Sixteen:Nine - All Digital Signage, Some Snark
Neil Emery, TrilbyTV

Neil Emery, TrilbyTV

October 6, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

I am a huge believer in digital signage software and solutions companies that narrowly define their vertical market and then go after it, as opposed to the many companies out there that say, in effect, we do digital signage.

Those kind of general offers can be deadly, I think, when there is sooo much competition.

So I was intrigued by an email from TrilbyTV that talked about its focus on the education market in the UK, and even more intrigued by the marketing line that the platform and service was built by people who understand and work in education.

I had a chat with TrilbyTV co-founder Neil Emery about how the six-year-old company was founded based on years of working in UK schools doing Apple and Google training. They saw all the dead screens and bad programming in schools that they visited and concluded that they could deliver something better.

David: Neil, thank you for joining me from beautiful Devon. I was struck by the assertion on your website. That Trilby is the only digital signage platform built by people who understand and work in education. What do you mean by that? 

Neil Emery: So we were Apple trainers, Apple Education trainers for 12 years, we started back in the days when schools had lonely suites of iMacs that only the art teacher and the design teacher would allow sort of their students on. Everybody else looked in and thought, what are these computers? But for us, it wasn’t about Apple. It was about making sure everybody knew the power of things like the iLive Suite, things like iMovie and GarageBand. So that's where we started training with Apple and its resellers, sort of companies that sold Apple and then the iPad came out and it went completely bonkers for us as accredited trainers for Apple and we would work with lots of schools, especially those that were going one-to-one with iPad to make sure they had a vision and a plan. 

So we really understand what needs to be in place for technology to be successful, and that tends to be where schools and colleges fall down a little bit. They tend to rush in and buy technology, but they don't think about what needs to be in place to make it successful, and there's a lot that needs to be in place, and we were involved in some of the biggest one-to-one iPad projects in the UK, such as Harlow college, such as Portsmouth college. So we've got a real understanding, again, of what needs to be a place and that's very much how we present ourselves with digital signage as well. It's not just about sticking screens on walls. We work very hard with our customers, especially our groups of school customers, to make sure that they have a plan in place, to make sure that staff are signing up to that plan. So that there's some consistency across what they're uploading to their digital signage. So that's what we meant. We are very education focused and that tends to be very different from other companies that are out there. 

David: Yeah. There are any number of companies who have laid it down that education is one of their key verticals, but it's much more business driven and addressable market driven than, in most cases, any real experience with the education system.

Neil Emery: Yeah, the reason we started TrilbyTV is because when we were sitting in those school receptions waiting for a member of staff to come and grab us, we would look at a digital signage screen that was turned off, or if it wasn't turned off, it was showing content we felt that had little impact, and that's again, because they know they had no plan behind it. Someone had bolted some screens to a wall. Someone had bought into an over complicated solution that was meant for the commercial space and people had given up, and we were there to create really rich content on those iPods because that's what Apple is all about. Everyone can create, but there was no nice, simple mechanism for us to share those two screens around the school or college. And we felt signage was the perfect mechanism to share that content and evidence, the learning so that everybody could feel proud. 

But again, what was in place back then was not meant for education and the people behind didn't understand education to the degree that we felt we did, and that's how TrilbyTV was launched and developed.

David: So when did that happen? 

Neil Emery: Six years ago now. Yeah, we gave up everything we're doing with Apple and Google at the time. We'd just written Google's transformational planning workshop in the UK. That was mainly down to my co-director, Ben Stanley, who is extremely knowledgeable in the education space. His company, Trilby, that he used to run with his father, hence TrilbyTV. They'd been going 30 years of working in education. So again, huge amounts of experience, but TrilbyTV as a single product, six years we've been going now. 

David: So it was more of an evolution of what you were doing as opposed to, “Alright, we used to run a funeral parlor, and now we're doing this”?

Neil Emery: Yeah, kind of. We did lots of things. We did the training piece for Apple and that kept us very busy. We were presenting not just for Apple, but again for its resellers that sold Apple. We were doing direct training for apples all over the world, not just in education as well. We were doing video production. We were doing lots of stuff, and I think lots of people probably looked at us and thought it's great, but what do you do? 

So after sitting all those in all those perceptions for so long, we just knew that there was a product needed that was a bit more honest than what was out there in this space and that's really what made us jump into being brave and developing TrilbyTV into the platform that it is now. 

David: So it's one thing to have the subject matter expertise and the understanding and the business contacts within the education market. What do you do though on the software/platform side that makes it differentiated, that makes it finely tuned to the education system?

Neil Emery: The first one was ease of use. We spent lots of time training education staff, who were so nervous about technology, that even if you put a URL on the board and ask them to put it in their iPad, if they put it in wrong, they would present the iPad to you to put that in, because that's so far out of their comfort zones. And we'd see from those early apps, like ClassDojo, iMovie, Book Creator there was usually a plus icon you'd press that plus icon and pretty quickly something would happen so that a teacher or a member of staff would feel like they'd had a success, which means then they would move on to the next stage and that's absolutely how we've built TrilbyTV, to be so simple that there's no need for its departments to be micromanaging our platform or people. So that was the main one. 

Secondly, we've made it work across all platforms. So we didn't want to charge our customers for expensive boxes, which had happened in the past, I'm not saying wrongly, but that's where a lot of the solutions made their money, but we have player apps for iOS, TVOS, MacOS, Windows and Chrome. So some of our schools will use anything from a Fire Stick to an Apple TV, to a Microsoft Notebook. It doesn't matter, they can use whatever they've got to get going with us.

Unlimited screens. So we didn't want to charge them a per screen price. We wanted them to see the impact that signage can have and to be able to grow their estate without us charging them more. So we have an unlimited screen license which since then others have followed. We've certainly seen that in the market. Some of those who look at us and what we do have moved down that route as well. So it's definitely that same, that sets us out as a USP, and the last one probably is our content catalog, where we have a catalog of free of charge content that we make with exciting companies out there, like WWF or Botanica. So there would probably be the four main areas that we focus on. 

David: There's a lot of subscription content out there. There's companies like Screen Feed and See/Inspire, and so on. They focus on news, sports, weather, curated, user generated material, all that sort of thing. It sounds like you've gone down a completely different path. That's all about the sort of thing that you would expect to see in a school, and that both parents and educators would be receptive to? 

Neil Emery: Yeah we looked at the historical digital signage, and it was very much zones and ticker-tape and newsfeeds, and that doesn't do anything for education. Actually, news can be very biased. So that's the last thing children or visitors like to see in a school reception, and plus, that zonal content, it was confusing to the viewer. So, we wanted to make their content look fullscreen and beautiful, which it already is.

I still get people though, who still want a clock and ticker-tape even though there's a clock next door to the screen anyway.But yeah, we went down the route of thinking about what content, a couple of reasons really, what would inspire them to do more of their own good content, but what could we provide that has an education focus and keeps their screen up to date and interesting. So for example, the collaboration we did recently with Britannica, the encyclopedia that is sold, I’m sure people will be well aware of, if we did a “Country of the week” so if you download that to your TrilbyTV and add it to your screens, every week, it updates itself. You'll get a country of the week, capital city, population, and five revolving facts, and that's all done within a nice animation. 

It's a nice, useful area for you to have a look at. And if there's content in there that will help keep your screens up to date and inspire the viewers than perfect. It's all free of charge and you're more than welcome to use it. 

David: How does it work within schools, like what are they using the screens for and where are they putting them? 

Neil Emery: So a lot of signage, historically, I think went in with some of the new schools, the building schools for the future as brought in by the labor government. So a lot went into areas like receptions and the dinner halls and your staff rooms, and the student corridors. Again, the problem back then was that the platforms were very commercially driven. So again, it was your clock's logos, ticker tapes, and maybe you were allowed to mix in a few pictures as well, if you were lucky. 

What we do now with schools is so at the training session I had today, I had the head of HR, I had the reception lady and I had the repo graphics lady, and we started off by having some sticky notes and I got them to write where the screens were, then I got them to right underneath who the viewers were, where, and then from there we started to define what the content was. So we work really hard with our customers to make sure that they're putting in that simple plan so they understand screens, viewers and what content needs to be dried from that. But very much historically is the reception staff room, dinner hall, and student corridors, which is where the screens are. 

David: Do they do things like, “This for the lunch menu today or the lunch menu this week,” that sort of thing? It's an example that I've seen a number of times. 

Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely, and the nice thing is nowadays with mechanisms like Google Slides, you can add Google Slides for a menu, and the staff and the dinner hall don't even know we exist because the Google Slides presentation is online. As soon as they change that, it automatically changes on the screens, which is great. 

But we also get them to think about don't just putting Google Slides or a menu up there, how about photos of the food? We all are engaged by food programs on TV now where we see the final product and we think, wow, I'd want to eat that. We say to our schools how about you get some of the students to take some nice photos of the food, or actually they're in food technology, let’s have a video of a lasagna being made and put some of that up on the screen. So we try to get them to think slightly differently than just putting a static menu on their screens. 

David: Do students get involved?

Neil Emery: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, and again, that's where we came from. We remember the early days of accessing those screens, putting in the students' work there and seeing how proud they were when it was playing in reception. So there's something we push quite highly and especially an Apple distinguished school. So again, we're historic with Apple, so we have schools that have Apple distinguished status. They would have a group of digital students who would create content on a regular basis before uploading that to us where it's then moderated by someone above them staff-wise before it goes live. It's a great thing to be doing. 

David: It sounds like your platform is largely cloud-based and that you've got a kind of a web player that will work across different types of devices as you were describing. Is that accurate? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, so we are cloud based. We use Microsoft Azure for all our hosting. So that's what we use, and you can have web players as well, but we have pure apps available too. So you go to the Windows app store or the Play store or the Mac App store, and you download our player app and it does that. 

David: So it's a native player for the Apple TV and so on?

Neil Emery: Yeah. So you open it up and you get your regular code that pretty much everybody else does nowadays. 

David: And one of the things that can be a challenge in schools, because IT resources are pretty limited, is how do you manage the devices remotely? 

Neil Emery: We have a player dashboard within Trilby TV, so you can see all your players that are online. We're just bringing out some new player updates as well so you'll be able to set restarts and clear cache and adjust volume and all that sort of stuff. So it can all be very much managed remotely. 

David: I assume one of the benefits and advantages you have over companies who are also in the digital signage space and have software, but don't know the school systems and so on, is you understand how administration works, where budgets come from and budget cycles and all that sort of stuff, does that give you a leg up? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, I think so. In education not that we are anyway, but you're not going to get rich overnight. They take a long time to trust you.But once they're with you, they're with you for a long time. We're really close to our customers and we want to be close with our customers because we want to make sure that they're using it properly, but of course, all of that experience and all of that knowledge that we now have from those, from Ben's point of view, 30 years, and from my point of view, 15 years, yeah, of course, when we're talking to a potential customer, they understand pretty quickly we know what we're talking about. 

David: I watch the web analytics off of 16:9 and what people are reading and there's always a big thirst out there for open source or free or freemium platforms and there are certainly some tools out there that are free-ish and I'm curious for schools who are on limited budgets, do they go down the path of trying to use open source stuff and, or very low cost stuff, and then realize that we need some hand holding here, it would be great to have some support and they rethink their budgeting and who they should work with? 

Neil Emery: Everyone's different, right? And I think, with IT, that's the buying mechanism for digital signage and education over here. You're always going to get some IT  people who really enjoy coming up with their own stuff and open source.

David: You mean IT people are know-it-alls? (Laughter)

Neil Emery: I didn't say that. Wel, we have to be careful because they buy our product. They are just like that. It's not important, maybe it is a little bit that they know everything about this solution and no one else can get in there and find out because they wouldn't be able to. But actually when they ask themselves about the time it takes to keep an eye on it and monitor it and update it, then it's wasting that time, which is then where we win the battle of, “Neil, this is so easy to use. I can give ownership to others. I can set it up, but actually I can give ownership to others and let them get on with it,” which is what they want in the end. They don't want to be managing what is in essence, a marketing tool, because that's what digital signage is. It's a marketing tool. 

So yeah, budget wise, you might have a USB stick. You might have a laptop. Although that always makes me laugh because the laptop is budget and it'd be better off in the classroom, but that's just my thoughts. We're £1000 for unlimited screens, it's not a huge amount of money for a whole solution that runs your digital signage. But you're dead right. I think some will start off trying to come up with something themselves, but they soon find out that it's causing them a lot more pain than they want it to.

David: So when you say £1000 for an unlimited license that's per school, or is it a school system or how does that work? 

Neil Emery: No, that's our single per school costs. Some of our schools have up to 40 screens, which is where it becomes very financially viable for them. We do have a multi-site license as well. We have some of the big multi academy trusts using TrilbyTV now in the UK, they pay a cost at trust level, which then significantly reduces the per school costs. So under a multi-site license, it's only £500 per school rather than the £1000. 

David: So it's like an enterprise license as opposed to software as a service. You buy at one time, it's perpetual, and then do you pay for support or how does that work? 

Neil Emery: Oh, no. So it’s a yearly subscription which, again, everybody pretty much does that. 

David: Does the demand, and the use differ between what over in Canada, they would call public schools or private schools, but I know I get confused as hell because public schools are private schools in the UK and so on, are there needs and the way they use the system different? 

Neil Emery: Private schools here, obviously that's the schools that parents pay for children to be at school and often boarding. They have so much more resources, obviously, you've got teams of twelve people, whereas in a state school, you might have a team of two people sometimes if we're lucky. So because of that, I think independent private schools are able to shine those screens a lot more. So because of the resource, they're sharing much more rich content. They have time to create that content and make it look good on the screens. They have a strategy in place to do that a lot of the time, whereas your public schools, often because of the lack of resources, are struggling for ideas, but also for people to create the ideas and create the content.

For us, we would see the content being pretty much the same across the school sector. It would change a little bit for colleges and universities. It definitely changes for primary schools, which is, your lower age schools, whereas that's more about sharing and showcasing student work at that lower age group. But I think for us, it's about educating our schools and our colleges right across the board that this is an extension of their website. This is a great marketing tool and they need to be thinking about what content is shown on those screens. 

David: Are you doing much in colleges and universities? 

Neil Emery: Lots in colleges. So we do well in that space, not so much in universities because we'll be very honest about our product and we're not wayfinding them and we're not touch screens. We are just easy-to-upload full screen content, so not so much for universities. We've got a few, but we definitely do well in colleges.

David: Yeah, I guess once you get into the larger footprint, universities with campuses and everything else you need to get into directory systems and everything else that does get more complicated? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, again, we don't want to pretend what we're not, and won't be. So although we have a few colleges, we tend to be in specific places. We're not for bus time tables or things like that. Again, we’re for fullscreen content, marketing specific events to the students. 

David: How big is your company at this point? 

Neil Emery: We're still pretty small, so there's seven of us and we're heading towards eight next year. 

David: And you can do that sort of thing, particularly these days, you can be virtual and you can scale up and scale down as you need, right? 

Neil Emery: Absolutely. We're very lucky we're self-funded. We work extremely hard to make sure that we don't need to go down the route of investment and having a board of people telling us what to do. We want to keep that kind of closeness and that honesty of the company and grow organically. Of course we'd like to grow quicker. But we want to make sure our organic growth is honest towards our customers. So yeah, we're still small, but we've got aspirations to grow in the next five years that's for sure.

David: And what would be your install base, like how would you describe that? Are you in hundreds of schools, thousands of schools? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, we're in hundreds of schools. Currently we've got about 1300 screens live in UK education at the moment. 

David: As you said, you'd love to be able to grow that more.

Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely. You know, me and Ben, when we were in Wales six years ago, thinking about where we should take the direction of the company. Because of what we'd seen in education we knew we could become the number one signage company for education because that's what we focus on.

You won't see a dropdown on our website and it says retail and restaurant and this and that and this and that cause that's not honest and that doesn't work for education. So for us, we want to become the number one digital signage platform made, and I always stick to my made, because that's important, made for education.

David: Yeah, it's something that I have coached endless numbers of people around is if you have a digital signage platform, do not go out into the marketplace as a generalist offer, because there are already too many of them. You need to find your niche. You need to find your tribe and say, we're the guys for this and it's what you are doing. 

Neil Emery: Yeah, I think that's very hard as well, because if you're a new company or again, you've had investment, you're going to have to go after every market. In the US it is probably different, you see people like Rise Vision, there is a huge market in the US than probably more so Canada. So education, you've probably got more options to grow quicker. Here in the UK, although we've still got 35,000 education establishments, it's a long sell. We've customers that can take anywhere up to three months, six months to purchase your product. So there's a lot of time investment in there. 

So, I think it's different potentially in places like the US as I said, where you're trying to mop up as much traffic as possible to grow your businesses as quickly as possible. 

David: I think I know the answer, but I'll ask, have you thought about coming to North America or you've got more than enough to grow in the UK for some time?

Neil Emery: Well, we do have US customers and we do business and education actually, but they tend to again come to us because they liked that easy solution and ease of use. We do have links in the US with distributors, like Exertis, who were distributed in the UK. We have relationships with people like Promethian and Smart knocked on the door a few times and asked us what we're up to, but it's a different setup in the US when it comes to education, and we're aware of that, and the language differ slightly so we're aware of that as well. 

So it's not our focus, but if someone comes along and says, you've got an easy to use platform, can we sign up and use you? We’re like, absolutely, you can! 

David: One thing that's been around for a long time with digital signage and education, particularly on the digital out of home advertising side, is the idea that these screens can pay for themselves if you would just allow advertising on them or at least have the screen sponsored by, I don't know, British Telecom or O2, or something like that, it has not been explored at all? Or is it, would that just be hard “No” from the education people? 

Neil Emery: There's definitely people who are doing it in the commercial space, and now platforms that allow you to, via an app, say I would like my pizza business advertised on there three times a week just directly billed. It's definitely a conversation we've had at directors meetings but it doesn't feel right to us. 

Education is education and if I speak to some of my close head teachers for them, it's about the children and nothing else. So they wouldn't want to have these discussions in the first place. Because it's more about putting up the work of the children that day, make sure they feel proud. It's conversations that have been had, but we would stay away from those conversations fairly quickly. 

David: Yeah, it would be interesting, I think, for things like sponsorships or almost like donations in the same way that maybe a company donates a new playground for a school yard, that sort of thing that you would imagine in areas of the country, maybe up in the north, that don't have the same wealth and resources and everything else that maybe that would be a way to get these systems going? 

Neil Emery: Yeah, potentially. It just gets messy, I think, that's the problem. The focus is making sure that the customer understands what scientists can do first and foremost, and making sure they have a platform that's easy to use so that when we talk to them about what they love about the platform. Going to them to talk about how they might make money from companies advertising on the screens, yeah, it's almost as confusing as just simply trying to get signage running on an interactive screen, which sounds easy, but actually even that is completely a different conversation with schools sometimes 

David: I have to ask about the name. I did look up Trilby and saw that in America, it would be called a Pork Pie hat. Trilby is a hat, right? 

Neil Emery: If we were doing video, Dave, I would have worn my Trilby today. 

There is meaning behind this, and Ben would certainly be able to give you that more. There's an article on the website that explains it as well. But from a simple point of view, Ben's dad, Tony,  bless him, he’s no longer with us, was a Trilby hat wearer, and at our old offices in Birmingham, we had two lines of hats on the walls and he used to pick those between different ones regularly and where those, and it's nice because it's tactile. 

Again, I go to lots of school training and they'll be like, oh, where's your hat because they expect you to wear the hat, and I think senior leadership at schools and colleges like that tactile approach as well. They don't so much like those cleaner techie type names. They like something that feels a bit familiar to them. 

David: All right. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. If people want to look you up, where would they find you online? 

Neil Emery: www.TrilbyTV.co.uk. 

David: Perfect. All right. Thank you very much. 

Neil Emery: Dave. It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you!

David Labuskes, AVIXA

David Labuskes, AVIXA

September 22, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

There is a whole pile of back seat driving happening lately in the pro AV and digital signage communities about how to run a trade show in the COVID-19 era, and much of the focus has squarely been on Dave Labuskes, the CEO of AVIXA, which runs InfoComm and co-owns the even larger trade show ISE.

The show is happening in about a month in Orlando, and with other big trade shows saying never mind for 2021, there are endless questions and suggestions about the prospects of the show even happening.

It will, says Labuskes, unless there are measures like government-mandated closures. Given that the show is in Florida, that's probably not going to happen.

Labuskes has done some frank interviews lately that went into deep detail about InfoComm and COVID, and the business. I spoke with Labuskes late last week and did not see the value in rehashing and revisiting a lot of what he said, so in our chat we talk a little about how things will come off and why. But we spend a lot more time on bigger picture stuff about how trade shows fit, and whether a niche industry like digital signage can find a well-defined home and community at big, omni AV shows like Infocomm and ISE.

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TRANSCRIPT

Mr Labuskes, thank you for joining me. I wanted to get into a number of things, but I also didn't want to just rehash some recent conversations you had in an hour long interview last week with Tim Albright from AVnation that went into a lot of frank discussion about where InfoComm is at and everything associated with that, but I can’t cCompletely ignore that, and I just wanted to ask, where are things now , has anything changed in the last week since I watched that interview? 

Dave Labuskes: Mr. Haynes, it's good to be here. There have been a couple of other events that have announced cancellations, but there's been nothing that's changed in AVIXA's policy with regards to InfoComm. We still see a runway to a fantastic event with fantastic people conducting fantastic business.

It's been described as being the last trade show standing this fall, but that's not really true. There's all kinds of events going on here, there, and everywhere. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah. There's a lot that's described that isn't necessarily really true, David. But yeah there's events and trade shows happening every day, all around the world, and I'm actually a little confused. For an industry that is really based on overcoming challenges and doing the impossible and making things happen that nobody believed could actually happen, there is that sort of a sentiment that trade shows can't take place right now and that just simply is not true. They're taking place every day. 

So I have mixed opinions personally. I was supposed to be doing a mixer down at InfoComm and decided not to do that, and that wasn't really so much about I don't think InfoComm should even happen or anything else, it was just as simply a fact of, I didn't quite see how a cocktail party, where everybody was wearing a mask and being asked to stand six feet apart would work terribly well and the optics were weird. 

It's one of those things where I could see a trade show happening, but I didn't see that happening well, and we don't need to get into all of that. I'm curious more about whether or not you're enjoying all the armchair opinions from people who say what you should be doing, but have never actually run a tradeshow? 

Dave Labuskes: Before I had this job, I was a partner at a large architectural engineering firm, and one of the gentlemen that was on the search committee that was interviewing me for this job, James Ford, owner of Ford AV and I'll never forget where he was sitting in the boardroom, he leaned forward and said, “Dave, you've got a really good gig, like why would you want this job?” And I'm like that's a great question, and I try to answer it, and he's like, “But Dave, here's the thing: You're running one of the largest consulting practices in the world and if you have a management meeting and you decide to go liveleft, then everybody's going to leave that meeting and they're going to go left, and the jobs that you're interviewing for you and your team are going to decide to go left, and then 50,000 people are going to tell you, you should go right!”

I actually celebrate varied opinions. I do think a lot of people express an expertise that is perhaps inflated in their own perception. Trade shows, they're a complicated industry. I've been doing this now for eight years and I have people on my team that have forgotten twice what I'll ever know. The interplay between the various different constraints, the challenges that people throw out there as though they're simple challenges. Yeah, they're a little frustrating, but I signed up for it. Nobody made me do this job. I was forewarned, so maybe I'm the one that has an exaggerated impression of my expertise.

Is part of the problem just simply that it's Florida and Florida is this eternally weird place at the best of times, but it's got a particular problem and people all the way up to the governor of the state who don't seem to recognize that, “Hey, maybe there's a bit of a problem happening here.”?

Dave Labuskes: Yeah. I think I'll be a little more politically correct than that, and it was nice for you to try it, but it isn't my first rodeo here. 

(Laughter) I wasn't trying to bait you. I just think that's a big part of it and the people, the armchair opinion makers who say why don't you just move it or why didn't you just do it in another city? There's a little bit of baggage associated with doing that but just simply speaking, it's a part of the country that has a particular exacerbated problem, but doesn't seem to want to recognize that it has an exacerbated problem.

Dave Labuskes: It all comes from the jurisdictions and it all comes down to point of reference, right? You can also just say, is it the problem that the event is in the United States, right? Because if you look at the United States and compare the United States to other countries, we're not necessarily getting a straight-A report card.

What I have said, and I know we don't want to have the same conversation I've had already with others, is that I don't think the brush that should be used in making that decision is Florida. I think the brush that we should use in painting that picture is Orange County. There's parts of California that may or may not be behaving in the same fashion you or I would do.

So I think you have to look at where are you going to fly into, where you're going to be, where are you going to have dinner, where are you going to sleep? Those types of things, and when you get to that stage orange county this morning had 79.4% of their population over the age 18 having had one shot of the vaccine. They've got a mask order that was issued by the mayor strongly recommending that masks be worn inside any public space. They've got plummeting hospitalization rates, death rates, positivity rates at 12.4%, I believe. 

So, I think, unfortunately the world and this country and all of the states have this polarization thing going on, and yeah, would it be more comfortable for people to attend an event somewhere else that are looking from afar and don't take time to do all that research? Probably. The headline, the abbreviated picture, is challenging, but I do think that there are people that are going to make a decision that attending a trade show weighed against other factors just isn't for them this year, and I think they'd make that decision regardless of where it is. 

Yeah. I guess that's the other thing that you didn't know you were signing up for was having an extensive ability to talk in genealogical terms.

Dave Labuskes: This is a true story, David. Last year, I came home from the office, and at dinner I said to my wife and son I spent an hour today reading a scientific study about the efficacy of washing your hands with cold water versus hot water, and that is not something I ever anticipated taking place in my career, I will admit that. (Laughter)

By the way, it is just as good. You just don't tend to wash them as long because it's less comfortable, but... 

I'm just impressed I was able to say epidemiology. 

Dave Labuskes: Happy with that. These are words that were not part of our vocabulary two years ago, right? 

Just drafting off of some of that: CEDIA which AVIXA has a relationship with because you co-own ISC had their event last week or the week before in Indianapolis and I won't go into how that went business-wise or anything else, but I'm curious if you had AVIXA folks there and did they see how things were done? I know they had signage and kind of cues on whether you are comfortable with people coming close and all that sort of stuff. Did those things work? 

Were there things that you learned from that you can take away and apply to InfoComm? 

Dave Labuskes: First part of the question: No, we didn't have anybody from AVIXA at that event that I'm aware of. Not that I know of, but I'm sure there were people there that were AVIXA members. We do have a close relationship with CEDIA. Obviously we have a partnership over a very large joint venture that owns and operates ISC and ISR and DSS. The show itself is owned by Emerald Expositions, and we have our conversational talking relationship with Emerald as well. In fact I have a call next week with Emerald to talk through lessons learned. 

I was in Louisville, Kentucky a couple of weeks ago at a SISO conference, which is the Society of Independent Show Operators. So it's Emerald, Informa, and mostly the for-profit trade show organizers and AVIXA was invited to attend. The industry of trade show organizers and meeting planners and event planners, we've joined arms and we recognize that this is a problem for all of us that we have to share best practices with, we have to share learnings with, we have to talk about what works and doesn't work.

It's kinda like the AV industry and as I'm learning more about it, the digital signage industry where people compete, but they also have a comradery where a rising tide lifts all ships kind of a thing, and so I think all trade show operators are working through this, associations as well are famously collaborating with regards to sharing information and learning and helping each other. So that's a good part of the pandemic. 

I would imagine one of the things that all these organizations collectively learned, if they didn't already know it, is that the whole virtual trade show thing just really doesn't work. Does it?

