CEO Spotlight: Kevin Gleason, Adams Outdoor Advertising & Fairway Outdoor Advertising, Roswell, Georgia
This month, we welcome Kevin Gleason, President & CEO, Adams Outdoor Advertising & Fairway Outdoor Advertising (now referred to as AOA+FOA), Roswell, Georgia, USA.
- What is the history of Adams Outdoor and its current ownership?
Adams Outdoor was started in 1983 by entrepreneur Stephen Adams with the acquisition of Central Outdoor in Michigan. The billboard company seemed a good fit with Adams growing media strategy, using bank financing to acquire media companies in broadcast, radio, publishing and outdoor.
Today, through targeted acquisition and organic growth, AOA has become the fourth largest Out-of-Home company in the United States and the largest privately held.
- What was your background and what drew you into Digital Out-of-Home?
My background was in design. I attended Rhode Island School of Design where I was surrounded by really creative people who were seriously invested in the creative process. My mentor was a glass designer named Dale Chihuly, a world-renowned sculptor, who taught me the value seeing things differently, not what was but what could be.
During my career in OOH, there have been a few events that have taken us beyond the norm into new territory, events that have been industry game changers: the migration from hand painted bulletins to computer generated vinyl providing magazine quality reproduction; converting posting from paper to vinyl substrate virtually eliminating the ‘flagging’ issue; the replacement of traffic counts with new audience measurement data thanks to TAB/Geopath.
But the event that has had the most impact on generating incremental revenue has been the evolution of the Digital Out-of-Home display product. DOOH is dynamic content in large format that provides advertisers the ‘wow’ factor and gets them noticed. What more could an advertiser want and that’s why we love it!
- Adams and GTCR private equity firm acquired an interest in Fairway Outdoor, a much older Out-of-Home advertising company, in early 2015. Why was Fairway of interest to Adams?
In 2015, AOA partnered with private equity firm GTCR out of Chicago to acquire Fairway Outdoor. Fairway was an excellent fit for Adams due to market size, geographical approximation and asset quality. Compared to AOA, the Fairway assets were being sold at a lower price point for comparable assets, which, if adjusted, would provide for significant increase in valuation of the overall company.
Currently, FOA continues its partnership with AOA, now referred to as AOA+FOA, in its interest to increase in size and value. It recently added Indianapolis to its portfolio with the acquisition of the Clear Channel assets there.
- You are CEO of both Adams and Fairway. Why are the two companies kept separate? Are there plans to bring the two under one name? When or why not?
Although marketed as one company, AOA+FOA does have two different ownership structures and two different balance sheets. As a result, the two companies are independent on each other in certain ways and dependent on each other in other ways. For example, there are multiple shared service platforms which make the companies interdependent or mutually reliant on each other.
A great example of this would be our National Sales team which reps both companies’ interests to the media planning/buying community. There are currently no plans to merge the two companies but this concept may make sense down the road.
Both companies have been aggressive in the development of a digital footprint across all markets, a trend we expect to continue. With the erosion of traditional media like TV, Radio and Print, DOOH provides an excellent opportunity for advertisers to have a voice in the market that cannot be distracted or replaced. As other media experience substitution, DOOH has become a permanent part of the landscape. It allows advertisers a narrative that is highly contemporary in style, content immediate and easy to change at a very low CPM.
Although our digital face count represents less than 2% of our total assets, it represents over 20% of our revenue, a number that continues to climb as we become more sophisticated in our ability to maximize the potential of our digital network. These networks are phenomenal in their ability to communicate to today’s consumers and our responsibility is to ensure we are tapped into that power at the highest level. Also, the opportunity to partner DOOH with online and mobile media is very real and very beneficial for advertisers seeking strong ROI.
- I believe the companies have, jointly, 468 digital billboards. Do you have other digital and static properties? What, and how many of each?
AOA+FOA operates collectively approximately 30,000 displays of which just under 500 are digital. We should crest the 500 mark by early next year.
- Adams partnered with AdMobilize to explore Vehicle Measurement Data. Are you still partners? What did you learn from that partnership?
A few months ago, FOA partnered with AdMobilize to run a beta test in Chattanooga to explore vehicle measurement data. The objective of this initiative is to develop information that we can provide to advertisers to help them better understand and appreciate the efficacy of their DOOH advertising investment. AdMobilize can help us by providing real time data on traffic behavior and also help identify the audience exhibiting that behavior, even down to the make and model of the car being driven. Advertisers want to know this stuff. We are still in the process of working with AdMobilize to vet this data.
