Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Jeremy Jacobs, Enlighten

Jeremy Jacobs, Enlighten

May 18, 2022


The cannabis retailing industry is interesting in a whole bunch of ways. It is a unique vertical market with an absolutely screaming need for digital signage and interactive technologies.

While longtime recreational users may know their stuff, as US states and Canadian provinces have legalized, there's a whole bunch of new users coming in with needs that have more to do with sleep problems or arthritic joints. They walk into dispensaries and are confronted with products and options that are somewhat or entirely unfamiliar, so screens that promote and explain are very helpful and relevant.

The dispensary business is also interesting because the industry has its own overcrowded ecosystem of payments and management systems that need to somehow be tied together.

The largest player in cannabis digital signage is the Bowling Green, Kentucky firm Enlighten, which is in some 1,200 dispensaries in the United States,

I had a fun conversation with Enlighten founder Jeremy Jacobs, who found his way into digital signage when the clean energy business he was running went south in the late 2000s recession. He pivoted into screens in businesses, and menu displays for restaurants led to an opportunity to branch into cannabis retail. He's a super-smart, interesting guy more signage people should know about.


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Jeremy, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what your company does? 

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, absolutely, Dave. Enlighten is the only real omni-channel company within the cannabis vertical particularly, and by omni-channel, we affect the customer journey throughout that entire customer journey. We have a product real quickly called AdSuite that targets people in a digital environment, whether it be mobile, Roku or even desktop computers based upon audience segmentation data we have, to know those are known cannabis consumers. And then we have our SmartHub product, which is an in-store product which is why we're here today, digital signage, kiosk related, and that product helps to upscale the customers that were brought in from the marketing from AdSuite.

And this could be on menu boards, this can be on information displays, this can be on tablets, any number of things, right?

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, so SmartHub is really unique. Even if you zoom out of the cannabis vertical and just look broadly at the digital signage industry, SmartHub is an extremely unique product that we created. It manages kiosks, it manages digital signage, all sorts of menus, feature boards, order queue systems, break room TVs, where the audience has shifted from a consumer to the actual employee. It uses extremely advanced logic and filtering with the point of sale data that it's consuming to make these things and even has an e-commerce component to it.

So really the way to think about it is that SmartHub is an extremely robust merchandising platform that manages all of your consumer facing surfaces, whether that surface is a passive screen, an interactive screen, like a kiosk or even the webpage where someone would come to purchase and make an order on your website.

And the cannabis industry is its own unique ecosystem, right? There's POS companies that only do cannabis business, and so on? 

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, I would say there's no true word than cannabis is its own individual ecosystem. So as a veteran, not been in the industry quite as long as you but since 2008, I've seen a lot of things and cannabis extremely unique. So it does have all of its own tech stack companies for the most part. There are a few companies, Microsoft Dynamics makes a sort of a POS system that's been modified for cannabis. But outside, I'll see a Square every now and then, but for the most part 99.99% of all point of sales systems at a digital signage company would integrate with are extremely cannabis specific and they all compete for what is roughly 8,500 retail clients across just short of 40 states, and so to talk about the uniqueness, even in more depth, not only are the stacks different in cannabis than they would be outside of that, but all the individual laws and rules that apply very literally from state to state. So you even have state variances. 

Why would so many companies decide, “I want to be in a space that's changing constantly and not all that big and in the grand scheme of what retail is”?

Jeremy Jacobs: That's a great question. I think what your question was alluding to, there's the TAM, the total addressable market. You look at restaurants and there's literally hundreds of thousands of them, and I would argue there's barely as many POS companies in restaurants as there is inside of cannabis. And I think it's a couple of things. From an emotional standpoint, this is “the green rush” right? Any cannabis advocate that for the last hundred years that it's been illegal has felt violated by the error, has seensocial injustice from that. I believe there's an emotional component why a lot of these companies are there, a lot of these leaders are there. Second, there's a power vacuum that gets field when no one wants to go somewhere. So when you take a look at the cannabis industry, none of these major POS companies that we're referring to, none of them had any interest at all whatsoever in getting involved in cannabis. So the result of that is someone has to, and then the third prong, I think of this little fork here is that there is a green rush. The Anheuser Bushes of the world are about to be made of cannabis. There's very unique transactions, very unique audiences, and there's a lot of money to be made there. There's a lot of value and you can see companies that are in the space that make tech. 

If you look on the internet, Weed Maps is probably the largest one, listed on the NASDAQ billion plus dollar company, recently Dutchie has made some announcements for billion plus dollar companies as well. So fortunes are being made even though the total addressable market is small.

Yeah, I've always thought that the cannabis dispensary business was a particularly interesting one for digital signage, because unlike most retail where you walk into an apparel retailer, you know what you're looking for, clothes, I need a shirt or whatever. It's pretty obvious. 

But if I walk into a cannabis dispensary, I'm pretty much lost. I don't know what I'm even looking at and all these different strains of flowers and buds and this and that. It is like Mars to me. But, and I suspect a lot of people walk in like that who maybe aren't recreational users, but want it to help them sleep or calm them down or whatever purpose they have for it?

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, and so to drill into that observation you've made is really there's two kinds of consumers that very quickly develop in cannabis. There's the customer that you just described, which is a new customer, and there's a lot of those, because again, cannabis was technically illegal for about a hundred years. And so there's a huge amount of new customers that don't know anything, and so there's a massive educational vacuum there, and that's actually, Enlighten really started as we recognize that, and so we created an in-store digital out of home, a television network that runs ads for brands and things of that nature, endemic or non-endemic. We've got clients like Door Dash or Vans shoes or FX networks and their cannabis shows, but the content that's on that network is educationally driven specifically to satisfy that lack of education that you just talked about, and then on the other end of that spectrum, there are these clients that very much know what they want and precisely what they're looking for and those particular clients aren't looking for that same experience. They're looking for, digital menus that can be sorted based upon terpenes are based upon cannabinoid profiles so the highest THC value, they're looking for is express checkout kiosks, so they don't have to have an interaction. 

So uniqueness of the cannabis dispensary from a digital signage perspective is you have to create digital environments that satisfy both of those polar opposites. 

I gather when you were talking about omni-channel that it's really important or helpful to a company playing in this space to be able to serve multiple needs and to integrate with the other technologies that are part of the ecosystem. If you just did digital signage, it's a walled garden thing where you're going to get much better reception for many users, whereas you can provide multiple components, right?

Jeremy Jacobs: Oh, absolutely. I've been in a lot of industries. The restaurant space was the first one. I was really into digital signage. Sysco Foods started slinging my digital menus for me, and like things 2009 and their 30 different offices and so I got to see a lot of things there. But in the first week in cannabis, eight years ago, the word integrate came up like 40 different times within an hour, and so I've never seen an industry that's so demanding of integrations. Like for example, you walk into a restaurant and any number of restaurants and you look over by the hostess stand and there's the DoorDash tablet, and there's a GrubHub tablet, and there's a Postmates tablet and there's all these tablets. And so the hostess is watching these orders come in and then they're putting them in their POS system.

That would never fly in the cannabis industry, like it's a demanded integration by these people, and so if you're going to create an integration engine, you're going to want to make it have more points of influence than just a TV menu, you're going to need to provide that e-commerce plug and you're going to need to provide those kiosks. You're going to want to link up with their customer data for targeting those customers, on their mobile devices. You're exactly right, if you're going to be relevant in cannabis, your stack better be serious because they're trying to reduce that vendor set to if they could just one, nobody does all of it, but they want to reduce that number to the smallest possible.

Is that in part, because it's a younger buyer audience who understands technology more and didn't grow up in kind of old style restaurants or whatever, where there were all these different systems? 

Jeremy Jacobs: Interesting thing you said there,t because it's a younger buyer, so that was very true eight years ago. But at this point, that is not the truth at this juncture. So just a few years ago, I think it was two and a half years ago, the fastest growing segment of users shifted from 20 year olds to middle-aged mothers and it was the fastest growing audience, and then over the last few years, what has really been the fastest growing audience has actually been elderly people. It seems like they're starting to come to grips with, “Hey, I have pains and aches and cannabis is actually the solution”, and so it's a big growing segment. 

But I think the answer to the question that you did ask is why is there this desire for a consolidation of a tech stack more than anything. 

Yeah, I was thinking more of the operators that tend to be younger. Maybe that's not the case? 

Jeremy Jacobs: Same thing at this point, it's not the case now, it's weird. So it was the case before, a hundred percent because who was willing to take that risk to get in the weed business, and so a hundred percent, but now I'm sitting in meetings with digital officers and marketing officers from Abercrombie and Apple, and they came from big organizations and so it's a very changing landscape. 

But at the end of the day, I think that some of them are young, so yes, to your answer, very good observation. Second is the ones that aren't young are professionals, and they're used to dealing with that. But thirdly, I think for both of them, the demand of tech stack is necessary because the regulations and the data that they have to send back to the state agencies and authorities and all of those sorts of things and the compliance they have to undergo is worse than any other industry ever. Like they're under so much scrutiny and you could lose your license at the drop of a hat, and so they want less to deal with so they can focus more on staying in business. 

Does that touch on your platform and what you do? Do you have to have a Nevada version of it and a Colorado version and I forget where else it's legal, California, obviously. But do you have to pass them out state by state or is it pretty uniform?

Jeremy Jacobs: Great question. So the technology itself is the same across all the states. AdSuite is AdSuite and SmartHub is SmartHub, but there are definitely nuances. So let me give you a couple of interesting examples in the state of Pennsylvania, you're not allowed to put anything up on a screen from a digital signage perspective, unless absolutely it has been medically proven. And so it needs to come from a doctor or some position, a medical authority, and in Alaska, for example, they don't believe anything has ever been proven by a doctor or medical authority and so you can't put anything up that even closely resembles a recommendation. So there's two polar opposites. So from a content perspective, I gotta watch those things.

From an advertising perspective. Some states, even though it's cannabis, won't let you show pictures of weed in the advertisements. Go figure that out. How do you advertise weed without showing weed? You can't show people consuming the product in a lot of states with advertisements. So there's another nuance, and then a third nuance is like in Pennsylvania, what I'm able to put on a digital menu is very specific and I cannot put any imagery into one thing, and I have to, I'm required to put certain testing results, similar to the way in the restaurant industry. Now everybody went digital whenever they were required to put the calorie count for these items, and that's when you saw this massive uprising in digital cause they got to replace all this stuff anyway, might as well go to the screen, and in Pennsylvania, I got to put things like that, testing results. 

What's the content that seems to be required across all the different dispensaries, kind of the money messages that need to be there, and the operators want to have up there?

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, so from a TV menu perspective. We'll start with our that's the most largely adopted digital signage product ever and so the TV menu, what's necessary is the name of the products, the type of the product, the weight of the product, the price, the product, but really importantly, people want to know about cannabinoid profiles, is this high or low in THC? The psychoactive ingredient that gives you the feeling of a high, is it higher, lower in CBD, which is the non-psychoactive ingredient that really focuses a lot on pain, arthritis and inflammation and things of that nature, muscle pain. So consumers sort of demand that, operators want to provide that.

And from an educational perspective, if you're talking about a different digital signage product and just more like digital signage, we're producing educational videos, the demand really is around education of what are these different terpenes, what are these different cannabinoids, these little things inside of the cannabis that creates different effect for each strain, like this one makes me sleepy, this one makes me energetic, this one's great for back pain, and so that's the demand from a regulatory standpoint of pretty much the only uniform thing that I can't really do is show anything that's cartoonish that might want to lure children into the store. 

There was a big problem with packaging for edibles for a while there, right?

Jeremy Jacobs: It was, they've got sour patch kids on the box, and the first versions of edibles were very kid friendly because they took kids candies and made them, and now that's pretty much been regulated out. So the same thing, that same sort of concern with the packaging that you pointed out with edibles is also a concern in digital signage and even digital advertising. So if I'm targeting a mobile phone, even though I'm targeting a known cannabis consumer, just stay away from anything that might be alluring to children.

So if I'm a customer of Enlighten, is it a SaaS platform that I am using?. 

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, so the two products are different. The SmartHub is the in-store signage, kiosk, kind of technology that manages all of that and talks to your POS system. That is definitely a SaaS product. As far as pricing models, there's been a lot of those in digital signage, our kiosk system is one price for your entire store and use as many as you want. Our signage model is the same as anyone else's, per node. SaaS model on our AdSuite product, though that is a SaaS product, if you will, it's a piece of software that gains you access to those audiences on our DOH network and in stores, as well as, digital Roku devices, mobile devices, desktop computers but that's driven just like any other digital advertising model would be external on a cost per impression basis.

What's the footprint for your company at this point?

Jeremy Jacobs: So we've reached a really interesting crossroads, very few companies in cannabis have ever got over that thousand mark. Right now, I would estimate we're in probably roughly 1200 dispensaries, somewhere thereabouts and then have several hundred other clients that are brands and so forth so our footprint reaches to about 1500 or so clients, big number and a TAM of 8,500, if you look at it that way. 

And this is an industry that like more and more states seem to be coming on stream, or at least there's a push to bring them on stream. So it's not like it's a finite market right now?

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah. So that's part of the growth. When we're assessing growth, there's a couple ways to look at it. One is how we can get more money out of the existing customers and that's to offer premium versions of our products, additional services that might be out there that we could focus on. But also there's just the overall growth of the entire market itself, and there's a couple of phases of that. The first phase is for the state to go medical. So now, they can be a client of ours. But typically, we find the greatest traction in the states once they go recreational because what happens is their revenue growth is astronomical. 

People don't appear to want to go to get a medical license nearly as easily as just walking in a dispensary. So whenever they go recreational, they buy a lot of other products from us and really focus on that retail environment and creating a magical experience for those recreational customers. So really there's two phases, medical, and then recreational. But right now you're looking at cannabis in almost 40 states at a medical level roughly 10 or so at a recreational level. I’m averaging there, the number changes. I haven't kept track of it in a minute, but to give you an idea of growth, there's about 10-12 to go to medical and then there's the vast majority or 80 plus percent that are not yet recreational. So a lot of growth in them. 

Are you up in Canada as well? 

Jeremy Jacobs: We are. So it's a lot of challenges working inside cannabis, anybody's ever nailed internationally. You have to have your own bank accounts, your incorporations, your teams up there. It's hard to import hardware products, and as a company, we do also provide the hardware. So that has its own challenges, but we do operate in Canada. We've got some systems in Puerto Rico, which is a US territory.  Jamaica, we send some things too. We have some plans we're brewing up. Spain has a pretty good sized cannabis market and so we're looking internationally there because the challenge is the same. People don't understand cannabis, they need education. That's the same worldwide. It's been illegal globally, for a hundred years. 

How did you get into it? You mentioned that your first foray into digital signage was restaurants for Sysco, how did you end up in this? 

Jeremy Jacobs: So in 2008, I started a company called IconicTV, and it's had many offshoots with verticals. I've been one of those guys when I see a vertical, I'd make a very precise product. We helped build a C-store DOH network called C-store TV. We had a school product called, school menu guru. We had a lobby product called lobby Fox, it does visitor management and so one of those products we noticed early on was digital TV menus, and so in 2009, I formed a deal with Sysco foods and they have 30 offices across the country that would distribute my digital signage, digital TV menu products to their restaurant tours. And so I hired these vice presidents in each of those areas to partner with those offices as Sysco calls an opco, and so Sysco would have reps and my reps would go do ride alongs, and so they would ride along with these representatives and go in and meet these restaurant tours at work and stuff. One of them, the guy in Denver, Colorado, Ted Tilton's name? So Ted called me one day and this is right before cannabis goes legal in Colorado, which was the first state to legalize recreational cannabis, Washington and Colorado voted on it basically at the same time. But Colorado was the first actually who implemented, and he calls me, he says, Hey man, I got this idea and I said, what is it? He goes, these TV menus we’re selling through Sysco. I said, yeah, he goes, what do you think about making some for marijuana? I said, what are you talking about? And he says I've got these buddies opening this dispensary called DANK, and it'll be the closest dispensary to Denver International airport and I got this feeling as soon as weed was legal in Colorado, a lot of people are going to be coming into DIA and this place is going to be really busy since it's the closest one, and he says, and I was like, what would be the difference? And he said, essentially we put up marijuana buds instead of chicken sandwiches. And I said, I'm in.

I've been a big advocate of cannabis for a long time. At one point, I was even the executive director of Kentucky NORMAL, the division of the national organization for marijuana legalization. It's the Kentucky chapter. I've been a big advocate of it. I've been a self prescribed patient for many years. It was an interesting opportunity to take a couple of things I was very passionate about both cannabis and digital signage and went to do some real work on two things I care about. So we dove in. 

Has the profile of the operator changed? 

I remember talking to another person who's involved in this space and actually being out in Denver and he was saying that there’s two types of operators. There's a business people who see this as a growth opportunity, and they've already had some experience in retail or in investing or whatever, and then there's growers and growers who are turning into retailers and he said the challenge with the growers as they're growers, they're not business people and they don't really understand retail, and I'm curious if in the early days you saw a lot of them stories of dispensaries that would start up and then drop off because they didn't really know what they were doing? 

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, and I'll take that example. Your friend gave you a pretty good insight there, but to expand on that, I don't even think it's just growers though. It's I think just very weed passionate people, like they're very passionate about it. Whether it's consuming it or making concentrates or growing it or whatever. So I would just call them plant passionate people versus business people, and it very much exists, and it doesn't today to the degree that it used to. In the beginning, someone that's a senior executive vice president of Abercrombie is not going to go start a dispensary, like during the first couple of years, we were all wondering if everybody opened these things, were all gonna go to jail. I'm sure everybody in America is going everybody in Denver is going to do it, just wait, and if all my friends at open dispensaries were sitting around, I would have conversations with the night and they're like, I'm just wondering if tonight, the DEA raids my house, and so nobody wanted to be under that scrutiny except plant passionate people.

But as time got on and the federal government sorta started to take a position, even if the position was, “we don't have a position”, that's still a position, and so they're not taking an aggressive stance on it then you began to see real business people start to come into the environment and at this point, you have organizations like Cresco who just bought Columbia Care, and these operators have over a hundred stores and they're doing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in retail cannabis sales. These are not the type of marijuana dispensary that I think most people have in their mind. These people have entire floors of IT teams. They have entire floors and marketing teams. They do in-depth customer insight studies, and that influences every tiny nuance of their packaging and their store layouts. These are real operations, but I can still take you to Oregon right now and  walk into the shop or Nancy and Megan who are best friends and they have tie-died things up on the wall and they're very whimsical people that are just very passionate and who also have a successful sotry. Now they're not going to sell hundreds of millions of dollars to cannabis, but they're also successfully operating. 

Think of it like liquor, for example, Liquor Barn exists and that's a big corporation. But, in the town I live in, everybody wants to go to Chuck's Liquors when Chuck was alive, because Chuck was just the coolest guy ever. So you went to Chuck, so they both have a place. 

Yeah, I've certainly seen the same thing. I remember being an Amsterdam for ISE and, you'd stick your head into one of these coffee shops, and it was just a hole in the wall and weird but out by the hotel where I was staying, there was a dispensary that looked like an Apple store, like it was very slick. 

Jeremy Jacobs: Interesting you say that. So there's this place called Euflora and Jamie Perino was one of the owners at the time and it's at the 16th street walking district in downtown Denver. This is the big street with the old piano outside and everybody wandering around a very touristy area and so we did the first project for them that I remember getting a call from them and they're like, “Hey, we open in 11 days and we've got this crazy idea where there'll be a touchscreen kiosk and it's sitting next to a jar of marijuana, and this kiosk has all this interactive stuff on it with everything about that strain of marijuana. We needed in our stores in 11 days. Can you guys do it?” And they said, oh yeah, and our budget is X, and I just laughed, and I said X is missing a couple of zeros, especially for 11 days, what are you talking about? And they're like, can you do it or not? And I said I can, but I shouldn't but I'm going to, and so we did, because we wanted to be part of the exposing of this whole thing.

And so we took it on, and so when you would first walk on your floor, you can dig up some old video files from the news channels from eight years ago, it very much looked like an Apple store cause we had Apple iPads on every table next to a jar of marijuana and you can scroll up and down and see what the euphoric effects would be and does it make you sleepy, happy, hungry, horny, what's it going to do? And, in what genetics, where did it come from? And just all this interesting stuff, and people would come into that store fascinated, and so it was very Apple-esque. 

How did you end up in digital signage? Cause I was looking at your bio and you've got patents in Magneto, hydrodynamics for energy exploration, drilling and everything. How did you get here? 

Jeremy Jacobs: What the hell happened? Early in life I realized I didn't really like formal education. So I think I'm like nine hours from a college degree, but I dropped out and became entrepreneurial. So I became an investment broker and I worked on several different fundraising deals, most of them were driven around biodiesel. That was very active at the time when I dropped out of college, nearly two thousand, biodiesel was a thing, a lot of different technologies. And very quickly I got interested in alternative energy technologies and energy efficiency technologies, and just anything that was energy related, and technology related, and so I had an operation with about 20,000 acres of natural gas wells in Eastern Kentucky that were clean natural gas wells using advanced technologies like hydraulic fracturing.

I started inventing Magneto hydrodynamic technologies that's used by Chevron and Exxon and people that. It goes down in oil wells. It's used to eliminate paraffin and that technology has now been adopted by the DoD to make airlines, to make fighter jets fly farther because the fluid systems flow better and a lot of different things, and then 2008 came, so I own a quarry, that's mine and silica for Silicon to make marker processors, and I got a bunch of natural gas, wells and magnetic technologies, and 2008 comes, 2007 comes, the housing crisis collapses, everything and natural gas went from about $14 in MCF, which was a vast majority of the revenue that we were driving to like a dollar and a half in MCF, which is the unit that you produce and sell for, it stands for thousand cubic feet, and I needed $3 to make that make sense, right? And now it's at a dollar and a half. So I went from really cash flow positive to a hundred percent cash flow negative and just a matter of months.

And on top of that, when you own a bunch of quarries, nobody's buying any materials, and so I look up and literally everything I'm involved in just all of a sudden is collapsing and I don't have the payroll to make payroll for this massive bunch of employees. We had several offices in different parts across the country. And surely it was excruciatingly painful fast. Everything had to close, and so here's, here's the reality. I'm at home depressed out of my mind. I've just had to lay everyone off. I've had to shut in all these gas wells. I've had to lock the gates on all these quarries and nobody wants to talk about anything, everybody's going broke and my wife comes to me and she says, you've got to do something. We have kids we have to feed, we have bills we have to pay. You cannot sit here and be depressed, and I had seen somewhere I think it was in a mall. A friend of mine had built a TV screen, turned sideways, and it had Adobe Flash player on it, and it was playing some animated motion graphics that he controlled on a desktop PC inside this big kiosk and I thought I could do something similar to that, and so I literally grabbed a 32 inch Vizio TV out of my living room. My wife goes, where are you going with my TV? I said, I'll bring it back to you. I'll see you in a week, and she goes, you are leaving with the TV for a week? I said, yeah, and you’ll get a bigger one, I promise, and I grabbed the Toshiba laptop that my field hands that would go around, they had to log what parts they use and how long they were on job sites and stuff, and I grabbed one of these old stinky laptops that smells like crude oil and hung it in a friend of mine's restaurant in Clarkson, Kentucky. It was called K's cafe and it was political season, and so I'm going to tell a story about myself here, Dave, and so I go around and build these very animated PowerPoints and I'm changing the files out via LogMeIn at the time. I didn't even have any software, digital signage software. I didn't even know about the digital signage thing.

And so I'm like, I gotta sell ads on this thing, so I go to this guy that's running for sheriff, and I told a little white lie. I was like, Hey man, the other guy that's running for sheriff, he's buying in on my screens. It's in the most high traffic restaurant, and apparently legally, I've got to offer you the same opportunity at the same price. He goes, why what's he paying? And I told him, he goes, I'll take it, and so then I went to the guy that I just told a white lie and said, this other guy is buying. It was, which was actually true the second time. That's how I got started, I had to feed my kids. I had a 32-inch Vizio TV and a busted up laptop and I sold some people aspiring to be politicians, some ads and some real estate agents, and it just grew from there. I look up and I’m in hundreds of restaurants and fitness centers with the DOH network and six months later, a friend of mine says, Hey, can you use one of those silly ad TVs and make a menu on it because the price of salmon keeps fluctuating so much. I got to put these mailbox letters, and so we made, which was one of the early digital menus. I think we'd both agree, 2009-2009 was not the dawning moment of digital menus. It wasn't the precipice of it. That was very early.

And so we started using those and saw opportunities to replace those little black felt directories with the letters you run out of the M, and so you flip the W upside down, it's all bow legged looking, on the little felt boards. We started making digital directories integrated with Google sheets, so you could change it easily and the rest was history, man. I dove in and needless to say, the kids are fed now. The wife is happy. She got a bigger TV. I think it's 70 inch now. So everyone's cool. 

That's a hell of a pivot. 

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, buddy. Necessity is the mother of invention. 

All right. This was terrific. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Jeremy Jacobs: Yeah, man. I was going to start off this morning saying longtime listener, first time caller. I've been watching your website, your blog, your podcast for as long as I can remember. So it's been an honor to finally get to be a part of it, and I really appreciate it. 

Thank you for taking the time with me.

Jeremy Jacobs: I thank you, Dave.

Geoff Bessin, Intuiface

Geoff Bessin, Intuiface

May 10, 2022

NOTE - Podcasts normally come out on Wednesdays, but as a favor to Intuiface - which is at this week's ISE trade show in Spain - I moved it up a day to coincide with the show's opening day ...


One of the big trends in the software world is the whole idea of no code development - the premise that both programmers and mere mortals can create applications without getting their typing fingers dirty and brains fried doing traditional computer programming.

The proposition is that no code development platforms can cut out a lot of time and cost associated with pulling applications together, and also deal with the reality that good programmers are in high demand and therefore scarce.

The French software firm Intuiface is in the interesting position of having offered a no code platform long before no code was a discussion point, so the folks there are a great resource for discussing the implications for the digital signage and interactive display market.

I spoke with Geoff Bessin, the CMO and main voice for Intuiface, about the distinctions between no code and low code development platforms, and how they differ from the simple drag and drop, what you see is what you get user interfaces that are common in digital signage content management systems. We also dig into the benefits, the limitations, and more than anything, why you should know and care about no code.

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Geoff, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the rundown first on what Intuiface is all about? 

Geoff Bessin: Will do, Dave, thank you for having me. So Intuiface is a no-code platform dedicated to the creation of interactive digital content. That includes digital signage, but really it can anything in the venue. It could be a museum exhibition, could be a sales pitch for a movie sales team, could be anything at a trade show, something in a real estate office, et cetera. So you create it, you deploy it, you can do analytics with it. It’s all good.

And the company is based in France, correct? 

Geoff Bessin: We are headquartered in a town called Labège, which is right outside Toulouse in France. Although I'm not, but it's funny, my name is Geoffrey Besson, so both my first and last name look French. So people always assume it's French, but that’s not the case. I'm in Boston.

Can you speak a lick of French?

Geoff Bessin: Oui. Yes. 

Good for you! I wanted to talk about no-code software, cause you guys have been no-code before people were even using that term and no-code is one of these trends, just like headless CMS, that seems to be bubbling up and maybe people don't understand a lot about it yet.

Geoff Bessin: Yeah, you could go back to the 80s and find things like HyperCard where you were enabling non-developers to create an application of some sorts. So it goes back a long way, but in terms of a movement, generating notice, gaining investment and having companies spend money on it, it's only been the past few years. 

I can tell you that statistics are now saying that the market size, the amount of money being spent on no-code software used to create apps is almost $14 billion. It's a lot of money being pumped into these apps. And in fact, more than 65% of apps are now created using no-code tools. So more than 50%, more than half of apps are being built with no-code software. It is the predominant means of delivering applications these days. 

What's the distinction between no-code and low-code, because I've heard both terms.

Geoff Bessin: There's no formal distinction. You can't point at it and go, “Oh, this one’s no-code” like you just went over the line. But the idea is that with low-code, there are back doors. There are means to enhance, to extend, to facilitate integration that might involve a little bit of coding. Even that coding could be simplified based on maybe either a scripting language that is native to the tool or a public scripting language like Ruby. 

Whereas no-code is just 100%, you're not going to see code anywhere, and so you are in a way limited to the sandbox provided by the no-code platform, what it is you're able to deliver is limited by what you can piece together with the Lego blocks of that platform. no-code gives you those little back doors to branch yourself out. 

So what does it mean for development? Does it distance or mediate the need for application developers completely, and just any old end-user can produce an application without having to engage developers or is it more something that accelerates the development process and just gets some cost and time out of the way?

Geoff Bessin: I think that question brings us to who's doing it, and why are they doing it? As I mentioned, no-code has exploded recently, and it is due to a set of developments that have driven application development to what is now called the “citizen developer.” 

Trends such as a shortage of developers, it's not that we're trying to get rid of them. It's that there’s not enough. I saw one statistic that back in 2020, there were 1.2 million unfilled developer jobs in the United States, just the US but 1.2 million developer jobs unfilled in the US and colleges and universities were only cranking out about 400,000 developers. There's a shortage. So it's not that we don't want them, we don't have them. What do you do about that? There was also COVID, which has greatly accelerated investment in these no-code platforms, because everything moved online, and when everything moved online, everything needed to be digitized and companies realized we have to move now but we don't have enough resources, so how the heck are we going to digitize these things? 

And then there's also tangential, but influential, the fact that even in our own home, we're not coders, but we are programmers. If I'm working with my Nest thermostat, that's programming. I just got a puppy and they have these apps that you can then program to see how many steps they've taken and how much water they drink, that's programming, and the digital native is used to controlling their environment digitally. There are tools out there that enable them to realize their ideas as an application, and somebody has to build it because there's not enough developers to go around. That's what really kicked the no-code market in the butt.

What we're seeing subsequently is that the developer shortage is being filled by these citizen developers producing applications, maybe for personal use, maybe for internal employee use, maybe for customer us, it depends. Those developers are now being transitioned to work on larger projects, more intricate projects. They have more time arguably to focus on the big tickets stuff that still needs the hardcore development, offloading their responsibility from the simpler things that can now be handled by that citizen developer.

Are there trade offs that you have to accept, to use no-code instead of just doing your own thing?

Geoff Bessin: Certainly. There are obvious advantages, there's speed and there's costs benefits. There's a big productivity boost, but of course there's trade offs. I like this notion of Legos. You have these prebuilt blocks and this is a finite number of block options that you can combine in an infinite number of ways. At the end of the day, you're still limited to those blocks, right? And so if I'm using a no-code platform and I need a block that doesn't exist, I'm stuck. 

Now, I suppose if it's a low-code platform, depending on what I need to achieve,okay, maybe I can put something together if I have the skill, maybe I don't, but if I don't have the skill or if the opportunity with the platform doesn't exist, I am limited, and I think that might be the fundamental challenge is what can I do? What can I realize? Cause recognize that a lot of these platforms are built to be generic, to address sort of breadth, not always depth, and so that can be a challenge. You are also, of course, relying on them to be responsible for performance and reliability. You are handing over that duty, that responsibility to the provider, the no-code platform. I hope they're doing a good job. Because it's out of my hands, I can't control that, and so those are the big risks: can I achieve exactly what I want or am I making compromises? Am I achieving the level of performance? My ability to deploy? My ability to collect data analytics? My ability to manage that deployment? 

There's 150-200 platforms across the spectrum offering no-code and low-code options. You might be making some compromises on the way, certainly are, but as I shared with you, 65% of apps are now built with no-code platforms. So companies have decided it's worth the risk. 

What's the distinction between no-code and what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) user interfaces?

Geoff Bessin: No-code, I think it's more of a connotation, not a denotation. I think you could argue that a lot of no-code platforms are WYSIWYG. Intuiface is a no-code platform, it's a drag and drop tool. It's a WYSIWYG. The connotation of WYSIWYG, it could be for a developer. It could be for anybody of any skill set. So it's more of a generic catchall for applications enabled to create other applications by dragging components and you can see what they look like at design time and development time. 

No-code connotes the non-developer, the citizen developer that you don't have coding skills and you're not expected to have those skills. So I think that's it. 

You sent me a white paper that kind of goes into this and you're making the argument that while no-code is out there, it's exploding and growing and everything else, there's really no application, I think you called it a ‘no-code blind spot’ in terms of in-venue applications. What do you mean by that? 

Geoff Bessin: So let's define in-venue because that is exactly our contention. In-venue is an encapsulation of any digital deployment out of the home. It could be digital signage, could be all those things I mentioned with Intuiface as well, the museum exhibition, the sales presentation, real estate office, et cetera. It is out of the home. It is not my phone though. It is not my PC. I'm not browsing the web at home. I'm out of my home, I'm in a venue and there is some digital content trying to communicate to educate, to promote, to sell to me. 

That domain has been, I think with the exception of Intuiface, untouched by the no-code movement. For sure, if you look at the landscape of companies delivering solutions to address the needs of the citizen developer, there is nothing out there addressing these in-venue deployments. It's all about web and mobile apps and some websites, that's it. So if you want to create digital signage, if you want to create that museum exhibition, the sales pitch, there is no option out there now, and which brings us David, I know you're going to want to ask this, which is, will, aren't all digital signage platforms, no-code? Which is great question, Dave, by the way...

You are a psychic!

Geoff Bessin: That's a yes, but, it is absolutely true that you don't write code, but there are certain expectations of a no-code platform that the traditional digital signage CMS cannot fulfill, and it's interesting if I take a step back, really by definition, it has always been the non-developer on the digital signage side, hasn’t it? You buy a platform, there's a CMS, the user of the content management system is the content person. They're not coding anything. They're working with the CMS, they're assigning content to zones and they're day partying. By definition from day one, digital signage was always a non-developer domain, whereas web and mobile apps and these sorts of things were always the developer domain. 

