Duke Energy Ventures into the Urban Ad Market

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Is Smart Money on Smart Cities?

Duke Energy (market cap $50 billion+) joins a growing list of new partners intrigued by the potential of “smart city” information delivery and advertising.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer rolls out info-ad kiosks

In Louisville, a subsidiary of Charlotte-based Duke Energy (Duke Energy One) and New York-based Smart City Media are installing 55-inch touch screens to deliver local information, internet connections, and ads.

Legacy industries like utilities are looking for growth, and have a long track record of dealing with cities on infrastructure.

After the launch in Louisville, street-level info kiosks will be rolled out in nine more markets with Duke Energy One as partner.

“I’m thrilled,” says Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, “with this innovative effort to keep our workers, residents, and visitors informed about all of the great places and events to enjoy here.”

Barbara Sexton-Smith, a member of the Louisville City Council, says she commonly hears questions (where to eat, where to park, where’s the river or park, and where to go to see the arts) that can be answered by the touchscreens.

Tom Touchet, CEO of Smart City Media, says the goal is to “make discovery easy.”  Smart City Media also has installed info-kiosks in Kansas City and elsewhere supported by advertising.  It does not consider itself an out of home (OOH) media company.  Rather, it is a media content company, says Touchet.

The phrase “smart cities” entails a broad range of innovation, private partnerships, and use of data.  Stakeholders, including out of home advertisers, are exploring how advertising fits.

Ads Help Pay for Amenities

 In New York, London, and a host of smaller cities, advertising is paying for street-level amenities.

In Louisville, a handful of info-kiosks were installed in an upscale area prior to the May 5 Kentucky Derby, with more on the way.  Each screen – a free Wi-Fi hotspot — displays a visual loop.  Pedestrians can touch to go deeper for details on events, parks, sports, arts, nightlife, maps, local government services, and more.

Out of home media companies should start thinking of themselves as publishers, says Dave Etherington, chief strategy officer at Intersection, based in New York City.  Digital screens in public places, he says, pair advertising and “utility content” such as transit updates, weather, news, culture, history, and entertainment.

Founded in 2015, Intersection was formed via the merger between Titan (transit, airport, and street furniture advertising) and Control Group (technology and design company).  Its first product was LinkNYC info-ad street panels.

Intersection’s LinkNYC panel in Manhattan

Intersection partners with cities, transit systems, airports, and real estate developments to sell ads, provide free WiFi, and deliver information. In late 2017, the company said it raised $150 million from a consortium of investors led by Graham Holdings Company, which sees “tremendous opportunity” in deploying smart cities technology.

Its chairman, Donald E. Graham (and his family) sold The Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013.

Duke Energy, with 7.5 million electric customers in six states and another 1.6 million natural gas customers, is not a media company.  Long-term, the company sees potential revenue growth in smart city info-advertising partnerships, while also generating goodwill, says Michael Luhrs at Duke Energy.

Societal benefits include closing the digital divide and simplifying life with easy access to handy information (“when does the bus show up?”), he says.

Duke Energy has a patent pending for “digital banners” on light poles.

“We have the knowledge and the infrastructure expertise to make this combination work in many cities,” says Duke Energy’s Luhrs, referring to information platforms.

In a broad sense, the Duke corporation has a long history of innovation.  As early as 1882, Benjamin Newton Duke launched the family into the textile business.  His brother James B. Duke led a group that built a system of lakes and dams along the Catawba River to generate electricity, eventually supplying power to cotton mills, factories, and cities in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas.

Just as James B. Duke saw the need for hydro-power more than a century ago, his namesake company today sees demand for easy-to-access information, in partnership with cities.

“We continue to innovate,” says Luhrs.

Rocky Creek Hydro Station on the Catawba River in Fairfield County, S.C., started operating in 1909

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