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Dave Haynes

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More on that Toronto school board RFP, and who is pushing it

The Canadian national daily newspaper The Globe and Mail has picked up the story of the Toronto school board's RFP for a digital signage network, and predictably, a parent interest group has determined the sky is falling.

More interesting is insight as to how this idea came about and who is driving it from the industry side. As is the case with SOOOO many RFPs, there is a vendor already in mind - in this case, Toronto-based OneStop Media Group.

wrote about this a couple of weeks ago and assumed some company would go after this, even though the notion of running an ad network when you're not allowed to sell ads is, ummm, challenging. The OneStop guys are not among the assortment of knuckleheads I would see chasing this, so they either know something, or are hoping the industry feedback is so tepid the TDSB loosens the rules and allows paid advertising or sponsors. It is clear Mike Girgis and crew from OneStop are angling this to be about education and awareness, and I am guessing they hope someone from the board realizes this thing doesn't go in and stay in unless the costs are at least covered.
The way this set up in the RFP was a recipe for blowing money. Two of the four - repeat four - screen locations are the school office and the staff lunch room. Media people poking at this would be unimpressed.
As stated before, I think there is a business model (involving sponsors) for doing this, but definitely not as laid out by the board in the RFP. It could have used totally independent consultants to come up with a plan (cue my fluttering Preset Group eyelashes). And they might have come up with something that a media company could actually work with, instead of an ad network that doesn't allow ads.
Even then, I would probably stay away as a company. The lobby against this will be loud and largely silly, and the process will be really long.  
The story ... 

A plan to install digital information screens in Toronto high schools is stirring concerns about whether the school board is poised to sell advertising to a captive audience of students.

The Toronto District School Board has asked prospective vendors to submit proposals for a "digital signage" pilot project that includes a "self-funded solution ... with an opportunity to generate revenue."

The 48-page request for proposals indicates that the supplier of video signs would have the right to sell space on them to cover equipment and operating costs. The request, which was posted on a public-sector tendering website for two weeks in late September, states that if a pilot in a handful of downtown Toronto schools is successful, the project could be rolled out in high schools across the city, reaching thousands of teens.

Board officials and chairman John Campbell say the paid content will be "non-commercial" and limited to such promotions as recruiting for postsecondary institutions or spots produced by agencies such as the Milk Marketing Board. But some education watchers are uneasy about the project.

"This is a slippery slope," said Annie Kidder, the executive director of parents' group People for Education.

It's no secret that teens in a high-school corridor represent an advertising gold mine, one that marketers have eyed in the past. Ms. Kidder recalls a venture proposed a decade ago to bring television monitors into classrooms, with news content plus advertising. More recently, a donation of $100,000 worth of equipment from Future Shop came with the rider that the recipient schools' media labs be painted in the firm's red and grey corporate colours.

The video-screen plan is based on a "youth engagement" concept first proposed earlier in the year by Ward 10 trustee Chris Bolton and OneStop Media, the advertising agency responsible for the digital screens in many of the city's subway stations, as well as shopping malls, hotels, Sporting Life and Queen's University.

Mr. Bolton said he approached OneStop earlier this year about finding ways to make teens more aware of extracurricular programs, postsecondary opportunities and other information. But the content, it appears, wouldn't be limited to notices about school activities.

"One of the original proposals was to have MuchMusic," said student trustee Gorick Ng.

Mr. Ng said Mr. Bolton briefed him about the idea in September. "It's definitely an interesting project in that it provides students with information they obviously wouldn't get otherwise," he said.

When the board staff learned of Mr. Bolton's discussions with OneStop, they told him the pilot would have to be put out for public tender.

OneStop president Michael Girgis confirmed his company has submitted a bid, but declined to elaborate.

TDSB policies don't expressly prohibit commercial advertising inside schools, although previous moves in that direction - involving pop machines - have been dropped after objections from parents.

Mr. Bolton said the idea with this undertaking is to allow school committees and board officials to control the content.

That's been the experience at Queen's University in Kingston, where 22 OneStop screens, situated in high-traffic areas around the campus, flash university information and emergency warnings.

But unlike the TDSB proposal, Queen's pays for its video screen service.

Queen's vice-principal for administration William Bryck said there's no external advertising because the university felt it would be inappropriate in a campus setting.

The Toronto's board's pilot project, by contrast, resembles the TTC's "revenue-neutral" arrangement, which allows OneStop to sell content on its screens as long as the company provides basic information such as the time, weather, service announcements and emergency notifications. The screens tend to be dominated by the CP24 news feed, consumer ads, and public service announcements from OneStop's charity partners, like CrimeStoppers.

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More Stories By Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes is one of the most seasoned professionals in the still young digital signage industry, with deep experience in everything from business development and sales to technical operations, product development and start-up strategy and fundraising. These days he is extensively working on business development and consulting for an industry big on enthusiasm but still a lot short of experience and know-how.