The no-code movement was, “Hey, this complicated stuff, we gotta make it simpler. We need the citizen developer involved.” So they brought no-code to the domain that started with developers, which I think is one of the explanations for why it didn't really come over to the in-venue side yet, because it was always non-coder users, but there are certain expectations of the no-code platform, that is not really in scope of the platform delivering in-venue content. A simple example, just to give you one would be the notion of context. To react to the user, react to the environment, in real time in that context, and do something as a result that is inherently this notion of logic. If this, then that. That's coding, right? It's got the whiff of coding and how do you do that? And there's a list of things we can discuss about what makes in-venue unique. But it requires the accommodation of additional concerns that are beyond the scope of what a traditional CMS does and that no other no-code platform does across the no-code spectrum. 

I guess what you're saying in certain respects is you can develop a playlist, do all the basic functionality of a digital sign, you can target content and everything else, but the moment you get into a request to do something different, that's interactive, that as you say, maybe responds to triggers and so on, that gets a lot more complicated, and at that point you're putting in, if you're an end user, you're putting in a request to your reseller or to the software company directly saying, can you do this? And they'll say, yes, we can, but it's going to take this amount of time, this amount of money and, we can't get this to you for six months cause it's off of our roadmap or whatever… Is that one of the arguments you'd make? 

Geoff Bessin: I would say that for sure. You see, a lot of companies have libraries. Here's our template library, here’s our plugin library, here's our integration library. Oh, you want something we don't have? We can build that for you. Here's the cost. Here's how long it's going to take. That's one example.

I can tell you that from a Intuiface perspective, we don't have any libraries. We haven't really prebuilt anything. Our paradigm is to enable integration with any web service, to create any UI, to integrate with any content management system, to have that ubiquity, which means that we don't have to build anything for our clients. The customer can do that. But it also means that, well, you better have a good idea and you better need to know what you. Because you're starting with a tabula rasa, but yes, that is certainly one good example of how you fulfill these sort of unique needs you might have thought about. I'll give you another example, which is retail point of sale. How would you build that thing? To me, that qualifies as an in-venue application. That's in the venue, right? I can order through a website, but do I want to put a website on a kiosk? It's a different domain. It's a different paradigm. It has different design requirements, different expectations, different issues about security, about being able to run potentially offline. But having to work with peripherals, having hyper-local context dependence, there are all of these concerns that will impact that user experience in the venue that may not be relevant or at all to a web experience. If I want to build that thing, how much flexibility am I going to have? Now there are companies like Grubber, which are pretty much pre-built everything, right? All you do is you push your menu into their back office system, and you're good to go. You just have to hope it does exactly what it is you want because you're constrained within the confines of what they offer for design, with the offer for business process, what they offer in terms of context, awareness, and reaction and if you need to make any kind of changes, you're dependent on them to make those changes, and that has a cost and a time penalty to it. 

What kind of skillsets do you realistically need to use a no-code particularly in the context of Intuiface? I'm assuming the proposition is anybody can sit down, but you still have to plan out, you have to have some methodical thinking about what you want to do with what the decision tree is on all that stuff, right?

Geoff Bessin: You do, and that gives me an opportunity to give you just a brief history of Intuiface because we were never a no-code company, that wasn't how we were oriented. The company was actually founded back in 2002. It was founded by a couple of PhDs with expertise in touch technology. And from day one, it was about bringing user experiences to a lot of it was, believe it or not, the defense industry, but also retail, touch-driven user experiences for something, to accomplish something. The company was always about the user experience. 

At the end of the day, as great as your touch technology might be, nobody cares if it's not usable. If it doesn't make it easy to achieve some goal, and so Intuiface, when it was born it was all about the user experience, and in fact, most of its early hires were focused on that, on how to make something intuitive and that where the company name comes from, an intuitive interface. To make intuitive user experiences that we're driven by interaction like touch. What happened was we were servicing all of these organizations, again, a lot of defense, Intuiface is headquartered just outside the Toulouse, as i mentioned. So you have the big aerospace and defense industry located in Toulouse like Airbus. So a lot of those clients, but also retail, commerce. Focused on user experience, and it was hard to scale the business because you had this deep technical dependency underneath because it's driven by touch and we’re going back 15 years, so expensive hardware, challenging technology, and at the same time, trying to come up with these really intuitive user interfaces, it was a challenge, and we decided internally, I say we, but I wasn't here yet. Intuiface decided internally that we need to come up with something that can accelerate our ability to deliver good user experiences on top of this touch technology.

The company builds something called Intuikit, it was used internally by user experience experts, designers, and people good at aesthetics, people good at thinking about the customer. They were not developers. Ultimately, we decided this thing called Intuikit is pretty awesome, maybe that's our business, and so we're. It's a short story about how the software platform Intuiface was born. We were always about the user experience. It is our expectation that our users are experts in the users, creating intuitive interfaces, not In having any necessary knowledge about development. So that is our expectation, and that's what we think is appropriate. You need to be creative. You need to understand the user. You need to understand the domain. You don't have to worry about the platform you're building it on. That should not be your problem. You should be all about solving the customer's problem.

I realize you work with a bunch of industries, but a lot of your activity is in digital signage. If I am an end-user and I'm using ACME digital signage software, can I use the Intuiface with it? Does it plug into it or are there restrictions? Do you have to go through door number one or door number two, you can't use both doors?

Geoff Bessin: Probably, you can't do. Typically the content management system used by the DS platform is proprietary. It's a closed system. It doesn't have a published API. So we couldn't read from it. Intuiface conversely has its own runtime as well. We can run side by side. In fact, on Windows, we have the ability to run side by side with other applications, we have had customers who are not ready to transition off their existing DS investment. So they were sort of a cohabitating interactive Intuiface based content at one part of the screen and traditional DS content and others were cohabitating that screen. But normally no, that wouldn't be how one would do it. 

Certainly Intuiface is positioned around interactivity. We believe that by definition, once you introduce interactivity and the need to be responsive and context, and to accommodate not just touch, but sensors and voice and computer vision, when you need to account for all of these things, you need to be very good at that if-when, right? And that notion of conditional responses to events which are completely typically outside the realm of the traditional DS platform. That's where we start, and then clients can decide, do I want these Intuiface to co-exist with this DS platform? Or do we need to make some sort of transition.

If I'm an end-user and I start with Intuiface and have a series of interactive screens that are doing some sort of functionality, whatever it may be and then I decide, I want to also have an expanding network of “dumb screens” that are just running traditional digital signage content in some sort of a sequence. Can you do that too? 

Geoff Bessin: Sure, the content doesn't know it’s in a dumb playlist, right? The content is fine. Certainly you can do that. The Intuiface was born, solving the interactive problem. And it's interesting, Dave, because in the early days of selling our platform, digital signage was something else. You didn’t touch signage. So our communication to the marketplace was not interactive signage. There wasn't such a thing. There was interactive content for kiosks. That was the world when we first walked in, you were touching something such as a table or a kiosk. There were touch screens, very expensive touch screens. You could be bound on a wall, never a perceptive pixel from a million years ago. Like those CNN screens and that sort of thing. You spend $2,500, you can have a touchscreen, but bylarge, it was kiosks and that sort of thing. 

What happened was that they had this largely commoditized, digital signage space, hundreds of companies offering traditional digital signage and customers had iPhones in their pocket and they had iPads at home, and they started thinking about interactivity. They see the voting coverage on CNN and people tapping screens. So can you do that? That's why we started getting questions about traditional digital signage. Can you fulfill that as well? We were like yeah, we can, and over the years we developed additional capability to accommodate it. 

The paradigm is still different. We don't have a traditional notion of a playlist for example, but you can create a playlist within Intuiface. We're using our Lego blocks, not just to build interactive content, but non-interactive content as well. You can do both. 

So it was something you could do, but it's not your focus? 

Geoff Bessin: I would say, we’res interactive first, but the traditional broadcast signage, and I don't mean this in a judgy way, it's not typically that complicated. So if it is a playlist of stuff, images, videos, documents, it's very easily done, but people very rarely come to us, Dave, with traditional first. They're coming to us because they need to solve an interactive need, and oh, by the way, long-term you can transition to traditional content as well.

I agree that, the conventional side of digital signage, the meat potatoes, run this stuff at this time and these locations and all that is commoditized and pretty simple, and I always say that the complicated stuff is behind the scenes, the device management, the API integrations and all that sort of stuff. Are you at a level now where you can provide the building blocks, the Lego blocks to do the interactive piece, but also enable the end user to monitor and remotely manage all that? 

Geoff Bessin: We do offer that, and in fact we offer both of what you mentioned, cause you also mentioned the API integration, we can accommodate that as well.

On the device management side, certainly we have an awareness of the devices in the field and you can set up notifications if things are going wrong, that sort of thing, you can see what's running on those devices. On certain platforms, you can remotely update on runtime, that sort of thing. We're not averse to working with a device and platform management options, to collaborate with them in a deployment, but we do offer some of that. And with API integration, we've actually offered for six years. It's been a long time and it's one of those things, Dave, where, as I said, we weren’t born with no-code. We were born worried about user experience and we realized we looked in the mirror and wen, oh, we're actually no-code. 

We've been offering a software called API Explorer.  You can automatically create an integration, an integration with a web API without writing code And it is a real time integration reading from writing to that web API. It could be a back office system, ERP application, CRM application could be a database wrapped in an API, could be a device on the internet of things, all of these options can be integrated with a running Intuiface experienced by a non-developer, using API Explorer. So we've offered that for some time. 

We now have our own CMS but you don't have to use it. Our original value prop is to use whatever you want. We have API Explorer, you can plug into whatever you want. We have now introduced our own because depending on the scenario and the requirements of the project, it just makes better sense to use ours. But we still have customers that would rather use that other thing, or Dave, they’re integrated with the ERP application. They're building a retail point of sale application with Intuiface, and they have integrated with the ERP system, they need to work with the API and you can do that.

Who would you describe as your kind of core end-users, core customers? 

Geoff Bessin: I would say 50 to 60% of our customers are agencies and integrators. So we can discuss with the actual user might be, but I would say more than half of our installed base are agencies and integrators with their own clients. And there is a spectrum of reasons why they're using Intuiface. Some of them, they don't have the development skill, but they want to offer interactivity. Others have men and women on the bench with the skill, but they don't have the scale. That's the problem with people is that they can work on one thing at a time.

And what we find is that a lot of the integrators in particular will be taking Intuiface so they can scale. They can take on a larger volume of maybe small and mid-sized projects that they can do with Intuiface, and then put the men and women on the bench onto the bigger high value projects. We find that customers are saving 80% of time and 60% of costs versus customer that don’t use Intuiface. So it's very easy for them, and it's an easy pitch. Conceptually, if you can build an interactive application, doing exactly what you want with a no-code platform is probably cheaper and faster than if I wrote code, so it's an easy idea to wallow and it is what our customers experience. So that's what you'll find. I would say the majority 60%-55% agencies and integrators, the rest are the small and midsize museums, schools, retailers, sales offices, marketing, and sales teams, they want to do it themselves.

And do they want to do it themselves because of cost or control?

Geoff Bessin: Often it's because of cost. They have ambition or they've been bitten, Dave, where they have outsourced it. You don't see this going in, but you meet an agency. You tell them what you want, they agree and deliver something in two months that doesn’t resemble what you wanted, so you ask for revisions, and this cycle continues while you pay for the time. It's not an agile process, and again, I'm not casting aspersions at the agency, they are our customers. But their sales pitch is we use Intuiface so we can deliver what you want faster than the other guys that do exactly what you want, and by the way, if you don't like the work we did, you can take it with you.

If I pay an agency to write custom code and I'll be dissatisfied, I'm starting from zero with another agency. So you have that kind of portability benefit as well. So yes, a lot of the small and midsize, it's budget driven or based on their experience, they have limited budgets. They outsourced it, and they were just satisfied. We do have the occasional large enterprise. They want to have maybe an interactive sales pitch. So the marketing and sales team is driving the creation of the collateral, hiring a developer to make. I could use PowerPoint. Why am I hiring? It's hard to justify this pay developers to code a sales pitch, I can just use PowerPoint. Hold on a second, here's this thing called Intuiface. I can build an interactive sales pitch for my Salesforce. I'm still using the tool. I'm the creative team on the marketing sales team. But I'm creating something that is far more novel and engaging than a PowerPoint.

When the pandemic hit, I speculated and I'm sure many people speculated that this was going to be a difficult time for people who were in the touch and interactive business. What happened instead is that touch actually went up in demand and self service applications became very much a big development initiative. Have you seen that happening in the last couple of years? 

Geoff Bessin: We have, and then ultimately it turns out people are more afraid of other people than touch screens. And our business has rebounded quite well. What we were hoping for, and it seems to be the case is that demand didn't drop. It got stuck behind a wall. There was a dam and the demand was building behind the dam, and you couldn't open the dam cause nobody was out of the house and the waters were rising, people are finally out of the house, and you opened up the floodgates. So we're seeing a really nice rebound that is complimented, not just by the building interest anyway, but the kind of renewed interest in facilitating a non-human interaction, which sounds horrible culturally, in their place of business or what have you.

And again, it's not just touch. Yes, I think probably most people would rather take a little Purell. They're fine with that, but still some people are not, and maybe they can use their mobile phone or scan a QR code. 

But it's also a labor issue. It's harder to hire people and if you can use self service, then you don't have to worry so much about staffing.

Geoff Bessin: There's that whole other thing too which is the cost of staffing and training and enabling and equipping and there's that as well. So for sure, there is certainly a perceived increase in interest, and interactivity of any kind and Intuiface has always been focused on any kind of interactivity, not just touch, and certainly this ability to use my mobile phone to interact with content is an increasingly interesting example, using gestures to interact, using voice to interact. So I'm not touching but I'm still working with technology directly rather than mediating through somebody else. So all of that is going on. 

Last question: you guys have certainly in the last few years had a presence at ISE and at other trade shows, what are you doing in the next few weeks and months? Is Intuiface going to be something that people can walk up and get demos for? 

Geoff Bessin: We will be at ISE, so that'll be our first trade show in however many years we'll be there. So you and I are speaking on April 26th and that's why I say in just a couple of weeks, we will be there with a booth, and we certainly hope we'll see others there. 

We used to actually have our user conference in parallel with ISE, in-person and the pandemic put the kibosh on that. We've done virtual user conferences every year since then, and we like that because you don't have to travel, and so our user conference will be forever more be virtual. We actually have our user conference in three weeks that people are welcome to join. It's free, it'll be online, but we plan to be at ISE. We plan to be a DSE in the US and I think it's now November, and we'll be participating when your colleagues at Avitas are running DSE in parallel and ISE will be participating in that as well. So we're starting. We're treating this as back to normal. It's interesting, Dave working on my travel plans, flying into Spain. But you can’t just get on a plane, you need to jump through certain things because of COVID. But it looks as of today, they're not even requiring masks onsite. That doesn't seem to be a requirement. Just the honor system that you are vaccinated or recovered and we'll see how that goes, but we're excited to be there. We'll have a big booth and about eight of us, we'll have a lot of people there. 

And where can people find Intuiface online? 

Geoff Bessin: Dave, thank you for asking, They can also just contact us. You are listening to Jeff Besson. You can just email me

The product can be tried for free, Dave. No credit card required. People can poke at it and see if what we're saying is true.

 All right, thank you.

Geoff Bessin: Dave. It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Justin Lachovsky, Telecine

Justin Lachovsky, Telecine

May 4, 2022


When I first heard the longtime digital signage solutions company Telecine was getting into subscription content for screens, my first reaction was "Hmmm ... pretty crowded and established market to shoehorn into ..."

Then I got the details, and the logic and applicability were a lot more apparent.

The Montreal company has set up three very customizable sets of pre-packaged feeds that would run in parallel with the products already out there, as opposed to being alternatives.

There's a weather feed that's all about context, like one letting runners know if this a good day to put in some mileage.

There's a banking industry feed that solves a big pain point of developing messaging that is fully compliant with finance regulations.

And there's an interesting air quality feed that marries on-screen content with a small, included device that does real-time air monitoring in buildings.

I spoke with Justin Lachovsky, Telecine's Director of Sales & Marketing, about the new services. We also talk at the start about how the company has adjusted to the sudden loss last year of its much-loved and respected founder, James Fine.

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Justin, thank you for joining me. Let's get something out of the way right away, because you guys, and the digital signage world in general, had a big shock last year when your founder, James Fein unexpectedly passed away. How have you guys adjusted to that? What have you done and how are things?

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah. Definitely a huge shock and something that we're still battling through, of course, something that shocking doesn't go away easily. But we've luckily had the opportunity to really just continue focusing on what we do best and that's helping our clients with producing excellent digital signage content for their networks, and frankly, that's I think something that James really would've wanted us to do.

So we're all really holding onto his memory in that regard of just doing everything that we can to continue pushing forward his vision, obviously, it was a shock. It's a tough loss, but he's really laid the groundwork for our management team to step up now and help just continue pushing forward all the great stuff that we do here at Telecine. 

Yeah. One of the new things I learned is that he set you guys up with a succession plan so the shift wasn't that difficult.

Justin Lachovsky: No, and you know that's something that some folks might not know, but for the last, I'd say six plus years just before I joined Telecine, James had been doing about six months sailing sabbaticals across the world and some management oversight in that regard, but most of the day-to-day operations and client management stuff was handled by our management team so while it's a deep loss and obviously we're still deeply upset by the loss of James, he put this company in a perfect position for us to continue going forward, and I'm very grateful for that.

Yeah. It was fun to hear how he would be in the south Pacific with Chantal sailing and he would get on a sat phone and call in.

Justin Lachovsky: Yes. I can't tell you how many conference calls I've had with James, where he's like, “I'm in the middle of the water. There's no land in sight, but somehow I'm able to jump on a phone and talk to you all the way back in Montreal.” It's very cool to see how far technology has come. 

So we've done a podcast in the past, it was with James, miss him a lot, but for those people who don't know what Telecine is about, could you just give a kind of a quick rundown of what you guys do? What's your focus on? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, for sure. So yeah, Telecine is a 35 year old media and software company. We've been doing digital signage, I think since before digital signage was even really an industry and really our main focus is to help our clients solve their communications challenges and using digital signages, that medium, to help deliver effective communications to their audience, and we do this by leveraging all sorts of cool content pieces, dynamic data sources, and then just internal databases of information that these corporations have that they don't leverage enough to create that all encompassing communications platform. It's not just email, it's not just social. It uses your screens to effectively communicate that message, and we do that with them by helping produce really nice digital signage content. 

You being services based through the years, you don't sell specific pieces of software, you don't manufacture displays or anything else. So services are in your DNA, but I found it interesting that you guys have added on subscription content capabilities. 

I think of a handful of companies like ScreenFeed who sponsors this podcast that do that sort of thing, but you've got into it, but it's not the same sort of thing, right?

Justin Lachovsky: No, and that's right. We work with the ScreenFeed guys all the time and all of the other providers within the digital signage space. We couldn't do what we do without their support and the things that they provide to the industry. But we did notice an opportunity for us to help end users with providing our services from the high end production of digital signage content and finding a way to offer them ready-to-go content without the high production costs that sometimes involve these larger projects. So it's something that actually James coined as “prêt à partir” content, which in English just means ready-to-go content. 

So what have you done? What are you offering? 

Justin Lachovsky: We've launched three new product lines in the last quarter. The three products are Fin Facts, AQ (Air Quality) and Lifestyle. All three of these products are HTML5 based so totally software agnostic, they'll work with any digital signage system, which is really what our main focus was in developing these, and the other thing that's interesting too, is they all have specific use cases, but it's a friendly piece of content. You don't have to worry about anything negative popping up there. They're friendly, that's the term I'll use for them. 

Yeah I found it interesting for the financial one that you guys are providing, that could be quite complicated and labor intensive to figure out what are those messages that are relevant to banks and what are those messages that can be used and your work around was just using the content from the FDIC so that it's already vetted and approved and not going to get anyone into trouble by using it. 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, that's exactly it. As you're aware, we do offer our services quite a bit in the financial space, retail banks, insurance brokerage firms, stuff like that. So I actually had this idea while talking to a client about three years ago. Every time we had to produce a piece of content for them, it had to get run through their compliance department, and had to have some FDIC disclosure on it, and I said, why can't we just take information that the FDIC already puts out there. We know that it's a trusted source and find a way to create a compelling database of banking facts. S

o that's exactly what we did. We went right to FDIC, started sourcing facts right off their website, and we came up with Fin Facts, which is this fun, engaging and informative database of digital signage content which, like I said, works great for banking environments, behind the teller desk, all that area is FDIC approved and not only does it, I think, works just for the banking space, but any sort of corporate office as well. 

By providing these factoids to their staff, the message that they're conveying is, we don't just care about, offering you corporate information and telling you about what the company is doing, but we care about your financial wellbeing. So we've taken this information from the FDIC and said, look, this is topical. It applies to everybody, everybody's got to do banking. So for me, it was just a cool way of saying to, end users in the audience that we don't just care about delivering messages for messaging sake, we care about your financial wellbeing as well.

I'm going to assume the FDIC was quite happy that they have a new distribution channel for this information. 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, absolutely, and that's the really cool thing about the program is, there's three steps to the way that the content is shown. There is the fact page, so we'll tell you the topic of what we're talking about. So for example, like mortgage planning tips. One page with a nice little factoid. The second page gives you a use case, and then the final page actually gives you a QR code where it'll link you back directly to the FDIC website where this information was sourced from, and actually what we're doing with one of our banking clients is we're using that QR code to actually measure audience attention. So it gives us that additional layer aside from just providing information.

We're giving the banks and other clients the opportunity to capture information and say, okay, you know how many people are actually looking at this stuff. 

The capability is there so if somebody snaps the QR code with their phone, it hits a specific target URL, and you get the analytics off that to say that in the past month, X number of people hit this target URL? 

Justin Lachovsky: That is exactly correct. 

So if I'm a financial institution in the United States and I want to use this and I'm using Brand X CMS, it's just a matter of scheduling a URL into a playlist and off you go? 

Justin Lachovsky: That's exactly it. 

And you subscribe to it, right? 

Justin Lachovsky: Exactly. So we're in the process of figuring out the best way to deliver that to clients but right now, if you subscribe to the product, you'll be able to select from a list of topics ranging from youth savings to mortgage tips and general savings, credit cards. You'll be able to select those topics. We'll provide you with a URL that will deliver all that content directly into your CMS. 

Is it tailorable, customizable? So in other words, you've got regional savings and loans in Oklahoma, and they want to use Oklahoma state orange because that's their corporate colors. Can you change the background of that? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, of course, that was really what our intentions were with building it. The way that we've done it is, well, we love to do custom content. So even with our product offering, it was important for us to offer that customizability and flexibility for clients, as opposed to just saying, this is what you get. You have the full capability to changing the colors, fonts as well as any integrations or logos or other branding elements that are needed. 

You and I are both in Canada. So, if you had a Canadian bank that you're working with FDIC stuff stuff, there's probably lots of elements of that crosses borders quite nicely, but you can't brand it as FDIC. So what happens if I'm the Royal Bank and I come to you and say, we want to use this too, but we need Canadian stuff? 

Justin Lachovsky: I'm glad you asked that question because we're actually in the process right now of doing a Canadian version. In Canada, we have the CDIC, which is a governing body similar to the FDIC. So we’re in the process of doing a similar approach with CDIC information to offer that to Canadian clients as well, and as part of that roll out, we're also looking to provide some interesting quizzes using both the FDIC and CDIC information, so you'll have a database of FDIC facts, a database of CDIC facts, and then coming soon, we'll also have a database of quizzes from both databases. 

So that's now available? Have you onboarded some customers already or you're just starting to spread the word? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah. So it was launched a week ago, but we've already had a client who was beta testing this for us for about six months now and we've just gotten the go ahead to roll this out to all of their branches. 

I'm going to assume that the people who work at banks of varying sizes in the United States, who are charged with feeding the content beast all week and all month long are probably pretty happy that this sort of stuff will become available to them.

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, they are. They're actually quite thrilled. One of the things that we encounter often, especially with financial clients, is they're hyper concerned about safe content, and that was really our approach to this is that FDIC is a safe, trusted resource and it delivers that way for digital signage content. So it's exactly what you said. These bankers are quite happy that they now have a safe resource that they can display in their bank branches without any hesitation. 

Yeah, because if you're running news feeds and those are pretty carefully curated anyways, but I suspect if I asked the ScreenFeed folks or some of the other companies, they would say, you wouldn't believe what upsets people, and I could imagine, like the Oscars thing, where Will Smith  alpped Chris Rock, that's a story that got a lot of attention, but there's probably some bank and some customers that say, “I don't like that there. I'm offended by that. Take it off!”

Justin Lachovsky: Absolutely. I've lived through that experience a couple of times. So I'm happy now that we can offer something where I can deliver it to a client with peace of mind, that that kind of scenario won’t occur. 

How does it work in terms of scale? Do you just subscribe to the service or do you subscribe per media player?

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah. So the way that it runs, it's a similar model to the way the other folks have run it. It's a per player subscription, obviously, depending on the size of the network and the amount of facts that people are looking for, there is some flexibility there, but it is a typical per player pricing model at the moment.

And because it's HTML, this stuff you're harvesting from FDIC, so I guess in most respects you would say it's canned, it's already done, but because it's HTML, can you update on the fly if things do change? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, we do have a process in place to continually monitor the FDIC website so that if things change, we're able to make those changes to our content, but also, they add more and more articles over time so we're looking to continue growing the database, but also make those amendments if they are needed. 

Okay, so that's the financial one. You said there's a lifestyle one and an air quality one as well, am I right? 

Justin Lachovsky: That's right. So obviously folks have become hyper aware about health and wellness over the last couple of years. I know that I have that for sure. So one of the cool things that we did was develop this set of lifestyle content that really speaks to activities. At this point, seeing the weather forecast in digital signage is fairly common to put it mildly, and everybody's got weather in their pocket these days.

So what I wanted to do, and the rest of the team wanted to do is find a way that we can contextualize that a little bit more. Like you said, it's so easy to get a three-day forecast, but let's say you're going into a bank one day, or you're going into the office one day, and you know you've got something going on this afternoon. You're supposed to go golfing with a couple of teams. What we've done is using the backend for weather information, we've developed a set of indexes that will tell you about activity-based information, whether it's appropriate to do that or not on a given day. As an example, I was talking about golf. So we have a golf index that'll tell you, based on relative humidity, the weather outside. It'll provide you with an index saying, is it a good day to go golfing? Yes/No, and then there's a forecast that's associated with that, but that also comes with a handful of other data points, things about driving difficulty, pollen in the air. You have dry skin today. This one was my favorite, hair frizz. Fairly straight hair, but you never know what humidity can do that kind of thing. So really what our goal there was just to add that additional context to the weather by saying, “It is probably a good day for you to stay inside. Don't go outside” or “Don't go golfing today. Maybe pick tomorrow” 

So it was really important to just help boost people's awareness for those activities as we're going in and out of places more. For the longest time, these outdoor activities were our saving grace and he was the thing we were only able to do for close to two years. So I thought it was a great way to just have a set and forget the piece of content in your signage system that goes with the weather, but also works in just a variety of places. From banking to retail, to corporate, everybody's out and about doing activities to that these days. That was our goal.

I'm assuming apart from the financial facts one, which was pretty straight forward, that this would be much more of a challenge to visualize and for people to look at and immediately get it because you can't just write out, “This isn't the best day to go golf”? 

Justin Lachovsky: That's exactly correct.

So what we did is we used the same approach that most people do for weather. Most people can quickly look at a digital signage screen and get a quick understanding of, okay, this is the location I'm at, this is the high and low for the day, and this is what the forecast looks like for the rest of the week. So we use that same visual approach for this, where you'll have, again, I'll use the golf index. It'll tell you the golf index for Los Angeles, California. It'll tell you what the current weather is, but also on a scale from 1-10 what the quality of golfing would be that day. 

So if you look at the screen, you get the current weather forecast, you'll get a three to five day forecast that'll tell you from 1-10 what the next few days of golfing quality looks like.

So your suggestion would be that this can run in tandem with the more “conventional” weather stuff that might be on a digital signage network? 

Justin Lachovsky: Exactly. One thing I've noticed is a lot of these digital signage screens where the use cases effective for this piece of content is, retail banks, stores, those are places where people are either in the process of doing an activity or going between activities. So for me, it felt like the best possible place to put this information because people are, like I said, either going to do something or on their way back from doing something. So that seems to be the best place to deliver this information to them. 

So could you also handle customer requests? I was just talking to a guy a couple of days ago, who lives in Syracuse, New York, and that's on the wrong side of lake Ontario, so lake effect country, and he was saying they had a pretty good winter for snow. They had four feet less than normal. So I'm wondering in terms of a lake effect or tune up your snowblower warning or something.

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah. I think we have 10 indices right now, if I'm correct, but it is something that's continuing to grow as customer requests come up and they're like, I'd to know if it's a good day to mow my lawn. These sorts of things come up all the time, so we'll continue growing that library for sure. 

And then the other one that I believe you're working on or have released, has to do with air quality and is very much sensors-driven? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, air quality is another interesting one. Again, folks have become hyper aware of their health and wellness and that obviously speaks to air quality. So what we've done is we've got an air quality sensor, which is a very small, low profile, little sensor. It looks like one of those air diffusers that you would just buy and have your oils diffusing on your desk, and what it does is it measures a handful of different parameters, things like the indoor temperature, humidity, air pressure, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, ozone, and what it does is it sucks in all this information, and we deliver a dashboard of varying levels of what these parameters are at, and then we've come up with our own measure of taking it all in and delivering an air quality index. 

So it'll tell you, based on the information that I just mentioned, what the level of air quality is in a given space.

So there's hardware associated with it? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, that’s correct, but it's all done through subscription. So you subscribe to the product, you get the air sensor with it and we deliver the dashboard at the same time. So there's no need to purchase any large hardware, it's just the sensor that comes with the subscription of the content.

And is it a smart setup? Let's say the sensor reads that carbon monoxide levels are higher than what is safe, would it trigger something on the screen? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah. So that's a custom piece that we work on with clients, obviously on a case to cases basis, but yes, we've done things like when you've got certain levels of high carbon monoxide, we can have a different kind of graphic trigger on screen, just letting people know this. It really came down to wanting to show more transparency on the health of our clients' spaces. We work with a lot of folks in the corporate environment. We've got clients that are corporate real estate landlords. So it spawned out of a request that we got early on in the pandemic. Somebody said, I'd love to know what our air quality is like so our staff feels comfortable working in space during the pandemic, but also in the future. 

When the return to office stuff comes into play, we'd love to continue reporting that, and in fact, we did a project with a client out in California, they're a large real estate client. They were actively going after a well building certification and what that is, it's similar to a lead building certification, but it's focused more around the health of the building itself. One of the very pertinent aspects of that certification was providing information on air quality. So we were able to integrate these air sensors into, I think they've got six floors in their space, and we reported that on the digital signage screens, which allowed them to go and get a platinum well building certification, which is quite unique because there are only one of three buildings in all of California that have this certification right now.

So it becomes almost a leaseholder retention sort of thing, saying, “Hey, here's in visual terms how “well” a building we are”? 

Justin Lachovsky: That’s exactly it.

With those displays, is it the sort of thing that runs in a content schedule or do they tend to allocate one or multiple displays or screens that are just showing that?

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, we've seen both use cases. We've got some customers that just want it mixed in with their regularly scheduled content. But we've got other clients that actually just have a straight reporting dashboard. You walk into their lobby and right on the lobby desk where you would typically go to sign in if you were a guest visitor, it would just tell you right off the bat, this is what the air quality is like, and I think that it gives, like I mentioned, the staff a peace of mind, but also visitors coming to this space because that's certainly coming back. It gives those visitors peace of mind that they're in a healthy space.

So for larger buildings and particularly newer ones, I suspect that they're using Honeywell, or some big giant company that has HVAC systems and monitoring and everything else, and probably has APIs that you could tap into to also get that kind of information. Do you do that or is it just simpler to use this little device?

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah, and that's actually something we've been doing long before the pandemic happened and these air sensors came into play. That's our bread and butter. Telecine, loves to get their hands on APIs and data and figure out a cool creative way to display that. So yes, we definitely integrate with those types of sources for customers.

Okay. So the device that you guys make available is the little hurdle for those companies to say we don't actually have those APIs, or that would be a son of a gun to pull all that together, so just use this? 

Justin Lachovsky: Exactly. It depends on the customer space, obviously new buildings, it's a lot easier to get that stuff available to us than it is abuilding that's been around for 15+ years. Sometimes to avoid the hurdle of waiting six months for a customer to figure out who their HPAC provider is, who owns the contract, where can I get the data from? We wanted to offer this cost-effective sensor and display package that is very easy to just get in front of a customer in a variety of spaces. 

So you've done these three services, is that it? Or is there other stuff on the horizon that you don't have to give me the details, but are you done?

Justin Lachovsky: We're never done. There's always something on the horizon. We've got a couple of really interesting projects coming up. I can't share those with you yet but as we continue to firm up those details, I look forward to jumping back on a podcast with you and sharing them. 

So we're all hopefully coming out of a crazy two and a quarter year, how have things gone now, setting aside the shock of losing James? 

Justin Lachovsky: Yeah. Things have gone really well. One thing that Telecine does really great is client retention. A lot of our clients are getting close to a decade of working with us. It's really important for us to just focus on the customer experience and that's what I think we've done really well in the last couple of years, as we've all experienced challenges with the pandemics our clients have as well.  So our focus really has just been helping them in any way possible, and focusing on that communications message through digital. 

All right. So if people who are listening to this want to find out more, how do they find you and how do they find this particular set of products? 

Justin Lachovsky: We've got a product website for all of them. You can find them under our main website, If you have any questions I'm always available, you can just reach me at and we've got those product websites just listed on our main website. You'll be able to find all the information. 

