“What Is The City But The People?” Lessons For Adland From QMS’ Fraught City Of Sydney Rejuvenation

“What Is The City But The People?” Lessons For Adland From QMS’ Fraught City Of Sydney Rejuvenation

In this guest post, renowned futurist Sergio Brodsky (pictured below) gives his take on what has been happening with the QMS/City of Sydney debacle – and how they should be looking towards modern design principles to help make choices for signs that are contributing to citizens’ lives, not interrupting them…

Strategy is fundamentally about choosing what not to do. It was clearly lacking in the case of the recently installed 86-inch electronic billboards in the City of Sydney by out of home media company QMS.

This is not a rant against advertising and much less so in relation to OOH communications. Of all marketing touchpoints, those integrating with our urban landscapes have been something of a love affair for me. But, with this botched effort, I felt betrayed, because it doesn’t have to be this way.

Sergio Brodsky

For those who don’t know QMS was forced to stall its installation of dozens of new screens around Sydney’s CBD after numerous complaints they were blocking paths and causing a nuisance. As a recent article from the Sydney Morning Herald puts it “the new Sydney billboards that have left pedestrians ‘walking like ducks’ in single file”.

Advertising has traditionally followed an interruptive model. Stop people on their tracks. Grab their attention. Like geese, force-feed them with messages. Then hope they may remember you. Sometimes even positively. So when it comes to purchase time in your category your brand becomes their first choice. It’s not the most strategic approach, and as I’ll show you, there is a much better way.

Done well, out of home can make public life better, and enhance our cities in numerous ways.

Making the medium the mechanism, not just a message

I recently returned from a short trip to London, now considered the most advanced smart city in the world. The key enabler is the consultative approach adopted by the Smart London Plan, to which mayor Sadiq Khan said: “I’ve been clear in my ambition for London to become the world’s leading smart city – and I want to know this technology is affecting Londoners’ lives and to understand in what ways we can build on this with new technologies of the future.”

I went to London to speak about Urban Brand-Utility (UBU) at the Cause & Effect conference. The central tenet of the UBU approach is that advertising should be placed to enhance people’s moments as opposed to interrupting them, by providing a problem-solving utility service that otherwise would not be available. The UBU model then expands by proposing people-public-private partnerships where all parties win, and citizen wellbeing is upgraded.

Domino’s Paving for Pizza Program is a great example of this type of partnership between brand, city, agencies, media owners and citizen-consumers. Aware that potholes, cracks, and bumps in the road can cause irreversible damage to people’s pizzas during the drive home, Domino’s decided to pave towns across the USA to save their customers’ pizzas from the bad roads. Obviously, not only Domino’s customers benefited from this effort, but every single driver going through these roads.

This may sound trivial, but look at the numbers. According to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, the annual investment required to simply maintain the nation’s highways, roads, and bridges is estimated to be US$185 billion for the next 50 years. Today, annual investment is about US$68 billion.

Mayors and city managers from the municipalities where Paving for Pizza has taken place have acknowledged the creation of shared value. Since then Domino’s has advanced its program across America’s 50 states as shared on a tweet!

While Mayor Clover Moore responded to criticisms by saying that the placement of the many touchpoints installed by QMS “were subject to development application process, which included public consultation” the outcome clearly didn’t satisfy the general public.

Speaking at the Cause & Effect conference leading architect Shajay Bhooshan described his incredible use of technology to de-risk new urban developments. One example is the Prospera Platform, providing an immersive and stunningly designed experience where potential property buyers explore the environment to scope out different plots for their property.

It takes into account considerations like the amenities they’d like in the local area, enabling visualisations that truly create a sense of place and simulations able to prevent liveability issues. The images below reflect the real-time configurator technology, artful design and open collaboration, now defining a series of apartments, airy offices, and communal outdoor spaces led by real estate development Beyabu on the Honduran tropical island of Roatán.

“There’s less variance between the products as visualized and sold and eventually acquired—both due to the photorealism and the end-to-end, design-to-production nature of the solution,” explains Bhooshan. This is real, not a fantasy and happening right now.

If we can design properties and neighbourhoods like this, it shouldn’t be a stretch to think about the placement of a few screens (and some more) in a big city. If a greater degree of curiosity and strategic thinking were applied, Sydney’s landscape could be a lot different now. Now, not in 20 or 30 years.

In recent years the advancements in the technology of photo-real visualisation of proposed architecture has brought a massive leap forward in the democratisation of the process of design. In projects such as Binyan Studios’ AR + VR Experience for Bosa Property’s 1515 Development in Vancouver, the end user is brought right into the co-creation process via immersive tech and creative approaches that engender a genuine and authentic sense of real-time-belonging.

“Unlike the usual “hype marketing” associated with luxury real estate it leads to a high degree of alignment between the builder and the occupants creating trust between the two sides of the development divide, massively reducing the risk of backlashes once the virtual solidifies as real”, said Andrei Dolnikov, Bynian’s global CEO.

This Marchitecture is available to anyone with a curious mind

You may say ‘How can we be aware of niche or experimental projects like that?’  The fact is it’s nothing that new. Author William Gibson tells us “the future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” This future has in fact been around for quite some time and in the media advertising space too!

Back in 2018, Sberbank was approached by major Russian real estate developers to collaborate on better infrastructure planning in residential areas in Moscow – using people’s opinions on their local infrastructure needs to fuel targeted campaigns promoting loans for small businesses people wanted in these areas.

The ‘Neighbourhoods’ campaign generated nine times as many small business responses as traditional loan advertising. People had their needs addressed with neighbourhoods becoming more attractive. The city in turn increased tax collection from the new businesses, a win-win.

In Australia, publics’ participation has been pioneered by public affairs extraordinaire Katherine Teh, who in 2012 founded WikiCurve – a two-way engagement platform tracking the progress of societal expectations. One of the uses of the platform happened in collaboration with Fairfax Media as a new medium for engagement with readers, making clear the many reasons drug policy isn’t working for Australian communities.

Or, as Teh eloquently puts: “Polls are a crutch of populist politics. If you plan on leading from behind, you just need to wait until the groundswell on any issue becomes significant and then make a decision to reflect the public’s point of view. A poll will tell you when a majority is ready for change, but […] there is often a difference between a community being ready for change and a community needing to be heard.”

A tool like WikiCurve could have been a rather cost-effective tool used to prevent QMS’ City of Sydney debacle and, if slightly re-calibrated, even replace ‘the media brief’, by innovatively bringing brands closer to their customers, through an open, direct platform that articulates their needs and wants without having to dig too deep for an insight.

Above all, we have the unique opportunity to address the claim from the most important marketing theorist of the 20th century, Wroe Wilson, who said that “What is needed is not an interpretation of the utility created by marketing, but a marketing interpretation of the whole process of creating utility.”

Media is incredibly useful and beyond messages here’s an opportunity to treat it as a mechanism able to turn brand communications into a regenerative force for cities, where the promotion of goods and services is not only more profitable, but also environmentally enriching and socially virtuous.

If we are to address the many challenges cities now face, we must leapfrog and start building the future now. For brands and marketers, the shift lies in investing in your city rather than just marketing to it.

With a billion people migrating to cities by 2030, this could represent a multi billion-dollar opportunity for repurposing our advertising infrastructure into a network of creative urban resilience. After all, as one of the tribunes asks the crowd in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, “What is the city but the people?”

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QMS Sérgio Brodsky

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