The Aussie street poster industry: An outsider’s inside take

Robin McDonnell
By Robin McDonnell | 20 January 2021
Robin McDonnell

Robin McDonnell is CEO of Phantom Billstickers Ltd in New Zealand.

I find myself in agreement with Marcus Seal’s open letter in AdNews calling for the street poster industry to work together. This echoes my own observations over the years.

(To declare an interest, our own company, Phantom Billstickers NZ, was established in 1982 and has developed a premium street media format that doesn't exist in Australia. We have no skin in the Australian game, except to note that a buoyant industry across the ditch has a positive impact on our industry as a whole.)

Here’s what things look like from our vantage point across the Tasman. The Australian street poster industry is a hot mess of illegal sites, odd formats, dirty tactics, men in suits and dissatisfied customers. Of course, there are plenty of good, hard-working women and men trying to make an honest living putting up posters to fill venues and sell products. It could be worse, but it could be so much better.

It's important to understand how we got here. To survive the unregulated Australian market and put up posters for a living, there are two basic personalities that last the distance:

  1. People who enforce territory via tough guy tactics. Watch The Wire and you'll see what I mean.
  2. People who control territory via tenacity and street smarts. They're usually nice guys, honest and upfront. (But note, they’re still making a living breaking the law.)

The problem for the tough guys comes when forces beyond their control cause a seismic shift. If you can't control the market with intimidation you're in trouble. By contrast, the nice guys tend to bounce back from forces beyond their control because their strength is dealing with the unknown. As far as I can tell, the Australian market has a lot of nice guys.

In talking of forces beyond one’s control, COVID is the biggie. As a result of the pandemic, many Australian businesses are on life support through JobKeeper. So if your poster campaign is unbelievably cheap it may be because your posters are installed on illegal sites and the government is subsidising the labour.

That's not really helping anyone. Who knows what will happen when JobKeeper expires?

The situation is compounded by the fact that local councils are complicit in the hustle. Decades of under/over enforcement, and the lack of a regulatory framework, make it impossible to operate a conventional business. Meanwhile, councils are often huge consumers of street poster networks, booking bland engagement campaigns to access a demographic some besuited consultant has told them they need to connect with. It’s disconcerting to see a council poster on a street poster site while there’s a thick wad of enforcement notices sitting in the poster company’s office.

Without the equalizer of a third-party enforcer like a local council, dirty tactics serve to stop one company from getting too big and dominating the streetscape. It's not a sustainable approach but at the moment it's all you've got.

The men in suits may be the worst element of the industry. They don't really care about the outcome. They’re here to make a buck and you won't find them on the end of a paste brush. Like councils, they're complicit in the hustle no matter how fast they talk.

So should we all just throw up our hands in despair and give up the fight? No, because the street poster industry is essential for the survival of arts and entertainment.

Without posters there are no bums on seats. Without bums on seats there are empty venues. Commercial advertising is a very good thing but it doesn't perform the same function as a cool poster for a band you actually want to see. When you book street posters you're entering the domain of people who live and breathe creativity, and even really good FMCG advertising is anodyne by comparison. Advertisers need cool arts and entertainment posters for brand rub to stay relevant.

We’re all in this together but our clients need to be confident they're not giving their hard-earned dosh to a bunch of ratbags who will take their posters and stick them in the nearest skip.

Here are Phantom’s tips for our Aussie ad mates on booking a street poster campaign:

  • Get proof of posting. Don't pay for a third-party service to verify that your supplier has done what you've paid them to do unless you absolutely have to. The onus needs to be on the supplier to prove the value you're paying good money for. At Phantom, our customers can access real-time reporting that proves and tracks every single placement with date-stamped, location-specific photos. It's not that hard.
  • Is your supplier putting your posters up on owned sites or informal sites? Either is fine but you should expect to pay a lot less if your posters are in locations the company doesn't own and for which they can't guarantee a posting period. If they own the sites you should expect to pay more because leasing high-profile real estate is really bloody expensive. If you're booking an informal campaign you'll need to print a load more posters as they will be covered by competing campaigns. On a like-for-like comparison of the two models, your overall spend should be similar, with the owned model just happening to be more reliable.
  • Go out and look at your posters. If you're happy with the coverage for your investment, that’s awesome. If you have concerns then you should speak up. From my experience, all operators in the market are very responsive to customer feedback.
  • If booking posters on owned sites, then ask for a pre-emptive list of where the posters will go. At Phantom this is called a site select placement, and our inventory management system will spit this out the moment your campaign is confirmed. If you can't get an indicative list then the company doesn't have good inventory control. Inventory management is the key.
  • If paying for owned sites that will be up for at least a week, then invest in high-quality printing. All companies will print for you but not all poster prints are the same. There’s no point in paying for seven days if your 80gsm uncoated stock falls down in the first rain shower.

Mr Seal is correct. Something needs to change because the status quo is unsustainable. This needs to be driven by the client expecting better performance from their poster company, and the company needs to deliver or hang up their glue brushes. Period.

For an indication of where the market should be heading, please feel free to book your next campaign with Phantom in New Zealand. We can show you the benefit in paying a little more for the best locations, individually framed installation, council-approved sites, weatherproof postering, real-time reporting, pre-emptive site selection, data/analytics planning, and the kind of professionalism you should expect when booking any media campaign.

Or you can give a pile of posters to the nearest punk with a paste brush.