Outdoor Advertising Post-COVID

Media planning and buying agency Bigeye’s podcast features Craig Swygert of Clear Channel Outdoor with impactful, post-COVID out-of-home advertising strategies.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Media planning and buying agency Bigeye’s podcast features Craig Swygert of Clear Channel Outdoor. Craig discusses the impact of COVID-19 and why outdoor ads represent a unique opportunity as the country reopens. Reflecting on his 27 years of advertising experience, Craig shares top tips for developing impactful out-of-home creative, and highlights tools available to advertisers and agencies that support media planning and maximize campaign effectiveness.


Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising. Produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. A couple of weeks ago, Bigeye’s VP of Media and Analytics, Tim McCormack joined us to discuss the paradoxical situation in which publishers of news content reported record levels of site visitation and consumer engagement, but a decrease in the demand for paid advertising around their content, which actually drove the prices of their media inventory down. Now, of course, we’re seeing the country continue with a phased approach to reopening and with it, a steady increase in the amount of traffic returning to our roads and highways. Over the Memorial Day weekend, we saw just how keen people were to get outside again. It may be that after months of being hunkered down indoors and spending record amounts of time online, consumer behavior will swing in the opposite direction and that people will seek out activities that allow them to spend time outdoors with family and friends and less time on social media and online shopping. To talk about one medium that seems ideally positioned to reach consumers as they’re getting out and about, I’m joined today in the studio by Craig Swygert of Clear Channel Outdoor. Born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, Craig earned a BFA degree from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, which is where he met his wife, Judy. Craig’s first postgraduate job was with a regional advertising agency specializing in healthcare, but just over a year later, Craig’s 27-year outdoor career started in Chattanooga with Peterson Outdoor Advertising as a sales account executive. As he moved up through the ranks, Craig witnessed the consolidation of the outdoor advertising industry and worked for four different owners, which ultimately became Clear Channel Outdoor. Craig has worked in the Clear Channel Outdoor offices of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Ocala and Gainesville here in Florida, and in Orlando, which is where Craig is currently president of the Central Florida Markets. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Craig!

Craig Swygert: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Craig, I feel sure that most listeners will know the Clear Channel name, but could you tell us a little about the company and its out-of-home advertising business?

Craig Swygert: Sure. Clear Channel Outdoor is one of the largest outdoor advertising companies with over 450,000 displays in over 31 countries across Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. We help advertisers create inspiring out-of-home campaigns through traditional and digital display formats in roadside, urban transit, and airport environments on street furniture and at retail near the point of sale. In the US, Clear Channel Outdoor operates in 44 of the top 50 US markets and is the leading outdoor advertising company with the fastest-growing digital outdoor network now surpassing over 1200 displays. We really enable brands to engage with people when they’re out and about. We’re also pioneering the integration of out-of-home with mobile and social media to turn awareness and inspiration into engagement and purchase.

Adrian Tennant: Now, Craig you’re President of Clear Channel Outdoor Central Florida markets. In your role, what does a “day in the life” usually look like?

Craig Swygert: Yeah, it’s interesting. Well seeing that I oversee three branches, and lead all of the departments within my company from sales to real estate operations and marketing. I am fortunate, I have a really very dynamic day. While we have our scheduled staff meetings and training meetings, every day is different as the needs of our clients and our business partners is always changing. As things happen to them, we’re able to react. Really enjoy going on sales calls, working with our commercial land partners on development of our assets, working with the city and County and state governments developing our inventory. And I’m also very involved with the community. So therefore throughout the week I’m attending board meetings, doing community events. So no one week is the same. I’m very fortunate in that respect.

Adrian Tennant: Now I gave a little bit of your potted bio at the beginning, but what led you to a career in out of home advertising?

