Some of the most expensive property in Silicon Valley these days is about 14 feet high, 50 feet wide and overlooking the highway.
Billboard sales around the region are undergoing a renaissance, as the old-school advertising format benefits from the technology froth, with companies jockeying for their piece of skyline fame and attention. Demand for a billboard along the traffic-snarled 101 freeway between San Francisco and San Jose, California, which billboard sellers refer to as the “gold coast,” is so high that some companies are on a six-month waiting list.
“I can’t get a board,” Shernaz Daver, a consultant who is trying to secure one for online education startup Udacity Inc., said after sending an e-mail from her iPhone to a billboard purveyor. “I’ll have to book one for June 2015 until the end of the year and if I don’t book it in the next 48 hours, I’ll likely lose it.”
Surging billboard demand has led to a jarring sight for those driving on San Francisco’s main highway these days -- a 50-foot picture of a pasty software engineer, lying provocatively on his side, showing a bit of chest hair and wearing only his underwear.
“Find the hottest tech talent,” reads the billboard for technology jobs website Dice.com. The ad went up last month to tout new services for recruiting technology workers.
Outfront Media Inc., the former CBS Corp. unit that owns about 40 billboards along the coveted stretch of the 101 freeway, said sales in the area have more than doubled since 2011, with the firm on pace to take in more than $6 million from technology companies in the region this year. Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc., another seller, is seeing similar growth as Silicon Valley is “one of our largest and best markets,” said spokesman David Grabert.
Trading pixels for 50-foot signs along the highway is reminiscent of the late 1990s dot-com boom, when startups flush with cash used billboards to gain notice from peers and prove their legitimacy. That atmosphere is back, with companies such as Uber Technologies Inc., Airbnb Inc. and others all valued at $10 billion or more and spurring new billboard spending.
“We wanted to make people smile when they were stuck in traffic,” said Natasha Raja, vice president of marketing for Dice, whose parent company Dice Holdings Inc. is based in New York. Raja led the development of the company’s Bay Area billboard campaign, which features the bare-chested coder in nerdy glasses and wearing a smartwatch.
“The people you see, they aren’t models, they’re real engineers,” she said.
The cost of renting billboards in the Silicon Valley area ranges from $14,000 to $40,000 a month, depending on the size and location, said Scott Blair, chief growth officer for Billups Inc., a broker for renting billboard space based in Portland, Oregon. Daver, who has secured boards for companies including Zynga Inc. and Groupon Inc., said she could get one for about $5,000 in 1999.
The current billboard boom took off in 2011, said Matt Molina, head of sales for Outfront in the Bay Area. Now startups lucky enough to have landed the signage space include Zenefits, a San Francisco-based maker of human-resources software, and FirstJob, an employment hub for millennials.
While there’s a vanity element at work and some startup employees show up at their billboards to take pictures, Molina said the main reasons for advertising are more practical. Along 101, there’s a captive audience stuck in traffic and promotions can help recruit new employees and gin up business.
“A billboard is on one hand marketing, but on the other it’s an accomplishment,” said Eric Yuan, chief executive officer of Zoom Video Communications Inc., a video-conferencing startup based in Santa Clara, California. Zoom doesn’t have a billboard, but Yuan said it’s part of his 2015 marketing plan.
Last week, a three-person crew in downtown San Francisco installed a new billboard for GitHub Inc., a service used by software developers that has raised more than $100 million from big-name venture capital firms including Andreessen Horowitz. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz.
Using scaffolding equipment like window washers, the workers scaled a billboard 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide, unrolling and pasting the ad to the side of a parking garage, a process like putting on wallpaper. The promotion features GitHub’s mascot, an octopus-mouse cartoon character, flying through the clouds with a jet pack on its back.
GitHub, started in 2008, has never promoted itself with television or radio ads and this is its first billboard campaign, the San Francisco-based startup said. The billboards work seamlessly with a bigger online marketing campaign for the introduction of a new service, said Kelly Shearon, GitHub’s marketing director. Customers have posted pictures of the ad on Twitter and Instagram, as have employees.
“We’re really proud of it,” she said. “We had a lot of fun with the campaign.”
At Dice, there are already plans to put up another billboard, this time with a scantily clad engineer who looks like the George Costanza character from Seinfeld.
“We want to make sure it’s authentic,” Raja said.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected in the eighth paragraph to change the location of Dice’s headquarters to New York and to show that this isn’t its first Silicon Valley billboard campaign.)