Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 57

When There Are No Poles At All

Some billboards are on wooden poles and some are on steel. But some have no poles at all. In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to discuss mounting billboards to buildings or other structures as an alternative to using wooden or steel poles for support.

Episode 57: When There Are No Poles At All Transcript

Some billboards have wooden poles, some billboards have steel poles and some billboards have no poles. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're gonna be talking about billboards that are not held up because of poles that are stuck in the ground, but billboards that are fixed to sides of buildings or even roofs of buildings. Now, these have typical names known as wall-mounts or roof mounts, and it's pretty descriptive because that tells how the sign is held up in the air, how it's held over and doesn't blow over in the wind. But let's focus in more on what these things mean, what they cost and the benefits as well as the negative factors. Let's start of with a wall-mount. Now, wall-mounts have been around forever. In fact, the very first billboard that's ever been found was one in Egypt, and it was a billboard that was etched into a rock. So that would effectively be a wall-mount, that was a structure, something standing, something that wasn't built by man, that basically, you attached a sign to. Now, today, people don't mount billboards to rocks, they're a little bigger, but they do mount them to things which seem as immovable as a rock, and those are big buildings and big structures.

So wall-mounts go way back, you'll find photos of wall-mounts all the way back into the 1920s and 1930s, pretty common there. And you've probably seen, even prior to that, those billboards that were for Mail Pouch Tobacco, on the roofs of barns. That was a form of a wall-mount. They were taking use of that structure, that barn, to display that sign. But the modern wall-mount pretty much comes in two categories: Number one, a wall-mount that's built around a frame, and the other is a vinyl which attaches directly to the wall. Now, the frame is the old original. So, back in the day, particularly with 30-sheet posters, which were put up using what is basically wallpaper, back in the old days, the frame was there to hold up the panels, and the frame was what was actually bolted into the wall. And then they would go up and post their little wallpaper billboards inside that frame. And of course, you can still wrap vinyl around those frames. And you see frames all over. Typically, they're eight sheet-sized, roughly 5 by 12 ft, and 30 sheet-sized, roughly 12 by 24 ft. But regardless of the size, it's all the same technology. It's basically just a frame made of metal with wooden or metal panels inside of it, that is bolted to the side of the wall.

Now, the problem, of course, with the frame concept on a building is it does require some degree of engineering and potential damage and it's not really that attractive to the building's owner. So it's hard to sell people on a wall-mount unless they have a undesirable building, something like a parking garage where they don't really care about the aesthetics. And the frames are heavy and they do require structural engineering. So the frame is the old traditional way to do it, but that got replaced later with the advent of putting in stainless steel hooks directly into the building, in which case you can take the vinyl and stretch the vinyl around those hooks, which eliminates the need for the frame. Now, that wasn't possible until the advent of vinyl, because prior to that, all billboards were painted. Or the ones that were even printed and put on with wallpaper paste, they still required some kind of underlying panel to hold them up. But when they brought out vinyl and you print the sign directly on what holds it up, that gave you a whole new possibility, and that was in putting that directly on the building, or at least what looks like directly on the building. It's still not stuck to the building, it's still held away from the building, but not by much, by a very, very small span.

Because that vinyl is stretched between stainless steel hooks that go all the way around the perimeter of the sign. This also doesn't cause really any engineering work, you're not adding any wind-load to the building in any way. And additionally, it's a whole lot easier and a whole lot more attractive than the old, traditional wall-mount frames were. It also opened up the doors to do all kinds of new forms of wall-mount. So with the ability to put vinyl on things, now you can put vinyl on giant things. It used to be that the biggest wall-mounts in America you would find would be 20 by 60 ft in size. Today, you see vinyls on buildings, it can be the entire side of a building. A lot of downtown areas, downtown Los Angeles, downtown Dallas, downtown Chicago, there's many wall-mounted vinyls that can easily be 100 ft or more in length by as many as 50 ft or more in width. So that's a pretty big advertising surface. And again, that's really only possible using a wall-mount, because a wall-mount doesn't require any engineering to hold it up, and you would never be able to afford to build a billboard that's 100 ft by 50 ft, for example. That's too massive. You would have to put in so many poles and the diameter of the poles would have to be so big, it would be unsightly, it would be insanely expensive.

But attaching them to a wall, well, that makes all of that possible. And it can be many different things, it could be a grain elevator, a big parking garage, there's no limitation. If you've got a wall that can be viewed from a highway, then you have a potential spot. There's another type of building-related product, and that's called the roof-mount. Now, the roof-mount is different. In a roof-mount, you typically have to have some kind of frame that attaches to the roof of the building. So it does actually theoretically still have its own poles, they're really short, but something to hold it up vertically coming off that roof. The big problem you have with roof-mounts is most US cities made roof-mounts illegal, probably about 20 or 30 years ago. Now, the ones that are there are typically grandfathered, but you better check it out. But you're not allowed to build any new ones. Then you'll say, "Well, why can't you? Why can't you build more roof-mounts if they still let you put signs on the walls of buildings?" Well, the reason is simple, there were some notable cases of buildings that caught fire, and the fire department refused to go in and put the fire out 'cause they were afraid that if the roof caught fire, that giant billboard would fall through the roof and kill everyone.

So as a result, City said, "Wait, this probably isn't that good an idea anymore," and they didn't allow any new ones to go in. So you have to look at the roof-mount in a whole different light to the wall-mount. Wall-mounts typically are still allowable by law, but definitely check with your city, county and state. But most roof-mounts, if they're there, they're typically grandfather, but you can't build any new ones. Now, is there anything wrong with the ad signs that you put on these wall-mounts and such? Well, one big difficulty you have is lighting them, you'll see that's one issue. Most of those giant size that you see on the sides of buildings, they don't have any lights, they couldn't have any lights, you couldn't make a light big enough and powerful enough to do it. And then, on top of that, what would you mount the light to? The whole beauty was putting the vinyl on the building, but how do we get lights on that? Then we'd have to build all kinds of supportive structures to the... Have giant arms coming out with giant heavy bulbs and ballast, and power, and there's no power there to connect to anyway.

So one issue with these is that they typically are unlit. Not a huge problem for many advertisers, but there are some, such as motels, hotels, that would say, "Wait a minute, if I can't reach night time traffic, what good would that do me?" They might be able to find a way to put some floodlights on them, but it would still be fairly dim. So that's one downside, is that you can't really put lights on it very easily. Another big issue is just the cost, it's pretty expensive to print those giant, giant vinyls. As we all know, vinyls fade over time, you can't put a vinyl on something and expect it to last 10 or 20 years. So on those really large vinyl applications you see in some downtown areas, a whole side of a building, that's gonna be a big price as well.

As with the installation of it, there's really nothing to get to it, to install it. Those often have to be put on, those stainless steel hooks, using all kinds of equipment: Sky hook cranes, people repelling from roofs, very, very hard to install them. So it isn't like the wall-mount is free of all cost, they do have cost, but what's important is you're saving that upfront cost of the actual structure itself. In a world which a big monopole sign could cost you $50, $60, $70, $100,000, you're avoiding that cost when you can put that sign on a wall. So there's huge cost savings, even though the cost to install the ad every year, whatever frequency you have, isn't cheap. It's a whole lot cheaper than when you have to put it on a big steel or a wooden set of posts.

But the bottom line is, there's lots of opportunity in the whole world of wall-mounts. You see them, you see opportunity around as you drive around. They'll have to have the same permits, they'll still have to have the same spacings and zonings as you do with regular billboards, but when it comes to economical ways to create cash flow, they're not a bad idea. This is Frank Rolfe for Billboard Mastery podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.