Craig Swygert: Well, it’s interesting. I really call it divine intervention because I went to school and got my degree in graphic design, so I was going to be an artist for a living. And so I started working at an ad agency right after graduation, as you noted. And I love art and I loved the art process, but as I got through that, I started loving the business aspect of media. And so I really started to then learn and be aware of that media sales was actually a real career. Wasn’t something you did after you failed at whatever major you didn’t like. So as a result of that I kind of put the word out that, “wow, I’m interested in this side of marketing and media.” And the first call I got was from the billboard company in Chattanooga that had heard through the network because the media industry there is not that large and word got out. And I literally got a phone call one day going, “Hey, I heard you’re interested in sales.” And I’m like, “yeah, what do you sell?” And “well, I sell billboards.” And looking back when you think about it, my creativity, love of art, matching it up with the media, that is the form that it displays its message. The two just work together. And 27 years later, here I am.

Adrian Tennant: A report from Audience Perceptions back in March, right at the beginning of the pandemic’s impact on America, showed that almost nine in 10 advertisers had taken some type of action in response to COVID-19, with one third canceling campaigns altogether. Did this period disproportionately impact out-of-home advertising?

Craig Swygert: Well, I would say this pandemic has affected every media company disproportionately not just out-of-home. We at Clear Channel Outdoor, we make it a core business practice to maintain strong direct client relationships. So as our customers experienced these challenges we kind of work with them on a very individual basis. Having individual conversations, find out how this is affecting their business. What are the challenges they’re going through and where we needed to either change their schedule, change their messaging. ‘Cause it was really, there was not just one thing. It was very individual, based on the customer and their product and how this affected, ‘cause in every event like this, some businesses thrive because there was a need for masks or there’s a need for this. There’s a need for takeout. We’re very fortunate, we’re able to kind of mold with where the business need is. So that’s been quite challenging, but quite rewarding on the relationships that we have with our customers.

Adrian Tennant: During that period, advertising was pulled of course from many outdoor locations, but rather than leave digital boards dark, the Out of Home Advertising Association of America partnered with the CDC to deliver Coronavirus prevention messages nationwide on billboards, in both Spanish and English. The federal health agency later described these uses of out-of-home displays as “amazing.” What was Clear Channel Outdoor’s role in that initiative?

Craig Swygert: You know, that was very rewarding. The key to moving quickly in situations like this is having strong trusting relations already in place. We have ongoing relationships with the CDC, the Ad Council, local state, federal, emergency management organizations and their leadership. So these exist and it helps because when they exist before a crisis hits, it enables us to then execute quickly. And that’s what you saw in this case. The outdoor industry was among the first to run messages throughout the nation about washing your hands, not touching your face, and what that meant to safety and health. We’ve helped roll out the Ad Council’s CDC campaign #alone together, which was designed to introduce the concept of social distancing, because early on that people had different versions of that. So we help reinforce that. We’ve also run the “stay home, stay safe” messaging, and continue to work with our partners on updating the messaging as we enter all these different phases of reopening. And just like now, one of the things that we’re preparing for is Hurricane season’s coming up. We have a strong relationship with the Florida Department of Emergency Management and we offer our digital platform whenever there needs to be notices about hurricane warnings and whatnot. So it’s very much real-time engagement that doesn’t take a tremendous amount of planning or production. We’ve already got those key things in place. And that’s what the crucial aspect is for execution.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm, well you mentioned reopening – now, nearly three months later, America has slowly started to reopen and personal travel has increased daily. INRIX, a traffic data analytics company, reported vehicle travel rebounding quite quickly with traffic at almost 60% of normal through April 24. What’s your research showing now?

Craig Swygert: We all know traffic hit a major decline as shelter in place orders were issued in the initial phases. We continued to see people out shopping for essentials, right? ‘Cause we all still had to make those purchases on the things that we needed to have in our homes and for the stores that remained open, in advertising, our research showed that many of those businesses saw even higher rates of visitations among those out and about and engaged in what we call “purposeful travel.” We saw essential workers out on the front lines for us, and even better news is with all states in some phase of reopening traffic has been steadily increasing across all markets for the last four to five weeks. So what we’re seeing is it’s very hyperlocal at the moment. So it’s not so much that people are not driving. They’re not driving as long as distances as they may have previously been, but they’re more hyperlocal and they’re out and about in a shorter radius of their homes and their business and all that. 