Dave Labuskes: It certainly didn't work in v1.0 of 2020. I think v1.5, and we're starting to get closer to 2.0, I think there's hope for it. The best visual I saw over the last 18 months is talking about books versus movies, and you don't convert a book to a movie by putting it on a podium and filming somebody turning the pages. And I think that probably is a closely apt description of what we all did with our first version of the virtual events. But I think you can tell a story, very effectively in print or in film, leveraging and celebrating the differences of the media. 

Where I am at now and where AVIXA is driving towards, and you'll see more developments about this in the next couple months is more about how AVIXA delivers on its mission, leveraging physical  events and digital platforms, and how do they interface and interact with each other? How do they mutually benefit each other? What's good in one, that's not good in the other?

Not a lot of good, special effects when you're reading a book, but a lot of great imagination when you're reading a book. Not a lot of ability to be character development through introspection in a movie, but it's really easy to do that when you're reading.

I think if you look at education, you look at delivery of information from provider to consumer, that can be done pretty effectively digitally. I think about human interaction and the break time during class is almost impossible to create digitally. That doesn't mean it is impossible. So I see a lot of assumptions that we made in order to achieve X, we needed to convene people face-to-face being challenged. But I also think that all of the pundits that got online in March and April of last year and said, this is the end of face-to-face, and we're going to be digital for the rest of our lives, have seen that they were probably not right with that either. 

I think the one thing that I took away, or what I have enjoyed about these virtual events is the ability to attend round tables panels presentations on demand. So I don't need to be somewhere or sit at a certain place, set aside things then at 10:00 AM, I'm going to watch this.

Just the simple fact that I got stuff going on. I can't do this today or right now, that I could click on it and see. Yeah, somebody from Brand X explaining this to me on my terms, and if I'm bored, I just click out, I don't have to stand up and walk out of the room and embarrass the presenter or anything like that. That part I like.

Dave Labuskes: I do too, and that's the irony of it is. If one of the things that all of us like is the absence of time and geography constraints, right? So it doesn't matter if that panel discussions take place in London or Nova Scotia or Orlando, you can still receive the outcome of that panel. 

Why are we saying that they should be organized and delivered between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM Eastern time on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week? That's where I get to this. I think it's more about a digital presence and digital community, a place where people interact when it's appropriate for them to interact, where they can organize their interaction times.

I'm old enough to have been in chat rooms on Prodigy and AOL and you remember you would organize with people like I'm going to be on at eight o'clock tonight for an hour, because you can only afford an hour. Because we were charged by the minute, and then I think that's what we have to recognize. So in that regard, I'm really excited about the fact that I'm not a trade show organizer, instead I’m an association that is committed to an industry and an industry community, and what I can do is build that community both digitally and physically. 

What do you think of the suggestion that the days of the big macro show are cloudy and that regionalized events make more sense, so an InfoComm Southwest, an ISE UK, that sort of thing? And granted that was tried a little bit in the past year, but that was out of necessity as opposed to design. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, I'm intrigued by it. But I think the loudest proponents of it are the attendees, not the exhibitors and the attendees don't pay. Doing ten small shows only costs a little less than doing one big show or less than doing then ten times doing one big show. The cost of doing a show has a fixed amount. Even in the smallest show, you're going to pay an X and then get to the big show, you may only be paying 2X where if you're doing a regional show, like 10 times, you are close to 10X, and your ROI on each of those events is smaller because your audience is small. 

Now that's using all the old rules. So if we go back to the last question, if I can segment an audience for an exhibitor and say, I'm going to bring people that have spending authority over half a million dollars that have a project next three months, it's going to require a high-end audio system. That's going to change that algebra, and so I don't think you throw it out the window, but economics has a factor in these things and it's easy to say I would rather go to a small event in Nashville, but the problem is I have to find somebody to pay for it, and even if you say I'm happier to go to a small event in Nashville, I bet you don't want to spend $195 for a ticket to go to that event? 

I get the hunger for it. I get the desire for it, but I don't see a business model around it right now. We've never been successful at small events being profitable. There have been good strategies like, before ISE launched. We did small roadshow events from country to country, it was before my time, but I hear stories from the old timers about the amazing sort of experience of going from hotel room or hotel conference to hotel conference across from Warsaw to Budapest to Rome type thing. And we've done them in advance of launching our Bangkok show. We did it in advance of launching our Mumbai show, but those become feeders to a larger event that has a more sustainable business model. We did a lot of what we used to call round tables, for example, we did the AVIXA round table in Baltimore where you'd have 15, 20, maybe 30 people come to them, and so you were spending a lot of money on an event that served 15, 20 or 30 people, and we just felt like there were better ways of spending the industry's money than that. 

The demise of Digital Signage Expo certainly raised the eyebrows at AVIXA and got you guys thinking, although you've always had digital signage as a component, you've had pavilions for many years, but there was an opportunity and a sense that something needed to fill that void. Granted, it's been refilled to some degree since then, but the show hasn't happened yet so we'll see how that comes off. 

How do you build up the digital signage affinity for InfoComm? Cause I've gone for many years, but I go to have a look at the gear. I'm not a gear head, but I write about it and everything else, but I don't really see it as an end-user show where a big retailer, those kinds of people are going to come to that they maybe they send their gearheads, but more likely it's the integrators that sell into big retail and so on are there are there, so how do you make all that kind of come together over the next couple of years?

Dave Labuskes: Boy, there's so much in that question, David. We should talk more often, I enjoy this.

Yes, it is an unfortunate demise and it didn't get folks in the AVIXA thinking. Yes, we've been looking at the digital signage industry for a long time. I do think it's a community within the larger industry that needs to be celebrated, and that's that other point with regards to small regional shows versus big shows. I think we see lots more shows within shows taking place, and I think that's probably the right solution, and I'm biased. I think AVIXA has the right place to build a home within a home for the digital signage community. 

First of all: there was this interesting dynamic between the association and the show operator, right? From an association perspective AVIXA has been having conversations with DSF, with DS-LATAM, with digital signage of Asia, and the various different entities in Europe. When you move from our association to association, one of the ways I think I actually described it to Rich Ventura, he and I were talking probably years ago and it's like you and I, David, are best friends, but our dads owns the competing gas stations on the corner, and so we can go to school and everything and be friends there but when we came home there's limits. 

That was kinda how I felt like it was and I felt like there's a window there to not have that dynamic. Now, some of that's changed and I respect Questex. I respect Paul and don't know him well, but I know him and I've had conversations with him and he's a smart guy and I believe he's committed to delivering a successful event. I think it's being honest, looking at what does an organization want, what is the community best one? And making honest agreements and commitments to each other, and then keeping them. There are advantages to working together, and I think the end goal is that “home within a home” and “a community within a community.” 

I think the challenge and opportunity for digital signage and InfoComm is the scale of the InfoComm show and the specificity and the heart and relationship with the digital signage community, and I think if we work together, we can build that home within a home. I think it can be more than a guest room. It can be an in-law apartment. It can be a place where it's identified and that's, yeah, I'm disappointed that you're not going to be there, and I know the mixture is just one manifestation of that home within a home, and we look forward to being able to do it in the future. 

Absolutely. One of the logistical problems or mechanical problems, so to speak, with a big show like an InfoComm is: yes, you've created these pavilions through the years of digital signage pavilion and some of the vendors have been in that, designated zone, so to speak, but the biggest players are the display manufacturers, and they've always had their spots, their Primo spots, and they're serving a whole bunch of audiences at InfoComm, not just the digital signage people. So how do you figure out a way to create a show within a show when you've got Sony in the front row, Samsung's got a giant booth in the middle of the hall and so on. You're never going to be able to herd them all into one hall, so to speak? 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, so what do you do then? I think what you have to do and we're down to the details of tactics, right? But I think you start to curate attendees' journeys. You use content as the honey to attract and people will come where content is and content can be delivered where people are, and that's the challenge of starting a trade show, but we've done that. We know how to form a trade show and it takes time and it takes continual feeding until it becomes a self-feeding cycle, and then you have to create a journey that is guided a bit so the attendees that are coming from retail or the attendees that are coming from the advertising agencies can get to where they will be able to extract value and some of that will require tour guides, not maps and serendipity, because it's too big to just let somebody lose, but we have that problem now with end users in general at the show, you described as gearheads, but about 40% of the attendees at a typical InfoComm are end user buyers. It's part of what makes that show so valuable to exhibitors. 

A lot of them are brought there by channel members. The consultants are bringing their customers, the integrators are bringing their customers. But a lot of them are brought there by us too, with promoting them and developing conference content that would be of interest to them, creating a nucleus of community. It's all very explicit, but it doesn't happen by chance. There are hosted buyers that are brought in to shows around the world. There are groups that are sponsored. There are other associations that are partnered with. Richard runs our Asian subsidiary. He's a genius at identifying influential associations within the geographies and partnering with them to offer programs. Organizations like the Indian Architects Association are partnered with our InfoComm Mumbai event, and they are holding content conferences for architects in conjunction with our event. All of our channels want architects at it. Those types of strategies are part of the town and the team that works on these.

Last question, looking ahead a few months to ISE and it's hard to do the crystal ball thing, but I gather things are calmer in Spain. I don't hear very many people at all saying, hell no, we're not going to Barcelona or anything else, maybe that'll bubble up, who knows? But is ISC in Barcelona going to be normal-ish?

Dave Labuskes: Yes, I think so. Again, like you said, the crystal balls are not crystal clear and now, after the last series of conversations, I think I'm going to put the crystal ball into the same place where I put “pivot” and “agile” and “unprecedented” but yeah, the biggest indicator that you would have about and event like ISC at this stage five months out is sold show floor space, right? 

I don't think we've even opened registration for attendees yet, and show floor sales are, I think they're probably about 8% off of 2020. I guess there's no such thing as quoting me because we're recording this, but it's within that ballpark of the size of the last event at the Rye, which is, really the last event to compare it to. So if it's 90% of that size, 80% of that size, I think that's, that absolutely fits into your technical definition of normal. 

And there were lots of people who said, because you're going to Barcelona, as awesome a place as it is, it may mean you see a slight drop because people who might go to ISC in Amsterdam, because they can drive there, maybe would not go all the way to Barcelona? 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, but there's other people that are going to drive to Barcelona that wouldn't have driven to Amsterdam. And yeah not a hundred percent a repeat audience, but…

Well, I’m not driving to Barcelona. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, me neither. (Laughter)

That's those armchair spectators that you talked about earlier, right? We did the homework to make a determination about that, and we love the Rye. We would love to have stayed at the Rye, but the Rye isn’t big enough to hold the show as it was moving forward in the future and it was starting to have a negative impact on attendee experience and you start to have those different factors impact a show and reach the value of the show. 

I'll just be happy if I can find my way around. 

Dave Labuskes: Yeah, it's a beautiful city. I'll tell you what it's like. It's the opposite of the Rye. It was one of the things I joked with Mike about. Finally I figured out how to get through the Eye without getting lost, and now we've decided to move the show. 

Yeah, me too. 

All right. I appreciate you taking some time with me. I suspect you're a busy fellow these days.

Dave Labuskes: Never too busy for you, sir. Congratulations on your recent deal. I'm really happy for you. 

Thank you!

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

Jackie Walker, Publicis Sapient, On QSRs

September 15, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

I've yet to meet Jackie Walker in person, but in our chats over the phone and video, she's quickly impressed me with her knowledge, insights and enthusiasm for digital signage.

Many of the people I've dealt with at big media companies speak an unfamiliar, very buzz-phrasey language that I barely grasp, but Jackie works for one of the biggest - Publicis Sapient - and speaks like normal people. Based in Houston, she's the head of strategy for that giant agency's work in what's called dining and delivery. That puts her front and center in planning out and then executing things like digital menu displays and the overall ordering experience at major QSRs.

Drive-thrus and their digital displays were a big part of how many QSRs got through COVID lockdown periods - when in-store ordering was restricted - and now we're seeing a lot of operators who didn't have drive-thru adding that capability.

Jackie and I had a great chat about the value proposition and ROI model for drive-thru display technology - including mashing up a lot of things like loyalty apps, readers and other technologies to customize or optimize what consumers see when they get in front of screens.

If you sell into or service the QSR space, this is a valuable listen.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Jackie, welcome. We've spoken in the past and know each other a bit. I don't think we've actually met in person, and who does that any more? 

You work for Publicis Sapient, and you've been leading strategy for digital menu boards for a couple of big QSR brands. What does all that entail? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely. Publicis Sapient, for those of your listeners who aren't super familiar with us, we are a digital business transformation firm. So we work with many brands, many QSRs in particular, around how they can use digital to really optimize the way that they are connecting with their customers. It's on a lot of fronts, there's some mobile work, of course, loyalty work, customer relationship marketing, all of these suspects.

But I specifically have really been working very closely on digital menu boards which have been really interesting. The brands that I've been working with and I've now worked with five of the top twenty-five and different categories, right? A couple of the burger brands, a coffee brand, a chicken brand. What's really interesting, I think, for these larger brands is that they're really trying to push the envelope on what they're trying to achieve with their digital menu boards. But nobody has really figured out how to do that yet. So when we go in on the strategy engagements, we're really focused on the customer experience as a lens.

So the team is generally, me, a couple of strategists, a product manager sometimes, and a couple of UX people, so visual designers and user experience folks who can really think about the way you organize an experience for our customer to make it super easy, and we really look at three lenses, right? We look at where the brand is from a brand identity customer experience perspective. So as they think about how to transition from just translating a print menu, which is generally the way that this starts, right? How do you move from translating a print menu to actually thinking about broader digital capabilities? So we try to understand where they are with that. What's their mobile experience? How do they think about this on their digital channels today? 

We think about where they are from a technology standpoint. So that's really interesting work, right? Talking to their restaurant technology groups, sometimes their customer technology groups, trying to understand what they're doing from a loyalty standpoint, where they are with the point of sale capability where they are with their digital menu board vendor. If they're already down a path, so what are the capabilities they have and what do they don't have, and really thinking about those lenses so that we can get to a view on where they go from a user experience standpoint and then also, how do they continue to push the envelope as they build in more and more digital capabilities? 

So you've talked about pushing the envelopes. When digital many boards first started being applied in larger QSR chains, it was all around the operational issues that changes could be made a lot more efficiently and you can do dayparting. I gather what you're saying is the larger brands, at least in their heads, are way beyond that now? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. It's a funny thing, right? I think we're still talking about some of those basics. Everybody thinks of Mcdonald’s as the gold standard, which makes sense. They're the largest, they were the first to scale outdoors. But that's recent, right? So they just finished their rollout in the US at the beginning of 2020. So it's not actually that long ago that some of this hardware was being installed. So I think dayparting is still something that brands are very much thinking about. They're thinking about how to leverage dayparting. So if you look at the McDonald's menu, there are some obvious changes with the dayparts. You look at the background color, for example, breakfast is blue, lunch is yellow, dinner and late-night is black, right? That's the most obvious, but if you squint, you can't really tell the difference between the products that are laid out for lunch, dinner, and late at night. They're doing very subtle things with reorganizing products, but they're not really leaning into that capability yet.

So as brands are starting to think about dayparting, thinking more about. What can you do from a business perspective with that? Can you do promotions that are specific to a time of day, right? Can you have a special late-night menu that has different pricing on some of your most snackable items, as an example, do you play with brand voice? 

So some of these QSR brands really have quite playful brand identities. You think that some of these brands could have a really fun and differentiated late-night experience versus what they're trying to accomplish during lunchtime, that would be consistent with their brand. So still thinking about that, I think now the big thing is loyalty, and so with loyalty and I keep beating the drum on this one, that is really going to fundamentally change the drive-thru experience. Again, McDonald's pushing the envelope here. 

They completed their national loyalty rollout in July, in the US, which is their largest market, and what's sneaky, and I don't know if everyone's recognized it is now in McDonald's app, you can actually set it up so that when you go through the drive-thru, you can pay with your stored credit card via your app. So you go to the window, just you go up to the menu board, just like you normally would, you talk to the crew member, you place your order. You give them this code, and now it's applying loyalty points. It's using any coupons or offers or points redemptions that you've applied but it also does the payment through that mobile interface, which is really interesting. It's subtle but if you think about the experience of a customer, they don't have to go to the pay window anymore at all. You've just really streamline that. You don't have to hand your credit card out through the window. You avoid all of that kind of silliness. So I think that's a really interesting change, and I think other brands are really going to be forced to emulate that, and that's going to be a huge shift. 

Yeah, and that's part of it, right? If you have a lot of active use of your loyalty app, also blends payment in there when they get into the drive-thru lane long before they even get to the presale window, a system like what McDonald's bought with that Israeli company Dynamic Yield is that they pick that stuff up, they know that Jackie's back in and she's got her kids with her maybe or whatever, and when you get to the presale and when you get to the order window, they can dynamically recast that menu to suit your preferences or what they think might be your preferences and how they can upsell you on stuff?

Jackie Walker: That's where it's headed, yeah. So no one is really doing that particularly effectively yet, but that is absolutely where it's headed. The challenge that a lot of these brands are still working on is customer identification, and we've been talking about that for so long, we used to talk about license plate recognition, still talk about Bluetooth. How do you figure out who's in the car? Are you creepy and use cameras? What are you doing? So brands are really still experimenting and figuring out what is the best tech for that. McDonald's right now is just doing a shortcode so the customer still has to do some work, they have to open their app, they have to see that code, they read it to the crew, right? Code is different every time. So you have to actually look to see it, in that transaction, what your code is. 

But certainly even testing Bluetooth, DNKN is interesting. DNKN’s been partnering with a company called Blue Dot not so secretly, which does pretty advanced geolocation. So they're actually using really tight geofencing to trigger customer identification and doing some customer greeting based on that. 

So it would actually say, “Hi Dave, or Hey Jackie”?

Jackie Walker: Exactly, which is, I think still a questionable use case, right? 

Yeah. People will start looking in the rearview mirror and go, “okay, who's following me?” 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, exactly. My favorite actually is not the “Hi Dave!” at the beginning, but the “Thanks, Dave!” at the end of the transaction like that's been a topic is how do you personalize that screen at the very end of the order confirmation, which is funny because if you actually sit in a drive-thru for a while and watch, which I do, because that's part of my job as the digital menu board super-nerd.  

“Who’s that strange woman standing in the parking lot?” (Laughter) 

Jackie Walker: Oh God, Dave, I have so many funny stories. My husband always makes fun of me. It's like, “Excuse me, there’s a suspicious woman in leggings and a Volvo in the drive-thru!”

It's yeah, it's funny. But you realize that most customers have already driven away by the time that thank you sign presents anything, so they're not seeing that. So if you're investing a bunch of time and energy figuring out how you're personalizing that screen, all you're really doing is creeping everybody out because you're showing the next customer in line, the previous customer's information.

That's an interesting thing, and then Tim Horton's is playing with scanners. So actually installing QR scanning hardware in the drive-thru lane, the customer opens their app, has the QR code open, and scans on the scanner, which I'm intrigued to see how that's going to go. I think there are definitely some pretty strong cons with that in terms of that hardware investment is not going to be small, and then, we've all done grocery checkout, self-checkout, and you try to scan something even in good lighting, that can be quite challenging. So now you have a mobile phone trying to scan in direct sun. I'm predicting, there'll be some challenges with that. 

In Canada with snow and -30 and everything else. 

Jackie Walker: Yep. Sticking your hand out the phone with a big mitten on.

Edmonton in February doing that. I'm not sure it was going to be a big take-up, but you never know. 

Jackie Walker: So I think, brands are, to go back to the original question, what are they doing? There are still a few basics, right? Let's figure out how we're going to identify the customer. Let's build that foundation. It's really about how we're going to use dayparting more effectively really, gets the promise of that, suggestive selling is another area. That's quite interesting. So we've been using those examples in the industry for 10 years. Show ice cream when it's hot out, show hot coffee when it's cold out, but now the technology is definitely there to do much more sophisticated things.

So that's where things like McDonald's dynamic yield do come into play in a big way, is making some suggestions for customers that go well beyond what you could do with rules-based kind of recommendations, and then now it's like let's start using our imagination and getting creative. 

What does personalization look like if you know a customer, do you make it really easy to reorder recent items? That's a great benefit for both the operator and the customer, right? So if you show somebody buys their Whopper Jr., mine is no pickle, no Mayo, with cheese, if you know that I order that every single time you show that on the board and you just say, I want my Whopper Jr. my way, and there's a POS integration for the crew member to hit one button. You just saved a bunch of time, and really provided some additional value for the customer. So I think those types of executions are going to be really interesting.

Certainly in places like Canada, where you have a pretty substantial number of commuters who would go into a Tim Horton's every morning and they're going to order their Double Double or whatever it is, and they're not going to move off of that because that's what gets them on the road. To be able to just know that, okay, Dave's here and he's gotten his Double Double, and there's nothing involved other than payment, or maybe even not that if if you flash your phone right away.

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. Yeah, it's really powerful, and it's those moments, I think that are going to be the most interesting or where there's clear value to the customer and there's clear value to the operator, right? Everyone benefits from that kind of investment. 

Is that seamlessness a big part of it where there are different systems and it all just works and it makes your drive-thru experience better?

Jackie Walker: That is I think the kind of gold standard and that's where it's headed. I think it's really interesting, for a long time, brands were buying digital menu boards and it was really, they're buying a piece of hardware, especially outdoor because everybody's really terrified about making this big hardware investment. You really focus on the hardware and then you get some software along for the ride and you hope that the software has the out-of-box capabilities that you need to do what you want to do with it. 

I think now more and more brands are recognizing that that's not really how it's going to work for them. It's really about creating this customized experience that can integrate with their systems. It can integrate with their point of sale. It can integrate with their loyalty program. It can integrate with their master product data. These are really powerful benefits to an integrated system, that is software first and experience first and the hardware is just supporting it. 

I'm curious about drive-thru right now because of COVID. Prior to COVID, the idea of selling drive-thru was that it could do all these things, here's the value proposition, and so on, and it was being marketed that way. 

With COVID and the inability, at least in some jurisdictions, to even go inside to dine and order stuff, if you didn't have to the drive-thru, you were in a world of pain in terms of operating your business. Has that deferred the whole idea, that you could do all these things with it and just made it operational for the moment, or at least in the past year, we needed to put in drive-thru just so we could do transactions and sell food?

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I think that was a huge benefit for QSR. You think about the drive-thru that was pre-built for COVID, it's the ultimate kind of contactless almost service method. So I think quick-serve has a huge advantage over other types of restaurants, even if you think about fast-casual where some of them may have had drive-thru or curbside pick up, but that was a very small part of their business, whereas quick service has been trying to optimize drive-thru for years and years, and spend a lot of time and energy and money investing in ways to make that channel more seamless.

I wonder what's different now, and exciting is that the emphasis for a long time has been on the operational aspects of drivers. So how do you improve the speed of service and how do you improve order accuracy? Those are the two big things, and how do you drive throughput? Now there's this question and I think loyalty is a big part of the impetus for that. How do you create meaningful customer interaction? So not only how are you getting the customer the food they want, at the speed you want to get it to them and they want it to go. But how do you actually provide some additional value in that interaction and provide a differentiated experience? Which is exciting! 

How would that work and look? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think one of the things that's different about quick-service restaurants is that they still have a very large portion of their customers that are cash customers. You think about Starbucks, they've been extraordinarily successful at getting a ton of customers to just use mobile order pay and it's easy peasy. And then the challenge from an operation standpoint is just how do you get those mobile orders customers served quickly. 

QSRs are going to have a steeper hill to climb with that. They're trying to drive digital adoption. They're trying to drive known customer rates, like what percentage of their customers do they actually know that are registered customers or credit cards that they can attribute to a customer. But that behavior of people is gonna start on mobile ordering everything. So far, there's not really any evidence that there's going to be consistent. Customers like deals and offers that provide a lot of value. But if there's a way that you can hook into deals and offers without the customer actually having to complete the transaction in the mobile app, that's really powerful. Drive-thru is all about impulse. I can just pull in and grab my thing and go, and I don't have to think about it. I don't have to sit here go through the fifteen steps and in a mobile app to order. So I think it's really going to be that balance between bringing forward that enhanced digital capability with loyalty, which includes reordering, personalized offers. It includes all of those things and bringing that to bear in the drive-thru lane itself, and the menu board becomes a very powerful tool in reinforcing those value adds. 

If your customer is asking questions in the drive-thru you're in big trouble, right? So if you have a loyal customer, they don't know that you've registered with them, but you know it's them that's there, or they can't tell that you applied their points the way that they thought the points were going to get applied, to get a free ice cream cone you really create some significant operational challenges. So menu boards, I think, are becoming more and more of a tool to be able to reinforce to customers that you've got their back and things are going to be accurate in the way that they expect them to be. That's super powerful.

Is there an easily defined, easily sold, and easily acknowledged ROI model now for these drive-thru displays? Because by and large, they are being put in by the local franchise owner, not the head office, so that there's a significant $10-30k infrastructure investment to do this, and local operators are looking at this one and going, “I didn't save for that,” or, “Why would I do this?” or “What am I going to see?” 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, I will say that there does seem to be a pretty big sea change with regard to the franchisee's state of mind when it comes to this investment. I think there's real acceptance and I've worked with a couple of brands now where the initiative is spearheaded at the brand level, right? There's much more power when it comes from the brand and that capability is built centrally. The franchisees are just footing the bill for installation in their individual restaurant or set of restaurants but the franchisees are basically saying, let's go faster. How fast can I get this thing installed? And, they can't go as fast as the franchisees want them to go. 

I think what's interesting with the ROI model, in the early days, the math worked better for indoor because the capital investment indoors is a lot cheaper. There's a little bit of the cost savings of printing and having people up on ladders and the liability that goes along with that, the inflexibility of print. You could make a pretty good case for the return on investment with those indoor boards on cost alone. With drive-thru, your capital investment is quite a bit higher because the hardware has to be much more rugged to be able to withstand that outdoor environment.

I think what is shifting is now the value prop is not just about the cost savings and the increased flexibility. But it's also about the direct upside. So now that you have these additional digital capabilities, how do you actually build a customer's check by adding capabilities that are unique to digital? So getting really strong with the way you're using day partying or really thinking about suggestive selling and how do you do that in a consistent way, which is really driving. How do you encourage customers toward your more premium menu items? And you can get quite sophisticated in the way that you use that channel to build checks.

Is there an acknowledged metric around that? So pulling this out of my head, if you make this investment, it should pay for itself in the first 18 months or the first 26 months or whatever it is? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah, the economics depend a little bit on the restaurant, but generally the kind of rule of thumb has been, you're going to get like a 3% to 5% lift just by moving from analog boards to digital because the customer experience is just much better. I think the challenge is that wears off eventually is your customers get used to digital. You don't have that Disney effect on the third visit and fourth visit. But over time, it's all about driving that incrementality and the numbers are hard there, Dave, because a lot of people don't want to share. The brands don't want to share how successful or not successful their suggestive sales capabilities are. But generally speaking, it's all about driving that ticket over time, and then you can do the work back on the break-even time. 

But I think in general, what you said 18 to 24 months is in most cases probably about right. 

And I'm sure as in many things, the other QSR operators, regardless of category or size, pay very close attention to what the giants do, like a McDonald's and if they're doing a full rollout across their whole estate, across the United States, they're not doing that for giggles and they’ve thought this through?

Jackie Walker: Absolutely. With the ROI model, part of it is, what is the direct benefit, from an economic standpoint, but then the other part of it is very much keeping up with the Joneses kind of mentality or keeping up with the McDonalds in this case. How do you actually ensure that you're meeting customer expectations because once customers get used to that slick experience, you pull into a random Taco Bell with a ten-year-old backlit WITH half of them are blown out and they're all scratched up and dingy, customers do notice that stuff? So I think there is a little bit of just leveling up that guest experience and it is going to be contagious. 

All the big brands are really starting to think about how they do this, and I think now with the price of hardware coming down and the big players converting, so McDonald's is already there, RBI is rolling out across Burger King, Popeye's, and Tim Horton's, they're going to be the next big player to reach scale. It's really just a matter of when, and not if everyone's going to go digital on these drivers. 

