Innovation is our Lifeblood
Posted on September 05, 2015 | By Simon Balson

With a history of almost three decades in the industry, Antonio Vincenti’s passion for driving out-of-home (OOH) innovation continues to define his Beirut-based company Pikasso. Founded in 1986, today it stands as the clear leader in the field of OOH advertising in his home country, and his ambitions have also delivered Pikasso to the number one spot in its other operating territories of Jordan, Algeria, 
and Iraq. At a time when pace of change has never been higher, Antonio is tireless in his commitment to develop
 his business regionally and, through his role as President
of the global association of outdoor advertising companies, FEPE International, grow the industry. It is an endeavour that currently draws him away from home for more than 120 nights a year. 
In the first big legal shake-up for Lebanon’s advertising industry in twenty years, February 2015 saw the State
 ratify and commence the implementation of a new decree
 n 1302 designed to provide a comprehensive framework to provide stability for the future. For a matter so critical to the growth of OOH, Antonio was naturally closely involved in its progression to the statute books.

How have the new decree n 1302 been received by you and the industry?

After much intense lobbying by us 
as well as others in the industry, this 
is the first decree to directly address the concerns of OOH in Lebanon, and as such Nouhad Machnouk, Lebanon’s Minister of Interior and Municipalities, has provided a positive base for us to move forward. Our medium is today extremely dynamic, and we are involved in the constant creation of innovations. The industry in Lebanon also encompasses very diverse capabilities amongst the players in the market.
 This is a decree that addresses most of these factors, and it largely removes
the previous sense of insecurity that pervaded the industry.

They have addressed most, if not all, of the weaknesses of the previous decree. Now a legal framework, that is fair to everyone, protects us and the industry can, at last, look towards a stable future with real confidence.

Pikasso suffered a lot through the previous poorly implemented law. We lost more than 700 locations in the period around 2011. We hope to be able to rebuild most if not all of these, and have already reinstalled a significant number.

It is true there are areas that we wished to have been addressed in a different manner. For example, this decree did not go far enough to fulfill our ambition of having a fully advanced OOH sector. In Lebanon, there are more than sixty players in what is, essentially, a small market. The size of this market cannot cater to the volume of players. In the future we will lobby again, to ameliorate the elements we’d like to see improved.

What is the current state of the Lebanese market?

It is well known that 2014 was a bad year for us all due to a number of factors – the situation in Syria and Iraq not least amongst them. Multinationals here were not reaching their targets; so advertising budgets were amongst the first casualties. Also, we saw budgets in some markets diverted from outdoor to satellite. The Lebanese business community’s spirits were also dampened by a reduction in Arab-national visitors to the country.

The good news is that 2015 has seen 
a reversal in fortune. Collectively, we’ve picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves down, and this year we’re seeing growth of up to 3%. Compared to the other Levantine markets, Lebanon is well ahead on growth and projections. The feeling here is now positive amongst
the key national advertising sectors. While it is being led by the FMCG sector, it is clear that banking, cars and retail are increasing their advertising spent. During 2014 many companies postponed the launch of new products – it was an unusual situation and once the feeling of normality returned, we knew the return of growth would follow.

Innovation is in Pikasso’s DNA. What’s currently exciting you on this front?

The headline here is the massive pace of development within our industry. During the past three years we have launched more new products than throughout our entire previous history. We are moving towards mass digitisation of the market, and have previously publically announced a target of 100 digital sites. Already we have 27 LED screens – from 12 square meters up to 112 square meters. By the end of the year we will reach 34 screens in Lebanon, in the other countries we have installed 13 large format LED. This is real, tangible and quantifiable rollout. The key to ongoing success though is that we are heavy investors. We are always looking at the long-term, and this is not something common in the region in this industry.

Last year, in cooperation with Blue Bite, we launched The Mobile Bridge. There’s an inescapable and increasing relationship between mobile and out-of-home. It’s becoming all about engagement and interaction.

Malls present a very favourable environment for the future of this engagement, and we now have one mall, Le Mall Dbayeh, which is already fully digital. We are upgrading CityMall, where we currently have only eight screens – we’ll add more, exclusively digital throughout the upgrade. All the new screens that we now install within
a mall environment in Lebanon, Jordan and Algeria have a camera, together with a beacon or an Eddystone, and half will also be touch-screen enabled. In future, whenever a campaign is run, everything will be there to offer augmented reality, facial recognition and interactive messaging through touchscreens. Pikasso is the first in our markets to be doing this.

We’ve always been at the forefront of innovation. Innovation is our lifeblood. Today, such is the pace of change that we cannot stand still for a moment; otherwise we would be going backwards and quickly to a point where anyone who stagnates will get so far behind that they’ll never catch up.

The structure of our business has changed to reflect our awareness of
the importance of digital technology. In the past we had engineers, we had technicians and we had good sales people. Now to be successful a business needs development engineers, an army of IT people, far higher-qualified sales people and, importantly, we need to find ways through which to educate the market.

