Adverts are telling you a story this month in London, and for
once it might be an idea to pause and listen. That’s
because Google has taken over 175 Digital Out of Home displays
(DOOH) — marketing screens dotted across the city — to showcase
its Google Search app for iOS and voice control by delivering
hyperlocal mini-guides to the area of the city they are located
Before you start shouting at digital billboards in the street,
the latter control mechanism is still confined to your device.
However the Google Outside campaign — launched last week and
ongoing for a six-week period — is designed to reflect what
consumers can achieve with the technology.
So far, sounds like any other marketing campaign.
But what this means on the ground is that the screens (including
ones in 15 major Underground stations) will be automatically
delivering real time, relevant information about the area you’re in
— or, as the digital advertising agency behind it R/GA London
put it to Wired.co.uk, delivering “beautifully human stories
founded upon immensely powerful real time data”.
As an example, if you’re near a Tube station with links to East
London, the screen might ask and deliver answers to the following:
“What is bisque”, “compare crayfish to lobster”, “what time does
Billingsgate fish market open”, “how do I get there”, “set the
alarm for 4am”. Or if you’re at King’s Cross you might get a screen
telling you what the weather in Paris is right at that moment,
followed by opening times at the Louvre — in case you fancy a
spontaneous trip to Paris on the Eurostar. According to Google and
R/GA London, it’s capable of generating 3,000 of these unique
The point, VP, Managing Director and Executive Creative Director
at R/GA London James Temple tells us, is to use data as a catalyst
for storytelling — “and that’s pretty rare”.
“Show don’t tell is the philosophy,” he adds.
How to crunch city data
The agency has been working closely with Google to create the
campaign, delivering a trial run last October on around 100
displays over a four-week period. Google’s engineers, together with
its marketing department, Creative Lab and RG/London, worked on the best way to weave
Google’s voice in with five key APIs, to deliver information that
is timely, and most essentially, helpful to anyone who might be
Those APIs include directions, places, maps, movie and
entertainment and weather. So if it’s bad weather where you are,
the display might direct you to the nearest cinema to shield from
the rain on a grey Sunday afternoon. The idea is to crunch together
all that data in the backend, to create constantly updating and
relevant “story cards” (there might be around five in a series).
The backend works out a local circumference to ensure all the
stories being delivered are truly neighbourhood ones
“Points of interest, curated landmarks and tourist attractions
— we’ve crunched through all of this to allow us to create a
pattern where we can create automated stories as well as some
pre-canned stories,” explains Temple. “So you might get coffee shop
suggestions in the morning, and a gallery opening in the
The team at R/GA London and Google have an interface where they
can see those thousands of data points being pulled together in
real time. They can zoom in to one of the spots at a bus shelter or
tube station to see what narrative sequence is currently being
displayed. Then, if there is something particularly timely and
relevant they want to flag up, they can manually write a different
“story card”, and a new narrative will be automatically generated
The whole system took about two months to create and only
existing infrastructure was used. The results needed to be simple
and elegant — something truly helpful that would suit a tourist as
much as it might a Londoner. Temple gives the example of walking
past the London Eye and seeing its height displayed on one of the
nearby screens. “I didn’t know how tall it was,” he tells us, “and
that then becomes a conversation starter, which so much of
advertising is meant to be. It’s a beautifully simple story that’s
According to Google it also stands to reach 150 million views
across the six-week period.
Changing the face of digital
Whether or not something like this actually hits the spot
though, and transforms the digital display from a mere flash of
marketing spiel to something worthwhile, is down to the tone of the
message being relayed.
Google says it worked carefully to ensure it was not didactic,
nor behaving as the definitive guide — something that probably
wouldn’t go down too well with a Londoner walking past. It had to
be quirky and fun, not too serious. Google’s Consumer Marketing
Director Graham Bednash describes it as being “like a physical
version of the Doodle”.
“I think there’s a lot of affection for Google when they do
things like that,” he told Wired.co.uk. “You’re trying to do it
with a little bit of humour and charm. The Doodles you see, it had
to have that quality to it — a little smile at the end of it.
Google is doing something quite cute and generous in the city,
rather than being in your face, telling you what to do.
“There’s that complexity but you have to make it beautiful and
R/GA London worked closely with Google’s own writers to nail
that tone, and make sure it sounded like a friendly bit of
assistance rather than a travel guide. It helps that the team has
secured so many spots around the city. It means that wherever you
go, if you come across another one the story is likely to be very
different from the last.
It’s easy to tune out traditional advertising, we are so used to
seeing variations of the same images, messages and stylings being
displayed in the digital space. There was a lot of excitement
around the DOOH displays when they were first launched. But that
felt short lived as another series of scantily clad women and
drinks brands began to dominate. Google is well postioned to do
deliver something novel in that space.
Like the displays, voice is also a relatively new technology.
And although Bednash says downloads of the iOS Google Search app
have been great, like any other new technology it is taking time
for people to get used to making the most of it on a regular
“Everyday the technology gets better,” says Bednash, “and I
think we’re at that tipping point now where people are moving more
toward voice. The search app is focusing on voice to give people an
interesting way into it. I just think people have had some bad
experiences in the past on other platforms and they haven’t really
tried it — we just want to show them it’s out there, give it a
While the project is only due to run for a few weeks, if people
find it to be truly valuable Google might consider continuing with
it or expanding into other cities (London was deemed the most
digitally ripe spot to trial it). One day we might even see it with
voice capabilities of its own. Altough it’s hard to see how that
could ever work in a noisy city, we have the technology. It’s just
a matter of changing the status quo, and that’s what Google is
trying to do with this campaign.