Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 2

The Billboard Menu

There are many basic types of billboards – six to be exact. In this episode we’re going to review each of the types of billboard signs as well as the basic cost and reasons for investing in that particular style of unit. As you’ll see, there’s more than just one type of billboard, and one of the essential parts to successful investing is knowing which variety to select. This discussion helps make that possible.

Episode 2: The Billboard Menu Transcript

One big menu. That's what the billboard industry gives you. This is Frank Rolfe for the Outdoor Billboard mastery podcast series. We're talking today about the types of billboards and what they cost. I'm going to give you the full menu of what it cost to invest in the billboard sector, based on the type of billboard that you're looking at buying or building.

Let's start off with the lowest costing in the menu. Let's start with the dollar menu of the billboard industry.

Item one, abandoned signs. Now what's an abandoned sign? Let me give you an example of one that I did. I did several like this. I, one time, found a series of wooden signs on the highway, out in East Texas. It was owned by a company called Stuckey's.

Now Stuckey's, you may remember if you're a baby boomer back in the '60s, was a very popular roadside restaurant. Food really wasn't that bad. It also sold little items and knickknacks. They had a thing called the log roll, which was basically caramel with nuts stuck in it. I always liked Stuckey's, but apparently the American public didn't. After it got off to a really strong start, it petered out over time and died. I'm not really sure why. Perhaps the food got sketchy. The units were kind of old and dirty. Locations didn't end up being that good, so it went out of business.

But in this case, when it went out of business, the billboards were still sitting there. All the billboards that said, "Stuckey's ahead, exit number," they're just sitting there and abandoned.

I went to Stuckey's and said, "Hey, Stuckey's, what's with the old abandoned billboards?" They said, "Oh. Yeah, those things. We forgot those were even there. We've been paying on the permits on those every year, but we forgot about them." So I then bought those signs from Stuckey's.

You see abandoned signs like that across America all the time, and you don't know why they're abandoned until you talk to the property owner to see. But often you can get those things basically for free, if you just bring them back to life. Property owners, they just want the land rent started up again. So often they'll just give you the right to use the billboards, and all you have to do is basically put the ad faces back on it. In some cases, those signs are not in really bad condition. So I'm going to say there are abandoned signs out there. I've seen them, I've owned them. I see them all the time that you can probably get back into operation for under a thousand dollars. So your first stop on the menu, let's say is maybe as low as $500.

Next type of billboard you can buy are called eight sheets. Now, what are these crazy things? These are 5x10 monopole signs, and they came from the good old billboard 1970s movement for liquor and tobacco. They're smaller because they were for surface streets and even pedestrians, and they put them in a lot. You'll find these things sometimes really, really dense. Here's one, you'd only go a few hundred feet, here's another one.

But when the industries dropped liquor and tobacco advertising back in the '80s, there was nothing to do with these signs. Hundreds of thousands of units and nobody wanted them anymore. The billboard companies didn't know what to do. So what they did, they basically, in many cases, just abandoned them. I see these things all the time, always abandoned most of the time. You can buy these old abandoned eight sheets either from the original owner or from the property owner because the property owner often ended up with them. They just deed it over to them.

You can buy these things for about a thousand dollars or less, but unlike the first example, the abandoned signs, which may be old wooden telephone pole construction, these are metal. These are very, very hardy signs. Traditionally, they don't have any lights on them, but you can still stretch vinyl around them, so they're really pretty good units. Again, that's something that's going to cost you a thousand dollars or less. So, again, pretty affordable in the world of investments to get into the billboard business.

From there, we're to go up to wallscapes. Now what's a wallscape? A wallscape is just that. It's a billboard put on a wall. It could be a masonry wall. It could be brick. It could be concrete. If you go out to California, you'll see them even on the side of office buildings.

How does it work? Well, bear in mind, a billboard just holds something up. So in the case, the wall stands up on its own. You just attach the sign to something that's already standing up, as opposed to building something new. Typically, you put anchor bolts into the masonry wall, and then you stretch the vinyl between all those anchor bolts. It's not very complicated.

You can build a wallscape traditionally for not a lot of money. It's not free. It's a little more expensive than the eight sheet and the abandoned sign, but I've seen wallscapes people who have built for a couple thousand dollars. Once again, wallscapes, not super expensive. Some locations can, in fact, be spectacular. I know someone who had a wallscape right in the middle of Newport Beach. I've seen them in all kinds of different places across America, all kinds of cities. I've seen them in Chicago, New York, but even in a small town America.

Another item, this is the workhorse of the industry, it's the one that I always think of when I think of billboards, one that you may think of, and that's the good old American wooden telephone pole-type of sign.

How do you build those? Well, you get some used telephone poles, only key item is it got to be straight in the line, drill the hole, drop in the pole. Most people put in concrete, just put it in dry. It mixes with the groundwater and the earth and it turns into concrete. Other people put sand down the holes. I think personally concrete's better, but sand seems to work, too.

Then you have these poles sitting there vertically and you put two by fours across those, which are called stringers horizontally. Then you nail or bolt or screw plywood. It's called MDO Marine-grade plywood, faces to those stringers and you've got your sign that you totally built.

Those wooden telephone pole signs come in different sizes. They come in different heights. They come in lighted and non-lighted format, so they're very adaptable, lots of variables to them.

That makes the cost also very variable. You can probably build a decent wooden telephone pole sign along the highway for maybe three grand. You could probably build one that's extra tall, twice the normal height and twice the normal size, maybe for as much as $6,000, $7,000, $8,000.