So let's talk about inside the store. We talked mostly about drive-thru displays, but inside the store, digital menu boards have been around a lot longer, but they're changing too because you're going to see a lot more service ordering and a lot more pickup and you need digital menu boards that have to also function as queue management or notification, right? 

Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think what's happening is there's actually a proliferation of use cases if you want to think about it that way. So the digital menu board at the front counter is really just about providing a menu to customers that are in the restaurant and you're right, it's pretty well understood. I think that's interesting when I talk to customers about drive-thru, they get really excited about its personalization, and the word I always pushed to use is optimization even more than personalization because you get the benefit for unknown guests as well.

But once you get that working like a well-oiled machine, you start to understand customer behavior at the store level, you can actually apply those same principles at the front counter, right? So you're not targeting your messaging to an individual customer because that front counter board is meant to be a one-to-many experience, but you can 100% tailor that experience to the restaurant. So you can curate the menu for the types of purchase behavior that exists in that store or that type of store. So I think the front counter is going to continue to evolve, with regards to that, to become a little bit more curated benefiting from the investment at the drive-thru. 

The kiosk is another huge piece. I laugh and I think we've talked about this before, when COVID started everyone thought, oh my God, it's like the death of kiosks, nobody's ever going to touch it, touch screen ever again. But actually, it's done quite the opposite as we've understood better, that face-to-face is much worse than touching a screen and using some hand sanitizer. But what's interesting is that from a rollout perspective. Brands still think of kiosks as very different from menu boards, which I find fascinating. The way that it ends up shaking out is, brands think about their mobile experience and most brands are furthest along on mobile ordering. Then when they think about kiosks, it's the app, but on a big screen and a lot of brands actually manage it that way. So it's not the in-store tech groups that are managing that kiosk, it's actually the digital groups, the customer experience, technology groups that are delivering them.

And then you have the menu boards and they are very much firmly still in the restaurant technology side of the house. So there are different problems to solve altogether. I think more and more, there's going to be a little bit of consolidation across that. I always encourage customers to think about as you're doing drive-thru, you're building these mechanisms from a backend standpoint to actually deliver curated content and be smart in how you're merchandising product dynamically. There’s absolutely a play for that on front counter boards and a play for that on kiosks, and the kiosk is after all another piece of in-store hardware, and then to your point, Dave, there are these other use cases, right? 

So are brands going to start to put more queue management screens up like McDonald's has, where they have now served these customer numbers and they have the list for in-store and list for mobile. Do they start to do some things with digital displays near pickup areas as more and more customers are starting to use take-out options? I've even heard some thought around, are there going to be digital screens at mobile pickup? I'm still not sold on that one. Like a sign made out of metal does just great for, telling you a customer where they need to park. We'll see who's able to first define a use case that has a clear ROI for putting screens at those parking spots. 

The last thing I wanted to ask about was some fundamentals around digital menu boards. One of the things that I've found through the years and seems to be getting better as people learn is you have these eye charts that they try to cram so much stuff into a single display that you really can't read anything and it's mentally overwhelming, you look at it and go, oh my God, I'll just order the thing that I've got in my head and get the hell out of here. 

Is that sort of thing important? Color choices, font choices, certainly the volume of text, the size or point size, all those things?

Jackie Walker: 100%. Yes, and I think I'm glad you asked this question because this is my favorite question, right? If you look at how most of the brands: McDonald's is a good example, Burger King is a good example. It looks like the problem they've been trying to solve is how do you jam all the shit that you had on six panels print now on to two or three digital screens. Like if you just look at it, you can see that's what they thought they were trying to do. Really the opportunity with digital menu boards is to get more precise about what the content is because you can have advanced analytics, you can link what you display to a customer to a transaction. You can start to have a much better data-driven merchandising strategy. So you can really think about the use case for the drive-thru, which to your point is you have a customer that's freaked out, they're going to be in front of that board for probably 10-15 seconds looking at it at a peak time before they start talking or the crew member starts talking to them. So if you're trying to show them 85 SKUs, there is no way that any human is understanding 85 SKUs in 10-15 seconds. So the opportunity is really about curation, and I think when we approach menu board design, we don't think about it from an old-school menu sings print menu point of view. We think about it from a digital frame of reference. 

How do you guide wayfinding for a customer? How do you establish a kind of system design and a foundation that's going to allow the operator of the brand to substitute products in and out and see how they perform when they're in these different slots? Think about designing a poster, you think about designing a digital framework. I think curation is key. That's that to me really all of these personalization tactics that you talk about, it really comes back to how do I show less stuff that's more meaningful and the tactics are all different ways of getting at that problem. So I think that's what's most exciting about the move to digital menu boards is we can start playing there and as an industry get much smarter about how you actually serve the customer at that moment? How do you show them the least amount of information to get them through success? Either help them get what they wanted to get, they knew they wanted, or inspire them to try something new. Build tickets, improve their level of confidence. These are all the things that become front and center in this new digital menu board experience.

All right. Super interesting. I appreciate you taking the time. 

Jackie Walker: Lots of fun. Dave, always looking forward to talking to you soon and maybe meeting you in person. 

Yes. If we ever travel once again and do things like Trade Shows. 

Jackie Walker: Amen. Thanks so much, Dave.

 

Tony Anscombe, ESET

Tony Anscombe, ESET

September 14, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

There's been a lot of talk about vaccine passports as the numbers of fully vaccinated people have risen in many to most first world countries, and venues from restaurants to giant sports stadiums have started talking about requiring proof of being jabbed as a requirement of admission.

But how is that done efficiently and securely? And how are fraudulent papers identified and rejected?

One of the ways to process people quickly and accurately is using readers and scanners, handheld or as  self-service kiosks. The idea is that you'd have a government-issued vaccine passport that has validated vaccine records, plus some sort of image database that confirms you are who you say you are. You walk up to a scanner, it does its thing, and you're in ... or you're rejected.

The hardware side of this, for kiosk and touchscreen manufacturers, is probably not all that complicated. But the back-end software and database side is hugely complicated.

I had a great discussion with Tony Anscombe, the Chief Security Evangelist for the tech firm ESET. We get into the opportunities and challenges facing any AV/IT company looking at these passport kiosks as an emerging business.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Tony, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what ESET is all about and what also your role as Chief Security Evangelist means? 

Tony Anscombe: So ESET is a longstanding cyber security company. We've been in the industry for 30+ years and we're headquartered in Europe. Many people will know us from years ago as an antivirus company, but today we're very much more than that. 

We have anti-malware products that you and I might use on mobiles or laptops or such, but we also provide threat intelligence and endpoint detection and response systems all the way up through to big enterprises. So tens of thousands of seats, where they're looking at anomalies in traffic patterns and such, and that intelligence is super important in today's environment, especially when you've got so much ransomware attacking companies.

And as an Evangelist, you're preaching to the choir, whether it's people who are CIOs of companies or people who don't know very much about network security, right? 

Tony Anscombe: Yeah, a big part of staying safe online, whether you're an enterprise, or whether you're a consumer, is human behavior. Because we all have on occasion, a tendency to look at a link and think it's safe and you click on that link and you're on a phishing page or you're downloading something that you don't want. 

And understanding what causes cybercrime and actually talking to people about how to avoid it and good behavior and the things to look out for is super important. So education is a large piece of cyber security and it's important that people like me and most security companies have somebody like me are out there educating both enterprises and consumers. 

I assume that those other C-level executives, like the CFO, may not know that much about it? It's important to have somebody that can listen to this, not purely talking in acronyms and information that they can't possibly understand, but get enough of it to realize, “I can sign off on this.” 

Tony Anscombe: Yes. It's important that we put it into real speaks, so when you're talking to a CFO about what's going to be the impact on their business if they get a cyber attack. Because that's what they understand, you know, loss of revenue, loss of business, loss of reputation, etc. So actually bring it back to what it might cause to the business and those are important points. No company wants to be attacked and have to make some data breach notification or anything like that.

I was looking forward to chatting because recently I came across information and actually republished a post from another publication about Vaccine Passport kiosk, which is something I hadn't really thought much about. I have not traveled yet, and I work at home so I don't circulate a lot in buildings or anything else where this would be an issue. 

But if we should shift to a world where vaccine passports are used a lot, I assume technology is going to have to be a big part of this because of the pure nature of throughput, that if you're going to process a lot of people and verify whether what they have is real or not, you're going to need machine help because getting humans to do that is just gonna create massive lineups and lots of mistakes.

Tony Anscombe: Yes, and there will be a place for kiosks, but they'll also be a place for handheld scanners and it is probably best to step back one and I’ll explain because some of the people listening may not have a digital vaccine recognition. 

It depends where you are, and what your government is handing out as in way of, “Yes, you've been vaccinated” and how that might actually be read. So in the US, I'm sure everybody has seen in some media stories, the little paper CDC card, and of course how would a kiosk actually validate that's real. It's just a piece of paper. Whereas some governments that have centralized health databases have gone to the other extreme of having QR codes and confirmation of the vaccination digitally, and if you haven't got a smartphone, you can print it out and carry it with you. But I think there's a wide range of different solutions and it's not just the problem of you and me, Dave, going to maybe a concert or a theater or an office, where there's huge throughput through the door. It's also international travel and does a kiosk recognize every different variant of confirmation of vaccination? 

Yeah, and because every jurisdiction seems to be doing it a little bit differently. There are no standards and there's no harmony around what it looks like, what you presented, nothing, right?

Tony Anscombe: Correct, and I'm actually gonna use New York as an example because I think New York has gone through the pain of what I define as three solutions. 

They've gone through having the CDC card, then they've created an app where you can, in effect, upload the card, and it's not much more useful than the card other than it's a digital copy of the card. And then they've recently in the last few weeks adopted the Excelsior app, which is produced by IBM and works on the blockchain. So the actual app itself provides some security about the data that it's holding, but it creates the QR code and it tells you the date of vaccination, the person's date of birth, and who they are. But of course, one thing that's missing from it is actually confirming who they are. 

So it's all very well having a vaccination record, but you also need to confirm the identity of the person that's holding the vaccination record, because if you and I were together and one of us was vaccinated on one of us was not, I could easily install my vaccination confirmation on your phone, because I know you're going to a concert or such and if there's no validation of identification at the point where somebody checks the vaccination, then you'd be traveling unvaccinated on my vaccination record.

So what needs to happen? What would be the baseline of what's required to make this truly work and secure and validate it? 

Tony Anscombe: So for you to be certain that the person coming in, you need to have pre-validated their identity. So either an app needs to have, for example, take your picture and you upload your driver's license or other recognized government-issued identity document, and then it does a facial comparison between the person uploading and, the government approved identity document, and then it goes off to the vaccine database and collects the vaccine record for the person with that identity, either the same date of birth, same name and maybe you've had to provide an email address or a mobile number that you did when you had your vaccination so that it picks up the correct record and then it marries the two together and holds them in some way in the app. 

Now the app should only hold the information it absolutely requires and that is your name, your date of birth, and that your vaccine is valid, and I say that because of course, we will come to a point where like the flu jab, you’d need to have another vaccine because vaccines don't last forever. So at that point, it needs to know that you're within whatever period of time it is that health organizations decide that they're valid for, and then it will create a QR code that's readable by a kiosk or a scanner. So that actually your data is not being shared, but somebody, as you look at a kiosk that it's reading the QR code it knows you have a valid vaccine, and if it's, for example, the company CLEAR that runs airport security, and they do facial recognition. So they take your picture, look at the record that they have on file and match the record to the farm. 

So imagine if you're now turning up to a concert, you go up to the kiosk, you show your QR code, it knows you've got a vaccine and it's checking you are the person that was on the identity document that was uploaded at the time you registered with the kiosk manufacturer.

This sounds very complicated. 

Tony Anscombe: And that is maybe an understatement actually, and from the point of explanation, it is. But now think about this from the consumer side.

I'm at home. I've got my vaccination records, whatever that may look like, whether it's an email, whether it's a piece of paper, a card, or whatever, but my government has decided that they do have a method of having digital vaccine records. So I use my mobile device and I log on to download the app. I validate that I'm the person I am, so here in California for me to get my digital vaccine, where I'm based, I tell it my phone number. I told it the email address I used at the time I had my vaccination. It downloads the QR code, puts it in the app, and then if it's going that extra step, which it doesn't by the way in California, which is a flaw in the entire process here. But if it went the extra step and then ask me to verify my identity, all I'd be doing is taking a picture of my driver's license, looking into the camera on the phone, and it takes that comparison, links my identity to the vaccine record. 

Now, when you go to the concert, you walk up to the kiosk. You look in the camera, you show the QR code, the kiosk gives a green light and off you go. So actually once you've registered, it should be a simplified process. 

If all those records are in place, and they're exportable, you could do something with them? 

Tony Anscombe: Yes, and that's a good point because now imagine, and this is where I think there needs to be a big piece of standardization. So you've got CLEAR in the US who do airport-style kiosks, creating a system. You've got Excelsior in New York, creating a system. So now all these different companies will require access to the government or state-backed databases. Now, whether that's in Canada, whether that's in Europe, whether that's in the US, or wherever it is, you're going to have the same issue. 

So there needs to be some standardization on the mechanism that the terminal uses to go and gather the vaccine, but also, to a certain degree. I think I would feel more comfortable if, like in Europe, they put their stake in the ground and turn and say we've partnered with this kiosk manufacturer and we're going to make sure this is ultra-secure and work with one vendor. Because that would give me a lot more of a warm feeling that when I walk up to this terminal, there are not 15 different commercial companies that all have different privacy policies, that all have different security systems, all accessing vaccination records just sound a bit of a mess.

Yeah, and what is the risk to a private citizen to all this? 

Tony Anscombe: That's a very interesting point because there's another argument of there's an anti-vaccine passport discussion as well. Yeah, goes along the side of every other anti there is, as there's always a cohort, isn't there? People in everything that decide that they're against things. 

Now, the anti-vaccine passport argument is that it's breaching your privacy because you're disclosing the fact you are vaccinated. Now I'm just going to throw in consideration here that to go to school in Ontario, you have to have a number of vaccines, 3-5, whatever it is, number of vaccines. So therefore if you stand on the street and watch kids that go to school, they're already disclosing that they've had five vaccines or however many it is. So if that's an infringement of somebody's privacy, then surely these kids are having their privacy infringed by going to school. So let's dismiss this infringement of privacy rights because I think that's a red herring. I think that's just somebody who doesn't want to have a digital vaccine record. I think the privacy infringement is somewhat negated, once you look at it with schoolchildren in mind, and in fact, I'm a green card holder in the US and the same goes for green cardholders, by the way, you have to have had five vaccinations. 

I was issued a green card and my arm was very sore the afternoon I had all five, the health authorities in Europe couldn't confirm that I'd had them historically because it was pre-digitalization. It was a very sore afternoon. 

But so now we've got that piece out of the way. Your date of birth is pretty much everywhere, it public record, and your name is a public record. So if the vaccine passport is holding the fact you've had a vaccine, your date of birth, and your name. It doesn't appear to me that it's holding too much data. However, if you then get into when the vaccination was and what type of vaccine was used and you start including other pieces of information, then that's a good question. Now, the only reason I can understand is if you and I were going to a concert in Toronto, I understand the venue wants to know my identity and it wants to know that I've been vaccinated. Do they care what I was vaccinated with? No. Do they care when it was applied? No. All they want to know is that it hasn't expired, which in theory, the vaccine passport is going to do because I've had to register. So therefore my QR code or barcode or whatever it decides to display Would be invalid if I'm past the expiration date. 

Now that's a minimum amount of data. So in theory, that to me is an acceptable risk because my date of birth and name are already in the public domain. And yes, there is a link to that vaccine record, as long as the kiosk render or the app provider is not monitoring my location, and it's not holding any information on me without good reason. So I can understand you might have some phone contact tracing reasons for a period of time. As long as that data is held only for those purposes and deleted when the contact tracing period expires, Then it may collect like a hash to identify me, but it doesn't actually have to identify me, it only has to identify my device in the same way contract tracing systems works. I actually think this could be built very securely. 

I'm up in Canada. So we've got universal health care and everybody who lives in Canada, who's a citizen or proven resident has a health card with a health number. So that's how you are up here, at least where I live, you registered for your vaccination and so on, but in the US, which is, 10x the size, you've got 50 states and you've got HMO's and everything else, and they all, I'm guessing do a little or a lot differently. 

How much of a job would it be to figure out something that would work across state lines?

Tony Anscombe: Firstly, let's congratulate Canada for having a centralized system because although people may look at it and go... 

”It's socialism!” 

Tony Anscombe: Well, it is and it's not. I actually believe it's a human right to have healthcare. That's a very non-American viewpoint. But yeah, I come from Europe where that's pretty much normal as well, but in the US, you have one card that was issued by all states that the CDC vaccination record is the same in every state. The unfortunate part about it is it really is a piece of card. And I'm going to use myself as the example because I have no reason not to share, but when I went for my vaccination, there was a big, long line of people and the healthcare provider in the small rural town where I live, was desperately trying to vaccinate lots of agricultural workers. So it was a lot of pressure on them to get people through the door quickly. 

She handed me my card. It had my vaccination on it and nothing else. She said you can fill in the rest of the details yourself, so my name and my date of birth and the other pieces of information. So already there's flaw number one. 

So there's no traceability of the fact that you even had the vaccine, other than you're saying I've got this piece of paper? 

Tony Anscombe: I'd already registered to have the vaccine. They already had a driver's license number. So there is a state record. But the card I’m holding, I could've put anybody's name on it, but because it's just a piece of paper, unfortunately, you found outside sporting events that have been held by people selling fake cards, because they're very easy to replicate. 

I actually reckon I could probably create one in five minutes with a bit of photoshopping and a bit of paper card in the printer and I'd be away while you were there. Of course, I think, people shouldn't do this. 

It might not be good for the Chief Security Evangelists to do that as a hobby. 

Tony Anscombe: I’m just making that point. I wouldn't do that, but it's wrong for anybody else to do that because actually, you may be risking somebody else's health in doing so. But you've also seen examples of some doctors selling the cards without giving the vaccine. 

Whereas in Canada, you've got this record, and let's call it a Canadian health number, whatever it might be called. The Canadian health number gives you that centralized database. So you're in a much better spot for actually knowing whether somebody had a vaccine or not. Now sure, are there going to be some mistakes in systems and your media might find two or three people in the entire country whose vaccine wasn't recorded correctly or it states they didn't have one and they did have one, they've got proof they had one and, yeah, they'll always be the odd mistake. 

Recognizing that a lot of this verification process as it evolves will be on handheld readers. If it is a kiosk, which is part of my world in digital signage, is there a business opportunity? Is this a high growth potential area or is this something that's being talked about a lot, but probably won't happen because all we just talked about is too complicated?

Tony Anscombe: No, I think this is something that is happening. One thing that grates on me slightly is that the industry seems to be reacting, not being proactive in some of it. So the pandemic hit, and then countries realized they didn't have centralized medical data, and then they realized they need contact tracing type technology. So I understand the pressure on the early parts of the pandemic, were to create technologies that nobody had ever considered. So that is understood. 

But at the same time, I think you're always going to need technology to come out of the other end of this pan day. Of knowing who's vaccinated and where they were vaccinated and whether it's valid for the country you're in. And I say that because there are different approvals on different vaccines in different countries, and they don't recognize some. I'm amazed that actually, we're at the hopefully latter end of this pandemic with this wave of Delta variant, that's going around, hopefully, this puts a stake in the ground and we're going to come out of this particular variant in a much better shape. But you're going to at least a year to 18 months with different variants knocking around, most of the world are still not vaccinated, and people traveling, then you're going to need some sort of kiosk or scanner to verify people's vaccinations in that way. 

So this is an industry, why wasn't this being built this time last year? We knew we were going to need it. So why don't we why a company is only building it now? But that's my gripe as a technologist. 

So if I am a kiosk hardware manufacturer, will the ask be for just a QR code reader or are you going to need a camera that's going to do facial recognition or will the QR code be enough because that was part of what got you to a QR code?

Tony Anscombe: It depends on the scenario where I think you're scanning the person. So if you're at a stadium, I think you're going to need a kiosk that has the camera, because you've got maybe 10,000 people coming through a gate, maybe you've got 10 gates, a thousand people coming through each one and you want to process them quickly. So maybe 15-20 seconds, they're going to look at the camera. They're going to scan the QR code. It's going to be a quick match on their identity. Yes, that's the person who allows them in green, off they go. So in that scenario, I think you need a camera. 

However, when you and I go to our favorite restaurant and the restaurant turns around and says only vaccinated people can come into this restaurant and eat, he's probably going to have a mobile app or with the person on the door, and that mobile app is going to scan your QR code and know it’s valid. Now, for them to actually know that the QR code belongs to you, they're also going to need to ask to see your driver's license and look at the name and date of birth on the driver's license and make sure it matches the QR code.

So I think there's actually a place for different systems in different environments because of the throughput in a restaurant where you've maybe got a hundred people coming through a night. It's fairly easy to do that identity check as well. 

Yeah, but different for a football stadium that has 90,000 seats if they go back to full capacity. 

Tony Anscombe: You mean, they're not at full capacity in Canada? 

No, not where I live at least. I don't think so. 

Tony Anscombe: So you didn't get my British sarcasm in there ‘cause I actually think they shouldn't be at full capacity here in the US. 

I've been to a couple of soccer matches up here, but they were at two-thirds capacity, but I live in a part of the world where I'm blessed that we barely got Covid.

Tony Anscombe: And, I think there are two things that aren't there. There's one of you as the spectator needs to feel comfortable, and I think the extra piece of space makes you feel comfortable. It's not always about the opening up fully, but yes. 

So if I'm looking at doing this. A hardware manufacturer is one thing, you can build it and as long as you've got the ability to drop a different kind of PC on there, whatever horsepower it needs to happen, you can do this. If you're a digital signage software company or a kiosk software company, is this something you should even look at, or is it's just too complicated right now and there are companies much larger and broader that are already light years ahead, like a CLEAR? 

Tony Anscombe: I think there are companies that are light years ahead because they already had, what I define as the security element of creating such a kiosk, because bear in mind, it is taking somebody's picture, it is validating against the vaccination database. You need to make sure all these things are done in a very secure fashion. 

If you were a kiosk manufacturer that I can't think of, maybe you create tourist attraction kiosks that provide information on tourist attractions. If you're in that game and you're now looking at this, I think to do this securely would be a massive challenge and I think you'd be six to nine months behind people that already have this technology, and it will be very difficult for you to do it, or you'd end up putting something on the market that might have vulnerabilities that somebody will exploit, and believe me, they will exploit them if they're there, and then you'll just get a bad rap. So I actually think, unless you're already in the identity verification space or in that medical environment, I think it will be a big challenge. 

Yeah. So almost the last time I was traveling and going out of Amsterdam's airport, they had passport verification with a camera on and the camera would slide down to be level with your face and you would scan your passport thereon, the whole nine yards. So they had a whole orchestrated high throughput kind of system together. So that's the kind of company that would have a leg up on the others, right? 

Tony Anscombe: Yeah, and when I come back into the US if I can remember what that was like. Because I haven't traveled like you probably for 18 months, When I come back in, I use a terminal to put my US identity documents, my green card details, it scans them, it takes a picture. It compares the picture and the company that's created those terminals for TSA, they're in a good spot to be able to do something similar for a vaccine record. 

I suppose the other worry that I would have if I was a vendor looking at this, is going to be held up in court, no matter what you develop, there's going to be the anti-vax crowd and privacy crowds, the people who worry about things like computer vision and so on, that they're all going to file lawsuits and drag this whole thing down into the courts for, I don't know, months or years even.

 Is that realistic or you don't think that'll happen? 

Tony Anscombe: I think that's more of a governmental issue, isn't it? The anti-vax is unlikely to turn and say that governments or states shouldn't be doing this type of activity. As a provider of the technology, you're not the one deploying the technology, You're only the one providing it. It's the person who deploys it, then I think could be dragged into the court for actually requiring it.

Right, but you're manufacturing these things somewhat on spec or at least getting ready to spin this up, and then you are sitting on inventory and they can't do anything with it, because it's all held up in courts? 

Tony Anscombe: Yes. I agree, and how long ago will these terminals actually be required for, maybe one, two years. I'd like to think we return to full normality at some stage, and maybe that's a long game, maybe it's even three years, but by the time you've created this technology, you've got it to market. I think you're going to be on the backend of that marketplace. I think, all those stadiums and things like that needed it, will already have it.

I'm sure somebody is thinking about this as well. Two years out, they can divert these things into payment terminals for concessions, and so on. 

Tony Anscombe: There's a thought, isn't it? Yeah, I'm sure they could be reused. Maybe they could be turned into voting kiosks?

That's an entirely different discussion, isn't it? 

Tony Anscombe: It is, and we shouldn’t get into it. 

All right, Tony, I appreciate you taking the time with me, this was very interesting. 

Tony Anscombe: Oh my pleasure, Dave, anytime.

 

Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

Gensler - AT&T Discovery District

August 25, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

The AT&T Discovery District in downtown Dallas is one of the more ambitious experiential digital projects out there - in the U.S. or globally - with a big reason being the focus from the inception on coming up with something that was more than just the technology circus coming to town.

Telecoms giant AT&T engaged the huge global design firm Gensler to come up with a cohesive, visually exciting design concept for not only its headquarters building in Dallas, but for the area surrounding it - delivering a destination and talking point.

There is a massive LED media wall on the corner of one building, what Gensler calls digital trellises on the urban office campus plaza, and more LED on the walls, support columns and even the ceiling of the head office lobby. That's coupled with synchronized lighting and something that sounds a bit like a show control system.

It's super-impressive, and it cost more than a couple of bucks to build, and to sustain. The first wave of creative includes digital art from some of the top people in the field, from Refik Anadol to Moment Factory.

I had a chance to speak with two of the key people behind the project - Justin Rankin, director of Gensler's Digital Experience Design Studio, and Dana Hamdan, who served as design manager for the project.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi, thanks for joining me. The first thing I'd like to do is get a description from you of what the AT&T Discovery District is all about and how Gensler was involved? 

Dana Hamdan: Sure, AT&T Discovery District is actually AT&T HQ in Dallas, which happens to be in an urban setting. Not a lot of corporations are headquartered in business districts, and obviously, because it is in a business district, it makes it accessible to the public, and so to say it in a high level and in some depth way, it is a headquarter that's open to the public and that's been very successful based on the experiences that we've seen in the past a couple of months. 

This district, so to speak, has been open for a year and a half?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, we had substantial completion on the project really in September of last year, and due to various circumstances, obviously it's been a fairly organic process in terms of really opening the district and starting to really activate the space. So really what we've seen is over the last two or three months, it's really come to life in full swing and AT&T has started to really use the space, activate it, promote events, host events, and pop-ups and things like that. So it's been really exciting to see it finally start to take its stride over the past couple of months. 

So if I'm in Fort Worth, I get in my car and I drive into downtown Dallas, find parking somehow and wander over there. What am I going to see? 

Dana Hamdan: Hey, you mentioned parking, one of the things that actually make it successful is, and that builds kind of a duality of the program being an employee headquarter, and open to the public. There is actually a parking lot for the discovery district so hopefully, you'll not have any issues finding parking in that spot.

But basically, the approach to the district is very interesting, and that's gonna take from its name Discovery District. There are some macro-scale indicators for the space, so driving from probably five city blocks away, you will see a mega screen that is on a natural Terminus to one main street, it's called an Akard St. in downtown, and then as you approach the district, the screen will fade away, and from your human-scale perspective, a grove of trees will appear, and then in that grove of trees is camouflaged a nice interactive sculpture that we call The Globe, and but you'll basically see a lot of immersive lighting that will draw you towards the Plaza. So that's just from an approach standpoint of the district. 

So this is a lot of LED displays, but it's also interactive sculptures, it's audio, it's synchronized lighting, all kinds of things. So it's not just like a big display, and “look at the cool stuff we have on this big display”?

