CEO Spotlight: Paul Whitehead, IDS Canada Inc., Ontario

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

This month, we welcome Paul Whitehead, President, Information Display Systems Canada Inc., Oakville, Ontario, Canada.


  1. What is your personal background and what has led you into Out-of-Home?

    I have been in the healthcare industry, in one way or another, since 1977. I started out in sales for an OTC products company, calling on pharmacy, mass merchandise and food retailers. Subsequent roles involved sales and product management for a pharmaceutical company, then as Director of their Consumer Health Division. After a stint as a Director of New Product Development, I left corporate life and began my own consultancy, Devon Healthcare Marketing Ltd. in 1994.

    It was during this time that I began IDS Canada and, in 2001, it became my full-time job. Our core business has always been patient information, delivered through a network of family practice clinics, involving brochures, print posters, sampling and other material for both consumers and physicians. Currently, we have 1,750 clinics, serving over 6,000 GPs and 50 million patients per year, in our Primary Care Network, the largest in Canada.

  2. Your company has been around for quite a long time. Please tell us the history of the company and when you moved into offering DOOH.

    Yes, we launched in 1999 in the Province of Ontario, the key region in the Canadian market, with 500 clinics, went nationally in Canada in 2001 with 1,200 locations and grew from there. As I mentioned, our primary business involved print media in various forms. In 2007, we began investigating ‘narrowcasting TV’ in our physician waiting rooms and launched, with a partner, a network of 150 screens. Gaining business at that time was difficult, however, and, after parting ways with our screen partner, we exited the medium in 2009. But see below on our new entry into DOOH.

  3. Are you the sole owner of IDS Canada? Are you looking for investment to help the company grow? Why or why not?

    I am the principal owner of IDS Canada, with 55% of the shares; my partners since inception have been two colleagues in The Netherlands, who operate similar businesses across Europe. We are definitely open to investment partners as the business is well-poised for continued growth, driven primarily by our return to digital with a network we began in July, 2015.

  4. Dealing with the health sector, you must belong to several associations. Which do you/the company belong to and what role do they play in helping you gain advertisers?

    Perhaps surprisingly, we don’t belong to too many associations; in fact, the industry here doesn’t have too many structured organizations that way. We are a member of the pharmaceutical industry marketing associations, based in Toronto and Montreal, and their monthly meetings are very helpful for our Rx sales executive to stay in close contact with manufacturers, ad agencies, PR agencies and other industry suppliers.

    We are investigating membership in one of the OOH and DOOH associations in Canada, although we find their focus is typically on retail locations and our audience, metrics and consumer motivation are much different from the models already in use. We are determined to find a way to have another bona fide third party organization corroborate the in-house information we gather monthly from our clinics’ staff, however.

  5. Are you active only in Canada, or are you also in the US? If not in the US, is this an area where you would like to expand?

    IDS has operated in a dozen countries across both eastern and western Europe since 1993; we are, by most measurements, the largest point-of-care marketing association in the world. We are interested in expanding to the US – we feel our total offering and business philosophy are not currently available there – and would welcome an industry partner in helping us do so.

  6. I believe a large part of your business is by brochures, information and samples distributed by field service representatives in several different networks.

    Yes, as I mentioned, all IDS countries have offered print media distribution, display and data recording since they began operations; Canada is no different. Healthcare information delivered in print form is still a large and viable part of both our business and our clients’. Over the years, we have expanded beyond GP clinics to Diabetes Education Centres and hospitals, plus we often conduct proprietary visits to various specialist physicians on behalf of pharmaceutical, OTC, not-for-profit and food clients. We also maintain a database of over 2000 community pharmacies, whom we call on with information and samples.

    Our 70 field service reps across Canada perform a unique function in that they personally visit our clinics every six weeks, performing a variety of tasks and assignments. This has been the case since we began in 1999 and all have used tablets, deploying our proprietary market research and logistics technology, since 2012. This interaction has enabled IDS to establish, nourish and develop long-standing relationships with our clinic partners. We are allowed a degree of visibility and latitude within these offices that Rx companies, through their own sales forces, can’t match.

    What has been interesting to see is how this philosophy and culture helps immeasurably even in technology-driven media such as DOOH.

  7. In which of these do you offer DOOH? What percentage of your overall business does this comprise? How many digital screens do you have in total?

    Currently, we offer a digital option only in our Primary Care Network of GP/family physicians. We launched last summer with 50 screens in the Toronto area, and expanded that to 140 in January, 2016 and now have 155. The rationale, of course, for the consolidation of screens is to maximize an advertiser’s effect in one market (Toronto is by far the largest market in Canada), plus it allows us to access regional and even hyperlocal advertisers with a healthcare message that meets our standards for professionalism and relevance.

    We are currently installing another 25 screens in Vancouver, with another 25 in Montreal this summer and a minimum of 25 more in Ontario by fall. In 2017, we plan to expand to the next seven largest census areas, to give us national coverage in the top 10 urban markets. This launch plan can obviously be accelerated based on client demand for coverage.

    By the end of 2016, DOOH will represent about 25% of our total revenue.

  8. You also offer static posters. Is it your plan to convert all, or in part, to digital?

    This is an excellent question, because of how we deliver client messages, and one we considered in depth before launching our digital screens. As mentioned, we have 1,750 clinics in our network; currently, approximately 1200 of them either have our poster frame network or have agreed to allow cling posters provided by IDS. Our view is that print posters will continue to be a viable medium and a vital contributor to our bottom line, and we expect to always have a sizeable network of static posters to offer clients.

