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An Inside Look at Outdoor Graphics

This roundtable discussion sheds light on issues and trends in a variety of outdoor-advertising applications.

Screen Printing magazine recently sat down with printers and regulatory experts to find out about what’s going on in outdoor advertising. The particpants include:

Brandon Gabriel
Principal
LAgraphico, Burbank, CA

Jeff Golimowski
Communications Director
Outdoor Advertising Association of America, Inc., Washington, D.C.

Myron Laible
Vice President of State, Local, and Regulatory Affairs
Outdoor Advertising Association of America, Inc., Washington, D.C.

Judd Morgan
Sales and Marketing Coordinator
USA Image, Louisville, KY

Ryan Westfall
Principal
Graphic Impressions, Hutchinson, KS

What are some of the industry trends you’ve noticed lately?

Ryan Westfall Graphics are getting bolder, and they’re changing more often. Vinyl technologies are becoming more conducive to several different applications that weren’t possible 10 years ago. Adhesives and vinyls are more conformable than ever. Advertisers, whether vehicle graphics or just an outside signage campaign, have the flexibility right now to do so many more creative things than they used to do just because of different adhesives. Everyone is fighting for the mind of the consumers, and advertisers are more aware than they’ve ever been that they have to continue to update their brands to get noticed. We’re getting more and more signs from them, and they’re changing their campaigns more often. Digital is not really a new thing anymore, but digital printing continues to grow because of its ease of use and versatility. It has helped us grow as a business, and our screen-printing business is still growing and is strong because we can print on so many different substrates.

Judd Morgan As in any industry, the recession has been a game changer. I liken it to a major technology change. You’d better be ready to do the research and be on top of it. People have more time now, and it spawned a more educated consumer, so you’d better know your product and get your staff up to speed. People have time to do more research, and because they don’t have the budget they once had, they may be bidding you against ten shops with which you wouldn’t normally compete. We’re being somewhat commoditized, and there’s a thinning of the herd in terms of options out there. The recession has taken out some of the shops that were only in one niche—mainly vehicle wraps, which were huge before spending was cut. I’d say that’s our hardest-hit area. You go from creating hundreds of wraps a year to 20 or 30. We put in vehicle wraps as a supplemental thing so that we can be a one-stop shop. Luckily, we have other things, like the building wraps and sports signage, to carry us through.

Brandon Gabriel We’re seeing a lot of consolidation in our industry. We’re starting to see more screen printers get into digital flatbed and roll-to-roll to diversify their portfolios. We’re also seeing technology advancements in terms of quality and speed and price—once you buy equipment and put it on the floor, it’s already outdated. We’ve also noticed a tremendous shift in the way our clients see large-format graphics as a part of their advertising spend. It has definitely overcome the sheet-fed-litho business. A lot of our clients want to have a wider approach to their film releases or retail releases. Now there’s a presence with outdoor advertising with a social-media component tapped into it. We’re also seeing clients use strategies where they might post one billboard rather than posting billboards all over the U.S. because they can get the same kind of impression and word-of-mouth online with one billboard. If you start a year in advance and get a billboard up in a high-profile location, and you get the blogs and social media (Facebook, Twitter) talking about it and posting that image all over fan pages, Websites, and other outlets, then you have one billboard that carries the message further and broader than you could with 50 billboards.

You can’t take a thumbnail image from a Website and make it a billboard, so how do you educate your customers?

Ryan Westfall The first thing we do is educate ourselves. We’re continually staying abreast of the latest computer software, updates, and technology, and we’re very strongly involved with industry associations. We can then help customers with their artwork situations and other platforms they need to get us the right information. We educate ourselves on that side of it, and then it’s a lot easier to go to the customer. Many customers don’t understand a lot of the fine details involved in creating a quality image. We work with them and encourage them to give us some of their branded materials in the highest resolution possible so we can help them put together a design that will work for them. Many want to take an image that was meant to be for something a lot smaller. Teaching them how to build a file that we can take and get to a 1:1 size at high resolution is a challenge. Our art department usually has direct communication with theirs and walks them through those steps. We also have the ability to take a client’s raw images and branded logos and, if necessary, rebuild them to a resolution that will work for us so our output is a quality image. There’s more than one way to get to the final image. We can do it for them, or they can do it. We usually walk them through it when they decide to do it.

Judd Morgan We have lengthy discussions about what art will transfer to what space and how some art designed as a square just cannot be made to be a large rectangle. It’s a lot of time on the phone and a lot of face-to-face time that you can’t really bill for. We help people find art through stock-photo sites, or find something similar, while working with them and coming up with a result they’re happy with. We have always considered ourselves more of a custom shop, and with that comes a certain degree of hand-holding. Being heavy on customer service has always been our position, and it has been very beneficial to us in this market. If people have questions, they come to us.

Brandon Gabriel We have a few methods of bringing that knowledge to our clients. First and foremost, we’ve created a nice template that explains the easy way to look at something: Will the prospect be a few feet away? Will the prospect be 100 feet away? We describe how the file needs to be supplied, size parameters, etc., for each scenario. And that’s a constantly changing process, because materials are changing and technology is changing too.

What are you seeing in terms of the so-called greening of the graphics business?

