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JCDecaux has transformed itself from an analogue business based on mounting ads on physical billboards and bus stops to a data-driven provider of digital platforms for businesses everywhere seeking exposure. François-Xavier Pierrel, its chief data officer, describes an astonishing journey.
At the start of the 2010s, few business sectors were as analogue as Out-of-Home (OOH) advertising. As consumer media consumption became increasingly digital — thanks to the rise of the smartphone and ever-more sophisticated online communications — the static posters that are mounted onto billboards in the world’s towns and cities (from bus shelters and highways to airports) seemed ripe for disruption, or even obsolescence.
At that time, betting on the world’s largest OOH company, JCDecaux, may have felt like a long shot. Digital media could easily have had the same devastating impact that digital photography had on Kodak. Yet in 2020, the French-headquartered global giant is going from strength to strength, having enthusiastically embraced the digital revolution and transformed itself into a technologically advanced, data-driven platform provider for the world’s advertisers — as well as having expanded its offering to play a key role in ‘smart’ urban infrastructure and become the world’s largest operator of public bicycle rental systems.
However, to François-Xavier Pierrel, JCDecaux’s chief data officer, such major transformation comes as no surprise. “We have a fantastic track record of innovation. It’s in our DNA,” he says of the 56-year-old enterprise. He points to the fact that — contrary to what the likes of Mark Zuckerberg might claim — founder Jean-Claude Decaux founded the world’s first business to provide free services to consumers funded by advertising when, in the 1960s, he created bus shelters, first in Lyon and then all round France, where a captive audience waiting for public transport was exposed to posters integrated into the shelters’ walls.
What’s more, the company’s latest revenue figures demonstrate clients’ appetite for JCDecaux’s digitally enhanced services, having risen to €3.9 billion ($4.2bn) in 2019 with steady annual increases from €3.4bn in 2016. A fundamental driver of this growth is the fact that the business owns more than one million advertising panels — the majority of them now digital — in 4,000 cities in more than 80 countries.
Powering the digital revolution at JCDecaux has been the company’s intelligent use of data, as led by its data division. This was created as recently as 2018 and has been headed by Pierrel (who includes Microsoft, Facebook and automotive giant Renault on his résumé) for just over a year. He breaks down his department’s ability to add value to the business into three key areas.
François-Xavier Pierrel, chief data officer at JCDecaux
The first is driving growth by expanding JCDecaux’s range of services. A key aspect of this is moving beyond advertising to utilize the range of street furniture assets the company owns in towns and cities and helping to power the smart-city revolutions that are happening across the world. “We are being asked: ‘how do you use data to help cities provide better services for users, by leveraging sensors, measuring sound, pollution, traffic flow and so on?’” he says.
Secondly, the goal is to create improvements and efficiencies internally to transform the group’s operations. “We have an operations team who have been doing the same job well for years, but we can help them to optimize their path,” says Pierrel. “How can we anticipate maintenance on assets, how can we help with financial modelling?”
Thirdly — and most crucially for the business, hence it is attracting a large amount of investment — is the imperative to fully integrate JCDecaux’s OOH offerings into advertisers’ multi-channel digital campaigns. In other words, to convince clients that their spending should involve a well-conceived blend of online and outdoor advertising. “We need to make sure that when they spend on Google, Facebook or Amazon, they understand that JCDecaux actually has 800 million people every day in front of its assets around the world. And that makes us a key player in any advertising conversation.”
The role of data in driving this understanding is mission-critical, he adds. “Unless we truly bridge online and offline and promote the complementary nature between OOH and the digital ecosystem, it could be tough for us. But now that is exactly the phase we are in and we can prove the two work together.
“If you see a new ad on the street and you go to Google to search for and buy the product, then of course I’m happy — that’s the job of OOH,” he says. “On the other hand, if you have brand exposure through our ad locations and you recall the ad later on Facebook, I’m happy with that too. It just all works together.”
Investing in data
Pierrel’s team have invested heavily in gathering the data to prove such effectiveness — particularly in demonstrating how OOH can help to directly drive sales, as well as the more traditional advertising goals of awareness and branding.
“For a long time, OOH was just a branding medium,” he says. “If you wanted to launch a new product, you blasted the city with ads and everybody knew about it. But the reality is that our medium also helps with buying products. It actively drives people to the web and to the shops. But we need to prove its efficiency, and for this we need data.” And this can be acquired in multiple ways, Pierrel explains.
The most immediately obvious is the first-party data JCDecaux can collect itself via sensors in its huge network of urban street furniture. Of course, as a result of regulatory requirements in many countries, this opportunity is frequently limited, as Pierrel emphasizes, the company’s good reputation easily overrides any thoughts of sailing close to the wind with respect to local privacy laws.