All right, Justin. Great to catch up with you. 

Justin Lachovsky: You as well, Dave, thanks so much.

Jimmy Hunt, Spectrio

Jimmy Hunt, Spectrio

April 27, 2022


Spectrio has been around the digital signage and on-premise media spaces for a bunch of years, growing both organically and through acquisitions, and increasingly making digital signage the main focus of the Tampa-area company.

I've known of the company for a long time, but REALLY came to know some of its people in the past year, when we got into discussions about Sixteen:Nine being acquired by Spectrio. That happened, and this podcast and publication are now part of Spectrio.

But my business partners have been fantastic about letting me continue to just do my thing, and make my own editorial decisions. I've wanted to do a podcast for a long, long time with Spectrio, way before this happened. We finally managed to make it work ... in a conversation here with Jimmy Hunt, who is the VP of Channel Sales for the company, working out of Dallas.

We had a great conversation digging into how the company's partner channel was formalized last fall and how it now works for Spectrio. We also get into what Hunt and his people are seeing and hearing in the end-user and reseller marketplace, notably how customers are now tending to fully understand and value the importance of well-executed and relevant content.

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Jimmy Hunt, thank you for joining me. Can you give me an idea of what your role is at Spectrio? 

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. My role is VP, Channel Sales and Business Development. 

Specific to the channel or overall? 

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, so my main focus is within the channel. I handle all of the indirect sales, so resellers, channel sales, the sales and the account management side, all roll up to me.

Okay. So you're nurturing a ton of partners? 

Jimmy Hunt: A ton, yeah, and it's been very interesting to develop a good blend across media publishers, AV, IT, and the agency space. 

You've formally launched the reseller program back in November, but I'm guessing that you had resellers prior to that?

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, so I've been in the reseller space for about 15 years. My sole focus has been selling through the channel. Our methodology is pretty straightforward and simple. It's one-to-one-to-many. Previous to Spectrio, I focused mainly on the media and publisher world. So dealing with some of the largest media companies in the country across TV, radio, print, and digital. So we had a program in place yet, but it was great in Q3/Q4 to really formalize that and make it applicable to Spectrio moving forward, as well as the other industries, such as AV, IT, manufacturers, distributors, et cetera. 

How many partners do you have it at this point? 

Jimmy Hunt: So we are roughly over about 120. Prior to that announcement, we had about 60-65 meaningful partners. So we've doubled since then. It's been a busy Q4 and a busy Q1, but it's been great, really doubling down on the things that are working, and we've seen a lot of excitement across space.

I was curious about your qualification of meaningful. I have seen lots of partner pages on websites of companies where I'm looking at their partners and thinking, "I wonder if they even really know each other?"

Jimmy Hunt: That's a really good point. So for us, I always tell my team that we only win when our partners win. So if we're going to be a vendor and we're going to sit on the sideline, then expect for for that partnership to not be meaningful. So when I say meaningful, we really dig in with our partners. We try to position ourselves as true thought leaders to be consultants, to be advisors about our partnerships, but overall the space in general.

We have to make sure that we can not only address the day to day, week to week, month to month, but also help steer our partners and educate them on what's happening in the industry, and a lot of times, it's really just connecting other partners together. Maybe it's a product or service that we may not even sell or be interested in, but if we know partner X over here does this very well, and they're good people, we like working with them, then we'll connect them with a partner Y. 

So this is a lot more than preferential pricing, or wholesale pricing, or whatever you want to call it. You're doing buddy-calling. You're doing support and training and all those sorts of things? 

Jimmy Hunt: Oh yeah. A 100 percent. Again, the only way we win is when our partners win. So we have to make sure that they understand the products and services from a training perspective, from a server's perspective and workflow perspective, really understanding again, from the very first conversation to delivery of signage or whatever the product may be, that we at least have a hand in that. And there's some partners that want us to be super hands on, have things white labeled, and there's some that say, “Hey, we're going to sharpen the spear. We just want you to support us.” 

The good thing about our leadership and the way we built the partner program is that we can cater to any type of scenario, right? So whether we're working with a global distributor or a local agency, we can find a way to dig in and be flexible and fluid to help their goals, and really it's at the end of the day it's understanding what benefits them, how can our product and services and moreover our partnership benefit our partner.

And when you're doing that, there's obviously a lot of digital signage CMS and solutions options on the market. How do you distinguish what Spectrio brings to the table versus the other guys?

Jimmy Hunt: It's three main things, especially in my role. Number one, it starts with that partnership. To be quite honest, when we're talking to new AV, IT resellers or anyone in the reseller space, we actually rarely lead with a product or service. We lead with our ability to be a good partner, and so everything you said earlier, all the training, all the collateral, certifications, et cetera. That's really what we lead with. And I've found that there's a lack of that partner support, partner management. So that means applying as an account executive on a particular partnership and everything under the sun there. 

I'd say secondly, what I'm listening to more and more is content. I think Spectrio is really primed right now to set ourselves apart by not just providing a great software and a great service through digital signage, but then taking it a step further and saying what's going to be on the screen and asking that simple question. Do you have a strategy to showcase the highest quality video content or static imagery possible? And sometimes it's, yes, we have a strategy, but a lot of times it's no, and they haven't even really thought about it. They may have an internal marketing team. They may have an agency. Doesn't really matter to us. We can again work and fit into their strategy. So we're finding right now, one of the biggest things that's setting Spectrio apart is our ability to produce video content for digital signage and really for the partner itself and their clients at scale. 

Dave, we're producing upwards of, I'd say 7,500 to 10,000 pieces of content a month for partners all over the world, and again, that's my background. A lot of the folks come from the reseller space at Spectrio, they come from digital signage background, but I come from a media and content background. So being able to blend those two has been really fun and really exciting, and I think third, to answer your question is, as you're aware, we've acquired a lot of different platforms, right? So now we have what we believe is the best in breed to say, okay this piece of this functionality really applies to this industry and this vertical with these types of clients versus just saying, Hey, we have one platform, use it or lose it. We can really customize our strategy and our solution to go across the board and help many different industries in many different verticals. 

Yeah, I'm guessing that's a bit of a challenge in that, through acquisition, you've acquired a number of CMS companies that have different variations on the same thing, and how you sort out which is best for each. It must be helpful to say, let's build this around content and not worry about features and specs so much. Let's think about what's the best platform for that need is? 

Jimmy Hunt: Exactly, and we have a lot of experience, first of all, for C-suite across the board is really specific and careful about who we're going after from an acquisition standpoint and they have made some really amazing choices, and allowing us to really highlight and compliment what we're doing today without being extremely disruptive and/or taking a 180. I would say, second, especially in my role in the Channel/BD world, it's really about leading the sales conversation with discovery, going back to that core value of what are your pain points, what are your roadblocks for you as a partner, but more specifically, and probably more importantly, for your clients, right? Whether it's working with the AV/IT reseller that focuses specifically in the finance category or whether it's a media company that has 25,000 automotive clients, it's really taking a step back and understanding how we can help you get from point A to point B and then from there that helps determine which platform and what pieces, and what pieces of the functionality we can apply to best help that partner. 

So who's doing the discovery? Because you could have salespeople and channel salespeople who have pipelines to fill, they've got quotas to hit and they don't necessarily think of themselves as content and strategy consultants. 

Jimmy Hunt: That's a great question. It's a unique blend between marketing, product and sales. Through some of our acquisitions, we've just obtained some of the absolute best, most brilliant brightest folks in the space, I'll speak about one specifically, Christian Armstrong came from Industry Weapon. Now he's been doing it for 16 years, and he manages our two largest partnerships, as well as our largest clients through those partnerships. So he has a unique role where he has taken on as a sales engineer as well as a product specialist role, and then we bring in our VP of Product who's just another wonderful hire from a couple of years ago, a guy named Brandon Mullins, who's just a genius. 

He runs all of our product and BD efforts. So having him really scope out from the get-go, “Okay this is something that is viable for the Spectrio. This is a good target”, and then really once we do that, we really try to capture that and productize it. Now, every partner industry's different, but although we are flexible, we still like to put things in a “box” and then scale. For me, it's all about scale and volume. So it's finding the partners that have a lot of endpoints, a lot of clients that we can then go after, and a partner and produce a high volume of revenue as well as endpoints.

That's interesting because I would imagine some of the industry perception of Spectrio is, there's a company that's been growing through acquisition, they're acquiring IP and they're acquiring customers, but I don't know how many people think in terms of, they're acquiring human talent, as you just described. 

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah. So I think that's honestly one of my biggest missions this year is to get the Spectrio name and the vision and our methodology out in space. I think you're right, Spectrio is sometimes seen as a big or a growing company that's growing through acquisitions, and we are, obviously, but we have really focused on getting the right people, and I think that allows us to do both. Having Christian, having Brandon and some others as well on board allows us to grow the right way. Even the folks from the ABN acquisition, they are surprising me, and in a good way, every single week. Just how they went to market, obviously focusing on the automotive industry, but how they went to market was different from how Industry Weapon went to market and very different from how I went to market. But we're trying to find the commonalities both from a strategy standpoint, and then also finding the right people to take what they've done in the past, tweak it for a future focus and really grow the partnerships that way. 

What is the size of the company at this point?

Jimmy Hunt: We're a little over 400 people and growing. We have a headquarters in Tampa. I'm based in Dallas, Texas, and we have people all over, but a big population in that Tampa, Miami, Florida region, as well as Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Oh, okay, and the Charlotte office, that was one of your acquisitions, going back 3-4 years, right? 

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, the Charlotte offices mostly consist of sales, management and there's a handful of marketing folks there as well. 

Are you active in other countries? 

Jimmy Hunt: We are, yeah. So we are international, I would say a majority of our focus is US and Canada but we are active in other countries. It depends really on how we want to grow our international presence. It will be very specific and strategic and we'll most likely go through resellers and partners. Obviously, it's one of the easiest ways to get traction their fast.

But there are, I guess there's 30 million plus SMEs or small to medium size businesses across the US so there's plenty to have here. But some of our acquisitions in Canada have been very interesting and allowed us to have a different perspective and to really see growth there, as well.

Yeah, you bought Screenscape about a year and a half ago, two years? 

Jimmy Hunt: Correct. Yeah, and talking about a couple of guys that have stayed on. One of my top top sellers that stayed on lives in Canada and really took on that whole channel market himself and has just done very, very well.

In terms of vertical markets, where are you guys seeing growth?

Jimmy Hunt: So I'll start with my team, and then I'll talk about the Spectrio at large, but really from our focus, again, from the channel side, we're are targeting resellers and channel partners in three main categories, and so that's media and agency, TV, radio, print, digital, etc.

Second and probably our largest and fastest growing is AV/IT. So that's where all the big players are and again, through the acquisitions, I would say we work with 60% to 70% of the top players in that space, but there's a whole bunch that we can also go after and then the third is  an interesting mix, and these are more true partners than they are resellers, and that's every one from manufacturers of screens, mounts, et cetera. So think of Sony, LG, et cetera, all the way to a Brightsign and more of that player manufacturers. And those have been really interesting for me because it makes so much sense, right? If someone is out there securing deals and lots of endpoints selling their hardware, and they can have the conversation to say have you thought about a CMS provider? Have you thought about the software piece? That's where we've seen a lot of growth, and those partnerships were fun, right? Because like I said, it's less of a sale. It's more of a true value out of saying, okay, we have this 2,000 location retail chain that we're trying to chase, and we know that they need hardware, but they're also gonna need software. So let’s introduce the Spectrio folks at the right time. 

So that's our chase from an industry perspective. From a vertical perspective, it's probably what you would imagine, it's healthcare, QSR, retail, automotive, higher education. For me, personally, higher ed has been super fun. I'm actually having a blast with that, just because I'm talking about an industry that could really use most of our services. You go on site to a big university or college campus. You can say their auditoriums and their stadiums and basketball arenas that have tons of screens that also need high quality content and as well as wayfinding capabilities for the campus itself. So it's been really fun trying to dig into that vertical more.

They can be messy though, can't they? The higher ed, because you have individual schools that have their own IT departments. 

Jimmy Hunt: Oh my goodness, you're absolutely right. Not only that. It's the schools, it's also the athletic departments, and a lot of the build-outs of the various buildings and infrastructure are all different, right? As you know, you would have one part of the campus be renovated a year ago, and the other one hasn't been touched in 25 years. That's why having the product and sales engineers alongside with me pitching those types of clients has been crucial, and also just understanding what their needs are now versus what will be their needs in two or three years.

There's been endless discussion about how the IT & AV worlds are converging and they ought to be best friends forever and so on. I would say it's only been in the last couple of years when you've really started to see that happen. I was intrigued by Diversified bringing on a new CEO and their founder is not stepping away at all, he's going to be very reactive, but much more mentoring, but their new CEO comes out of IT Services. So they absolutely see where the future is. 

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, so without having specific details on why they did that, I think overall, that is going to be the trend we're going to see, and it's not just IT. I think you could slot in content there. I would not be surprised if there's some big changes in the C-suite across the various resellers, bringing in people that have strong content backgrounds as well as IT, I think we're going to see more of a blend, right? 

We're getting to the position where it's almost annoying, I can't go anywhere without looking at screens, and I was in the airport yesterday. I probably sat in and it was technically my day off. I was visiting my family in DC and my team was like, please stop texting us. But I was in the airport just taking videos at the bar, at the restaurant or in the Concourse and all these different types of functionality and services and I think it's becoming so apparent and just consumptions and consumer behavior is really going to help drive this blend of, okay, AV actually needs more of a lock step with IT as well as content. So I'm not surprised by that move at all, and I think it's probably gonna work very well for them.

Yeah. It's interesting that in the last little bit, I haven't seen anybody stand up at a conference or publish something that says, “content is king”, which was an eye-roller for a whole bunch of time. But now it seems to be baked in there that people get it, that this is not about the screens, it's not about the software. It's about what's on the display and you've got to get that right. 

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, David, I think that's absolutely right. I would even take it a step further. I think a lot of times, what I'm hearing is it's all about what's on the screen, but moreover, what story can you tell? And that kind of goes back to the “Mad Men” days of advertising, what story are you going to help that brand tell? It's actually really fun and exciting to see. You could see it come full circle with a new type of media, right? Signage is relatively new. I know it's not new, per se, but in terms of TV and radio, I think digital signage on site is a little bit different, and I think it's been really refreshing to hear people across the board, whether it's this type of industry or that, saying what story can you help us tell? 

Because, in my opinion, I think that is the real value. Because it's not just pushing an ad, it's not just having a menu board. It's what story can you tell, which will then inflict some type of behavior or feeling for the consumers, and if we do that well, then you're going to see all the good things such as higher retention rates, probably higher sales at point of sale, et cetera.

When you're talking to particularly the IT Services people who lead with that sort of thing, what are the questions they're asking and how are they sorting through who they want to partner with? Because I'm guessing things like security come up as being quite important to them. 

Jimmy Hunt: Oh, so I would say security is number one. I would say scale and not just scale within, again, there’s scale in a campus. There's also, if it's a multi location franchise that has locations all over the world or all over the country, can you reproduce this in 500 different cities? I think that in itself is a challenge. I think the installation piece and the survey piece is super important. Again, going back to the infrastructure of how something is built, whether it's a a financial service, it's going to be different than a college campus and that will be different than an attorney's office. So having the ability to not just be pigeonholed to one vertical is super important for us. 

And do you have to, particular running channels, be careful about how you are establishing what your lane is and how you stay in it? Because there are lots of software and solutions companies out there who describe what they do as turnkey. “We can do the deployment, we can do the framing and consulting. We can do whatever you need us to do.” But if you have partners, that's what they want they do.

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, I guess that's been one of the positive challenges and roadblocks that we've had with growth. We start to have a little bit of growth in a particular industry or vertical with a certain reseller type, then you want to pursue that, but it all has to run in parallel to the overall goals, objective of Spectrio. So I would say, outside of my world, we're pretty aligned and locked in. 

I would say with the channel and the resellers, first and foremost, we will always want to lead with being a software company. We want to provide the best CMS. But I think to your point, understanding where we can be flexible and be more fluid with particular partner requests or types, and it could be anything from, how we receive the orders. It can be that simple. It could be, “Hey, we have a certain CRM or some type of software tool that we use to capture orders and send out orders or, billing, et cetera.” But it's being very careful about how we move forward. I think, again, that when we first started the channel partner program officially in Q3, we still have more of a shotgun approach, and that was purposeful. That was a strategy that I wanted to pursue at first, just make sure I was covering all my bases to understand that we didn't leave anything out, and from then that focus has been more and more narrow. 

So now we are hyper-focused on providing the best partnership experience to AV/IT, media and agencies, as well as those hardware providers.

Spectrio started out as doing stuff like music on hold, when people used landline phones and things like that, and in-store music, all those sorts of things, and those still exist within the company. Are they helpful in rounding out the offer for some of the jobs to try to do particularly in retail?

Jimmy Hunt: Yeah, absolutely. So I'll answer that in two ways. First a 100 percent, we were started as this in-store on-hold music and messaging company and that allowed us to scale and scale quickly, and then it is still a really big part of our business today, especially when COVID hit it was hard for us to pick up the phone and try to sell signage when a lot of locations were closed, but there were certain products and services such as the on-hold that went through the roof, and it was because everyone was picking up the phone and trying to figure out if their local pharmacy was open or if their favorite restaurant had changed business hours, and people really trying to take advantage of that, saying, "Okay this is one way that we can actually continue to communicate, update our clients with some type of messaging."

But then I think now, to your point, yes, a 100 percent, if we can offer a more holistic solution, a full suite of services to our partners and to their clients, we absolutely do and I think taking a look at the broader partner world, the ones that are consuming multiple products are the ones that are staying longer, that have lower churn, that have higher ASP, that have higher overall MRR with us, and it just makes sense again, and that kind of goes back to how we started this. 

Let's start the conversation with discovery. Let's understand what the pain points are and though signage may be the sharp end of the spear, what typically happens if we're being a good partner, if we're providing that training and collateral, not just sometimes, but all of our products and services. At some point, I bet we'll have a shot at selling in music or selling in content or selling in WiFi. That's been a charge from day one is let's win the business with what makes the most sense, which is 99% of the time signage. But also having the ability to go, what are you doing for music? And isn't that a pain point, and then really trying to find the commonalities between our products and services. 

Yeah, and I assume your resellers and your end user customers are happy as clams if they ask that question, can you do in-store audio too and you say, yeah, we can, because if you don't, they have to go out and find another vendor. 

Jimmy Hunt: Oh, yeah. You're a 100 percent correct there and it's been interesting talking to some of these some of the leaders in the space. Most of our conversations is around signage, but it's always interesting to see their perspective and to hear their delight saying, hey, obviously we're going to keep the conversations around players and signage, but oh, by the way this client or reseller is asking about music, can you also provide? 

And from my perspective, again, it goes back to being a good partner, but what it does for our partners is it allows them product and vendor consolidation, which sounds just like a simple thing on paper, but it's really not because every vendor a partner brings on, that's typically another individual, another workflow, another billing unit, another escalation point, and so if we can help our resellers and their clients consolidate their vendors, that's sometimes is enough just to win the business. Then obviously the second thing that we really lean on in terms of multiple products and services is product diversification. So again, partnering with Spectrio allows, let's say just a typical AV/IT reseller to go, okay we can give you a signage, we can give you software. But now we can also provide you with music. We can now also provide you with content, and that was a big play for me in the media space, because you think others in the space, they started obviously selling just radio, just TV, just print, but over the years have gone digital and, having that digital component can encompass a lot of different things. So having us provide one or multiple products or services allows our partners just an easier path to success.

Last question: we're now starting to do trade shows again. Finally, I've actually got airplane tickets to a trade show for the first time in two-plus years. Where will people in the signage industry be able to find you guys in the next few months? 

Jimmy Hunt: We've been very active. Again, it's been a challenge across the industry. I think people are starting to get more and more in tune and okay with getting back on the road, rightfully so. It was a devastating, challenging time for everyone and every single industry for two years, and it still is. So we've been super-active. I would say future focus, we will be at DSE. We'll be at InfoComm, and then we are in the very near term, there’s a media event out in LA called Localogy, and I'll be speaking on that. I'll be speaking on a panel about content and digital signage and how to bridge the gap between the two, and it's interesting, that is typically a media publisher conference, but we've actually invited a lot of our friends over at Sony and Brightsign. 

My selfish goal is to help blend these two industries saying, these are some of the largest media companies in the world, and I selfishly want them to be in tune with digital signage, and here are some of the brightest and sharpest individuals in the AV/IT digital signage space, let's actually step out and blend the two. So I'm very excited about that. We'll have a presence at several more, but I'd say InfoComm, DSE and Localogy are the three that we're going to really double down on and we hope to see everyone there. 

Absolutely. All right, Jimmy, thank you so much for taking some time with me.

Jimmy Hunt: Dave, thank you so much. This has been great. Being a fan of it for so long and now hopping onboard has been great.

Ryan Taylor, Delta Airlines

Ryan Taylor, Delta Airlines

April 20, 2022


Airports and airlines were early adopters of digital signage technology and the whole idea of data-driven messaging - using screens to tell travellers about arrival and departure times, and the status of flights and boarding at gates.

But digital signage is becoming central to communications not only for passengers, but also for staff.

A huge upgrade of Delta Airlines facilities and passenger experience officially opens today at LAX, with the focal point a 250-foot-long horizontal LED ribbon behind the check-in and bag-loading areas at Delta's relocated and renovated terminal. Similar work is being done by Delta for another busy airport in bad need of sprucing up, LaGuardia in New York.

I had a chance to speak with Ryan Taylor, who is managing the digital signage side of these projects for Delta. We get into the thinking behind them, and how they'll be used, but we also have a broader chat about other ways digital signage is being used in airports by Delta. You have maybe heard of FIDS and GIDS displays, but did you know about RIDS and even SQUIDs?

Listen and learn!

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Ryan, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what your role is at Delta Airlines and how that's evolved? 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah. Thank you for having me, Dave. So my role now is exclusively digital signage. So I run a lot of the digital signage that you may or may not see. Some of our stuff is in the airports and increasingly so now, but a lot of our stuff that I do is the back of the house employee communications. We do a lot of dashboarding and other things. So yeah, I am full time digital signage for Delta Airlines right now. 

Wow, is there like a department or are you the guy, the one person? 

Ryan Taylor: Our team is growing, so it's me and a couple of other people and a whole lot of people that support us tangentially, of course.

But right now there are several other teams that do digital signage. Most of what you see in the gate areas is another team, and then like I said, my responsibilities are some of the airport areas and then mostly back of house. So right now I manage a network of about little less than 1800 screens somewhere in that range.

Oh, wow, and does that include back of house and workplace and so on? 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, so a lot of the employee communication stuff. So we're in break rooms where employees congregate, lobby areas and then of course there's a lot of dashboarding that we do for various groups to help them navigate the operations and specific things to their work groups. We're very data intensive, so it's not all the nice, pretty pictures. Some of it's just pulling data from various systems and giving people and work groups the information they need to do their jobs effectively.

Where are you hived out of, the IT group? 

Ryan Taylor: That's correct. Yeah. So I'm IT and so we manage the infrastructure, the software and build the experiences for customers, whether they're internal or our actual customers.

It's interesting because when you talk about data, you could make the argument that airports were probably the first venues that really adopted the idea of data integration, and they've been doing FIDS displays and GIDS displays for 20+ years. 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, and you can imagine that an airline generates a lot of data, right? And data has a how's the shelf life, especially in real-time 24/7 operation, getting that data to people that need it is critical and making sure your flight is not delayed and it's on time and it's going where it needs to go, and everybody that needs to be on it is on it, and so yeah, we do pride ourselves on playing a really active role in putting that data in the hands of people that need it.

I like to think of the dashboards that we do, they're really heads up displays. The ramp people that load the bags and service the plane and everything, we have our RIDS displays out there for them that give them a whole lot of data on that flight, you know, they don't have access to computers. So having a display on the ramp that shows where that flight's going, how many bags left to be loaded on, how many passengers. All that data that helps the operation run is really front and center for them and has a really positive impact on how the airline operates. So something that we're really proud of.

Yeah, that's interesting. Being a consumer passenger, I'm sitting on the plane or I'm sitting in the gate and all that, the only screens I ever see in those areas are big, almost analog LED displays that just say, which gate, or maybe it says, 867 BOS, cause the flight's going to Boston or something. But, as you're describing, there's more displays that we would never see that are mission critical to the folks trying to get the plane out on time. 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, so you can actually see these RIDS displays if you're in one of our larger hubs. Sometimes they're a little hard to see from the window seat, but they are there and we're pushing a whole lot of information to them. A lot of the data probably doesn't mean much to a passenger, you know, just looking at it but it means a whole lot to the ramp guys and even the pilots rely on it even though they have different systems, it's so visible that they become Kind of integral to the operation, which is great. It's a great place to be when the stuff that you're doing is that valuable. 

Is that a new application or have those always been there and I just didn't know about them? 

Ryan Taylor: They've been there for a couple of years now. They're about maybe two years old, so pretty new, and I can send you some pictures if you're interested in seeing them, but they're really a cool success story. They do serve a very vital role in the operation.

Yeah, it was going to be my next question: you've had two years of these in action, have you been able to measure the impact and assess the impact of them? 

Ryan Taylor: That's a very good question, and it's one that I wish I had more data on.

I believe we know that they are having a positive impact. It's a source of frustration for me, because I would love to get more data on the before and after, on everything we do really. I don't know if everybody's plates are already so full that going through and coming through the data and gathering it is just another task that people don't feel is necessary at this point, but everything from the employee communication side of things, I've always wanted to do before and after survey to see how better informed they are after we put these screens in their break rooms even, do they know more about what the company's direction is and things like that.

We do signage in the Sky Clubs, these are actually iPads that are on the bars that show the drinks that are on offer the premium drinks. We know that they do have an upsell effect in that the bars that have them do sell more premium drinks, we just don't have the hard data to back it up because we can't get anybody to provide it for us. So it's things like that. But yeah, I would love to be able to point to some positive ROI stories because it's always hard digital signage, right? Because sometimes it's not readily apparent. Unfortunately, we don't get that much information. 

But anecdotally, and just inherently, you would know that down on the ramps and all that, just simply enabling the workers to know where they're at, what the status is, how much time they have, how many more bags to go or whatever, must be huge for them?

Ryan Taylor: It is. Yeah, we know from talking to them and from the leadership, and just from the investment they've made in it. These went from a, like everything, it starts out as a small POC, and once they see the value, they either hit the gas or they hit the brakes and they hit the gas on those RIDS very quickly. We went from pretty much 0 to 200 of those deployments and in about six months. 

So they're maybe not standardizing on them, but they're becoming a fairly normal sort of piece of the landscape? 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, in the airline world, we have leeway to put these in some of our larger hubs where we have more of a presence and in some cases, we're not allowed to put them in a common use environment, but we have in pretty much all our largest hubs, which is great to see. 

Yeah, I guess in airport terms, there are airports where you have gate licenses to be there, but there are other airports, like obviously Hartsfield in Atlanta and Salt lake City where you have your own terminal and everything else, right? 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah. If we're the terminal operator, we basically have pretty much free reign to do what we want in terms of the technology and everything else that we put on, and like in a smaller station where we only have a couple of flights or a handful of flights, or we're sharing gates with other airlines, that's obviously not as easy to do.

Digital signage and airports have been around for a long time. Obviously there have been two main activities, there have been the flight information displays and the gate information displays that are traveler focused and are just saying, “This flight's going here at this time at this gate and so on”, and then a fair amount of new digital signage has gone in from media companies, but it seems in the last 2-4 years that airports are really, and airlines are making an investment in kitting out the pre-security areas, doing things at check-in and elsewhere, using digital signage that gives them a lot more flexibility and the ability to do messaging and everything else and I was intrigued, and the reason we connected was the work that's going on at LAX. Could you explain that?

Ryan Taylor: Yeah. So this is probably the most exciting thing that I've ever been involved with in my work life, so we do the LIDS and everything airport digital signage needs, your flight information displays, so FIDS or LIDS, as you mentioned. So really LIDS have traditionally been just a single screen behind the counter where you show, checking in the main cabin or this is for sky priority, segmentations. When they started redoing the LA airport, we kinda got involved with our corporate real estate partners, ACS, which is the airport customer service team that runs the gate counters and everything and we wanted to do something that was different that allowed for more than just your normal screen behind the counter.

And that's where we started talking with NanoLumens about putting it in a digital back wall that was continuous using direct LED technology, and it grew from there. So as far as we know, this is the largest single back wall in any airport in the United States. I know Orlando has a much longer one, but it's individual LCDs.

Yeah, it's a whole bunch of tile narrow bezel LCDs. 

Ryan Taylor: Right, so this is the longest, continuous one that we're aware of. So we're going to claim it. We're going to say, we have it, but yeah, it’s 250 feet long. So beyond just the normal, for main cabinet or oversize baggage, this allows us to put a whole lot more information, and branding. The whole idea was to create this wall that had a calming effect in the airport. An airport can be a very chaotic and sometimes intimidating place, like LAX can be daunting. So this gives us a whole new avenue to promote the brand, but really inform and maybe change the mood a little bit in that check-in process. 

So what you'll see is an addition to the LIDS information, we'll have flight information, so there's actually FIDS embedded in there. There's an innovative new meter for the sky club to tell you how busy the club is before you even set foot behind security. So you can play on, “Hey, the club is busy. There are two clubs, so you can choose between them.” So that's a really cool data point on there, but just the imagery and the videos that we'll be playing behind it will kind of have a sense of calm. It all works together on this really huge, beautiful back wall that stretches the entire length of the ticket counter, which is pretty impressive. I'm really happy with the way it turned out, and we're really excited. 

The really cool thing about it is there will be a sister to this wall coming online very soon in LaGuardia, and it will be the next one to get it when they open up in early June. 

These are two terminals that could badly use any sprucing up they can get, right? 

Ryan Taylor: Absolutely, yeah. If you've ever flown out of either one of them, you’d know how much they needed investment and it is a big investment and we're happy to be a part of it. 

So with the 250 foot wide LED ribbon, are you running a single piece of content at times across the whole swath of it or is it segmented? 

Ryan Taylor: It'll be segmented and most of that, I guess from the user end, it'll look like it's one piece of content. It's actually two PCs running the wall. So there are two PCs that split the wall in half. So one side is driven by one PC, it's actually a 4k resolution. So everything's being reassembled onto the wall and in that linear fashion, but it will look like one piece of content. 

The only reason why we don't have one continuous landscape shot would be just because it doesn't exist. We couldn't find anything longer than 4k width to put up there. 

So you'd have to come up with custom creative and maybe somewhere down the road, you do that, but to get going this'll do just fine? 

Ryan Taylor: Yep, absolutely. 

And the LAX job, it was previewed recently, but it's not actually live yet, right?

Ryan Taylor: Yeah. So LAX is going to open April 20th, that’s when passengers will start being directed to use that space over the old terminal to check in and that one will be renovated for another airline that I believe. But yeah, that will be our new home, terminal three in LA come April 20th.

This is why you're going back and forth a lot between Atlanta and LA? 

Ryan Taylor: That is, yeah. We had a media event a while ago. As you can imagine, there's still a lot of last minute details to take care of. So we're just making sure that all the I’s are dotted, T's crossed and ready to go for April 20th.

In terms of the LED wall itself, did you have to do some testing and everything else around what pixel pitch was going to work for viewability? These are not just ads and not just visuals, you've got to have text on there. I would assume you have to be pretty careful to make sure the legibility is there so that  people aren't wondering, does that say 130 or 730?

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, this was definitely a learning curve for us. This was our first foray into using the LED technology and you mentioned the pixel pitch, which is spot on. I think we're using 2.5 millimeters on this wall, so there is some trade-off right? The resolution is pretty good, especially when you're standing at a distance.

Customers will be about 10 to 12 feet away from this when they're actually at the check-in counter talking to an agent. So you have some distance, but it is still relatively close. We did a lot of testing on the legibility. When we're actually putting data out there, it's really good. Some of the images, depending on how fine they got, tended to not be as clear. So where we could, we defaulted to actually printing and texts from the software instead of putting up an image. 

I'm curious if what you're doing will extend into the automated baggage loading areas. I don’t know the technical term for that is, but one of your rival airlines that rhymes with United, in Denver, had a new area open up recently where those conveyors or whatever, where you do your own bag tagging, and then you drop them on a conveyor and they go into something, they were using LED walls there to segment the different stations and say, this one's open, this one's closed or whatever, or this is for a business class, all that sort of thing. Are you doing that or looking at it? 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, so, there's an express baggage lobby in Atlanta, and I believe there's one coming or already in Detroit. We did a pilot because of the layout of the one in not Atlanta. There's four kiosks for the self tag bag drop. So we did use some sensors to feed a digital display that was in the queuing area that would show you which one is occupied and which one is available.

Unfortunately it didn't really pan out. It was either too sensitive or not sensitive enough because it was basically looking at an area in front of the kiosk to tell somebody was standing in front of it and if they moved out of that fence off the virtual area, if we set it too sensitive, as they're moving around with their bag, it was flickering, between open, closed, occupied, and then if it wasn't, if we dial down the sensitivity, then it was somebody would leave and for too long it would look like somebody was still there. So we abandoned that aspect of it, but our screens are still there explaining the process and wayfinding and directionally, where you go after you drop the bag off. 

Yeah, I assume in airports, just like in retail, particularly given what's happening in the last couple of years that I've been saying a lot that digital signage is even more important than prior to the pandemic, because there's more of an emphasis than ever on self-service, more technologies being introduced and whether it's frictionless shopping or whatever in retail, you need screens that explain, “This is what you do. This is how you do it. This is where you go”, all those things. 

So I'm assuming that the journey that starts at check-in, you guys are thinking about the full journey, all the way to the boarding ramp for passengers and using digital signage to guide them.

