Mumbai: Doing business without outdoor advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you’re doing but she doesn’t," says an animated professor on a billboard of Creation Publicity Pvt. Ltd in Juhu, a northern suburb in Mumbai. Another hoarding on the city’s Western Express Highway says, “We talk to 1,000 million people in every corner of India."

Outdoor media companies are doing what they know best: hard-selling brands. This time round though, they are doing it for themselves.

Image change: Outdoor media companies are using spaces such as these to break stereotypes and show that the medium, considered drab and traditional, can be used innovatively to enhance the brand message. Photograph: Rajeev Dabral / Mint

Bright Outdoor’s brand campaign of talking to 1,000 million people every day was carried across its own billboards in key cities as well as the print media.

The company is not leaving any stone unturned in its attempt to build a brand image. Its website even has testimonials from Bollywood actors such as Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan thrown in for good measure. “After all, you wouldn’t have called me if you hadn’t seen our ad and the 1,000 million figure," reasons Lakhahni.

Outdoor media companies have traditionally chosen to stay out of the limelight. More often than not, these media owners would be known only to people in the industry—a one-point contact person to book billboard space.

Experts, however, say this is changing as more players enter the market. “As more players such as Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc., Big Street and Viacom Outdoor Ltd enter the market, there is a great pressure on old timers to be seen and heard," says Sanjay Shah, chief executive of Navia Asia, an affiliate of Starcom Mediavest Group.

Shah says old timers have a lot of catching up to do as companies that are established brands in other markets or launched by companies (as in the case of Big Street, the out-of-home, or OOH, media division of Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group-owned Adlabs Films Ltd) that are established brands locally join the fray. Viacom Outdoor is the UK division of outdoor media company CBS Outdoor Ltd.

Add to this the growing interest in the outdoor media that has continued to attract investors despite the slowdown. Just last year, industry experts estimated that the OOH segment is expected to grow from ,500 crore today to 2,150 crore in 2010.

“Earlier, OOH media owners would slap on their name and number on vacant media. That was their idea of drawing in business. Some would have a quirky message to go with the number," says Hemant Shah, executive vice-president and revenue head, Times Innovative Media Ltd that owns the Times OOH brand. “But today, with a number of private equity players showing interest in this space, a lot of people are in it as it’s increasingly imperative for OOH media owners to create brands."

It’s not, therefore, surprising that a lot of companies are dropping owner-based nomenclatures. Even newcomers have been quick to follow this trend. Laqshya Media Pvt. Ltd uses Laqshya—Global OOH Media Assets and Solutions on all their vacant hoardings.

While the current economic slowdown and consequent cut in spending on advertising may have spurred OOH firms, local legislation restricting the medium is also forcing them to build brands, say experts. This, in some cases, has led to several OOH companies building their brands on the very space they sell to clients at hefty rates.

“It’s not just inflation," says Ishan Raina, chief executive officer, Out of Home Media India Ltd, “There’s really a broader movement away from the outdoor hoarding medium driven by legislation developments, activists and environmentalists."

“This has been happening very rapidly. And when you have less inventory, companies will naturally use that free space to build brands," Raina points out.

While municipal laws in Chennai and Delhi have for some time restricted the growth of billboards, the Bangalore municipality stopped issuing licences for outdoor hoardings earlier this month. Half of Mumbai’s hoarding sites are also soon likely to be declared illegal.

Tough legislation against traditional hoarding spaces in the metros is also pushing large companies—which have the talent and brand to attract private equity funds—to venture into new media streams.

“Companies such as Laqshya are already doing this and have entered digital outdoor TV and Hyderabad airport space, etc. Smaller companies which fail to attract funding for expansion into other media will fold up and the future of many (traditional outdoor players) is on the line for now," says Raina.

“These media companies are investing in creating a brand and offering clients more than just a site, a hoarding or a bus shelter," says Sanjay Shah. “They are focusing on value-adds, innovation, and creative solutions. There is some amount of realization that if they don’t create a brand now, they are likely to lose a lot in the future."

Brands such as Times OOH say they are using their own medium to break the old stereotype. “We are going through a phase where we feel the need to augment our efforts with marketing activity. This is because we as a company have acquired some good properties that we would like to draw attention to, as well as reinvent the popular sites which have always been hot and happening," says Hemant Shah, explaining the move.

“Essentially, the idea is to enhance the value proposition and show consumers that the OOH media is not just some drab, old traditional medium, but one that can be used innovatively and effectively to enhance the brand message."

There are some, however, who believe nothing has changed. For instance, Vikram Sakhuja, South Asia chief executive officer of Group M, says these media owners have always used empty space to advertise their brands, especially in slack periods such as the monsoons.