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20 years ago the Billboard Printing Business Witnessed a Seismic Change: Is Digital Next?

What it might mean for OOH? —Circle Graphics Acquires Anthem Displays

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shutterstock By Aleksandar Mijatovic

20 years ago the Billboard Printing Business Witnessed a Seismic Change: Is Digital Next?

 

publishers note:
repost of Thursday’s
OOH’s Coup de Maître Pioneer in Printing Intervenes in Digital Displays’

What it might mean for OOH?

 

 

By Brent Baer, Publisher, OOH Today

 

 

 

January a year ago, Circle Graphics announced their acquisition of MMT, a 33 year old giant in the world of large format printing. MMT was, in the early days of ‘computer printing’, arguably the first in the large format print space and without argument, MMT was the priority printer for the likes of big name brands Coca-Cola and Cadillac. MMT was considered the ‘best quality printer’ for many years. MMT printed my first ‘computer painted’ billboard back in 1989 or was it ’88.   

Then things changed. Large scale print equipment became more affordable. Skilled tradesman as hand painters for signs, disappeared faster and with less fanfare than the extinction of the dinosaurs. Puff. Gone. OOH sign production was now in full paradigm shift mode.

Then in 2000 another major change came to the OOH Industry— Circle Graphics. Circle Graphics nearly single handed changed the pricing and turn around time models for large format printing. 

Though the playing field has somewhat leveled, competition in the OOH printing business is fierce.

The bottom line effect for advertisers today, is faster turn times measured from days to hours and lower square foot costs from dollars to cents. The benefit to the OOH Industry is a superior product, delivered in faster time and at lower costs.  

A year later, Circle could be making making another seismic splash again with their acquisition of Anthem Displays, a US-based manufacturer of roadside digital billboards.

My first thought when I heard about the buy: will OOH’s coup de maître (masterstroke) leader in printing, now intervening in digital displays, be capable of pulling off another manufacturing transformation with digital OOH as they did with printing? 

There are those who say ‘no’, citing costs are reduced as low as can be and time is as short as it could possibly be; therefore it can not be done.  

I remember those exact same comments being said in the year 2000 when Circle came into the OOH printing Industry. At that time, square foot pricing was nearer a buck and timing was 14 days. 

OOH Today happens to think this is a smart acquisition by the team at Circle. What is it going to mean to all of us, advertisers, owners and manufacturers? I took my questions to the top brass for an extended conversation with Circle Graphics CEO Andrew Cousin, and Rod Rackley, President of Circle’s OOH Division, the results which you’ll find revealing, follow.

 

Will Circle Graphics (CG) influence the digital display business as seismically as it did when you entered the OOH printing space over 20 years ago?

We hope so!

This transaction expands Circle’s product offerings into digital signage and makes Circle a one-stop visual solutions provider to OOH advertising operators and marketers.

When we arrived on the OOH printing scene 20 years ago, we brought focus, scale, innovation and lower pricing that we think contributed to the growth of the industry by making OOH campaigns quicker to execute and more affordable to produce.

We think we can do something very similar with digital billboard manufacturing.

Circle will bring a wide range of expertise to allow Anthem to scale quickly. There are also very real synergies around procurement, engineering support, back office support, and sales/customer support. 

Circle will bring a wide range of expertise to allow Anthem to scale quickly. There are also very real synergies around procurement, engineering support, back office support, and sales/customer support. 

When CG started, it rocked the printing business forcing other printers out of the business.  Do you anticipate similar impact with Anthem?

Our perspective during our first 10 years in OOH was that of an underdog. We fought for everything and focused on being a great production partner and solving the needs of our customers, including lighter-weight materials, better software/systems, and increasing velocity and precision. Our focus has never been on driving anyone out of business, just being best.

We are going to bring a similar focus to Anthem. Billboard owners want a reliable and long-lasting digital display, accurate information on the health of that display, and excellent value for their investment. 

I believe with certainty you will raise the tide lifting all digital OOH boats. Where do you see digital display growth over the next 5 years?

For sure the tide is rising, and the pie is getting bigger.

Not only is digital technology a winner with advertisers, but even most of the reluctant, late adopters have experienced success with the technology. This should be a big year as we come off a lousy 2020 which saw very few digital deployments due to COVID uncertainty.

This past year digital displays again proved their unique effectiveness by enabling virtual change-outs of ad copy. The regulatory environment will continue to moderate growth, but there will be growth.

“Replacement” displays are not something that gets a lot of coverage,
but will become an important topic going forward. ..
2010-2011 were big install years coming out of the Great Recession.

“Replacement” displays are not something that gets a lot of coverage, but will become an important topic going forward. Every 8-10 years the entire install base of digital billboards must be replaced (conservatively 10% per year) because even the best LED ‘lamps’ are only spec’d for 100,000 hours. Another reason 2021 will be a big year based on what happened 10 years ago … 2010-2011 were big install years coming out of the Great Recession.

How will you integrate your product offerings between Circle printing and digital displays?

Circle will be rolling out our new CG REWARDS program for our independent billboard operators during the first week of February. We have a terrific lineup of benefits under this program. Among these will be the opportunity to earn production reward points when purchasing digital billboards. If you are an independent billboard operator, please expect to hear from us very soon about this launch.