Ryan Taylor: Yeah. I think you nailed it. You really do have to look at the whole experience from a passenger perspective, from curbside to a baggage claim and on, so there is a lot of emphasis and there's a whole team that does look at that experience, not just from a digital signage perspective, but from every aspect of that traveler's journey and so we're partnered with them to make sure that we're aligned with how we want that passenger to experience Delta and digital signage is a key part of that.

I guess it's one thing when Delta owns the terminal or has blanket rights to it or whatever, versus ones where you're a tenant in it, how difficult is it to coordinate with all the different systems and displays and data sources and everything else that may be in like a secondary, I'm pulling one out of the air here, let's say Kansas city, Missouri, or something like that, where maybe you're not a hub but there are all these systems that you need to work with? 

Ryan Taylor: That's a good question. I don't know that I have an answer for that because I haven't really had to deal with that piece. Generally, we are brought in after they've already sorted those kinds of details out.

Yeah. I was supposed that regardless of whether new digital signage is in there, they've always had flight information displays and that sort of thing? 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, and I don't really do the FIDS, but I know that some airports, they like to use their own FIDS and their own data feeds and then, areas like Atlanta those are FIDS, they're managed by us so and obviously we're just showing our flights there because you're on our concourse. 

So it definitely depends on what the airport wants or allows us to do, versus you know I think in our view, we would want to have all our stuff, be owned and operated by Delta. 

In the sky clubs, the frequent fire lounges, are you doing anything beyond FIDS display? 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah. So in the sky clubs, we specifically manage our team on the outside, the ladder boards, affectionately called the SKIDS for sky club information displays. 

I've learned about RIDS and SKIDS today. 

Ryan Taylor: Oh I'll tell you all about it, we've got more “ids” coming. LaGuardia is getting SQUIDS.

Okay. I have to ask what that is. 

Ryan Taylor: SQUIDS is security and queue information displays.In LaGuardia, there'll be these freestanding totems that will let the passengers know that this line is for general boarding. This one is for precheck, so that segmentation. So those will be actually very cool. They are about 12 feet tall, and they're kind of, I call them monoliths, because they're triangular shaped and they'll have LED screens on two sides of them. They're very striking. They're going to be a really cool different looking digital signage, right? Not your normal 16:9, and not to bring up your brand, I do feel like there's going to be a lot more digital science that comes out, especially with the LED technology that breaks that mold of the ratio, which I think is great because it's become so ubiquitous.

I’m definitely going off on a tangent here, but I think the challenge, especially in an airport environment is there is a proliferation of screens. If you're looking in the gate area, there's so many screens hanging down for your attention and if we could rethink that and figure out a way to make it less cluttered and clean up the gate area, I think that would help with some of the chaos of visual stimulation that you can become bombarded with.

Yeah. I think that the chaos and reducing that has gotta be the biggest goal of any of this sort of stuff in something like an airport, and I really appreciated it when I think it was Orlando airport, they started using flat panel displays at the TSA screening areas, that would say, this line is for business class and so on, and if things changed and a new aligned open up or whatever, the screens would automatically reflect that, and just anything like that operationally that makes the journey a little easier and a little less irritating, I think is amazing. 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. I think there's a lot that can be done to inform but also, make it just a little more palatable. I think one of the dangers with digital signage is it's easier than ever to put up a screen. The cost has come down and especially with these large format LED screens, even in your city cityscape, you're running the risk of saturation to the point, I mean, I don't think it's there yet, but in certain places that can be where you're creating that future mystic Blade Runner scenario, where there's a screen on every building and you're just overwhelmed with stuff. 

So we definitely have to be thoughtful on how we deploy and what we're putting on there and is it useful, right? Is it serving its purpose? Or are we just adding to the clutter and teaching people not to look at these things? Cause that's what you don't want to do. 

Yeah. I think that's the great example of why airport digital signage is so good because of all those “ids” and they all have a point except maybe the advertising, which I know you guys don't do, but all those other ones serve some express purpose.

Ryan Taylor: Yes. 

All right, Ryan, this was terrific. I learned a lot today, including about SQUIDS. 

Ryan Taylor: Yeah. If you ever get to New York, I'd love to show you around and if you're ever in Atlanta, we can host you here if you're interested. There's a lot of stuff we're proud of and we can show you the RIDS, we can show you SQUIDS. 

There’s nothing more exciting than going to LaGuardia.

Ryan Taylor: I know, right? By the way, our back walls are affectionately called BFLIDS, which stands for Big Friendly LIDS. You can choose another word for friendly features, but that's how we refer to them. 

I'll have to start coming out with my own “ids”. 

Ryan Taylor: You can get creative with them. 

All right, Ryan. Thanks again. 

Ryan Taylor: Thanks, Dave. It was good talking to you.

Peter Livesey, Esprit Digital (2022)

Peter Livesey, Esprit Digital (2022)

April 13, 2022


Esprit Digital has been making and supporting custom display solutions for 20 years from facilities north of London, but the company recently took the interesting step of investing in their own manufacturing in China and expanding from LCD into LED.

The company has built up a reputation for putting together displays - from screens that line subway escalators to sidewalk totems - that manage to look sleek, but also have mission-critical reliability. Esprit  has, for example, a major, longtime customer in the giant Westfield shopping center chain, and also works with big OOH media companies and retail brands.

I was intrigued by news that Esprit was getting into LED displays - a market that's even more crowded than digital signage software - so I arranged a catch-up interview with owner Peter Livesey. I learned his angle is all about custom, or as Brits like him say, bespoke.

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Peter, thank you for joining me. We’ve done a podcast in the past, but that was, I don’t know, in 1977 or something like that, so things have probably changed. Can you give me a background on what Espirit Digital is all about and really what the last couple of years has been like? Cause it's been a little bit nutty.

Peter Livesey: To say the least. I think it was 1975 actually, but we won’t split hairs about that. 

So you were in your forties then, I think? 

Peter Livesey: Ooh, are we going to spar straight away? There are a lot of questions there. First of all, It's great to be back because I think that's where we are now and I think we, as an industry, as a world, are starting to come back to where we were a couple of years ago and we're still here, Espirit Digital, we're still going. We are stronger than ever. 

It's our 20th anniversary this month. So we're very proud of that. We're going to be doing some things to mark that and the reason we're stronger than ever considering our traditional customer base effectively shut up shop and put everything on pause for the most part for the last two years for all the reasons we know, is because we did a strategic pivot.

We brought a technology called InstaScan, which allowed people to get into buildings and get into public spaces, it took the temperature, and it worked really well. It was a cheap, lightweight item, could be wall-mounted or freestanding. Anyway, we sold thousands of them, made them all here just north of London and distributed them around the world to people like Costco and it was a good one. That's probably not the main reason we're still here, but it certainly helped us. 

It's interesting because in Q2 2020, I saw no end of press releases from companies saying we're selling these things now, and I did not see a lot of indication that there was a lot of take-up, but you're saying it, it went great. 

Peter Livesey: Yeah, absolutely. Particularly in the US, we did a lot of little big chains over there and it worked very well. 

Yeah, I probably just haven't seen them cause I've been locked in my room for two years now. 

Peter Livesey: In that igloo of yours, I know. Now we're back to what we really love, which is screen integration and our key verticals as ever digital out of home being number one, screens that generate money tend to tend to be the most interesting for us because everyone wants to push the envelope with every new project. So they always want new toys in the box and new sizes and new applications, and it's great for our R&D team. 

So your company would primarily be known for digital display totems, whether they're interactive or “static” in terms of not being interactive, but they're running video and all that stuff for street furniture, for shopping malls, that sort of thing, is that pretty accurate?

Peter Livesey: Historically, it's always been malls, metros and airports inside and outside. It doesn't have to be totems or kiosks or pods as we call them, it could be any shape screen. As long as it's a professional solution that requires a player and some other toys, whether you talk to it by interacting, with touch screen or with gestures, or now with voice, we have a lovely voice platform where you can talk to screens and they can answer you and give you all kinds of information live, particularly for wayfinding, that's an excellent application. 

It doesn't really matter how you talk to them and what CMS you use, all of that is secondary. What's important to us is we design and build hardware solutions for, as I say, digital out of home smart cities and laterally in the last few years, retail, and that's one of the things we're going to come onto because retail screens, I think, it's set to be a boom. It's already now on every architect and design drawings, they've got screens built in. So regardless of where the retail is, if it's in a high street or an airport, it makes no difference. Screens are a big part of the mix, and as I say, there's never been a better time to talk to your customers. They've been gone for a while. You've got online eating your lunch. It's definitely time to fight back with a much nicer experience in store and screens is a great way of starting, put a screen in your window, put the content, nice people come in, welcome them, maybe with a screen or a series of screens, and then have, partner sales screens dotted around the store to give people more micro information where wherever they want to go while they're waiting for shop assistants to either catch up or to find out their query. 

The last time I was at a trade show of any size was ISC more than two years ago now, and I believe I bumped into you there, but one of my takeaways from that trade show was: I was amazed by how many companies in Europe had these indoor and outdoor display totems. So they all had variations on roughly the same thing. How do you compete in that market? How do you set yourself apart from them? 

Peter Livesey: How do we set ourselves apart? We think we make the most reliable and the best looking kit on the market. It's highly stylized. For instance, the new totem we've just put into the Westfield mall of the Netherlands is a good example. They're sleek, black. They have beautiful ambient light displays down the side strips. They're double-sided 75, and literally if you had them in your home, you would think it was a beautiful addition, and they're in a high-end mall, Westfield's first kind of digital transformation mall on mainland Europe. And, by all accounts, it adds to the overall appeal of the mall. It enhances Westfield's brand, enhances it, and then the ad company, they can sell on a beautiful looking totem. 

So we set ourselves apart by being competitively priced or being the best designed unit and it being reliable and reliabilities is key. You can't put stuff out that is going to go wrong in the first six months you can't. So our track record, starting with the London underground, where we had thousands of screens on the escalators in the early two thousands. They were there for 15 years, our stuff that we've put into Westfield around the world, Australia, we're still looking after 600-700 units in America now on a daily basis. These things have been in for, probably since 2016 and by and large, the fault rate is so low on them, and that is because we use quality components inside a sensibly laid out solution that for me, looks and feels better on the inside than it does on the outside. 

There seems to be two streams of activity. There are the companies that are designing indoor and outdoor display totems that they're focused on almost making it a commodity, knocking them out with a kind of a standard shape and everything else and putting in a commercial display and saying, here you go, versus what you're saying. It almost sounds like you have to, in certain respects, re-engineer a display and really think through everything if you want them to work happily in the field for many years. 

Peter Livesey: Totally. That’s exactly it. No one else, I don't believe, in the world knows as much about the actual screen and the panel itself than our guys that are in our building and they know what's going to make those screens last and last, whether they're inside in In a nice cushy mall in a city or they're outside in a desert in Saudi as we've done them or outside Metro in Oslo where it's freezing cold, no one knows how to make those screens work 24/7/365 for 5 to 10 years, and that's something that, as you say, will set us apart. 

What is actually harder, is it Oslo or Riyadh? 

Peter Livesey: Any temperature extreme. We've dealt with them all, and then sometimes you get both in one place. In Oslo, it's freezing cold for 10 months a year, it's properly freezing, but for two months a year, it's really warm. So you have to have the technology to be able to cope with that, and we've got it and we can prove it. We've got probably 20,000 of these kiosks out there around the world. We're still doing remote and physical support on all the ones in America. We've just delivered a new double-sided outdoor 65-inch kiosk for an upscale mall in Austin, Texas and that follows hard on the heels of one that we did in NoHo in LA. So these are highly stylized, external, full sunlight, full out solutions that we don't expect to see again for 10 years and that's the thing.

So you can compete on price and volume, or you can compete on reliability and design, and obviously that the latter is more fruitful in probably many ways. 

Peter Livesey: Yeah, listen, we're not a maintenance business per se. We support our kits around the world. But we're interested in making solutions that don't go wrong. So if you have a maintenance contract, which effectively is your insurance, if they get vandalized or there is a problem, someone's there too, within the SLA terms to make sure it gets fixed and we have SLAs of 4 hours sometimes, mostly 24 or 48 hours. But that's not what drives our business, our business is all about reliability and yeah, we can compete on all those other elements and really the custom thing is the reason we're having this catch-up today because the custom thing is what's driving us into looking at our own brand of LED and this is why we've called it Lumos, which has got some Latin connotation lighting or something, but anyway, it's a nice name. We like it, and it's exciting because, historically obviously, we've supplied LEDs for many years from every manufacturer out there that's worth anything. 

We've put up some really huge LEDs because our skillset is that we can design and build the solution that goes around it, all of the substructure, and we can put things up in hostile environments and make sure that they last. Where there was the big hole was in custom LEDs, and LEDs that just had a price advantage, it also had a reliability to match anything that's out, and Lumos has got that. We've got an enormous range. We are bulleted into a factory in Shenzhen that we now control, and it's a fully automated factory where literally the planets have lined up because I think it's the right thing to have made this move for Espirit because we've got a huge customer base. We're in 32 countries around the world now, and all the tenders that are coming out for kind of the big stuff, the smart cities and the digital out of home tend to have a LED element and LCD kiosk elements together. They're not doing them separately like they always used to, and it makes a lot of sense now for them to go to a one stop shop, tf they're happy with the service they get from Espirit. 

I was curious about LED from the point of view of things like street furniture and the totems and other types of LCD products that you've done, as LED pixel pitches have improved and prices have come down, I've long wondered whether companies such as yours would start to transition from what can be highly engineered, needy, so to speak LCD displays into LED displays are going to typically last longer and probably need less engineering to keep them running, wherever they are.

Did you see the market going that way or do you think there's always going to be a demand for LCD because of the resolution and clarity and everything else that you get from it? 

Peter Livesey: That's a great question. I've got some micro LED 0.8 downstairs, and it's very hard to tell the difference. At the moment, historically LED has always been for distance viewing and LCD has been for up close and personal, and that's the broad differential, and that's merging into a gray area now where we can use LED in a lot more situations and that will improve and that will carry on evolving.

I think it is a stable technology and we can offer a 10 years warranty from the manufacturer. We can now make it bespoke, everything's designed in the UK here and the factory just makes everything and we either distribute them direct from China to the customer and we either work to do the installation together, we're doing a fabulous one at the moment for the world cup in Qatar. Can't really mention it, but it's this unbelievable hotel that is, I don't know, six or seven, whatever it is, it's the most expensive being built. And the atrium is going to have bespoke tiles as an art installation. So you're going to walk into this atrium, you're gonna look up and there's going to be an enormous comb of LEDs. So every tile will have a mirror, its own mirror, and there's hundreds of tiles and hundreds of mirrors and they form what we think is the world's largest kaleidoscope, and all the FIFA are going to go like, how did that happen?

So that kind of thing, it just wasn't possible a few years ago. It's just that you couldn't do bespoke like that, and now it's absolutely possible. In the last couple of years, we've had this on our radar for a long time. So we haven't launched it officially,but  the list of the brands that we are currently using, and I mentioned retail, we're talking about Valentino, Jimmy Choo, Dolce Gabbana, Fendi, Armani. The fact that they've prepared to use, effectively a new brand is a huge endorsement. It really is something that came out of an interesting idea that we've actually made happen, and I think we have got a real chance in the marketplace because it’s got lots of things going for it and it does what it says. 

When you talk about bespoke, or as we say over here, custom, what's the demand there? Because obviously there are a lot of LED manufacturers and they're all doing LED cabinets that are squares or rectangles more often, and you put them together and you can derive all kinds of shapes, then there are the companies who want stuff that can wrap around columns and so on. So what's the custom demand that you're getting? 

Peter Livesey: So there's three verticals that I see and that is screens that make money, which we know all about, screens that give out information, which we also know all about, and then screens for art, and where those things are emerging, that's where the custom element comes in, where you've got an odd shape like in Westfield, in the Netherlands, we had to build a specific LED because where they wanted to put it out the front door of the mall, there was a residential set of flats and they couldn't get the zoning approved because this enormous residential block made an official complaint saying this thing's going to be too bright and it's going to affect our lives and all the rest of it. So we built a special louver that meant that they would never see it. So the lights, the light source, streamed towards the tracks, and obviously it's got sensors, so it goes up and down, depending on the ambient light. That's the easy part: it's been around forever, but the whole part was having these louvers that directed the light away from the flat. So there's a very simple example of a kind of bespoke LED. 

So if you just had a big billboard shaped sign that somebody wanted in a shopping mall, they could buy that from hundreds of different companies and just tile together, 40 or a hundred or whatever LED cabinets, and off you go, but in your case, you're dealing with demands. You can do those, I assume, but you've got customers saying, yeah, we need this to be curved, or we need this to do this special thing? 

Peter Livesey: Absolutely. We've got a lot of advertising customers in the middle east, that you may or may not have heard of, and they have put up our kiosks and now they're starting to put up our LEDs as well in some really fun environments. So Lumos now is in places like Morocco, Jordan we just put one up in Baghdad. Would you believe in Iraq? There's no way that now is going to be priced out of having an LED built. 


Peter Livesey: No, you didn't expect to be talking about that today, did you? 

No, probably not. I'm curious about your decision to invest in a factory in Shenzhen because there would have to be all kinds of contract manufacturers over there who would do the work for you and no end of companies, who would a white label product for you? So why make the capital investment yourself? 

Peter Livesey: Control. If I said anything else, I'd be lying. It needs to be just us. It needs to be the standard that we want. We've got our own people on the ground there, as I say, we do all the designs here, and yeah, it needs to be just us. Market is growing year on year, someone just announced a $25 million investment into their manufacturing capability, and they're absolutely right.

I'm not going to say it's going to explode exponentially, but it's certainly going to grow in a decent way because it works. 

And that growth comes amidst, I've heard descriptions that there are literally thousands of LED companies in China, understanding that the vast majority of them just serve the domestic market, but it's not like there's a scarcity of competition out there for you. 

Peter Livesey: When I was 24, I had a factory in China, it wasn't even in Shenzhen, it was miles inland, making red full color LED tickets that we used to put into shop windows. My brand was called Color Cell. So I know a lot about Chinese manufacturing, particularly in the LED world, and yes, you're right. There are thousands of facilities. So you've got to know what you're doing is a bit of a minefield out there. But I think we have the experience or I certainly have and the setup that we've got now will allow us to grow a lot and very quickly, and I think we are already starting to see the brand with all the majors. Certainly the retail clients and digital out of home aren't spending as much money, obviously because of COVID but I had lunch with one of the CEOs of one of the biggest outdoors in Europe then he said, we're very close to 2019.

I know he's got a kind of a job to keep spirits up and stuff, and I really believed him when he said that, and I think anecdotally, everybody's coming back, everyone's going to be in Toronto for the world out of home. Then ISE and then there's other events later in the year. So I think we're getting there. We're getting back to where we all were. It's just been weird not doing any kind of business trips for two years. 

Is there more and more demand to do something special and different when you're doing something like a big LED display where it's not enough anymore to just be large and be this particularly large rectangle sitting on a wall or whatever?

Peter Livesey: For a lot of applications, no. It literally just has to do that. It has to look good and it has to work for the warranty period, and that is the primary function, but there's so many other factors involved. You've been to some of the facilities and you know that if you put the wrong diode or even the wrong wire, or use low grade stuff, yeah, you're going to make the cheapest solution. But are the colors going to be any good, is the contrast going to be any good? Is the brightness going to be any good in six months in a year in five years? No, it just can’t be. We're talking about electronics here. 

So you've got to weigh up. What's your budget? What do you want to achieve? If you just want to start your business off and just get noticed and then upgrade it in six months or two years then, yeah, you can go for a low grade option. If you're a serious player, who's got networks out there that you want to lose and sweat for 10 years, then you've got to pay that extra 10% upfront and get all the benefits down the line.

Is it a steady job to educate the buyers? I would assume the big established digital home media networks have lots of experience with this. You don't have to explain to them the importance of reliability and quality components and so on, but there's always a new subset of buyers that come along, are you always having to educate?

Peter Livesey: Okay. So this side of the pond, JCDecaux probably the biggest dogs, they'll have super experienced buyers who know all about quality and what they want to achieve with any given network that they're going to put in. So it's less about an educational thing and more about keeping them up to date with any technological advances they don't necessarily know about and just talking them through, and they know that we're a highly experienced operator, who knows what we're doing. So those kinds of conversations are valuable.

New entrants or a kind of second tier players, it's slightly different. There's a lot more hand holding the newer the entrant to the market is, and in some cases like when we did Westfield America, for instance, for the LCD network and for all the malls over there, their philosophy was look, we've been chosen to do all the kiosk network, indoor and outdoor therefore, we're going to take their advice on everything from screen size, to brightness, to surrounds, to glass, to PC, to absolutely everything, and then if any of them go wrong, it's their fault. They got to sort it out, and that's worked really well for them. 

You mentioned kiosks. I'm curious what the public and buyer demand is now for interactive displays. I've written a number of times about how, when the pandemic first broke out, I was wondering what this was going to mean for touchscreens? Is anybody going to use them anymore? And over time, we learned that the risk wasn't all that great there and this is an aerosol problem more than anything else, and touchscreen demand actually went up, did you see that as well? 

Peter Livesey: Slightly. Back in 2012, there was a big thing called SARS in the far east, which had this kind of bird flu connotation, and the Japanese were in particular telling the world they're never going to touch, they're never going to share screens in a public place and demand just fell off over in that part of the world, and this time we had the same rumors with COVID that we wouldn't be using touch screens for our wayfinding, for any other interactivity in store. We're not seeing that at all, we're still seeing demand for touch. But as I mentioned earlier, we've got two other good option gestures where you'd point your finger and you zoom in and out with your finger. That's now using a camera triangulation technology, which is just some fun and it's not difficult to achieve, and then voice, voice is a good one. Why not? Now, we've got reliable. The dialect was always the problem. I don't know if you ever had a sat nav where you couldn't talk because you spoke in Canadian and the sat nav only understood Welsh. But do you know what I mean?

It's an endless problem for me. 

Peter Livesey: Yeah. But now we're over that.

So what is coming up for Espirit Digital in the next year or so that you're obviously going to be expanding Lumos? 

Peter Livesey: We've now got a team in America on the ground. So instead of running projects from the UK and running sales from the UK, we have a new head of sales, Simon Joseph, who ran sales for Trans Lux in the past, and he was an ex sky TV employee over here in Europe, and he's also experienced in LED and he's got a little team that is now making some good progress in the sports area for stadiums and arenas. And yeah, he's got a big sale for a hotel in Dallas that's going to be going live later in the year on the PGA. I think it's the 18th hole of the PGA hotel, but I can't announce it yet, but it's a big one there. So he's got his hands full because I think America is still, it's going to be probably the biggest market for LED over the next five years and that team will grow organically. Likewise, we've got a new team in Scandinavia, and those guys are doing some great stuff over there and yeah, we want to get bigger, and I think that will happen. 

And when you say you want to get bigger, what's the size and state of the company right now? You're privately held, how many folks do you have now?

Peter Livesey: There's 35 in the UK office. We've got consulting partners out in the Middle East in particular, which is a very strong market for us, and these people around the world, as I say, business development, then I think we're probably going to double it in the next two to three years, but it will depend on the uptake on Lumos largely, and also how quickly do you sell out of home spring bank? Because the biggest networks fare revenue generating screens. There's no doubt about it, and if you're going to put out, I don't know, five hundred or a thousand in the city, there's only a handful of players on the planet that can fulfill those needs, and we're one of them. 

So as they come back, we'll win our fair share of those, and we'll have to gear up accordingly. The company is in good shape. As you say, it is privately held at the moment. It's all about getting the growth strategy right, having the right products and the right people, and one mantra that we live by is that it's much easier to get into Espirit Digital than it is to get out of it. Most of my people, I don't know if you read recently our director, James Welder, he's just done 15 years, and our projects directors on 13, that kind of level, almost everyone's been here for at least a decade, and these are all department heads who run lots of people and have the most experience, some of them in the whole industry. 

Yeah. Employee retention is always a pretty good indicator of things. 

Peter Livesey: Yeah. I like to think so. We are on a happy ship and we've got knowledge in the building. So when clients come down, we've turned this whole factory set up in Stevenage into a bit of a bit of a showroom. So you can come in, you can see all the different outdoor resolutions, you can look across the industrial park and see all these already lined up and then all the indoor ones are in here. 

We want to get as many people coming over and having a look. We had probably our first visit from a US distributor and they came in and I think they liked what they saw and it all makes a lot of sense, and talking to people who are passionate, know about this stuff and who don't cut corners, who will say no? We will say, no, you really don't want to have that glass for that application. I know you want to save money, but if you just hear us out, this is the way to go. This is the right PC. This is the right panel to use on the LCD. We're completely agnostic. We work with all the main panel manufacturers and we choose the right one for that application at that time and for your budget. 

All right, Peter, a pleasure to catch up with you. 

Peter Livesey: Yeah, likewise, Dave, you keep well, and no doubt, I'll be seeing you at various events this year for the first time in ages and we'll have a beer. 

Yes, like I said, I haven't really traveled at all since Amsterdam more than two years ago. So it'll be almost weird to go to an airport, but thanks again!

Peter Livesey: Thank you.

Jonathan Labbee, SACO Technologies

Jonathan Labbee, SACO Technologies

April 6, 2022


Montreal's SACO Technologies doesn't have anywhere near the mindshare of the largest LED display manufacturers in the pro AV industry, but it's nonetheless the supplier behind some of the biggest and most interesting display jobs lighting up these days.

That is SACO's LED light stick technology cladding the world's tallest building - the Burj Khalifa in Dubai - and turning it into a colossal media display that can do everything from mood lighting and still images to motion ads for movies, like this recent spot for the new Batman blockbuster.

While the other major players in big direct view LED displays work with pro AV consultants and integrators, and media owners, SACO engages with architects and building engineers to fully integrate active, addressable LED lighting into the facades of buildings and, in some cases, the overall structure of the building. For example, the home grounds of the new MLS team in Cincinnati designed active, changeable lighting into the entire stadium exterior, as opposed to bolting a big conventional display to its side.

That huge low rez LED display on the top of SoFi Stadium in LA - where the Super Bowl was just held - that's SACO, too.

The back-story of SACO is super-interesting and super-different. The company's roots are in supplying the blinking indicator lights you'd see in old school control rooms, like the walls in power plants. Back in the mid-90s, one of SACO's founders wondered if the colored LEDs could be put together and controlled to create a video display. A small reference design proved the concept, and within a couple of years, SACO was providing a massive version as a digital backdrop for U2's PopMart tour.

That led to more concert tours, and by the mid-2000s, the company was also a major player for large format stadium and arena displays.

These days, much of SACO's work is custom and specialized, and not the kind of work suited to the more mainstream, high-volume LED guys.

I had a really interesting chat about SACO with Co-CEO Jonathan Labbee.

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Jonathan, thank you for joining me. Can you describe what SACO as a company does and how long has the company been at it? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, absolutely. SACO was founded 1987 by the Jalbout brothers, Fred and Bassam Jalbout, and originally started off as a company that specialized in nuclear controlled room equipment. So SACO actually stands for Systems Automation Control, a very far cry from what we're doing today, but essentially if you’ve watched a Steven Seagal movie and you see these big control room panels on these oil rigs and all that kind of stuff, that's the type of stuff that SACO used to do. And in those panels are a lot of little tiny blinking indicator lights, and some other control equipment that SACO used to manufacture, and eventually they started experimenting with LED technology, and one of the brothers, Bassam, came up with the idea of creating a display using these solid state lights.

At the time it was only red and green and eventually was working with one of the premier LED manufacturers still to this day, and when they invented the blue LED, they provided that to the team back in Montreal, and essentially created the very first video display on earth. It was a small little sample. It was maybe like a one foot by two foot sample. It was quite small, but it was able to demonstrate the capabilities of putting up an image and eventually a moving image, and this caught the eye of certain advertising companies and more importantly at the time a rock band, and we got a challenge from the band U2 to create this 50 foot by 150 foot wide video stage, a backdrop to replace Sony jumbotron that they were planning on putting on PopMart. And we took up the challenge, designed and built this thing and deployed it with success on the PopMart tour, started in Las Vegas, and then we toured with U2, essentially showing off these new capabilities. 

This was in 1997. 

Wow. So that first reference design that you talked about, was that 97 or a little bit before then obviously? 

Jonathan Labbee: The reference design was in 93, that's when the blue LED was invented. We had, at that time, already created a red, green display as a prototype. But then eventually we did build a red, green and blue version. So an RGB version, a full color version and I think we met the band maybe like the end of 1994. 

That’s quite a transition from doing a control room to working with Bono. 

Jonathan Labbee: It completely changed the company. At the time we called the technology, smart vision. We did a tour with success and picked up a bunch of other bands and then eventually started doing permanent installations, like the Baltimore Ravens stadium and Washington Arena and so on.

And then if we fast forward a little bit, we end up in 1999 when we built the very first NASDAQ screen in Times Square. 

So the sort of curved one with the knockouts for all the windows, that's you guys? 

Jonathan Labbee: That's us, and that's actually a really interesting story. Already making a curve was going to be a big deal, no one had ever seen a curved video screen of that magnitude, and then we had gotten the project. It was a full display at the time, and then the client, NASDAQ came to us and told us that the main tenant in the building was no longer willing to have their windows covered. So we created his knockouts and everybody was worried about how it would look, I guess it would look odd with these holes in it. With a little bit of convincing, everybody went with it, and the very first piece of content that we put on there for testing was Pac-Man. 

Which makes sense, because it would work around the hole.

Jonathan Labbee: Exactly.

Interesting. So you started out doing, I guess, almost like mesh LED curtains, and then the NASDAQ's display was quasi conventional LED cabinets, although albeit a little bit curved and all that, and in the past seven years, really, all these other LED companies have come on the market with their own cabinets on all that and you guys haven't really stayed in the conventional LED cabinet business. You've gone in other directions, right? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, that's correct. We still have some “standard” type products. Although they're really more there to support some of the iconic projects that we're doing, and some of the more complex projects that we're doing.

So for example, if we have a client that wants to do this kind of nighttime identity thing on their building, that highlights the architecture, and so on, like some of the projects like FC Cincinnati, in some cases, they may require some video screens down at the bottom on the marquee or inside and stuff like that and so we do have offerings to be able to support them with it. 

So is a lot of what you do custom then? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. I would say most of what we're doing today is highly customized, not full custom, but highly customized, and there's a difference there, in the sense that our product is really the technology itself and then how we package it is the customized portion of it for the client.

A lot of the reason that you get attention, I gather at least, is that unlike the vast majority of the companies who are selling “conventional LED products”, they're working with AV integrators, whereas you guys, by the looks of it, at least tend to work with architects. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, that's a very good observation. So our main drive is really with architects. We have seven architects on staff here at SACO. We have mechanical engineers, of course, electronics engineers, but also structural engineers. So when we go into a project and usually the earlier, the better, because we're able to detail down to the level of the building and at the same time, we're able to influence how things get integrated, because we know how we can make things. 

We're able to work with the architects to integrate the product in the building facade or wherever it's supposed to go where it looks integrated and not bolted on, and that subtle difference makes all the difference in the world.

It also makes a difference in terms of the engineering, right? Because even though the individual light rods probably aren't all that heavy, if you have thousands of them, it adds weight to a building, right? 

Jonathan Labbee: It does, and so if we were to come on, say after a building's already up, we would normally be adding not just a product but we'll be adding, like the bracketing and whatever else that we're doing. If we're there early enough in the early stage, maybe the extrusion for the window will be designed differently to accommodate the product. 

So there's some savings in terms of weight and potential costs, but also the final look is very different. 

Going back in the past decade or so, you started to see signature buildings in a landscape that would be lit at night for different purposes. They might have a certain kind of baseline set of colors that they use. But if like right now there would be buildings that are in blue and yellow because of the situation Ukraine has. 

That seemed to be the way things were being done for quite some time now, but with the Burj in Dubai, that's more than just a sort of ambient lighting. It's a media facade. Was there a moment when it changed and you're able to do that or has that always been possible and it just hadn't been done? 

Jonathan Labbee: We've always been able to do that. I think that the market and the clients, as they evolve and they see things and they have ideas and then we start exploring ideas with the clients, then I think that's truly when things get revealed, right? 

So we may have the capability to do something, but then you also need to get the client that has a vision that allows that to happen. 

Okay. So with the Burj, the world's tallest building, at least I think it still is, but with that one, you've got your product on at least one side of the building. Is it just on the one side kind of facing the mall and all that, and that goes from top to bottom, was it built in or was it added after the fact?

Jonathan Labbee: So this was added after the fact, and actually what happened there is that the client had tried something, they had acquired some products, I don't know exactly where and had put it up. So they had this idea of wanting to do this. I believe it was a DMX based system. It did what it was supposed to do, but the problem is that I don't believe that it lasted as long as they needed it to. So a year and a half in or something, we connected with them and then we designed for them a system that would fully integrate with the fin, we have these really beautiful stainless steel fins on the building. That's what gives it shine during the day. 

So we wanted to respect that, but it was also the perfect area to attach these things. So we designed this kind of fin, like a nose piece for the fin that integrated the product, all the cabling and everything, and then we installed that at the end of 2007. 

Okay. So with that building, as huge as it is, you can actually do a full motion ad, like the recent one for the new Batman movie from street level, all the way to the top, right?

Jonathan Labbee: Oh, absolutely. Everything that we do is basically either a full video screen or a deconstructed video screen, and in the case of Burj Khalifa, it is what we would refer to as a deconstructed video screen. So it has a twenty five millimeter pixel on the height, but then a meter and a half on the width. So it goes in between the windows and obviously with distance and so on, your brain is able to put the image together. 

