Memo From Frank
In 1982 I started a billboard company from nothing, and built it into the largest privately held billboard company in Dallas/Ft. Worth, then selling it to a public company in 1996. Ten years ago I started teaching others how to build billboards of their own, and I have had terrific fun showing people the techniques I learned through hard knocks. As Thanksgiving approaches, I would like to formally say “thank you” to my extended billboard family. I really enjoy teaching and talking about the industry, and I have had more fun over the past decade than you can imagine. So thanks for being a part of everything, and I hope to see or hear from you soon.
Frank Rolfe's early days, circa 1982
The Truth About Billboard Graffiti
I drove by this billboard in New York City recently. Clearly, the advertisement on it is not from the sign owner, but has been created by a graffiti artist with a can of spray paint. Many billboard owners live in fear of this happening to their sign. But the truth is that it can be completely prevented, and it’s not that hard to mitigate the risk. After operating billboards in Los Angeles for a decade, I think I have learned every rule and trick regarding battling graffiti.
Location, location, location
OK, let’s first get a handle on where billboards are most at risk. And that’s in urban areas. The type of graffiti you see in rural areas that says “Sally Loves Johnny” is not sophisticated, rarely happens, and is easily scared off. But urban areas – especially ones where gangs are commonplace – are where the true professional-grade graffiti artists strike. So if you have an urban sign, you have to be much more proactive about graffiti than a more rural location.
Height above the ground
Any sign, regardless of location, is an easy target if it is within reach of the ground. The good news is that most billboards are at least 10’ off the ground and, therefore, cannot be reached without some sort of ladder. However, there are some urban billboards that are only 6 feet or so off the ground, and you can literally graffiti these signs as long as you are simply standing up. In urban areas, these signs are often hopeless and end up abandoned. Most of these “low” signs were built in another era of the 1940’s or 1950’s, when people behaved better. Drive through some of the older sections of LA and you’ll see these short, abandoned signs – covered in so much graffiti that they look like fine art.
A fast solution to graffiti, for many billboards, is to remove the access ladders. Without a ladder, many signs become an impregnable fortress. The only problem with this, however, is that it makes servicing the sign more difficult and costly. But unless you remove the access ladders, the sign will become valueless, so it’s not much of an economic decision. I once bought a billboard in LA that was completely covered in graffiti to the point that it was considered unusable. But the sign was at least 40’ off the ground, so my simple solution was to remove the vertical ladder that would take you to the top. Suddenly, the problem was solved. In some areas of Los Angeles, even the removal of the vertical access ladder will not do the trick, as the graffiti artist will find a way to “shimmy” up the pole. The only sure-fire way to stop graffiti on a billboard in this case is to remove the catwalks – which eliminates their ability to find a surface to stand on. Again, it definitely makes changing the advertisements and replacing light bulbs difficult, but it can save a sign that would otherwise end up as just a bunch of gang symbols.
A blank surface is a bad temptation
There is nothing more tempting to a graffiti artist than a blank canvas to work on. There is not enough contrast against an actual advertisement – there is so much going on that the graffiti artist’s work cannot be seen effectively. So one great way to stop graffiti on a sign is to always have an ad up on it. This is true in rural areas, as well. I have never seen a rural billboard with graffiti that was not blank. There’s ten ways to rent a billboard, and you can eliminate the blank sign with a phone number on it and still have nine more methods of attack. In some locations, that’s definitely the best idea.
Graffiti can be a problem on some signs, but it is 100% curable if you simply use your best judgement. Use these steps to make any billboard graffiti-free. Don’t end up like the sign in the photo above.
Is This An Opportunity?
Is this abandoned billboard an opportunity? Can you bring it back to life? Can you make money with it? Or is it simply a waste of time? Every time you see an abandoned billboard structure, those questions should race through your brain. Here’s how to put those thoughts into action.
Can the problem be fixed?
Some billboards are abandoned for a good reason. Maybe there’s an obstruction that makes the billboard impossible to see. Or maybe the numbers just don’t work, as the rents in the area are simply too low to make the sign profitable. You should always be on the lookout for the insurmountable problem with an abandoned sign and, if discovered, suspend any further work on it.
Is it truly abandoned?
Some signs look abandoned when, in fact, they’re not. Maybe the owner is just changing the panels out. Maybe the owner has been unable to rent the ad space in a while, but is still current on his groundrent. Contact the landowner that’s under the sign, and ask them what the story is on the sign.
Who owns it?
Try and find out who owns the sign. Is it a sign company? Is it an individual? Can you find this person or company in the phone book? If the landowner believes that the sign is the property of someone else, then you have to contact the owner.
Will the current owner sell it to you?
When you contact the owner, the goal is to see if they will sell the sign to you, and at what price. Many times, if the sign is truly abandoned, the owner has given up hope and will sell it very cheaply. I have had signs that the owner nearly gave me because they did not want the liability of mounting up unpaid ground rent or insurance liability. In some cases, the landowner will claim to be the sign owner, through default of the lease, and you don’t have to search out the sign’s owner.
Will the landowner sign a new lease on it?
You can’t operate a billboard without a binding ground lease. Will the land owner enter into a new agreement? Will the terms be acceptable? In most cases, the landowner just wants money again for the sign sitting on their land, and they will be flexible to give you the terms you need to get started. Remember that the lease has to be in writing – a handshake will not do. Once you bring the sign back to life, the land owner will want more money, so make sure everything is signed and binding before you get started.
Is the sign legal to operate?
It’s never a good idea to operate an illegal sign. However, sometimes you can stretch the law to your own purposes. Most sign inspectors are not entirely sure what to do with an abandoned sign, and will look the other way if you bring it back to life. Other times, the sign already has a functioning permit despite the fact it was empty for a while. Learn what the laws are, but you might error to the aggressive side as your worst case scenario is to simply take the ad down. In most state, a sign without an ad is considered a “structure” and does not have to be removed, even it if is illegal.
Do the numbers work?
Billboards are all about making money. If the sign’s numbers don’t work, then don’t mess with it. That may be the reason that it’s abandoned now. Don’t do any project just for the excitement – there’s no fun in losing money. Remember that you should be shooting for a 20% return on your money or higher. Can the sign provide that?
I have made a ton of money bringing abandoned signs back to life. My Los Angeles billboard company was 100% comprised of abandoned billboards that I brought back to life. The next time you see an empty metal or wooden sign structure, make some calls and see if it’s an opportunity. There’s big money in just a little effort.
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