A guide to Outdoor Advertising

Outdoor advertising is the original media. When our ancestors were chopping down trees for a living they’d have scratched a note on a stump announcing “Firewood 4 Sale”. And Outdoor advertising was born.

Yes, it’s local. It’s flexible. But its power is frequency. Its power is frequency. Other than getting lucky on the internet, there is nothing that gives you the number of hits Outdoor can deliver. Nothing. Not even a package in their pantry comes close to seeing an Outdoor ad 10 times a day for months at a time.

Outdoor advertising used well is a viable alternative to TV if you can afford to play, but it does have limitations. TV sells them with colour sound and music. With radio, you can get into their imagination. Direct Mail allows you long copy and you can intrigue them with the adventure of the bits of paper unfolding. Outdoor just flashes past. It either connects with the punter, or it don’t.

There’s another serious drawback with Outdoor advertising. The public, in the main, hate it. They’ve hated it since that first sign. They’ve got a legitimate beef too. It’s making a mess of the suburbs, let alone the highways. The public think the suburbs ought to be lined with trees and nice houses. While the Trump in you says ‘Don’t mess with business’, surely the hippie in you agrees with me? Outdoor cops it more than most media. So if you’re not careful, you’re potentially putting yourself in the firing line. The public are much more likely to get irate over a suggestive Outdoor ad (“They shouldn’t be allowed to put up ads like that!”), usually pumped up by other media like radio or TV who love to have a go at a competitor.

Why Use Outdoor Advertising?

Besides the frequency, Outdoor can achieve heaps of reach, if you believe the statistics the industry puts out. Mind you, most of the data is based on the premise that if a person drives past a site, they clock it. This is the same logic that has thousands of companies buying space in big magazines on the basis that their ad is going to be the one remembered of the 200 or so in the mag.

Outdoor advertising can also give you some serious impact, given it’s done with a decent slice of creativity. And obviously it’s a good visual media, which is critical for brand building.

What options do you have?

I’ve only tried to cover the major options here. There are so many versions of Outdoor, I could be here for months just trying to list them all. Trains, buses and trams have enough sizes and shapes that I can’t get my head around them, let alone some of the weirder formats you can book Outdoor in. The terms used vary by those flogging the medium. They all like to invent their own name for their versions so a complete idiot might think they are getting something completely different. I’m sorry to tell them this, but a sign is a sign.


Huge. Mainly one-offs, like the ones bolted onto the Glebe Grain Silo. The biggest is currently the one at Sydney Airport which is something around 40 metres by 10 metres. These massive statements are horribly expensive at $20-55K per month with production costs of the skins being about $5-10 K on top, but they are very noticeable. You’ll only need a couple per city to do the job.


A bit more common, these are up to about 20 metres by 5 metres. They’ll sting you an additional $3K for producing the skins, and at $15-25K per site per month, for say 4-6 per city for a campaign.

Super Sites

The most common form of the big sites. Again, big impact. Huge cost. At $5-25K a month, with a need to roll out say 8 -10 across a city to work…plus about $1650 per skin for the production component. Still, they are becoming the norm instead of the more traditional 24 sheeters, I guess because the cities have become even more highway oriented, and shopping is not necessarily as localised an affair, we need bigger Outdoor signs to have the same effect.

24 sheeters

Once all Outdoor was this simple. This is the still standard size and shape. It still works just as well and it’s a damn shame, given it’s efficiency, it doesn’t command more attention. But old, and a touch shabby, is rarely sexy, as I know too well. The rules apply here in force. Use incredibly simple ideas. Be very visual. Be fun. ($1200 per month, by say 40 sites per city, and production about $500 per site, it better be fun.) Voodoo did a really good job using these and so does Windsor Smith.

8 Sheeters/portraits

Smaller, different shaped versions of the above, usually put where they can’t find space for larger ones. Prices vary enormously.

