Digital OOH is Reaching the Tipping Point, But No Transformation in Sight at Cannes

The Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity has been receiving a lot of negative press of late, but one area in particular it should be shining is the awards. Not so, it seems, when it comes to the Digital Outdoor category. Dan Dawson, chief creative technology officer, Grand Visual, believes that, since the category was introduced eight years' ago, it's been a mess and is showing few signs of improvement with each passing year. Writing exclusively for ExchangeWire, Dawson explains why.

This year, whilst many battled for a drink at the Gutter Bar during the world’s largest gathering of advertising professionals, I opted to review the creative, and conduct my Cannes analysis from the comfort of my own back garden, Pimms in hand.

As my major area of interest is Digital Outdoor, I was keen to check out this year’s winners and to see if the creativity festival had evolved since my less than complimentary review for 2016. This year, I was particularly interested to see if the awards would capture the creative evolution of this fast-growth medium as it continues its transformation from static branding channel, to dynamic, data-led, contextual, scalable, and interactive conduit.

Advertisers have begun to look at the medium through a new strategic lens and the last 12 months have generated a great body of work showcasing the medium's expanding communication potential. Strong examples of creative optimisation and AI are breaking through as the medium continues to march towards a programmatic future. The needle has been moved. Technology is increasing the creative storytelling power of OOH and I was eager to see this reflected in the awards and to see the innovators leading the awards tables.

But, as I sit poring over the shortlists and winners, I am struck with a sense of déjà vu. Lots of projects look like they are ‘digital’ and ‘outdoor’, but not many are ‘digital outdoor’, as we know it. It seems there might be an issue here, that the awarding body's understanding of ‘digital outdoor’ is wide of the mark and that shortlisted and winning work does not match the category criteria.

In fact, the Digital Outdoor category has been a bit of a mess since it was added to the festival in 2009. Since then, campaigns we’ve produced have won a total of 12 Cannes Lions. Only three of them were awarded in outdoor and only one of those was specifically for Digital Outdoor – our area of craft/labour/love. The Digital Outdoor category is in such disarray, that a couple of years ago we took the decision to stop entering the category. Our work was better understood and rewarded in Media categories particularly ‘use of screens’ and ‘data-driven targeting’.

Dan Dawson, Chief Creative Technology Officer, Grand Visual

Another issue for the category is the abundance of one-off PR stunts versus scalable, intelligent work that truly leverages the medium. This issue is endemic among all major awards programmes and needs to be addressed. For example, 'E03 Use of Digital Outdoor' had four shortlisted entries. One was an augmented reality mobile app, one a bespoke tech build converting payphones into micro-savings facilities, one was a staged PR stunt, and one was a virtual reality animation. None of them used Digital Outdoor media.

Don’t get me wrong, we do our fair share of one-off stunts, and they have a purpose and a place. So let’s put them in their rightful place, as special builds, PR launches, experiential events, field marketing, and bespoke art installation categories. And let’s start recognising those campaigns that utilise the scale and ubiquity of DOOH, its presence and role in modern day life, and its ability to reach national and global audiences whilst delivering local relevance and results.

Digital is revolutionising the OOH marketplace, driving growth and modernisation, and future-proofing the medium. Digital now represents 40% of total outdoor revenue in the UK and is soon to surpass 36% in the US outdoor market. So the medium deserves more consideration by Cannes organisers; the category needs a complete overhaul and jurors need to be creative champions and leaders of the medium, with considerable sector expertise and knowledge of where the medium is heading.

Or do we have to wait until digital OOH reaches the tipping point, where it commands more than 50% of the outdoor market (not long now, according to projections), before Cannes organisers take it seriously? Perhaps then definitions will be nailed, category rules upheld, and judging panels will be staffed by digital strategists, digital producers, media planners, and creatives (all essential for delivering creative excellence in DOOH).

As I write this, I see a series of tweets confirming that Publicis Groupe is pulling out of Cannes Lions next year, and Omnicom and WPP are discussing a Cannes Lions rethink, amid various other calls for reform. And it’s great to see Cannes Lions is responding with the launch of a committee to address the criticism (feel free to get in touch).

But, before you think I’m just bitter, projects we produced this year won Gold, Silver, and Bronze – all in Media Lions of course – including Data-Driven Targeting and Use of Other Screens. It was also great to see Twitter and Sport England awarded in the Static Digital Billboards category; both were worthy winners. Spotify’s 'It’s been weird', a traditional outdoor campaign, shortlisted across several Outdoor categories, but only picking up metal in the Promo and Activation and Innovation Lions for data storytelling, was also a great campaign, in my view. Imagine what that could have looked like as a digital execution, using live data to react throughout the day with locally relevant stats, contextualising messages on a global scale. Just saying.

To summarise, I’m more than a little jaded with writing the same old update each year for the Digital Outdoor category. The problem is not bad creative, the problem is that good work is not coming through and being recognised. And yet the Lions PR machine tells us that the festival is shifting with the market, reflecting how 'we now work’ or ‘how wide creativity spreads’. Yes, Cannes Lions is acknowledging pretty much every advertising medium you can possibly think of – every format, craft, and category. But something shifted this year. The categories are up and the entries are down – just over 2,000 down. That’s almost 5%. Let’s hope this will be the catalyst for much-needed change.