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Ever since helping give rise to the “Curiously Strong Mints” campaign for Altoids, I’ve been a huge fan of outdoor advertising. Especially posters, propaganda and signs. Yet, maybe the awe for it goes back even further than Altoids…

Case in point a small excerpt from my keynote presentation to the Outdoor Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC), which I gave earlier today:

…I grew up in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Nice now, but when I was a kid the area was rife with gang violence, in particular a turf war between the Latin Eagles and the Latin Kings. Their flamboyant signs permeated my neighborhood, haunting the alleyways, literally threatening me from around every corner. Marking their territory, if you will pardon the expression…

Marking one’s territory has always been humanly relevant.

Crude as it sounds brands exert power marking their territory. We are here, they say. And we mean business. You cannot resist us! Granted, brands don’t jump you in the alley and take your bus money (not yet, anyway) but that doesn’t make my crude metaphor any less accurate. Signs and symbols have always been used to convey messages. For good. Evil. And everything in between. And OOH has done so for a longer stretch of time than all the other media combined.

Feeling blue (in a good way) w/ local LA choir performing in background…

Thought I’d reflect on my 15 minutes of fame hosting the Obie awards Tuesday night in Los Angeles. For those unawares, the Obie’s are the oldest advertising awards show in the world (seriously!), representing the best work in out-of-home media. The Obie’s are a big part of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America’s (OAAA) annual convention.

I have been a friend of the Obie’s & OAAA for many years and am a proud member of its Hall of Fame, for my “Curiously Strong” Altoids campaign. At the Obie’s in 1996, Altoids won its first of many creative prizes in our industry, thus beginning my long relationship with the show. That was a long time ago. Unfortunately, I recall being pie-eyed at the ceremony and little else. I gave a horrifying acceptance speech. Thank God You Tube was not invented yet.

Fortunately, I was clear-eyed and present this time around. Good thing as I had a job to do. While my primary purpose was to help steer the show along I was also given ten minutes to talk about some of my favorites subjects: signs, propaganda and their many roles in popular culture. I’ll likely post that content soon enough so I won’t go into it now. I will say that unlike any other media, outdoor advertising transcends time, technology and culture. ‘Signs’ are innately human and part of our collected DNA. Since early man first scribbled on cave walls several thousand years ago we have been using signage to communicate and advertise. By comparison broadcast is a moment in time and digital a blip.

Some highlights from the event are as follows:

Best of Show went to Droga5’s touching work for Prudential Financial, celebrating retirement on a very personal level. Part of an integrated campaign, billboards elegantly used quotes from various retirees.


This year’s Hall of Fame award went to ESPN for its long history of creating amazing advertising. No question ESPN deserves the award. Frankly, for creating great advertising in general. However, I have to say it was awkward reading about massive layoffs at the network on the very same day.

A personal highlight was witnessing art director Ed Odyniec, receiving a Gold Obie for his terrific OOH execution of the Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign from Leo Burnett. Ed worked for me at LBWorks. Heartfelt congratulations to both he and his creative partner, Christopher Warmenen. Below is a video they created especially for the show. That’s Ed brilliantly cast as a nerdy lab scientist.

The day before the Obie awards Governor Jerry Brown made an impromptu visit to the convention. He gave a short but entertaining speech, where he extolled the virtues of outdoor advertising. His one piece of advice: Keep it simple. “Vote Jerry Brown… It worked for me.”

Governor Brown heading for the stage…

It must be gratifying to the OAAA and all the outdoor media purveyors, suppliers and vendor just how healthy their coral reef actually is. One need only look at the Obie winner’s list to see the robust mix of big brands and edgy new comers from both the client and agency side.

The Obie’s may not be in the same league as Cannes or The One Show in terms of prestige but no other medium is as exciting, versatile and vigorous as OOH. Period. And few awards shows are as meticulously planned and plain fun.

photo copy 9
Shocker: creative director in a tie!

“And another thing…”

Finished my 15 minutes of SXSW fame, delivering a “quickie” presentation called Signs and the Evolution of Ambient. Bit nerve wracking this one, on account of the round robin approach with presenters: one up one down and another in the wings. It kind of worked though, especially given attention spans of wired to the gills audience.

Among other things, my discussion dealt with human being’s seemingly innate compulsion to imbue meaning into just about anything. Creating and/or perceiving signs are an inevitable part of the human experience, transcending mediums and technology. Graffiti, tattoos, constellations, billboards… all signs. As such they attempt to compel belief and behavior. Modern advertising is merely an extension of this age-old process.

6. Cave drawings

8. Tattoo

18. Apple
“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign!”

Given I was at the epicenter of Interactivity I relished pointing out that low-tech does not necessarily mean less powerful. On the contrary. For advertisers, signs can be more humanly relevant than any other media.

Technology is grand but I think many marketers (and by default most everyone at this festival) try too hard proving how contemporary they/we are, by desperately and perhaps naively competing with screens.

I gave the following example on the ill effects of tech worship. In the 70’s, digital watches were the rage. So cool, we all had to have one! And then we didn’t. A traditional watch face is timeless. Ironically, digital watches have become nostalgic. I know it’s a flawed comparison but it makes good oratory.

After presentation w/ colleagues from gyro…

I’ll be modifying this presentation (obviously) for a presentation at ad:tech San Francisco in April. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Copy: Wikileaks…Butterfly doesn’t.

RG Blue Communications and Butterfly Sanitary Napkins broke a new outdoor advertising campaign in far away Pakistan. It pokes fun at the infamous Wikileaks site in an obvious way. I get the joke, even almost laughed. But is it good advertising?

I posted one the billboard on my Facebook page and asked women to weigh in on the subject. Reactions were mostly negative, ranging from “Ew” to, “Well, if I can sit through all those ads about erections I suppose it’s time for this.”

I suppose the agency and client should get points for generating PR, especially given they are only planning a few executions. After all, I’m writing about it after discovering the campaign on Psychographism and researching it on MSNBC.. Lotta coverage, so to speak.

What do you think, Gentle Reader; is this a good ad or a bad ad? Female votes count for double.

Fries in the Skies…

Outdoor advertising, when it’s done well, is perhaps my most favorite advertising of all. I’ve long rhapsodized about the power of posters and how the making of signs is wrapped up in our collected DNA. There’s just something about a cool billboard that really turns me on.

Forgive the ham-fisted segue but speaking of “turn on,” feast your eyes on the latest outdoor board for McDonald’s, courtesy of my alma mater, Leo Burnett. It’s stunning. Mimicking the cut and color of McDonald’s signature side dish yellow lights shoot up to the sky from behind a vivid red box. So very modern. Yet so timeless. Just a beautiful job.

Although this might be one of the best, McDonald’s and Leo Burnett have been creating exceptional outdoor boards for decades, especially the “spectaculars.” Those, in particular, rise above the crowd, figuratively and literally.

Thick on a Stick…

Truly Golden Arches…

Typically, the best outdoor advertising comes from smaller clients, brands that have no budget for other forms of mass communication. When blue-chippers like McDonald’s interrupt our landscape in such a surprising and delightful way the Gods of Advertising smile brightly.


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