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Outernet: A new hub for London

by Staff

Outernet’s arrival in the West End has transformed one corner of Charing Cross Road – and become a global hub for cutting-edge advertising. Boss Philip Boucher O’Ferrall shows City A.M. around.

Outernet’s arrival in the West End has transformed one corner of Charing Cross Road – and become a global hub for cutting-edge advertising. Boss Philip Boucher O’Ferrall shows City A.M. around.

Walking through the basement tunnels underneath Denmark Street, Philip Boucher O’Ferrall has a confession: “hang on, I always get lost here.”

This isn’t a surprise. We’re in the subterranean bowels of Outernet, the music venue / immersive media experience by Tottenham Court Road tube, and Outernet is – to use a technical term – massive. 

Below ground is the 2,000 capacity HERE at Outernet, the most-advanced music venue in London; the three-level Lower Third bar and live music club, and a bucketload of dressing rooms and techy control venues. 

On street level is the Now Building – an immersive media experience that quite literally envelopes punters within it in video and sound – a high-end Chinese restaurant and a host of breakout areas. Across Denmark Street is a hotel and a Japanese restaurant and bar. 

Reviving Denmark Street

The NOW Building has proven a revelation in this once-grotty bit of central London and – somewhat extraordinarily – is now London’s number one tourist destination, attracting six million visitors in its first year.

But it’s the music history that seems to most animate O’Ferrall. Standing in The Lower Third, it becomes apparent from the forge in the corner that we are in fact in what was the 12 Bar, one of the famed music bars that lined Denmark Street – London’s Tin Pan Alley.

But for all the romanticism, Denmark Street had become more than a little tired, made worse by the demolition of the famed Astoria and the construction of now-finished projects including Crossrail. 

“This was a really deprived part of the (central) city. It was, frankly, dangerous, and it was definitely not the nicest area. It’s been amazing regenerating all the music and entertainment history that was there.” 

O’Ferrall – a former TV and media exec who has moved from small screen to very, very big LCD screen – is effusive about the opportunity the Now Building in particular gives brands. 

“How do you create experiential content for your brands? If you’re Netflix and you’re launching The Witcher, it’s the same amount (of work) as if you’re doing a big MTV Awards Show: what you don’t want to do is spend £10m building something out in Wembley, for two days, and then taking it away.

“Whereas the digital build of launches (in Outernet) can be done in an ecosystem they’re used to.” 

The economics of the Now Building are pretty straightforward, then: come for the amazing visuals, like the ‘Wonders of Space’ experience alongside NASA, which takes you into galaxies far, far away, and watch an ad or three whilst you’re in there.

But for product launches, special events and activations, of course, the NOW Building (or its separate commercial space across the way) can be turned into whatever a brand may like: L’Oreal turned the space into the streetscape around its flagship store on the Champs D’Elysees.

What makes it so appealing for brands is the flexibility of the space, and the performance capabilities: “we over-invested in audio,” he tells me with a smile. 

Just as retail brands are leaning into experience over convenience, so advertisers are increasingly looking for ways to bring their products to life in more than just traditional TV spots and billboard out-of-home. Repeat bookings are already coming in from the world’s biggest brands.

His favourite activiation? O’Ferrall remembers the first, a soft-launch, tech-test charity partnership with Unicef. “Seeing triple-AAA listers look around and consume content in a way they’d never seen it before was cool. And we raised a million quid for Unicef, too.”

Outernet goes stateside

Getting Outernet up and running – suitably knocked about by Covid-19 timelines and delays – was a significant enough challenge.

Outernet is looking to roll out as many as seven additional spaces, with negotiations underway for two sites in New York and an equity raise for expansion beyond that. 

But as a TV man at heart, O’Ferrall promises to remain laser-focussed on what matters: the audience. After all, without eyeballs, you can’t sell a thing.

This was a really deprived part of the (central) city. It was, frankly, dangerous, and it was definitely not the nicest area. It’s been amazing regenerating all the music and entertainment history that was there.

“You have to keep focused on exactly what you believe in, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere” he tells me – both as a boss and as a media provider. The non-advertising elements of the Now Building are carefully curated – a partnership with a Ukrainian visual artist ran continuously on the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the Kremlin’s war on that country – to keep the organic, visiting Outernet audience engaged. 

“It’s easy for me to say because we’ve put policies that we put in where we’ve said “f*** that, we’re not going to do that. We’ve turned down significant money from different countries or products because it’s not the right thing to do.”

As we wrap up a tour of the project, O’Ferrall bumps into the manager of Chateau Denmark, the Outernet-owned hotel on the other side of the street, talking about where on London’s most famous music street the new Rough Trade store is going to open. 

There were plenty of critics of Outernet’s arrival during the planning process – including from some music aficionados who – perhaps a tad romantically – thought the project would take away from the aesthetic and character of Denmark Street. 

But chatting about a new record store, above two new music venues, on a street now far more accessible to the general public seems like the direct opposite has happened: new life in a forgotten part of the capital. 

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