It's interesting, in the past four or five years with LED marketing, it's all been about finding pitch pixel pitch, and it's 0.9 versus 1.2, and oh my God, 1.2 is awful by comparison, and you're talking about a meter and a half pixel pitch. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. Everything has to do with distance and contrast, at the end of the day it can be broken down as that. It's in the distance and contrast. 

So what's involved in putting up something like that? God knows, I wouldn't want to be one of the technicians who told me to go up to the 110th floor and go outside and put this on.

Jonathan Labbee: It's a really interesting process and much like other projects that we've done, it was the first time that we were doing something. Like this and by like this, I mean, at that height with no cranes and difficult to access and so on, the building itself is almost a kilometer tall. Everything is done with rope access people. 

And then the other complexity that comes into play is time. So between when we got the contract and we turned the screen on, It was seven months. So that's not a lot of time to design a new product. We actually had to design a new product for this project, did the engineering, the testing validation, certifications. So essentially what we did is, we had our factory in Montreal. We design and manufacture everything in Montreal by the way, and then we replicated a portion of our factory in Dubai, and we did a lot of final assembly and insulation within the extrusion pieces and so on, and the cabling, everything we did there in Dubai. 

The client was very instrumental in helping us set up all of that capability there, and then we just staged everything everywhere that we could in every empty space of the building, and then started deploying these via rope access team, and obviously part of it is a hotel, part of it is are residences. So you are very limited in the amount of time that you can spend. At night, you can’t be in front of the hotel portion, during the day, you can't be in front of the residences. So we needed to plan across a whole building how to get these things in place. 

And is it set up in such a way that if you're in one of these residences, you don't see the light emitting from these fins that it's just pointing out? 

Jonathan Labbee: Correct, so you have no idea if you're inside the residence that there's actually lighting on the building.

Which is a problem for some of the media facades I've seen that are just mesh LEDs because you're now looking through this grid system to see outside. You’ve still got your view, but it's compromised. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, exactly, and that's actually one of the reasons why the horizontal pixel pitch had to remain at one and a half meters was because we didn't want, nor our client, didn't want anything in front of the windows. 

These media facades on buildings seem to be a thing certainly in China, but I'm starting to wonder when we'll start to see more of them in North America. Are you seeing the demand there to do this? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, absolutely. Although things have shifted, I think that with the introduction of the Burj, FC Cincinnati, SoFi Stadium on the roof, I think clients and architects are realizing that a media facade doesn't need to be just a rectangular or square video that takes up all their front real estate. They're starting to look at it more as a way to enhance the architecture that can also do media, and being able to prove that you don't have to have the same pixel pitch on the vertical and horizontal. You can do different things and it just makes it more unique and interesting to the building while you're still communicating the message that you want to from the advertiser or from whatever you're trying to communicate. 

Is it your control system as well for the software that's driving it? 

Jonathan Labbee: So we do everything up to the video processor. So the video processor, what takes a signal and then we work with a variety of companies like Disguise or Seventh Sense depending on the type of project. But anything that has a very complex geometry, we usually work with this Disguise. 

Yeah, you're not going to get a setting out of the box for a client or a building. 

Jonathan Labbee: No, not all, however, our team does produce all of the 3d coordinates for the software to understand it. So you don’t have to have a human sitting there trying to figure out the map, because we already have the map created with a tool set that allows us to take the map and turn it into the coordinates for the systems that we work with.

So mapping a building is actually fairly simple, and if you were to change something or you had to adjust something in your final drawing sets, you can just re-upload that file to the server, and the server will change the pathways for the video image.

image. Now, when you're working with a giant scale surface like that, because the pixels are a meter and a half apart, at least in that job, does that limit the amount of light that's coming out?

One of the things I wonder about with city bylaws and all that is, if you tried to do something like this on a building in New York or Montreal, what would be the citizen reaction? Would they say, “We can't tolerate this. It's going to blind us. It’s going to feel like a tanning salon in our house”?

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, actually a very valid point. We went through that exercise just recently with a client, and that really becomes more about being a responsible corporate citizen. That onus falls on the client, but also on us to provide the tool set to their client for that. But again, if you remember what I was talking about contrast earlier, if something's too bright anyway, then I'm sure you've driven on the highway and seen digital signs for where their brightness wasn't turned down at night and it hurts your eyes. So I bet you don't remember the ad that was on that screen because your brain was too busy hurting.

So in any case, to be able to show off the very best of that building and what you're trying to show, you have to have the right level of contrast. So if it's very bright outside, obviously it could be just light pollution, then you'd want to pump up the power, but if you don't have a lot of competing lights, you would want to j, drop the power down and then the brightness. So we can do it in a few ways. Obviously we can set levels based on time of day and with light sensors and so on which we do for several clients, or there's just just bypass where the client can select it or at night it's just that level.

The Burj is a special case, but if there were other tall buildings in major cities that wanted to do this sort of thing, would they be looking to do it as a media model or do they see it as a way to distinguish their building with ambient lighting that's interesting to look at? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, that really depends on the client. I think that some clients go in with the idea of wanting to create a media building. So if you look at the Hard Rock hotel, for example, like the Guitar hotel in Hollywood, Florida, their intent was clear of what you want it to do. It is media focused from the very beginning. 

Some of our other clients, I'm thinking of one of the embassies that we did in New York, for example, originally started off as a way to highlight the building. So there was more kind of a highlight on the edge of the building. But when they saw us testing, they realized, wow, I think there's more capability here, and I think that each client goes through a level of evolution on how to utilize the product. 

And I guess there's a delicate balance that they have to reach as well that you were saying earlier, you can be good corporate citizens and do something visually interesting with your building, but then you can cross the line and start selling mortgage broker services 

Jonathan Labbee: You could do that or you could strobe and there's a lot of things that you could do that you wouldn't necessarily want to do and some of the clients, obviously we have some very sophisticated clients that have a media strategy for that, and they have a team, but some of the other clients just want to do something beautiful, and when that happens, we have a division inside of SACO called the Media Collective, with a Creative Director and so on, and we usually put together a base package for them, just to be able to kinda understand how to utilize your building. 

Is the Media Collective in-house designers, or is it a collective of people who have the skill sets and experience to work with your technology?

Jonathan Labbee: So we have some animators in-house but the whole reason we have a media collective is really to build a collective of external firms that we work with because we actually get a lot of work through design firms. So we don't want to end up competing with them so if we do end up having a project that requires some content, Burj was a perfect example. In the beginning, we built a bunch of content for them. So we directed the whole thing, but we had, I think, six firms that worked with us to provide different flavors. 

When you have a specialized project, somebody like another Montreal company, Moment Factory might come to you guys and say, “Hey, we need to do something on this monumental surface. Can you help us?” 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, correct. Actually Moment Factory, there are several projects where we've collaborated together. One of them being the AT&T project in Texas. We have our product inside of the A looking thing. 

Yeah, that kind of a spherical walkway thing that kind of leads you to the building? That's a very cool project. So when you are working with these different companies, are they coming to you directly or does it tend to come through an architect? 

Jonathan Labbee: No, when we're working with these with design firms, they’ll usually either contact us or again, vice versa, if we have a media request, we'll contact them. 

There are any number I would imagine of companies out there that have LED light sticks that can do kind of mood lighting for a building. Do you compete with them or their control systems really meant to like, change this block to blue and change this block to yellow so we can have the Ukrainian flag?

Jonathan Labbee: I would say that in certain times, we'll see them on projects, but those companies are usually DMX based, whereas we're video based and there's a really big difference there in the overall approach and also in the ability to display color and bitrate and stuff like that. So just coming from a video background, the type of clients that usually seek us out, or that we seek out have a vision for media, not just for lighting. 

Do they also come to you because of the scale that you've done these ginormous projects? 

Jonathan Labbee: Absolutely, because you also have to be game to do this. These challenges are filled with unknowns, and I think that the team at SACO thrive on them. 

Yeah, I'm sure there are all kinds of companies who, if they were approached to do some of these large scale projects, they'd go, sure, and then they'd go back to the engineering team and look at each other and go, okay, now what? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. We've had a few instances where, let's call them competitors, in certain spaces that got a project and had no idea how to do it and they came to us and we worked with them. It's a small industry, so we're friendly with everybody, 

You mentioned earlier the idea of shape and you worked with FC Cincinnati on this new MLS stadium, right? Could you describe that? 

Jonathan Labbee: The working part or the project part?

The stadium is a curved kind of bowl thing, and the whole outside of it is a bit like the Bayern Munich stadium in that you could eliminate the whole thing.

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, exactly. Here the architect is Populous, a company with whom we worked with in the past, and we have a very good working relationship there. So when they took over that project, I believe it was with a different architect prior, and they came up with this kind of vision of these angled fins where you could see through the building and so on, they created this very light structure which at night needed to be highlighted. 

So when they brought us on board to start taking a look at the designs and giving our ideas and stuff like that, obviously it made a lot of sense to highlight the edge of that. The product is very much recessed inside of the fin. So it's completely invisible during the day or when it's not on, and I guess there were several ideas there, but I guess one of the guiding principles there is that it needs to be integrated and needed to highlight the architecture at night and keep that sense of emotion like that whole stadium has this static motion to it. So based on that, we ended up designing a solution for it, and also created the base content for the client and it's been highly efficient for the client. 

Is it actually less costly to do it the way you're describing as opposed to doing like a full LED mesh curtain and all that, just because there's less hardware, fewer LED diodes and so on, or it does balance out because this is custom engineering?

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, I think I think maybe it balances out. It's probably overall it's maybe a little cheaper because you're integrating early but that only happens if you're integrating early, if you're retrofitting, it's usually it usually balances. But the big thing that it does though, is that it does become unique to that property. 

When you just start adding video screens, and again, I'm a big fan of video screens. That's what we do for a living. But video screens, like what we refer to as traditional video screens, have their place. But on a building, it just ends up looking like advertising, if you just put it up a building, right? So if you really want to enhance the building and kind of blend art and media, I think that's a highly effective way of getting your message across because then there's no mistake in if someone takes their Instagram shot or whatever, there's no mistake in where that is. 

And I'm sure that you spend the time with the clients, for them to understand, look, this is low resolution. This is in a lot of cases meant to be seen from a hundred meters away or further away. If you want to put pricing propositions on the screen, that's probably not going to work, but logos and things like that's going to work well. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yep. Exactly. And again and as you approach the building or as you approach a property or as you're walking through a property, your experience is going to change. So that video element will now become more of a lighting interesting kind of ambient element, but then you'll have something else in the Causeway or whatever with maybe that has a tighter pixel pitch or something to just continue that whole experience as you walk through the property.

Do you strictly work with outdoor products or are you doing anything indoor? 

Jonathan Labbee: Oh no, we do lots of indoor stuff. 

Is that more conventional, like LED modules, cabinets, that sort of thing? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, actually, in its construction, I would say yes but in its deployment oftentimes it's different. We did this art piece, which is actually a media piece with Jenny Holzer, which sits inside of the Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia, and there are custom tiles that are 6.32 millimeter pixel pitch at the exact 8 inches wide, and they needed to fit in between these wood slabs on the ceiling and the entire ceiling has video strips going right through it, right through the escalator and everything. 

Oh, so is this tied in with the big LED wall it's already in the lobby there? 

Jonathan Labbee: The LED wall is in the other building. 

Gotcha. The other building is fantastic, what they've done there. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, exactly. So we'll also deploy, like we have a project right now going on, I can't really say what it is yet, but it has a bunch of really high res stuff, and these kinds of monuments in a curved fashion, all interactive. So high res video screen type stuff that we do a lot, and we do a lot of touring also. All tier one, so the Paul McCartney's of the world and Lady Gaga's utilize a lot of SACO equipment on their tours. 

And these again, would be stuff that you can put up and take down pretty quickly. They're lightweight and there's a pastor, so you can see it and behind it, all that?

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, exactly. So what we do for touring is actually use our frames called Fast Frames and they're very fast to set up and rugged. And, in touring speed is extremely important because time is money there, as you're loading and unloading, others are waiting on you. So we came up with this system that's very fast. 

I'll give you an example. When we came up with this new product called the S series. One of our very first clients was Bruno Mars, and this is obviously through some partners, rental partners, and it was a 50 foot wide video screen by 20 feet tall and that took 13 minutes and 13 seconds to set up, from the carts to image on. We actually made t-shirts that said 13:13. 

Yeah. That's a good thing. Cause somebody's going to ask, what does that mean? And then you're immediately pitching, 

Jonathan Labbee: Well, exactly, and also touring does allow us to have a customer base there that is always hungry for the latest in things. Although we have more standard products there that can do their main elements, we'll build a lot of custom stuff for touring as well, and so on the Taylor Swift tour, for example, we had a bunch of 12 millimeters and some 9 millimeters, but because the thing went up like a half pipe in certain areas. We designed these custom triangular tiles to fill in the gap to provide a monolithic look and so on.

So we have clients that are willing to try new things there, and then we take all of that knowledge and then we apply it to our more permanent projects afterwards. 

You're obviously pretty well known in the live events community and I guess in architectural design, not really in the digital signage or LED display community or at least the conventional side of that. Does that matter, or are you quite happy with just stealthily building up your business? 

Jonathan Labbee: Very good question. I would say that in the beginning more, more on like the 2000s stuff, we were doing a lot of arenas and stadiums, like the traditional center hongs or ribbon boards, we were heavily heavily involved there. But when so many companies came out with offerings, there were some differentiators of course, between what we offered and what other people offer, but the cost just kept getting driven down and down, and all of a sudden, you're now operating in a commodity based business.

That's not where we necessarily like to be, we're innovators at heart, so we like to focus on areas where our talents can be fully exploited, and so as soon as you introduce a little bit of complexity and there's a lot of clients that want something complex and context could be something as simple as a curve, an angle, a shape, an installation, we ended up finding ourselves almost alone. 

Yeah. Interesting. I know there's a big project that you're not able to talk about yet but I'm sure maybe we'll get back together in a year or so when you're allowed to talk about this thing running and it's amazing, and unfortunately we can't talk about it at the moment.

Jonathan Labbee: No, but I'll be happy to speak with you when we can. 

Absolutely. All right. Thank you very much for spending some time with me. That was terrific.

Jonathan Labbee: It was a pleasure.

Jonny Greco, Seattle Kraken

Jonny Greco, Seattle Kraken

March 30, 2022


The spectacle of pro sports used to be almost entirely about what happened on the playing surface, but these days it's also about the venue and the technology and creative used to create memorable and shareable experiences.

If you are paying $75 a ticket, and $12 per beer, there should perhaps be more entertainment than someone belting out national anthems.

The Seattle Kraken are a new team in the National Hockey League, based out of one of the most tech-adept cities in the world, in a brand new arena that has digital screens everywhere. There are 224 LED displays at Climate Pledge Arena, populated with content specifically geared to the game day experience of hockey fans.

I had a terrific chat with Jonny Greco, the very exciteable Senior VP of Entertainment and Experience for the Kraken. We spoke about what fans see before and during games, the thinking behind the creative, and the technology used at the venue.

We also get into his mindset and insights drawn from years and years of delivering experiences - including the over-the-top world of WWE pro wrestling and the mother of all pre-match experiences - the knights and swords opener to Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey games.

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Jonny. Thank you for joining me. I wanted to read out a description so listeners can get their heads around everything that's going on with your gig. There are 224 LED displays at Climate Pledge Arena, which has more than 28,000 square feet of digital signs. There are 173 displays outside the main seating bowl. So you have one hell of a lot of screens to operate.

Jonny Greco: That's a good intro. You've got all these amazing world-class tools. You get them during a pandemic while the arena is being built. You're about to start a brand new franchise, and now what, where do we go? 

So super excited. Unbelievable honor to be here. I truly think we're just scratching the surface with all of this incredible technology and you'll hear me a lot as a theme as we chat here, and I'm so thankful to be on your podcast, but “story over sexy”. We can have the most expensive toys and all these phenomenal, shiny lights but if you don’t create a compelling story and a narrative that pulls people in doesn't really matter. So I'm always threading that line of technology and the art, where they fuse together to find that really happy galvanization of spirit.

Yeah. I think creative direction is so important. I get press releases every day about the next giant LED display at a sports venue and in a lot of cases, it's a 100 meters/yards along and this big and everything else, they don't talk at all about what's on there and it's just this big ass display and so what?

Jonny Greco: They put up color bars and say, “It's cool. Look at it!” 

So with all those displays, does your gig extend out into the concourses, or are you just talking about the game experience once you get into the seating bowl? 

Jonny Greco: That's a thoughtful question because I think traditionally as we know, game presentation, whether you're juniors, minor league, collegiate, major league sports, game presentations is kind of on the football field, the music, the mascot maybe the cheerleaders, maybe your promotional team the intermission performances or concerts, but everything that lives in the bowl. And I think holistically game presentation has turned into less of a presentation and more of an experience over the last few years especially, and we're looking at this holistic approach: you can't just be in the bowl to hear the song, or oh, they just scored. 

You need to know about this on the entire campus that might be your home base. You should know something happened in my opinion, in the parking lot, as you're walking in, you should know about it whether you're on Twitter as you're looking at it as you're going up the escalator, if you're in line to get a burger. The screen displays should have your goal animation going if you score a goal and you create this kind of connected experience as we roll and again, as you teed it up 28,000 square feet of lead on a 74 acre campus, there are a lot of screens to cover. So you have to do it thoughtfully, then you have to balance the wayfinding and the marketing, and then just the straight energy game presentation, for that moment, while promoting other events that are coming. So there's a lot to juggle and like I said, we're just dipping our toes in the water. So we learn a lot every day and sometimes we get it really right. Sometimes we miss and sometimes we're like, oh yeah, we forgot about that. So we're excited about the evolution game in/game out, event in/event out here in Seattle.

So I have not been to a Kraken game. It's a bit of a drive for me, given where I live. What's the game day experience? As you described, if you're out in the parking lot, or you get off the Monorail. So where do you start seeing the stuff that you're controlling and influencing? 

Jonny Greco: Yeah, I think we have a really connected organization as far as the storytelling of our brand, right? Like early that day, the team had a morning skate. There's going to be content on all of our social channels that's going to tell a little bit of the story of that night. We've got our own app where it's going to talk to you about traffic. It's going to give you your ORCA card so you're able to take that Monorail that you speak about to be able to get in, to help mitigate the traffic. 

So the game day experience is, you could argue, it starts before the game day, but the day of the morning when you're getting messages, you're hearing about what's going on. You're finding out what, what's the strategy going into the game as we play, and it also just ramps up as you get near the puck, things that you had just mentioned that Monorail experience, which you know is a mile or two away, we have an audio file with our broadcasters welcoming fans onto the Monorail, right? We've got this armory sort of indoor space that we activate with our promo team, our icebreakers and our C squad. And, we've got video screens there and we're doing trivia. We're welcoming people in the most hospitable way we can to just thank them for being a part of this. It's not just, once you sit in your seat and you have your beer at the game that you're connected to the Seattle Kraken Climate Pledge Arena, it is way more extensive than that and that's something we're continuously working on because yes, the screens all over that campus are helping you find your way or teach you about what's coming. But we also just want to completely engage with our audience all the time, so they get excited. They know what's going on there. They're being educated about the process, particularly as this building opens, but we can continuously inform our fans to illuminate their experience when we can. 

Now is part of that because going to a sports event now is expensive? For the ticket, for the concessions, for everything. In my days when I would go to a Calgary Flames game, when I lived out west, the game day experience was getting through the gate, grabbing a beer, sitting down, and then the entertainment was somebody singing “O Canada”, and then the game was on and that's it.

Modern pro sports is like a total spectacle, right? 

Jonny Greco: I think it's changed a lot. And don’t do a disservice to O’ Canada. It's a heck of an Anthem. I love it. But I do think humanity looks at experiences differently than we ever have before. It's always evolving. You can go back 20 years and what the experience was about, it was exactly what you explained and that even upwards of 10-15 years ago, it was that, and now people want more bang for their buck, whatever they're paying for tickets or beers or snacks and concessions, time is our most valuable, precious resource and we're understanding that more than ever over the last couple of years. 

So when we have this time, how we spend it is so important to us. So we need to make sure that we're being thoughtful in creating that experience that connects people with the brand, with the team, with the game. But in my opinion it also protects you from maybe a game where the Flames at the Saddledome don't play very well at night and they lose 5-0, but they still had a great experience and they're telling their friends about it. And even though they have, we've done our jobs in creating that fun. Let's just call it. I go to a game cause I want to have fun for a few hours and I still had fun even though some of the things we couldn't control didn't go our way. I think that's just what fans in general are coming to experience regardless of the costs.

It's that way, if you're going to Disney world, if you're going to a Jazz club or you go to the beach like you want to make sure that you have as much of an engaging experience as you can. It's definitely part of the consciousness of us as humans nowadays, for sure. 

You came to this gig, having done a whole bunch of what looked like pretty interesting gigs that are mainly in sports. The three that hit me were live event production for pro wrestling and  video direction for curling at the Olympics in Vancouver, a little different for pro wrestling, and then the big one was working for the Las Vegas Golden Knights. 

Is the spectacle that is the openers of the Vegas Knights games with the, with all that hoo ha going on, ts that you, did you do that?

Jonny Greco: Yeah. Some people would definitely call it hoo ha. I think, yes, I was a part of and we had a hell of a time. Hell of a great leadership who saw vision and put entertainment at the forefront of the experience and then just knowing you were in Vegas, like you were going to do it a little bit different, right? You were just allowed, you had a different kind of permission to get a little wild that fit the region. On brand, in a style that fits the team, and then, you start winning games. There's a lot more permission you have to fail and try different things because people just are in a better mood. People like to win. That's been around for a long time. 

So yeah, I think that list, you just mentioned it. It is a funny list when you go Curling to WWE wrestling, shout out to Halifax. I've been there. We did a show there. I loved it. Absolutely beautiful. But, and then, Vegas and Seattle, the truth is though, the more different opportunities I get blessed to be on and be a part of the more projects and teammates I get to like to collaborate with and contribute to the more I realize just how similar there is to all of it, right? Curling again, what we were talking about, it's an experience you're enjoying, you may love the sport. You may never have seen it before, but you want it to be at the Olympics, but you're going to love the music. You're going to love the natural inherent drama of sport. You may not be a WWE fan, but you probably know who Hulk Hogan is. There's elements where we're all connected in these experiences, and the truth is we all love good. Stories have been around for thousands and thousands of years, and it may be the story within a song, maybe a story in the written form of a book. It may be a micro story of the kiss cam within 30 other promotions at a game in St. Louis that you see, but they're stories inherently every day that we see, and if you can share them in a certain way and you can make your good guys bad guys compelling then all of a sudden people are pulled into it and they care about the story, then they care about, again, whether it's a pro wrestler, a pro curler or a pro hockey player they're all characters in the ensemble, of the show, the entertainment of the film, of the movie, of the story that we want to be a part of. 

Did the work that you were involved in with the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL team there, was that what got you up to Seattle? Did the Seattle people go, “Yeah, we want that”? 

Jonny Greco: I think, like all of us. we’re on these journeys and paths and, I was doing some research on you as I was prepping for this podcast and, it said you had a boss back in the day. The Internet's just a fad. It's not going to last, but you are somebody who was like, no, I see where this is headed and sometimes you gotta just have the guts to do something that isn't necessarily what people expect or see, and one of my favorite quotes of all time is from Henry Ford with cars, and he went on to obviously do pretty well for himself, but he was asked at one point, your clients, your people buying this and the thing was, he says, if I would have asked people what they wanted versus just doing my own thing, “if I would have asked people what they wanted, they would've said they wanted a faster horse” and I love that because it's a little bit about sometimes we need to show people or expose people to things that they don't know they want, they don't know they're going to love this, and if we talk about it, we may talk ourselves out of it. Cause it sounds crazy because it's never been done cause it won't work and all those reasons, yes, that may be the case, but if we can suspend their own disbelief a little bit and just go for it sometimes and be willing to fail because you're going to, I think you get really unique opportunities. So Vegas, an amazing opportunity built off of relationships from previous jobs, the team president there is a great friend and just an awesome human being. I used to work with him back in the Cleveland Cavaliers days when we were working with LeBron James a million years ago, and you stay connected to these people. It was a recipe of pretty interesting elements when we got to Vegas, it worked out well and I've been given some pretty neat opportunities since then, but I do think the opportunities come from more of the relationships then, and your last gig matters. It really does, but I do think it's the body of work as you continue on, and I had actually gone from Vegas to Madison Square Garden to go work for the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers, which was unbelievable to be at Mecca, but I'd only done it for nine months before the Seattle opportunity came and there was a pandemic that happened as well. So there were a lot of variables, whereas what's the right move right now, creatively for my family and everything else.

So it was only a cup of coffee in New York, but I've had a few really neat opportunities and I've been able to meet and connect with some really interesting people through Vegas, and even before that with WWE and some of the other opportunities as well. 

Yeah, and I must have been pretty cool to effectively have a blank slate that like Madison Square Gardens is a pretty old arena, I don't know how old it is, 40 years or something, and there's only so much you can do in terms of LED displays and new technology there versus Seattle is tech central and they went to town with it. 

Jonny Greco: Yeah, they did, and that's a really good point. You've got these beautiful venues and arenas all over the world and you don't really want to mess with them like Wrigley field, you probably should only go so far with how much led you put there. Fenway, same idea. Like it would almost be a disservice to the history of the game in that space.

I think in Seattle, it was really unique, and at the time, what I had read was it was the most LED in any arena, on the planet, and that probably changes every five minutes. But I know a few months ago that was the case. But they had the opportunity cause it was a brand new arena, in this beautiful city that is this transcendent science technology, medical, you think of Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, all of these companies, Starbucks, these companies that are out here that have these pioneers of creativity and technology, it was very fitting out here. But I think you learn a little, in the hockey term, original programming that is innovative, super unique, but then also honors the original six, right? Honor the tradition knows whose great grandpas were here playing the game and what they loved and trying to fuse it together, and I think depending on the city you're in, if you're in Boston, it's going to be a lot different than if you're in Arizona, like how you ratio those two elements.

But again, whether you have one screen or you have 344 screens, make sure you're putting up content. That's interesting. Otherwise people are going to walk right past and they're not going to notice it anyway. 

Yeah. That's one of the things that struck me about what you're up to or what the, what your team's up to is, I've been in a number of new build or renovated arenas in the last few years when we were still doing things like getting on airplanes, and in those cases, they're putting in big LED video walls and everything else, but it was all about commerce. 

It was about running different sponsor messages. If it was an NBA game versus an NHL game, it was about efficiency and so on, and what I'm seeing with what's being done at Climate Pledge is it's about the experience and it's about setting the tone. So you've got like this giant aquarium and things like that, can you describe what people can see? 

Jonny Greco: Sure. Yeah, and I think it's interesting, Dave, when you talk about just the philosophy of other venues. Like you go to the arena formerly known as Staples Center in Los Angeles, they need the digital signage to help with some of their changeovers, right? Like I've been there when they had an LA Kings game that afternoon, and then an LA Clippers game that night, like they needed to switch from black and white design to red and blue within a few hours,completely transforming the arena, and nothing can make that process quicker than like the digital signage abilities. 

So like you said, not even a few years ago. It was signage. It was sponsorship, and it was like, put the logo here and buy a hot dog or whatever else. But now they're trying to connect it to just, again, more of like where you're being sold, but it sure doesn't feel like being sold. I feel like I'm watching something really cool and threading it into the show, and it was a big part of our own storytelling as you entered the Climate Pledge Arena with this grandiose atrium space that we have, where we were like, one of our taglines for the Kraken is, ”Welcome to the deep” right? 

It's the deep fear, fear of the deep, we’re in the deep, right? That's where the Kraken lives, this mythical beast. And, the arena itself is subterranean, it's underground. To do this insane over billion dollar arena build, they literally lifted the historic roof from 1962, took everything else out of it and rebuilt this insanely beautiful arena underneath, and then put the roof back on. To do that, you had to go underneath as well. So as we looked at the layout of the arena, and as we looked at these video screens, part of this really cool grandiose entrance, as you come in, you get to go down these massive escalators with these huge video LED screens, video screens through Daktronics and we said we could put a Pepsi logo on there, but that's not again, that's just a big logo. That's not innovative. There's not a story. It doesn't necessarily make me thirsty. But instead we have the support from our leadership to let's create an atmosphere and what we thought of it's like, all right, you're going down underground. We're going to the deep, we're seeing the Kraken which is an underwater creature. We're in Seattle. Let's dig deep, and as you go down the escalator, let's go underwater. Let's see an Orca that's indigenous to space. Let's see the type of rock formations that you would see at the base of the Puget sound. Let's build out a space to give people again, that kind of experience, and it almost feels like you're like the Atlanta aquarium or something as you go, and you're like, oh, there's a seal. There's a sea lion going by so it was neat that we had that sort of support, and then instead of just a founding partner logo, splattered all over the place, we have a school of fish swimming by as it goes past the Amazon logo, or the Alaska airlines logo. So it's a thoughtful way of fusing the two together where it's like, of course we have incredible partners that we want to honor and showcase, but we also have their support to create this experience that just felt a lot more elegant than even in previous worlds I've been a part of it, it's just not slapping it on there. It's much more of a collaboration and integration of brand fusion together to help it feel just more like an experience than me just looking at a sign. 

Yeah, I'm guessing you've fought this verbal battle a few times with the specialty leasing people and other folks who say yeah, this immersive entertainment stuff is awesome, but I need this Pepsi logo on here or this other logo?

Jonny Greco: Yeah, I think we all have. I think it's one of our biggest opportunities as people in the sports entertainment production world to lock arms with your corporate partnership side of things, because it does bring in a lot of revenue and it does bring in great brand awareness. It does bring in great relationships long-term that help a business work, but you don't want it to just be all or nothing. You don't want it to always be black and white. There's this really neat fusion of gray that you can find that kind of everyone can be aligned on, and it goes back to the point we were making before about, let's show you how this works. It's not always the most quantifiable, but there is a feeling when something just lands well and it's not a perfect science, and again we make plenty of mistakes on our journeys and our professional careers for sure but it is fun when you're in a supportive place that nurtures creativity, nurtures storytelling and lets you try some things sometimes. 

We know we did some things pretty well here, but we also know we've got a lot of places to grow and develop and keep evolving because everyone's chasing, everyone's trying to do a great job together. So let's lift each other up and inspire one another. 

Does the job touch some of the purely commercial aspects of digital signage? I know in some arenas, if somebody scores a goal, and I think you talked a little bit about this before, the concession displays that are showing a beer is $500 or whatever they cost now, it'll go to a replay of the goal and then go back to the beer menu or whatever. Are you doing that?

Jonny Greco: Yeah we're not doing it as well as we'd like yet, but we had some recent meetings about this to do a really thorough walk arounds in the arena itself because when you start and open up a brand new arena this quickly in a pandemic, a lot of is it let's just get it going. Let's get it working, and literally as we're doing this conversation, we just got some decimators to help us with some of our delays on our LED screens on the back wall of our press bridge. Because our fans in that area, this super unique area, they don't have a complete line of sight to our video screens are twins as we call them. So they have these LED screens with our program out, which is awesome, except it's, I don't know what the time is, Two to three second delay on some things, and we all know if you're a little bit late to the joke or the punchline or the goal, it's a little bit less of a connected experience.

So there's constant little technical elevation we're trying to find a more comprehensive experience for people. But I do think we have ways to go. As far as we score a goal that lights up everywhere, that underwater space currently, when we score a goal, that's not being lit up with our goal animation and cutting cameras and stuff, but we know that's where we want to go to just create that moment where even if you're not in the bowl for a second, you feel what just happened? Cause there's not many cooler moments in sports entertainment than that horn going off crowd going nuts, and if you can be a part of it, somehow we want to include everyone. But you know what, when you walk out of the bathroom oh, what just happened? No one wants to be the last one to the dance floor. So we want to help everyone feel like they're the first. 

Is there some sort of a show control system that's running all this? What are you using? 

Jonny Greco: Yeah, so we work with Daktronics and I'll say this right away. 15 people way smarter than me on the technology side that I work with, that could go a lot further into this, but it is show control for all of our ribbons and Daktronics video screens. And then we're using Triple Play for all of our IP TV needs, and that's run through our incredible group from the Climate Pledge Arena side, because they're doing more than just the Kraken games. They have events all the time, a hundred percent. 

So if you're using Daktronics, for that, as you add more stuff, you just go back to them?

Jonny Greco: I think, with technology, you're always looking for, I don't want to say the best, but who helps us tell our story? Who helps us create that experience? Daktronics have been incredible partners and they have a whole lot of their product all over the place and they understand that this is this crown jewel space for their own product as well. So it's just been a really good relationship as far as, Hey, this isn't working or would we be able to develop this? And they're on it. They want this to succeed because they're great partners and we want to keep pushing the envelope, but obviously trying to always see what's out there. Daktronics does a ton of things, but obviously we're working with Ross in our switches and acuity expressions. We got Dreamcatcher for our replay systems. Like you're going to try to grab a whole bunch of different tools and you just want the best tools to create the best kind of narrative that you can and it's rarely going to be just one thing, right? 

There's not a one-stop shop for many things. That's where we are right now, but always looking to evolve what you have, right? 

How many people are working on this? 

Jonny Greco: Ee call it Entertainment experience and production on the Seattle Kraken side, and for that group, which is creating a lot of the social content, we are creating elements like ice projection and half a million dollar shot promotions and, commercial spots and B-roll and everything else. There's 15 of us in that group. So that's on the Kraken inside. So that's your show callers, your scripters we're working closely with corporate partnerships, you're working with your promo teams, and so that group of 15 is split into two. As far as the game presentation side, that entertainment experience, but then also just that content and production side as well, which ranges from creating because we are a brand new team, videos for human resources or maybe working and this is really common in pro sports, working on like a free agent video project that’s super secretive or whatever they like. 

