Birmingham, England, United Kingdom — August 10, 2015 — Charlie Wells, WSJ

England to Roll Out Tailored Billboards

Digital-billboard companies are using data-collection and data-analysis software to select what ads may work best for groups or individuals.
As featured in The Wall Street Journal

Advances in image-detection software are starting to enliven one of the world’s oldest forms of advertising: the billboard.

Ocean Outdoor U.K. Ltd., one of Britain’s largest digital billboard companies, is rolling out in September an advertising system at the main train station here that will use the technology to help tailor ads to commuters.

Cameras placed in the billboards will capture images of people at the station and beam those back to computers, which will analyze characteristics like gender and age. That will help create ads displayed on the billboards—a series of giant screens atop the station’s busiest entrances.

The system also beams out free Wi-Fi. In exchange, users agree to share data, which can then help further refine what best to broadcast on the billboards. It will also help select ads the system can push to commuters’ mobile devices.

“If you’re selling a car, and there’s a guy in front of the screen, then you might serve an ad about color, horsepower or engine size,” said Richard Malton, marketing director at Ocean. “But if it’s a woman, it might be about safety.”

Billboard and outdoor-advertising companies have for years gravitated toward digital displays—the sort of moving canvases that light up a chunk of New York City’s Times Square. Now, some digital-billboard companies are taking the next step, embracing today’s new data-collection and data-analysis powers to help select what ads may work best for groups or individuals.

Until recently, the concept has been confined to Hollywood—and long the subject of controversy. In the 2002 film “Minority Report,” Tom Cruise’s character is bombarded by personalized, moving billboard ads after an eye scan.

Ocean’s more basic technology can pick out a few general characteristics from its cameras—such as age, gender and how long a person looks at the advertisement. The system won’t be able to recognize the identities of specific people, an Ocean spokeswoman said, because the cameras won’t compare its images to any sort of database with personal information. The system isn’t designed to target individuals, but the “wider crowd of individuals within the camera’s range,” and the system doesn’t hold on to images.

A spokesman for Network Rail, which operates the station, said the data is anonymized, and that it will assess Ocean’s compliance with U.K. privacy legislation, though it doesn’t see any concerns as yet.

Still, “there’s no other way to get on a train than to walk past these things,” said Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, a U.K. data-privacy organization. “It’s incredibly difficult when you’re doing this to have informed consent.” It is the general requirement in many countries that consumers have to specifically consent before their data can be collected and used. For Ocean’s Wi-Fi system, consumers will have to opt in to receive the service and will be informed of how any data they provide will be used, just like most free Wi-Fi services.

This summer, JCDecaux Airport UK, a unit of French outdoor-advertising firm JCDecaux Group, has plans to update several billboards in terminals at London’s Heathrow Airport to draw on data—like flight arrival times—to change the language of ads, depending on what nationalities may be passing by.

“As an industry, we’re at a watershed moment in digital,” said Shaun Gregory, chief executive of Exterion Media Group, based in London.

So far, there is little publicly available data on the growth of this sort of interactive billboard advertising. It is likely tiny compared with total outdoor advertising revenue. Global outdoor advertising revenue hit $36.32 billion last year, according to a 2015 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Much of the shift is being driven by today’s enhanced data-collection and analysis power. Ocean’s three new billboards in Birmingham, shaped like large human eyes, will broadcast ads like regular digital billboards, but have the ability to change based on how many of a certain group are within “eyesight” of the camera.

But software will analyze the feeds to pick up facial features and how long a person looked at an advertisement, according to Olivier Duizabo, chief executive of Quividi, the company that made the software.

Earlier this year, German beer company Astra, owned by Carlsberg A/S, used facial recognition to target women with video ads, in the Reeperbahn, a nightlife district in Hamburg. And last year, one of JCDecaux’s Hong Kong subsidiaries used cameras at bus shelters to capture real-life traffic conditions to make it appear as if zebras were running down the street, racing past cars and buses.

The British advertising industry has become a trailblazer in the field. Part of the allure here is the concentration of people using trains and train stations, a natural laboratory for outdoor advertising, ad executives say.

British commuters have more exposure to digital outdoor advertising than other sophisticated advertising markets like the U.S., according to a 2014 report by Stamford, Conn.-based research firm PQ Media. Billboard advertising campaigns also tend to be national ones in the U.K., making the medium more attractive to advertisers.