Why this Startup is Reviving Hand-painted Billboards in the Digital Age

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The sign-writing era reborn.

One hundred hours. That’s how long, on average, it takes just to prep one of Apparition Media’s hand-painted billboards. Then there’s another 200-odd hours that goes into painstakingly transferring the artwork onto a wall. “It’s not actually that clever a business model,” laughs Tyson Hunter, who co-founded the Melbourne-based advertising agency with two friends three-and-a-half years ago. “We essentially operate in a similar way to a billboard company, but instead of hanging vinyl or turning on a digital screen we hand-paint everything. It’s a revival of the old-school sign-writing era.”

It might be labour-intensive, but there’s a unique advantage to painting signs – not only is the effect eye-catching, the process fascinates the public. “I think people love watching art come together,” explains Tyson. “There’s a lot of authenticity and engagement in the artwork. I think people feel part of it. A lot of our sites are street-level sites with a lot of foot traffic as opposed to billboards that try to get major arterial roads. But we’d rather see 100 people stopping and staring and taking a photo than a million cars driving past. That’s the best form of advertising, because they’re taking a photo of the brand and sharing it in a natural way.”

That natural engagement is pure gold to brands such as Heineken, Roadshow, Paramount and Sony, who have all hired Apparition Media to bring their campaigns to life. The agency now employs more than 40 sign-writing artists, has recently opened a Sydney office and is expanding into Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, too. Not bad for a startup that once painted a mural for $100 just to make rent.

“We started off doing it really tough,” Tyson recalls. “But what we did is, we went and selected industries we wanted to target and painted the walls in our studio in Fitzroy. We did the Avatar artwork, we did a Corona ad, we did a Grand Theft Auto ad and a couple of other industries. We painted them on the walls and photographed them, learnt InDesign off Linda.com and put it all together and went to market like that. We’d never worked in the out-of-home advertising industry, we didn’t even know what a media buyer was ­­– we were really green and just going in with our product in our hand and asking someone to have a go at it.”

Their idea landed at just the right time, Tyson says. “We knew we were onto something because everyone was so excited about the product. Advertising is all about disrupting, and it’s all about engagement and authenticity. And we sit in this really interesting space, because technically we’re an out-of-home advertising company that’s a passer-by model, but we’re not at all, we’re really an experiential model because people stop and get engaged.”

Scoring Coca Cola as their first client gave the agency instant cred in the industry, but they’ve since found their niche working with entertainment giants, who love the photo-realism style. “They’re the ones who really jumped on it,” says Tyson. Case in point: a recent Game of Thrones campaign for Foxtel, which involved painting a new character for every episode of the season.

Building the business hasn’t been without hurdles, however – everything from securing the right walls for clients to pricing their offering appropriately has been a learning curve, says Tyson. One of the biggest challenges has been fine-tuning the prep-work, which involves taking a detailed design brief before drafting the artwork onto their studio wall, colour-matching hundreds of shades perfectly and eventually transferring the final image onto sites that can be as big as 20x20m. “It’s a huge process but it’s incredibly rewarding,” Tyson says. “If you wanted to own a $100 million business, you’d never do what we’re doing. We’re never going to have 75,000 sites nationally and turn over hundreds of millions of dollars; that’s not what it was about for us,” he adds. “It was about creating a work environment that we enjoyed and people loved working for us, and creating something that was cool that we loved getting up and going to work on every day. But who knows where it’s going to take us in the future – we’re in a really exciting growth phase.” Watch this space.

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