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Getting the message ?out for all to see

Richard Dvorak has been vice president and general manager of Lamar Advertising Co.'s Buffalo office since 1999. He came on board with the Louisiana-headquartered company in 1997, when Lamar, one of the nation's largest outdoor advertising companies, acquired Penn Advertising.

The publicly traded company has 200 locations across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, with 155,000 advertising displays
bringing in more than $1 billion in revenue. The Buffalo market, extending from Batavia to Springville, is home to 1,064 of those billboards, the majority of which advertises local companies.

Q: How are the ads created?

A: We have two artists on staff. ?Generally the advertising agencies do their own creative and just send a disk and we'll produce the vinyl. The artists are mainly for the smaller, local companies that don't have a department or the expertise to put together an ad.

We guide them. A lot of people want to put a big message on a billboard and we try to restrict it to 10 words or less to make the copy effective.

Q: Are you still adding ?signs or are you pretty well saturated?

A: Right now we are focusing on the new technology with the digital signs. It's a relatively new technology and it's catching on great.

Presently, we have 14 digital units up in the air in the Buffalo market and we're planning on putting a few more up this year.

Q: Tell me about that.

A: There are a lot of advantages to this new technology. Basically, it's a static image and we put six advertisers on each unit and the copy changes every eight seconds, so each advertiser gets an eight-second spot shared with six advertisers and they run 24-hours a day.

Q: So your customers are really responding to it?

A: Oh, yeah. It's exploding here.

There are several reasons. Number one, there's no production cost, so you don't have to produce the vinyls.

The biggest attraction is, number one, they're very noticeable. But the images are computer generated, so if I have an advertiser on that board, they can change their message as often as they want. Within 20 minutes they can have a new message up on their spot.

You can put out multiple messages that way. It creates more interest in the board, too, when the copy is changing.

Q: It sounds like the start-up costs must be more expensive, but that you save some money in the long-run with production?

A: Well, the customer saves money with the production costs. For us, the units are very expensive and the structures have to be rebuilt or [replaced] because of the weight of the digital units, and the digital units have a lifespan of about eight years, so we have to replace them every eight years.

So, on our side, there's a higher cost involved than building a static billboard, but then we can also put six advertisers on the one face, versus one.

Q: And how much more does a digital billboard cost?

A: Our static boards sell between $5,000 and $6,000 a month for the big ones on the highway, with a contract minimum of one month. And the digital runs between $3,400 and $4,000 depending on the location.

Generally when we do the larger campaigns, a company will combine the digital with the static boards.

Q: How about the cost of ?replacing the board itself?

A: A typical static billboard costs about $80,000 to build. And a digital billboard, by the time it's finished, can be somewhere between $250,000 to $300,000.

Q: What's the average turnover rate?

A: Most of our advertisers go up for at least three months. We have a lot of long-term advertisers that go up on a board 12 months out of the year.

Q: Is billboard advertising highly regulated, to keep from cluttering the landscape?

A: Well, we regulate that ourselves. There are regulations, but in the city of Buffalo for example, their regulation was that billboards had to be 500 feet apart and we changed it to 1,000 feet. If they get too cluttered, it's not effective.

Q: Do you ever get complaints about signs?

A: We try to monitor it the best we can. We don't allow any alcohol advertising within 500 feet of a school or a church. We don't allow adult entertainment.

Sometimes people are offended by different advertising. Sometimes over religion or race. I know sometimes we'll put up anti-tobacco ads that are pretty gruesome. I do try to tone them down, but then they're running ads everywhere else, including TV, so it's a fine line.

Q: What is the future of billboard advertising?

A: Our biggest growth area now is digital. It will never replace traditional billboards 100 percent.

Right now we have digital displays in the city of Buffalo, Tonawanda, Niagara Falls and Hamburg. Hopefully the new technology will be embraced by other townships in the near future.

Q: So there are certain towns that don't allow digital signs?

A: Yes. One of the problems was that some of these boards, you can put full video on them, so it's like looking at a television when you're driving and that's distracting. Or something that scrolls, people will try to read the whole message.

But they are starting to accept the static digital boards because the image changes in less than one second and doesn't change again for eight seconds, so it's not a distraction.

There's a benefit to townships as well, because we do put up alerts on the digital. We just recently did an Amber Alert. They've also been very effective in capturing fugitives or warning of natural disasters.?