Outdoor media companies have emerged as the dark horses in this age of digital disruption.

Gone are the days of a tattered billboard on a dusty road, waiting for the swoosh of a passing vehicle. In the past few years we've seen what is arguably the oldest form of advertising channel quickly evolve into a series of glowing rectangles that shift and sometimes even adjust with the weather.

The digitisation of outdoor media has increased the number of ads that can run on a single site, leading to a rapid rise in revenue for the channel.

The total amount spent on outdoor advertising rose from $95 million in 2015 to $140m in 2017. Data from the Outdoor Media Association of New Zealand (OMANZ) shows that by end of last year, digital advertising revenue had grown to the point of accounting for 46 per cent of all outdoor revenue.

Australasian outdoor giant QMS NZ generated ad revenue of $40.9m in the June 2018 year, down from $44m a year earlier, accounts filed to the Companies Office show.

Advertisement

And while this suggests the inevitability of a plateau, there are few signs that the outdoor industry faces the existential crisis confronting some traditional media.

What it means is that outdoor companies find themselves in the privileged position of having a bit of money to spend.

The question then is whether it makes sense for a buoyant company like QMS to buy a 40 per cent stake in a business with its feet firmly planted in media channels that have not enjoyed the digital ride quite so much.

From the moment murmurs first leaked about a potential QMS-MediaWorks merger, there was speculation that QMS might opt to jettison TV and only go for radio and the attached digital assets.

With the radio market remaining solid in recent years, currently reaching over 80 per cent of the population and seeing ad spending grow from $274m to $283m between 2015 and 2017, a limited deal would have certainly brought together two formidable Kiwi media channels. But this would have also cut out an important, albeit diminishing, segment of Kiwi media time.

Media are all about reach and frequency, and it's difficult to overlook the fact that 66 per cent of New Zealanders still spend an average of 156 minutes per day watching linear television. Yes, these numbers are set to decline in coming years, but cutting out the TV audience from the outset would have essentially put the merged media entity in the dark after 7pm.

The full package - dubbed a quad-media play - presents a force that could reach consumers in their cars, on their phones, on the street and in the living room over the course of the day.

It wouldn't take much of a salesman to package this up into a neat deal for Kiwi marketers increasingly obsessed with that oft-used buzzphrase: the "customer journey".

The bigger question is whether New Zealand's stubborn Commerce Commission will be willing to allow these two companies to merge, given its previous reluctance to allow Vodafone and Sky, and NZME and Stuff, to join forces.

At this stage, it's difficult to see what reason the commission would have to block the merger between the companies.

Media plurality isn't an issue, given that QMS doesn't own any news assets. And although the companies compete for a share of ad spend, they operate in completely different channels, which means a merger won't reduce the overall level of competition in the media market.

There is, of course, also a New Zealand precedent for a quad-media play in APN, which previously owned local print, radio, digital and outdoor assets before APN Outdoor was sliced off in 2013.

That said, one potential argument against a merger could come from smaller outdoor players concerned that package deals offered by a big media company across channels could lower prices for outdoor media and could, in turn, squeeze them out of the market.

The obvious counter-argument to this is that outdoor advertising has always come down to "location, location, location" and as long as long the other players in the market hold on to sites with strong visibility and high levels of traffic, they'll still be able to charge a premium regardless of what MediaWorks and QMS are doing.

Let's get Interactive

Numerous New Zealand advertisers have started experimenting with the flexibility offered by digital outdoor advertising.

Results on the run

During the 2014 Election, digital billboards were first employed to keep Kiwis up to date with the results as they rolled in. A partnership between MediaWorks, SparkPHD, digital media agency Ngage and APN Outdoor saw live regional and national results served onto digital billboards around the country.

Things get territorial

Another example of digital experimentation was seen during last year's Lions Tour, in the shape of a large digital screen that would change depending on which fans stood in front of it. The campaign, which came about as a collaborative effort between All Blacks sponsor Steinlager and British Lions sponsor Guinness, saw supporters claim their territory at the screen, which then remained unchanged until another set of fans came by.


Hot enough for a beer

In 2014, Speight's launched a series of digital billboards that adjusted as the temperature increased during the summer months. The scale went from "a little bit thirsty" to "scorched earth", with the latter suggesting it was clearly beer time.