Dana Hamdan: Absolutely. So what we did, basically to give the space a headquarter presence, because before it was just disparate buildings and a number of buildings around a Plaza that was not really used. It was very underused. And, after hours it just gets dark and nobody's there because it probably doesn't feel safe.

And so what we did is we knit together a block in the city. We introduced two mega trellises that have media integrated to them to just give a very clear recognizable realm for the Plaza and you get a sense that, “Oh, I'm in one place.” So even though the buildings are not all the same architecture, we tied them with a similar visual, like a consistent cohesive design with these two mega trellises.

And then yes everything is integrated in that kind of is the spirit of the project, and we'll talk a little bit more about it as we go through this. 

Justin Rankin: And with this being AT&T global headquarters, the anchor of the district is the Whitaker tower, which is a 36 story tall building that kind of sits on the Plaza.

So you've got that really like a big landmark. The lobby of that, which we can talk more about, is a really impressive, fully immersive experience. So there's this really nice place, and then, off of Whitaker tower onto commerce street, there's an entry portal there that we call the VIP entry. So you have this really nice flow of, entering off of commerce street coming through that VIP portal into the lobby to a fully immersive experience, and then from the lobby through these really impressive glass windows, you're able to look out onto the Plaza. 

So from the lobby, you can see The Globe and you can see the big lawn area that's in the Plaza. You can see the trellis has lit up. You can see all the food and beverage outlets and all of the people and the energy, and so you naturally find your way exploring out into the Plaza, and then once you're out there, you've got The Globe and the media wall, the lawn, and the restaurants and bars and it really becomes a total experience at the end of the day.

What was the brief from AT&T? What did they say they wanted? 

Dana Hamdan: So it is interesting because I think the nice part about this project is collaborating with AT&T on really formulating what the vision for this project is, and so this kind of morphed over the years, but at the beginning, the most important thing was to give the employees a campus that they're proud of, try to reposition the brand of AT&T would, especially with all the focus on media, and then a third, but probably the most important is to give back to the city because they are in an urban business district setting as well. 

These were the main tasks from the client, which we're very happy to sit in visioning sessions and come up with a concept, and we're very happy with the end result.

Justin Rankin: Yeah, and I would layer may be on top of that, that at a certain point in time, several years ago, there were discussions within AT&T on whether or not to keep their HQ in Dallas or potentially move and relocate their HQ to San Antonio or another city. 

The decision was made to stay in Dallas and then on top of that, coincidentally during that same time period is when AT&T and Time Warner merged and so really overnight AT&T with that merger became officially became the largest media company in the world, taking on Warner Media, HBO, all of their sub-brands, and so really that became a big part of the brief was, “We're the largest media company in the world. We want to give back to our employees. We want to give back to the city of Dallas, so how do we create a destination for all of the above that really is able to solve for all of those different goals?”

That was really a thread throughout the entire strategy, and the design of the immersive experiences, the content, the way that everything is orchestrated was really to put AT&T in that light and help them reposition their brand quite honestly.

Dana Hamdan: It's not easy when you're downtown, it's not easy to have a prominent presence like it's not like you have a campus. “Oh, it's known this is the so and so campus. This is the Apple Park or Menlo Park.” 

It's hard, and it gets lost in the urban fabric, and so this was very important for AT&T to be able to give their campus a presence and for their employees to feel proud about where they work, and so it was just a nice vision and nice commitment from the client and again, I think we were very happy with the end product and we'll talk a little bit more about how we came to make that happen.

Justin Rankin: Yeah, one of the things that makes this so unique is that the campus is completely open and public. So when you look at other Fortune 5, Fortune 10 companies, and you look at their global HQ's, they're locked down, they’re Fort Knox, right? So you don't have a public that can just walk up and come hang out here. It's the total opposite here.

AT&T has really welcomed the city and the community into their space and into these immersive experiences, which is really unique and has been really exciting from Gensler's perspective to partner with AT&T on that and bring that vision to life. 

Dana Hamdan: Yeah, and it was not easy. When we do projects like that, we usually want to look at precedents, and for this one, there's really not a lot of precedents that you can look at. In fact, in North America, we couldn’t find a prominent campus setting that is open to the public in an urban setting. 

I mean we've been to the major campus. Amazon and Salesforce have some similarities, but not quite fully open like Justin was saying, and the rest are remote and they have their own campuses that have limited accessibility.

Yeah, I think about districts that are in the central parts of the city and they tend to be entertainment districts that are built around sports arenas, or ballparks or things like that, and it's a lot of restaurants and bars and things, but as you say, there aren’t many instances where there's a campus built around or a district built around an office. 

Dana Hamdan: Yeah, but from our standpoint, we think this is going to be a trendsetter campus for corporations to anchor downtowns and anchor such settings and it really plays the duality of the program. You've got your employees during the day, not just your employees, but employees of the central district with the amenities that are offered, and then gradually towards the end of the day, you see a very seamless transition, and employees are on their way out. They may grab a drink or a good to a happy hour, but you see that transition of user type from your employee to people who actually live downtown and now are utilizing the space as a normal extension, like a third place, what we call a third place, which is, people that who live downtown don't have a lot of space in their units.

So it's good to have the presence of a public space that has all the technology offering of Wi-Fi and is quite enjoyable actually. So it's a really nice 24/7 activation of the space. 

Did the pandemic and the experience of offices locking down and everything else, and that whole idea that, office towers are going to be hollowed out, people are just going to be remote working and there's no need for these big edifices anymore. 

Did any of that reshape the thinking? 

Dana Hamdan: Actually, if I may say, it actually reinforced the thinking because eventually, this conversation is not necessarily about the hybrid mode of work or office, but what we found out is that it actually provided what the pandemic is telling people you need, it provided quite a few different modes of collaboration outdoor that you can sit and collaborate in.

And we've seen that, like Justin was saying, the space organically opened. There was not a big ribbon-cutting event that happened, but people needed a space where they could be outdoors safely, and whether they're working or just enjoying other people's company and we've seen articles in major publications, like Fast Company and others, really dwell on and emphasize the need for outdoor collaboration spaces, and we feel that this came just right in time for the AT&T employees actually. 

So let's talk about what was done and why it was done. When you had the brief when you worked out the big idea, how did the components come together? 

Why did you decide on a big corner-wrapped LED on the side of one of the buildings and displays that lined the interior of the Whitacre building and so on?

Justin Rankin: So early on, I would say as we approached really all of our projects, there was a lot of strategy put into planning and thinking and our teams working together and working with AT&T and other stakeholders to think through different use cases, modes, activation scenarios, the flow of traffic, viewports, viewing angles, et cetera. 

We did a lot of research. We interviewed and spoke with employees. We interviewed and spoke with C-level executives and VIPs and collected all of that thinking to really inform where to invest the energy and concept. And, through that concept, things to help think about what types of platforms make the most sense, so we can get into it in more detail, but when you start to break apart the different digital platforms, whether it's the media wall or The Globe or the trellises or the lobby, what you'll find interesting is that there's a lot of intent put behind the design of those platforms so that those platforms can be leveraged for multiple different scenarios. 

A prime example of that is that The Globe sculpture actually sits on a hydraulic turntable that can rotate 180 degrees. So we have these moments in which we can activate this small intimate grove setting, so maybe it's a singer-songwriter, or it's a DJ, or it's someone reading. You can have a small kind of intimate moment and at the same time, you can rotate the globe, pivoted towards commerce street, which is the main thoroughfare through downtown Dallas, and now you've got a beautiful and interactive backdrop for a marathon or for a holiday parade or for something else.

So for every platform, we've thought through those different scenarios, those were all part of that original strategy and helped us to shape where they should be located, how they should be faced. The media walls specifically, we thought about, as Dana mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, there's this kind of viewport that you have from five or more blocks away and it perfectly frames the shape and the aspect ratio of the media wall. So that was very intentional, but we decided to wrap the corner because now we have this ability to draw people in from the other side of the block or the other side of the Plaza. We can also provide some really cool content and experiences to people that are sitting at Jackson, which is a kind of a casual beer garden. 

Diana, feel free to add to that. But yeah, those were all factors and considerations that led to the final design. 

Dana Hamdan: For sure. But I would say if you're asking us as to why we did what we did, why did we decide that we needed orchestrated platforms?

And really, when we were thinking that, AT&T was really also obviously wanted to make employees proud, but second, they really wanted a shift in their brand and how do they represent their brand? And AT&T is not in the business of selling physical products, they sell an intangible service, and I say that all the time, it doesn't matter if you have an iPhone or Samsung or an LG or Whatever it is, It's actually the service that comes through that makes you enjoy your experience, and so we came with this concept that we have this intangible layer, connecting slick and new and futuristic looking platforms that make them come to life and make them feel connected.

And that's why we have very purposely positioned screens, and then what we wanted to do is tie all that to an invisible thing that you cannot see, right? A content management system that makes these communicate together. It was very important for us that when you step in the district, you feel that you are in a realm, you feel that you feel the power of connection. You can see consistent media messages. You can see something on the media screen and then all of a sudden it loops and it's in ground lights under your feet, and then it loops and it's now above your head, in the ground and the lights that are in the trellises, or when it moves in and activates The Globe. So you see that communication, you see that power of connection between these platforms and it's all powered by AT&T. So that was a play on the brand representation for the client, and it only made sense why they're in that district. 

Justin Rankin: Yeah. It manifests the whole notion of connection, which is that deep kind of core element of AT&T is brand manifest in two ways. 

It manifests quite literally in a physical way as we connect the platforms and connect the spaces, but it also manifests through people, the Globe sculpture prime example. It's an opportunity where we can bring people together into a space, and I will say a safe space where they can be distanced but have a really unique experience and discover an experience that's maybe not inherent or visible as you're walking by. So you see the sculpture, that there's something going on. You may hear something you walk over and you've got people and as you're in the space, you're now controlling the experience together that you're having. So there's definitely multiple elements of that as you navigate through the district, whether it's the globe or whether it's in the lobby or other areas in the. 

Is the project driven by the art or is there also a nod or thinking around the commercial side of this? Because what I've seen are great pieces of content from companies like Moment Factory and so on. I haven't seen on the big media wall or elsewhere, pitches for an AT&T wireless plan or anything like that. 

Dana Hamdan: Yes, this was definitely since day one, this was not meant to be an advertisement platform and it's so funny to hear it, but I like to walk over there incognito and people don't know what role I had and planning and leading this place through success, but I like to hear people say, “oh, this is Times Square, but I actually can sit in and enjoy it.” 

It's not full of advertisements and I'll let Justin speak a little bit more about the strategy behind content but definitely was not meant to monetize the Plaza like that. On the contrary, it was meant to elevate the art and elevate the ambiance setting. 

I don’t want to go behind the scenes but I just wanted to ask, and you may not be able to tell me, but I'm curious because I've seen other projects that have started as art projects and then advertising finds its way into it somehow, was that a debate or AT&T said right from the brief that no this has to be the experience?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, they've taken a pretty hard line from the get-go of maintaining an advertising free space. Now the caveat there obviously is, we're talking about the largest media company in the world, we do have to acknowledge the fact that AT&T is showing content that is running on the media wall that is promoting AT&T’s properties, movies shows, et cetera.

What I would say though, is the way that has come together, and the intent with that is purely from an entertainment standpoint, right? So these are big motion pictures and shows that people are super interested in and excited about. There are certainly moments of that but to your earlier point, there is no advertising so to speak, sales advertising around products and services. 

There's a really healthy mix, quite honestly, of just beautiful artistic content. You mentioned Moment Factory, they have been an incredible part of the team in many ways, but we've got fifteen or more artists and studios and agencies that have contributed on the content front. And we've worked really closely all along with the creative director on the discovery district on the AT&T side. His name is Roger Ferris and he's always had a really strong vision as having really the whole AT&T executive team on what their vision around content was, and we've helped to thread together a strategy that's really guided that, who we've worked with. It's guided by the type of content. 

The Gensler team has defined the cadence of that content, the programming, and the run of the show. It is 24/7. So there's been a lot of thought put into what's the vibe and what's the energy level at 9:00 AM on a Monday compared to 8:00 PM on a Friday compared to maybe 3:00 PM on a Sunday, and what you notice when you spend a lot of time in the district is that the energy really changes and morphs over time and even, thinking through the night hours and in wanting to be respectful of the fact that this is a district in the middle of a city, there are hotels and there are condos and stuff. We've got this beautiful content that runs through the evening where we take the brightness and the output of that media wall and really tone it down, and put the district in sleep mode, so to speak.

And so we've just been really thoughtful about that, and AT&T has been amazing in really investing in the content and putting an emphasis on creativity and art and finding that balance between the entertainment-type content and then just beautiful works of art. 

We've worked with lots of big artists and have all come together to create this. I think we've got right now over 36 hours of original content that are running at any given point through the district. 

A lot of these things come out of the gate with fantastic content, and then six months later, people started looking around, “I guess we should change this.”

Do you have a five-year plan or something?

Justin Rankin: We do, and the Gensler team continues to engage with AT&T. They also continue to engage, with their own set of artists and contributors, but very much we're on a continual content production kind of cadence and schedules. So there's constantly new content that's being developed and rolled out, tested, revised, et cetera. 

There's also a lot of feedback that's being going from content that's already rolled out. So it's been important at AT&T to really keep an eye on, and what do people think about it? Do people love this? Do they hate it? Is it annoying? Is it too bright? Is it too fast? So I think they're doing a great job of collecting that feedback, using that data to then inform what new content gets produced. 

The question begs, what are you hearing? 

Justin Rankin: So far it's been great, honestly. 

Dana Hamdan: If you use social media and just look up the discovery district, you’ll see. I think this is one where we're really enjoying people's reactions to the district.

But I will say when we've designed these digital platforms, we've designed them with the concept of what Roger Ferris, the creative director of AT&T would call maximum canvas flexibility, and the idea is you can dial in or dial up the media content as much as you want. For example, the lobby has a ceiling that we call the veil because we veiled in the ceiling and it's a layering of polyethylene, a white membrane that is backed by a very tight tightly knit RGB grid that has probably a diffusion layer.

It's a very nice system and it could be just a regular white backlit ceiling that all of a sudden can transform into, I don't know, whales that are swimming in an ocean or whatever it is. So this really, the idea of integrating very seamlessly, integrating the media as architecture and not being an application on a surface really helps with that longevity and being able to activate or not whenever you want. 

Yeah, I think that's the difference between some of the things that I've seen, where a company puts in a huge LED video wall and maybe a couple of other things, but they're just things that are there. There's no continuity and no real thought around the whole experience. It’s just, “Look at this giant thing we put!” 

Justin Rankin: Yeah. The veil is a great example of media architecture at its core. Even the media wall, it's interesting, one of the things that we wanted to do was get creative. The media wall is so large. It's so prominent in the Plaza. It's easy for that to really become an anchor and command all of your attention and there are certainly certain times during the day or the week in which we do that very intentionally, but what we've also done is work hard to create and essentially model and render the exact facade of the building that the media wall is applied to. 

So there are certain times in which that media wall goes into facade mode and it's shockingly accurate and people can walk through the Plaza and really not have any idea that there's an eight-story tall media wall staring right at them. So there's been some thought put into that as well, and just finding ways to tone down the digital when we want other platforms or other spaces to command more of the attention. 

Dana Hamdan: I would say, when we were just drawing concepts for the Plaza, we drove around and studied the side from a contextual standpoint. Every time we drove down that Akard St., we saw that facade and it's natural Terminus, and we are very lucky that it is an equipment building because otherwise, I wouldn't even have suggested blocking all that much facade. We were lucky that this is an equipment building. 

Justin Rankin: People ask that like this media wall is great, but it really sucks for everyone that's working in that building because they've lost any kind of view. So luckily, as Dana said, there's no one, where those windows are that we've covered up, it's all equipment, technical equipment, and things like that.

So we haven't prevented anyone's view into the Plaza or natural light into their workspace, et cetera. Yeah, got really lucky with that being the capability that we had.  

What's involved in the day-to-day management of all this, all the lighting, the synchronized displays, everything else. Is there an AT&T team, or is Gensler doing that? How does all that work?

Justin Rankin: Yeah, really through the project and through the completion of the project, Gensler was really heavily involved in working with AT&T. All the things I mentioned before, the content strategy, cadence programming, et cetera, a lot of the operations and so as we transitioned, everything was installed, it was done, commissioned, ready to roll, we started to work closely with AT&T to help them to build their own operations team, and so they actually now have a dedicated team who is at the helm of this ship and operating the content management system, operating all the platforms, doing things like maintenance and support, all of that.

So yeah, dedicated staff now. They're fully running on their own and our involvement at this point and as we move forward is, as I was mentioning before, continuing to help them to ideate concepts and produce new content and keep the big idea going. 

How many people do they have working on this full-time?

Justin Rankin: There's a team of 5-10 that fluctuates. Everyone kind of has some different roles, some dedicated purely to tech, some dedicated purely to CMS, some dedicated more to the creative side. So yeah, nice healthy team. 

Dana Hamdan: I don't know that we know the extent of property management either, because obviously, it's a big district to take care of. 

Justin Rankin: For sure. You've got loss prevention, security, events. There's all kinds of teams that are really tapped into what's going on in the district on any given day. But from a technology and kind of creative standpoint, there’s definitely a dedicated team focused on it.

What's been the response from the mayor and the people who run Dallas? 

Dana Hamdan: In downtown Dallas, we have an organization called downtown Dallas, Inc that really started a few years ago and came in with initiatives to bring life back and entice people to live downtown and enjoy downtown and open businesses downtown, and I guess the reaction of this organization is pretty much consistent with businesses around the downtown. 

I don't know that I have heard directly from the mayor, but we've heard very positive reactions from neighboring businesses in downtown Dallas, and neighboring hotels. As a matter of fact, we've seen businesses starting to open around the district and benefiting from the presence of the district and driving more business down there. So all but positive so far.

Justin Rankin: Oh, you think about it. There are two major hotels right across the street and half of their rooms look into this beautiful Plaza, and so without going into detail on that, you can just imagine, the more kind of premium view and amenity that has now been offered to those guests of the hotel. 

I've actually stayed in both hotels and have talked to some of the staff there and they go on and on about it and what their guests are saying and how positive it is. 

Dana Hamdan: And throughout the process of design and envisioning this, it was a very rigorous approval process from neighboring communities and from the city. We had to go through many hearings to just get community consent on what's being planned. So this was a very inclusive process. 

All right. That was super interesting. One of these days, I'll be able to travel again and come down and have a look at it.

Dana Hamdan: We can't wait to have you there. 

Thanks very much for your time. 

Justin Rankin: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

Chris Riegel, Scala

Chris Riegel, Scala

August 18, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

It's now been five years since Stratacache acquired the CMS software company Scala, which had kind of devolved from the digital signage industry's dominant player to just one of many options.

When Stratacache CEO Chris Riegel did the deal, there were lots of people wondering what might happen. Was he buying the company for its customer base and vast reseller channel, or did he have other plans. In short order, he jokingly made up Trump-style red ball caps that said: "Make Scala Great Again."

Five years later, Scala is a wildly different company and product - with a much smaller reseller channel and an integrated, retail-centric platform that has largely been re-written and re-structured.

Riegel has been a frequent guest of this podcast, and that's because he's wickedly smart, and frank about what's going on in the industry.

We talk about the five-year journey he's had with a renewed Scala, but also got deep into what's happening in the marketplace globally. And we nerd out on the microLED factory he's spinning up in Oregon, and when it will start producing both small and large format display material.

As always, a valuable, insight-filled 30 minutes or so.

Side note - Chris was coughing up a storm during the chat, but he says he's fully vaxxed and it's not THAT. Just a bug and allergies.

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TRANSCRIPT

Mr. Riegel, thank you for joining me. 

Chris Riegel: Thank you for the opportunity. 

So about five years ago now, you bought Scala and at the time there were lots of industry people who were looking at that going, okay, what's going to happen now? Is it going to be absorbed by Stratacache? Is it going to accelerate or what's going to happen?

And you sent me a note the other day, saying, “Hey, we're coming up on five years. It's an interesting story to tell.” So what's the story? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's been a hell of a ride. Probably the best way to say it. So five years ago we decided, there's something here in Scala and something absolutely worth growing and saving. When we stepped into the acquisition, Scala was arguably one of the I think top brands from visibility and great legacy, great history, but had atrophied, to be honest, so we saw what was truly a global footprint and its Scala was really one of the first in the market that had grown out of a global entity and it was a good acquisition for us to be able to buy that asset, bolt the power that we have in the North American markets and in the Indian markets to that Scala infrastructure in Europe, in the Nordics, in the Middle East, in Japan and Australia, and really convert that Scala was the entity that allowed Stratacache to convert from being a pocketed global, to a fully global entity, and now really hitting every country around the world, but principally, 28 offices around the world being able to service those global customers and Scala gave us that global reach. 

Now that was not without some interesting challenges and some interesting discoveries during the path. So it's been quite a ride. 

Yeah. I can remember going to InfoComm back in the late 2000s, I think it was 2007 or something like that, and yeah, Scala was the company in digital signage in terms of visibility and everything on the floor, like they were the monster, and I just slowly over a matter of the next five, six years saw it, as you say, diminished. 

Chris Riegel: And what you have in Scala, and what is amazing about Scala is that there is such tribal knowledge and such capability towards digital visual communication and optimizing that experience for the customer. It's really this amazing retail practice with a skillset I've never seen matched throughout. 

What we did in coming in was really update that, bring that more modern, more current. In some examples, Scala was always principally a Windows platform. Windows is not the same thing it was 20 years ago, so we brought Scala into Linux. We brought Scala from x86 processors into the ARM processor world. We've updated big chunks of the code to modernize and refresh, and then updated a lot of the technical teams within to say, “what do you do for the next 20 years?” And coming in as a change agent, what I saw was the equivalent of the old house with great bones, but needed to be updated and refreshed. Some of that was tech, some of that was people, but to say, what do you do to stabilize and turn around this business and make it valid for the next 20 or 30 years looking forward?

There was too much looking back and too much resting on the laurels. And we're very much about challenging and growing people in technical teams, and how do you make that better and really tackle that problem every day. The beauty and the horror of technology is that yesterday means nothing for tomorrow. You have to go out and hit every single day, focus on where is that market going, how are you evolving that experience? Because the market doesn't stand still. 

One of the things about Scala at the time was, as we were saying, it was a platform that was getting some hair on it, so to speak, and what you had though, was this huge reseller channel, or just like resellers all around the world and you re-positioned things, where you went away somewhat from channels to much more direct sales? 

Chris Riegel: I'd counter that a bit. What Scala had when we did the acquisition, Scala had about 300 resellers around the world. Of those 300, 200 of them or companies that did $5,000 or $10,000 a year, negligible revenue.

What we've done, we continue to have within Scala, a full reseller channel that has grown significantly. What we've done is really focused that to say, “I want fewer and better resellers in that environment.” The crown jewel of Scala is, you have 16,000 customers around the globe as an existing life customer base and some of those customers, you take Citibank as an example, Citibank should not be buying products from Dave's AV Barn in Baltimore, because they have requirements that are much more stringent and much more tiered towards needing direct manufacturer support. 

So in that environment, we've continued to grow that channel. You've seen partnerships like Hakuhodo with Scala and others on the global side. You'll see later this year, two other big announcements of reseller partnerships. So what we've really done is said, it doesn't make sense to have 300+ resellers that you're just a line item on the card. The other part to that is with 300 resellers, you'd see a deal that pops up in Italy and you’d have 10 guys racing each other to the bottom. For us and resellers, the key point is that we want them to be profitable. We want them to have success in having that success, and I'll use Latin America as an example. In Latin America, when we acquired Scala, there was a channel, but it was just a doggy dog environment. The guys were trying to win deals based on pennies. We cleaned that channel up, went from 50 to really 5-6, and deployed a Scala operation center in Mexico city to be able to support the entire region, then work with the partners to bring profitable deals to them and recurring profitable deals so that they have a vested interest.

There are hundreds of guys in the CMS space with very little differentiation, and I'll use an example. One of the partners that we work with in Brazil said, “Hey, I can get a 35% margin on your competitor's product”, and I said, “That's great. What are you selling that product at?” “Oh, $1 a month.” “So 35% of that?” You can't run a business on that. How do you do profitable deals and make sure that channels are profitable and clean that up quickly? 

Is it a challenge when you go around the world with all these different options out there and all these companies going out with, as you say, a buck a month SaaS licensing deals, they'll look at Scala and, I don't know what the number is, but it's going to be higher and they'll say you're too expensive?

Chris Riegel: Quite candidly in those environments, the customers are willing to pay a dollar a month for SaaS and nothing more. There's no revenue there, and I would applaud my valued competitors. We call the gangsters of Gangnam and try to just liquidate the value of software industry-wide, but there is a difference in when you get into the mid-tier and the large-tier enterprise space that we hunt. If you want to pay a buck, go buy somebody else's product. There's no value there. You can't afford to support it, can't afford to provide services on it, and you're going to get exactly what you deserve.

It's funny to watch in these dollar SaaS guys, customers that literally change every year. They'll just go from vendor A to vendor B to vendor C to vendor D, there's no consistency of experience. There's no feature set there and okay, knock yourselves out, but there's no margin and if there's no margin, why take the headache? 

So your lead company, Stratacache tends to focus on banking and QSR more than anything else. Do you get into retail or when that opportunity comes along, you're going to tend to angle the prospect towards Scala? 

Chris Riegel: It depends on the environment. What we have done within Scala is really built a group of people globally that have what I'd call agency-level chops within that retail space. 

So we've got designers, graphic artists. We've got retail practice experts that can go in and really engage a retailer from the Scala's side and help them with the mission of what do you want to do? What are you trying to accomplish? Not how do I put the screen on the wall at the lowest possible price? That's really further evolved into analytics, into artificial intelligence, where we're able to say, when I take Scala as an example and bolt that to our walk base mobile sensor business when I bolt that to our Artificial intelligence retail tracking business. 

The ability to say, “Hey, you saw this image on a sign. I'm tracking your cart or your basket. I know you're in that area. I know that you saw it. You converted it.” Here's the efficacy based on demographic or time or visit to unique shopper eating customers. You've got to go to that retail practice down to more closing the loop, providing the evidence, the detail around it, because it's such a results-driven business 

Is retail evolving, in terms of what the ask is for a Scala and other companies? 

Chris Riegel: Tremendously.

So I would contrast now with having a little bit of a different view, retail in the west is atrophying at the moment principally, because you have Bezos, that's just out cracking heads left and right. Amazon continues to grow and strengthen amazingly and online grows globally. But what you're starting to see now, and especially if you look at Asia, you're starting to see is the emergence of what we call organized retail.

You take a market like India that has literally 2 million small retail shops, and those are starting to organize into actual retail chains, organized chain-based branded consistency of experience, the way that you see it in the West, the opportunities and where we're seeing ridiculous growth is in India, in China, in Indonesia, Malaysia, in these emerging markets where retail is organizing now and becoming much more structured. And I think, and I say this knock on wood, hopefully, COVID goes away but within 2022, that's probably the first year within the company that we see selling 1 million plus screens players software licenses that's up from 300,000 to 400,000 a year on average. So we're just seeing this aggregation now of critical mass, but that's really being led by the Asian markets 

You would think between India and China and these emerging economies, that those would be the guys more than anyone else who would migrate towards the “a buck a month” kind of SaaS thing? 

Chris Riegel: Yes and no. There's always a cost pressure there, don't get me wrong, but there's also a value in experience, there's a value in being able to deliver that solution. 

The retail systems in many of these countries are just not quite as mature on the IT side and at the infrastructure side. So when you're talking to a retailer in the US, we do a lot of work with Walmart, combined close to 5,000 stores, but then you step into Reliance in India and Reliance is deploying 200,000 plus locations in India in the next 18 months. It's just a different scale and coming into that understanding of scale, yes, numbers are different pricing models to do that, but if I'm up a factor of 40 on the number of stores, you'll still come out on the other end of that. 

