Why the Elizabeth line marks a new era for OOH design
OOH is evolving to become part of the fabric of our urban landscapes rather than just an afterthought or commercial bolt-on.
After more than a decade under construction, the Elizabeth line has finally opened its gates. Connecting East and West London, the 100km line we once knew as Crossrail features 10 new stations, and represents the largest single increase to Central London’s rail capacity in 70 years.
Indeed, 1.46 million journeys are expected through the Central London stations each week, and when further sections of the line open next year that number is forecast to rise to 3.44 million.
For commuters, it’s excellent news. Journey times are being slashed, key destinations, including Heathrow, are made more accessible, and the new trains and stations are state-of-the-art.
It’s good news for brands too, with the opening of the £19bn line marking the largest single introduction of new out-of-home (OOH) sites in a generation—a diverse range of 329 new digital panels.
Yet this is not just about adding more to the TfL estate, nor is it just about installing shiny new tech; what has been built, and the design process behind it, marks yet another important change for the outdoor sector because of the deeper considerations that have underpinned the design and implementation.
In fact, I hope the process we have started and continue to undertake will positively influence future investment and development in the wider OOH sector, both inside and outside the capital.
Since Victorian times, advertising has always been a feature of London’s transport network. However, there is now much more available to brands than just paper posters. Today, entire stations can facilitate complete brand take-overs, digital ribbons can tell stories as we move, and technology and data are changing the medium’s capabilities.
Of course, this is not a trend confined to just London’s transport network; OOH has been evolving everywhere in the UK and beyond. And the essence of that evolution is the deeper consideration of the environment in which the ad is placed—taking account of audience behaviours, utility, context, digital capabilities, sustainability, and the broader creative opportunities of the environment to name a few.
That is why our sector now has assets that offer free Wi-Fi and USB charging, flowers for butterflies and bees, defibrillators, pollution monitors, creative spaces outside of the frames—and, of course, why so much inventory is digitising and operating programmatically.
In simple terms, however, what this really means is that OOH is evolving to become part of the fabric of our urban landscapes rather than just an afterthought or commercial bolt-on. And it was understanding this, and being inspired by what was happening throughout the wider outdoor sector, that helped us develop the ad infrastructure on the Elizabeth line.
And that is also the difference between the Elizabeth line and the rest of the network; the advertising frames have been purpose-built into the architecture. They are truly woven into the environment, and built with their utility front of mind in the same way other essential parts of a station’s design have been considered.
To that end, state-of-the-art technology provides a step-change in terms of flexibility and creativity, with seven pairs of end-to-end, full-motion escalator ribbons, an enormous ultra-HD screen at Tottenham Court Road, and new large-format video walls at Farringdon and coming soon at Bond Street.
Meanwhile, digital runways now occupy platform edges with ultra-HD screens built into the safety barriers, while the busiest central London ticket gates and escalators are fitted with high-impact digital gateways built into the walling.
Furthermore, the digital screens have been strategically placed, and we’ve tested travel patterns and behaviours ahead of opening to study how commuters view and interact with the environment.
And crucially, this has led to zero clutter. Less is more, and given we’re in the business of maximising attention for brands, then we must understand the perfect balance within a bustling environment that achieves that.
Delicate lighting also surrounds panels in corridors, drawing attention to and framing them in the same way a gallery would with art. In a world in which people are bombarded with marketing messages, we want to ensure advertising in a largely subterranean environment is an attractive, welcome experience that improves its ambiance as much as directs attention towards it.
Just as some of the most iconic OOH sites have evolved to become natural and especially attractive features of our urban landscapes—the Piccadilly Lights being a prime example—we want even humble digital screens to follow a similar design mantra.
And this is not a done deal; over time, and certainly by collecting further real-world data, we will develop and evolve these attributes further. We know we’ve made a good start by thinking slightly differently, but we’re working flexibly to hone it further and learn as we go.
A force for good
This deeper consideration of the environment extends further still. It’s important to us that OOH advertising is a positive experience through and through, and that includes its role in funding and subsidising public infrastructure and services.
OOH is one of the rare ad mediums in which this is possible, and the better we can make it work for brands and audiences, the more it will contribute to the environments it is seen to be a functioning part of.
Similarly, although ads have always been a welcome part of the London travel experience, the goal now is to help weave them deeper into the fabric of that experience by leveraging audience insights and thinking in a more advanced manner about customer journeys.
Later in the year, for example, we will have a much richer data story to tell, in particular about how post-lock behaviours have altered commuting patterns. For now, however, it’s just worth noting that things have changed.
Post-lockdown, hybrid working and more flexible hours have recalibrated commutes for many people, often stretching out travel times, and shifting leisurely pursuits outside of the more rigid weekend confines.
So as we await the full data picture, we want to start a conversation now about advancing brand and agency thinking about using this type of insight, understanding what the new normal looks like, and potentially building more experimental digital campaigns that might serve ads more strategically or creatively over the expanding rail network.
But what you see today is certainly only the start of the story. We’re currently in the process of learning, listening to feedback, and accumulating data to help us evolve the advertising proposition over time.
For now, I’d love for adland to view the Elizabeth line’s advertising launch as part of a new trend in OOH in which a more holistic, flexible and thoughtful approach to design is being used to make the medium work even harder for brands and audiences alike.
Chris Forrester is director of commercial outdoor at Global.