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Is It Fashion’s Time to Return to Square?

NEW YORK — A sign of the times?<br><br>At least one billboard management firm is intent on luring more fashion players to Times Square, the high-voltage, kinetic district whose growing association with financial services, electronics and...

Additional Sara Lee brands may emblazon Times Square billboards after this one for Playtex comes down at month’s end.

Additional Sara Lee brands may emblazon Times Square billboards after this one for Playtex comes down at month’s end.

WWD Staff

NEW YORK — A sign of the times?

At least one billboard management firm is intent on luring more fashion players to Times Square, the high-voltage, kinetic district whose growing association with financial services, electronics and automotive advertisers might benefit from an infusion of fashion’s human touch, marketing sources said.

Sherwood Outdoor, which manages 36 signs on properties it owns in the district, aims to attract a fashion advertiser to the sign on its recently purchased Times Square Tower, but has yet to find a taker. The building, which occupies the south side of West 42nd Street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, directly behind One Times Square, sports a sign that’s 45-feet high by 55-feet wide. As one looks south in Times Square, the sign forms a backdrop to some of the district’s best-known billboards on One Times Square such as Coca-Cola and Sony.

Fashion has hardly exited Times Square altogether, as exemplified by billboards now up from Roc-A-Wear; Weatherproof; Ebel; Playtex, which will come down at month’s end; Liz Claiborne, and Benetton, whose ad on 50th Street is at the northern reaches of the Times Square Business Improvement District. But as Brian Turner, president of Sherwood Outdoor, observed: “The weakening economy, softening consumer demand for fashion and firming in billboard rental costs combined to drive away much of the fashion industry from Times Square.”

The picture could be changing, though.

Several dynamics now in play are creating an environment more compelling to fashion advertisers flirting with a billboard placement in the blocks between 40th and 53rd Streets, bound by Sixth and Eighth Avenues, which compose the Times Square BID. To wit: the continuing soft market for advertising and ebb in demand for billboards have helped stabilize rates at around $20,000 a month for smaller signs at lower elevations, up to $250,000 a month for spectaculars. The Times Square billboard business model is a hybrid of real estate and media models, as there are a finite number of billboards in the district — 250 big ones. Thus, rates are more heavily affected by supply and demand than are other forms of advertising.

Then there’s the ongoing attraction of Times Square’s massive, global traffic: 450 million pairs of eyeballs annually, or 1.5 million a day, said Catie Marshall, spokeswoman for the Times Square BID. About half that traffic is from the Tri-State area, with the remainder split between foreign and other U.S. tourists.

In addition, observed Albert Shapiro, senior vice president of corporate marketing at Liz Claiborne, “There’s a chance to get exposure via electronic media — television, including MTV [which has a studio in Times Square] and movie location shots. Liz Claiborne has gotten all kinds of exposure that way,” Shapiro said, in referring to the company’s billboard measuring 20-feet long by 68-feet high, up since 1997, at 1514 Broadway, between 44th and 45th Streets.

Although Claiborne has strictly advertised its namesake brand, during its current engagement in Times Square, Shapiro noted, “That’s not to say we’d never advertise another brand there.” Liz Claiborne’s hefty portfolio ranges widely in profile, from Dana Buchman careerwear to Lucky Jeans.

Liz Claiborne’s billboard deal runs for 10 years and there are some boards, like many on One and Two Times Square, that are up for 20-year engagements. But the fashion brands, with exceptions like Claiborne, have tended to take signs in the district for just a few months at a time, in the past year or two. Watch brands, like Swatch and Tourneau, typically mount a Times Square billboard for holiday, as those two did this past season, for example. “The fashion business has been using Times Square tactically,” Stonbely noted. “The popularity of a particular fashion product tends to be shorter lived than a brand like Coca-Cola or Budweiser, and this augers for a shorter-term approach,” he added.

Fashion’s exodus from Times Square, marketing sources said, began around five years ago, before the area’s renaissance. In the past 18 months alone, various fashion advertisers have come and gone, including Jordache, Jockey, KSwiss, ICB, Cache, L’Oréal, Pantone, Swatch and Tourneau.

While not yet the fashion mecca it once was — when billboards from powerhouse designers like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan were regular fixtures — there are signs Times Square may be stirring up more fashion business. Levi’s plans a return this month; Sara Lee is eyeing placements for apparel brands beyond its recent billboards for Playtex and Hanes (up last October through December), and Sean Jean is close to an ad deal in the district.

“We love the fashion business because it adds a vibrancy, a human quality to Times Square, and is always on the cutting edge,” said George Stonbely, chairman of ClearChannel Spectacolor, which manages 80 signs in the Times Square area.

Casting an eye to the future, Stonbely said he expects the Penn Plaza area — bound by Seventh and Eight Avenues between 31st and 34 Streets — to emerge as the next significant one for outdoor advertisers in Manhattan, because of its recent commercial redevelopment. “Ultimately, we’ll have 20 signs in that district,” Stonbely projected.