Is the feature set in terms of what they want different in these emerging markets like if you're talking to Walmart, that's a very sophisticated retailer. They're probably interested in analytics, probably interested in front-end advisory consulting, creative, all those sorts of things. 

When you're talking about the scale in India, is it just more that they need the core functionality of digital signage software? 

Chris Riegel: What you're seeing is more of a hybrid in India of the on-prem and online kind of merging within those stores.

But you're also seeing, for lack of a better phrase, an absolute hunger, and desire. If you look at some of the large retailers in India and China who have said, “Hey, we're going to be the biggest company in the world.” They have the drive, they spend money. The existing US and western big retailers are still dealing with, “Hey, things are good enough that we don't really have to press and change quite as much”, but you've got a drive in India and China that I think you'll see within the course of the next three years this flip whereas these Eastern markets start to really organize the retail systems, they'll be orders of magnitude bigger than what you see here in the West.

When I look in the West at digital signage in retail, it seems to have gone away from stores that were putting a whole pile of LCDs all over the place to now it seems like they put in one direct view LED feature wall maybe a couple of other signs that checkout, that sort of thing, but that's it. What's happening in these emerging markets, same thing? 

Chris Riegel: In emerging markets, you're usually dealing in a much smaller format. So instead of having the 200,000 square foot supercenter approach, you might have the 2,000 square foot cell phone store or the 2,000 square foot health and beauty store. As those are organizing up, you're seeing that becoming a more multifunction point to say, what is this new hybrid of having a retail store that could be a small corner market bodega, but I could also order a cell phone there, I could order products remotely, I can have it delivered in and you're dealing with a population there that's not nearly as wealthy as you have in the western world, but the ability to say, how can we lower costs? How can we improve capabilities where that retail store might be the real lifeline out to the bigger e-commerce environment? 

I'll use an example with one of the customers that I work with within India. They partnered with Google on a new cell phone. So you have a new Google cell phone that's being introduced to that market, or the cost of the phone is $4. Not $4 a month, not $4 a quarter, but $4. So how do you unleash the power between China and India of two and a half billion people from a retail perspective to streamline that, to bring more and more opportunities to those two and a half billion people of which two billion of them are not particularly wealthy, but still have needs and still can take advantage of these services. 

Is it fair to say they're doing digital posters more than anything else in these kinds of small footprint places? 

Chris Riegel: You're typically seeing a hybrid digital sign interactive kiosk use case from 20-inch to 32-inch. We did the acquisition in China a few years back of what we call now, our Link Tablet series, but those hybrid devices that are multifunction could be a digital sign, could be interactive, can have payment, can have mobile device scan. It's that multi-function Swiss army knife that's extremely popular. 

Through the pandemic, I've been curious ‘cause I get carpet-bombed with PR all the time with companies saying we're going away from interactive touch and so on, it's gotta be contactless that we're gonna use voice, we're gonna use QR code scans, throw the controls of the screen to the phone and so on, and I've always been extremely skeptical of the adoption of that. What have you seen? 

Chris Riegel: You're a hundred percent right. When the pandemic really hit, I've continued to travel pretty much non-stop but I was in Portland, Oregon checking into American airlines and they had 20 check-in kiosks there and they didn't say, we're going to have voice check-in, or we're going to have haptics, so you don't have to touch it or, and have gestural. They just had 98 cents container of Lysol wipes. So once you touch the screen, you sanitize your hands, you move on. 

The haptics, the voice, the mobile there's capabilities with each of them, but the retrofit costs are not trivial, and think of what you've had with gesture-based interaction systems that've been around forever. It's still never really used. It's the magic mirror syndrome. Bad ideas don't go away, they just come back every three years within these things like haptics and others. Can they have a benefit? Sure. Is it going to be broadly used? No, it's still it. 

Before we turned the recording on, we were talking a little bit about where the industry more broadly is at, and I was saying stupid busy and I get a sense from a number of people that they're also stupid busy and you said the same. 

Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The markets are quite choppy simply because of shutdowns and customers trying to figure out what the future looks like, but it's incredibly busy.

And as we've seen consolidation, COVID is going to shake a lot of companies out of the space, especially coming from the older, what I call AV sector, that market's compressed dramatically especially in Europe and the Asia Pacific, 

Especially if they add live events as a big part of it. 

Chris Riegel: Even that, or, if you have something that requires your services when people are in the office. If they're not in the office, forget about it.

We've talked with literally dozens and dozens of companies trying to sell or trying to find a new sponsor to be able to survive. So that's going to be rough, but the market as a whole, especially as we're looking at 2022 as is white-hot with projects and opportunities and COVID is putting some chlorine into the digital signage gene pool for sure.

And why is it so hot now? Like one of the things that I've written about and observed is the thing about all the lockdowns and all the changes that were enforced on how people did their everyday tasks and activities were that things changed, and the only way to communicate that was using dry erase marker boards in the lobby of a store, and stuff taped to the doors and the whole bit, and those companies that had digital signage already had a lead. They had something they could use. Is that part of it? 

Chris Riegel: I'll give you a pretty good example. So we do all of the software and systems for McDonald's in the US, several hundred thousand digital mini boards, both indoor and outdoor, and have had the privilege of doing that for the last 13 years. 

In that environment where you deal with product shortages like there's a distribution problem for pork at this distribution plant, there's an opportunity for a delay of this product at another plant. The digital menu boards at drive-through and an indoor can adjust at a moment's notice based on supply chain disruptions. They can change prices based on commodity change. 

The other part that's really coming into our business very heavily in those same use cases is now the labor shortages, “do I go from a complex menu when I have a crew of 14 people to only seven people showed up this morning and I need to simplify that menu because I don't have the ability to deal with the same velocity because I'm crew light at that point.” So you're seeing digital use cases in areas for us, whether it be the mini-board practices in QSR or retail than the ability of digital to adjust on a moment's notice, and where I can take as an example, sensors, and know how many people showed up as crew, how many customers are in that drive-through line? What are my products, supplies looking like? Because I have access to point of sale or product logistics information and change that on a dime. You can really help keep those businesses moving, and within the pandemic, when indoor dining was shut down, the amount of work, and I'd say conservatively today, we have a greater than 50% market share in QSR in the US and about a 40% market share globally. 

The ability to help our customers continue to operate as close to flawlessly as possible through the pandemic has been a really big success across multiple brands, as we've continued to expand the business dramatically.

That's not a trivial thing to do to stitch all those systems together. Do you have to fight against companies to say we're API driven, we can integrate all these systems, we can do that for you versus actually doing it and having the experience? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's kinda funny. We always run into that challenge that we call the “Competitor's Magic Wand” So you go into the presentation and you're competing with little guy XYZ and he says, you know what? I've got 6,000 signs out there, and this is super simple and it's easy and it's not going to cost anything, and it's magic.

And I say, I have three and a half million signs and fleet. I have 1100 people. We run 24/7 operations and it's not easy, it's not simple, and there is no such thing as magic. If you want to buy the magic beans from my competitor, more power to you, but having the experience to say large scale, big customer complex projects. We've earned our place at the table in those discussions to be able to say, “Hey, choose or not choose us, that's your call, but we'll give you a full view of what the reality of this thing is like.” 

In a use case of McDonald's with 400,000+ screens that are under our management, there's something that breaks every day. That's the nature of the beast, but how do you stay ahead of that power curve in the large customers that we work with globally? I had a really fun customer interaction about two months ago. One of our larger retail apparel customers who decided to speak out against the Uyghurs situation in China called and said, “Hey, I have PLA troops in my store telling me to turn off our digital signs. What should we do?” “Do they have guns?” “Yes.” “Then you should turn off your digital signs, and by the way, we told you this would happen, not a political statement, but you were hosting outside of China against our advice. We warned you, now you see what happens.” 

Unfortunately, it's just a diverse and complex world. There are no magic wands, and a lot of customers, we call them “rebound customers”. In our environment, the customer that says, “Hey, I'm going to buy from the competitor that's going to do a dollar a month in SaaS and is making me all of these promises.” We say, okay, cool. Here's our information. Call us back in six months when you see that’s hollow because the amount of work that it takes in any scale retail network to keep this stuff going is not trivial regardless of the technology.

Yeah. I would imagine you see that over and over again, a company X that tried the cheap route and then discovered that wasn't a great idea. Now we're going to actually pay some rules. 

Chris Riegel: My favorite current theme is the customers that say, “It's not that complex. We're going to build it ourselves.” We've done this for 22 years. We have 600 million plus invested in capital and tens of thousands of man-years in development. But if you can put it together in six weeks with your internal teams, good luck.

With Scala and retail, are there retail vertical markets that are more active than others? 

Like I'm thinking that you're talking about the bodegas or equivalent of bodegas in India, and so on. Those are essential services. People need food, they need cigarettes, or just whatever. They don't necessarily need fast fashion.

Chris Riegel: Scala has been really successful both previously and within our stewardship in automotive, in retail apparel, in high-value goods, luxury environments but also in, chain grocery C-store that the depth of that practice, and especially as we brought order to some of the chaos we saw day one the ability to engage those customers that are understanding that digital signage is not just having to put a pretty picture on that screen and it's going to do something. 

“What is it going to do?” “I don't know.” No, this has to have business metrics. Why are you making the investment? What's the return? Define success, and this is a tool you're going in any of those environments and competing for an investment to say, why am I going to spend money on digital signage versus a new retail store, or X or Y or Z? Earn your place at that table. Keep that place at the table by delivering value to a customer. 

I can go into a lottery environment or QSR environment or retail environment, and say, I'm going to give you X lift with Y percent greater margin. I'm going to prove that point and I'm going to give you full access to all the statistics so you can double check my math. If you can find somebody else that can do that, knock yourselves out. But if I can deliver you in a retail or QSR or gaming environment, 1 to 3% lift and a margin lift of 3 to 5%, that's a big number. 

Yeah. So tell me what's going on with the microLED plant that you're retrofitting out in Oregon?

Chris Riegel: It's a pretty wild ride. MicroLED, as a tech, we've been researching it for 5+ years, made the dive into buying the fab two years ago, and have been spending a tremendous amount of time on research and development. MicroLED is an unbelievable dislocator, and when I say dislocator, today if you look at the Asian display cartels, they have been able to control a market, not unlike OPEC, by having a very high cost of entry, having a bunch of barriers around that. The typical government sponsorship to go into that marketplace. 

MicroLED is a different beast. In the intersection that it's coming, between what would be called the epitaxy of world, growing LEDs, and the Silicon world. All of a sudden the cost to pin up a plant is 1/10th to 1/20th of what it was before. So you can have companies that can compete and can build out next-generation displays without having to have government sponsorship. If you look at it, I'm not trying to wave the nationalist economic flag. But if you look at the last two, three generations of the display, whether TFT, LCD, or AMOLED or OLED or other, a lot of that tech is developed in the US and North America, none of it's manufactured here. 

Why? Because we don't have a great industrial policy at the government level to compete. When you look at Korea and China, how the government sponsored the building of those fabs, that's the way that they do it, that's the game. That being said, you're never going to have that happen here.

I thought that was happening in Wisconsin? (Laughter)

Chris Riegel: Yeah. Don't hold your breath on that one. But the central planning model has changed and with microLED, you can bring up a fab at a fraction of the cost, but also then have a product that is less expensive because of the simplicity of a direct view product. So there's some really exciting stuff going on here. 

You're not focused on large formats for microLED. The volume is all in wearables and things like that, right? 

Chris Riegel: There's a big space in large formats. The initial microLED use cases have been small format: wearables, optics, precision optics, things like that, simply because there are some challenges in the technology like mass transfer that had not yet been figured out or distilled that made it really, you can only be cost-competitive in those small environments.

But if I take the equation of a square meter glass, microLED can deliver a square meter of glass at an equivalent resolution to TFT, LCD or O LED for between 50 and 60% of the fab cost of that product. So it can be super competitive, and in our use case, we'll absolutely go for a large format and I want to make sure that our friends at solar are aware of it. 

So at some point, I think you told me before in the past that you thought by the end of the year, you'd be at least doing rapid prototyping. 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, so we're now in the joy of receiving all equipment late, just because of the pandemic and the slower nature of manufacturing and getting anything in. That being said by Q1, we'll be in the prototype stage. What we're doing is putting a lot of focus on, without nerding out on it too deeply, a 300mm epitaxy on Silicon. So today, most LEDs are built on 150mm Sapphire, which has worked for 20 years and is very precise. We're taking the step to go 300mm GAM on Silicon, which is a more complex process, but once you're in the Silicon world, the ability to then scale-out silicon-based emitters directly to bond to see 300mm Silicon wafers, you can start doing some really interesting stuff that breaks the mold. 

I understood most of that, but at that point, the idea is that the way conventional LED is made, it's machines that are picking LEDs or batches of LEDs and placing them on substrate and it just takes a long time and a lot of cost and energy to do that, right? 

Chris Riegel: It does and within the LED industry today, that LED can be grown. that the large format, large emitter, one millimeter plus LED. Those are grown in epitaxy processes that are not particularly clean.

When you get into microLED, we're talking emitters that are 3 microns by 3 microns, 5x5, so you're dealing with super small stuff by an order of magnitude. The LEDs that we're making are smaller than the Coronavirus. So when you deal with making extremely small emitters, the ability to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I'm able to build-some would call a smart pixel, some would just call it a digital Lego-I'm able to build an emitter directly bonded to a micro IC and build a smart pixel concept.” 

There is some really cool stuff that you can do there. You'll probably see the first mass commercialization of that coming out from Apple with wearables, but the applications around it are myriad and it is hundred percent a game-changer.

Do you see the end product for the digital signage market being the equivalent to a flat panel display, like you'd be selling 85-inch microLED panels, or do you see it as like big ass LED video walls? 

Chris Riegel: Yeah, great question. I think our core mission is that I'm not going to fight Xi Jinping to win aisle seven at Costco for the 85-inch $399 television. Chinese can have that market, no question. 

In microLED, if you're getting into large-format sizes, you'll most likely be within the container of tiled panels. So maybe you're at 200mm to 300mm tiles to be able to get to large formats. But within that, I think that the differentiation there between microLED and call it miniLED, 50 mics or up is minimal.

What you're going to find in the greatest benefit of microLED are those environments where using the fact that your emitter is so small, it's not visible to the naked eye. So you can do transparency through window glass. You can bend and curve it. So the curved surfaces, the bend surfaces, the flex surfaces, because the emitters are so small, they're within the bend radiuses of the substrates. There's a lot of really cool stuff you can do where you're not just fighting the low price commoditized markets. I've been to Shenzhen thirty times and there are a hundred thousand companies in Shenzhen. 

Unless you can differentiate yourself from that mass market, you're dead day one. So you have to pick your battles correctly 

So the set of Corning videos that have come out in the past 10 years or so, about a day in glass, where you have all these dynamic visuals are just showing up on countertops and windows and everything else that's what's going to happen with this technology, right?

Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The ability to make the display a more natural interface to the consumer, where it doesn't have to be a standalone display device, where it's integrated into third-party devices or features, Corning had great vision. Around that obviously with the goal to sell more glass, but the idea was right.

And now that this is continuing to transition, think of your smart home, think of your smart car, think of your smart whatever, all of that is microprocessor driven in one form or another. So how do you associate displays that are much more natural to the user's experience as opposed to something that's a bulky bolt-on whether that's in a car, on a refrigerator. in a window making that just part of that infrastructure.

All right. Always a pleasure. Thank you for spending some time. 

Chris Riegel: Thank you.

Doug Lusted, AdStash

Doug Lusted, AdStash

August 11, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Much has changed through the years in digital signage and digital out of home, but one thing that's been pretty constant is how small businesses like the technology when they find out about it ... but don't want to pay for it.

Doug Lusted has seen and heard that for many years, having founded a Canadian startup that was doing proximity marketing and venue analytics almost a decade ago.

He gradually, with his team, started pulling together the idea and eventually the platform for AdStash - a service that enables small business operators and service providers who target that sector to get digital signage in place, and make money from the screens, instead of paying monthly bills for them.

The core premise of AdStash is small to medium-sized businesses - from one-offs to groups of venues - can tap into advertising dollars from a dozen supply-side ad exchanges and generate incremental revenue. They don't pay any recurring subscription fees, and the only upfront cost is an $80 Raspberry Pi media player.

Based in suburban Toronto, but virtual in most respects, the company is investor-backed and already has a footprint of some 70,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada.

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TRANSCRIPT

Doug, thank you for joining me. We've known each other a little bit for quite some time now, and I would say your company has been on a bit of a journey because when I first ran into it, I believe you were doing proximity marketing, right? 

Doug Lusted: That's right, and we're still doing that. That was our first product and we're heading out to our second one now.

And that was called, Linkett, wasn't it? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, so to clear it up because branding is often a question. The company name is Weston Expressions. Our first product was Linkett, which is an audience measurement platform that still operates today, and then our second product is AdStash, which we'll get into.

With the first product, what was that all about? That was NFC-based, right? 

Doug Lusted: It started out to be NFC. We were trying to track engagement and impressions, but ultimately that morphed into WiFi. So it's predominantly a WiFi tracking platform today. 

Because every smartphone has WiFi probably turned on or at least available, and not everybody was equipped with NFC and not everybody had it activated, right?

Doug Lusted:  You got it. 

So this was just a better way to go, and now you've launched AdStash. Can you tell me and the listeners what that's all about? 

Doug Lusted: So what AdStash does is provide digital signage networks the technology they need to go programmatic with no monthly fees, and so on a deeper level what that really means is that the core technology we've built is an API that connects your digital signs to multiple programmatic ad exchanges at once. So it saves you all that integration time and money. 

And if you become an AdStash customer, what are you getting and what are you using? 

Doug Lusted: It depends on your network. We're pretty flexible. We've got a bunch of different pieces to the puzzle. 

But basically, an API connection that lists you on all the major SSPs or most of them. Now, if you need a media player, we can provide you that. If you need a content management system, we have a free one. Those are typically used by our smaller networks. And the enterprise users generally stick to the API because they've got all of that in place already. 

Okay, so if I'm already on Brand X CMS, there are hundreds of them. You don't need to back out of that and use your CMS platform or anything like that. The CMS is meant more as something that enables it for smaller businesses?

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and sometimes what happens is we'll have a customer who's growing their network, and they realize, I can use this CMS that doesn't have any monthly fees. I'm going to switch to that now while I'm deploying. But yeah we can integrate with any CMS. It's a fairly straightforward open API.

I guess it becomes a delicate dance of working with other CMS companies, because if they're hearing that, you don't need to use a commercial or fee-based one, you can just use ours for free they may be thinking, “I don't want to work with you.” 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. It's a good point, and to add a little more color to that, it's a very light, basic CMS, right? We can show videos on full screen, maybe a traditional L-bracket, but that's it. 

It's very light, more kind of aimed towards small and medium-sized businesses. If you're a large enterprise digital signage network that needs some bells and whistles, sticking to your current partner is probably the best bet and we're pretty open about it. 

Is that intentional or is that more a function of, “if I want it to have something that was a lot more robust, that there's a whole bunch more time and dollars that I need to put into it to get to that point”? 

Doug Lusted: So we found that most of our early adopters were small and medium-sized businesses that weren't too picky on what's going on the screen? So it would be hard to give out a content management system that's free that has all the bells and whistles as I said, so I think it was intentional. It's just like a backup plan. 

One thing we noticed in this industry is that there's a massive amount of supply in the market that is just a mom-and-pop shop with the TV turned off. So we're just trying to make it as simple as possible, like “Hey, here's this box. There are no monthly fees, plug it in and you're ready to go.” 

And if they opted for this, let's say I have a nail salon in a strip mall because every strip mall has a nail salon and they want to do this. How does it work? What do they get out of it? How do they use it? 

And in terms of what they get out of it, what kind of revenues would they see? Is it something that just is going to just pay for the TV in a lot of respects? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, sometimes. So basically if you use our full tech stack, you get the media player, plug it in just to HDMI and power, and then WiFi or Ethernet and then a free content management system that's cloud-based, the nail salon often puts up their own content on the screen, hours of operation, promotions, that good stuff, totally self-serve, and then we, just like almost any programmatic platform, we aim for a 30% fill rate with third-party ads that we're getting from our programmatic partners. 

Given the infancy and where we are with programmatic, some months we hit 30%, some months, we don't, depending on a whole bunch of variables. But the idea is that I think for a small mom and pop nail salon if you look at our data over the past 24 months, minus the closures, due to the pandemic, the average locations making about $50 to $70 a month in revenue that they wouldn't have gotten elsewhere.

And for a lot of businesses, that would be like, you know, who cares? But is that a meaningful number to these people? 

Doug Lusted: It is, and especially with COVID impacting a lot of the revenues of these businesses, they're hungry to figure out any way they can earn a couple extra bucks, and most of our clients aren't necessarily one-offs, they own 10 stores, they own 50 stores, and so when you start scaling it, it becomes a nice little incremental piece of business that doesn't require much work. 

One of the big challenges that I've seen through the years with these kinds of initiatives is, working with small to medium businesses is not terribly efficient. You've got to sell them one by one. You don't just go in and get an enterprise deal for a thousand locations or anything else. 

How do you deal with that side of it and how do you sell it? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it's a great point. So in the very early days, our Guinea pigs, we were going door to door on these businesses directly. But now I would say 99% of our business is through the digital signage channels so digital signage distributors, smaller and medium place-based digital networks looking to go programmatic, and if you look at the adoption curve, it's similar to any company, start with the little guys and you start climbing up the chain. So we've taken that route and we're working on the channel right now. 

So using the example of the nail salon again, how would they find you then? Would it be through like a Synnex or Ingram Micro or something like that? I can’t imagine a nail salon knowing what Synnex is. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly. So we do inbound marketing, right? So they'll probably find us online. But like I said, it's a small portion of our business, but they'd be able to find it through any of our paid campaigns, whether it be through Google ads, Facebook ads, LinkedIn ads, etc. Word of mouth is probably our biggest channel, right? 

Somebody starts making money they didn't before and they want to tell their friends, they want to move it to the other properties they own. So organic's been a big one for the smaller customers. 

Yeah, and if they need it, you provide an $80 media player. So I guess if they make $50 to $70 a month, they pay for that thing pretty quickly. What is that? Is that a little Raspberry Pi or...? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it is a Raspberry Pi with our firmware on it. It's got a couple of extra little components to it, like just some USB antennas and things of that nature, but under the hood, it's a Raspberry Pi. 

The analytical side of the business that you started with, is that bundled with this, and would a small business need it/use it? 

Doug Lusted: It is bundled with it, but it's generally hidden from the small businesses.

The reason why we need it is that we need to know what traffic is in front of the screen when ads play so that we know how much to bill these programmatic partners, everything's impression. 

Would a nail salon really need a big data platform to understand its user’s behaviors? Probably not. So we hide it, but it is built in there so that we can gauge traffic levels for our advertisers. 

So if I am the nail salon and I opt in, what am I using to update content and manage the thing? 

Doug Lusted: In terms of our content management system, they're logging in and uploading their own creative. We don't provide a designer tool or any type of creative tool ourselves. They just upload whatever they have. 

Okay, and they do it off the desktop or can they do it off mobile? 

Doug Lusted: They can do it on desktop or mobile. 

Specific app or is it just the web version of the website?

Doug Lusted: We have a specific app as well. So on mobile, we have an AdStash app. You can download and manage your digital signage network just through your phone if you'd like. 

I've always been curious about the mindset particularly of the small to the medium business world. By far, the most active blog post on 16:9 is one that lists all of the free software options out there.

Do you find that generally for small to medium businesses, digital signage is not a major core initiative of what they're doing, it's just something that maybe they can use, that there's a real resistance there to spending any monthly fees? 

Doug Lusted: I think so. We often A/B test this ourselves to test what is the bigger value prop, the ability to make money on programmatic ads or save money on subscriptions? It's really a mix of both, but the smaller players for sure are interested in anything that isn't going to be recurring, and we also have a lot of requests from the digital signage groups that they outsource this to. 

Like I said, our average user has got about a hundred screens. So this is generally something they've outsourced, they've told their digital signage partner, “Hey, you've heard of this free AdStash thing, check it out!”

Okay, and what's your installed base right now? 

Doug Lusted: So across North America, we have 70,000 screens. The US is a lot more dominant than Canada. We've seen some pretty exponential growth there. But in Canada, we've got about 6,000 screens and then the rest of the US.

Okay, and what do you figure you have to be at in terms of footprint to get something akin to critical mass? Or does it not really matter as much when it's programmatic? 

Doug Lusted: It doesn't matter as much when it's programmatic, and I think that's one of the huge attractions to it, especially for the medium size players.

If I've got a hundred screens, maybe 50 in Toronto, 50 in Montreal, that's not really big enough to attract a national campaign, but programmatically, by nature is grouping everybody together to try and attract a national campaign. So I think that's a really big thing. 

Most typically for these small business screen networks, it's hyper-local advertising. It's like the local injury accident lawyers and mortgage brokers and that sort of thing. What kind of advertising are you seeing on the screen? 

Doug Lusted: So given that we only do programmatic advertising, most I would say is national. Now we do have some local, right? The Calgary Stampede brought in a lot of local ads, even though like DoorDash will do a national campaign, they'll have custom creative or calls to action based on each local community. But for the most part, at least for now, we're seeing a majority of it nationally. 

And with the analytics that you're able to generate, what do you see or what are you learning about sites? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, so traffic data is the most important for sure. Impressions or visits, right? Unique visits, dwell time and frequency are the big three per location. 

It's really interesting to see the dwell times. That's what I'm interested in because, during the pandemic, medical was really one of the only things that were open, and you can see our dwell time doubled so the average person sees twice as many ads. What does that mean? How is that going to affect things? 

So the most important thing right now is traffic. A lot of these exchanges, like HiveStack or BroadSign, have geofencing technology, so they can gather demographics on their own. We have that capability, but most of the time the exchanges say, “Hey, we got that covered.” 

With the rise through the years of computer vision for doing on-premise venue analytics, once in a while, something bubbles up and people get all freaked out about the idea that there's a camera looking at me. 

We've seen that a few times in Canada and it comes up elsewhere. What's the situation with your users when it comes to WiFi. Do they care? Are they alarmed in any way? Like they seem to be well on the camera side? 

Doug Lusted: Some of our bigger customers are, but we've been pretty proactive in being GDPR compliant. So from a consumer perspective, they don't see anything. They don't see a camera being pointed at them. There's a little box behind the TV that no one sees. So we don't really get any questions on the consumer side. 

From the actual kind of business side, yeah, just, are we GDPR compliant? Are we collecting any personally identifiable information, which we're not. 

Where are your servers? We get asked those questions a lot, but after they read through what we're doing with the data and they realize it's very anonymous, high-level traffic counting. We've never had any problems with it, and in fact, It's helped us in a lot of deals. Like we're an airport, and as I said before, we're in medical clinics where you can't put a camera. So we carved out a nice little segment of the market, where we seem to be dominating that market share, at least in Canada, just because of those regulations around those venues. 

Is it easier to compete with some of the other kinds of focused networks out there? Through the years, I've seen bar networks and hair salon networks and nail salon networks, and everything else. Because you're broadly based, you're not saying, “We're the guys for this.” Is it easier to sell into a broader diversity of businesses? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, it is. But it's also a little confusing because any other place-based digital network, in some sense, if they're on programmatic and not going through us, they're competitors. But on the other side, they're also prospects. So if it gets very confusing, okay, who's a competitor and who's a prospect who should we target? And there's a lot of his “frenemies” in space, and it's getting even more complicated as more and more programmatic platforms come into play.

When your resellers and channel are meeting with a company that has a hundred screens across a network, do they even get into what programmatic is and how it works or do they just say, put this in, we will sell the ads for you and it’ll start showing up within three, four weeks and you should see a check of $50 to $70. 

