS are experts in monetising paper and paste billboards," he says. "We are experts in technology and are just learning the media business at the moment. But I would certainly consider ourselves ahead of the game in terms of digital screens."
He adds for good measure: "When you compare what we do and how we measure our audience with other out of home media owners, I would say our measurement is far more accurate."
Amscreen already claims a weekly audience of 30 million and is set to expand to "at least 40 million" within the year, he assures me, with more screens being installed in independent retailers and doctors surgeries.
Many industry specialists are starting to buy into its potential, including the Outdoor Media Centre’s Mike Baker (see this week’s comment report). While Sugar’s company is not the first to use Quividi’s face-tracking technology - with notable localised campaigns already running on Clear Channel and Ocean Outdoor sites - it is unquestionably the most signficant.
Adrian Exton, the director at Quividi’s distributor, BlueSight Systems, says it is the scale of the offering that makes it such a milestone, and he believes there is much more to come. "We’ve been evangelising about this technology for the past five years," he says. "But, in the last three quarters, it’s got really energetic."
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