Street (Rock) Posters

The unsung heroes of Outdoor. Cheap, cause it’s a touch illegal in some states and shires. A campaign might cost say $10 – $20K including printing to cover Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane with 2 x 1.5 m posters for a month. Incredibly good value for money compared to anything else. Very well targeted for youth and fashion markets. Used by all sorts of clients, from government departments to bands, where they started. Some very successful fashion brands were launched using this, including Feathers.

The right locations can really help. If you’re trying to be groovy, be in the inner suburbs like Mosman or St.Kilda not deadly dull Dandenong or parochial Parramatta.

Lamp Posts

A smaller, even more affordable form of street posters. Somewhat risky as even the most lax Councils will want them taken down, still, for a bit of ambush marketing nothing beats owning a street or a suburb for a day or two. This was the format that launched 26 Red.

Little Stickers

Look, I know you rarely get out of your Merc to stretch your legs, but there are people out there who actually walk more than 20 metres a day. They can be hit very effectively by cute little stickers placed in intelligent locations, such as bus shelters, post office walls, traffic lights, parking metres etc. Yes, it’s naughty. Yes, per sticker the placement cost is horrific. But if you’re in retail and they keep walking past you to go to the guy two doors up who’s using TV….

Train stations

The rules don’t apply here. I remember reading an ad at a London tube station that took me four separate visits to finish. The punters are there for ages. They are bored out of their minds. Here you can give them the sort of detail dreamed of by your agency’s copywriters. Let them go to town. There are still millions of people who use public transport daily. They still buy groceries. They still vote. And they’re not expensive to hit.

Metro Lites/Bus shelters etc.

Even ten years after their introduction they are still a more sexy/fashionable Outdoor than most. Sold in weekly or fortnightly blocks, it costs around $1000 or so a month per site. Bloody expensive I’d say, dollar for dollar. But if you want to be hip and hit both motorists and tram/bus commuters, I’d seriously consider them.

Lamp Post Flags – Main Shopping Strips

A nightmare to organise – you have to get it signed off by the power company, the council, and God, by the way they red-tape it. But a hell of a way to claim ownership of a whole street for a smart retailer, don’t you reckon? Can work really well with a couple of contrasting designs being repeated.

Bus/Tram Sides/Ends

I sit in the car. I’m stuck behind the blessed thing for 5 minutes. I read the ad. It works. Cute for a two/three part message. Hit thousands of people a day on the right route. Can be a bit of a pain to organise, but that’s what an agency is for, besides shouting you lunch. Use big type. Be very visual. Be rich.

Whole Trams/Buses

More impact. Much more cost. Can be bought on a per route basis but at $50,000 per month or so, you need deep pockets to be in the game. I wouldn’t recommend a client go into this sort of thing as a sole media for a campaign, but I’ve seen some do it.

Taxi Backs/ Tops

I’m again in the car. If the taxi had stayed still instead of changing lanes so much the passenger is vomiting in the back seat, I’d have read the ad.  Let’s hope your ad is in front of your customer when the lights change and he has to stop.

Truck Sides

The most under-utilised, virtually free, media space large and small companies have at their disposal. It scares me how few companies use their truck sides effectively. Even if you contract out delivery, just put the use of their sides into your contract negotiations.  Yes, it costs to do the trucks up, but they work for you often 24 hours a day. At $2,000 per month or so for similar ad space, it’s often worth hundreds of thousands.

Cars & Vans

Smaller than trucks, you can rent space on the sides of Courier vans and the like. I can see more frequency still, but less impact. But there’s also scooters, Harley’s… I get sick of options constantly being invented by people with a trailer in the back yard and too much time on their hands.

Supermarket Parking Areas

Touted as a big new media a couple of years ago, these rather small, 1.5 x 2 metre notices are one of the last thing your average punter sees as they trundle in for their usual supply of Coke, Cigarettes, Nappies (the three biggest sellers). If you want a slice of the customer dollar, it’s a reasonable argument that these might do it for you.

Mobile Billboards

Big fuss about these about ten years ago. Bloody expensive per day when you consider you’ve got to pay for the driver as well. The trailers are less so. Great for specific one offs, particularly nice ambush stuff, like say Tooheys running a truck around the car park during the Fosters Melbourne Cup, but has nothing like the inherent frequency of major stationary sites.