JCDecaux digital display, São Paulo
This level of restriction has therefore driven the JCDecaux team to establish more sophisticated means of leveraging data. One has involved partnering with major retailers, such as Monoprix in France and Tesco in the UK, to optimize in-store advertising. A powerful opportunity is created when the shops’ own data is combined with JCDecaux’s capability to feed digital ads to display locations, based on geography and time — as well as engaging creative treatments that (thanks to state-of-the-art technology) can appeal to multiple senses at once.
“The retailers give us aggregated data, which can optimize our creativity and our display of certain ads,” Pierrel says. “That means we can slice our creative and our message by shop, by neighbourhood and by brand to be more precise and more relevant.”
He gives the example of recent campaigns for Heineken beer and Danone yogurt, where data confirmed that consumers were buying the former on a Friday evening and the latter at other times in the week — so, for example, there was little value in displaying a yogurt ad as shoppers were starting to wind down for the weekend. “Instead of having just a static two-month campaign for yogurt, you can display yogurt when you have information indicating when it will sell better, and then enhance the product’s attractiveness,” he says. “When we did this, we saw an increase in the ‘stickiness’ of the ads, while the average shopping basket grew.”
A further way in which JCDecaux gathers consumer insights is the acquisition of aggregated third-party data in the mobile space. This, Pierrel believes, has created a powerful — if somewhat counterintuitive — opportunity for OOH advertising to align with mobile. “If you think about where we are located,” he says, “we are in streets, airports, subway stations — we are at the heart of mobility. So we need to understand how people move and behave: where they are going to be, their average income, how many kids they have, and so on.”
This level of knowledge, and the ability to target OOH ads more precisely thanks to digitalization, is now allowing JCDecaux to transition from asset-driven campaigns — where the same ads appear everywhere with only sketchy insights into optimizing times and locations — to more effective audience-driven campaigns, where the right ads will appear in front of a specifically-targeted demographic at the most opportune moments.
The success of JCDecaux’s deep and rapid transformation might make many leaders feel they can sit back for a while and take stock — not Pierrel. Instead, he is becoming excited about the enormous potential of 5G. “It will be crazy,” he says. “I don’t know yet how fast or how big it will explode our capacity, but the reality is that from one day to another any asset will be able to become intelligent.”
In particular, he is intrigued by the game-changing potential for exploiting 5G outside of JCDecaux’s traditional advertising services. “We will improve the way we maintain our assets, as well as the way we help cities do their job in a better way — how we can deliver to them great data in real time to help them optimize traffic, garbage collection, and so on,” he says.
JCDecaux digital displays, London
Furthermore, he believes this will help restore a level of public trust in how organizations use data, which has been eroded in recent years due to its various large-scale misuses. “Having 5G will help us do the job [of using data in a trustworthy way] better,” says Pierrel. “It will democratize the use of data, particularly in developing nations.”
He points to the example of Lagos, Nigeria, where JCDecaux operates large gantries that bestride a major thoroughfare crossing the city center. These have ads on them, but also sensors which capture data about traffic flow. With 5G, Pierrel explains, they could be used more precisely and also for many more purposes, such as measuring air pollution. “This is a very cool way for us to go beyond marketing and just deliver a service where it’s needed,” he says.
Solving one challenge at a time
None of this transformation journey has come without its difficulties, Pierrel admits. “On one side it’s easy, and on the other side complicated,” he says. “It’s easy because JCDecaux has a fantastic track record of innovation and there’s no technical problem we can’t manage. However, for us it’s more about how fast and how realistically we can deploy digital technology and data.”
In order to meet such challenges, Pierrel has been careful to avoid overstretch for his team. “When companies build a new data division, they usually say, ‘We want a million data scientists, we want to do everything, and put a rocket on the moon.’ And then you have to respond that this is not what our team are here for or what we need as a business.”
JCDecaux display, Paris
His solution has been to develop a use-case based process, which allows his team to identify precisely what data sets they need to acquire and leverage in order to achieve the desired outcomes. “We discuss this with our board or our heads of markets, and ask, ‘What is the one problem you'd like solved?’ Then, once we have defined this, and we have the right algorithm or machine learning to sustain the solution, we go and find the right data — so we are very picky.”
As he points out, success for him is driven by the quality of outcomes rather than the number of projects. “I’d say our operation is more of an elegant restaurant than a fast-food outlet,” he grins.
• François-Xavier Pierrel was a speaker at Web Summit 2019 in Lisbon.
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