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Marek Wrobel vigilantly tracks emerging media tech for Havas Media Group. For The Drum, in the Media Innovation Round-Up, Wrobel explores ‘new and shiny’ tech and its role in the ever-evolving marketing mix.

OOH goes virtual

Brookfield Properties – the US-based owner of a network of shopping centers – has made a deal to offer exclusive rights to virtual air space in its properties. Selected partners will now use the space to create AR opportunities for brands to advertise. Does this deal point to the next chapter in the romance between AR and OOH?

I’ve been fascinated with the recent developments in OOH, from the rise and rise of DOOH, to advancements on both the programmatic and measurement fronts, and just the sheer creativity apparent when it comes to executions. Then there’s the fact that the combination of OOH and augmented reality is basically a match made in media heaven. There can be no doubt that in its own bizarre way, the pandemic has made it even easier for AR and OOH to work together by boosting both QR codes and AR technologies.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that over the last few weeks there have been some great examples of brands using the AR/OOH combo in new and creative ways:

  • Barclaycard launched a campaign starring singer Anne-Marie to promote a series of exclusive music events this summer, with over 1,000 billboards coming to life after scanning.

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  • Doritos worked with Poplar to create an AR portal launching from OOH sites, with a cool competition mechanic encouraging people to come back and engage day after day.

  • Burger King used AR to drive footfall. Its OOH creative was connected to an Instagram lens, with a smoke trail directing users to the nearest Burger King.

So, while the romance between AR and OOH is blossoming, the virtual space is the next frontier for this relationship. What do I mean by virtual space? You can think about it as another plane of reality that exists on top of our world, but we can see it – just like in ghost stories.

I have touched upon this in previous editions of this column when exploring the idea of location-based AR experiences. While there is more and more buzz around this interesting concept – from Niantic partnering with some of the world’s biggest telecoms companies to create ‘planer-scale AR’, though to Snap launching City Painter, and Google’s Cloud Anchors – I feel that when I throw out the names of these big tech companies people still roll their eyes thinking that the idea of virtual spaces is a bit ridiculous.

That’s exactly why I think the news of a company like Brookfield Properties – an owner of shopping centers, not a tech company – getting involved in this space is so interesting. Consider a typical shopping center, and all the wasted space. With the help of AR this space could be ‘activated’ and drive value for key players across the whole media and marketing spectrum. For shopping center owners and retailers with a physical location, this could create a new revenue stream – a way to turn their locations into a media outlet.

In addition, creating AR experiences could add an additional layer to the shopping experience and, thus, further blur the lines between online and offline, and attract more customers. As for brands, they have a whole new avenue to reach their audiences. And, lastly, monetizing virtual space creates a new opportunity for media owners, especially within OOH.

Avatars are the window to the soul

Wolf3D has launched its Ready Player Me cross-game avatars, enabling players to create custom avatars they can take between video games and virtual reality experiences. What does this mean for our virtual identity?

The rising importance of avatars is closely connected with the evolution of third places – a concept introduced by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the late 80s. He argues that for a healthy existence, people must have a balance of three areas: home life (first place), the workplace (second place), and inclusively sociable places (third places), with the last being the most significant for our wellbeing as it anchors our community life, and facilitates and fosters broader, more creative interactions.

What constitutes a third place has evolved over time, and nowadays, especially for younger generations, third places are virtual – whether that’s games, social media or virtual reality – and avatars play an important role across all these areas. They are extensions of the people behind them – enabling them to express themselves, to show their status or to demonstrate they belong to a tribe.

However, historically one needed to create a new avatar identity for each experience, so being able to have one that travels from one to another makes perfect sense.

This is just the beginning, as avatars and virtual identity will play an even greater role as these virtual worlds become more and more social and interconnected. If you don’t believe me, just ask Mark Zuckerberg. In his recent interview with The Verge, he stated: “I think over the next five years or so [...], I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.” As you can see, his vision for Facebook is not only to embrace virtual worlds but the metaverse itself.