So you're creating the very forward facing stuff, but you're also doing a lot behind the scenes, and when you have no library to pull from last year, oh, remember Dave, last year when this happened, we didn't have that. So that's another role that we talked to a lot of people about, and they were, if you can get it, get that archivist role, get that digital asset management person role in your space. So that's something we're working diligently on. We have a person who's phenomenal and we're testing the waters, working on this and then we'll look to be implementing this, over the summer. But just to build that archive, because, season one happens, but really quickly, you're celebrating your 10th anniversary and remember game six, when that thing happened, you want to have that you want to have those things properly logged and an archived for us and or for the next people who come into this incredible role.

Yeah. I  hadn't thought about that. I guess you've got to do like the player video pieces where, they're smiling and then they do the arm, the cross arms, and don't mess with me look and all that stuff, you gotta have all that, right? 

Jonny Greco: Gladiator shots. Yeah, absolutely, and some of that stuff becomes evergreen, so you can shoot it once and use it for a few years, and some of the stuff, as guys get traded or retire, goes away but they may someday have their Jersey retired here. They may just come back, right? You want to use some of those elements. I learned a lot of that at Madison Square garden. It was interesting how they had archived up until this point, and even there they would admit it themselves. We could do a better job with our digital asset management. We're one year in or half a year in, right like between all those seasons, you're like a hundred years in. So that's a lot of games you've literally filmed. I remember working at the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was the same idea. We had all of this craziness going on with Betamax and 16 millimeter film, and we had to transfer all of that content as DVDs were coming around and then, it's like these video files, is that going to last? So when you have to go back and grandfather in content, that's a much heavier lift, so we're trying to mitigate that as much as we can. 

Yeah, it's interesting. Technically, it used to be a lot harder to pull off what you're doing now, but the flip side of that is there's a lot more that you have to produce than in the old days.

Jonny Greco: Absolutely. You're putting out so much content and you're trying to individualize something on Instagram versus Twitter versus LinkedIn versus in arena versus the app, and that's something like strategy-wise, I think, everyone's working on, how are we unique and original but also how are we creating content that can be used in multiple ways, because you don't need to create, oh we have “Mark Giordano, legendary hockey player, tomorrow night's going to be us honoring his 1000th game, the silver sticks ceremony,” it's really cool. 

Do you need a different sort of acknowledgement or graphic on every single one of those channels or do you keep it very brand centric with a look and then you figure out whatever the content design look needs to be to fit that scale, and then you go from there. So it's a pretty subjective space, but you're always trying. With the narrative and story in mind first, you're trying to work smarter, not harder cause we all work hard, we know that, but there's a lot of content to create, and once you start, you don't want to pull back. You want to only add to it.

So we started out of the gate with a lot. We know we have a lot more stories to tell. We know we can engage Seattle and Kraken fans in such a different way and further it, and like you said, scratching the surface. We've started, but now we've got to keep rising. 

Is the pregame show the big job, the one that sucks up most of the time?

Jonny Greco: Yeah, I think depending on the organization, it can be a little bit different here. It was a big part of the show. We ran into a couple of bumps along the way, just again, with the arena opening, supply chain issues, not being able to load some of our beautiful set pieces for the opening night. And it was honestly one of the more frustrating moments for a lot of us because we weren't able to physically. But we got there and come the new year, we were in place and it's emotional and it does take a lot of our focus and attention, but as cool as the moment is, it can get cooler and we're excited to evolve it and grow it, and now that we have all the pieces in place, take that next iteration up another level. 

Yeah, that was going to be my last question. Now that you've got yourself grounded there and sorted out all the technology and the folks and know what everybody's good at and the drill, what's coming?

Jonny Greco: Yeah, there's a whole bunch of exciting things that I'm not going to tell you about right now, my friend, but starting a new franchise, just because I've been super lucky or super crazy, probably both to have done this now a couple of times, I think you got to look at being a part of a new organization much more than just like a few games or a season. I think to really get your footing and your steps, right? For every part of the business it's two to three years easy. It's not a one-year thing. So there's a lot that we dreamed up a year ago that just wasn't able to come to fruition this year for a million great reasons but as you get into actually activating right pre op mode versus operating mode, very different for us, right? The red light goes on, lights, camera, action. You see how people handle it, you see how the equipment functions, you see what you dreamed up while we were in Zoom calls saying, Hey, what would be cool is a camera that does this and does this well now we're using those said cameras and we're like, oh, what else would be cool. So you want to lock arms. You want to step on each other's shoulders and jump higher on some of these things, and some of the things that you envision just didn't really land the way you had expected for a few different reasons.

And in my case, I know sometimes I just dilute myself a little bit because I get so excited about so many things and I don't keep it concentrated on just a few big ones, and I also like to test and learn. So I like to throw a lot against the wall, and it's like ooh, that was great. Oh, that was terrible. Ooh, that's workable. Oh, that was terrible. I would rather cast that super wide net and work off of that, then be like all my eggs in one basket, and whether it works or not, I'm like I don't want one basket, I want 14 baskets, and that's a philosophical difference, probably organization to organization, sport to sport that, just personally, that's the way I like to function. It's not right or wrong, but it's definitely the way I look forward to evolving in this season too, because there's a lot of stuff that we have ready to go that intentionally we're holding back, like it's ready to go, but we're going to wait. We're going to wait, and plan to do that over the summer, to do that in season two, which generally I don't have that level of patience. I get so excited. I'm like, let's do it. Let's get everybody excited. 

But I do think the chess game, the slow play, sometimes it's really thoughtful and strategic and it just, it helps with the pacing of the whole experience. If you do think of that brand launch, not just the day the logo comes out, not just your opening night, not just your first season, it's something we're building upon it and creating an equity with it's a nuanced art, I think over the next couple of years that we're going to be working on.

This was a lot of fun. I appreciate you taking the time with me. 

Jonny Greco: Oh, Dave, thank you so much for asking. Anytime you want to chat about this kind of stuff. I would love to be a guest. It's an honor to be on the 16:9 podcast and really happy to share some energy with you. 

That's great. Thank you.

Fred D’Alessandro & Eric Hutto, Diversified

Fred D’Alessandro & Eric Hutto, Diversified

March 23, 2022


New Jersey-based Diversified has grown into one of the world's largest AV integration companies, and certainly among the most active in digital signage.

The company was started almost 30 years ago by Fred D'Alessandro, who just recently announced he was shifting his role in Diversified to make way for a new CEO. He's still going to be very much involved, but says former Unisys executive Eric Hutto is now very much in charge of the company.

The two of them kindly set aside some time recently to talk about that big news, and what's ahead for Diversified. Among many things, we get into the steady convergence of AV and IT.

Fred also relates a story I'd not heard before, about how and why Diversified got started, which funnily  traces to a job he didn't want at the Home Shopping Network.

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Fred and Eric, thank you for joining me. Fred, congratulations on your decision to slow down and Eric, welcome to pro AV!

Eric Hutto: Thank you. 

Fred D'Alessandro: Thank you. I don't know about slowing down, but thank you. 

Is this a transition that's about to happen or it's been underway for a while and you're now just talking about it?

Fred D'Alessandro: No, it's been under way and it has happened. So yeah, Eric is the new Diversified CEO and I couldn't be happier to have him on the team. Absolutely great move by us, and I'll say it by myself as well. 

You finally did something right! 

Fred D'Alessandro: Exactly, only took 29 years. 

So why now? 

Fred D'Alessandro: A lot of good reasons. I've been blessed to start Diversified in 1993, really as a startup, it's a garage story and to have the opportunity to lead it for 29 years, create a $1 billion organization, I think the first ever in our industry, which is, absolutely exciting and just a real honor, we have an army of industry expertise in the organization. But what the organization doesn't have is somebody with Eric's leadership at this level, when you're trying to build an organization that has a clear path to being a multi-billion dollar organization. So from,the strategy, from the vision, from the operations, how to, I would say, continue to exceed our client's expectations and our employees development, it's the right time and it’s the right team and the right place. So yeah, thrilled. 

Coming out of COVID, we're financially sound. So now's the time. 

So this is not just you deciding, you know what, I want to go down to Boca Raton and lawn bowling?

Fred D'Alessandro: No, I'm a young 63 year old, so I have a lot of energy. But you know what I feel why my value at this point in time for the organization can be used in other areas. I think strategic accounts and clients that I've known for years, employee mentorship, development, things that, again, I know that I'm really good at and I know Eric's really good at taking a financially sound organization, and I've said this in the past it's not so much about how big we are, it's just really continuing to be the best as we get bigger, and that's really important. 

To me, as a founder, again it's about being unselfish and doing what's right for our customers, doing what's right for our employees, and Eric is the right guy to do that for us. So I'm excited. 

So sometimes when a company is founded by a particular person who's still there and when they maybe not step aside, but step back into another role, it could be a bit of a balancing act to say, “No, you need to go talk to Eric about that.” How are you going to work that out? 

Fred D'Alessandro: Yeah look, there's no ego in this organization. 

I've met people there.

Fred D'Alessandro: There's no ego at the leadership level, let’s say that and I will be the first to say that, I am here in a different role, I've made that very clear over the past week to all the employees and that Eric is going to make the decisions on the strategy, the operating model, so the vision is going forward. I'm going to help him as a chairman of our Diversified board of directors. So from that perspective, I'll listen to Eric, I'll challenge him. But at the end of the day, he's going to make those decisions. And if somebody comes to me, I'm pointing them to Eric.

I said this again and again last week, I am very content with the role and making the decision to do this, and really to bring Eric on. We're fortunate to just think sometimes you need luck, and hard work brings that, but yeah, Eric's are going to be great for this role and I really feel he's going to take us to the next level and take our clients to the next level.

Was there somebody you knew or was this kind of a headhunter thing? 

Fred D'Alessandro: So we did a search. Fortunately, the timing worked out so it happened rather quickly. I've spent the last month with Eric, spending a couple of days here and there just to get to know the person and to see how Eric would fit in the organization, and like I said, in many ways, I felt like his skills and tone were similar to mine, but his expertise and where he's been through his career, it's hard to beat. Like I said, it was a pretty easy decision on my part at the end of the day, after spending, like I said, the last month with Eric. 

It's interesting. The pro AV community, particularly people like Gary Kayye, have been going on and on for some time now about how pro AV and IT are converging and pro AV people need to be thinking about this. So to bring somebody on as CEO who comes from pure IT services seems a really sharp move and something that had to be done in a lot of ways. 

Fred D'Alessandro: I would agree with you. I think it is converging. It's been converging, it is more an IT managed services play in a lot of ways. And again, Eric’s expertise is spot on, and we have, like I said, we have an army of AV knowledge and expertise. There's no shortage of that at Diversified. Now it's just bringing that all together with everything else that's happening and training. 

Eric, you come from Unisys IT services and consulting and so on. I'm curious from your background, were you hearing the same thing, but on the flip side that IT people need to be more aware of video delivery and AV in general, in terms of their overall practice? 

Eric Hutto: Yeah, I think, the pandemic simply heightened it. We all got sent home. So if you think about the audio video, quality of calls and the ability to keep things running right, it is a bit different now and I think that forced people to get more educated, appreciate more of the components that go into it versus just servers and storage in clouds and I think it has merged the IT industry over 30 years and has just been completely collapsing all the stacks of technology, and now its technology product gets out and it gets software updated and it lasts for lot longer than it used to because it can be updated.

And I think that's where we're headed with this, I think of it as experiential experiences that we're going to be having in these environments. We're going to have to come together. The morning show can't be broadcast in the afternoon because you went down because of your cloud or your server or you were hacked. So I do think it is the natural progression to take all the sophistication that Fred and team have built around how to create a great experience in a stadium. But now we move just beyond that, to what's coming into the stadium, and how do we keep that under control? Because bandwidth and those things affect the quality of the experience.

I think of Diversified in deployment integration, traditional pro AV roles, but I know you also do services. Do you see Diversified getting more and more into the services and consulting side of the business? 

Eric Hutto: Absolutely. Where we're headed with this digital world, It's all about design thinking. Now I do think that one thing that is core to Diversified that I've seen already is the ability to sit down and really design and layout to an outcome. Where we do that is in big, large, complex things. Not to say that we don't do that in Google Rooms and so forth. Now that's going to have to get a bit more sophisticated, right? As we bring cloud, bring security, bring software-defined networks into the conversation. 

I think I was reading the other day just to get up to speed on what's happening in the business. They say that by 2030, there'll be another $10 billion invested in stadiums. So they're not standing still. It's not a place of slowness. It's speeding up, but it's going to speed up in a software platform as a service model, and people are going to be able to really track and see what's happening almost at the seat level, if you can imagine that at, in a stadium, when they're having a concert of what and how they move sound around. I think it's going to be all software and it is going to be really important.

I come at this from the angle of digital signage. So that's always what I'm thinking about and less so about some of the more traditional sides of IT and AV collaboration and that sort of thing. I've always thought of Diversified in the sense of the last decade or so as among the big integrators, the one that by far was paying the most attention to and most active in digital signage.

Fred, do you still see it that way or the other guy is coming on and realizing, “Hey, we need to do more in this area”?

Fred D'Alessandro: No, I would agree. I think, look, it's still a key business unit for us that drives a lot of value to our customers, and I think continuing to innovate. That is most important, especially in these kinds of markets.

So large network deployments, content creation is an experiential piece to what that digital signage is going to do for the eyeballs that are looking at it. So it continues to really be a focus for us and it is growing. Coming out of the pandemic, we have large opportunities to grow even bigger in that area.

One of your main competitors now has an experience design group for, big, wow factor, corporate office, campuses and things like that. You guys have always worked with the Gensler's and the ESI Design, that sort of thing, and stayed in your lane. Is it important to do what you're good at, but let the experienced people do what they're good at as opposed to compete with them? 

Fred D'Alessandro: Look, that's always been my philosophy. Best in class, usually at the end of the day wins the day. When you're trying to create that total solution and you don't quite have the best people on your staff, it's usually not a good outcome for the client and that's what it's really about. 

What is what's best for the client? I think our approach is the best. 

The IT services business, and I guess to some degree, the AV services business has grown because you have enterprise level customers of all different stripes and sizes. I gather, saying, “We want to do what we're good at. So can you guys take this other stuff on for us?”

Are you seeing that and seeing growth in that area of being turnkey for a lot of these kinds of projects? 

Fred D'Alessandro: It  usually goes in cycles, but I do think that clients are realizing, especially on a global scale to have a single partner that could provide various solution sets that we have, and I think Diversified is the only company in the world, honestly, that has the portfolio of offerings, and then it's managing for the clients, all these different technology platforms and services and we've seen a tremendous uptick in that requirement and the ask of clients, the technology, even though a user base often feels easier to use, the behind the scenes, the back end and all that stuff, it's complicated, and so many customers don't have the staff that can actually operate or maintain the technology. So that's a big growth area for us, for sure. 

Eric Hutto: One of the things that I've learned over 16 years in IT services is that it is a relationship, and that relationship is trusted and you don't get to be a trusted partner advisor if you’re making decisions that are oriented towards yourself, and I think Fred's right, it's always been outcome-based, and I do think that it gets hard to be the best at every single component of the solution, because it's so complicated these days. There's so many things that you have to consider. 

I absolutely would and I have always leveraged specialty partnerships where they bring it. Even Apple doesn't necessarily do all their own gooey work for their applications and what we interface with because they're very good at what they do, and I do think that's exactly how we'll look at this going forward. Will we need to have some knowledge, onsite with us that understand cloud or security? Absolutely, you always want that, but we'll use strong partnerships in areas where people are really specialized to get the best outcome for the client. 

Yeah. It would be difficult for you guys to hire on the level of creative to compete with the guys who you instead partner with? 

Eric Hutto: Right, and that talent wants a place to grow, and we're not a creative company by core, even though it's something that we can do. 

Yeah, you go into the kitchen to have your lunch and you end up talking to somebody who's a sales engineer and you can talk about football or baseball or whatever, but not so much about the core discipline.

Fred D'Alessandro: Yeah, and we're a company of scale. So again, you can't have one person that understands it and believe that you have an end to end solution, which is quite the story in many cases. 

Eric Hutto: Yeah, and just the IT industry skills are going to evolve in our company. If you go back 15 years, you had storage people and server people and network people. You don't really have that as much anymore. They're still out there, but it's all converged and so integrated that we all have different types of enterprise, and I would imagine it will evolve as this stuff converges, as things merge, as we get more platform oriented software that helps us extend our services and capabilities of the people who will need, will grow into a different skill set.

Security has been obviously a huge component of IT services. Fred, have you started to see that becoming a demand on the AV side as well? 

Fred D'Alessandro: It absolutely is a demand. As all the AV equipment, digital signage players have touched the network, it is absolutely a vulnerable point for IT. So yes, the bottom line is it's been going on and it's just every day gets more and more.y scrutinized and restricted. So you have to have that skill. 

French. You mentioned that 29 years ago, this was a garage story. I don't think I've ever heard that, how the company got started? 

Fred D'Alessandro: I'm a broadcast engineer by trade. I was working in the New York, New Jersey area for the station I worked for, I was blessed to be able to work in many different departments. So I got a well-rounded education for my first seven years of employment there and the home shopping network purchased our TV station when they started up, and it was a decision between going to work for the home shopping network and I'd taken a shot at going out there in the world and doing it on your own, and that's literally what happened. 

I was like, “Let's go. Let's try to make something happen,” and yeah, and so again, we went everywhere up to 300 television towers, replacing antennas to studios. So yeah, absolutely whatever dirty work we could get, we did. 

Wow, I had not heard of the home shopping network thing. I was like, do I want to spend the next 10 years sticking an ice pick in my eyes or move on?

Fred D'Alessandro: So that's why I say, things happen for a reason. I'm a true believer in that. 

So today what's the scale of the company? You're much more than just a US company now and there's a lot of bodies, much more so even than 10 years ago. 

Fred D'Alessandro: Now, our revenue is around a billion dollars. We have around 2,700+ employees worldwide. We have 52 offices, 35 of those are in the US, the rest are overseas. All our offices are sales, integration, and service. So they're not just sales offices. We build and service out of those locations, and about 80% of our revenue is out of the US and about 20% is currently overseas and growing and our latest international operation opened up in Bangalore, India and it is really exciting. 

That's a big road trip!

Fred D'Alessandro: Yes, it is. But when I look at all the players in the industry, what I'll say is by far Diversified has invested the most internally to be a global organization. We use partners but our goal is really to be our own entity and work through the rest of the world, and provide our customers with a consistent and standard experience. 

Have you been going to other countries because you see North America as somewhat capped out or crowded in terms of competition versus other markets, or is it just that there's a lot of growth potential in India? 

Fred D'Alessandro: The view of this and the strategy has always been to be where our customers are. So it really had nothing to do with North America being saturated and there's no more business. There's a lot of business here going forward, but those customers that we work with and touch our global customers. 

So if you want to service them the right way and the best you need to be where they are and so that's been our strategy today. 

Is that a demand, when you're working, as you say, with a global customer, like a Fortune 100 kind of company where they want to roll in multiple countries and in the old days, you'd have to say we can do it here, and we'll see who we can find to do this in France and see if we can find to do this in Japan and so on?

Fred D'Alessandro: Yeah we want to make it easy for them to do business Diversified. So that's a saying that we've had in a company a long time: make it easy for our customers to do business with us, and so being able to work and have established entities in these various countries, you're able to buy in the country, you're able to transact in the country for them, and you just avoid a lot of the inefficiencies that you get when you're trying to do things from just the US. 

Eric Hutto: Just like a lot of companies in IT, you get taken to places by clients, right? So you have to be able to operate where their clients took you. Over time, I think as Fred alluded to, we're going to have our competencies and our direct associates, if you will, but there'll be markets that we're choosing to be in because we see the growth in versus we got taken there by client, but we will always have the ability through partnerships and other relationships to service a client wherever they need to be.

I think that's the balance of, direct labor, indirect labor, having more of a variable bottle. It allows you to stay extremely nimble and flexible, but at the same time where you have decided to be in a market, that is where your associates are. 

Has most of the growth that you've seen both domestically and internationally being through acquisition, or are you going into some markets and just opening up as Diversified and starting to hire and do sales?

Fred D'Alessandro: I would say all our expansion has been strategic. We've absolutely never just gone in and said, we hope there's business there and that we're going to sell. So I think Eric's point is very true, you look at what opportunities are in the country, and who our global clients are and where they are. So when you put those two together, you have a really large opportunity. 

Eric Hutto: In my initial, what solid 14 days, Fred, what I have seen in talking with, and I've talked to surprisingly, quite a few people. That's just how I work and learn, I start at the frontline and work backwards. We are growing a lot and mainly from relationships we have because we're tried and true, and we've always done great quality work. 

So I see a lot of organic growth really in this year, Fred, I would say because we've learned how to, really get in with a client and understand the problems and solve them and they continue to consume more from us, and as our portfolio expands and we're able to do other things besides just to your point earlier about integration and putting things in, we just continue to create a stickiness with our clients and create the value. 

Where do you guys see the opportunity over the next couple of years as we get out of this mess with COVID?

Fred D'Alessandro: What I'll say is, I see a tremendous amount of opportunity with, like you said, returning to work is one, which obviously is the collaboration and that piece of it. I think when you look at how digital signage, how media, how IT are all stitching together these disparate technologies into one experience, for, I think our customers, their employees, their customers, is what is really exciting and the opportunity that I think with the pandemic brought a lot of new thinking into our organization about how we can help our customers, not just during a pandemic, but long after and make what we design, what we create, what we install and maintain more valuable than it was in the past. So there's a big opportunity in all these stitching together. 

Did you learn things out of the pandemic as well? 

I saw a lot of investments, a lot of marketing of products that were pandemic-specific like thermal sensors, temperature scanners, alternatives to touch screens and so on, and while there was a lot of noise around it, I didn't see a lot of commercial take-up of them. 

Fred D'Alessandro: Yeah, I would agree. I think that at the end of the day, some of those were needed at the time, but, I don't think there's a future for a lot of these products. As I said, when you think to the core of what companies need to do, their employees need to collaborate. Those types of tools I think, we'll continue to add value. 

When you think about streaming and media and virtual events, those will, I think, continue. So there are a number of things that I think the new workplace and a workforce will embrace, and I think it will add efficiency and it will be a better outcome for all.

Eric Hutto: It also gives us a chance to help companies rethink their work environment. Because even when I was at Unisys, we didn't have everybody coming back to the office yet, but as they start to come back, what kind of office is it, right? And really what people need is collaborative spaces where they can come, engage, connect, get things done, and then move on. 

But I think that's a huge opportunity for us to, again, help them think through the design of what it is they want to achieve with their associate base when they do come back. 

A lot of what I've seen around the workplace has been so focused on the front of house, so to speak, the white collar areas, the offices, and not that much about the production floors, the warehouses and all those sorts of things. Have you seen more understanding of that as an opportunity and a need? 

Fred D'Alessandro: We see a lot of digital signage, IP TV opportunities in the warehouse workplaces, because corporate communications is key.  I mean we have Rachel on the phone here with us, but I think that's one of the things that you learned, especially during a pandemic of how important communication is. So I think companies going forward will need to step up their game, to make sure that everybody is connected because everybody is now always in the office or in the warehouse these days.

So it's important, but that's where I see digital signage, corporate communications, IP TV really being the leader and that's what we do really well. That's an area we've been doing extremely well in. 

So just the last question, what's been the reception around the industry to the news that you're taking on a different role and Eric stepping in?

Fred D'Alessandro: Well, from my perspective I'll say, look, everybody's congratulated me. 

Are they saying, “Oh, thank God”?

Fred D'Alessandro: Exactly, to some degree. People are happy that I'm not going anywhere that I'm still around. But again, as I've made clear, Eric has the football now and I'm here to support him and I'm here to support the organization and our clients. So yeah, it's been really positive, very rewarding. I'm humbled by a lot of the emails and phone calls. 

Well, congratulations to both of you and a pleasure chatting with you. 

Eric Hutto: Thanks, I appreciate it. 

Fred D'Alessandro: Thank you. 

Randy Guy, Bluefin

Randy Guy, Bluefin

March 16, 2022


Much of the attention in digital signage goes to big-dollar projects that feature huge screens and flashy content, but there's a good business and a lot of trade happening with much smaller displays that just help explain and sell stuff.

Bluefin International kind of fell into digital signage in the mid-2000s, and it has turned into a full-time business. The companies that were buying corporate-branded digital picture frames from Bluefin started asking for more functionality, to make the screens interactive in settings like retail. Now the Atlanta company has a wide range of sizes and types of flat panel displays that brands are using to influence consumers right at merchandising positions.

I had a great chat with Randy Guy, Bluefin's owner, about how he found his way into digital signage, and how his company operates - straddling a main office in Georgia with a manufacturing plant he owns and runs in Shenzhen, China.

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Randy, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me about Bluefin’s roots and the core focus of the company? 

Randy Guy: Sure. Dave, that's a kind of a tricky question, but we started 21 years ago selling USB flash drives out of China. Everything we tried was a challenge, and eventually in 2004, people wanted us to customize the flash drives and put people's logos on them. That got us in the promotional products business. We invested in some facility over there to do customization. 

In 2007, 2008, we started selling a lot of digital picture frames. The pharma companies, the big guys were giving away to doctors and everybody digital picture frames, and people started wanting us to customize those picture frames by adding touch, push button, motion sensors, things like that. So we developed our own ad player in 2008 based on our own proprietary platform, and we engineered and designed it and held all the mechanicals ourselves, and that kind of got us in the LCD market. So we started making custom LCDs in 2011 for some large global brands and then when Brightsign introduced their all-in-one chip back in 2016, they came to us and we were able to put that in an all-in-one fixture, and that kinda got us into the digital signage market. 

So it was a tricky way to get into the digital signage market, but that's the truth, and that's how we got here. It's 21 years later. We have owned a facility in China since 2012, where we do all our engineering design and manufacturing. We still have our promotional product business. It's thriving and focuses on consumer electronics, think anything from earbuds to USB chargers, anything that you would buy in an electronic store, we still put people's logos on.

So our background is customization. Our background is giving the people exactly what they want, and we've just transitioned that to digital signage and LCD manufacturing, that's probably one of our core strengths and they all see the businesses you get exactly what you want from Bluefin. You have a challenge or you have a specific need for an LCD, we can customize the fixture or the LCD to meet exactly what you're looking for. 

That's interesting. I suspect with a lot of companies in this space, if you said, “Yeah, I really liked that, but I need it in blue”, there's just going to get pushback saying no, can't do that.

Randy Guy: Absolutely. In fact, one of our largest roll-outs was in white. We went to a large furniture manufacturer, a global retail brand, and they insisted on white touchscreens, white housings. So color is not a problem on our end. We've offered them in blue, red, and white has been since our largest rollout where they insisted on that color.

Yeah. If you're a conventional manufacturer, this just wouldn't be in your wheelhouse at all but you've got that experience. 

Randy Guy: Absolutely. To be honest with you, we don't really compete with the traditional guys. We're niche, and we're so focused on customization and larger projects where people really need something customized and they want to hold those mechanicals for 5 to 10 years, that's why they come to us. It's because they know we deliver a product today, five years from now, they can get the exact same product from us, the same customization, same everything. We keep that SKU constant for those guys throughout the life of their project. 

This may be a difficult question because “typical” is probably all over the place, but what would be a typical kind of environment that you would be in with your screens?

Randy Guy: Our background has been the point of purchase market, working with retailers and the retail fixture manufacturers, coming up with solutions. There's not a retailer out there that doesn't have our screens working. So really when they come to us with a challenge and they say, I've got this much space, or I need this particular mounting pattern, or I need this particular setup from a touchscreen perspective, and we want to specific void of space, I think that's probably our biggest value add and then making it all come together, giving them exactly what they want. 

We offer around 30 screen sizes between the standard 16:9, and then also the stretch-bar LCD category, and then we custom cut sizes as well, so there's really not a size we can't handle and we can't provide. We do focus on the smaller sizes because once you get into the bigger glass, we really lose our cost advantages from the big guys cutting so much 43 and 55 inch glass. But we still do that. Our customers are very specific about needing a specific mechanical design or something customized. Those guys, the big guys, don't want to mess with a thousand custom 43 inch monitors, but that’s right up our alley.

Yeah, they want to do a hundred thousand. 

Randy Guy: Exactly. 

So a lot of this would be like end cap displays, merchandising displays, like in something like a Best Buy where there's an audio product or a home automation product, and there'll be a screen there that's an explainer screen. Is that pretty typical? 

Randy Guy: Absolutely. That's the perfect application. We have a lot of units in these different retailers. The touch screens become really important when it's a higher end category and the product might be complicated or it needs more explanation, or the customer might have more questions or wants to dig in deeper on other items like accessories and how the product works. That's where touchscreen interactivity really comes into play in the retail market because you can drive home your message, and the customer can explore the product on the screen versus we still sell a lot of just looping videos, your Best Buy basic 10” screen that just loops a video, it gives you a basic idea of what the product does, and it shows them some pictures and videos of the product and real life applications. But the touch screens are really where it gets deeper and you can really enhance the customer experience with information. 

And a lot of times they're smaller just simply because the retailer doesn't want to surrender stocking space and merchandising space so they want to integrate it there, but it can't be a big ass display because then they can't put products there, right? 

Randy Guy: Exactly. The small form factors are ideal for the point of purchase because you are competing for the physical space on the shelf itself or on the display. They want to stack it full of products, it can be speakers or earbuds or Bluetooth headsets so they want to have plenty of room on there for the product. So smaller is better in that sense. 

But now the digital signage world is finding a lot of applications for small form factors. They're thinking, this might be a great opportunity to engage in a customer here or different spots throughout different buildings, whether it be corporate or hospitality. VisualSign just started to come around, I think, with the small form factors, we're seeing a lot of opportunity, especially with the customization we can do. They can have something really unique to grab people's attention. 

Yeah. I've been in digital signage for a long time and have been paying attention to it for at least 21 years. I would say the first wave of digital signage in retail, if you set aside those companies that put screens in and want to sell ads on them, and they’ll put them in for free. If it's the retailers paying for it, the first wave seemed to be large screens hanging from the ceiling on the walls and everything else.

That didn't really work, and the next wave seems to be maybe big LED feature walls, but just one of them and then small screens, right at the point of purchase. 

Randy Guy: Absolutely. We're seeing a transition from path to purchase where a lot of consumer packaged goods brands advertise on billboards and commercials. They want to be where you're buying the product. They want to be where the product is, and then a lot of times you're not going to hang a 55 inch by a candy aisle or by a potato chip aisle. You're going to need a smaller form factor to grab the customer's attention and drive them to your product.

But the brands are starting to see a lot more value in being at the point of purchase versus the path to purchase. So we were excited about that kind of transition and how to forge that customer experience because the brands have the money to spend, and if they want to be front and center where the product is purchased, that's a great opportunity for our industry. 

When I was dealing with packaged goods companies like 12-15 years ago, and their brand marketers were asking about doing digital display in the store, right at the fixture, they liked it, but they said the unit cost was too much, didn't want to spend it and they only needed it for six months or maybe even three months. Could they rent it? 

How has that changed or are those CPG brands now willing to spend the money? 

Randy Guy: They are willing to spend the money, and I think that not only on the brands, but the retailers and the store owners themselves are seeing opportunities to share that screen space and get value added as well.

A perfect example would be the CPG might get 75% of the screen for 75% of the time, and the store owner would get, or the store chain would get, or the retail chain would get the other 25% of the time and they can share that screen, but the screens have come down in cost. We have a solution called Daisy chain where you can put multiple screens on one player. So that helps drive this cost down and you only have one endpoint to maintain. So we feel like that's a really good solution that we're pitching to a lot of people. We're starting to roll out in volume to different retailers with that solution, but basically you can run, say a 24” stretch, you can run 12 of those displays off of a 4k box. So that helps drop the costs down and it helps them repurpose the product and they have a lot more screens for a lot less. 

I suspect your a technical guys, particularly those who've been with you for a while, have been on a bit of a journey because I was interested in digital picture frames just as you were going in the late two thousands and thinking, maybe these things are digital signgage, they're low cost or integrated and everything else, but the technology, the underlying hardware in a lot of cases I suspect was more than a little flaky, but how hard was it to find reliable goods or is that why you just set up your own manufacturing?

Randy Guy: It was a challenge going from some of the higher end industrial grade monitors, a seven inch monitor might have been $400 and a digital picture frame was $40. While the fixture gas and the retail markets are great, we love this $40 solution, but it doesn't have the functionality or the industrial grade qualities of this $400 a unit. So that was our challenge. 

How do we beef up our digital picture frame to make it into an ad player, and that's when we researched the chip sets and designed a platform around that, and we took control of the mechanicals and put it in metal housings and those types of things. So we industrialized digital picture frames is really what we did and how we got started in a very crude sense of product development. We took a really low cost plastic housing, a digital picture frame, and we put it in a metal housing, beefed up the chip sets, gave it more functionality, we added touch and push-button capabilities and motion sensors and those types of things. That's how we got started in 2008 with our first ad player. 

So you're kind of remanufacturing them? 

Randy Guy: Actually redesigning them, and believe it or not, we're still selling picture frames. We're still selling that plastic low end picture frame with people's logos on it. It's kinda made a comeback in the last couple of years. 

Yeah, I was walking around a Best Buy recently and saw a company song that I thought, oh, this was like a flashback for me. I felt like I was back in 2008, like you say, the demand is there. 

Randy Guy: Absolutely, especially on the 10” size. Once the screen get down to lower costs, people can get more bang for their buck and there's been some really good companies that have come out with solutions that integrate with your phone and have apps. I can be out fishing with my kids or in a football game and I can take a picture and I can download it directly to my mother's 13 or 15 inch I bought her that’s sitting on the mantle, and so she gets real time pictures of us at the beach or wherever we are. 

So they've come a long way from the original where you had to put everything onto an SD card and plug it in and then take it out and update the pictures and everything. So some of the applications now with picture frames are really cool. 

