Richard Yao
May 17, 2018 · 8 min read

Just as connected TV and smart speakers are changing the way brands reach consumer at home, so are AR and other AI-driven innovations for out-of-home advertising.

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Remarkably, at a time when advertising spend is flowing from traditional advertising channels to digital media, OOH advertising has been a particularly enduring physical format anchored in the real world. Netflix, for example, recently made a $300 million bid to acquire Regency Outdoor Advertising, as the streaming giant plans to increase its marketing spent to $2 billion this year in order to better promote its original content.

According to data from Magna Global, OOH advertising (excluding cinema) revenues worldwide grew by 3% in 2017, reaching an all-time high of $29.5 billion. Growth is entirely concentrated in the digital OOH segment, as revenues from OOH screens, in particular those in transit and street furniture, are growing by 16%.

Arguably the oldest and most enduring format of mass advertising. OOH advertising is ripe for a digital transformation that goes beyond simply replacing the billboards with screens. In particular, the rise of augmented reality and other AI-driven technologies spell exciting opportunities for the OOH ad industry.

AR Brings A New Interactive Dimension to OOH Ads

Last week at Google’s annual developer conference, the search giant showed off a new AR feature added to its virtual search tool Google Lens, which will allow users to scan a poster with their Android phone’s camera and get additional information and content overlaid in a virtual layer over the poster. For example, if you scan a poster for a pop star’s concert, you will get the top music video of said pop star in a virtual window. Needless to say, this feature points to a near future when every poster and OOH ad could be augmented by AR technologies with additional content and relevant information.

Another AR feature that Google announced last week was adding AR-powered navigation and local exploration to Google Maps, making it easier for users to find the way to their destination and discover local businesses nearby with virtual pop-up info cards. It’s not hard to imagine how Google could leverage its user data to launch a new AR ad product that dynamically replaces all OOH billboards and displays with ads that tailored to individual interests when they are viewed in AR mode. Granted, there will be a bit of a learning curve before most users pick up on the new AR features and learn to use them. However, once smart glasses become a viable consumer gadget, AR mode will become the default and we won’t even need to be holding up our phones any more.

Despite the recent upgrade from print ads to digital displays, OOH advertising remains fundamentally a real estate business — it’s all about location and available spaces. There are a lot of digital billboards in Times Square, but that number is still finite. The brilliance of using location-based AR in OOH ads, therefore, is that it can circumvent the supply issue by not only creating virtual spaces for advertisers, but also enhancing the relevancy of each ad shown. Of course, AR ad placements will have to be executed with moderation, lest we transform our world into a dystopia filled with holographic ads everywhere we look.

On the flip side, the eventual adoption of wearable AR could also lead to always-on ad-blockers for the real world, where all OOH ads get filtered out of sight indiscriminately. We have already witnessed a significant rise in ad blocker usage in the past few years, including a 30% increase worldwide in 2016. Such practices could easily translate into the real world once wearable AR becomes a reality, spelling potential trouble for the OOH industry.

OOH advertising used to be tow on every media planner’s list because they had no discernable way of measuring ROI. OOH campaigns are typically geared towards building buzz and brand awareness. However, with the help of AR and location data, it is now theoretically possible to track the impressions generated by OOH ads, especially if they call for an interaction such as visiting a site or play additional video content.

It is clear to see that AR will bring profound changes to OOH ads, but that’s not even half of it. Just like how connected TV, smart speakers, and other connected home devices are changing the way brands reach their audiences at home by enabling new interactive experiences and targeting capabilities, so are AR and other AI-driven technologies in OOH advertising.

Data-Driven Targeting & Attribution In Real Time

Already, a lot of digital OOH ads are applying AI algorithms to customize its display content based on real-time contextual data. eBay recently ran a DOOH campaign that showcased different products based on real-time weather data, showing gardening products during sunny days and switching to home improvement products when it started to rain. Last November, McDonald’s ran a similar OOH campaign in the UK with roadside digital displays that change ad copy based on real-time traffic condition.

For brands, partnering with an ad tech vendor to plug in first-party data would be a good way to run an effectively data-driven campaign. For recent store openings and holiday promotion, connected fitness brand Peloton worked with ad tech company AdQuick to purchase DOOH media from overs 30 sellers in multiple markets and tried over 100 versions of ad creative in various markets. The data this approach gathered not only enabled the company to purchase the media that best matched its target audience, but also to connect the dots and attributed store visits to specific media to measure their effectiveness.