- You sit on the Geopath Board of Directors, and I notice that its new measurement system is played up on the Adams website. What are your views on its value? Are both Adams and Fairway both using it?
Many data providers are now advanced in their ability to provide intelligence to the OOH community with the goal of providing enhanced ROI to advertisers. As we explore these opportunities, it becomes very clear that a common language is necessary: a single language from a common operating platform that can make this intelligence not only easy to digest, but easy to access and totally reliable. Imagine a world where all major OOH providers agreed to common standards, a common language and practices. This is the world that Geopath seeks to create.
It would benefit the OOH industry greatly if we spent less time trying to differentiate ourselves from each other and more time improving our position compared to other media. This is where Geopath lives. The goal of Geopath is to provide reliable and relevant OOH data to the media buying community, proving that Return on Investment from OOH is more powerful than anyone has yet to imagine. As a result, we are huge supporters.
- Who handles your content management system and why was that company chosen?
We have our own IT Department which houses our digital content management in conjunction with Ad Manager. Ad Manager was selected because its operation fits our needs across accounting, scheduling and leasing platforms, reducing duplication of effort between departments and giving us the flexibility we need in optimizing our digital networks. Digital is evolving in its ability to help advertisers generate massive amounts of impressions if networked, versus being sold as one-offs. No other media form in the marketplace has that ability.
- How many offices do you have and how large a staff do you manage? How do you personally deal with managing two similar but distinct companies?
AOA+FOA operates 37 offices in 26 markets and employs approximately 1,000 OOH fanatics. Culture is important to us. Very important! If the two companies operate with a common value system, a common vision and a singular focus on the target, then we are all headed in the same direction. Simply put, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, our job at AOA+FOA is to provide the best ROI for our clients over and above any other media dollar spent in the marketplace. When we all operate under this banner, it makes us unique and lovable. More importantly, it makes us connected.
I don’t manage two companies although that’s the way it appears at times. I manage one company, AOA+FOA, and report to two different hierarchies. Managing a company is easy if you have the right people in the right places doing the right things, and I am very fortunate to be part of a team that exhibits that behavior. Running a billboard company is a lot easier than rebuilding a transmission because there just aren’t that many moving parts.
My daughter always reminds me, “Anybody can make something more complicated; it takes a genius to make it simple.” I try to surround myself with really smart and creative people who are inspired and not afraid to go beyond the norm, helping clients to optimize their ROI through the use of OOH. That’s pretty simple.
- Your properties are mainly on the U.S. East Coast and in the central states. What are your plans for expansion? Can you foresee building beyond the U.S.?
Every now and then, a company needs to hit the ‘pause’ button and reflect on who they are at that particular moment in time. We all seem to be rushing, busy, feeling too often like we are ‘double parked’. When AOA reached it’s 25-year mark, we decided to hit the pause button and reflect on our progress, where we’ve been, where we are and more importantly, where we’re going.
A product of that effort was a video over-viewing our thinking at the time. Its on our website, giving visitors and future employees an opportunity to see into our thinking as a company. It’s intimate and personal and people resonate with it. There’s a humility about reflection that I enjoy, which comes across in this video. Oftentimes, in our effort to recruit top talent, this video provides insight into our personality, our DNA.
- Tell us about MVV and A Handbook for the Reinvention of Outdoor Advertising.
It’s easier to talk about ‘culture’ than develop culture. As a result, when AOA hit that pause button a few years back, it forced us to define our culture: who we are and what we do and why we do it. And, we needed to communicate that very, very clearly. It’s extremely difficult to articulate culture without sounding overly dramatic and cheesy.
For example, it’s easy to say we want to be ‘industry leaders’ but what does that really mean? As a result, we spent two years distilling our culture into a Handbook For The Reinvention of Outdoor, known as our MVV Book. It’s also on our website.
- What are your thoughts on why OOH/DOOH continue to grow while most other media continue to decline? Do you think this trend will continue?
The OOH Industry is in a Renaissance currently, as discussed at length in the recent OAAA/Geopath convention in New Orleans. The reason is best described in a letter Doug Watts, strategic communications consultant, president of Urban Media Group, and a former brand officer working with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, wrote to Nancy Fletcher, president of the OAAA. In his letter, he says, (and I paraphrase), “Newspapers are on their knees because they waited to long to adapt. Broadcast TV is being overrun by the Internet, independent film studios and production companies and is considered ‘passé’ by the coveted 18-34 market. Radio is still on very shaky ground and nothing like the premium medium it once was.