Adrian Tennant: Passenger vehicles account for 75 percent of overall transportation. And as we’ve discussed, that share is likely to increase as the pandemic recedes, positioning out-of-home advertising as a smart option. So what types of messaging do you think will be most impactful as the country reopens?

Craig Swygert: Right now, thinking about one’s business and what is that core message of need? And you think about it, it’s convenience of being able to purchase the goods, right? How convenient is this for me to get out? So that’s an impactful way to show people how they can sell their products and engage how they’re operating safely, right? What are they doing to make their employees safe, their customers safe? And then when you think about the economic crisis, we’re all still reopening and getting the economy back, going understanding what type of message from an affordability standpoint. Sometimes it may not be just I’m discounting my prices. It could be financing rates, or longer term payment plans, or things like that for advertisers just say, “Look, I’m still operating, my product’s affordable. I’m creating ways for you to do it. And I’m creating ways for you to interact with us safely to keep things rolling.”

Adrian Tennant: So do you have any recommendations or best practices for outdoor messaging and creative that you’d like to share, based on what you’re seeing your advertisers doing right now?

Craig Swygert: Well, as a former graphic designer, I’m very passionate about the creative process. All we say is: “less is more.” When you think about billboard design and outdoor messaging, simple creative – one message like “Drive-through is now open” what is the one core message? If you put three, four, or five things on a billboard, you’re not going to do any one of them effectively. We do a great job that if we have one core concept to deliver, we do it as good, if not better than any other media out there, because we reach so many people. However, if the message is very cluttered with so many graphics as a general driver-commuter, if it’s too hard for you to read, you’ll drive right by it. It won’t even come. But if it’s a very core message, you will read it. And the other thing I always say is: Billboards and outdoor advertising is not only to educate consumers on your business and service when you can entertain, that is really when campaigns really take off. And it sticks in people’s minds and they remember them because when you entertain me and you educate me, then to me, that’s the sweet spot of what a great out-of-home message looks like.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Dana Cassell: I’m Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as marketing professionals, often inspired by data points reported in consumer research studies. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, through our own research, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers – analyzing their attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. We distill this data into actionable insights to inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – with strategic, cost-efficient media placements. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re talking about out-of-home advertising strategies with Craig Swygert of Clear Channel Outdoor. Now, we’ve talked previously on this podcast about the evolution of out-of-home advertising and in particularly today’s sophisticated digital boards’ performance analytics. How does out-of-home’s reach and average CPMs compare with other forms of media?

Craig Swygert: Well one of the reasons why I’ve been in the out-of-home industry for 27 years is that I truly believe we deliver a really great product. And because of the delivery method of our media, we have an incredible reach and we’ve always had some of the lowest cost-per-thousand-exposures across all media platforms. We’re always focused on value for the customer, right? So, it no longer applies just a comparison to cost per thousands, which for forever, that is the measurement, but advertisers are now asking more of “what is the value?” like, “What is the return?” So it’s not an apples-and-apples comparison. So we’ve had to invest in mobile data, behaviors, thinking about how do we connect that audience to our product and our messages for our customers in a more data-driven approach, meaning that if it’s just high reach and it’s just about a number or a gross number of that yes, we can do that, but more and more advertisers want that as well as targeted “who is the demographic? How are we reaching them? What is the return?” There are so many more things that not just our industry, all media companies, we all have to fight for showing that value and being more business partners in helping their businesses succeed instead of just facilitating an advertising buy.

Adrian Tennant: Now, Craig, as someone with the ultimate inside track, can you give us an idea of some innovations in out-of- home advertising that we might expect to see in the next few years?