Ryan Westfall It has definitely changed a lot of things. We have to keep a much closer eye on our manufacturing processes to ensure environmental sensitivity than we did 20 years ago. Our plant is a lot more worker friendly now. The UV generation of inks has made things really clean. The way we dispose of our inks and vinyl has changed too.

Judd Morgan There has been a bit of a stall in terms of R&D in the digital-print world. Of course, UV was the next big tech breakthrough, and greening of the whole industry was big—that is, until printers could no longer upsell those types of products in this market. So that has really slowed the greening of our industry.

Brandon Gabriel A lot of our clients are very conscientious about sustainable practices. Several have adopted some form or process for sustainability. A lot of things come into play there: the lifespan of the project, the budget, the turnaround time, and expectations. We try to provide the option, and that’s what we’ve been doing as a company for a long period of time. We offer alternatives that will benefit our clients, and nine times out of ten, our clients are very receptive.

What do you see in the future of outdoor graphics?

Ryan Westfall Digital signage, LED signage, is transforming outdoor ad-vertising, especially in the billboard industry. But as far as a vinyl graphic, its genius is in how easy it is to produce and use. Vinyl graphics on wraps and transit advertisements will still have a huge place for quite some time because they’re inexpensive and very versatile. You can make a vinyl graphic last three months or you can make it last for ten years. You can take it off and put it on pretty easily. I think the future is a mix of vinyl graphics and traditional signage along with a complement of LED.

Judd Morgan I’d say the next big thing, if digital billboards really catch on, is always having outdoor media as a supplement. I see a lot of end users, including small ones, spending more money and retail spaces really blowing up in terms of what they’re willing to do and be creative with. I’d say the next interesting trend will be competing retail space and the addition of building wraps themselves. The increase in building wraps over the last two years, taking that wasted space and advertising, made people realize they can do this at a low cost.

Brandon Gabriel We’ll see two things: more widespread experiential opportunities to engage consumers with super-wide graphics and a social- media component, and, depending on how permit issues shake out, you’ll see a lot of retailers or a lot of businesses rent space for graphics. At some point in time these landlords will need income—steady income to pay for their leases. I think a lot of individuals are starting to catch wind that if they put a graphic on the side of their building, they can make some money and pay their rent. You’ll see a lot more graphics on retail establishments.

Regulatory Overview

Can you provide a brief overview of regulations for outdoor advertising?

Jeff Golimowski You have a federal overlay, then you have a state overlay, then you have a local overlay. Each one of those levels tends to get stricter the farther down you go. The feds give broad guidelines. The states refine those guidelines. The communities then refine those guidelines even more based on community standards. And the regulations vary. For example, if you advertise medicine or pharmaceuticals, there are huge regulations on that—so much so that it’s extraordinarily difficult to put those types of ads on billboards. But they can appear in bus shelters.

Myron Laible There are two different tracks in the regulatory environment. You have the federal Highway Beautification Act for size, lighting, and spacing. You have very specific criteria that go from the feds to the states and down to the localities. States and localities can be stricter. Signs on rights-of-way or on publicly owned land are different issues, and many times they have very specific content restrictions.You must have a permit to be located on private property for a billboard. You have to go through a whole checklist and application process to be located on that parcel of land. For bus shelters, for example, you’re talking about contracts between a company and the actual locality, the government unit. The government unit gets funds for the right for that company to operate on their premises.

Are print providers at risk for liability?

Jeff Golimowski I can tell you that I’ve never heard of it happening. The likelihood of a printer running afoul of content restrictions or anything like that would be infinitessimal. Content restrictions don’t really come into play in most billboard cases. The reason for that is billboards have some protections under the first amendment. They’re not the same protections that an individual has, but there is some protection there. It is very difficult for communities and states to pass true content restrictions and say you can post X but you can’t post Y. In transit and buses, because that is a contractual obligation, the cities can put whatever they want into the contract because the two parties enter into that contract willingly.

Myron Laible Probably not, because the locality would cancel the permit for the right to have the billboard, or in the case of working with a locality directly on a right-of-way, they would cancel the contract. From our standpoint, we want to make sure we have speech that is appropriate to the needs and that fits the mores of the community, so you don’t go out and just go overboard with some pretty flagrant speech.

What should a print provider know before taking an outdoor-advertising job?

Myron Laible Is the product legal? That’s basic, but we’re seeing some issues where the product could be quasi-legal. You also get into health-related issues. From the health standpoint, the ads for pharmaceuticals may require some disclaimers or warning labels. Here’s another example. In Virginia, you cannot advertise beer or any other alcoholic beverage on billboards. But you can have P-O-P ads in grocery stores—inside ads as opposed to outdoor ads—and that’s because the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has dictated that you can’t advertise those products outdoors. That’s an instance where there’s a real technical application of a specific product that’s not allowed, and it’s a state regulation.

Jeff Golimowski I don’t think that there is a lot of legal exposure on behalf of printers, but what I do think is the more the printers know about content restrictions, the better off they are. If a printer can go to a client and inform them that their advertisement lacks a required disclaimer, the customer will see the printer as a friend and as a good company to be working with. It’s one of those things where it can’t really hurt you, but it can certainly help you to know the various restrictions on content at a federal level and the various rules.

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