The Saturation of Startup Subway Advertising

By: mak

October 10th, 2019

Have you been on the subway in NYC recently? Is their theme to the ads?

I am a big fan of outdoor advertising. I have been using it effectively since 1995 when I worked a bit on Absolut Vodka. Anyone who admires good advertising (and likely older than 40) will remember this was one of the more well-known consumer brands to blend with popular culture – to the point that people collected the ads.

As a fan of Outdoor advertising (OOH) I have been using it in my marketing playbook for some time. In fact, it was not that long ago that I had to explain to founders and startups why this was a useful tactic and media to drive users and revenue. Often, eyes were rolled and snickers were offered. “What is this guy talking about? Outdoor? Come on. You can’t measure that. We need performance marketing, Things we can measure by the minute. Even better if by the second.”

Well, it seems the wake up call has finally started to arrive, at least, in NYC, in the Subway. It is practically a “Who’s Who” of startups having their debutante ball – in the subway.


Because the “super innovative” companies often act like lemmings and simply follow the others.

And because, the same eye rollers have realized – finally – that you can’t build a brand that matters, that touches people, that makes them care, just through a Facebook ad. You might be able to measure it by the minute, but you can’t really connect.

So, if you are OutFront Media this is your cash cow moment. Every startup or VC backed company is lined up for their month in the sun to wrap tired commuters with their shiny, often silly ads for questionable products.

The thing they often miss is that just because you can advertise in the subway does not mean that you should, or that it is right for every company. Yes, it is a great way to reach a certain subset of NYC, or “launch” a consumer message, or push a contextually relevant product. But, is a $300k 1 month buy (approx rates, not including creative and production) better than spending that money in other ways to reach an audience? Were the 15 meetings obsessing over colors, copy, layout and legal worth the CEO’s time? Did the buy work to move metrics and increase revenue?

The answer to all this might be a resounding “yes.” I know that for me and many of the brands I work on, outdoor has worked well, which is why I have been an advocate.

But, I think about each situation carefully, weigh the goals, budget, target, costs, media availability and reality of the company I am working with abilities to actually produce and execute good creative – on time and budget.

Are these other startups doing that? Unlikely. I can only imagine the lost sleep, stress, arguments and ruined relationships that have come from a startup buying subway media because they saw someone else doing it.

I already know what the next media tactics should be for these companies. Because in order to build a brand you have to be three steps ahead of everyone else.

The question is, who are the startup Founders that understand that you have to innovate and push and sometimes falter to find the new tools that work. The ones no one else is trying yet.

When you are ready, let’s talk so your brand can be the one that others follow.