    We also feel that an advantage we offer advertisers is the opportunity to converge their media, to leverage synergies between print and digital. Our experience shows that static posters, beyond their own value as an awareness tool, can increase the number of brochures taken for a particular product; posters provide a strong call to action. We were interested to see if this would be the case with digital as well and it has definitely already shown that it can – clients who utilize our proprietary brochure display unit for print material also see an uptick in the number of pieces picked up by their target audience if a digital poster message is included.

    In healthcare, where the promotional information being disseminated is more dense than an ad for a soft drink or clothing item, a brochure provides the home run of providing more complete information for the consumer, more likely resulting in a discussion with the family doctor or a store purchase.

  9. Whose content management software do you use, and why?

    Nick O’Brien, our logistics and operations director, and Jeff Mamer, our vice-president, spent a lot of time on this issue before we launched. They vetted several different software suppliers and ultimately decided on UK-based SignageLive and their system-on-chip technology. We found their software offered all the features we needed to launch, but would also grow with us as our requirements evolved. This was important as we look after network management internally.

    IDS is also investigating NFC and beacon technology for our screens and SignageLive are well versed in those developments as well. We have enjoyed the relationship with SL and fully expect them to be our supplier as we continue to roll out our network.

  10. Where is the next sector in which you would like to add DOOH, and why there?

    Well, as you can imagine, we have our hands full with launching what is a unique digital offering into primary care, but our thoughts for expansion probably include pediatricians and veterinarians. Both have captive audiences and sufficient wait times for our medium to be successful, and offer particularly interested and dedicated consumers who are appealing to advertisers.

    We also have interest in expanding our screen technology, and another DOOH medium we are currently assessing, into health and fitness clubs.

    Beyond our own activity, we have been approached by groups looking to partner in pharmacies and, due to our existing relationships and experience in the market, this also remains of interest.

  11. How much of your screen is advertising and how much is information, entertainment and more?

    This is an interesting question and gives me an opportunity to describe how our digital offering is different than anything else in healthcare. The typical use of screens in doctors’ waiting rooms involves a landscape screen, playing long-form content of a highly medical nature. Or, conversely, purely entertainment programming. Our long experience in healthcare generally and digital specifically, told us this was a tired model with a lot of downside. From the point of view of the advertiser – the one paying the piper – these drawbacks could only hurt his message when all he really wants is for a consumer to see and respond to his message.

    IDS decided to leverage the kind of DOOH that is offered on highways and city streets – a rotating message on a digital screen. The problem with this, however, is it’s a situation with a moving message to a moving audience. The opportunity in a waiting room situation is that you have a moving image with a stationary audience, meaning a message loop results in multiple exposures and viewings. Given that an average wait time in a physician’s office exceeds 35 minutes, this represents an unprecedented opportunity to connect with an audience. Although we create most client material using degrees of movement and animation, the medium amounts to a series of static posters, all with a healthcare focus. To break up the flow and enhance interest, screen time is given over to local weather and specific clinic information, a particularly attractive feature for the doctors in the network.

  12. What kind of measurement do your DOOH advertisers expect compared to the information that you already have from your brochure distribution? What kind of DOOH measurement system are you using?

    Advertiser expectations are always evolving. Because we have a field rep force visiting our clinics every six weeks, they are able, through a count and recount system, to give highly accurate reports of how many client brochures were taken in a campaign period. Obviously, digital, being an intangible message, required another system for measurement. As I mentioned, we are looking at various DOOH organizations to determine how they can adapt their existing systems and methods, designed to confirm transient traffic such as shoppers in a retail environment, to a medical model where appointments must be made and every visitor is logged. Beyond our own audience tracking, checked every six weeks, we have enlisted a third party research firm to verify our numbers.

  13. Do you produce your content in more than one language?

    For print, we require material in both English and French, to cover those areas of Canada where bilingualism is common. When we expand the network to Montreal, we will do the same for digital. As for other languages, Canada’s major cities are very multicultural and we are able to distribute print material in Mandarin, Urdu, Punjabi, Italian, Spanish and several other languages as a service to healthcare consumers. Expanding beyond English is a definite possibility for our digital offering, particularly in the Toronto market.

  14. Who vets the medical information on your digital screens?

    In Canada, the federal Ministry of Health approves all product label copy and verifies claims for food and pharmaceutical products. Beyond that, for purely promotional material, we have two regulatory bodies – the Advertising Standards Council, which approves all non-prescription content, and the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board, which approves all consumer-directed pharmaceutical content. IDS only accepts material which has been approved by the appropriate regulatory body.

  15. Do you still feel that you have room to grow in Canada? Are you interested in acquisitions

    That’s an interesting, and two-part, question, really. We feel strongly there is considerable room to grow within the Canadian market for all our media but particularly digital, and still remain within our defined area of consumer healthcare. DOOH allows us one more way to achieve our strategic objective, which is to ‘own the waiting room’, i.e. to control promotional information within a set number of ‘our’ clinics, but also provides an entry into other, related environments such as pediatric, specialist, pharmacy or even veterinary, as I mentioned before.

    IDS Canada would be interested in acquisitions – we got into the hospital brochure business through the purchase of another company – and recently evaluated a company focused on the diabetes market.

  16. Where do you foresee the DOOH industry in Canada in 2020, and where will the health sector fit within that?

    We see nothing but growth and potential for all DOOH in Canada – screens have become ubiquitous and there has been very little consumer pushback regarding the medium or fatigue with promotional messaging. Healthcare will evolve more slowly in terms of content, due to the generally conservative nature of the industry, the important nature of the messaging and the sense of consumers being a captive audience. The environment, and the trusting relationship between a healthcare consumer and the family doctor, is something we respect and always consider. Which is why we see our solution as the one that will grow, because it delivers what the target audience wants without lecturing or posturing, or alienating other target audiences present in the environment.

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