Takeaways, dim sum and poems: A report from World Out of Home in Hong Kong

Last week, CEO of Phantom Billstickers, Robin McDonnell, provided us with his thoughts from day one of the World Out of Home Congress, held this year in Hong Kong. In this wrap up, he shares his key takeaways from the sessions and an adventure from his billsticker run around the city.

The World Out of Home Congress, held annually at the beginning of June, serves as the premier event for the global out-of-home (OOH) industry. This year’s edition took place in Hong Kong, a vibrant hub of outdoor advertising – making it an ideal setting to celebrate the best in the business.

Unlike previous congresses in Lisbon and Toronto, direct flights from Auckland made Hong Kong a much more accessible destination for this billsticker and his colleagues. Upon arrival, we took to the streets of Kowloon, adding some Kiwi flair to the streets of Hong Kong with poem posters from some of the finest in Aotearoa – Ockham finalist Isla Huia, the legendary Ben Brown, and of course, Janet Frame.

Venturing up Kowloon’s main thoroughfare, Nathan Road, we came across authentic Cantonese Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan. It’s a restaurant renowned for its mouth-watering baked barbecue pork buns, and for being among the world’s most affordable Michelin dining experiences. 

Whilst there are some similarities, OOH in Hong Kong and Aotearoa are vastly different. Hong Kong billboards are often dozens of storeys high, adorning the very tops of skyscrapers. The digital ones are brand-heavy and display a single animated message. Underground, the MTR subway system is like stepping into a futuristic digitalscape. 

But on the streets, Hong Kong lives up to its reputation as a city of contrasts. It is all analogue – the billposters of Hong Kong operate outside the law and take over any empty space for music, arts, entertainment, and fast-food posters. The 600 HKD ($125 NZD) fine is little deterrent when the only limit is a pile of posters and your own tenacity. 

Our own poster run in Hong Kong took an unexpected turn when we learned of the illegality and on-the-spot fines for posting from a friendly record shop proprietor. Fortunately, this was only after leaving behind a trail of poem posters for locals to enjoy.

As for the local billstickers, they keep going regardless. There are always more posters and always more walls. 

Overall, this speaks to the unfortunate reality in cities that never had a champion, like Phantom Billstickers founder Jim Wilson, who saw there had to be a better way and set about advocating for workable rules for legal street poster advertising. 

Back to business, the Congress commenced with a welcome address by World Out of Home President Tom Goddard, a fervent advocate for OOH advertising. The evening of the first day featured the prestigious formal dinner and awards ceremony at the JW Marriott Hotel, honouring industry excellence.

Here are my quick-fire takeaways from the congress: 

The OOH industry needs to embrace automation beyond programmatic trading to encompass all OOH advertising, presenting opportunities for an omnichannel approach. At the same time, ad tech vendors need to work together to create frictionless flow between platforms. At maximum of 25% of OOH is being transacted programmatically, so that leaves 75% of all OOH spend open for further automation. Make outdoor easy to buy. 

Complementary channels:
The growth of outdoor advertising stems from its ability to complement other channels, particularly digital. A prime example is a recent campaign by Oatly in France. Strict zoning laws prohibit logos on murals but Oatly ingeniously overcame this obstacle by painting the mural without a logo and having truck drivers strategically place trolleys with its product and branding in the right spot to create a forced perspective effective. The campaign videos went viral, reaching millions worldwide in what was a perfect blend of digital and physical advertising, whereas the traditional version would have had limited exposure. This campaign exemplifies the power of an omnichannel approach, as neither digital nor out-of-home advertising alone could achieve such widespread recognition.

Retail media:
Retail media is having a moment, particularly propelled by the decline of cookies. FMCG brands are now racing to discover alternatives to connect with and convert shoppers. This shift also presents an opportunity for brick-and-mortar retailers to leverage their position as media owners. While retail involvement in media isn’t novel, what’s different now is that retailers possess extensive consumer databases, an online presence and a network of physical stores, ideal for tapping into consumer purchasing intent. 

Sustainability remains a key focus, and we’re reaching a stage where all responsible businesses are actively working to minimise their environmental footprint. If your OOH supplier isn’t carbon neutral or employing science-based reduction strategies, it’s important to question why. Ad Net Zero serves as a beacon, guiding decisions beyond mere profitability. It’s crucial for the industry to consistently advocate for sustainability – remember it shouldn’t be a contest; we’re collectively striving for progress, not division.

It was notable that there were possibly more attendees focused on measuring OOH effectiveness than media owners. This underscores the critical role of measurement in the industry. What’s clear is we’ve matured past the “really big number” method, where potential audience reach is calculated based on maximum theoretical exposure. Instead, the industry is embracing a more nuanced approach, counting people not devices and prioritising accurate estimation of the actual audience reached by advertisements so an accurate ROI can be calculated. Even with this refinement, OOH advertising continues to offer exceptional value, delivering impressive CPM rates lower than any other industry. 

Creativity serves as the secret sauce for OOH to transform potential audience members into loyal customers. Creativity is memorable and will create brand fame, it’s the reason why you’ve probably already seen the Oatly mural example mentioned earlier. It’s the superpower of OOH advertising, explaining why this age-old form of marketing has endured. When creativity is combined with contextual relevance and expansive reach, its impact becomes unstoppable.  

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Robin McDonnell is the CEO of Phantom Billstickers.

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