When you started to redesign these picture frames, is it at that point that you started working with BrightSign or was that kind of further down the road?

Randy Guy: That was further down the road. We were out selling our ad player and we had a global brand that wanted us to make custom monitors for them, and then we got introduced to BrightSign that way,  so we optimized our monitors for BrightSign’s box and then when they came to market with their own all in one chip, we were the first ones to integrate it and bring it to market, and that their platform took it to a whole nother level from functionality and connectivity. 

And they've brought all the programming you can do to all the touch screens and interactivity, so that just elevated it to another level from where we had developed. 

I'd assume that kind of removes some of the R&D headaches and challenges that you're facing because they have that figured out and you just got to snap that board in?

Randy Guy: Absolutely, especially on the content creation side and the interactivity. We used to do layer touchscreens where it was quite the challenge to program and everything else, and they've got all that canned in the package and it's very simple. Everybody's familiar with it. That makes it a lot easier technically for sure. 

Does it add a layer of comfort as well when you're working with resellers and integrators that you can say it's BrightSign under the hood and they feel better? 

Randy Guy: Oh, absolutely. They are an award-winning platform and software and their support and the reliability and the products themselves. People love them, so absolutely, it provides a layer of comfort. 

They've done a nice job. It's at a level now when I talk to people, they're saying we're thinking about PCs, or maybe we're going to use smart displays or maybe we'll use BrightSign boxes. So it's at a level now where it seems to be its own category.

Randy Guy: Absolutely. They've done a great job and their products are exceptional. Between the support they provide and the product quality and reliability, it's definitely a bonus to integrate their products into our stuff and the digital signage world and their retail and point of purchase world really resonates with our solutions.

I guess there’s not really an installed base, but from the numbers of products out there, what would be the percentage of them that are connected versus just working off of a memory card? 

Randy Guy: I would say probably 75% are working off a memory card. There might be more than that that's connected, but how often people update content is never as often as they want to or they think they're going to when they roll out an application. 

So if it's just working off a memory card, it's not connected. If there's a problem, something locks up or whatever, does anybody know, or you're completely at the mercy of the local store manager?

Randy Guy: If you're not connected to the internet, then you're not going to have visibility for that time. The beauty of our products is that if there's any kind of power issue or for any reason, the unit reboots, it fully auto starts, it doesn't require any interaction. 

They're designed not to go down, to be honest with you. That’s the beauty of our platform is to know the OS and things like that you're going to have challenges with. As far as locking up and having to reboot or something like that, we just don't have those challenges in our platforms. 

So the bigger challenge in a lot of respects is just all the stuff that you can buy off Alibaba that says it's a looping ad display or whatever and those are, I'm sure out in retail as well, and those who go down, maybe they don't have the routines to come back. So somebody would look at that and go, this sort of stuff doesn't work, I don't want to buy this.

Randy Guy: Absolutely. If there's any opportunity for the unit so you don't have to choose a menu or do something to start the device, that's a challenge. Retailers lose power all the time. A lot of stores shut down power at night. So no one has the stomach anymore to have those touchscreens, and if you rely on the store manager or the local staff to keep your signage running, you're in trouble.

So it has to be plug and play and it has to be autostart, and it has to correct itself if there are any power issues or anything like that, it has to take care of those challenges on its own. You can't rely on any human help at the store. 

Are there any limitations as to what you can do, like it'll only run standard definition video or anything like that?

Randy Guy: No limitations. Any kind of crazy resolutions that the screen manufacturers come up with, we find a way to integrate them in our displays and make that available to the content guys. I'd say the stretch bar LCD is a challenge. Well, content is always a challenge because there's content creation and getting it updated and getting it approved by all the different parts of whether it be brands or manufacturers that have to approve the content. But when you start changing the resolutions from standard 16:9 or standard 1080p, then that's when they start having real delays and challenges and that can mess up a project. It's more on the content creation side than it is us being able to deliver the content on the screen. 

Are you seeing demand? I did a podcast recently with another company, Instorescreen, and they do inline shelf edge displays that are like ribbon displays and that sort of thing. Are you getting the ask for that sort of thing? 

Randy Guy: We absolutely participate in that market. I think it's going to be a challenge long-term though. I think you can overwhelm the customer at some point. You can have too much video. You can have too much color. In fact, we've had displays where people are trying to take the color out and they're making it more monochrome looking almost on a regular display.

So I think that there's a place for those solutions. I think it's going to be more higher end, higher dollar valued products. I can't imagine that we're going to see shampoo or toothpaste full of LCD screens, telling you what the price is on every one of those shelves that are trying to sell those, but I can see where a higher end item, for example, home audio, $200-$300 items. I can see where you can use stretch displays for something like that to not only educate the customer, but there's more to it, like specs and technical information to give on something like that, and then the dollar value supports the spend on the digital signage. I just can't imagine a shampoo or a toothpaste driving in a value to warrant having a digital signage solution. So that's my take on it. 

I think it's going to be very targeted for certain categories, maybe new products or something like that, but I don't see a future where every shelf in the grocery stores has a screen on it. That's just me personally. I just don't see it.

I always liken it to a kaleidoscope effect, and years ago, working with a company that was going to put screens in like flat panel displays with ads on them on casino floors, and they engaged me to walk around the casino with them and ask where they should put them on. I said not in here, period, because there's too damn much going on there. They're just going to get lost in all the other razzle-dazzles that's there, put them in the entryways, put them in the common areas, it's the same thing. If every shelf edge has motion media going, that is just, like you say, it's overwhelming. 

Randy Guy: Absolutely. Humans can be overstimulated, they'll just tune it all out. I think that you'll lose the effectiveness of it.While I think there's a more targeted market for shelf edge, I don't think it's going to be a hundred percent off the shelves or an opportunity in my mind. 

Is it easier now to go into stores because 20 years ago there was no power in the floor, very little power at the merchandising areas, in the shelf gondolas or any of that stuff so you had to do drops of power cords and this and that, all kinds of hacks to get power to the screens. Is it better now? 

Randy Guy: Absolutely. In the places where digital signage and point of purchase kiosks are located, the retail owners are finding a way to get power to those locations. They see that it's a necessity. We used to end caps in some of the largest home improvement stores and things like that and they didn't have power, but now they're seeing the benefit that they need to get power there. 

Another benefit of a lot of our products is that you can use power over ethernet, which makes it low voltage. So you don't have to do a power drop with a certified electrician and worry about code and pulling permits, and things like that, and you can move the product around a whole lot easier with a network cable than you can trying to find a power outlet. So power over ethernet solved a lot of those issues for people that were hesitant to run a power drop but it's pretty easy to run a network cable. 

Do you see much business outside of retail? 

Randy Guy: Oh, we do. Like I said, the digital signage world in general is starting to warm up, especially the interactive touchscreens. The start of the pandemic was a scare for us because of all the noise around touch screens and surfaces and transmitting COVID, but that went away. Thank goodness. That was going to be a real challenge for the market if that hadn't changed, so that put a scare in us big time. 

One of the biggest applications we're seeing uses for our small form factor of touchscreens is people are able to control larger screens, almost using our screens as a remote control. So you get the bang for the buck, you can have interactivity, you have a robust solution. You can go through a lot of different content, but it's being thrown up on a bigger screen where you get a bigger experience and then you can engage people that aren't actually touching the interactive part, so you can engage people all around the store or the lobby or wherever since they can see what's going on. So we think that's a pretty cool solution and almost a cheaper way to put interactivity on a large screen TV is by having a control box. That's a lot lower cost. 

You don't want to have a 65 inch touchscreen. You can, but it's going to be really super expensive, and people are, other than wayfinding, a lot of people aren't comfortable walking up huge screens and start banging on it and touching on it, there's a hesitation in that sense and when you're so close to a big screen, you can't really take in all the content anyway. So we love solutions where we use our small screens to drive larger screens, we think that has a lot of legs. 

Yeah, and with LED video walls, with some exceptions, for the most part, you really don't want people walking up to that LED wall and touching it in any way.

Randy Guy: Exactly. Touchscreens have always had a little hesitancy from the public, but they're getting used to them with the tablets and iPads and those types of devices, they're getting used to coming up and touching smaller screens, but you're right. You don't want them touching the bigger screens and people were a little bit leery of doing that anyway.

You recently added an open operating system for an all-in-one display that has ARM processors and can run on like Linux and Android. So it shifts or provides an alternative to BrightSign. Why did that come about? 

Randy Guy: Just supply chain issues. We can’t have enough options in the world right now. We have some specific clients who are using those platforms. At the end of the day, we're a contract manufacturer. That's our customization angle is that we want to make whatever product you need. So it was twofold. One, the product supply issues, and anything could happen in this world from a supply chain standpoint, it was what we've all figured out. And number two, customers really want that solution. A lot of people are already using that solution. We felt that we were missing some market share and some opportunities there. We wanted to be able to offer any platform they want to use and pretty much be a one-stop shop.

So if you had a screen network that was using a lot of Android driven boxes or Android smart displays, they didn't want to add this into the network, running something that’s different. They would prefer that this be Android too? 

Randy Guy: Absolutely. So if they've already spent the time and money to develop an Android app and they're supporting it then they want as many devices as they can get on that platform. So they don't have to support multiple platforms. So we were getting shut out of a lot of opportunities,where  they insisted on something running Android. They loved our product, but they had to have Android. So that was a challenge. 

And as we talked about before, their only other option probably would be to go on Alibaba and then cross their fingers, right?

Randy Guy: Absolutely. Being a US-based company is a huge advantage over Alibaba and those types of companies of the world. Just from the standpoint, we support all our products in the U S. You've got credit terms. You've got RMA support and it's just a lot easier to handle projects and a lot more comfortable on the thrust side of things. So we see that as a huge benefit owning our own facility in China, we're cost competitive with anybody in the world. So we take that factor out. 

So the ability to have inventory and samples and can support projects, US-based you know, that gives us a big advantage. 

Yeah. You could have a contract manufacturer in Shenzhen, but if they're busy on something else, well, too bad.

Randy Guy: Absolutely, and then, those guys, they don't like to run a 100 units or 50 units or 75 units and then run 75 this week and you come back three weeks later and want 30 more, that doesn't go over. You don't stay in their graces very long, but customization and projects, that's been our business for 21 years.

Someone might order 500 pieces today and if they come back three weeks later, oh, shoot. I should've ordered some spares, I need it. That's what we do. That's not a challenge on our end. A lot of people resonate with that and they appreciate that. They get a flat pricing on stuff like that, and we're here to serve them and make sure that they get what they need. And if they need an extra 50 units for gosh sakes, we're not gonna penalize them or be mad that they need 50 more units because the quantity is low. We've got to see the bigger picture, the whole thing. 

In 2022, what more are we going to see out of Bluefin? 

Randy Guy: We've got a couple of surprises up our sleeve that we're designing on. There's a few segments of the market that that we think are underserved, that we're really eyeballing. One thing about being a small company is that we are small enough that we care about the customers and we listen to customers, but we're also big enough that we can take care of the customers and we're getting a lot of feedback from a couple of different channels in the market that they're having a heartburn with and they're struggling with, and being a small company, we can pivot and try to meet some of those needs of the customers where they're having issues. So we're excited about a couple of initiatives that we've got, hopefully gonna roll out here in the first half of this year.

Hopefully prior to InfoComm, and so we've got a few things coming out. We'd love to get back on here and talk to you about as we move along. 

All right. So if people want to know more work and how can they find you online?

Randy Guy: We are

The only other thing I have on here I wanna make sure we cover, our supply chain issues are resolving quickly, so we're offering more products to hedge against future supply chain issues. Logistics is still a challenge, but our lead times are back down in our normal four to five week range now. Getting the product to the United States is different. Air freight is reliable, but it's really expensive right now, ship freight is not reliable and it's still expensive. So it's a double edged sword there, but from a production capability, we're getting back into business, we are ready to roll. From that standpoint, we are seeing the pandemic kind of fade away on the supply chain side from component issues. 

All right, Randy, thank you so much for spending some time with me. 

Randy Guy: Oh, absolutely. I appreciate you having me on, I look forward to coming back soon with some more exciting news.

Jason Cremins, Signagelive 2022

Jason Cremins, Signagelive 2022

March 2, 2022


One of the terms the digital signage community is going to start seeing more often is headless CMS - the idea of getting away from the walled garden nature of many to most digital signage platforms and instead offering something that is open and flexible.

Most software platforms out there are still variations on walled gardens, but I've been hearing from a few companies that have re-architected their code and platforms to be some version of headless. One of the early adopters - very predictably - is Signagelive, a UK CMS software firm that has a knack for staying very current with technology advances, and for developing a platform that is very open and malleable ... but also secure.

CEO Jason Cremins was one of the first poor souls nutty enough to come on this podcast, and I was surprised to sort out that it had been almost six years since we had that first chat. I was very happy to catch up with him, and dig into what headless CMS is all about, who's using it, and why.

We also get into another interesting thing the company has developed - secure dashboards, a stable, secure and easy way to get visualized data on digital signage screens.

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Jason, thank you for joining me. We've spoken in the past. We've spoken many times actually, but for a podcast, I looked it up and saw, it was like six years ago. So you're one of the first victims. 

Jason Cremins: Yeah, thanks, Dave. I can't believe it's been six years since we had that conversation.

I wanted to talk to you to catch up in a lot of ways around Signagelive, but I was particularly interested because for the last year or so, I'd say you've been talking up a concept that is just nibbling at the edges of Digital signage consciousness, if you want to put it in that way. People are just starting to understand this idea of headless CMS, and also talk a little bit about another product of yours, secure dashboards because they're two concepts that I'd say are not terribly well known within the digital signage industry yet, but will be.

Jason Cremins: Yeah, thanks for that. The whole concept of headless for us has come about really through the need from the channel partners that we have and the customers that we have and at its core, what it really allows us to do is expose absolutely everything that you can do with Signagelive as a platform and in terms of the management and the control of players through a series of API APIs and those API APIs then allow third party organizations to build solutions around the core signage like capabilities. 

So this is a lot more than that old concept of white labeling a CMS platform, so you don't really know who the vendor is, but you're still using it the way it was written and the UX is there and everything else. These are the tools, and then you can write it and use it the way you want, right? 

Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely. It's code level control really. We are the engine underneath the hood, we’re the delivery platform. I suppose in the same way that organizations are building solutions on top of AWS for web apps, we're looking to achieve a similar proposition for our partners who want to build custom solutions on top of signagelive for a whole range of applications, and I think one of the key things is digital signage is just one of those, the outputs can be many varied. 

So why would they want to do that? My understanding is you've got organizations that produce content for a whole bunch of end points, not just digital signage endpoints, just a whole variety of them, and they don't want to have to back out of what they use, the tools they use for all those things, and then log into digital signage to do that one little piece of it and then back out and do the other stuff. Is that a fair assessment? 

Jason Cremins: I think it is.

It depends on who the customer is, so where the need needs being driven from. So if it’s a specialist, digital signage reseller who is providing a full managed service for their customers, then it may well be that they want to present a portal or a user experience that is unified across maybe different tools they're providing that customer, different management tools.

We've got one partner, for example, who has got some really good connections into the Google Chrome management device environment, and the APIs that Google provides and they want that to be wrapped up with the CMS capabilities, and so therefore they're using Signagelive for that component. So yeah, certainly from a point of view the integrator is very much about presenting a unified solution, their own custom user journey effectively and workflows for that, for their customers, and then what we're finding for end-users, it's very much about those community developers and organizations, where they've got existing business logic and workflow in place, and they want to avoid having to replicate those tasks. So how can we just move digital signage and publishing of data and receiving information about the device and the status into the existing tools that we all use within the business? 

So what would that look like in something like, let's say an interactive agency, that's doing a pile of work for a big corporate client?

Jason Cremins: Yeah, what it would look like for them is that they would typically work with us. We'd set up a development environment. We've got obviously extensive documentation and examples of what could be achieved. We would assist them in terms of setting up example code and just really working through, I suppose the story, what is the problem we're trying to solve? That's what we'll try to do in businesses is how they're trying to solve a problem for a particular customer, and then what we would do then is point them in the right direction of the various APIs that we have. 

So if it's, for example, the ability to either hard trigger or soft trigger content, we've got APIs that allow you to do that. If it's the ability to take data and ingest that and have that display within HTML5 content again, we've got APIs that allow you to do that too. So we've got a range of entry points around the core platform APIs and SDKs, and it would allow us to work with that agency really, to build a solution for their customers.

So would they then have to build a brand new interface to deal with all out or could it be layered into what they're already using? 

Jason Cremins: Totally laid in. So it is what they're already using. If they're using modern web technologies, typically they have API capabilities or certainly they've got accessibility or capability within their teams to be able to build out those user interfaces. Obviously in recent years, with the way the web technologies have moved, there's been very much a separation between the visual experience and what's being delivered on the front end to using portals and UI/UX is whether it be, across mobile, across the whole range and the actual business logic and the doing behind the scenes, database distribution and media management, et cetera.

So yeah, very much they can build it however they want, as long as they adhere to the APIs that we have in place. 

Is there a degree of transparency? So let's say you have a reseller or an integrator that you're working with and they have a big corporate client of some kind, a retailer, QSR, whatever it may be. Do they know that it's Signagelive under the hood or are you completely big behind the curtains?

Jason Cremins: We’re completely behind the curtains. From our point of view, everything is transparent. For example, the customer would be looking into their portal so therefore we are the code downstream of any actions that they're taking on that portal, there's no reference to Signagelive.

The way that licenses are procured and added to devices, the way those devices are presented is all again, completely transparent, and the partner can decide what that's called, how that looks, without any reference to Signagelive, and then when you're on the device end the pages such as activation codes or notices of expiring or those other things are completely customizable as well and programmable by the partner.

So yeah, from our point of view our role there with those organizations that we're working with is to provide them the support, and provide them the tools and extend the API as they require and allow them to go and build their book of business around that code. 

Does this require a different kind of support for your reseller ecosystem, in terms of, if it's your own product and it's visibly Signagelive that you're working with and you make a new version release or whatever you push it out and everybody knows about it. 

With this you have a tool set and then you have an integrator with its own toolset or its front end that it's written on top of. So do you have to say we've changed this about our API or whatever that you need to deal with? 

Jason Cremins: Yeah, that's a very good point. And I think that starts from the outset, because the minute we've done the initial discovery and the qualification that there is genuine interest, and also they've got the capabilities within their organization to undertake the type of integration that would be required with our APIs, then the commercial team completely steps out of the way, the regular end user and channel support team steps aside, and those partners are provided direct access to the development team. 

So it's very much a developer to developer conversation around utilizing the tools and the various code samples and all the other bits that are required and that's a completely separate Slack environment that those guys can work on together, and have that kind of trust, and build up that relationship to build the solutions without with us commercial and regular support team getting involved. 

What took you down this path? Headless CMS is a broader concept in Web 3 or whatever you want to call it, but did you see this as a trend that you wanted to get on top of or were you being asked about it? 

Jason Cremins: A bit of both, I would say. I think one of the things that we were looking to do was re-engineer our own platform and it made sense that we became the first consumer of our own APIs. So I think there was a conscious decision to do that and that journey probably started 3+ years ago, and every line of code we've written, the sense has been API first. So we've crafted and come up with the API architecture and then decided, we're going to build on top of that in terms of the user experience within Signagelive. 

So I think that was one of the key things, but then also we were getting a lot of requirements for integration with say business workflows and tools that people were already using beyond just shuffling content from a third party platform down to a screen, and then also extending that capability into local environments. We've got an APIs that allows us to, to trigger either immediately or soft trigger, IE, do this next, and then we've built out another API, which we call real-time events, which runs across the different devices we support that allow us to extend that further through code to interact with non-web technology. So things like serial devices, lighting controls, all these other things that are required, when you get down into a physical presence, you want to build an experience that’s beyond just sending web requests. 

So yeah, it's been a combination of both and that's been both end-users that have approached us and we've had conversations around their needs and also then the partners and integration organizations that we're working with who are building out these experiences based on what the customer wants to achieve. 

And this isn't just conceptual at this point, you have clients who are using it in this way now, right? 

Jason Cremins: Yeah. From our point of view, the commercial model is really the thing that determines where the split is, so we traditionally sold licenses and then subsequently services and plans, and they've gone through the traditional channel model, whether it be distribution, resellers, 

This is more of a consumption model. So it's an ability for at the first level of the ability to activate licenses as required and deactivate those as required. That's been a big key element of all that we've done, and then further on with as we'll get onto other products, it's true consumption is about the actual amount of usage that you need from the platform. 

So are there companies and projects that you can talk about that are actively using a headless CMS model?

Jason Cremins: Yeah, we can. One of the organizations that we're working with and they're actually included in the white paper that's on our website is Entwined who are down in Australia, and we've been working with Entwined now for the last two and a half years as they start to build out their digital signage strategy, and they were disillusioned with the challenges they had trying to work across multiple different CMS platforms to meet the needs of different customers in different sectors. So we work very closely with them to become their engine for their success. 

I think one of the big attractions is that we've got this very wide support for different player technology into the 30+ different platforms that we support in different variants, and they wanted that. They didn't want to be restricted by a single CMS’s support for a certain hardware tech, or a certain operating system. So we work with Entwined to build that out and we've got some significant wins together, but we will allow them to make those announcements as they come along.

So in that case, there is mostly a managed service model for them? 

Jason Cremins: From their point of view, it is absolutely a managed service model. We support them as a technical team and to ensure they've got everything they need, and from their perspective, they are providing a fully managed proposition for their customers. So they are direct to their customers providing a full installation, maintenance, content services, marketing strategy, everything that's required to deliver a successful solution. 

Yeah, that's interesting because I was saying to somebody the other day that one of the trends I see happening is you have “solutions providers”, “integrators” companies that normally just do installations and so on, adding more service capabilities because there's more recurring revenue there and it would be mightily challenging if you are at the mercy of the software companies to get a particular piece of functionality or whatever added to their roadmap, and then, you wait for it to actually come together and so on, and then you've got to, as you said, support all these things versus having a lot more control over what you can do and narrowing it down to one provider. But I guess there's still the challenge that even with that, they're still waiting a little bit on functionality to be delivered at year end, right? 

Jason Cremins: Yeah, occasionally. I think most of the time, what we're seeing is there's an opportunity to bring in other adjacent technologies. So with Entwined and with other partners we're working with, for example, Audience Analytics, we've got certain partners and work that we've done in that space, but if I got a particular partner they're working with, and there's absolutely no reason why they can't combine what we're doing in terms of providing proof of play and accountability in terms of what the player is doing with a media playback, and then combining that in parallel with other information, and then delivering that as a complete set of data and set of insights for individual customers.

So I think it's about really understanding what the need is. If it's not core to what we're doing as an organization, if it doesn't benefit the wider community of companies that we have. Bear in mind a lot of the APIs that we do develop at their core are for enterprise customers and so if we see things the other way round as well, is that it's exciting for our API headless customers when we can say actually, for example, we've built out out granule user permissions model which has now got over 150 different flags you can turn on and off per user, and by the way, we've got a new hierarchy of infrastructure coming along and we just launched 2FA for security. 

So they benefit from all of those because all of those are available through the APIs, and a lot of that is then listening to the same customers they're approaching with a complete solution that maybe we're having conversations with other territories where they're overtly using Signagelive as a platform.

Do you see headless as being a pretty significant part of your business and will you always balance the Signagelive familiar UX that some companies are going to use Or a lot of them are just going to headless? 

Jason Cremins: I think there's definitely a trend towards more integrated solutions. People talk about user experience platforms. I heard that kind of thing mentioned and talked about by others and I suppose it is about that, and it's really whether we build something that. I don't want us to be a constraint for our partner or for our customers. So we will take our product and develop it where we feel it needs to go and where the mass market requires Signagelive to go. 

But I think what we're finding with the headless proposition is that it does allow that kind of wider thought process and say, a partner or someone looking to create their own brand in the space or integrate with their own backend digital asset management platform or workflow systems, they can decide what features they want to present to the customer, and some of those will be from Signagelive, and others will be from other third party web apps that they're talking to.

You only have to look at the way things like Zapier have blown up over the years in terms of connecting A to B to C to create a solution and we want to be part of that. We integrate with low-code and no-code platforms, for example, which basically takes the development and the ability to build applications, not just from a curly bracket low-level coders, but it puts that into community code, as they always say about low code, “if you are capable of driving a spreadsheet and creating macros, then you could build a low code application for your business”, and we want to be talking to those community developers within organizations as well, who go, “Do you know what? That's great, but I'd like to do something slightly different or I need to make sure it shows not just this, but that as well from our other systems we have.” And we want to make sure we're part of that solution. 

One of the reasons I find this so interesting is It gets away from the whole idea or notion of a walled garden, which it still seems like a lot of digital signage software companies operate within in that they're not really paying attention to what the larger, particularly web centric development world is doing.

Jason Cremins: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think you can't win on features alone. It's a fool's errand. If you look at any organization that's making money in digital signage today, 90% of the features are going to be tick boxed yes certainly when it comes to an RFP. We can all argue that we do things better or have you, so there's got to be reasons why you're successful, and I know you've covered it and your podcasts and your writing, Dave, that you either go super niche in a particular sector and use case, or you provide a true platform that is pliable and capable and can bend and flex to the needs of the kind of solutions that we're not even thinking of. These are organizations that have got particular problems we haven't even heard of yet. 

So we don't want to be measured or contained by our thoughts on what we think the world needs. We want the ability to go, Hey, we can do this bit. We've got these APIs and capabilities. By all means if you want us to extend those, that's exactly where we want to be spending our time. The experience you want to build in terms of logging in and what you want that to do on the screen at the far end. 

The other area I've talked about, I guess there's a bunch of things I've not heard about through the years, but it is data-driven content. And this is something that there were a handful of companies going back to the mid 2000s, like the Omnivexes and Scribers, when that was around, that were doing that sort of thing, and then it grew more common and everybody was saying, yeah, sure, we've got APIs. We can tie into data tables and stuff like that. 

But the data sync services and secure dashboards that you're doing you're saying this is different this is its own approach?

Jason Cremins: Yeah. I think we are trying to solve the same problem in a different way, in a more scalable and robust way. I think that's the way of looking at it. 

I've got admiration for those that have gone before us, in that sense, in terms of trying to solve the challenge of getting data from backend systems up into a screen in an automated, scalable and updatable way. 

What we’ve come up with is a solution whereby from the backend, we have secure dashboards that you can log into any web app, whether that be a Google-based app or Microsoft, any of the Microsoft suite through to people like who we use for our own power BI and in business intelligence dashboards and login once, login smartly, as we call it, because the system will actually, determine how it needs to log in and what it needs to press. It does all that in the back end for you, and then from that, you can determine what you want to capture and where you want that to go. What we're effectively doing at that point is whether it be an individual metric on a dashboard, whether it be the full dashboard itself whatever the determined frequency needs to be. We're securely capturing that data as a JPEG and there's a real conscious reason why we've done that as a JPEG, because we want to make sure it can play back on any player that we support, not be restricted to the latest, greatest, web browser capable player that can run super fast, HTML5, because that's so restricted. And then deliver that content security to screens. 

So we've seen a big need for that. I think one of the things we wanted to avoid was a reliance on having to do this through creating a macro with a Chrome extension that you have to run through that sequence in a browser to capture the dashboard and then it saves it back to the server and it says, don't worry, I've got that. I'll do that again. We want it to do this centrally and do it once. So if something changes, you can go in, make a single change and all your dashboards will then be republished to the screen. 

We've also with that solution and working through the initial B2 customers that we've got, realized one of the key aspects is what happens when things go wrong. So we've built a complete debugger there. So it actually walks you through every single stage that we're doing, the macros that it's running in the back to say we've got this, we've now pressed this button. We've cleared that popup that came up, don't worry right now, we've prepped the metric. “Is this what it looks like? Yep. That's what I'm going to send to the screen.” So you can script that as you need to go and capture the data. 

So we have tremendous response from organizations looking to get that data out of their backend systems and their web apps and the security gets that in front of their users on screens in the various departments. Big application, obviously with the deskless workers in particular and getting data around. We're working with one big logistics organization at the moment who have got updates in terms of the status for goods in and goods out, buried in a proprietary system and they want the dispatch base across a hundred locations. And so we can show them how that works. They set it up once. The way it goes and that's it, and it will just keep publishing that, and obviously, you can still be dispersed, you can still multi-zone it, and you can run it with other content as required but it's very much a Trojan horse for a lot of organizations because it's the one thing that's been particularly tricky. And theyI don't want to get into having to, while I can get that data out into a data table and then I've got to ingest it, then I have got to map that into some form of layout in a third party CMS, before I can then get it onto the screen. They want to do this in its native form, in the dashboards and the tables that they are using in their web app every single day.

If it's a JPEG, that's going to limit you in terms of the frequency of updates, at least a little bit, or you're going to have a bandwidth issue as well, but I'm assuming there aren't really that many applications out there that need true real time, something that’s changing every second or whatever, if it's production status or whatever, every minute, or even every five minutes is probably fine, I assume? 

Jason Cremins: Absolutely. Yeah, and that's what we're finding, and we are asking that question and there are solutions to real-time, but it just isn't this technology. It's not built for this, and real time is more a case of building those custom HTML5 widgets and connecting to a data point somewhere and having that is also refresh. And, we have those too, we have those bespoke instances where people need that level of update, as it happens, push updates. But for the vast majority, as you quite rightly said, it's more a case of, I need to know what the stats are today within the last hour. I need to know what's happened in the last five minutes. So we more than cope with that at scale using the secure dashboards platform. 

I'm curious when you talk about sekless workers and production floors, and so on. I thought this is still a somewhat untapped opportunity for the digital signage market  to get mission critical information out to people who don't have desktop monitors that they're staring out all day or don't have emails or anything else. How do you keep them informed? And it seems that this is particularly a good way to do it. 

Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely, and I think one of the things that we're excited by is the number of applications we've never heard of before that people are testing. We've got on our website 30-40 applications that we test and we just keep continuing adding to a Sheet that we update pretty much every day with new applications we've got.

We were working with a big mining organization who used some platform I'd never heard of before. They tested it, they got it working and they went, let's use it, and they went on to deploy that to all the locations where they're drilling and mining and show the performance statistics there. So that's the thing that's exciting because we built this in an open, agnostic way. We're not saying that we've got a particular integration for Power BI or we've got a particular integration for Salesforce or Tableau or all the other leading ones. We've built it in a way that will accommodate all of those, and if it works for all of those, it will work for any others as well. 

Can you get into some of the more exotic platforms like an SAP ERP platform, that kind of thing??

Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely. It really comes down to user access, so how are people currently accessing that data?

So if you were logging into that platform through username, password authentication, single sign on, for example, and you can navigate from your browser to that content that you want to display and it can be full screen. It can be just a zone on the screen that you want to capture an X/Y set of coordinates, then it will work. If you can do it from your browser, we can do it from the backend and set that up. So yeah, it's very doable. 

I think the other aspect of this is the actual, as you mentioned, data sync services that are built on top of secure dashboards, these are built on top of which is the underlying platform. There will be other modules alongside that. We will be looking at certain instances where it actually makes sense to have dedicated apps for maybe SAP, maybe there's some additional functionality that we need to get out of Salesforce, right? We'll just build a custom integration with Salesforce at that point.

Or as we're finding with others, there's just a custom dataset there. Do we need an agent somewhere on a server that's grabbing the data that brings it back through the same machine that we've built and pushes it, whether it be in a graphic or into an HTML5  page but uses this data sync services platform to achieve that in a very secure way.

I assume when this gets raised with corporate clients, they're very concerned about the security implications. How do you deal with that? 

Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely. Security is at the core from our point of view. So we're completely transparent in terms of how the platform has been built. We're open to inspection. We've been running quarterly penetration tests on our whole platform since 2015, and we make those available under NDA to prospective customers and existing customers, and in addition to that, we obviously achieved ISO 27,001 last year. We're extending that out across the world as well.

We take data and data security to the highest level and we want to make sure we're open and honest with our customers in terms of what we're doing with our data, how we're encrypting their data, and we're open for that to be fully tested. There's not been an instance and we've got some pretty significant organizations across a range of sectors. where, we've passed their security tests with flying colors, and in many cases they're saying, you're taking security to a level that we're or even doing ourselves, because we're not exposed, we haven't yet got there. You're dealing with things from a variety of different angles that we just don't currently have in our business. So it does give them the confidence that we've got those angles covered. 

Let's wrap this up on a broader topic that doesn't require the same technical acumen. I'm just curious, how are things going? How is the business hopefully coming out of COVID?

Jason Cremins: Good! 

I think like everyone, it was May 2021, when we saw the early signs of what was happening with COVID. There was a bit of a good kind of stop and take a breath moment for everyone to think, right? Where's this going to leave us as it was, we had a very strong year. We did right by our customers. We made sure that those that were struggling, we paused all of their payments. sp if they were on monthly billing with us, we said, just come back when you can, and that's bounced back tremendously for those that we were able to support, if it was organizations that had bought term licenses, multi-year licenses, et cetera, we made sure we extended those licenses as long as it was viable for both parties to ensure that they could shut those down and not lose that licensed usage is such, so when they come back online, we’re not asking them to renew, and that's been fantastic, and I think that we're able to grow, we added five people to the head count at the back end of last year and seeing some of those announcements probably coming through on LinkedIn.

We've done goog, we grew again last year, and I think the cool thing is we’re very much focused on the two strategies, one of which is going very much into the upper mid-market and enterprise customers, and as I mentioned earlier, in terms of the functionality that we were developing in the core platform itself, but then equally is very much this approach towards headless and whilst there's other organizations that provide really good solutions for agnostic device support and building your CMS on top of those platforms, we go to the next stage. We're actually giving you a full headless CMS and device support platform, and I think that's one of the key areas that we're looking to grow. So if organizations are either entering the market and once to get into digital signage with their own brand solution, we want to be there for them to have that conversation.