While ‘metaverse’ is a serious contender for The Biggest Buzzword of 2021, and it’s still early days for this trend, I can’t help but be excited by the opportunities it creates, especially for avatar marketing, NFTs and new kinds of immersion and storytelling.

Netflix levels up

Netflix has announced its expansion into gaming, with initial efforts focused on mobile games, as part of users’ subscriptions. What does this move tell us about the future of entertainment?

For anyone keeping an eye on Netflix’s journey, its foray into gaming should come as no surprise – the company’s earnings report for 2018 stated: “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.”

This is a part of a broader trend, with gaming making its presence felt when it comes to media usage hours. Based on the State of Online Gaming 2021 report, in the UK time spent gaming weekly exceeds seven hours. Among younger audiences it’s even higher – Statista reported that 12-15-year-olds game for over 12 hours per week, and Foresight Factory stated that 60% of 12-19-year-olds prefer playing games to watching TV. Therefore, adding gaming to its repertoire could provide Netflix with a unique offer compared to the likes of Disney+ and Amazon Prime, and a way to future-proof itself.

However, I think there may be another layer to this, one connected with the changing role IP plays in entertainment. It’s something my digital hero Matthew Ball has explored on many occasions where he talks about how technology enables IP to become bigger.

The Witcher serves as a great example of this phenomenon: the franchise launched in the early 90s with a book series, which was then followed by various comic books. 2007 saw the launch of a highly-successful computer game series, which in turn led to Netflix producing a TV series. Just last month Netflix organized an online event called WitcherCon, and it’s getting ready to release an anime version of the show. As you can see, Witcher IP now lives across multiple mediums and, as Matthew Balls says, “(it) is a really interesting case study as to the extent to which we truly want our stories to never end.”

However, this approach is not entirely new. In 1957, Walt Disney laid out the company’s core strategy in a napkin sketch known as the ‘Synergy Map’, which, as explained in Harvard Business Review, depicts a central film asset that in very precise ways infuses value into and is in turn supported by an array of related entertainment assets. Disney has since perfected this approach, with the Marvel and Star Wars franchises being great examples. However, there are plenty of others: Lord of the Rings, Pokemon, even Rupaul’s Drag Race. I never thought I’d write about those three in one sentence...

Netflix seems to be on a similar path. Just a few weeks ago it hired an ex-Apple executive to lead its podcasting operations. In June, the company launched netflix.shop, an online store selling apparel and products based on its content catalog, and last month it announced plans to open the first-ever permanent physical store in Tokyo next year. The shop aims to ‘merge the virtual world of the internet with the real world’.

So, when we talk about the streaming wars and its role in the future of entertainment, are we missing the bigger picture? Streaming after all is merely a delivery method and, as we are now witnessing, the future of entertainment is about so much more.

TV ads get smarter

ITV has launched ‘Shoppable TV’ during Love Island, allowing users with a smart TV to purchase featured products. What does this tell us about the future TV landscape and smart TV’s role in it?

I have touched upon higher level of interactivity in TV ads before – we’ve seen brands adding QR codes to their ads, with Camden Hells Brewery being a great example, Sky announcing a more integrated approach with the launch of QR-enabled shoppable TV ads, and now ITV tapping into smart TV ads. And while the CTV space is still in its early stages, based on this development and a few other recent ones, we can see how smart TVs will help to shape the TV ecosystem.

Firstly, this technology offers an improved user experience, or at least the ability to keep it within one platform with no need to use a smartphone. Secondly, we can observe the entrance of new players – hardware ones! Historically, as much as we watched the ads on our TV sets, the companies who produced them were not part of the equation – their involvement ended when we bought the TV. Now they enable these experiences.

Yes, the broadcasters are still the main players, but they’re no longer the only ones. And on that note, The Verge has reported that Samsung has quietly launched a web version of its free and ad-supported Smart TV Plus streaming service for live and linear programming. As you can see, things are moving in some intriguing directions. And lastly, there is measurement. While I have to stress I am in no way an expert on TV measurement, nor do I want to advocate one approach or another, but I do find it interesting how smart TV-based solutions such as Samba TV are opening up new ways to understand TV viewership and trends.

And if you liked what you read, check out my last column.