Then, now, and next: OOH and Covid-19

UK CEO James Copley assesses the past and current impact coronavirus has had on outdoor advertising before setting out a post-lockdown plan for the sector


As the great British public have seemingly heeded official advice and OOH audiences have visibly declined in some areas over the last few weeks, the ramifications of social distancing, home working, and government lockdown measures have been felt particularly acutely across the OOH industry.

That said, it is encouraging to see that the broadcast reach of OOH, aligned with local targeting, has been put to good use as one of the primary vehicles for Government messaging on Covid-19.

OOH has always been a medium that is trusted, and importantly during a crisis, free from negative or fake editorial. Digital OOH also means that messaging can now be immediate, contextual and flexible. The Government has been quick to utilise OOH’s impact to broadcast essential NHS safety messages throughout March aimed at helping to educate the population and reduce the spread of Coronavirus.

April has seen Piccadilly Circus become the backdrop to the Queen’s speech, with inspiring messages showcased on the iconic digital screen. OOH as a weapon of mass communication continues to be very effective.

Throughout March Government messages have evolved and responded to the crisis as it unfolded. To begin with the OOH campaign featured containment messages such as hand washing, and symptom identification. The delay phase that followed sought to slow the spread of coronavirus with messages to ‘Isolate your Household’ targeting city centres and transport hubs nationwide.

As the restrictions on movement tightened and people began to work from home, targeting strategy shifted to concentrate on local areas. City centre sites were swapped out for new sites in proximity to supermarkets and petrol stations, as well as screens within post offices and ATMs.

OOH’s diversity has made it the perfect platform for dealing with the crisis response, with messages and inventory reacting to changing behaviours and updating on a regular basis.

For the same reasons, OOH is very relevant for those advertisers that are holding their nerve and choosing not to go off grid during the forthcoming weeks.

Businesses can rely on OOH to ensure the public is aware of their new hours of operation or to relay real-time information regarding the availability of essential goods such as pasta or hand wash, or even loo roll.

Restaurant owners can promote new takeout and delivery services whilst Sky is offering free kid’s programs and FitBit is offering free premium training services to help the public cope with the new normality of life.

It’s also great to see innovative brands adjusting their OOH creative to provide ‘helpful & useful’ information and relay messages of community engagement and encouragement. Prime examples include Coca Cola’s iconic billboard in Times Square, which now reads ‘Staying apart is the best way to stay united’.

Or Paddy Power’s UK OOH campaign which simply asks people to “Give our NHS better odds – stay at home this weekend”, plus the OOH industry’s own initiative which turned screens blue across the UK to thank carers and NHS workers.


Right now, consumer habits seem to be changing daily and there is understandably a big need for any information on what those behaviours look like. Advanced OOH audience data is provided by Route but does not give us real-time observations of journey patterns across the country.

So, in addition to Route data Talon uses Ada, our data management platform that utilises billions of location data observations every week and we are quickly able to see the effect that lockdown is having as new audience behaviours emerge.

In February we observed the number of journeys and visits undertaken across the UK were in fact higher than the average, and this carried on until the 16th of March.

Despite Covid-19 risk levels being raised to ‘high’ from the 12th of March, large volumes of people around the UK were still leaving the house up until the 22nd of March, when enforced restrictions were put in place.

Roadside traffic also remained consistent and above average throughout February and early March and began to decline the week commencing 16th – 23rd March. The decline was sharpest in London where roadside traffic was down -19% compared to the rest of the UK where it was only down by -2%.

However, as of the first week of April UK roadside exposure was down by -56% with London still registering the largest drop at -61%.

For public transport February usage remained relatively stable but by the first week of March we begin to witness an impact on London Underground usage, which is mirrored on the Rail network 2 weeks later.

Current public transport usage is -79% below the baseline average for Rail and -83% below baseline average for London Underground.

However, the overall reduction in public transport usage began to plateau during the first week of April where we observed an -7% week on week decrease.

Overall visits to points of interest (POI) registered declines much earlier than transit environments. From the 2nd of March, entertainment venues such as Theatres, Concert Venues and Pubs were hardest hit. In fact, these non-essential points of interest that are associated with group gatherings have had a reduced footfall of -80% on average.

Although, OOH audiences have significantly declined, looking more closely at specific environments we can see that some audience numbers are holding up. From a personal perspective I wouldn’t exactly describe Clapham Common and the surrounding areas as deserted, more a well-choreographed exercise in mass social distancing.

The OOH medium is therefore still relevant for those advertisers wishing to communicate on a more localised basis in the short to medium term and efforts should focus on street-level signage and road-side inventory near parks, local shops and supermarkets.

Ada insights are updated on a weekly basis over the weekend to provide a holistic view of UK audience exposure across all OOH formats. It’s about providing consistent, up to date, essential information. Talon is sharing these insights to support the wider industry and to help advertisers make informed decisions during this period of uncertainty.


Whilst we deal with the ‘now’ we must start to prepare for the ‘next’. Nobody can confidently predict when the pandemic will fully be under control and social distancing restrictions lifted, but what we can predict is that as a nation, it will be a momentous social and cultural awakening and one that out of home is uniquely placed to participate in.

To help brands look ahead to when we come through this pandemic and emerge on the other side, Talon has developed a 5-point guide for ‘getting back into the real world’:

Understand Consumer Sentiment – to capitalise on positive consumer sentiment as people re-embrace the great outdoors, it will be important to understand those services, environments, and activities that will be the focus of recovery and understand the consumer aspirations that are driving them.

Global Learnings – what can be learnt from China and other markets ahead of us will be key for business planning. Everyone up for some heavy duty ‘Revenge spending’?

Data – insights about audience behaviour and movement intelligence as the situation develops will be invaluable for planning and timing.

Investment Expertise – OOH inventory is finite, and demand is expected to be heavy through Q3 and Q4 – so smarter investment decisions and foresight will be key to secure the right media.

Creativity in Recovery – ways to reconnect with consumers through engaging messaging and experiences can set the right tone for brands to be present in the ‘new’ normal. Experiential activity can help to fill the void of no live sport events and festivals, whilst contextual messaging across digital OOH will help to connect with audiences in a useful more memorable way.

It has been a challenging few weeks for our industry as everyone adjusts to this new reality. But there have also been encouraging reminders of what makes OOH so essential to the fabric of public life. When the recovery begins and we all emerge screen fatigued and wanting to spend all our time outside, we are confident that OOH is well placed to build on what was shaping up to be a very strong Q1 performance and come back even stronger.