OOH: what posters can teach digital about time budgets

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If you are paid to make advertising then you often find advertising very interesting – especially your own. You stare at it, interrogate it, read the small print and check the details. If you’re a digital advertiser, you watch and re-watch your creations to make sure that every frame is perfect and that it leads to exactly the right landing page. And well you might, it’s what pays your mortgage.

This is not normal. You are weird. Most people ignore most ads – even the ones made by you. Data from the Lumen panel shows that online, only 18% of the ads that people could see ever actually get noticed. And if they do engage with advertising, they do so far more fleetingly than you might imagine. The average time spent engaging with a digital ad is 1.2 seconds (2.2 seconds for the average print ad). Only 5% of digital ads get looked at for more than 1 second. People don’t READ advertising. They LOOK at it. Big difference.

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This leaves marketers with a choice. Firstly, you can issue a challenge to your agency. Summoning your inner King Canute, you clear your throat and imperiously decree: ‘Make me an ad that people want to look at for 30 seconds!’. That might work: John Lewis seem to make a pretty good fist of it. But equally, it might end up with an emperor’s new clothes situation: agencies just telling you what you want to hear, even when they know it’s ridiculous.

Alternatively, you could match your creative to your ‘time budget’. Sure, people could ogle your creative for hours on end, but in reality they only look for a couple of seconds. If that’s how most people actually engage with ads, the question becomes: what can I say in a couple of seconds? How can I simplify my message to fill the time allotted?

This is not a new problem. The out-of-home (OOH) industry has been grappling with this for centuries. Theoretically, people could stop and stare at posters for as long as they like. Occasionally, this might even happen – with unexpected results. But we all know that most of the time they don’t. Instead, we challenge creative to get the message over in a single sentence or compelling image. To make a picture worth a thousand words. To keep it simple, stupid.


New media marketers have a lot to learn from the oldest media of them all. Just because you have a lot to say doesn’t mean that your audience has a lot of time to listen. People don’t have to engage if they don’t want to – and frequently they don’t. It’s up to us to fit into their lives and earn their attention.

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