Craig Swygert: Well, I would say not so much on the physical technology side of the billboard – the construction and the delivery – because our digital product is already incredibly dynamic in the way that we’re able to present that product and change the advertising message in real-time for advertisers. Where I see innovation lying is developing more concrete, data-driven decisions. Clear Channel Outdoor is a leader in this area. As we have an entire department devoted to data and behavior with our Radar suite of tools, and it really focuses on planning, amplification, and measurement of campaigns. Anyone who’s a data junkie, will have a blast on our website exploring the various ways we serve our customers with data. If you look for the Radar suite of tools on our website, you’ll see we do pre- and post-planning. We do attribution studies. We can tell people what is the highest-rated billboard for their audience. It’s so vast, it’s just a wonderful place for us to help provide planning and insight for our customers on what is the most effective campaign.

Adrian Tennant: That’s great. In what types of locations do out of home boards represent the best opportunities right now?

Craig Swygert: You know, that’s really the beauty of our medium and outdoor advertising is that there’s no really one perfect board per se. Once we identify the customer and they share with us our needs of who they’re trying to reach, that’s where we go back to. We make decisions based on the data. So we use that to localize their message. So based on when they give us the full picture of “here’s my customer, here’s what they’re like. And here’s their income level, their demographic level, their geographic,” like all those factors come into play. Then all of a sudden through all of our data, we’re able to then identify, which is the highest-indexing location based on their needs. So obviously placement near the purchase is a very powerful way because the closer you get to that buying decision, the more you can have impact on that impulse buy. So that factor is how we then choose what is the right billboard for you.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. What are some of the key advantages of out-of-home that you think advertisers should leverage as the country reopens?

Craig Swygert: Well, I would say flexibility of our product is one of the key things because as we reopen, it feels like every 48 hours or so there’s kind of a new announcement and there’s businesses are having to react. So on that side, digital billboard platform, customers are able to change their message daily, hourly, even if they want. So being able to react in that way is really strong. The other way people use it, is our printed bulletins, which are normal large format billboards and our posters, which are bought in multiple locations to really reach a larger audience instead of just a single location. We’re able to do that with very hyperlocal placement. So again, going back to thinking about that customer interaction of how they make that purchase, our goal is to identify that and intersect it. ‘Cause when you think about it, when we’re able to pinpoint that in place that in front of the most likely of audience, we save customers by minimizing any wasted exposure. ‘Cause it’s all right there, right in front of the purchase. One of the reasons outdoor continues to keep growing is our mass reach because now that everyone chooses their own electronic entertainment, there’s so many choices for content now. As long as everyone drives a car, we are able to provide mass reach because we don’t care if you listen to the radio or Spotify. It’s really interesting that that part of how well we deliver that is really just continuing to grow in value for our advertisers.

Adrian Tennant: Craig, I know you also like to give back to the community that you’ve been a director board member for many local and state organizations. Do you want to talk about some of the organizations that you’re currently involved with?

Craig Swygert: Yeah. That’s one thing I’ve learned is being involved in the community is not only the right thing to do, it’s just great for your business and just being a good community citizen. Three of the organizations that are probably my highest passion right now, I’ve been on the board of directors for the Victim Service Center of Central Florida for gosh, maybe 12, 14 years now. I’ve been the chairman of that organization and a very passionate because it provides services to victims of crime, also of sexual assault. So we are, for Central Florida, the certified rape crisis center with the State and we serve Seminole, Osceola, Orange counties. And it’s just a wonderful resource for people that have been victims of crime or traumatic events and sexual assault, we have certified masters-level therapist and victim advocates. So that one is just very, very passionate about that. Another organization that I am very passionate about is Business Force. It’s a political action committee in the community and its sole purpose is to help get good government elected, right? Because it’s the old saying is that, “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about what you get.” Business Force, it’s a nonpartisan organization. It just wants to help get good elected leaders to help lead us. ‘Cause in times like this leadership is so important. And having a hand in trying to help encourage people to run for office and the right people to run for office so that they can lead during times of crisis it’s a very rewarding thing to do in the community to help government and the leadership of how our County and cities work. The last one is I’m currently serving as the President of the University Club of Orlando. And while that’s a private social club, it has such history in this community. It was started in 1926 and for a long time, it was the premier business group and organization and club in town. And a lot of the big decisions within Orlando over the years kind of happened in those doors with a lot of powerful people. So we’ve just recently went through and built a brand new clubhouse. It’s still on the same footprint of Central and Rosalyn. It’s a brand new facility and getting back that place where leaders can come together and work together to do good in the community and have a place for business leaders to do it. I’m really excited about that and there are great people and it’s really fun. And that organization also gives back in scholarships to help young people that might not have a chance to go to college. We do scholarships and so it’s really having fun and doing good in the community at the same time.