But I'm guessing they don't really want to understand, is this a demand side platform or supply side or any of that stuff? You're just basically saying it's like Google Adsense, it will just show up. 

Doug Lusted: Exactly. They don't get into all the nitty gritties.

You go into a nail salon and try to explain what a supply side platform and demand side platform are, it's probably not going to work out. 

It's getting more and more confusing as more and more are popping up. But yeah, it's basically, “Hey, we're going to install this new box to your TV, ads are going to show up hopefully and make some revenue”, and another thing is like a lot of our channel partners, they're selling ads directly themselves, not programmatic, just traditional direct sales. So a lot of the time, it's not just us who's responsible for revenue. We're just adding the icing on the cake. 

Okay. So that would be like the guy in your part of the world around Toronto, who's got some medical clinics and he's using your platform, but he would have direct sales as well that he could go to a medical equipment supplier or whatever, and say, “do you want to advertise on these?”

Doug Lusted: Exactly. So our agreement, with our customers, is that we have the exclusive rights over programmatic sales. 

We're going to connect you to all of the SSPs that we're partnered with and we're going to handle that relationship for you. That's the value we bring, but we're not shutting down your existing line of revenue when it comes to traditional sales.

And that's why you're talking about like a 30% fill rate that there should be this broad understanding that, “Hey guys, this isn't your sole answer if you're an ad network, this is part of your answer.” 

Doug Lusted: Exactly, and I think that's where we're at in the programmatic industry is this strange hybrid model, where we're putting a bed on and focusing on that or predicting that more of it will shift the programmatic as adoption increases across the industry. But right now, yeah, this isn't your only source of ad revenue. 

So I'm HiveStack and I'm working with you guys. What visibility do I have? Like what do I see when I'm trying to place an ad of some kind or drive a campaign across your screens? 

Doug Lusted: We try to be as transparent as possible. What you'll see is an address obviously, of where the screen is located, their analytics will tell you the type of audience that's in there. We'll provide you with the traffic counts that are in there. We even require our users, when they install a device to take a picture of the screen, so that you can actually see what the screen looks like and that it exists, and then you'll just obviously see the playback reporting o how many times did your ad play there and whatnot.

And I'm assuming the analytics side of that is increasingly important, even if it isn't to the venue, it is to the programmatic side? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and I think, anybody who's been in this industry for a while understands that that's one of the biggest bottlenecks of programmatic right now. There's not a clear winner of measurement. There are a whole bunch of different vendors, and we ourselves, as the digital signage industry are confused about it, which then makes it almost impossible for these programmatic exchanges to wrap their heads around it, or come up with any standards.

And I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, and one of the reasons why is, I think that we need to understand that there's going to need to be different methodologies and technologies to measure outdoor screens versus indoor screens. These are two very different things, I don't think one solution is going to be able to cover both. So we need to really think, how are we going to frame this, how are we going to put standards around it and take the time to educate these ad exchanges on how it's gonna work? 

Do you get pushback at all from, let's say some of the larger, more established to programmatic platforms saying, I don't know who you are, you're not big enough for me or anything else, or do they all look at this as more inventory and it's properly described and the analytics are available and so on. So, it doesn't bother me that it's a nail salon and it's not a major international airport?

Doug Lusted: So in the early days, we got pushback from programmatic exchanges because we didn't have that many screens, and it's that chicken and egg problem. So we went out and started building our supply base, and I would say now, we're one of the bigger players with 70,000 screens.

So they look at it and say, not necessarily, this is more screens, cause that's not always how they think, but they say, Hey, this more audience profiles. This is more traffic for us. 

And I assume all of your venues are data tagged every which way? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. So not only just what type of venue it's in and where it's located, but what size is the screen, what things are around it, there's a lot of data that's associated with it, and thankfully we are not tasked with having to have a UI for that, that the advertiser has to see, that's basically our programmatic partners job and that's not an easy one. 

Going back to the nail salon thing, I signed up for it and I'm running a set of nail salons, which is about as bizarre a thought as I can come up with. Who would do the data tagging for that? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, we do all of that. So once you install the device, you do take a picture of your screen once it's done. We have a list of venues that you can select from a dropdown that is in accordance with the IAB standards. They just find and select a nail salon, which is one of them, and that's basically it. We do everything from there, everything is pretty much automated, 

So it's a free service. The obvious next question coming out of that is how do you make money? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. So we take a commission only on the programmatic revenue that we bring to the table, that flows through our pipes. The commission depends on volume and how many screens you have, but that's how we make our money.

I think I saw the baseline was like 30%, and it scales down from there with the larger jobs? 

Doug Lusted: It does scale down, yeah. Sometimes it'll actually scale up depending if you're missing core components of technology.

So someone may say, “Hey I don't have this feature in the CMS, can you build it or can I have it?” And they'll say, yeah, but if you don't want to pay for the custom dev time, then the way we'll make our money back on that is maybe 35%. 

Even in that case, it wouldn't be fee-based, it would be built around the commission?

Doug Lusted: We're pretty flexible. Most of our customers have come to us because they don't want to pay fees. So it ultimately ends up being a commission, whether we like it or not. 

Is that just a concession to the realities of working with a small to the medium business world is that they would like to have this, they just don't want to pay for it. So let's work with them as opposed to just saying, “We won't work with you, goodbye!”

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly, and I think that's the whole notion of AdStash, and one of our big hypotheses is building this business as there are so many screens that are not being added to programmatic exchanges because they can't afford the technology that's required to do so. 

So whoever activates, all of those screens are going to own a huge portion of the supply in the market, and nobody's pulled up their sleeves and gone after that segment of the market because nobody wants to pay for anything. 

So was AdStash something, going back to 2013-2014, that you were thinking about, or is it just through the years you came to this realization, having worked with a lot of end-users that there's a hole in the market for this, we can build it and get there before somebody else does?

Doug Lusted: It was a bit of both. So when we were really focused on analytics back in 2014, we weren't thinking about it, but we heard rumblings of programmatic and we always thought to ourselves, audience measurement is great, but it's hard to tie return on investment to, especially if you're talking to a digital signage network, like, “why should I invest in in analytics, if I can't guarantee I'm going to get more ads?”

So we always thought, in the online world, advertisers demand it, and then so when we heard of programmatic coming down and we're like, wow, our data is actually going to be very valuable here and mandatory. So this is a good space for us to get into, and then we were just really early adopters of it, we started working with Campsite right when they started in Toronto and Montreal and it just escalated and we rode the wave. 

And how many programmatic platforms are you integrated with now? 

Doug Lusted: So right now we're live on 12. We've got a few contracts signed we're just finishing up integrations with, but as of today, we're on the 12th.

I'm not as close to programmatic as a lot of people seem to think I am. Twelve is what, like half of them out there, or my impression is 12 is like 1% of them. 

Doug Lusted: So it's a little complicated. There are SSPs and DSPs. The DSPs, yeah, there are 80 of them out there, but not all of them are doing digital out-of-home advertising, only a small fraction of them are.

What we're doing is aggregating all of the SSPs into one link, the supply side, the supply-side ones that actually do digital out of home. There are tons of supply-side platforms out there that you can join your website, but for digital out-of-home, there aren't that many out there yet. So I would say, of the active ones right now, we have a large majority of them. 

Tell me about the business. You founded it. Is it completely bootstrapped, self-funded or have you been involved with private equity or VC companies? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, we're VC-backed. So in 20014 ish, when we were just doing the analytics, we raised a small seed round, and we went through an accelerator in Silicon valley called 500 Startups, and then when we launched AdStash, we raised a second round of funding, a bigger round of funding to help push this product. 

Where are you at in terms of the size of the company? 

Doug Lusted: So right now, we're at 13 and growing. It's been unique for us during the pandemic, we’ve done fully virtual and we were hiring during the pandemic too. So it's been interesting to have a team with some members you've never met before. We were surprised to figure out that some of our employees are like 6’4”. We had no idea they were like these big people, so it's been a unique experience, but a majority of our team is software developers. 

We're not a heavily focused sales and marketing organization because that's what our programmatic partners do for us. They're doing all the sales. So of that 13, the majority of them are software developers.

And we were talking before we turned on the recorder that you moved from downtown Toronto to the burbs. Based on the last year and a half, are you concluding that, hey, we don't really need a physical office or any of those things? Maybe we have a kind of virtual rented office and a mailbox kind of thing and it'll do because so many tech companies have gone that way? 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. Speaking on behalf of our company, I don't think we need an office. We like to do monthly hangouts where we'll all meet somewhere. Just rent an office for a day and talk strategy and whatnot. But when it comes to the day-to-day operations, we don't need an office. Again, software developers, most of the time, are locked away coding, they don't really need an office. 

They don’t want to talk to other humans anyways. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah, exactly. But yeah, as long as they have a kitchen nearby, things are good. So for us, we'll keep doing the virtual way.

That being said, it has presented interesting scenarios in terms of culture. It's very hard to build a company culture virtually, there's only so many things you do. So that's why we really like to implement at least monthly hangouts where the whole team comes together in person and does something to try and build that culture.

That is what's probably important to keeping virtual employees nowadays, because if they can get a new job without having to move and just simply saying yes, you gotta build that company culture to want to entice them to come work for you every day. 

Yeah. It would be pretty easy to leave if you have absolutely no emotional attachment to the people you're working with. You don’t know how tall they are. (Laughter)

This has been great. Just a quick question. If people want to know more, where do they find AdStash? I'm guessing, it's AdStash.com. 

Doug Lusted: Yeah. AdStash.com. Best way to get us. 

All right. Thanks a bunch. 

Doug Lusted: Thanks, I really appreciate you having us on.

 

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

Chris Riebschlager, Dimensional Innovations

August 4, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

There have been numerous traditional sign companies that have, through the years, developed a sense of their ground shifting, and responded by adding a digital component to their business. A lot of the time, it hasn't worked out so hot, because it's just too far outside what a company knows and does. But sometimes it works, as is the case with Dimensional Innovations.

The Kansas City company nicely straddles physical and digital components to jobs, bolstering the idea that having both skillsets, and mindsets, under the same roof is going to work better than sub-contracting.

DI, for short, does projects all over the U.S., in particular, and while it has some especially active vertical markets, its work serves all kinds of different use-cases. DI does a lot of pro and college sports venue work, but it also does experiences for museums, hospitals and retail.

I had an interesting chat with Chris Riebschlager, who runs the company's software efforts.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hey, Chris. Thanks for joining me. Can you tell me what your company does? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely. So Dimensional Innovations started in the late 90s as a signage company, making just traditional signs, and in the time between the late 90s and now, the company has grown to include custom fabrication of all kinds and in the last six and seven years, we've added a really big technology practice to that. 

So in addition to building and fabricating and designing spaces, also activating those spaces with interesting technology, that's hopefully beautiful and useful and makes spaces better. 

Where's the company based? 

Chris Riebschlager: The company is based in Kansas City. 

But you have offices elsewhere, right?

Chris Riebschlager: Yes, we have folks that live and work in LA, Atlanta, Minneapolis, a few in Colorado. So yeah, we got a presence all over the United States.

All right, and are those offices or are those like home offices and that the big epicenter is Kansas City? 

Chris Riebschlager: The epicenter is certainly in Kansas City. The other offices are focused a lot on project management and sales for the projects that we are working on and supporting in those locations, but yeah, the heart of it's here in KC.

It’s interesting. There's been a number of traditional print companies that have taken a look at the digital signage space and tried to get in it and for the most part, have not been very successful because it's just too different from what they normally do. What's been the difference with you? 

Chris Riebschlager: So I think the way we approach spaces, I think lends well to activating those spaces with both digital signage and more immersive tech installations.

I think when we approach a new project, it's really about getting inside the head of the person that is in that space. Why they're there, what they're doing there, what's important to them, what's in the front of their mind when they're in a space like that? So we had been satisfying those needs with built environmental stuff and I think it's a natural pivot to then say, what technology could help this person accomplish what they need to accomplish or make this space better or make a bad experience much better. 

So you're already fabricating physical materials to make a space interesting, and digital allows you to introduce a different kind of material and make it active and so on, right?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely, and I think part of what makes us special is that we are doing this from both sides, right? Both the fabricated and design side, but also the tech side. So I think if you can have that happening on one team, I think the end product always ends up better because, when I have to sit down at the table with a person who's going to build the thing, they understand what I needed to do, I understand what they needed to do, and I think that hand in hand tight integration just makes for better stuff. 

And you run the software team. Am I getting that right? 

Chris Riebschlager: That is correct. 

Okay, and how big is that team? 

Chris Riebschlager: We have six developers right now. We also have a 3D team that kind of has branched off from my software dev team. They focus on 3D modeling and animating, and also some of the game engine development stuff that we've been getting into with Unreal. 

Oh, cool, and if you had to guess, I realize you're not the COO or anything, but you have some sense of what the split is of your business, between analog stuff and digital stuff, is it like 60:40 and has it evolved? 

Chris Riebschlager: I’d probably flip that split, so maybe a 40% and then 60% goes to the physical build-out. 

The blend there is kind of fuzzy. It's not all one or the other, usually in client engagement, there's a big fabricated, a big build-out that we're injecting technology into so that the borders between those two are pretty fuzzy.

And that's how it should happen, right? 

Cause God knows I've been involved in projects or being exposed to projects where it's all about the digital side of it, and they get fixated on that without thinking about the whole experience and the whole look and feel of it. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, absolutely.

Ideally, I don't want a person walking into a space that we made and seeing a hard delineation between what is a physical built-out piece, and what's a digital add-on to that space. They should all feel very cohesive and family together in a way that makes sense holistically, and we're not picking apart digital activation and physical activation.

And I guess it's helpful that because your company comes out of the physical background that you're not having to rely on third-party fabrication companies to build that side of it. You can control the whole bill of materials, so to speak. 

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely, and that's huge, especially when we're trying to make something that no one's ever seen before. You really need that tight integration between the physical engineering team and the software engineering team, because silly things like mounting a camera, having access to that camera, and knowing where cables need to run, etc. The tighter integration you can get between the person building the thing and the person who knows where those wires need to run, that's only going to end in better projects. 

Yeah. You start embedding display technology into a physical enclosure. If you have no experience around that, you don't know about things like ventilation and then you have big problems. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah, and at this point, we've run into all of those things. We've had all the problems. So at this point, we've hit our stride and now we have solved all those ones and do not worry about them anymore. 

Yeah, which is very helpful, I'm sure. One of the things that were intriguing to me is with a lot of companies I talked to, they sorta have a defined vertical or maybe one or two verticals and that, like they're active in hotels or they're active in retail, whatever it may be, and I look at your kind of portfolio of projects and it's like all over the place. 

You're doing sports stadiums, you're doing work for college athletic teams, but you are also doing work for children's hospitals and museums. 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. We do have some verticals that we do specialize in. Stadiums being a big one, college athletics, being a big one, children's hospitals and zoos being another. 

Also, there are corporate environments like corporate headquarters. We do a lot of client experience centers, just the big immersive environments that usually are attached to a corporate headquarters where they can tour clients through and show their product offerings in a compelling and interesting way.

We're hopefully coming out of a pretty rough year and a half in terms of what's been going on and things like particularly the sports industry kind of being “on hold” as well as some college athletics, but the workplace has bubbled up. 

Has business shifted in that time?

Chris Riebschlager: I wouldn't say shifted. The last year forced us to reevaluate some of the things we were doing and the things we were adding to spaces and being a little bit more mindful of, as things opened back up, how are people going to want to interact with things in a space? Are they going to want to touch things? Are we going to need to figure out ways for people to interact without physically engaging with this stuff? 

I don't think our core business changed at all, but the last year was a really interesting opportunity to reevaluate how these interactions work in these spaces. 

Yeah. You have a product or service or something called DIVE, which is Dimensional Innovations Virtual Experiences. What is that all about and how has it resonated with the people you're talking to? 

Chris Riebschlager: So the genesis of that was, early in 2020, we were starting - before COVID hit - we had planned a lot of client experience on our work with a few clients where we were going to install a bunch of new spaces that would serve in that client experience center capacity, where we're touring clients through and showing off-in an immersive environment type of way-product offerings, and since that was now off the table for 2020, we had to pivot into, okay, how do we provide that same experience and have that same docent or client-led multi-person experience, but in a way that isn't going to require someone to fly to a place and go into a building that is going to be closed for an indefinite amount of time.

So we started messing around with some video conferencing technology and experimenting with ways to take that same content that we had running in a theater or large screen experience in the space and how to use that same content, those same ideas, that same spirit, and put it into an experience where a docent kit can invite a dozen or more people to a website where we're all seeing each other in video and they're able to tour people through these immersive environments, show content and throw up polls and questions, and different points of engagement there. So the same things that would be happening in that space, just distributed to everyone's devices, wherever they are. 

Have you seen much take-up on that?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. I think as people got burned out on Zoom, mid-2020, people were looking at and going, okay, this is fine. The utility of it is there, it's great. But there's gotta be something more we can do with this technology. 

Like, if we can get everyone live audio and video between a bunch of people, there's gotta be more engaging things we can do with that. So I think as people started to push those edges, that was really appealing to people to be able to have what we had in DIVE, which is a way to craft a more immersive environment for those people to be in and have a little bit more interesting points of engagement than just sharing your screen and have a routine when looking at a PowerPoint or whatever.

It seems a little bit like the virtual trade shows that of course came up like crazy in the past year and a half. How does it differ from that? 

Chris Riebschlager: I think the main focus of DIVE is really just that custom content. The framework is Zoom-like. We have a video and audio connection. That's the solved problem.

The more interesting thing in new client engagement with DIVE is, what are we going to do now that we have basically the entire web stack and everything you can do on a website, everything you can do with live audio and video, what are we going to do content-wise, in a compelling way to show, offer, to communicate the message that we want to communicate?

And now that we're seeing physical trade shows and people are getting on airplanes and flying to go see clients and go to experience centers and do that sort of thing. Does your company see DIVE as something that was an interim measure and you put it back in the closet or has it got long-term legs?

Chris Riebschlager: I think it has long-term legs. I think there are ways that it could be a supplement to what we're already doing in the built-out space, we’ve thought of incorporating it, even in a client experience center, where we have a bunch of people we've invited into the space, they're still maybe subject matter experts or people that we'd want to bring into this experience that couldn't fly in, or we want them there every day. We could use the same technology to put that person up on his screen. So we can say, “Now we're going to talk to Todd about X YZ, and now Todd's in that space. He's thousands of miles away, but now he's in this environment with us.” 

So I think there are ways we could incorporate that same tech to enhance and supplement the stuff that we're doing in the building.

I obviously follow a lot of what goes on in digital signage and innovations and new ideas and so on, and what I saw in the past year and a half, is some great stuff, but also a number of times where it really seemed like companies were just trying to find something that they could get attention for and that they could sell at a time when their traditional products were not really moving. And I would see efforts to do gesture-based interaction, like touchless displays and QR codes, and I was looking at something on LinkedIn yesterday that was like a live person on camera with her being replicated as an avatar, and I looked at it and thought why are they doing that? I don't want to see something that looks like something out of a Japanese anime cartoon. If this person looks presentable, put her on the screen. 

So what has worked and what do you see as being effective and what is just eye candy that gets a client excited for 10 minutes?

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. So early in 2020, we'd decided to pivot on some of our touch activations. We obviously wanted to find a non-touch way to do those. So we did dive into the whole process of moving the interface to the user’s phone methods, like just hitting a website via QR code on the display, and that I think is going to be something that now that we have that kind of locked and loaded, something that we can add as a value-add to existing projects.

So in the future, if people aren't going to be a little bit more cautious about what they touch in public space, that's always going to be an option. I don't think touch is going away certainly. I think that's going to be. always in the mix, but now that we were forced to solve that problem at the moment, I think that's going to be a really great way to value-add the work that we do moving forward.

I think your creative designers probably found that there are certain applications and in situations where that works well and others where it doesn't because I've seen pitches for stuff where just for us to snap a QR code and launch the controls on your phone and stand right in front of the display and do all that and I'm just thinking, just touch the damn display and use hand sanitizer after it's going to be a lot easier. So where does it best work? 

Chris Riebschlager: I think it's really contextual to the project. So with something that's really content-heavy, where we need a lot of information from the user to present back to them, something that they want.

For example, we do a lot of work with athletic departments where they want a way for everyone to see every athlete that had attended that school, and that usually involves some texts century and text century is usually best done with a keyboard or onscreen keyboard, and with that level of interaction, yes, you can offload that to a phone, but there's a point where you get diminishing returns with that. Getting someone to take out their phone, scan a code, and then go to the site, that's asking a lot of a person in a space like that where they really aren't in that mode of paying that much attention. So for that, I think for the foreseeable future, I think we're gonna keep moving the UI to the user's device as an option but I think a lot of that is just going to still happen on screen, but there's a lot of interactions that we do that are a lot lighter touch. So motion-driven interactives where we're using a connector or a camera to find human bodies in the space and the interaction is just driven by their emotion. I think for that level of thing, that's largely unchanged. 

And there's no learning curve? It's just triggering something because it's picking up that there's something there. 

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly.

Is the learning curve important? Cause I think I've said this a number of times on different podcasts. I call a lot of these gesture-based systems that you see in public spaces like malls and transit stations and so on, I call them stupid people tricks because you're asking people to do things that are except for the extroverts, it's embarrassing and it takes awhile and may not work, and there's a subset of people-mostly kids-who would find that exciting, but most adults would go, “No, I'm not doing that.”

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. As you said, kids get it immediately. There's no learning curve with kids with these motion-based interactions. They mess around with it until they just get it, and then they're off to the races. 

So there are well-established UI patterns with everything else that we interact with in a given day, like the phone, the computer, we all get how that stuff works. When we're presenting something entirely new to people, I think to get them over that learning curve and to get them over that curve quickly, I think it's just a matter of making it as simple as possible. 

Like with Kinect-based installations, I hate introducing the idea of menus there, because we're thinking in terms of a mouse and a cursor. I think we need to take that off the table when we're talking about gestures. You're not there to point and select things. Let's think about different ways that you can use your body as this user interface that isn't just trying to copy-paste a mouse interaction or a keyboard interaction. 

Yeah and stop thinking about Minority Report.

Chris Riebschlager: Oh my gosh, Minority Report ruined my life when that came, out because that was the expectation. Just make it look like it was in the movie, right? 

No, and you don't want that by the way. 

Chris Riebschlager: It looks cool but in practice, it just leads to tears. 

On the company website, you’ve got a pretty robust resource section and blog posts and so on, and you've written a couple of pieces around generative art. What does that mean to you and how is it applied? 

Chris Riebschlager: So art is something that's really important to me, and it's one of the things that I'm just not very good at. Like I cannot draw to save my life, but I can program. I can write really decent software and I've found a way to create art that's interesting to me by using the tools, the software, and the frameworks that people smarter than me have created. 

So generative art, I think is a really interesting way to explore ways of art-making that are a collaborative practice between you and a computer. It's like, I'm setting up some rules about what I want to happen. I set the computer to go follow those rules and make something interesting and present it back to me, and maybe I like it, maybe I don't, but that back and forth between the computer and me, is just a really interesting art making practice to me. 

In the context of installations in corporate buildings, public buildings, airports, and so on, how is it applied and what do you need to think about? 

Chris Riebschlager: So I think there's a lot of things to consider. In past projects, I think a lot of the creative direction comes from existing artwork in this space. So we did some work with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and they had already been working with an artist in the Netherlands, I believe and his work was just in the primary colors, blue, yellow, and red. So we knew we had a palette to work with. There is a lot of previous work already installed in the space so what we added to that space was just an interactive version of what was already happening there. So it was a familiar as well which was already existing there. But I think that's the primary consideration. What makes sense in that space? What other artwork does this need to live with? 

But also I think an interesting way to approach this is what other inputs do we have available? If it's a lobby, do we have the motion of people? Do we have traffic data or weather data, or any interesting data from the country that we're working with that could be incorporated into this piece, that could present some meaningful message through the work? I think there are so many fun opportunities there to incorporate live data in and present that back to people in a beautiful and compelling way. 

When I have conversations about data visualizations or generative art, I ask the question and I'll ask it again, does it matter, when you talk about data inputs, does it matter that the viewers understand that this is why this is changing because the weather has changed or the winds stronger or whatever it may be, or does it just need to be visually pleasing?

Chris Riebschlager: It really depends on the client's expectation there. To me, you take work like a Refik Anadol, right? His work is ostensibly data-driven. If I look at one of his pieces, I have no idea what data is being presented to me and what it actually means. It looks amazing, but I have no idea. I mean he could just tell me that it’s data-driven and I just have to take his word on it. 

Yeah. I know the Charlotte airport, for instance, he uses things like baggage handling data and things like that on this giant display. But I think like a fraction, 1% of the people walking by would know that's why it's doing what it's doing.

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, and that could be a pre-rendered video and no one would ever know. But I think there are ways of incorporating those ideas into meaningful representations of that data. So the ways we've done that in the past are we did a lobby screen in Atlanta that was right next to a transit stop for a train and the idea was we have the actual transit information for that stop, like the next train arriving in five minutes on the screen. So that's one layer of this piece, but the bigger portion of the screen is given up to this flock of birds, and they're very calm and very chill when there's not a train arriving. And then as the train is approaching, they get more active. There's more happening on screen. 

So we have the literal data that you need and also some supplemental, beautiful, interesting thing to show that is connected to that day. To me personally, drawing a clear connection between what's happening on screen and the data we're trying to represent is very important to me.

Yeah. It reminds me of an ad on just like a digital poster in a subway platform, I think in Stockholm or something like that, and they did this very clever thing where you would have a model in the poster and as a subway train approached, her hair started to fall back and then, when the subway was coming into the station, she was in a wind tunnel and then she calmed down. I thought that's very clever. That's driven by data and triggers and everything else, and it's not quite generative art, but it's the same kind of thing. There's a relationship between what's happening and what you see.

Chris Riebschlager: Exactly, yeah. 

For the company, what are some projects that people who are listening to this would be familiar with?

Chris Riebschlager: Oh, my gosh, locally here in Kansas City, we have a project that when people ask me where I work, I always say do you know the big books in the library garage downtown? We made those. So it's a parking structure next to the library downtown in Kansas City that we did and it's basically to make it look like a huge bookshelf and it's a really cool landmark here in Kansas City. 

Is that an analog thing or is there a digital thing? 

Chris Riebschlager: That is just an analog. 

Okay, and in terms of digital ones, I think he did something with a big torch or something in a stadium? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yes, we did. We just installed what is the largest 3D printed structure in North America, certainly, and I think the world for the Las Vegas Raiders. So we created the Al Davis Memorial torch, which they had in Oakland at a small, maybe 15-foot tall torch, and we wanted to create just a huge monument in the new stadium to that. So through our L Sam large-scale additive manufacturing machine, which is essentially just a carwash size 3D printer, we created a huge torch sculpture. I think it's 90 feet tall and has eliminated LED structure in the center to represent the flame, and it's just a remarkable, amazing piece that made the news. 

I think it's transparent LED or LED mesh? 

Chris Riebschlager: I don't think it's a LED mesh. It's LED in that metal structure that they basically made a flame form that goes in the torch and then eliminated that from within. 

Have you done any big corporate lobbies and things like that with giant video walls where you're developing content for them?

Chris Riebschlager: Oh, absolutely. A couple that comes to mind and we just did one last year for State Farm in their headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. Overall, I think it's a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot space that is like a monument, a museum to  State Farm history, which has a century-long history, a lot of artifacts, a lot of video and audio content. It's a really amazing space. We recreated the office of the original founders, and then created an interactive where you can explore around the space and find out like, this is the pen that was actually used to sign the initial corporate contract or whatever, and as part of that, there's also an immersive theater in the center that lets you play different videos that kind of unpack the history of State Farm.

