Mark Ritson on branding: Careless clutter costs bottom lines

Once upon a time in a town called Clutter, a young marketer had an idea. Clutter had a vibrant town square and most of the area's residents passed through this square at least once a day.

The young marketer's idea was a simple but brilliant one. He would erect a giant billboard on the Eastern side of the square and sell the space to companies, which could use it to advertise their wares to the local population for a fee of £50 a week.

When the billboard was erected, the people of Clutter were intrigued by the new construction. Once companies began to advertise on the billboard, the ads caused a huge commotion.

The people of Clutter had never seen ads this size before and many would congregate in the square just gazing up at the huge ads that now looked down upon them. Every day, the townspeople would stop and gaze in wonder at the advertising.

Advertisers realised how powerful this new medium was and soon the weekly fee for the billboard had reached £200.

Then the marketer (he was no longer young) had another brilliant idea.

He created another billboard on the Western side of the square. There was less excitement about having a second huge advertising site hovering over the town, but the people of Clutter now shared their daily attention between the two billboards. The marketer was able to charge companies £200 to advertise on each site. He rubbed his hands with glee and thought 'what a clever marketer I am.'

It didn't take him long to hit upon the idea of erecting a third billboard, this time on the North side of the square. Up it went and again the price tag for advertisers was £200 a week. But by now the people of Clutter were getting used to the idea of huge advertising all around town, and many of them had started ignoring the billboards altogether.

As a result, the advertisers began to realise that this once-powerful medium was much less effective than it used to be. The price of advertising on one of the billboards dropped to £150 a week.

The marketer was a little depressed with the downturn, but he consoled himself with the thought that because three billboards made him more money than two, it was still a good business decision.

The marketer had grown fat and greedy by now. Every day he gazed enviously at the South side of the square and the big blue space that existed there, and dreamed of a fourth billboard. Finally, after much arguing with the Mayor of Clutter, he was granted permission to erect a fourth billboard in the town square.

The result was disastrous. Starved of sunlight and barraged by advertising on all sides, the people of Clutter now ignored all the advertising in the town square completely. Others decided to avoid the cluttered town square and seek out a more calming route through the town.

The prices for advertising on all four billboards crashed and the marketer finally realised that there would be only one solution to save his business: taller billboards.

Last week the terrestrial channels lobbied communications regulator Ofcom to allow them to introduce an additional 24 minutes of advertising per channel every day.

Several senior media planners have warned that such a move would increase clutter and eventually result in more ads that generate less revenue for the terrestrial channels.

Two weeks ago GCap Media sales chief Duncan George announced that its flagship radio station, Capital FM, would schedule no more than two ads in a row from this month and thus almost halve ad minutage on the London station.

Most media experts welcomed the decision, which came as part of a company-wide restructure. GCap Media shares dropped 17% on the day the move was announced. It is now viewed as a target for takeover.

30 SECONDS ON ... OUTDOOR ADVERTISING

- Outdoor advertising can be divided into roadside, which accounted for 52.4% of activity in the third quarter of 2005, transport (35.8%) and retail/POS/leisure (11.8%), according to the Advertising Association and World Advertising Research Center.

- The gross revenue for total outdoor advertising in the same period was £222.1m, a 4% increase on 2004. Entertainment and media is the biggest sector, with a £34m outdoor adspend in the third quarter. Telecoms and motors are the next-biggest sectors with outdoor spends of £22.4m and £18.4m respectively, according to Outdoor Advertising Update, July-September 2005.

- The top three outdoor advertisers in the third quarter were Unilever, T-Mobile and DFS, with spends of £9.7m, £5m and £4.7m respectively, according to Nielsen Media Research.

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