What's great about those wooden telephone pole signs are, is that they last seemingly forever. Those telephone poles that are just soaked in creosote by the utility company, those things just go on forever. They rarely rot. They rarely get any insects. The creosote keeps all that away. Typically, they're fairly strong. They could handle big windstorm sometimes better than the big monopoles. There's a lot less force on them because the force is spread out over a number of poles.

There's really nothing wrong with wooden signs. You can put modern safety equipment on them. You can put lights on them. You can put skirting on them. You can put anything you want, put your shield on them. In some areas, the advertiser really can't tell because the tree line goes up the pole, so you don't really even see the poles. All you see is the ad face itself.

Now from the wooden sign, we jump up off to the steel I-beam. Now what's an eye beam? An I-beam is called an I-beam because when you look at the very end of it, you see the letter I. It's a series of flanges and I-beams are built because they have enormous strength, but only in one direction. It's like a railroad track. Railroad track also looks like an I on the cross section.

But the problem is it only has strength in one way. So you make the beam, the strong part of the beam, such that when the wind hits the sign, that's what holds the sign up. Laterally though, not quite as strong.

Now, steel I-beams were really big back in the 1940s, '50, '60, even the '70s before they invented the steel monopole sign. So it was the first true steel sign. But once again, not as good as the monopole, which we'll come to in a minute, but does a very effective job. Steel I-beam sign properly maintained can last literally forever and does have one strength that the monopole doesn't even have. It's got a very low profile and you could put those things really right on a property line, unbelievably close to the edge.

Steel I-beam signs, however, have a disadvantage, which is that they take up a lot of real estate on the bottom, just like the wooden signs do, and they're not very attractive. So it's very hard to sell some property owners and allowing you to build a steel I-beam sign because it's not one, but multiple big steel I-beams and it's just not very attractive-looking. There's really nothing you can get away with that. It's just you have to embrace the fact that that's what you got.

Now some people, over the years, have found ways to make it more attractive. They'll grow shrubs and things up the steel I-beams or they'll, in some cases, even put things over the I-beams. I know somebody who once wrapped the I-beams in a Mylar surface, like a mirror, such that it kind of reflected back the greenery of the landscaping.

But still I-beams are great. The only problem with them is they're not cheap. To build a steel I-beam, a big 14x48 steel I-beam sign, they may cost you $20,000 to $30,000. It's not that expensive. The cheapest one I ever built was a little under 10,000, but again, you're talking a very, very heavy object. These are really big steel beams, and they require a real big equipment.

When you build a wooden telephone pole sign, you could often get those poles in the ground using the utility company's own little truck they have. They have a little truck with a digger on it, and then it has a little tiny crane. Just big enough to pick up the pole and drop it in the hole.

When you build steel I-beam signs, you're talking the real stuff. You're going to have to get a real driller to drill the holes, a real concrete company and a real crane to put them in there. That's why the cost mounts up so high.

Finally, the final item on the menu is the steel monopole. It's the state of the art. Now, where did it even come from? I was around when it came out. Here's how it came to be. They were building the Alaskan pipeline. They made giant metal poles, about three feet in diameter, to do that. When they pressure-tested them, they looked for ones that were hissing a lot of oxygen, which meant they would leak oil. So those, rather than trying to find a way to patch them, they threw them aside. They didn't know what to do with them.

Then someone had this bright idea. You know what? I bet you could use those for a billboard sign. You could just drill a hole and put that in the ground and put in concrete and now you have a real freestanding billboard. You know what? It was a great idea and it caught on. Today that is the Cadillac of the industry, the steel monopole.

Now the only problem with the steel monopole is, is it's expensive. Let me give you an idea how much it costs. Bear in mind, a steel monopole sign is typically buried into the ground 10, 15 feet deep, all filled in with an entire concrete truck full of concrete. They weigh a lot and all that force goes on that pole. So basically there's a great amount of engineering and really big thick metal and welding involved to build them. That's why they're not inexpensive. A monopole sign is going to cost you at least probably $30,000 or up to $40,000 minimum. They go up, all the way up into well over a hundred thousand dollars based on the height and the orientation of them.

You see, monopole signs gave the industry the first ability to place the pole wherever it needed to go on the property. So they make different kinds. They make what's called full flag where the sign is flush on one end. Make a thing called offset where it dangles out from that pole in one direction or another. They even make a thing called the super flag where it's behind the building. Then the pole goes up and then straight out very, very far, sometimes a hundred feet out. It sounds impossible if you could even engineer this and then the sign attaches to the end of that. So the monopole, you pay a huge premium for that flexibility.

Now, of course, people love the monopole because on the ground it takes it very little real estate. You could paint it brown or green and it kind of blends in with everything. But again, it's a cost-driven factor.

What's it all mean? It means you've got a big range on this menu. You've got things that are under a thousand dollars, that are in the hundreds of dollars, all the way to things that might be a hundred thousand dollars. So it's very, very adaptable menu.

What you're doing as a billboard owner and buyer, you're always trying to find what the least expensive structure is possible to be the matchmaker between the advertiser and the property, because your whole goal is to deliver an ad message that's clear and easy for the viewer to see. And it doesn't much matter to you whether it's made of wood, metal, I-beam, monopole. Your job is to make that message possible at a budget that you can afford to make all your numbers work. We're going to be going over that next week.

This is Frank Rolfe with the Outdoor Billboard mastery podcast series. Glad you're here. Talk to you again soon.