Yeah, and that's a company like Geico, that's trying quite hard with its marketing and everything to not be just boring insurance company? 

Chris Riebschlager: Yeah. Insurance can be a pretty dry topic, but we tried to make it as interesting as possible. 

My son is in insurance. (Laughter) We can talk a lot about it but I don't want to get him in trouble. 

Chris Riebschlager: It’s a very fascinating and very important industry.

It's an amazing industry. 

With the company right now, what are some projects that over the next 6 to 12 months we should be looking for that you’re allowed to talk about? 

Chris Riebschlager: We have a lot of activities going on at the new SoFi stadium in Los Angeles, which is going to be the new home of the Rams and Chargers. So if you haven't seen images of that stadium, it is absolutely bananas. It's got what is the biggest Oculus LED screen? 

Yeah, the giant Halo, the Samsung screen. 

Chris Riebschlager: This is absolutely massive, and it's an amazing space to have the opportunity to install some work in. So we have some work for different brand activations in that space. So one of the big ones is the YouTube theater, which is a performance venue, as far as the stadium that we did a large LED wall on the outside of that theater and also a YouTube icon, a structural YouTube icon in the Plaza in front of the theater that we have the LED screen in that is going to function as a magic mirror. It’s just fun, interesting, “look at me, I'm up there” and look at all kinds of crazy things, but also show off a YouTube content creator stuff and highlighting the content creators. 

I'm sure the people in LA are excited about the concept of actually going to a football game that has the full capacity as we get healthy. 

Chris Riebschlager: For sure. 

All right, Chris, thank you so much for taking some time with me today. I really appreciate it. 

Chris Riebschlager: Absolutely. Thank you.

 

 

Amanda Benzecry, Take Down The Ads

Amanda Benzecry, Take Down The Ads

July 28, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

As much as people in the digital signage industry are understandably excited and enthused by the appearance of more and more digital displays in public spaces, it's important to remember that not everyone is in love with screens.

There's always some people who don't like ad posters and billboards just because. But there are others who have tangible, well-researched and argued positions about why they're not big fans.

I recently came across a small, grassroots campaign in the UK that has a running slogan of Take Down The Ads! It grew out of the appearance of LED ad spectaculars that went up a few years ago in a lovely, leafy part of southwest London.

Their appearance offended Amanda Benzecry, who has been leading an effort online and through the local government process to fight their existence, primarily on environmental grounds.

It could seem, from a distance, like just an effort to rid the neighborhood of something the locals don't like or understand. But Benzecry actually comes out of the advertising industry and understands how things work.

We had a great chat about why she and other similar efforts around the UK are fighting the steady influx of digital out of home displays, and the reasons behind their opposition.

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TRANSCRIPT

Amanda, thank you for joining me. First of all, can you tell me what the Take Down the Ads movement is all about? 

Amanda Benzecry: It goes back about six years and it all started with a very local issue, completely relevant to the immediate area in which I live and the appearance of three very large LED screens, I'm talking huge, now marketed as the Barnes Landmark and the Barnes Tower, which appeared without really much, or if any local consultation, and this is in Southwest London. It's on a road that is called the South Circular, but at the point in which these screens appeared, it's only a two-lane thing. So we're not talking about a big motorway and it is a gateway between a number of sort of conurbation, Barnes, Roehampton, Putney. It gets a reasonable amount of traffic going through it, but it is not a motorway. 

It was previously characterized by being very dark and very leafy and sits opposite a designated nature reserve, which sounds weird for London, but we get these little pockets. The complication was that in this case, the screens went up on the land that belongs to a rugby club, so it's not like other LED screens around the borough, which sit on council land. This was actually an application by a rugby club. To have permission, to have screens erected, to generate funds, to ensure the future of the rugby club. And that was the justification for allowing the screens to be erected in a location that if you look at all the planning guidelines, it should not have been allowed, but they found a way around it. 

Now, I don't believe that anybody should, and I'm not against the sport and not against rugby, but I don't think that given the location of those screens and the implications because it impacted on a wildlife corridor and bat movements and things like that. I have always campaigned on an environmental platform. So Take Down the Ads began with a specific campaign against those screens, and unfortunately, it became a sort of Twitter storm and I was accused of wanting to put a rugby club out of business, and it was never that. It has always been an environmental thing. And really the change to the landscape is absolutely unacceptable. 

Also, this rugby club happened to be located in metropolitan open land. Metropolitan open land is afforded certain protections. So, the whole thing was really quite suspicious as well, and I think the key thing is, and this is what started the whole issue, is that the location was quite vulnerable in that there weren't many neighbors around because it was opposite a nature reserve because there is meant to be a degree of local consultation when certain screens go up, but then in this instance, they didn't need to be because nobody was effectively living immediately opposite. But my point was actually the result implicates the entire environment and all of us, even if we live a quarter of a mile away, I have to drive past them and I would really have liked the choice to comment as to whether I wanted to have these things up or not. 

That's a very long explanation but Take Down the Ads started six years ago, but it started with a particular campaign. Then it grew, although it's much more challenging for me in this part of London, into looking at the incursion of these screens across the borough. I would say probably that we don't have too many, but I don't think we should have any because they are now on a scale that is completely unacceptable. They are marketed, the main contractor here is JC Decaux. They are marketed as towers. They are the size of buildings and we now have a number on high streets which are just huge and completely unnecessary and environmentally damaging and adding more clutter to what are extremely busy streetscapes, because remember, we don't have wide avenues in London. It's all very narrow, everybody's on top of everything. We have old buildings, we have new buildings and these things sit on the street and they are mind-blowing and you don't have a choice. You don't have a choice to switch them off or not to look at them. They just glare down at you. 

This is what the digital out-of-home companies like about it. The fact that you can't miss them, but I think it's important to stress, as people are listening to this, you actually come out of advertising. You're not somebody who just hates ads. You understand the business. 

Amanda Benzecry: Absolutely. It is not about advertising. It is about the medium and what that medium does to a local environment, the pollution, and also mental pollution because when you're driving in London, bloody hell, there's so much stuff going on and then suddenly there are these big screens. So there's environmental pollution, mental pollution burning away, I know they're LED and, but I think there is a place for these screens, like in airports, on airport concourses or train stations where you've got a captive audience and you might want to be entertained. Where they start to come in and add clutter and they're huge and spoil the environment and just add to the mental pollution, I think that is unacceptable, and particularly when, there are many ways to advertise to people now and all those ways that you can reach people, then people still have the choice to not view them or whatever. They can false forward, or they can delete or whatever. 

With these, you just don't have the choice, except for, I try not to look at them when I'm going past, and I think that is an arrogant selfish thing to do, especially nowadays when we are so worried about our environment and mental health and things like that. 

This caught my attention based on Twitter, and I think you included my Twitter handle in a tweet or something like that, and I'd look at it and went what's that? You have a petition that you're looking to get circulated and t's pretty modest compared to a lot of petitions.

Amanda Benzecry: It is quite interesting, and I am quite frankly slightly disappointed that it doesn't seem to have caught the attention. 

Well, now with Sixteen:Nine covering it… (Laughter) 

Amanda Benzecry: Well, yeah, exactly.

But I think, to be honest, we're getting a bit of petition fatigue. Interestingly, for the CARPA campaign, when I initiated the campaign against the rugby club. That one has currently got 650 responses, but it's a very old petition now.

Again, it needs to be in the thousands for anybody to really take any notice. But I think disappointingly, I'm not seeing anybody in a position like a green party actually taking it up as a cause and promoting it, and I'm not sure why, other than that, maybe there are just big bucks involved. These screens do make money for councils and there would be a loss of revenue if they weren't allowed to rent the land to the JC Decaux and Clear Channel and stuff like that. So clearly there is a commercial argument that is working in the favor of the LED screens. I think what is also quite interesting is there have been instances where the local council has refused planning and then it goes to the government level, to the planning inspectorate and then they override it. They override the local council. So my personal view is that it needs somebody, a politician, to take it out, but nobody seems to be willing to, and that is disappointing, particularly now when the environment is so important.

SoI can't explain that other than there's money somewhere involved, and that's that stopping it, I would just say interestingly we, Take Down the Ads that did get involved in an application for the screen over a major arterial road, and that was an application by Transport for London who is responsible obviously for the underground system, and their stance on these screens actually is that they believe that a driver can cope with lots of different messages. So the safety aspect is a very difficult platform to campaign on because you don't get their support, but in this case, the road runs along from outer London into central London, there are a number of roundabouts and overpasses, and then the road goes under the roundabout and there are bridges if you like, and they have steadily through the area, erected these LED screens claiming, excuse me, that they're great for disseminating traffic information. 

I have never seen traffic information on them, and it came to a point where we've got an intersection locally, which is really the intersection between Putney common, Wimbledon, common, and thank goodness, we were actually able to campaign on an environmental platform and the local council rejected it and they didn't appeal. So that was a small victory. But it was pretty obvious, but there are other areas where it's particularly a conversion from paper to LED. That seems to be just fine. If there's been a poster there already has a poster then you can change it to LED pretty easily actually. 

So in the context of what you do, if you get word of a plan out there, is it just yourself, or do you have a circle of people? 

Amanda Benzecry: So to be honest, for the most part, it's probably three of us, but don't tell JC Decaux that, but also we have joined a network of ad blocks across the country.

Yeah, people across the country are doing things locally. 

Amanda Benzecry: Yeah, but the reality is if somebody is applying for the installation of a LED screen in my area, the local authority isn’t going to take any notice of that because they're in Bristol. But certainly, there's also a number of societies in the area and we keep an eye on planning applications and make sure that we don't miss something. So if something comes up, we're able to challenge it, but the reality is you have to challenge it in a sensible way, grounded in those planning policies.

But I think one thing I have been doing or certainly Take Down the Ads has been doing, which has had some effect because I believe that it was acknowledged that it was having an effect from the feedback I got, again, in relation to the rugby club is that we've been writing to advertisers. And some of them ignore it. Some of them do withdraw their ads and that has an implication on revenue. On environmental grounds, and not saying come down and see this for yourself, but just giving the picture and saying the choice is yours, but we just wanted to advise you that the screens are controversial on an environmental platform, and that has some currency with some advertisers. 

Interesting, not the automotive guys. But some of them have said, thank you for your attention to that. We won't use them again, or a couple of them are taking them down immediately, which is nice, so that is an interesting strategy, and I've said to the other guys to just writing to the advertisers because I think the only way you can possibly affect change, if what you're saying is that the industry doesn't really understand how consumers are feeling, then if you write to advertisers and the advertisers keep coming back and saying, hold on, what's going on here? This is controversial, then that's another way round it really, I think. 

I gather much of what you're saying is, yes, there are ostensible controls in place at the council level and above that, but unless people such as yourself raise the issue, that the controls are just rubber stamp exercises and things go through.

Amanda Benzecry: I think that is the case because one of the primary directives is, you have to sensitively handle advertising and it should not add clutter into an already busy streetscape. Well, it does. Yeah, so I think to answer your question, yes, definitely. I think it will slip through unless there is a concern and an effort to remind the planning department of their obligations and of the planning policies, which is remarkable really.

You would have thought that they would automatically protect an environment, but I'm seeing countless decisions, not only with LED screens, but buildings and stuff, where they seem to put an interpretation on planning guidelines, which I just can't believe that they've done, and yeah so I think it is really important for locals to make an effort when there is the news and we keep an eye out and look at the planning applications when there is an application for a screen that as many people as possible know about it and can comment. 

You would think that because people from around the world come to London because they want to see the old buildings and heaths and everything else, the leafy areas that there would be a business concern from the tourist end that if you start to dot the landscape, particularly the areas that are supposed to be visually attractive, like there are lots of parts of London that, up by the airport and so on that it's not going to be this attractive anyways, but people won't come if it just looks like suburban Cincinnati or something.

Amanda Benzecry: I think to be fair, we haven't arrived at a situation yet like when you're traveling on the motorways in America and stuff like that, it's not as bad as that yet.

So I think one has to think ahead as to the more these things go through. That's the beginning of a slippery slope and we absolutely don't want that to happen. I suppose it's difficult, isn't it? When you don't know what it was like before they were there, you can't really judge how bad it is.

For example, the three screens that started off my campaign. I think people are used to them now and that's the danger as well that our tolerance becomes greater and all, and we just become complacent and then you turn around and suddenly there's another, do you see what I mean? But I don't believe it's bad enough, certainly in those tourist areas for the moment that it would have a detrimental impact on our tourist industry. I think there are many other things that have a detrimental impact on our tourist industry, but I can't honestly say that those screens would be one at the moment. 

Somebody did say, there was a petition comment that said, “We don't want to be like America” and some American people got very offended by that. And you do see them all along the motorways and, I think what is quite interesting is that some of the companies are being quite creative with the way they present these screens. So we're seeing some sort of architectural input that sometimes gives them validity. Again, with the rugby club, they decided to make the surroundings look like rugby player posts, which actually made it even worse because you've got these total posts, and just give it permission that somehow they're making some artistic contribution to the environment, which I don't think they are.

Do you get the flip side of the argument from the councils that this adds to our revenue base by doing this. If we don't do this, do we have to raise taxes?

Amanda Benzecry: Well, yeah. We actually live in a borough where that's a whole other argument, we pay too little council tax as a borough, and I don't know, to be honest, I haven’t done the calculations to know how much our council tax would increase if they didn't have any LED screens in the borough. I couldn't begin to comment, and so who knows, it could be a lot, could be a little, but I do think that this particular borough, being a conservative borough, always tries to keep the costs low unnecessarily, and that's an awful thing to say because I'm sure, there are a lot of people on the breadline, but the whole structure of council tax is a whole other podcast.

But on the face of it, yes, I understand how there is an argument that says, we need the revenue and just as the rugby club, their argument was if we don't have the revenue from the screens, we'll go out of business and that's really hard, and so therefore you're putting an environmental argument against a commercial argument and which one should win? My view would always be to find other ways to generate revenue so it's not so damaging to the environment that it has to be the environmental platform. There are always other ways if you weren't able to do it, you'd find another way. 

Is light pollution an issue at all?

Amanda Benzecry: It's interesting because I've read somewhere that one of the companies is talking about taking measures to mitigate light pollution, maybe turning them off at night. The rugby club screens go off at night blessedly, which is great. A lot of others burned through and I think so that it would be very helpful if there was a time limit set on these things, it would definitely be because it would calm things down in the evening. 

I would argue that but again, you see there's no proven evidence, but I would argue that the wildlife corridor that was opposite the nature reserve, the bat route because in this part of London, we have these green spaces that interconnect and therefore there is evidence that wildlife moves between them and yes, in the winter, there is no winter because the lights are still burning till 11 o'clock. So whether that confuses wildlife, I'm sure it does well, and apparently, the insect population is declining, et cetera. But to be honest, there's nothing, there's no comprehensive and absolutely categorical study that has said yes, over the last 10 years, we've seen the insect population decline by 20% because of LED screens.

Do you see what I mean? So it's really difficult. 

So the overarching thrust of all of this in many ways is not purely take down the ads don't want any more advertising, anything else. It's an in-your-face statement, but it's really about to let slow down and really look at what's going on and enforce the controls that are supposedly in place?

Amanda Benzecry: I think so, but also I do think that because of the size of them and things, I think that there are places for them, and I don't believe that the place is in London anyway, because of the size of it, and the small roads. I just don't think they should be in our city.

I think they can be in our airports and in our railways, absolutely. But not in the street with all the traffic and the mayhem and the pedestrians and the cyclists, and I just think they are effectively unnecessary distractions. 

Have you ever spoken to a JC Decaux, Global Outdoor, or any of those?

Amanda Benzecry: JC Decaux blocked me actually because obviously, the “I damage the environment, take me down” graphic which was produced here. I absolutely blitzed them with that and I replied to everything and all their clients and this one and that one, and in the end, I'm afraid I was blocked, and I think it’s still not enough, and I think advertisers actually need to take some responsibility as well, but you can understand how everybody's all excited about them and they look fab and the brands up there and all that. I get it. 

But I think what you said earlier is that people need to just slow down and think about what it's doing to our streets and people and the distractions and just the business of it all, and I think just to be a little bit more judicious with their choice of locations, I think is what one would hope for in the way moving forward.

So if people listening to this are in Southwest London in particular or elsewhere, and want to be supportive of what you're doing and maybe lend a hand, how would they do that?

Amanda Benzecry: I think they can certainly tweet to me, @takedowntheads. The Facebook page is actually called CARPA. Unfortunately, I wanted to drop that and change it, Take Down the Ads, but Facebook won't let me do that. So that is still called CARPA and I think there's an email address on there. So yeah, I think locally the entity is pretty well known, but also look at the petitions as well, and support the generic petition, which would be great, which is to get the government to consider the proliferation of these ads and, and more public consultation. 

All right. It was a pleasure to have some time chatting with you.

Amanda Benzecry: Thank you. I think I chatted at you, didn't I? 

That's what interviews are for!

Amanda Benzecry: Oh, that's okay then. Anyway, thank you for inviting me on, and I really appreciate it. It's been very nice. Thank you very much.

 

Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

Alberto Scirocco, Leftchannel

July 21, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

While the people who wake up in the morning thinking about digital signage fully understand and appreciate the value and importance of great, effective creative, there are lots of end-users who don't quite get that part of it - and still think of display projects as AV technology exercises.

It's particularly true with large format display jobs - which are being green-lighted all the time based on lots of discussion around pixel pitch, scale and cost, but almost none about what will be on the display.

Alberto Scirocco is the Founder and Creative Director of the motion and design studio leftchannel, which is technically based in Ohio, but is largely virtual. His office, for example, is on the Italian Riviera. Poor fella.

I had a chat with Scirocco about the Wild West nature of the business, when it comes to design. We had a great conversation about  what makes displays interesting and engaging, and how the good ones have a function.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

Alberto, thanks for joining me. You’re off in Italy!

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, that's right. I am in Italy right now. 

Can you tell me the background about leftchannel? 

Alberto Scirocco: We started leftchannel about 20 years ago and at the beginning, we just started as a motion design studio, so a more traditional format at the time. Did a lot of advertising, music videos, film titles, and a lot of our gigs were really artistic execution, and then, in the course of time, through the years, we've become more and more involved in actually crafting some of the messages that we're animating and putting in motion, and it's been an interesting road, and of course, markets change in a lot of different ways and technologies have changed in lots of different ways, and one of the things that have been interesting for us has been adapting to all the new stuff and we have an experimental nature.

I come from industrial design and fine art, and so I'm always gonna have this foot in both camps of being engineer minded, but also have a real passion for really expressive artistic work, and in the last several years, we have been being more and more focused on really trying to apply strategy to design and making sure that we were doing stuff that's useful and not just pretty.

This would be more motion, graphic design than video editing? 

Alberto Scirocco: Correct. We end up having to do a lot of production, but generally, our focus is design, and so when we do production it is because it's part of a piece that we'll have design and animation within it. 

I'm guessing if you've been at this for 20 years, that the demand to do things on screens has grown quite a bit because 20 years ago, digital signage was one of those things where you had to explain what it was. Now, there are so many screens out there and there are so many large format displays where it moves away from just being messaging to experientially engaging stuff where you really have to think about the creative. 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, exactly. I think that's part of what motivated this conversation is exactly the fact that, as you mentioned, signage used to have a very practical, very pragmatic mindset, you think about billboards and advertising and there's a very clear function of what those things are for. For a while now, screens have appeared in a lot of different places and it's bringing a lot more functions to the table, a lot more opportunities of what screens can do and some of them are really quite powerful, and so yeah, the demand has grown quite a bit. The nature of the request has grown quite a bit, because like you said, I think when I first started there were jumbotrons, and you were doing pixel animation, stuff that looked like 80s video games on this gigantic screen. So they were very delineated into what they were trying to do. 

But now it's wide open. You have art installations, you have places that completely define placemaking, completely defined by the screen and the experiences inside. So, it's a pretty exciting time. I have to say for this type of work. 

You're doing in Italy. leftchannel, I believe is based in Ohio, but you're virtual and you work around the globe, right? 

Alberto Scirocco: That's exactly right. We have people from all over and also when we were very much in Ohio, we still didn't work in our geographical area. So we’ve always done national, international work just because the nature of the work is unique, and so it's attracting people from all over. 

In the context of digital signage and large format display, what are some of your projects that people listening might be familiar with?

Alberto Scirocco: I think there were a couple of Times Square videos that are likely to have seen something we did for Disney and Exotica which were very visible and that stuff folds down that category of the more traditional type of work that you would think, but it's very noticeable, it's really big and flashy and you're really competing for eyes, but it was really fun, project because of the fact of combining animation, obviously they're very illustrative look and then very graphic components and having to support Exotica and the product and advertising. So we love things like that, briefs like this, where there's lots of complicated stuff that need to come together. That's stuff that we get really excited about. 

Have you done much in the way of permanent installations, like the creative for permanent ones? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, there's actually a couple of large corporate pieces we have done for companies, which is also a very exciting and interesting field for us.

Once again, we tend to get involved in a lot of different things, but there was a common thread and the common thread is trying to build something that does something. I know that it doesn't seem like much, but it was actually the real thought behind it. We really love work that has a functional quality and sometimes even artistic pieces have a very functional quality, right? I refer frequently to the Samsung screen in Korea, which I'm sure you're familiar with, and it's interesting because some of that work obviously feels very artistic, but it has a great effect on that area. It defines that place completely. 

So there is a function to it and the function is not always directly advertising, which is actually one of the issues that I have sometimes in industry is how to directly focus on advertising. A lot of this signage is missing some of your opportunity, but yeah, we've done some large installations on corporate buildings. And like I said, that's also a very interesting field sometimes because you're trying to create something that is doing something for the audience, and so it's entertaining and interesting, it defines space, it does something for people passing by. It's still telling a story of a company and there's lots of different ways that you can do that. Sometimes it's a very explicit story, but sometimes it's just a complete composition of impressions as well. 

If I look on your portfolio page on the experiential side, I see did the Sheraton Dallas and Verizon stores and things like that. 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah. So it's a very broad spectrum.

The Sheraton was a very fun project. We're still engaged in the project, we visit to refresh their content from time to time. Very interesting placement of these two structures that are wrapped with screens because being on the doorway, they have this almost like arch triumph feel, right, where they are greeting people on the way in but they're also are still addressing all the people on the inside, from the bar and restaurant inside the lobby. And so they have a dual function, so it's really interesting to create work that has that impactful effect on people that come in. But it also has an ambient peaceful environment feeling for the people that are on the inside. So yeah, that's been an extremely fun project.

We're actually rolling out a couple of new modules for that in the next couple of months. 

Your managing director, Candy, I was trading emails with her and she was saying how experiential is in something of a Wild West phase. What do you guys mean by that? 

Alberto Scirocco: If you think about advertising, in its infancy, there was a lot of defining what advertising could do and then if you fast forward all the way to today, there is a science to advertising. There's a lot of things that are just so clearly defined to the point that, unfortunately, there are also expectations on both ends, right? You just know how certain things are gonna look and sound, but it's because there's clarity of how people react to things and what works.

And in truth, there's always creative space in every place. But when something gets very refined and it's not in infancy anymore after a while, there's just a little bit less space. But digital signage is really in a sense in its infancy, there are still firsts that are coming out. And people are going at it in a lot of different ways. Sometimes they're going at it a little backward. So there's a lot of people that, for example, will look at a space and they'll say, we need a screen there, and that seems to make sense, because they're looking at in terms of hardware, “let's put an opportunity there” but obviously, the screen is just an opportunity. It's just an empty potential, and when people walk by a screen, they don't see a screen, they just see what's on the screen, and so it's odd how a lot of these installations are basically being done that way, without a real strategy of the necessary hat are we trying to do with this space, what do we want people to see? And then sourcing the technology that supports it. 

I know there are really a lot of situations where people are saying we're going to put something there and somebody will figure out what goes on. 

Yeah I've heard stories. I remember a friend of mine, who's a creative director for a digital shop in the Toronto area saying he got a call one day from an AV integrator who had put up a big LCD video wall somewhere, and the guy was asking, “Do you have any content we could put on this thing because we're lighting it up today?” Michael, my friend, was on the other end of the phone, just looking at the phone call going, “What the hell?” 

Alberto Scirocco: That actually happens a lot. You mentioned that and I know it seems crazy and I think to most people listening to this, it might seem like a very odd thing, but it actually happens so much that people contact us and ask us for blank content to have for those situations, just generic stuff to fill screens. So it's a little bit crazy, right? If you imagine that movie theaters did that, they just put up screens and, speaking of that, I tend to make this kind of comment, when's the last time you told somebody to go down to the theater to have a great new projector? 

People are very unaware of the technology and technology is transparent to the user. At the same time, I get it because I understand how people, especially coming for real estate, feel like if we had something here, they didn't want to lose that potential, and because, as I said, this is a little bit far west, because it is a little bit lost. Right now you can go to a number of people to have a conversation about creating an experience. You could be talking to an architect and that kind of makes sense. You could be talking to a company like us, a video company, you can be talking to a hardware manufacturer, you can talk to an integrator. So there are lots of different people you could be interfacing with and obviously, they're all coming from a different position.

You go to Best Buy to buy a TV, you walk out with a TV. There is an understanding that there's content out there you're going to see. Similarly, with subscriptions, the content is a given, and so with the same mindset, you go out, you buy a gigantic screen, maybe it's just an ultra-widescreen, and all of a sudden there's really nothing for that thing out there. That has to be made by somebody, and for us, sometimes that's amusing and entertaining because somebody hands you a very weird form, and then we suddenly have to figure out, who's here, what is the story, what kind of mindset there and how long ago as well, like we have to visit in reverse trying to figure out what we can make with space, and t, that can be fun for designers, but as you can imagine there was an opportunity in kind of planning things if possible.

You mentioned being somebody who has an affinity for things that have a function to them, do big experiential/engaging displays need to have a point, or is it enough to be wow factor/eye candy? 

Alberto Scirocco: I don't know that I can make such a blank statement. In my opinion, there's always a point, that is the point. I’m in Italy right now, which is where I'm from. There's a lot of art, a lot of public art. There's also a lot of decorated places. So most buildings are decorated, most gates are decorated. You just grew up with this idea that wherever you lay your eyes, there's going to be something pretty. Somebody is taking the time to decorate it, and but there's also a lot of functional spaces out there, especially modern spaces that tend to be very functional.

There's just a certain sense of what a strip mall looks like, and it's a very undecorated place, right? There are a lot of very pragmatic places. Certainly, something that is just pretty and the spectacle can really do quite a bit for space and that's a function, making something beautiful is definitely a function. So when I say function, I don't mean that automatically it is creating schedules or whatever, but the point that I make is that, if you are trying to make a place interesting, then maybe advertising is not the right thing to do with that space.

And for example, there's actually an airport that I won't mention. They went through a

very large renovation and part of the renovation, they put these two gigantic screens and all to do is show advertising and it's almost like an intentionally designed strategy to make people ignore the two biggest screens on earth because when you think about it, I don't know, there's a bigger softball than people in the airport. People are just bored and pretty much everything you're doing, the airport is waiting. So you're waiting in line, then you go wait in another line, and if you have nobody in line, you are just simply waiting, and so it'd be pretty easy to entertain those people, but that's the one thing that we have gotten really good at doing is not looking at advertising, and a hundred percent of retiring programming is really not a good use of that space, and so then it's a whole lot of people that are wasting a lot of opportunities. 

Is there a monetization model for this sort of thing where it is experiential as visually interesting, but you're doing something that's going to pay for this what is still pretty expensive tech? 

Alberto Scirocco: I think there are lots of them, I think there are lots of different ones. If you have a mall and more people are coming, that has value, and so there’s a monetization for the children area in the mall clearly iins the fact that you're creating traffic, you're attracting people who can spend time. So there's really a lot of monetization strategies and for a lot of different situations, and that's what I mean by function. Those are those situations where you can have that conversation and say, what is it that we want in this case?

