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A new year has dawned, but much of the world is pretty much the same: stuck indoors. After bearing the brunt of a locked-down 2020, what lessons have mural firms learned from the pandemic? And how are they preparing themselves for the lockdowns yet to come?

If you've recently visited a metropolitan area, you might be forgiven for thinking the apocalypse has hit. 10 months in and Piccadilly Circus is most certainly not ‘like a Piccadilly Circus.’ And New York is now a city that, well, sleeps, as the coronavirus continues to keep people indoors.

Though much of 2020 saw people confined to their own four walls, it was also the year that people took to the streets, with June's Black Lives Matter protests inciting people in the US and beyond to take public action. Amid a pained year of human suffering, street artists were there paining pictures in real time, at any opportunity, to capture the zeitgeist. 

Corie Mattie created a series of coronavirus-themed murals to uplift passersby
Corie Mattie created a series of coronavirus-themed murals to uplift passersby
 
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Street art dates back to the Stone Age, but it's only in the last 10 years or so that commercial mural businesses have shot up, with brands lining up to see their business on a fresco. "‘Hand painted’ still represents a relatively small percentage of the overall OOH market but it’s growing at pace year on year,” explains Jay Young, head of creative solutions at Talon Outdoor.  

“As brand demand has increased so has the number of suppliers in the space like Global Street Art [an art platform created in London for artists to receive exposure for their murals, graffiti and connect with other artists] helping to open up new opportunities across the UK. This is fantastic news for us – more unique and vast canvases to get creative with.” 

Back at the end of 2019, the sector was hitting its stride, and painted advertisers were preparing themselves for another good year, anticipating increased advertiser spend, a higher volume of events and experiential activations. However, OOH advertising firms were among the first media casualties of the coronavirus crisis, and nearly one year down the line, the world is still in doors, and the OOH is still suffering. 

According to last week’s Bellwether report, the wider UK OOH industry saw a net balance of 36.7% of CMOs report cuts, and overall, 38.8% of survey respondents registered a decrease compared to three months ago, while only 2.0 saw an increase. Over in the US, OOH advertising revenue decreased 36% in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year, and for the first three quarters of the year, OOH revenue was down 28.5%, and totals $4.6bn. 

In October, Global Street Art brought Tweets to life for Halloween
In October, Global Street Art brought Tweets to life for Halloween
 
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However, despite restrictions, Global Street Art (GSA) says it finished the year on a positive note. “We didn't shrink last year, as a company, we actually grew our turnover slightly because there were some good months, particularly in the first quarter,” explains Lee Bofkin, GSA's founder. “By around September and October, there was a bounce back.” 

With rules changing by the day, he explains that throughout 2020, the team learned how to adapt their approach, responding agilely to changing conditions, and using their time more wisely.

He adds that the painted advertising company learned how to respond at shorter lead times too.

“Lead times have shrunk across the industry and all advertising, TV booking lead times fell as well. And that's affected outdoor advertising. So we've adapted to that accordingly."

Mural Republic and Kinetic worked with FIFA 21 on the PS5 launch
Mural Republic and Kinetic worked with FIFA 21 on the PS5 launch
 
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Similarly, for Mural Republic, the year made it work extra hard to deliver for its clients, and in particular how to best collaboratively activate murals as an asset in new and more effective ways.

“While it has caused us to press pause on some of our longer-term ambitions, we are using the time wisely by developing our offering and bringing some exciting new opportunities to the market,”  explains Geoff Gray, its director and founder. 

“We believe more opportunities for partnerships with other media partners and for integrated activity will emerge as the effects of the pandemic play out in our social spaces and we are constantly on the lookout for those.” 

Social media was a saviour for mural firms in 2020, ensuring work didn't go unnoticed, even if people were unable to see it in situ.

“Handpainted advertising wouldn't exist if it wasn't for social media. It wouldn't have had a rebirth and regeneration. You can paint in any tiny corner of the world today, and instantly thousands of od people all over the world can see it,”  Bofkin explains.

“The higher quality stuff goes viral, it's a bit meme-based. They can create new fans because some people might not know how good street art can be.” 

As Dominic Murray, head of innovation at Kinetic Worldwide explains, “murals now live a parallel life online, shared by people who come across them and by brands who find pictures and 'making of' videos warmly received by their followers. Digital amplification and integration are vital components of successful OOH campaigns.”  

Global Street Art is currently working on The Drum Labs stairwell.
Global Street Art is currently working on The Drum Labs stairwell.
 
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While mural firms have survived an impossible year, how can they themselves prepare themselves for what 2021 has to hold, when the industry is still feeling the strain of the pandemic?

Bofkin admits that now is currently a quieter time for commercial street art, and GSA is still doing outreach and searching for business and new ways of thinking. “But that won't come to fruition until the world basically recovers a bit," he notes.

"We're treating this as a time to plant some seeds. You've got all this prospect and promise that can't come into fruition until the climate is warmer.”  

Scenario planning and having a strategy is a big part of that, so GSA is taking the time to prepare itself for when the bounceback happens. “It's taken us by surprise, but the world hasn't completely stopped, there are still projects.”  

Looking further ahead, Bofkin admits that the recession might bite for a long time, citing potential changes in the way people interact with city spaces, if ‘working from home’ becomes a more ingrained habit.

“The whole outdoor advertising industry may need to move towards local activations, and away from hero spaces. But we're not necessarily seeing that,” he admits. 

It's a tough, and uncertain period for a sector that was in its stride. “It has been hard hit, but we believe it will come back stronger,” asserts Gray, on whether mural firms will come out of the pandemic stronger and more resilient.

“We think people will increasingly welcome, and enjoy even more, the simple pleasure of watching talented artists create amazing art, live, in a gloriously analogue way.  We believe that brands will continue to recognise the power in that.”