Nairobi — Giant digital LED screens (Light Emitting Diode) start springing up on pedestrian walkways in Nairobi next week as outdoor advertisers devise more innovative ways to reach consumers.
Although the technology is not new - there are now digital LCD screens suspended from supermarket ceilings, and one on top of Uchumi Supermarket at the Westlands roundabout - for the first time the screens will be at eye level on streets.
At 10ft high, the screens are also bigger, double-sided and can display more than one ad, enabling billboard owners to sell the same space multiple times. Industry players say digital screens have more impact than still billboards because they have sound and more advanced graphics and text capability.
A digital screen is like a full motion digital cinema with the compelling visuals that radio lacks, is brighter than TV and clearly visible even under direct sunlight and larger than life because if its size.
"In Kenya most people take public transport and are also spending less time at home, limiting the opportunities to get through to them using conventional media such as TV and radio advertising. The focus has shifted to out of home media so we want to capture them on the street, in lifts, office buildings and pubs," says Mr Joram Gatei, CEO of Live & Motion, the company rolling out the street level outdoor LED screens.
Mr Gatei says the screens will be controlled from a central location via an Internet network using specialised Infocast software that is able to take data and transmit to each screen. The ads run in loops for 24 hours.
"The screens are double-sided. One side is a digital screen with a scroll at the bottom that we'll use for breaking news and the other side is a flexi (material used for billboards) with 15-30 second ads," he says adding that some advertisers have already signed up.
The rates are Sh40 per spot with each advertiser entitled to 72 spots per day. This works out to Sh14,000 per day or Sh420,000 a month; more expensive than a still billboard which costs Sh110,000 per month for the 12x10 metre size.
"It is good value for money compared with TV, which is more expensive. Within the 72 runs a company can put several different ads and they can also change ads every month. The other advantage is unlike TV there's no remote so consumers cannot change channels to avoid the advertising," he says.
Live & Motion is planning to install 10-15 screens in Nairobi in 6 months with the first at Kencom and another on Kimathi Street. The screens are imported from China and Bangkok at a cost of Sh10 million each including freight.
The company has also installed indoor LCD screens in Tuskys, Ukwala and Woolmatt supermarkets. Other companies in the industry include Ideas Unlimited that has installed indoor screens in Nakumatt supermarkets and Future Media Kenya.
"Before everyone tried to put up a poster in the supermarket and this looked untidy. We've noticed an increase in sales, over 30 per cent in some locations, after we installed the screens.
Mr Gatei of Live & Motion
This is because the ads are aired in supermarkets when people are already primed to buy unlike TV which you watch and forget by morning," says Mr Gatei.
LCDs are very effective for indoor use in spaces that are not too large such as in supermarkets but bright external lights blurs the image just like TV.
They are also limited by size to 100 inches. For outdoor use LED screens are more effective because even under direct sunlight, images are crisp clear. They are also available in any size.
The introduction of outdoor LED screens illustrates the rapid growth of outdoor advertising and although there is no hard data conservative estimates put its value at Sh6 billion.
This is almost at par with radio advertising which takes up the lion's share of media spend in this country and much higher than TV which is ranked second. Statistics from Steadman Group, a media monitoring firm, show that media spend in 2006 was Sh13.6 billion (does not include outdoor advertising).
Radio accounted for 47 per cent, TV 28 per cent; print 23 per cent with cinema accounting for the rest. Over the last few years, billboards have been mushrooming everywhere and new avenues for outdoor advertising include advertising on buses and taxis, wall wraps, and street lighting.
City Hall is even experimenting with advertising on guard rails on Globe Cinema roundabout and last year collected Sh141 million in revenues from billboards and sky signs only.
This was close to the Sh140 million collected in 2005 despite billboard rates being slashed by half from Sh6,300 per square metre to Sh3,150 per square metre via gazette notice No. 997 of 10th February 2006.
The City Council is set to surpass that figure this year having already collected Sh174 million between January and August says David Gatimu, the Assistant Director, Urban Design and Development at the City Council of Nairobi.
But the rapid growth of this highly profitable industry has come at a price. Because the industry has not been well regulated highways are getting cluttered and efforts to green the city are being undermined by some outdoor advertisers who are cutting trees that interfere with the visibility of their billboards.
"This has been a rogue industry where people do whatever they want. Some companies have been complaining that trees on James Gichuru Road are growing fast and obscuring their billboards. But we have to preserve Nairobi's greenery so they have resorted to cutting trees at night," says Mr Gatimu.
He says that in future there will be limits imposed on the number of billboards, a common practice in developed countries. "It is coming to a point where some streets like Mombasa Road are getting saturated."
The boards easily dwarf a man
Mr Gatimu says that City bylaws allow a distance of 150 metres between billboards on a straight stretch of road except where there is a roundabout where multiple billboards are allowed because traffic is slow.
"We've pulled down several billboards that didn't adhere to this rule but these guys are very mischievous and put up billboards on weekends or at night," he says.
In such cases the Council gives offenders a 7-day written notice to pull down the billboards before the Council moves in. Outdoor advertising is governed by the Physical Planning Act but the rapid change in technology and innovation in the sector has resulted in the Act being woefully inadequate in controlling developments in outdoor advertising.
"The Act does not govern specifics and only has a single clause that talks of permitted advertisements. There is no policy on wall wraps, LED digital screens or multi-faced billboards. We've always had a policy on vehicle branding but now we have roof top taxi advertising," he says.
This has created loopholes for players to exploit. Mr Gatimu gives the example of the huge wallwraps on two sides of Harambee Plaza in Nairobi which he says was not approved and yet they are still in place.
The council is already in court with Adopt- a- Light over a dispute involving billboards on road reserves and in the past revenue collection was a big problem because of poor record keeping.
"The whole system is very corrupt and the council is happy to go into side deals with providers instead of collecting rates," says Ms Esther Passaris, managing director of Adopt- a- Light and suggests that licensing and approval of billboards should be outsourced.
But Mr Gatimu disagrees, saying the council has improved monitoring and enforcement and the results are visible in the increased revenue collected.
"My first objective was to capture data on all billboards in the city including their locations, sizes and monitoring when they have ads, even taking photos of the billboards to use when companies dispute the invoices we send them. It has been difficult but they are now paying," he says.
The council wants to establish a system of electronic monitoring and come up with a policy to govern the rapidly changing sector. There are roughly 500 billboards and 10 main companies in the sector including Adsite, Alliance Media, Global, Magnate Ventures, Prime and A1.
As outdoor advertising evolves it will become more interactive meaning digital media will play a bigger role but there will still be room for still billboards. "Nairobi is very full especially areas with high traffic so outdoor will grow faster in other cities.
The bypasses being built will also be new arenas for outdoor advertising," says Joe Otin, director media and monitoring at Steadman Group.
Mr George Lutta, managing director Media Initiative East Africa, says there will be a lot more creativity in content and greater demand for point of sale media to drive sales.
"People are looking for precise audience targeting and greater interaction with consumers. We will see innovative ads on supermarket trolleys, handrails in buses and everyday surfaces where a consumer can be reminded to use a product with a message like 'have you washed your hands today?' in the case of a soap brand," he says.