Yeah, that's interesting. What you just finished saying, it's so important to think about the infrastructure and the real tools, as opposed to the pretty UX and the capability to support, protect our piece of functionality. Who cares if everybody does it?

Jason Cremins: Yeah, exactly. And then also the pedigree of it, we've got customers that have been with us for decades literally now, and we've been at this for a long time, since ‘97 from my point of view. So we're a long way in, but we only feel as though this aspect of the market is opening up now. 

The days of fighting out on the UX features and capabilities and hoping you'd tick the boxes of that particular customer wants it, I'm not saying it's gone, but it's certainly going or being caught up by organization going, how do I code my own solution on top of your APIs? 

Yeah, and if you're going to mid to high level enterprise work, the whole race to the bottom price fight goes away, right?

Jason Cremins: A hundred percent, and this is why we've seen a massive push with regards to people moving on to plans. It just makes sense. It was always licenses and then networks, and then adding maybe training to a network or to a customer, and then you start adding additional modules and active directory and secure sign on and all those things, and for many reasons, those organizations don't want to buy in piecemeal ways. It's a big lift for them to actually get a PO through their organization. So they just want to say, look, I know what I want to achieve. I know roughly how many players I'm going to put online in the next six months. So you can give me some flexibility there, but can I just at least have all the bits in place to get this up and running, keep all the departments happy, keep IT happy and that I don't have to go back to procurement every month when you turn around and say, oh, you need this additional module? 

So the move towards the plan structure has been a real positive for us for those mid-market enterprise customers where they expect that. 

Jason, great to catch up with you.

Jason Cremins: You're welcome. Thanks very much for the opportunity to talk to you again, Dave.

John Marshall, Userful

John Marshall, Userful

February 23, 2022


There has been lots of talk – particularly on the pro AV side of digital signage – about how traditional corporate AV and IT roles and needs are converging.

And there’s been a lot of discussion, as well, about the pros and cons of shifting from more conventional ways of moving content around screen networks – with dedicated hardware and cabling – to using the networking infrastructure of an end-user customer.

I had an interesting chat with John Marshall, the CEO of Calgary-based Userful, going back two or three years ago at ISE, when he was relatively new to the company. He talked at length, and in detail that was at times way the hell over my head, about the shift he expected to see with digital signage going to AV over IP solutions.

That’s now happening in a big way, he says, accelerated in part by technology advances, but also because of all the upheaval of the past couple of years – when video streamed meetings went from something done here and there to constant.

We spoke last week about where using networks to move informational content around is at, how it works and why you should care, and about a new partnership his company has developed with display giant LG.

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John, thank you for joining me. You're in Calgary today, right? But you kind of cycle between the Calgary and San Francisco area? 

John Marshall: Back and forth every two weeks. But yes, I'm in Calgary today. 

How has that worked out in the last couple of years with travel restrictions and everything? 

John Marshall: It's been an interesting challenge because I've had an opportunity to see different cities, different cultures, different reactions to the pandemic. And I've seen a lot of differences, but I'd say the overall trends, whether it be relating to work from home, return to work, accessibility for certain businesses and the likes, it's fairly similar. 

We're talking because your company recently announced, and I'm going to read this because that's easier, “an end-to-end software-defined AV over IP solution that combines Userful’s visual networking platform and LG’s Web OS signage platform to optimize display network for control rooms, digital signage networks, corporate signage and video walls.” 

That's a mouthful. I was saying before I hit the start button that I'm not that strong on AV over IP and I had to read the press release about four times before I started to get a grasp of it. What does all this mean in practical terms and why should people in the digital signage industry who would be listening to this, why should they care? 

John Marshall: I got my career started in Silicon valley at 3Com Corporation, then launched another company that was foundational in building broadband and the mindset of the IT industry, the mindset of the networking world is being able to access multiple nodes, being able to access a range of devices across the network. 

So this concept of network-based solutions is very powerful. It means I can get to almost anything anywhere, anytime. And when you shift over into the AV world, the traditional mindset is around quality of video. If we really look at making sure we're going to deliver the very best quality video for advertising or for monitoring the safety of a situation through cameras and the likes. You're always optimizing for quality and you don't want to bring into play the interference that comes with a network: latency, security risks, and the like, but more and more as we move towards wanting to see more and more information, combinations of video and data from multiple sources around a company, around the globe, as we're trying to do more with it, making sure it's networked is valuable. You get access to more information. You can do more with more information. So you're willing to make some trade-offs on quality to get more information from different sources and I think that's where the AV industry is headed today. We're looking at multi-source delivery of content to multiple displays and that just demands a network model.

Are some of the issues that were kind of barriers to adoption like concerns around latency and the buffering icon on the screen, or blocky/pixelated videos, has that largely been solved? 

John Marshall: I'd say that's being solved, and part of the issue is we're moving from an AV world that's quality focused to a networked world that's AV over IP, you have to address those things. 

Just like you described, how latency affects the availability of the video. That's the swirling circle, right? Saying it's buffering, or I'm trying to deliver a single vide  to many displays distributed around the globe. How do I do that without taking on massive costs of wide area network charges, right? Like the broadband delivery or the MPLS delivery of content by employees, or how do I chop it up so I can present it on a single video wall that's composed of many TVs or many displays or multiple DV LED screens that are backed by multiple controllers and how do I lace all that together? 

And transformatting that is challenging. It's very challenging, especially when a network is involved. So I think we're on our way and I think this really is the year where we start to see that migration. 

Is that because technology has improved to a degree that it's possible, like networking technology, or is it as much to do with an understanding of what's possible?

John Marshall: I think it's a combination, right? I think that we've started seeing the  interest, the demand for seeing multiple sources of data on screens. A good example, if I'm in a control room environment, I want to see a combination of security video feeds, I want to see production video feeds, but I also want to see that side-by-side with data, IOT fed data. I want to see AI, showing me the correlation between video productivity, factory floor production, and information about supply chains. I want to see it all on a single screen. And that's my control room environment. 

If I move over to look at advertising or marketing, I want to see social media feeds in parallel with advertisement or video footage promoting a product. All of it goes hand in hand. And I think that's what the consumers are becoming more accustomed to through consumer channels. 

I can gather a lot more information today through my computer, through my mobile phone than I can through my business-fed video stream or my business channels. So I really think we just have to keep moving at the pace of consumer desire for video, audio, data-fed content. 

You're describing stuff that can be done right now, but I assume what you're saying is the way it's done right now may involve a whole bunch of different software components, a bunch of APIs, and a whole bunch potentially of hardware components to pull it all together, and you're saying with a AV over IP, a lot of that can be stripped out of it and made more efficient, is that accurate? 

John Marshall: I think what I'm saying is that we've found ways in the past when we had a segregated AV department of a company to do it, according to the standards defined by the national association of broadcasters, that drive the highest quality video. But that really was more of a point to point driven solution. I've got one source device for one screen. 

Also that video content was so voluminous. How do I move it across a data network that's only operating at 10 megabits per second? It's hard, real hard. We're now at a place where the encoding technologies have progressed. Data networks are now operating at greater than 10 gigabits per second. We've got communication networks that are flourishing both on the local area network and the wide area networks so distribution between facilities is more viable. We've got much more storage capacity, so we can load more video, digital video onto our networks and the compute, the availability of computers for CPU or GPU has progressed. Moore's laws have taken us further. 

So if we look at the combination of all of those things, we're now at an inflection point where all of them align and are matching up with that demand for more data, more video, more audio, all in parallel, and the stars are aligning.

So  in a typical corporate environment, how would this play out, if they were using the Userful solution, let's say with the LG Web OS for digital signage? 

John Marshall: The first thing is that LG and Userful sat down and looked at which environment we need to standardize around and the first decision that was made was if we're moving video onto IP or data networks, we really need to be focused on the standards, the protocols of the IT world.

And so prioritizing those codecs, prioritizing those streaming protocols. For example, our RTSP, real-time streaming protocol ensures that we provide for quality while making sure that we're latency sensitive on those data networks and using those standards of the IT world makes the IT world comfortable bringing AV onto their network more so than ever before and I think that's the core of what we've done, is we’ve focused on its standards. 

So what would that mean then? If I was, let's say, a financial services company and I came to Userful and LG and say, I want to do this: 

I want to have KPI dashboards in all of my sales and customer contact areas. I want to be able to pull in a bunch of data from different business systems within the organization. What can you do versus what my AV solutions people are suggesting, which is as you said earlier, a point to point solution? 

John Marshall: They're going to initially say, if I start from the point to point solution that I have to segregate that and isolate that solution on my network, and the IT department automatically doesn't want to do that because more and more we're consolidating in the data center or we're consolidating in the cloud, so they don't want to have all these islands all over the corporation where they have to send IT staff out to manage that island. 

So if I can now centralize that infrastructure, if I can centralize in the data center, it makes for a much easier solution. But the concern or the risk that they have is, I've now got all that AV traffic flowing back and forth across my corporate network, what's that going to do to the rest of my data network? How does that adversely affect that? 

So what we see today is that they'll typically still start icing, they'll create that island, but then they'll see how they can start to pull portions of it back into the data center or how they can manage it from the data center remotely, even though it's still an island. And that's what our AV over IP architecture provides. It's a platform, a software defined solution that allows for remote manageability from ITs central on that island that's remote, using all of those network management protocols, having security and policy, enterprise policy in place like role-based access control, security provisions that they're familiar with that keeps it secure across the network, and then as they grow more and more familiar and comfortable with that island, they can pull it fully back to the data and/or then start deploying more and more from the data center. 

That's the trajectory we're seeing already today at least at Userful. We've seen that from the last 10 customers that we've deployed at.

In doing that sort of thing, are you stripping out hardware components and therefore lower in capital costs? Or are you having to also upgrade the networking components to handle that, with all the 4k video files that are now streaming? 

John Marshall: I'd say yes to both of those. So the three anchors there are: first, we come from a world where you're putting a PC behind a display that can decode the encoded video that was sent from the given source, whether that's a full fledged PC, or whether that's a thin client. We also have options like zero clients out there today. All of these different technologies are basically available for decode. But what you don't have is you don't have the manageability. You don't have the security profile that you would ideally like. So what we've done is we've come in and created a software based solution that allows for you to load basically a soft client that can be loaded onto the display that allows for it to replace that hardware that traditionally sat behind that display.

So you remove hardware there, you lower carbon footprint, you lower energy consumption. It's much more beneficial, but the other side of it is that you increase manageability, Because now you're actually directly managing the endpoint. You're managing the display and you're not having to manage both a device that's behind the display and then try over just that HDMI connection over that CEC link. You're not trying to manage the display with the older HTMI technologies and CEC technologies that we had from the AV world. You have more of the network management tools that the IT world's familiar with. 

So you're putting the software client on the smart display, the LG Web OS system on chip device that's embedded in the display, right?

John Marshall: Correct and we've done this very successfully with all of the digital signage displays from LG. We've done this with all of the video wall displays from LG. We've done those with all of the DV LED solutions from LG and it runs beautifully, but to get there, we had to actually work with LG, to do some redesign and some upgrades to their media engine within that system, within the Web OS displays and ensure that then on top of that, that media engine, it could support our RTSP and then support our application in kind. So it did take some rewiring for a networked latency oriented AV world that's running over IP and that's a challenge. 

So if I'm an end-user and say, “Hey, I'm interested in this. We have a network already in place, but we're using Samsung smart displays that are running Tyzen or we're using Sony or Phillips or Sharp or whatever that's running Android, can we do it?” 

What do you tell them? 

John Marshall: We say absolutely yes. So Userful already developed our soft client for Web OS and deployed that with LG successfully. We've already developed it for Tyzen, for Android, for Linux. We have a client for each. 

So what's the distinction then between what you're doing with LG versus some of the other guys, because the press that came out, you said that some of the other guys were a bit behind. They failed at some of the things that needed to be done. 

John Marshall: I'd say it's one thing for Userful to go develop a soft client that can be loaded onto a display. We can deliver content to that display regardless of manufacturer, regardless of the OS, however, if you want to make sure that you're providing for a real-time streaming protocol, that protocol has to go right into the heart of that smart display and manage it's media engine, it's pipeline. 

And not everyone has been able to successfully integrate RTSP and so therefore they're not going to be as latency sensitive as say, an LG Web OS display that can provide for gaming quality latency, less than 50 milliseconds of latency. That's impressive across a corporate network. So if you want to get to that level, you really need to collaborate and look at those IT protocols in a new way. 

So it's a distinction between, “we can do it” and “we can do it better”? 

John Marshall: Correct. And I would say that also applies to security.

If you want to put certain security standards in place that will make the IT industry comfortable, you have to do that not just in the app. You just can't load an app onto the display. You have to actually look for AV, how that flows through the rest of the system. 

You mentioned earlier that AV is its own department in some larger corporations or historically has been and IT is obviously its own department. There's been lots of talk for the last five, really 10 years about AV and IT converging. 

Is that actually happening now and are AV departments IN larger companies going away and becoming just part of IT?

John Marshall: We, at Userful, see that happening faster and faster. I think the pandemic has helped facilitate that, right? There's a whole sector called unified communications and we all are zooming or Microsoft Teaming, or whatever it is. We're using AV for core business meetings and communications. We can't get away from it anymore.

And so when you're using unified communications, that is AV, you just happen to be using Web RTC as a protocol, right? But did Web RTC come out of the AV world, the national association of broadcasters? No. 

When we look towards other AV technologies, sharing content from our PC onto a screen in a huddle room, as we return to work. Huddle rooms, war rooms, collaboration areas that's becoming more and more AV driven, and that's something that the IT world's getting more familiar with and it's becoming core. So that's exactly where we see it headed as well. Making sure that we're adopting the right protocols to match those emerging standards for the post-pandemic business operations. 

Userful came into the digital signage ecosystem marketing a product that was all about video walls and a different approach to doing video walls, as opposed to very hardware focused. This was much more software defined but you've shifted, maybe into AV over IP as being your core focus. Is that accurate and why did that happen? 

John Marshall: It's absolutely accurate. I joined the company in 2018 and I arrived with that perspective. I'm a networking guy but not just a networking guy. The last several companies I was involved in were IOT companies and I saw, square on, more and more businesses, doing more and more with video but they weren't doing it just to see the videos, they were doing it with a business purpose in mind, for example, worker safety or analyzing employee performance, look at truckers in transportation industry, wanting to monitor even the eyelids of the transportation workers to make sure they were staying awake on long haul deliveries and making sure that they could correlate that video with data for safety. And as I saw more and more data accumulating and more and more use of video, I said, we're headed on a trajectory where video's gonna come right to the heart of business operations and I think that's what we're seeing. 

More and more startups I'm seeing out of Silicon valley are using video to analyze and create better performing business operations. And so what I started realizing was how are we going to take that data from companies like Palentier, create a dataset, create a rule set, create AI and guide us towards managed visual operations. Who's doing that? Who's working on that underlying platform that brings all the data, the video together? And I didn't see anyone. 

So it was a former board member of mine who said that they believed that just like the iPhone or Android phones would get larger and larger tools to be the size of an entire wall. And we'd be using walls like you see in the movies, right? Data dashboards, the assertion was that there would be an underlying business glue that operated off of video and there was an opportunity for some company to come forward and create that kind of platform.

They actually recommended that I take a look at this company, Userful based in Calgary, Canada because they had done a lot of the work to bring those AV protocols together with the IT protocols. So that was the story back in 2018. 

So you joined the company and had to look at things and said, this is a much more opportune market than staying purely focused just on video walls? 

John Marshall: That's absolutely right. What is the hardest problem to solve? Where do we start this AV over IP problem? And our initial thesis was that we start in control rooms because control rooms are where you're pulling in video feeds, you're pulling in data. You're trying to manage the network. You're trying to manage security. You start there and it's an aggregation point for multi-source and multi-display. So if you can solve the control room problem, the emerging modernized control room problem, then you'll be able to address any of the AV over IP challenges that a corporation might be able to face. Naturally, they're very concerned about the timeliness of what they're seeing, since it's real-time monitoring so choosing the right protocols mattered. 

So that's where we began and we focused on control rooms and then have evolved towards corporate signage, call centers, logistics centers for data metrics, dashboards, and are continuing to expand into meeting rooms and the like.

Yeah, I think it's been really interesting in the last two, three years that you've started to see pretty broad understanding that the control room environment, as you say, aggregates all this information, there's so many other environments all the way out to manufacturing floors and customer contact centers and so on, they all have a need for a dashboard of some kind, because it's the most opportune real-time way to communicate to the people working there.

John Marshall: I couldn't agree with you more. And I think the interesting thing for us, now if I shift back to the AV or the digital signage space, digital signage is more accustomed to single sourced, single output. But as we move more and more towards that operations mindset, we're looking at multi-source, so how do you do that without looking across a network? 

It gets a lot harder. So it's a whole mindset shift, right? Multi sources is a whole new paradigm. 

Is this a situation that obviously in some respects is disintermediating some of the hardware components that are on a traditional point to point digital signage network. What does it mean for those companies and those end-users who are using CMS software solutions, traditional digital signage monitoring, and management solutions. 

Are they also not necessarily needed in this model or they're something that plugs in? 

John Marshall: I looked at some fairly credible research recently, and I think that there's always going to be a need for traditional digital signage. That market's strong and growing and there'll still be demand for single source to single display application, but as we evolve more and more, I think that we see by, I think the data suggested by 2026-2027, a third, maybe more than a third of the market's really shifting towards a software defined approach and I think that's a pretty fast migration, especially when you're doing more and more multi-source, just a standard matrix switchers not going to get you there. You really need to look at network based solutions. So when you look at companies like Netgear, right? Let's talk about Netgear very quickly.

I think Netgear is quickly evolving, taking traditional IT networking, they're taking 10 gigabit switches and they're introducing an AV mindset into those switches by creating profiles, AV profiles that you can match up the right source device with the right display, without having to know all about AV standards. They're integrating the two in a solutions mindset that I don't see other networking or traditional networking companies doing. They're taking a very unique AV approach to network topologies. 

But I think as we move in that direction, Netgear is a really good example of a hardware based company that's adapting and bringing that software defined mindset into their hardware products. So I think that will happen. I also think there will be hardware companies that have traditionally just taken source material and coded it and put it out through a given interface, they're going to have a lot more to learn. And partnering with companies like Userful or Netgear would be advantageous for them. I just think now is the time to get on that train.

Did Cisco kinda miss the mark on this? 

They were in digital signage 10-12 years ago selling hardware devices and doing all that, you would think they would have been perfect for this sort of thing. 

John Marshall: I think Cisco's really far out in front of many. They have a firm grasp around the right protocols for video, they're strong with other technologies like multicast, they've got the full portfolio there, but I don't know if Cisco's quite yet seeing this migration of the AV segment of the market migrating on to corporate networks. And I don't know if they are watching or studying the evolution of the industry and the implications for corporate networks in the same way. But I think that they'll see that probably in the next year or two years. 

You mentioned the next year or two years. What might people more broadly see out of Userful going through 2022 and beyond? 

John Marshall: I think that one of the key growth opportunities for Userful is recognizing that moving to the data center for a private cloud or enabling AV from either private cloud or public cloud is an important move for the IT department and as AV moves from being an AV department nto IT, we have to be mindful that it is a much larger organization with different responsibilities. So there's an applications group within most IT departments that are responsible for application selection, then once an application is selected, there's an infrastructure operations group, and that's typically where we're seeing AV move because it's an infrastructure or operations play.

We're seeing that that's an area that needs consideration. The security department, the security team within an IT department has a say. So all of these different areas have high relevance, but what we're seeing is that as more and more sharing of resources become relevant and as AV becomes a shared resource, a multi-source, multi-display resource that will happen through I&O, infrastructure and operations.

And so we're recognizing the need to move from islands to data centers and we have several offerings for private cloud and public cloud that will be announced later in 2022, and that will help facilitate that move. 

All right, John, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I even understood some  of it.

John Marshall: Thank you for making the time to hear what we had to say. 


David Crumley, HUSH Studios

David Crumley, HUSH Studios

February 16, 2022


Experience is one of those soft, squishy terms that gets used a lot in the context of digital signage - using displays and content to attract, engage and leave a desired impression with the people who go through a designed space.

There are many projects that get described as visual experiences that aren't a lot more than screens on walls that are running stuff, but a Brooklyn company called HUSH Studios is absolutely in the business of designing and delivering visual experiences that can communicate the mission, values and products of big corporate clients.

HUSH has done interesting work in the corporate spaces of some of the biggest and most familiar brands in the United States and beyond. The company came on my radar after it pushed out a case study last year showing what was done at Uber's newly opened corporate campus in San Francisco. It's a digitally-driven space, but much more inventive than just a big fine pitch LED on a feature wall.

I had an interesting chat with David Crumley, the Austin, Texas-based Technology Director for HUSH. We get into the thinking and technology challenges of these kinds of projects, what works and why, and his life being the guy who has to make the big ideas into something that exists or can be made, that makes sense, fits a budget, and works reliably.

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David, thank you for joining me. What does HUSH do, and what's your role? 

David Crumley: Hush  is an experiential design firm based in Brooklyn. Our mission is to design experiences for the most dynamic organizations in the world. Our work is around the globe. Our goal is to seamlessly integrate architecture and digital technology to create custom experiences for the workplace, employees, guests and transform the built environment with technology. 

My role is the technical director and I focus on the kind of AV hardware and systems side of it and we have other technical directors that focus more on the software side. 

So you would go onsite, do site surveys and all that, at least in normal times, and basically work with the big thinkers who say, “we want to do this” and you say, okay, or sure we can do that?

David Crumley: Yeah, that's actually a great way of describing it, and how I often will talk with my team. We have an amazing creative team of art directors, architects that come up with amazing concepts, sketches or quick renders and then my job is to then look at that and figure out, okay, how do we make that? What technologies can we use? Hopefully it's something that exists already, so it's not building something from scratch, sometimes it is. 

And then working with a huge ecosystem of partners on the client side and the build side to bring it all to life.

So at least part of your time is spent understanding the emerging technologies and building relationships with different vendors to understand whether these guys will deliver or they're going to be a problem?

David Crumley: Exactly, right. We spent a lot of time working with LED manufacturers, lighting manufacturers, AV integrators, fabricators, physical computing partners all over the place to figure out, to know, and have a jumpstart on what products or options are out there. What will make the most sense to be permanently installed? Because our project has a lifespan of 10 plus years. So it's crucial to have those relationships in that knowledge of all the hardware and technologies out there. 

The company's key statement is: we mix content, space and technology to communicate an organization's mission, vision, and products.

I'm curious how you get to that, because there's a lot of corporate mission statements out there that somehow managed to be lofty and, in their words, but also empty. Like I'll look at their mission statement, I go, okay, what does that mean? 

David Crumley: Yeah, that's a good question and to be totally transparent, that is not my area of expertise. Thankfully, we have a huge team of strategists and creatives that spend a lot of time upfront working with the clients to distill that down, to figure out the essence of what we should be creating and what should be built and what the messaging should be to actually translate the company's brand and mission and identity in to these experiences that can easily turn into something where it becomes more complex or convoluted.

I think Hush  does a really great job of distilling that down and finding the essence of what needs to be communicated and doing it in an artful and thoughtful way, which is one of the main reasons I've worked with them so long and enjoy the work we do there. 

Do projects lead with digital or is it more a case of, it's just a common outcome because the technology makes sense? 

David Crumley: It's a bit of both. We do start with digital, that is our bread and butter. We are excellent at taking data and content and using that to create amazing visualizations and content and lighting animations, and what not with these projects, but we also do a lot of strictly analog work as well. So super graphics, like fabricated elements that go within the building itself. 

We have a few that have no digital components at all. It's just strictly analog type work. It really depends on the space, the client, the brief, bost of our projects do have digital aspects. 

Do the clients or potential clients come with a brief in mind? Do they have an idea that we want to do a huge video wall in our lobby or whatever or are they saying we want to communicate our mission, our brand, what should we do? 

David Crumley: It's a bit of both, honestly.

We prefer whenever it's the latter, because we have more of a blank page to work with and we can do those extensive strategy design concepts in phases and really figure out what makes sense for the client, their brand and for the space. But on the other side, we do get a lot of projects where the building is built, they have SPECT hardware, they have a big system, but they have nothing to go on it and so we come in to figure out what kind of content or what makes sense on it. So we do a bit of both of them as well. 

I would imagine the latter is maybe not problematic because it's work and it could still be interesting and all that, but to you you're confined to what you can do, right?

David Crumley: Oh yeah, exactly. 

Your company's worked with a lot of very big global brands. Why do they come your way? 

David Crumley: That's a good question. I think they are drawn to the work we do that I kinda mentioned earlier where we will work closely with them to distill down what the message and what the concept is.

I think we do a great job of integrating media and content into the architecture, to where it's not just screens on walls or big video wall, like you said, and for the clients that want to have that tight integration between architecture, technology, content, storytelling, I think that's where we stand out and our body of work and luckily that gravitates with a lot of clients, and when they come to us, that's what they want and that's what we do well. And so we're typically set up for success in that regard. 

You mentioned storytelling. I found a lot of corporate lobby video walls and experiences or whatever, it's not so much storytelling, at least with the early ones, it has been more about just the wow factor! 

David Crumley: Yeah, that's very true, like big, bold, fast content, just trying to do that initial kind of wow moment, like you said. And another approach we do is like a slow burn where there is a wow moment in the scale and the architectural elements, but we're not showing all our cards or all the things that technology can do. It's a bit restrained, both in the content and the tech and it allows the content to be a longer enjoyable thing, especially for employees that come into a lobby every day where they don't see everything it can do the first time and it just becomes repetitive.

Yeah, it's interesting when you say slow burn, because I often talk about how the wow factor jobs tend to have a best before date or an expiry date where it just becomes this very expensive, big piece of wallpaper. So, yeah, strategy is super important for that. 

Let's talk about a project that got Hush  on my radar, the global headquarters for Uber in San Francisco.  Can you describe what was done there?

David Crumley: Yeah, so we were brought on very early. So it was one of those ideal situations that I mentioned, being a blank slate where the client knew they wanted to do something in their lobby for a new headquarters building built in San Francisco. It's a multi-building complex and there's one building called, MD2, that is the main entry point and it's an amazingly designed building that has this beautiful open lobby space and they knew they wanted to have some sort of interactive installation there. And we were brought in to do strategy and figure out what made sense.

We did a bunch of concepts, but then they would narrow down to two that we luckily had the time,  budget to actually build out and flesh out both of those concepts with full renders, motion tests, some initial drawings to really flesh them out and all the different content modes, presented our way up through the organization and got buy off on one of those concepts, which is called, The Stream and that was ultimately what was built and the concept behind that on a super high level was just translating Uber's activities into beams of light and motion that would be constantly flowing through the lobby and resolving in a kind of high resolution canvas at one end of the lobby that could be used as a means of providing storytelling, not traditional content, but it would at least be a have the resolution and surface area to provide, video content and a mix of motion graphics and whatnot.

So we worked on that project for, I think the design was about three years, design, construction fabrication, so it was a long-term project and we installed it last year and it officially launched this year, and components of it are being scaled to other Uber lobbies throughout the world that we are in the process of doing now.

I believe at one end, there's a fine pitch LED video wall, if you want to call it a conventional video wall that you might find in a lobby, but a lot of what was done was custom fabricated LED almost like light tubes and things,right?

David Crumley: Yeah. So you're exactly right on the LED wall. It's a fairly standard LED wall but it's about eight feet wide, about nine feet tall. And, above it, and throughout the lobby are these custom tubes. We worked with a fabricator called Machine Histories down in Los Angeles. And again, going back to the privilege and opportunity to have a long design process. And the time to prototype, we worked with them to create two prototypes of these LED tubes and they are utilizing the Martin DC strip, which Hush has used on quite a few projects. And I'm a huge fan of it because it has long cable runs for the power supplies and 16 bit color depth, 60 frames per second,. So I knew I wanted to use that to begin with, but we had a challenge in that we needed to have the tubes as thin as possible, like everything in our architecture team wants to do as thin and sleek as possible, but we also needed to have the content viewable as close to 360 degrees around the tube so we spent a lot of time figuring out the right diffusion, the right placement of the LED, figuring out cable management actually almost productizing the tubes where we worked with the fabricator to make a custom PCB connector from tube to tube, so all the tubes can be easily removed and replaced for maintenance.

But in the end, we ended up having over 2200 of the Martin 15 millimeter strips used in these tubes and there's an overhead component that's suspended from the ceiling that makes this a tube array above your head, as you walk in through the lobby. And that's I think just under 90 feet long and at its highest point, it goes up to 25 feet. 

The lobby has a single height area and then it opens up into a double or triple height space and the tube array actually bins up and goes up to the upper area over some suspended bridges. And then we also built a large wall behind the reception area using the same tubes that forms about a 22 foot high screen by 28 feet wide low-res with the same tubes, but it makes this huge statement that has a bit of transparency to see the stairs behind it in between the tubes and you can actually get behind the tubes and see the same content from both sides. 

I don't know the budget or anything else, but I assume that if Uber really wanted to have high-res tubes or just make the whole thing high-res, they would have the dollars to do that, but they've gone this way. Why was it done that way? They just liked the idea of keeping it low-res or is it more visually interesting that way?

David Crumley: There are a few criteria. One, the visual aspect since the architecture of the lobby has lots of slats and repeating linear elements that the tube array compliments really well.

To your point, the LEDs are premium LEDs from Martin, the tubes are custom fabricated, there's a lot of work. So certainly that money could have been put toward more traditional LED displays or high-res, but having that kind of art more integrated into the architectural design as well as something that just looks different and unique to the space, and we also had another criteria to keep in mind is that this lobby is an unconditioned space and we could not add any additional cooling. So we were trying to keep heat energy consumption to a minimum within the space, which the LED strips are great for.

= So it's an interesting overall discipline that Hush has in that there are creative shops who produce the material for big LED video walls and corporate lobbies and so on and there are vendors who could come into that space to say, yeah, we can put a 1.2 pixel pitch wall right along the whole breadth of the lobby here and there, nut in order to really pull this together, you've got to be creative, you've got to have technology sourcing, and you've got to have a whole bunch of engineers in the middle to pull all this together right?

David Crumley: Yeah, and that's one of the great things about Hush is that we have architects on staff. We have more traditional art directors and designers, motion graphics designers, myself as the hardware background, creative technologists that do custom software dev. So running this actual experience as a custom piece of software that our team built in open frameworks and actually multiple applications written but that does a mix of rendered motion graphics as well as real time content that uses a whole interactive system that I haven't even touched on.

So yeah, I feel like to do what we do, you have to have all these different kinds of departments and disciplines under one roof. 

Yeah, if you don't have that, can you really even be competitive in these kinds of jobs? 

David Crumley: Yeah, it's difficult, because if we didn't have this mix, we e could potentially do the initial concept and then that would then have to be bid out to another firm to build and then potentially another firm to do the software. It becomes costly, I would imagine the cost would then be probably double what it was. 

Yeah, and finger pointing!

David Crumley: Oh yeah, exactly. One throat to choke is a good and bad thing, but depending on whose throat it is. 

You referenced content, I'm curious, when you talk about being able to visualize Uber's activities, what's going on there, are you tapping into an API that has analytics that are showing how many drivers are on the road right now or whatever? 

David Crumley: We sourced data but there's no live data feeding it, which we do a mix of content for our projects. Sometimes it's the live API, sometimes it's an existing data set. And with this, we use existing info to build our content around. We do have some things, future content modes we're working on, that'll pull more live data.

But the real time component of this, the interactive mode that I mentioned, is using an array of nine depth cameras that are in that overhead array, and as guests walk under that array, you are disrupting the stream of information flowing above you in the tubes. So you can see ripples within the content, and then as you approach the high-res screen at the end of the lobby, once you reach a certain threshold, it reveals a curtain animation that reveals a more traditional video content on the high-res wall. So you can actually trigger that content.

I recognize that you're on the technical side of this, but I have to ask this anyways, experience is a really soft squishy kind of term. How does it get defined with these kinds of projects and how do you measure and know when you know something is working, that it is delivering an experience?

David Crumley: Oh, that is a great question. I'll take a beat to think about that. Because I'm very much on the technical side and not on the more feelings side of it, for lack of a better term. But I think I personally look into social media posts or seeing what people's reactions to the work we do and how photos are being shared and how they're connecting to it and we, as a company, do analytics in terms of number of guests, their engagement time,what videos they trigger, dwell time, all those things, which we turn into actual intellectual reports for our clients to determine that. 

But I think it's more the kind of personal anecdotes that I find appealing, just how they talk about it's this amazing experience they haven't seen before, or even this particular experience is viewable through the storefront windows and this building is across the street from the arena where the Golden State Warriors play, so it gets a lot of pedestrian traffic. So you see a lot of photos of other people talking about it as well. 

With the pandemic, we've had this shift of head offices being the Mecca, so to speak, and that's where you go. Too many companies have people working from home. I'm curious if that has changed the business, changed the way you have to approach corporate spaces and are companies scaling back, or are they seeing this stuff as even more important? 

David Crumley: I think it's the latter. We were worried at first, a couple of years ago when everything happened. But then as we talked with clients and saw briefs coming out and seeing articles and blog posts from industry thought leaders, we came to realize and also we agree with the stance that things like what we do and Uber’s lobby and other headquarters, I think helped make the office a more appealing place to visit, because it's to actually get employees there especially with content that is refreshed or ever-changing, or that's data-driven because it's something special to see and interact with. 

And so luckily, since the pandemic started, the work we've been doing hasn't slowed down and we're still seeing briefs and clients wanting to do these types of engaging experiences in their offices, public space. 

You mentioned content being refreshed, is that something that you have to really push on clients to understand that guys lighting this up is a great first step, but it's a first step you need to budget and think about what's on this display and