Back in 2016, the Lab team masterminded an innovative outdoor MillerCoors campaign with Intersection that invited pedestrians in select NYC neighborhoods to discover what music people in their neighborhoods were listening to. They could opt to receive location-based playlists based on real-time Shazam data by opening the popular music recognition app near LinkNYC kiosks displaying ads for Coors Light beer.

This data-driven approach is in no way limited to how brands run their OOH campaigns. By incorporating AI and computer vision, even digital billboards themselves can become a rich interactive experience. Last year, a 790-square-meter digital display in London’s Piccadilly Circus started tracking cars and passersby to display targeted ads people can interact with in real time. The screen, owned by OOH media firm Landsec, used hidden cameras and recognition technology to determine the model and color of cars driving by as well as the age, gender, and emotions of pedestrians to trigger customized ads.

Similar dynamic billboards using AI and computer vision to discern cars passing by to deliver customized ads have also popped up in Tokyo and Moscow. Altogether, they represent an ongoing shift in outdoor advertising from the conventional “one-for-all” model to a more refined data-driven targetability. Some OOH media owners, such as Clear Channel and Outfront Media, are also starting to inform their online retargeting efforts with offline exposure data by geofencing their billboards to retarget consumers online, further improving the value of OOH ads.

The Reinvention of OOH in the Age of Driverless Cars

Another AI-driven innovation that is set to disrupt the OOH ad industry is autonomous driving. According to data from the OAAA, billboards accounted for 65% of all OOH ad spend in 2017.

It seems safe to assume that a large portion of those billboards are planted along freeways and main streets, thus earning their impressions primarily from drivers and passengers. Nowadays, passengers already rarely look out of the windows if they can simply stare at their mobile devices. Once self-driving cars become a reality — and it will be sooner than most think — even the drivers will no longer need to keep an eye out on the road, which could lead to a sharp decline in the attention those roadside billboards receive.

One way to counter this potential decline in OOH advertising is to reinvent the medium as a storytelling medium. With content playing an increasingly central role, OOH media owners can no longer afford to just be real estate companies. They must evolve to become publishers of entertaining short-form experiences that people will choose to look out of their car windows for. The aforementioned AR and computer vision can certainly help, but there are emerging technologies that could be applicable too. For example, the development of parallel display technology, which enables digital displays to project different images to viewers at different viewing angles like a tilt card, can enable roadside billboard to communicate a short narrative as the cars pass by.

Sometimes, adding a little interactive personalization can also help garner interest. For example, Ford is set to run a DOOH campaign this July for the Ford Mustang’s 2018 model. Customers will be able to create their own custom Mustang logos through the Pony Personalizer online tool for a chance to see their designs featured on the displays,

An Attribution Makeover for Cinema Ads

Although only a small part of the overall OOH ad revenue, cinema ads play an important role in the movie ecosystem and enjoy a wholly captive audience, a rarity in today’s hyper-fragmented, over-saturated media landscape. But cinema ads have yet to improve with the technological advanced, despite recent additions of quizzes and trivia designed to boost audience engagement.

Opportunities for interactivity and attribution could be within the reach of cinema ad sellers to enhance their ad experience, provided that they get over the hurdle of mobile integration. By encouraging audiences to get their phones out before the feature presentation begins (and they likely already have them out anyway,) and sync it with what they see on screen through audio recognition, True interactive experiences may be created to better promote local businesses and retailers to help cinema-goers to receive special offers that drive foot traffic. Movie studios can prompt moviegoers to set a calendar reminder on their phone for a movie they are interested in seeing at the end of a trailer.


Despite accounting for only 4.2% of total media spend in 2017, out-of-home (OOH) ads have an outsized influence on brand perception and cultural conversation. OOH advertising enjoys the unique ability to penetrate our digital filter bubbles and deliver brand messages as a shared experience at scale, thus making them well suited for increasing collective mindshare and lending a sense of legitimacy to the advertising brands.

OOH ads have a bright future of growth ahead, thanks to opportunities in global markets with high population density and accelerating urbanization. While the advertising landscape will continue to change and evolve, it appears that outdoor advertising as a medium will find ways to adapt and remain a viable option for brands.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

Richard Yao

Written by

Senior Associate of Strategy and Content, IPG Media Lab

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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