The outdoor sector was the most resilient form of traditional advertising until coronavirus struck, prompting companies to cancel campaigns
The outdoor sector was the most resilient form of traditional advertising until coronavirus struck, prompting companies to cancel campaigns © Paul Childs/Reuters

Technology that tracks consumer behaviour will be integrated with thousands of billboards and bus shelters around Europe next month as the world’s second-biggest outdoor advertising group bets on its digital rehabilitation post-coronavirus.

Clear Channel Outdoor on Monday will announce it is rolling out its Radar tracking product across the continent, seeking to prove the enduring value of outdoor adverts even as the pandemic wreaks havoc on the sector.

The Radar technology uses anonymised mobile phone data to give advertisers better insights on where to place street posters, and whether those who see them go on to buy their products or stream their films.

“Outdoor has suffered for decades from underinvesting in really good data. We now have the opportunity thanks to mobile location data,” William Eccleshare, chief executive of Clear Channel, told the Financial Times.

Asked what insights are possible, he said: “We would be able to see — and remember, this is very well anonymised — we can follow your movement to a store. We can follow what you purchase. And yes, we can look at your viewing habits that evening if you pass an ad for a Netflix show.”

The Texas-based company first introduced the Radar system in the US four years ago, saying it “gave the billboard a brain”. But it had waited in Europe to ensure it met more privacy-minded EU laws. Mr Eccleshare, a British veteran of the ad industry, said the company was “very conscious” of EU rules and was using “absolutely compliant” data suppliers.

Before 2020, the outdoor sector was the most resilient form of traditional advertising, taking market share from television and print. But it has been the worst-hit during the pandemic, as big brands cancelled campaigns and city centres emptied.

Clear Channel on Friday reported a net loss of $143m in the second quarter after its revenues plunged 55 per cent to $315m. Shares in Clear Channel have lost two-thirds of their value since January.

The layering of digital data on the network of physical posters is an attempt to move beyond crude measures of footfall or car traffic that were long used in the outdoor industry. Radar will be launched in the UK and Spain in September, followed by Sweden in coming months.

Asked whether the timing of the launch was wise, Mr Eccleshare said it was right to “work on the basis that things are going to come back”.

“You can’t do a job like mine unless you have a degree of optimism and there is a risk that it all becomes self-fulfilling gloom. I am really not prepared to fall into that.”

Without wanting to be “ridiculously optimistic”, Mr Eccleshare said the outdoor ad market had “definitely started to loosen up and bounce back” from its dramatic lows.

He took encouragement from Switzerland, where Clear Channel had “six straight weeks” with revenues ahead of last year. Most markets remain depressed but on an improving trend; Mr Eccleshare expects a percentage decline in third-quarter revenues in the “low 30s”.

In February, hours before US markets began their slide over the pandemic, Clear Channel signalled it would focus on its higher-margin US business and was willing to entertain offers for its European business.

Mr Eccleshare acknowledged it seemed “unlikely”, given the crisis, to “get a sensible conversation going around selling Europe”. Clear Channel’s European arm raised $375m in debt last month, a cushion that Mr Eccleshare said protected the business “for the foreseeable future”.

Paris-based JCDecaux, the world’s biggest outdoor advertising group, has long expressed interest in consolidation.

“Our French friends endlessly say they are looking at Clear Channel. They have said that since the day I joined, which was in 2009, and I think they were saying it before that,” said Mr Eccleshare. “It is time they put up or shut up. I don’t think they are serious, I don’t think they would pay what we need them to pay in order to make it make sense.”

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