Who runs day to day at Anthem?

Nico Marais is the president of Circle’s digital display business and runs the day-to-day operation. Nico is a South African native and industry veteran who has worked in OOH in multiple countries around the world. Anthem is located in Elizabethtown, NC.  Nico keeps his word, is extremely personable, and has a seemingly endless supply of funny jokes.

Is CG growth horizon based on 5 and 10-year timelines or is it more accelerated?

As a private-equity backed company, we tend to think in ~ 5-year increments. From an investment standpoint, we place our bets on the front end and work hard to integrate and execute on our strategic goals. Our partners at HIG have been incredible with their support and encouragement as well as providing valuable subject matter experts in many areas of our business.

Pierre-Henry Bassouls, Chair, CEO, and Co-founder of Prismaflex International (PFI), minority owner of Anthem referenced on the press release that Anthem is going to ‘the next level’. What does he mean by this?

Pierre/PFI invested in Anthem in early 2018 as a way to extend their reach and product offerings to their large base of Trivision customers. Pedestrian/street level digital displays are a very popular OOH product in Europe, and PFI is a leader in the design and deployment of these displays, especially with Stroer in Germany as well as Clear Channel. These are higher resolution displays – 4mm to 8mm – similar in size to a US transit shelter. Many people (Pierre and myself included) think the US market will follow suit with these type of urban displays. Anthem will be ready with a high-resolution display if/when this trend materializes.

Many people (Pierre and myself included) think the US market will follow suit with these type of urban displays. Anthem will be ready with a high-resolution display if/when this trend materializes.

Do you foresee a future where advertisers/brands will demand a specific display brand (such as Anthem or another brand) as the display of choice for their ad copy?

We do not. If a particular display is inferior, advertisers will vote with their wallets. Media companies will not be able to sell it, and, in turn, they will not buy that vendor’s digital display product again. Capitalism works.

What are the table stakes for digital billboard vendors and what are best-in-class attributes?

As far as table stakes, media companies want a reliable display, one that requires little to no maintenance. They want a display that looks great, and faithfully reproduces ad copy. Lastly, they want a display that is affordable to purchase and operate (i.e., is not a power hog).

Best-in-class displays have high quality lamps (LEDs), excellent diagnostic software (that makes them ease to troubleshoot and repair), low power requirements, and have the lowest total cost of ownership including standard-sized modules.

Why should advertisers or billboard companies care where their digital displays are built?  How can Anthem build in the USA and still maintain competitive pricing?

Anthem’s displays have always been proudly manufactured in the USA. We think this is important for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is that buying American products creates jobs here in the US.

Another important reason relates to quality, a critical issue for billboard companies. US manufacturers have a reputation for quality, excellent craftsmanship, and the creation of a superior product. Anthem prides itself on these characteristics. While shipments and products can be monitored, there is no true guarantee of the imported goods’ quality and longevity.

Finally, US manufacturers pay US taxes, which benefits every US citizen through government re-investment in education, national defense, social security, Medicare & Medicaid, transportation, as well as research in science & healthcare.

While price tags will often be higher for products made in the USA, Anthem keeps our costs in line with our competitors that import Chinese modules and displays by applying lean manufacturing principles and keeping our overhead low.

Where does Anthem rank in terms of # of billboard displays deployed with OOH digital sign owners and what would you consider success in 18 months?

We are likely sitting in the #6 spot today. And we hope we can move into the #3 or #4 spot within the next couple of years. We specialize in digital billboards versus on-premise or digital scoreboards, so our numbers are a bit lower.

Rod, tell us about your relationship with Anthem as a co-founder/partner for the few years you were away from Circle?

I founded Anthem with Evan Brooks. Evan and I worked together at Circle and both left in early 2013 on friendly terms but with a desire to take on some new challenges. Our goal was to follow the Circle model of entering a proven market and trying to do things less expensively at scale by applying lean principles. We worked closely with Lamar’s digital billboard team to learn what challenges they were facing and what improvements they needed to the product.

Anthem’s 20mm (Pitch), 400mm square Module (Pat. Aluminum heat sink, handle for ease of installation, front/back serviceable)

Do you work with Lamar’s 400 mm standard module size? What is your opinion of that standard as a goal?

Thank you for the opportunity to address this question. We not only work with, but we have also been a key contributor and early developer of this standard for Lamar. We helped make it a standard, and we make every Anthem module to this standard.

So that your readers have context here, an industry standard module (in this case, a square module measuring 400 mm, or 15.75 inches) enables Lamar (and other volume buyers) to buy the aluminum cabinet once and reface the billboard with modules from any vendor when the display needs replacement. This reduces your replacement cost by at least 30%.

Standard modules allow a display owner to shop for the module vendor that is most competitive when they go to replace modules. Their inventory, should they ever sell it (especially to Lamar), is likely more attractive given they are on the industry standard.

I guess you now know we have a positive opinion about standards for digital displays!

Is there discussion of name change? 

No. We will keep Anthem as a subsidiary of Circle. We think it reinforces our belief in the strength of “Built in America.”

 

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