Today the challenge is to select the technology you want to go in to, then to select the right suppliers, and then you have to communicate and have the client-side of the market get acquainted with it.

It’s a very big challenge. For every client, digitisation is full of benefits. For the agencies the benefits are less clear- cut; for example the creation of digital content costs more than the previous generation of content. However, today’s most successful creative agencies
 are positioning themselves as expert advisors to their clients, and therefore adding to their own value.

The trend ahead is clear, and one piece of advice I would give to creative agencies is to add this digital content creation skill in-house – unless they 
do this they will have missed an opportunity. It is less clear-cut for booking agencies; today they see
only adding complexity. Amongst all stakeholders, their challenge is to master these new technologies. The booking agencies’ role could be to boost the take- up of new technology for instance.

Simply put, the digital future requires heavy investment. We have invested $8 million over the past four years, and we are going to invest $4 million across our markets next year. These are significant sums compared to our revenue, and 
I think it shows our commitment to the future and to our clients. There
 are no shortcuts to success any longer. For example, in one of our Algerian 
mall locations Park Mall in Setif to be launched in December 1st, we have a ribbon of 26 meters with a portrait in the middle on three floors, and in Jordan a LED screen in City Mall that extends
to the height of three floors bearing a resolution of 6mm. These require costly and substantial investments. In Jordan we’re on the verge of making a very special announcement, and in Algeria
we have the concession for all malls,
 and here every four months we are announcing new launches.

Custom design is becoming increasingly important for us. We
 want to integrate our displays within the context of their environment,
 and are establishing ourselves as
being specialized with this. The implementation of the decree we discussed earlier has given us security. With this in mind we are investing in upgrading our 4x3s, and also adding some new large-formats. This year our teams have been working like never before to rebuilt what has been removed unfairly.

It is of course important that the advantages of digital development extend to and are accepted by the public. Through the considered use of digital technology the public are seeing a level of sophistication in OOH that has never been possible before.

We can deliver controlled brightness, so we are not burning the eyes of the viewer. We’re now taking advantage of the new laws and using subtle motion rather than full motion. Our familiar 4x3 screen, with their trademark yellow bar, include a thermometer displaying the current temperature, and a clock giving the time. Studies have shown that people, who live in cities where there are digital screens, feel that their city is a positive city, a modern city. They feel that their city is connected.

Whilst the thermometer and clock are engaging to the public, they also have a serious use for us. They become relevant when we run weather-triggered campaigns such as Dunlop that run the first five days of heavy rain, or timeslot- specific campaigns such as L’Orient Le Jour that displays every morning
its headlines, Carrefour that regularly broadcasts special promotions during the afternoon, Dunkin Donut that promoted its new Coffee Latte Caramel Salted using the afternoon time slot and Label 5 that communicated during the evenings to cover the hype of Beirut City.

You’ve been President of FEPE International since October 2014, and your term runs for two years. What do you already look back on as your key achievements so far, and what work do you see lying ahead?

I’m proud of my involvement in FEPE, and have been a member since 1988 and was previously twice elected Vice-President. As the only global out-of-home association, we have a very active board that meets three or four times per year. Our main role is to organise an annual congress that
 is like a university in our profession. We also have a weekly newsletter, and we participate and sponsor industry research in addition, of course, to promote best practice.

We’ve just completed a very successful congress in Budapest, 
one that had a record number of attendees, 320, including visitors from 39 countries, and from every continent. It was a true global forum. I’m already involved in planning
the next congress; it will be held in Istanbul in June 2016.

My term has seen the introduction of the FEPE Awards. I felt it was time that we recognised the outstanding people that make our industry the strong, creative and innovative success that it is. We introduced four awards: the Lifetime Achievement Award;
 the Leadership Award; the Technical Innovation Award and the Creative Award.

This year, the board has also approved to join the consortium established to deliver the first audience measurement for digital OOH advertising – known as AM4DOOH composed by APG, Clear Channel, Exterion and JC Decaux.
 We have worked similarly in the past and published studies such as the Global Guidelines on Out of Home audience measurement in cooperation with Esomar and “Always On”. These have delivered important industry guidelines, and AM4DOOH builds on this.

We are also in the commencement of a review of FEPE. We’ve engaged an independent advisor, who we are working with, in helping us draw a map for the future of FEPE. We’re looking at how best FEPE can drive the future of our industry on a global level.

What’s next for you?

The next step for Pikasso is to work on a transformational acquisition. Two-thirds of our business is currently conducted abroad, but I would be very happy if one day this figure was at 95%. This is where we are heading, and this is a key mechanism through which we can grow.

I love what I do. I’ve always been very involved at the highest levels of FEPE. Indeed it is largely thanks to FEPE I know all the main players in this industry. Throughout the past twenty-nine years I’ve shaken the hand of most of the key out-of-home people in the world. I look forward to continuing to support FEPE and the industry, even after my term as President is over.