The Wasteland of Billboards

On Tuesday I was in Chicago, taking I-294 back to the airport. There is a section between I-90 and I-55 that must be the world’s most billboard-ridden stretch of road. Think Vegas without the glitz and glamour. On both sides of the road there was just an unbelievable amount of billboard inventory, and what I realized as I drove past at least 100 billboards, was this: Not a single one of them was interesting.

Every single billboard sucked.

Outdoor media is still one of the hardest mediums to crack. In today’s environment, the wasted dollars that those billboards I drove past represented felt so painful. This was Chicago, probably some of the most expensive advertising real estate in the country and people still weren’t taking the time to craft the message.

According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), there are around 160,000+ billboards across the country, and they can be effective. Arbitron, reports in its Out-of-Home study that nearly 8 in 10 people look at the advertiser’s message on a billboard. We understand the behavior of drivers and know that outdoor media is seen, but the problem remains: bad messages.

A great copywriter once told me “It is easier to write a screenplay than a billboard.” Think about that. The average screenplay is 50,000 words. It’s an radical notion, but sitting there in the driver’s seat, passing all of those mediocre billboards, I understood what he meant.

People don’t recognize how difficult it is to create good marketing. Try describing a book, movie or brand in a single sentence that is compelling, interesting and will make someone buy. In today’s world, everyone with a television considers himself an expert marketer. Most will judge an ad or billboard on whether or not it entertains them. For the most part, that’s a good barometer, but beyond that – the part that no one really realizes – is the process it takes to get to that clear, concise billboard.

In the world of advertising, a client comes into the agency and says, “We want to do outdoor media.” A brief is approved and placed in front of the creative team. We tell them: “Give us five words that say everything in this brief.”

Synthesis is hard. Simple is even harder.

The billboard has become a classic example of marketing that isn’t done well. Everyone thinks they can do it, so they bypass the creative process. The result is a billboard wasteland lining the interstates and a sad truth wherein millions of people look, but tune out. We are teaching them to ignore the message, and that’s a problem.

Northlich is an agency that values the creative process. As I lead this agency into 2015, these billboards reinforce to me that simple is important, but it isn’t easy.