“The Internet is the catalyst for much of the change that’s occurred, but rather than hurt, it has served to enhance OOH, operationally, creatively, and commercially. Bobbing and weaving with the regulatory challenges by turning municipal foes into partners, recreating itself as a digital medium, and setting new creative norms for agencies to master and audiences who demand succinct messaging, OOH has undoubtedly reached the beginning of a new golden age. While the other media are crippled and fading, OOH has survived, adapted and succeeded. OOH is not only standing, it is standing tall.”
- The Outdoor Advertising Association of America has played a major role in helping the industry. Do you have any thoughts on what you would like to see it do in the future?
In my 35-year run in the OOH Industry, one constant is the OAAA. Even though its presence is constant, its service to the industry is always evolving in its capacity to relate to the changing media landscape and to position OOH in a highly leveraged fashion across many platforms. OAAA is engaged at the Federal and State level on legal and legislative issues and at the market level on issues of relevance to OOH companies, media planners/buyers and advertisers in general.
Just recently, the OAAA completed a ‘refreshed’ brand positioning statement. Leaders from across the industry came together with the idea of creating an industry vision for the next five years, creating a unified industry strategy. It helps us tell our constituency who we are and what we stand for, and in today’s media world, that’s important. I couldn’t be more proud of the work that Nancy Fletcher and her team at OAAA does on our behalf.
- What role are mobile, beacons, Virtual Reality, etc., playing with Adams and Fairway?
Beacons, virtual reality, etc., play no part in our business.
- What are your thoughts on the cannibalization of OOH by DOOH?
With the growth of digital, there is always the risk of cannibalizing our traditional inventory but that is a sales centric problem, not an asset centric problem. When the OOH industry weans itself from selling on a site centric basis and migrates to an audience centric basis, it becomes less of an issue because a combination of OOH products is typically the best response to driving ROI.
DOOH has typically commanded the best geography in a market, but select properties don’t define a market; audience defines a market. DOOH should be a catalyst to engaging in a dialogue with advertisers. regarding the full potential available in OOH, not just select inventory.
- Why do you think that – as your website claims – Adams is the finest outdoor advertising company in the US? And, in that same vein, how can it ‘make the world a better place’ as it claims?
I consider AOA to be the finest OOH company in the industry but to make that claim one has to define ‘finest’. Wall Street says we are the most profitable, not by size but by margin. In comparison to other major OOH companies, AOA has the best profit margins. We are also highly regarded as the most creative OOH company, as evidenced by the fact that we win more creative awards locally and nationally that any other OOH company. AOA is the only OOH company to win ‘Best of Show’ at the Obie Awards, a beautiful distinction.
But to be the best company, you must have the best people, and I firmly believe that everyone at AOA+FOA is dedicated to a common goal, and that goal has our clients’ best interest at heart. Clients first, shareholders second, because if you take care of your clients, everyone wins. Also, we must be the best, because it says so on our website – so it must be true and it’s never been disputed.
- I believe Adams has tied its billboards in a unique way with the fashion industry. Please tell us about it.
Last winter, our Charlotte market staged an event called ‘Outdoor is In – Haute Couture in OOH’ at the Mint Museum. We had a fashion designer take several advertiser vinyls and design them into dresses. Bulletin vinyls from advertisers like Coors, Pepsi, Geico, Dunkin’ Donuts, even the local gun and ammo shop and many more were cut and made into custom fitted gowns. We then had a big party/fashion show at the museum with a couple of hundred people in attendance. It was a blast.
It was so well received and generated so much publicity, we were invited to present the show at the opening of this years OAAA/Geopath Convention in New Orleans. In conjunction with this years Obie winner, a designer gown was created for the show’s winner, ‘Twitter’, which was presented live onstage. This is what AOA+FOA is all about, having fun, making people happy, creating success for our clients and making the world a better place.
- What is your long-term vision for your company?
The size of the company is important to us. Oftentimes, companies grow at the expense of their nature. For us, it’s critical to be the best, not necessarily the biggest. Having said that, we always seek to expand where it makes sense. If you look at our profile, we operate in mid size markets within the US where we can have a voice and make a difference. As those markets become available for sale, we will compete to acquire. In the meantime, we grow organically through asset enhancement and new steel.
- And what is your long-term vision for the industry?
As mentioned earlier, the OOH Industry is in a Renaissance. The industry is truly reinventing itself and is more relevant to advertisers than ever before. At AOA+FOA we feel privileged to be a part of this renaissance and continue to strive to meet the needs the advertising community in the biggest, boldest and most beautiful way possible.