The billboard business may seem old-fashioned, but it periodically erupts with new ideas that revolutionize or open new sectors of advertising. In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to review how to harness fresh thinking and being unafraid to try a new direction.
Episode 35: Don’t Be Afraid To Be Different Transcript
I have been in the billboard business a really long time. I've seen a lot of things change over the years. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're talking about not being afraid to be different, embracing revolutionary things, understanding how profitable they can be.
I remember the period where billboards in large part changed over from wooden telephone poles to steel monopoles. It was caused by the advent of all of those oil and gas pipelines, namely the Alaska Pipeline. And as they were building the Alaska Pipeline, which connected that crude oil of Alaska to North America, they found that a lot of the pipe they manufactured would not hold the oil. They would test them by putting air pressure on them, and if the air pressure hissed out of the pole, then they would just throw it to the side. It wasn't even worth trying to patch, too dangerous. Then someone realized those could be used to hold up billboards. And a whole new industry was built of building steel billboards, and I was pretty much there during that. That was a huge, huge advancement. People originally were afraid of it. It was expensive, but it worked out really, really well.
I also remember when billboards had to be centered under the ad itself, because wooden telephone poles had no flexibility. The poles had to align precisely with the billboard face. But when they brought out the monopole signs, suddenly they didn't have to. You could have the pole go up, and then the sign face could attach to the very edge of that pole. Or you could do an offset and make the pole connect to the face, but yet set it off another 10 or 15 or 20 feet. Again, revolutionary, huge, giant change, but yet so much better. Now, suddenly, you could build signs in areas before that had been unattainable because it would damage the property on the ground and how it was being used. Now you have designs that can flexibly work around anything.
I was there back when we used to paint all the signs by hand. A guy would climb up on the sign, he would have a stencil, basically, he would hit it with graphite bags, he would connect the dots, and then he would painstakingly paint your ad message up on the sign way up in the air. And then I saw the revolutionary change to vinyl printing. Suddenly, you didn't have to paint them out doors. Suddenly didn't have painters falling off all the time to their deaths. You could install signs when it was blowing out. All the things that held us back and we were hand painting, now the triumph had been achieved through new technology of vinyl printing.
I was there when you had Trivision ads, where you had one ad that changed on triangular sections into three. And then the change from Trivision, to LED, to digital, allowing you to have as many changes as you want without any of the issues with technology of those old triangular sections, where they would get stuck when the wind was strong and then ultimately be all hodgepodge together.
I was also there when they first introduced as into airports. Airport advertising around the concourses didn't used to be in airports and suddenly started putting that in. I was there for mall advertising. That's when they started putting ads into malls. It all started off when they would take the map of the mall where you'd find the store you were looking for. On the flip side of that there would be a newly backlit ad, and then later they were adding them in all over the malls. I was there during transit advertising, when they started adding ads in all forms of transit, bus shelters, new designs for bus shelters. I was there when they brought up the technology allowed them to put the ad across the entire back window of the cab or the truck. Prior to that it
could only be on the very top of the cab.
So what happens? How does the world advanced like that? And what do you do about it? Well, basically the key is do not be afraid to try new things. Sam Walton was once walking through one of his stores and he came upon somebody who worked at the store, and they said to him, "Hey Mr. Walton, how come we paint the walls that really light gray color, it seems kind of depressing. I think we'd sell more if we painted the wall bright purple." So Walton looked at the guy and said, "You know what? I've never tried bright purple. So here's what we'll do. Go ahead and paint the wall in your department bright purple. And we'll measure the sales of the month after you paint it purple that same month the year prior. And if purple has higher sales, then we might paint all the walls purple. However, if it doesn't, if the sales aren't better, then you have to paint it back to the light gray. So if you feel so strongly about this and you're willing to paint the wall then you just go do it."
Well the guy did. He painted the wall didn't work. Sales actually went down, got rid of the purple paper back to the gray. But the key was Sam Walton was not ever afraid to try new things. He had a theory on that, basically, he was willing to try anything as long as you scientifically tested it. As long as you tested it, if it worked, that he would move forward with it. That's how Walton began. Walmart was his own invention, he kind of invented this entire idea of the discount, large volume store. And it was all done through experimentation. The key to it all is, be brave, try new things all the time. You never know what's going to work and what's not going to work. But as long as you're willing to try new things out and to test them, the upside is huge. You never know what you will run into. And that could be a complete game changer.
But one word of caution, don't over commit to this new concept. You notice when they brought out for example, airport advertising, it was a regular billboard company that did that, because they didn't know if it would really work. So no one wanted to establish their own company just to do airport advertising. It took a big company that was willing to take losses if it didn't work to put those ads in. And you probably see in all those ads on the interstate now with the exits, all those exit logo signs. Where did those come from? Well, those come from Lamar outdoor, another large company that was willing to try it out, didn't know if it would really work. It's worked really well, but they didn't know at the time. But when you try something new, you have to embrace the fact it may not work. But the key is it's okay if it does not. It's not any reason for embarrassment. Most of the great inventions in America started that way, as an idea, an unknown idea that people would test and see if it would work out. If it does work out. There's huge profits to be harvested from that. If it doesn't work out, well, you tried, you learn from that, you might come out and try it again in another form.
But the key is to be brave. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes; it's probably a bigger mistake not to try new things. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.