Adrian Tennant: Craig, I’m guessing that you travel quite a bit in your role. What do you typically listen to when you’re driving? Are you a music or a spoken word kind of guy?

Craig Swygert: Yeah, mostly music. I’m a huge music fan and my Jeep actually has an incredible sound system. So it’s a fun little place to listen to music.

Adrian Tennant: Any particular genre? 

Craig Swygert: Yeah, well I’m a lover of all good music, but I have to confess that I’m a huge Jam Band junkie. So the Allman Brothers, Government Mule, Perpetual Groove, Umphrey’s McGee. This genre has the most amazing talent and creativity coming out right now in recorded music. And I love music festivals and I go, my wife and I, my kids, we go to music festivals as well as my wife and I go on the Jam Cruise, which is really, really fun. I really love the improvisational aspect of that genre of music because it’s encouraged and on a venue like that other artists come in and sit in and literally you know it’s just happening right there at the moment. And when you see something special, it’s, it’s just a memory that lasts a lifetime.

Adrian Tennant: And your instrument is?

Craig Swygert: I play the drums ‘cause growing up in the Eighties I was kind of a hair metal band guy,  loved hard rock. And then, about 13 years ago, I went on my first music festival, the Wanee Festival, and I got introduced to a drum circle and then I played that night for the first time, never having played the drums. And then when I got home, I told my wife, you know, instead of a midlife-crisis Porsche, I was going to buy a drum kit. So I bought a drum kit and taught myself how to play the drums. And so now I enjou playing drums with several groups of guys. And I’m always that guy at the campsite that I’m a good, great pocket drummer. So I would just sit there and keep the beat and just watch these talented people walk up. And it just, it’s just so rewarding. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

Adrian Tennant: Craig, one last question. If you hadn’t devoted your career to media and advertising, what else could you imagine yourself doing?

Craig Swygert: Well like I said, being a Jam Band junkie, I’d love to be a professional drummer. You know, that would be just amazing. Now I would put that in the side of like, that’s kind of the dream job that we all talk about. In reality, throughout my career starting in sales and being taught sales, that’s a very tangible skill: communication technique. And what it’s done for my career, I love growing people. So I love the sales training side of my job and helping people grow. Of the organizations I’ve been a part of, I enjoy consulting and because of the way that my business runs in the experiences that I’ve had I’m able to share that. So I could really see myself being more of a business consultant and really seeing people because when you’re marketing, the great thing is I know a little bit about a lot of stuff, right? Because when you do a marketing campaign, you’re not selling a billboard, you’re selling that business. So to be effective, you have to know how does that business make money? What makes them successful? And myself having been, hired and mentored and trained a lot of managers in our company – being able to do that, to help people grow and be successful, that’s probably what I would be doing if I was not doing this. 

Adrian Tennant: Craig, thank you very much indeed for sharing your thoughts about out-of-home media opportunities with us today.

Craig Swygert: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guest this week, Craig Swygert, President, Central Florida Markets for Clear Channel Outdoor. You can find a transcript of our conversation with links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” To ensure you don’t miss an episode, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, stay safe. Goodbye.

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