Transport for London (TfL) has recorded a £100m plunge in advertising revenue across its network of tube stations, trains and buses after Covid-19 pandemic restrictions kept commuters away from travelling to work.
TfL’s advertising estate – which comprises more than 100,000 billboards, posters and panels throughout the capital’s tube and rail network, in trains and on buses and shelters – is one of the largest and most valuable in the world.
However, with journeys in the city at record low levels at the height of the pandemic, advertisers disappeared, resulting in commercial income plummeting by more than two-thirds to £50m in the year to the end of March. It stands in stark contrast to 2019, when TfL’s advertising income recorded annual growth to £158.3m.
“The glib answer is that ‘it is what it is’, but that it is a hell of a lot better than it could have been,” said Chris Macleod, the customer and revenue director at TfL, who is retiring after 15 years with the business. “It has been likened to reverse marketing. Essentially, we sell eyeballs as a commercial package and when we encouraged people to follow government guidelines, and not travel, that, of course, hurt us. From an anti-marketing point of view it was a great success, passenger numbers on the tube fell 90%. But the read-across to the commercial world was, of course, not great.”
The decline in commercial revenues is not good news for TfL, which last month agreed a £1bn funding package from the government, the third it has required, taking the total to £4bn since the pandemic began. TfL says it still has a funding shortfall this year of £900m.
Macleod said advertising revenue could help with the deficit, with scope for growth as the transport operator opens the new Elizabeth line and stations on the Northern line. However, it would not be anywhere near enough to plug the gap.
“It is a contributor, we have one of the biggest estates in the world, but we are not going to make £900m,” he said. “Money from the commercial estate will build but we aren’t thinking now how are we going to make £175m; it is only going to be a marginal contributor but it all helps. We are not going to sell [ads on] anything that moves.”
Nevertheless, even with annual spend more than two-thirds down on pre-pandemic levels, the £50m spent by advertisers resulted in 7,818 campaigns being run last year, including Sony launching the PlayStation 5, Dettol sponsoring a hand sanitiser programme, and Netflix promoting films and series such as Enola Holmes, and the Irregulars.
As many as 1,448 government, political and social campaigns were used on the network last year, the biggest category, followed by 1,207 retail adverts and 1,029 promoting entertainment and leisure. TfL, which has a ban on advertising “junk food” products high in fat, salt and sugar, said it rejected 55 ads submitted by brands in 2020.
A pro-Azerbaijan poster campaign promoting a disputed enclave as a tourist destination was the most complained about ad on its network last year. TfL removed the posters from almost 50 stations after complaints from Armenians. Macleod said the junk food ad ban, which has been in place for two-and-a-half years now, has not been an added drag on revenues as many campaigns can be repurposed to fit within TfL’s rules banning certain products appearing.
“It is not a category ban – the policy has worked – revenues are down because of Covid, not because of our ban on high in fat, salt or sugar products or anything else like that. We try to accept as many ads as possible. We are London – diverse, multicultural – that is what we should be trying to do. But diversity can cut both ways [prompting complaints].”
TfL has started to record a significant recovery with tube traffic over recent weeks, now at 45% of pre-pandemic levels during the week and 56% on weekends, while buses are back at 60% to 65%. There are hopes that by the end of this financial year, next March, levels may be at 80% on average.
This could help advertising revenue. Macleod said: “Confidence is coming back. There are quite a lot of people travelling now but you don’t have that same five-day-a-week frequency. But in the old world we were probably overcovering. If you have a decent quality audience moving about, there is money in that. You can build good campaigns. It is not like there is no one out there.”