How to buy

Like all media, Outdoor does not like to be vacant. However, it’s probably one of the easiest media to sell. At a low price anyone will rent a site. They know it’s of some value, because they can reach out and touch it. So yes, it’s a negotiable thing, but no, they won’t take their knickers off as easily as TV, radio or press when the deadline’s fast approaching. With Outdoor, there’s no deadline.

Be sure which you want

Always keep in mind that you can hardly miss any Outdoor – it’s really a question of who the seller of the site wants you to think sees it, not what segment sees it. They all do. So don’t assume an option won’t work with your targets. Make sure they know you’ll be considering them all.

Be Serious

Commit to it. Buy for 3 months plus. Like I discussed above, there’s something about Outdoor that actually burns a message into our consciousness when it’s been there a while. It could just be that mind-numbing repetition works on our brains. I’ll try it now. Appoint Starship. Appoint Starship. Appoint Starship. Appoint Starship…. Working?

Be Judgemental

Compare apples with apples. If you can, buy on the basis of traffic numbers, with comparable sites. If some company’s buy is promising you 250,000 passing traffic a day, surely that’s better than 150,000? Don’t buy it just cause the rep smiles at you that way.

Hit the Right Spot

Position is everything. Even angle to traffic is vital. Don’t be conned into taking any site unless you’ve seen pickies from a couple of angles. Buy in the right streets/suburbs. Work out where your best customers tend to come from and plaster that area. And be smart about it. One of the best examples of intelligent Outdoor buying was done on behalf of Sheridan Sheets some 12 years ago. As I understand it, the only target they needed to hit was the Manchester buyer from a well-known department store. They knew he took Toorak Road home, so they bought sites along the route.  Apparently he thought it was a huge national campaign and ordered up big.

Buy Stories.

A one punch, two, three punch set of ads that build up over, say a kilometre, is best.

Buy Near Retail

Maccas always try to buy a few hundred metres from one of their stores.

Buy Major Roads Only

The name of the game is lots of passing traffic.

Buy a Good Deal

Nothing is a deal at full price. Negotiate. Argue. Tell them you’re buying the other Outdoor option, or TV, unless they drop price. Do anything to get a better deal.

How to do Creative

The massive amount of times that most people will see your ad means that good Outdoor is defined as ‘good’ if you don’t come to hate it over the course of the campaign.

Less is much more

They are travelling past so fast the message has to be very simple. I mean so simple most people in your company will ask ‘Why bother’? But simple is loved by the public, so tell them to heave off.


There are thousands of ads in the average person’s day. Bland does not work. Plus for some reason, you can be assured of a good PR spin-off with the ‘wrong’ approach. Not a bad idea to get your Mum to ring up the ABC to complain.

Use Visuals

Wherever possible, make the thing physically interesting, if you can afford it, consider 3D. Like the dress blowing up in the wind for the no knickers ad. I couldn’t get a pickie, but you remember it, don’t you?

Before you approve the company spending thousands of hard to get dollars on this bit of art, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it so simple that even someone, who doesn’t give a hoot about my product, can understand it?
  • Are we saying something that is interesting and convincing to our customers?
  • Am I using a typeface/colours/imagery that stand out?
  • Do I want this on my resume?
  • Can I imagine someone seeing this a hundred times and still bothering to read it?

The issue is not ‘Does it meet all our objectives? The issue is, ‘Will they love or hate us in a month?’.

Where’s Outdoor heading?

Bigness. Outdoor is growing faster than the list of US accountants who’ve committed corporate fraud. At the big end, it will continue to get more powerful as other media are dissipated by diversity. It’s almost untouched by the web and it’s undergoing some cute technical advances like screens that change every few seconds. It’s almost TV now and with the developments I’ve heard are coming, may soon actually be able to give you full, sharp TV quality.

Buy Outdoor for massive frequency. And, recognising your customers will no doubt see it a lot of times, pleeeease make it a nice experience for them.

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