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Behind the signs of the times

Nancy Fletcher arrived in Washington in 1990 to work for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the country’s largest billboard trade group, at the most critical juncture for the industry in decades.

At the time, Congress was considering a highway bill that would effectively ban billboards nationwide. The measure had 10 Senate co-sponsors, more than two-dozen House co-sponsors and was riding a wave of support from advocates pushing to eliminate “visual pollution” along the nation’s highways.

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Fletcher, a Minnesota native with a law degree who happened into the outdoor advertising industry in 1978, led the fight against the measure but couldn’t have done it without a little help from two freshman senators who formed an unlikely alliance.

Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined forces to have the measure struck from the final bill in 1991.

That victory has allowed Fletcher to focus her pursuant 20-plus years as the president and CEO of the OAAA on less existential matters, like shepherding the industry into the digital age.

“It’s amazing,” she told The Hill in a recent interview. “These last 21 years, we have a whole generation now who sees it in a different way. They never saw the tobacco ads, never saw the fights in ’70s or ’80s. They actually think [billboards are] trendy.”

In 1990, the idea of a shape-shifting digital advertisement seemed like something out of a hardly imaginable futuristic metropolis. In 2013, the medium is quickly becoming the standard.

The OAAA is presently focused on converting static billboards to digital ones that change every eight seconds.

There are currently about 4,400 nationwide.

“These are not just billboards,” Fletcher explains. “Now they’re on buses, the Metro, airports, Times Square — the medium is ‘out of home’ really. It’s not just something that’s outdoors that defines a billboard.”

Of course, if it was just the cigarette ads Fletcher mentioned, it’s unlikely the medium would have seen its trend quotient spike.

The outdoor advertising industry has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar revenue generator. When Fletcher entered the industry in the late 1970s, the industry generated $700 million in revenue. That ran up to $2.6 billion by the time she became president of the OAAA in the early 1990s. Today, the industry generates $6.7 billion.

Fletcher pointed out that part of billboards’ appeal has come from her commitment to using them for the betterment of society.

“We provide millions of free advertising for public services, and we’ve been doing it since war bonds were for sale in the early 1900s,” she said.

The most high profile example of this came on 9/11, when more than 1,000 OAAA members had gathered at the Marriot Marquis ballroom in Times Square for the group’s annual convention, when terrorists struck the World Trade Center a few miles south.

In addition to vacating the hall to make way for a makeshift residency for those affected by the lethal attacks, many members donated blood, and the group had its “United We Stand” campaign erected on billboards within hours.

The OAAA now has partnerships with the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Justice’s Amber Alert system, which has been triggered more than 850 times since 2008.

These broadcasts override paid advertisements on digital billboards in an emergency, as they did during the Boston Marathon bombing, when they warned citizens what high-risk neighborhoods to avoid during the manhunt.

Fletcher says the FBI has caught 51 fugitives because their faces were plastered on billboards across the country.

One of these, a rapist who had been on the run for years, was finally brought to justice after his picture went up on 150 billboards along the East Coast.

“One fugitive turned himself in because his mother didn’t want to see him on the sign anymore,” Fletcher said.

“The immediacy of the digital basis is really changing the industry.”

It’s almost comical, she said, to think back on the changes the industry has undergone since the OAAA formed in 1891.

“Think about what a billboard is — it’s a bill of advertisement placed on a wooden board,” Fletcher said. “It started with circus posters; then went up on the early stage coaches, then the railroads; then in the early 1900s, the auto industry caused a need to standardize, to have rules and regulations on where they can go.”

The regulations at first came at the local level, but the feds finally got involved in 1958. By 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed into law the Highway Beautification Act, championed by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, which mandated that ads could only go in spots where business takes place, not in residential, scenic or agricultural areas.

In 2013, only four states — Maine, Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont — have outlawed billboards, but those states have digital ads up in bus shelters and in other formats. Many municipalities, most notably Chicago under the direction of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are forming partnerships with the industry to convert old billboards to digital through revenue-sharing deals.

While Fletcher is quick to talk about the progress her industry has made, there’s one area of progress she sought to downplay.

After arriving in Washington in 1990 to join the OAAA, she became president and CEO in 1992. That makes her one of the earliest women to lead a Washington trade group.

Fletcher says there was nothing special about her career arc, arguing instead that it was more a product of having the right experience and being at the right place at the right time.

“If you follow my career, it wouldn’t be dissimilar to what happened on the Hill, in Congress or academia,” she said.

“The numbers certainly haven’t changed enough to the point where I’d like to see them today, but my industry has followed a lot of those same trends.”

Fletcher points to Clear Channel President and COO Suzanne Grimes as evidence women are gaining traction in Washington trade group management. Clear Channel is one of the big three companies, along with Lamar and CBS, on the OAAA board.

Still, being one of the earliest women to head a Washington trade group will lead to another impressive accomplishment. Fletcher just signed an extension with the OAAA through 2017.

At that point, she’ll have led the group for 25 years, making her one of the longest serving female heads of a Washington trade association.