I think sometimes people fall into that trap of directly monetizing something and then say we're just going to sell space. But that's not automatically something that is going to work. So sometimes you have to be a little bit more strategic about really what do we want out of this space and how is that going to be functional for us? And sometimes, traffic, the quality of the experience of the viewer. You think about theme parks and theme parks are money machines in a lot of different forms, right? People pay at the door to get in and everything in there is expensive, and then they're just gigantic shops but people are enjoying themselves. And so that's the point. You're trading something for something you've giving the audience, and you're charging them for it, and I think everybody's very comfortable with that. We all don't mind paying for it. That's a good win-win, consumers are comfortable with it.  So I think if you make a space worth people's times and people having a good experience then they're okay rewarding you, by spending their money on your experience as the product you offer.

So I think that's really what it comes down to. You're trying to make sure that it's a dialogue between two groups, and so you want to give the audience something that fits with their story. So where they are, where they're trying to do in this specific place, that makes sense for where they are and people are rewarding you.

So when you engage with a new customer or maybe re-engage with an existing one, what's the process? How do you sit down and set the intention for the project? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, that's a varied answer because the customers are coming from lots of different places, and so sometimes you have people that come to the table with nothing. They just know that for example, I have a property and they want to embellish it or they want to create something that will give a sense of value or sometime they'll have a property and the city is asking them to invest in art and that's it, and they have to invest some percentage. So there are lots of different agendas, but you also have marketing teams and insights who have a very clear sense of what they're trying to do.

And it varies quite a bit, so it depends on really what people bring to the table. So when people have no real idea what they're trying to do, we try to take a really broad approach and explore the opprtunity, understand the space, understand the audience of the center, who could be there, who is there, what will be good for them? It's essentially a design thinking exercise, as you can imagine, it's just really clearly understanding who we are on our end and meaning us as the client, and so understanding, what they offer, what they can do that is positive and obviously, what they have to gain and then the same, do the same thing for the audience and then try to draw vectors, trying to understand really what's a place where both groups can overlap in a natural way and it translates into the design.

When you’re producing content for a client, how does the conversation go when you're talking about the sustainability, the shelf life of the piece? Because I've seen lots of work that looks fantastic, but it's there too long. It becomes stale dated. 

Alberto Scirocco: That's right, and that also changes greatly because it changes, based on how frequently people go to a place.

Going back to the example of theme parks, sometimes some of those experiences stay for a really long time, because you're not just going there every day, and so you might experience it twice in the arch of seven-eight years, and so it doesn't quite get old. But you put something in front of a mass transit terminal, like a subway and the same people now are going over twice a day or two, four times a day, every day, and now it's quite different, and again that's what really comes down to what we're talking about. So really understand the situation, understand the use. And then of course there's always the component of finance. What makes sense financially? 

So if the frequency is important, then you have to be creative about creating content that has an ability to change frequently, and as you said, that really is an application of the space or the use. They're all different. But that's something that definitely figures. We definitely try to be really focused on that as well. How frequently refreshes, how refreshes are going to come together and, is there going to be a need for drastically changing the content, because maybe it is like an array of different pieces, or is there a story that gets to be evolved? We have some corporate clients where we're busily redoing or modifying the piece every couple of years and which is a fairly long period of time, but it is an evolution of the same story. So it still satisfies the original brief has just new content, new footage, new design/ 

One of the workarounds for the cost of content and the challenge of keeping it refreshed is doing visualized data. There are several pieces out there in the world at airports, in public buildings, and so on. I'm a fan of the set-and-forget types that it's very efficient and everything else, but I'm starting to wonder more and more about its effectiveness because I just wrote about one at the Sydney Australia Convention Center yesterday, it's a 96-meter long display, and it'almost looks like a blue screen of death, but it's not obviously. Code running across the screen. It looks visually interesting. But I wonder sometimes when people are looking at this, do they know what they're looking at? And does it matter whether they know what they're looking at?

Alberto Scirocco: But, it's funny to some degree it doesn’t. Some of those pieces, they're really much more akin to art and video generative, something that is generative work that is generated by data. In the end, it's really more for our satisfaction to know that it’s generated by data, but it's a very plastic piece. It looks like what it looks like and if it's beautiful and it's interesting to see, then it's something you can watch for a period of time, it's like watching a waterfall. You can pretty much watch it endlessly because it's just naturally interesting, and so if you're able to recreate that natural sense of something that has just enough evolution, enough variety, but some qualities that are attractive, so that piece can stand forever, and then when it was generated by data or not, but it's irrelevant, and it's very transparent tp most users, it becomes really cool for designers. 

People get really excited sometimes, but it does but is they are really visible. I don't know if you're an audiophile, but I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to this stuff and I love audio stuff, and sometimes you're looking at an amplifier and that its distortion is so low and but in the end, you're not really hearing that. You just know it, so it becomes an intellectual appreciation that your body really just ignores.

Is it a little bit like buying a car in the old days, everybody would open the hood and look at the engine and all that, and now I suspect 99% of people never even flip the lid open ‘cause they don't know what they're looking at and who cares? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, exactly. It just knowledge. It's nice to know about the product. It's nice to know what's happening behind it, but it doesn't necessarily affect your experience of it, but it's interesting. 

It's interesting work and it's cool that work is out there. It's cool that people have found a way to in some way, intellectually you can compare the fact that something moves very naturally, but is still generated by data and so you can say the way that the flow of data kinda ends up being similar to a form of chaos controlled chaos, which is similar to nature. This stuff is all really interesting in theory. In the end, if the piece is beautiful, then it's beautiful to look at, and then at the same time, as you said, it could also be puzzling but then, a lot of abstract work is, so I think there's a lot of good in that.

And as it's right application, like you mentioned, the airport is a good place for a piece of art, especially a piece of art that is constantly evolving. You have the perfect audience, in that case, to sit down and contemplate something that is just transforming, I think that's really a good application.

You mentioned the Samsung board in Seoul’s Gangnam area. There's been a lot of stuff on LinkedIn and I guess more broadly on social media about these anamorphic displays. Are you seeing a lot of demand for that from inbound customers? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, we are. There's definitely conversations that come about it and all these things, it's always funny.

We were very experimental at the beginning of our careers as a motion design studio. I was very interested in really doing things just to see what you could do with the media, and it wasn't like a desire to be different. It was just like curiosity about what the software and the medium could do, because it was new.

So we did a video of photo parallax, which is a very trite technique today, but, in 2004, it wasn't, it was very new and we put it out there and it was a video for a DJ and it was the first video of MTV put on their online presence, and for a couple of years, it was a daily email of somebody asking us to repeat that and then years later, we did something else which was visit combining cell animation with 2d work, with digital work and trying to make, so another thing that also became very popular eventually, and then for a couple of years, it was everybody asking for the same thing, and so that's how it works. 

Somebody puts a waterfall in the lobby, everybody wants a waterfall in the lobby, and their first waterfall is super cool, it's a really cool idea and it's great. The 40th that’s out there, It's still cool, but it's not necessary. What basically ends up happening is that you, as an artist, find yourself getting constantly typecast, and when you're concentrating to break that typecast because what you are trying to say to people is, “I can do a lot of different things, and that was an idea, and I have more ideas”, but it's easy to shop for a thing that you see then for ones you don't see, and so I think that's what happens.  

That screen you mentioned, it’s very successful, it's very smart. It's also very simple, and it's really good, you know what I mean? It's just a beautiful, fun thing and I love to see it and that's what you want it to be. You want it to be something that you just said, I'd love to go see that in person, and so now everybody's thinking, “oh, that's it, that's the solution!” 

But you'll have to break it to them thatthe visual effect really only works from a very specific angle.

Alberto Scirocco: I know. Here is this massive thing that's visible for a really large surface, but it really only works for one slice of that. But when you are in that slice, it is pretty cool but it's a very good solution, and I think it's a great thing and that's what we were saying earlier about what you brought up about the wild west. It is wide open right now because when we do something that is going to be on a curved surface and everybody's going to be really stoked about that, and then there's going to be something else because there is a lot of space for exploration which, as I said, that's what's attracting us a lot, it's another opportunity to try stuff and do new things.

All right, Alberto. That was a great conversation. Just one quick, last question. If people want to know more about your company, where do they find you online? 

Alberto Scirocco: leftchannel.com. I know we went real deep on that one, but we have lots of work on Vimeo and work and other channels as well. But yeah, people come and check us out. 

All right. I appreciate you giving me some of your time. 

Alberto Scirocco: Thank you so much for having me.

 

Sean Wargo and Peter Hansen, AVIXA

Sean Wargo and Peter Hansen, AVIXA

July 14, 2021

The trade organization AVIXA invests a lot of time, resources and dollars into trying to get a handle on what's going on in the audio-visual industry, and regularly publishes reports, briefs and even video explainers for members.

One of the big efforts is an annual industry overview, and the the most recent one provides a picture of industry that got kicked really hard in the shins in 2020 but appears to be coming out of it now.

Sean Wargo, AVIXA’s Senior Director of Market Intelligence, and economic analyst Peter Hansen kindly set some time aside to walk through some of the findings, and drill down a little more specifically into how digital signage was impacted in the last 18 months or so, and how things look going forward. 

The good news is things are already looking up, and the forecast is pretty darn sunny for AV and signage.

The cloud platform I use for recording had a bad hair day, so you will come across a little back and forth about who could hear who, and Peter's audio eventually just disappeared on us from the file, so the episode is about five minutes shorter than normal as we nipped out the dead-silence and stitched it together. Things happen but it is still well worth a listen.

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TRANSCRIPT

Hi guys, thanks for joining me. AVIXA does a lot of research about what's going on in the marketplace. You recently pushed out a big one. What's that all about and what did you find? I know that's a big question. 

Sean: Sure Dave, happy to be here. So we do an industry forecasting effort every year, that we refresh every year, we call it our Industry Outlook Trends Analysis (IOTA), Since we're in the tech industry, we have to have acronyms, of course. But the idea is that we're hoping to essentially provide guidance on the size and direction of all things proAV. We've drawn a pretty big definition for what that means, some more IT-sounding technologies are sometimes included. 

Long story short: the idea there is a revenue forecast that companies can use to see where the opportunities lie, challenges, etc. As you can imagine, particularly important as we come out of the pandemic and are looking towards recovery. 

Now, is that something that as an AVIXA member is expected, or is it a bonus part of membership? I don't belong to a whole bunch of industry associations, so I don't know if this is normal or something you just saw a hole and decided it needed to be filled. 

Sean: Yes, in the sense that most trade associations will do some sort of industry forecasting effort. AVIXA, formerly known as InfoComm, had studies that had been done through the years. We decided to do it a few years ago, it was to step up the game a little bit, go a bit deeper, broader with our analysis, and expand upon that forecasting effort. So we have a two-part offering to the marketplace.

There is a lot of that research that we will share with the membership, whether in the form of briefings, webinars, presentations that Peter and I will do out to the membership to help them understand the broader trends. But we also offer it as a paid offering. So dashboards, deep reports, forecasting notes, a whole bunch of additional deliverables that a company can buy into for those that are really needing to immerse themselves in data to make strategic decisions. So a little bit about a little bit of both. 

As somebody who spends all this time looking at this industry and writing about it, one of the challenges I've found is finding useful, relevant, trustworthy information about digital signage in particular, there are endless reports that you can see pop up on Google alerts, but they're all coming out of India, and the handful of what I would call legitimate research companies that are taking a look at this space are also generally looking at other stuff. 

So there's this real sort of absence of focused information about AV and particularly signage, at least it seems that way. 

Sean: Yeah, definitely true.

I think there are a lot of offerings out in the marketplace for market research about any given topic, especially if it has any currency, if there's any buzz happening in the marketplaces about a certain issue, you're going to find a lot of studies that you can subscribe to.

I think we wanted to approach it as an industry kind of insider, having the direct need for the information ourselves, we recognize that there was a gap, as you're noting, for digital signage conference and collaboration, all the bits and parts of the industry just really weren't well captured, measured, forecasted, etc. So it was part of why we stood up for this improved version of forecasts a few years back. 

Also because while you might find say bits of pieces of research on a certain segment. There's not a lot available that tells you the complete package, the complete story of pro AV. We recognize though, as you're noting by the lack of offerings in the marketplace, what that's telling you is there's not a lot of people that know a lot about the business. And so we also wanted to make sure we partnered with a company that has broad subject matter expertise, lots of analysts covering the underlying product categories, to provide that expert analyst commentary and input to crafting a forecast. So methodology and vetting of partners were really important to us as we built this out as well.

What's the important stuff that companies should be paying attention to? 

I get asked every week by somebody, what's the total bullet total addressable market for digital signage or for workplace digital signage or whatever it may be, and I also see endless presentations that assign a value to the overall digital signage marketplace, whether it's North American or global, and I look at this big ass number and think, okay that's an impressive number, but what does that mean and is it meaningful for a company? Or is it just a big number to impress people? 

Sean: That's a great point, and I think, what you're hinting at is that it's a starting point. So what a lot of companies are looking for, let's pick a manufacturer as an example. If you're a display manufacturer, you're wanting to see how big that total addressable market is, so you can calculate things like market share, you can plot your own growth forecast off of it, you can say, all right if the market's growing 80% compound annual growth rate, we're expecting better or worse based upon our specific situation. Maybe we can do better and get to 16 or 20. So it's a starting point. It's a reference point. 

What a lot of companies are looking for is that kind of reference point, whether it's global, to a specific geographic area, to a specific product segment, to a particular market they're serving. They need input and validation or a challenge to inside expectations. So that's what we're hoping and wanting to provide out there is that third-party view of a market situation. Understanding that in some cases that big fat global number that everybody likes to point out may not be useful to a very local company. But it can, when whittled down and segmented via some of the filters, can provide them a TAM number that they hey can then use inputs to craft their own forecast. 

Peter: Everyone disagrees about what a TAM of digital signage exactly means, and that's where we like to help people get dashboard access.

So they can understand, “do I dip my toes into the content side?” You know, the server storage, transmission and that are billions of dollars there. Or, I'm really focused on exclusively the screens along with the infrastructure, mounts, and stands, et cetera.

And so you end up with these different numbers there and to some extent, we try to take a stance and say it's a big market and an AV company, it can be working with all this, but also, we allow and encourage folks to dis-aggregate because we also don't really want them to take a step where if they are doing digital signage, they have to do XYZ. Your business should fill whatever niche it thinks it's best at, and that one number, as you say, can be a little ridiculous just to look at a single number from the perspective of most companies, because no company probably will fit exactly. “I only do North America for all parts, all every single product that goes into that number that is on the headline.” 

It must also be a challenge to draw a distinction around what is digital signage because I have seen no end of product pitches out there that have talked about collaboration displays as being digital signage and vice versa.

How do we wall this off? How do we say what digital signage is and then assign a value or a forecast? 

Sean: Yeah, that's probably the most important step of the process of forecasting is your definition phase. How are you drawing a circle around that particular segment or the industry as a whole and as Peter mentioned we want to make sure that we're including in our definitions a broad enough opportunity set.

Digital signage is a great example because I've seen digital signage forecasts that really are only the displays, and that's it, as if digital signage was only a display on a wall, forget the mount for a second, forget the media servers and AV servers that are feeding the content to it, forget the networking backend that may have to be built out to support the content distribution. So there's an ecosystem there that when we did our definitions phase, we purposely drew our circles a little bit larger, our definition is a bit broader to allow for a company to talk about, you know what, I'm in digital signage, but I'm going to serve this particular segment of it, this particular facet of it and that'll be my opportunity area. 

An example for us in signages, we include a very big number for what we call media servers, and the reason is that as we all know, you put a display. We think of it as the hungry display now needs to be fed, it needs content, and so you need servers to basically aggregate, distribute, optimize that content out. So that's a big area of spend within the signage category as a solution area. Soit's the right question to be asking, as you're looking at numbers is how do they define, and then of course, how do they measure, what assumptions are they making? What inputs do they gather? Those kinds of things to evaluate the research offering.

So we're coming out of... I hope we're coming out of a very rough 17 months or so and COVID-19 obviously had a pretty significant impact. I'm looking at a slide here that said 2020 was $214 billion in revenue for the AV industry globally. What had been the expectation for 2020 prior to the pandemic?

Sean: Sure. I think when we did our forecast in 2020, it was around when we started it in November of 2019 ‘cause that's when you start your forecast process, you gather your input. So right around March, April was the time we're looking at our numbers and saying, okay, here's what we had thought would happen. Now we have the pandemic. What do we think is going to be the impact? As you're sitting in May, which at that point, the assumptions we made is, maybe this is like many other viruses that have hit us where it's one or two waves and then it goes out, and so possibly by the end of 2020, the situation is improving and that there are vaccines being distributed, that most of the waves are done, all that kind of stuff, and we expected a return to business. So we expected 2020 originally to be only about a -8% in terms of revenue decline. In the end, when you look at all the surveys we did through 2022 AV providers, manufacturers, distributors, the final analysis said it was more like -17%. So double the decline that we originally forecast, and that's often what happens is you only know what you know at the time. You tend to be pessimistic or optimistic. I would say we were about the middle of the road. But we ended up providing that down. So the two 14 numbers that you're looking at now is much less than it would have been in normal time, say normal trajectory, but there's an upside to that too.

So because 2020 was worse, we seem to be in that recovery mode meaningfully. Now that. It looks like the trajectory coming out is even steeper. So you have bigger growth percentages in 2021, in 2022, and then it starts to level out by 2023 and 2024. So that we're able to say by 2022, we think a good portion of the globe is starting to look like what it did in 2019 and exceeding those revenue peaks as we come out of this.

Is it deferred spending or that money that didn't get spent in 2020 is lost, and this is a new budget? 

Sean: It's a bit of deferred spend, certainly, but it's also an adaptation. One of the big trends that we've highlighted in our reports is that the pandemic was a disruptor, not just because it shut down industries and economies, but also because it forced us to shift to remote everything, work, play, education, et cetera, and there are some lingering effects. I think we're in an experimentation phase right now where we're trying to see what does return to work look like. How hybrid is it? How virtual, how in person? 

So some of the spendings are an adaptation. It's learning t, and now emphasizing and investing in new ways of interaction, new ways of engaging audiences and workers and students, et cetera. So there's a bit of both, but I would also point to innovation. One of the things that disruption does is you start to think differently about the way you do business, and so new solution areas that we probably haven’t even fully thought of yet that kind of come out of this also is the mother of growth and an investment in our industry. But we look from a macro econ side. So Peter probably has some addition he can add to that in terms of how the economies and industries recovered too. 

One of the things that we cover, we have a strong macro econ section of our reports and one of the primary things that we look at is how is GDP expected to change, recover, et cetera, as we come out of the pandemic. And so, that has looked brighter and brighter. 2021 has a strong GDP estimate for us in many parts of the world. There are some challenging areas but we then benefit from that as that improves, we start to grow and improve as well. So I will look to that economic improvement as a kind of contributor and a driver of pro AV growth too. Not without challenges though.

When you set your filters for zeroing in on information, can you get a sense of the hit that happened overall for global AV in 2020? Can you drill down to the hit on digital signage? 

Peter: Yeah, so digital signage is actually one of the technologies that have been mostly closed to AV overall in the last year and this year, which I don’t think is that surprising. 

We talk about AV and how it pertains to the wider economy, we usually link it kinda at the start of our presentations, reports to GDP because it reflects the economy because AV is an in-person specific technology in general, thinking about live events, sports, museums, but it also has its collaboration side. And digital signage is a minor part of that, so big solutions that are used at stadiums, it’s part of branding in malls, etc. But it’s also part of the communication: a grocery store needs to communicate restrictions to its customers, a fast-casual restaurant has a platform to use maybe for point of purchase assist as well. So it suffered from the lack of in-person activity. But it’s also been supported in some areas because it's such a flexible communication, a distanced, safe way to communicate to clients.

In the last year, it was a little bit over 15% drop and it's recovering quite strongly this year about maybe 10-12% bounce back in 2021. So kind of following the overall industry numbers with those percentages. 

In terms of what's happened in the past year. Obviously, a lot of it's coming back. Some of it's deferred money, some of it is new money, but when you take billions of dollars out of an industry, not everybody's gonna be able to weather the storm and come back. Do you have any sense at all of what the impact was on the numbers of companies and jobs? 

Sean: Yeah. Good question. We did some survey research in 2020 to track this, to see how providers were being impacted along the way, and what we were seeing is, unfortunately, a steady, let's say 1-2%, each week that was saying, I've had to close my doors for good. And so there was real attrition. 

What was the total? It's really hard to tell because of things like stimulus and other modes of say, sustaining your business to where people may have gone into almost a hibernation mode or a sustenance mode just to keep things rolling, but it looked like in terms of attrition of individuals, so laying off riffing roofing employees, it was probably about an 8% decline in staffing over the firms that we're tracking and were surveying throughout the process. So yeah, real impacts to real people and real businesses. 

One of the interesting things that I could see happening was companies, particularly live events companies, who obviously couldn't do concerts or conferences or anything else. Some of them pivoted and started doing some interesting things like virtual audiences in sports arenas and things like that. 

Did you see much of that? And were these things short-term measures or did they turn into industries? 

Sean: Yeah, the jury's a bit out in terms of how much that's going to be a lasting impact, but those kinds of pivots or innovations, creative uses of their skills in technology and services is what allowed live events to not go to zero. So we saw a 60% decline in revenues for live events in 2020, just a dramatic horrific impact on that business. But I think they did shift over to things like content distribution, streaming services, capture, and optimization of content for then later streaming.

As you noted, they did support virtual events. In some cases, event managers would stand up on a store virtual studio and still would use some technology. I know, for example, AVIXA, to support some of our events, we would rent a green room in order to do some footage that we could then port over to put a virtual backdrop and all sorts of stuff for some of our creative presentations. But yeah, I think it's that kind of innovation that helps these businesses to at least persist through the period. If not, in some cases, perhaps shut down temporarily in order to re-emerge as businesses re-emerged. 

Yeah, and some things like those extended reality virtual studios just came out of nowhere, but seemed to be a really hot trend now.

Sean: Yeah, definitely. I'm curious to see how much of that stays because what we've learned is that trade shows don't work virtually. I think we've all tried that and replicated that booth to booth experience, the trade show floor experience just doesn't happen very well on virtual. But a conference track does. So you can really imagine a world where let's say a major trade show could wrap around its edges, some virtual content to hype up the show before it starts, continuing the long tail of content afterward to engage audiences, and so that gives a live events company opportunity on-premise, while the show's going on, but a tale of opportunity around events too, to help capture and read and distribute content.

So I think there's a number of interesting business models that could come out for a live events company around this kind of audience extension, content extension, content optimization, virtual studio, all that kind of things. It will be interesting to see. 

if you go back 15-16 months to March of last year and started to look at the industry and start to do some of these forecasts. Are there things that you expected to happen that didn't happen and other things that did, that surprised you? 

Sean: Originally, we did not expect the conferencing and collaboration category to boom, quite as much as it ended up. So our original forecast around conference and collaboration, which in all fairness, largely was about conference rooms, auditoriums, in-person kinds of venues for office buildings. So we expected that industry, that market to decline a little bit, let's say a few points, so not bad, and in an environment where most things are, double high or low double-digit declines, conference, and collaboration, that's a pretty strong outcome. 

In the end though, we saw a flood of money going into it consistently through licensing, through kits for remote work support, all that kind of stuff just really made up for it. So the whole support of remote was an even bigger phenomenon than we originally had forecasted, probably partially because we did, as I noted before, we believed that there would be a return to more in-person stuff earlier in the process, late 2020, and by now we'd be pretty much fully back. So that would be one of those things that was a bit more pronounced than we had originally thought, and that's a lot of what it was is not necessarily complete surprises, but more pronounced versions of things than you would've expected originally.

Okay. Thank you very much, guys. Just one last thing for Sean, just very quickly, if I'm listening to this and I want to have a look at the latest report or highlights of the report, where would I find that? 

Sean: Sure. Probably best to reach out to me, at swargo@avixa.org. We have some resources on our website, avixa.org, but starting with me can point you in the right direction probably a bit more efficiently. 

Thanks again for taking some time with me.

Sean: Thanks so much, Dave.

 

David Weinfeld, Screenverse

David Weinfeld, Screenverse

July 13, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Advertising is hard - and a lot of companies, from startups to majors, have found out the expensive way that creating and running a screen network that's funded through booked ad spots is no walk in the park.

There are lots of programmatic advertising options out there to make access to brand advertising easier for network operators, but a start-up called Screenverse is going down a different path - basically saying to a lot of companies that have screens: "You focus on what you're truly good at, and we'll take over the ad sales and management of your network."

So in the same way that some solutions providers are the outsourced digital signage operating units for companies like QSR chains, Screenverse is doing the sales and related work for companies that happen to have a screen network as part of much larger businesses.

A great example would be TouchTunes, which has 1,000s of digital jukeboxes in bars, with screens on them that support booked advertising. Screenverse now runs and sells the ad display side of the business, so TouchTunes can focus on what it is super-good at - music content curation, licensing and overall ops.

The company was started by a couple of guys I have known for a long time in this industry - David Weinfeld and Adam Malone. While less than two years old, started just in time for a pandemic and nuclear winter for out of home advertising, Screenverse is making money and recently announced a quasi acquisition deal to bring on the sales experience and business ties of The Danaher Group, a boutique media sales run by Sue Danaher, who many industry people will know from her days running the DPAA.

David and I go back to the days when we were consulting partners on The Preset Group. It was terrific to catch up, and get a better understanding of how his company fills what is a pretty obvious need in the market for companies that want to monetize the screens in their network, but struggle (or would struggle) trying to run ad sales and media operations within the walls of a company that otherwise knows very little about advertising.

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TRANSCRIPT

David, thank you for joining me. It's been a while since we've caught up. The first thing I wanted to ask is what you've been up to? Cause we've known each other for more than a dozen years and you've done a few things lately and then got into starting Screenverse. 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, absolutely.

So prior to starting Screenverse, I had been working in different startups, largely in the digital, out-of-home, and digital signage space. Most immediately, I was at Vistar Media leading their global supply-side sales team, and that was an incredible experience, really being able to see across the whole of the landscape, building out their enterprise software business that included their ad server and player software and building that out and enterprise relationships with companies like Top Golf, RedBox, etc.

But even as I was doing that and playing on a lot of the experience that I had in the industry, even dating back to our days at the Preset group, understanding that there continued to be this prevalence of networks that at their core weren't media businesses, and so they might've had thousands of screens in grocery or Walmart stores or in office buildings, but really weren't in a position to maximize the revenue that they could generate. 

They were seeing success by connecting to an exchange like Vistar, but I just saw so much more potential in the way in which they could monetize those assets, and as I started seeing that, I really got the idea for this vision of the business, Screenverse, playing on my time, working with you at the Preset group, consulting to major display manufacturers like Samsung and LG and others, but then really looking at the networks that I most enjoyed working with were networks that were just entirely new to the media side of the business, and as you and I both know, and most people listening to the podcast, there are so many stories that we can tell of the digital out-of-home networks that have come and gone. The skeletons of past networks that otherwise you would've thought, there's a foundation for success here, and sometimes it's the expectation of, if you build it, they will come, and the advertiser is just going to knock on our door, and what I've since learned is that's obviously not the case, and programmatic, there does open that door to a degree and create some of that opportunity, but really Screenverses exist to really blast that door wide open on behalf of our network partners, and so when I left Vistar pre-COVID, it was with a very clear vision of the business that I wanted to start.

I was lucky enough to found the business with another great industry professional in Adam Malone, a friend who I've known for over 10 years, and in doing so, we built up a company whose entire focus is on ad management and monetization for digital screen networks and really taking networks like Pursuant Health and there are 4,600 screens in Walmart stores nationwide. Our partners at Corner Media, Touch Tunes, Touch Source, Paramount, Smartify, Spin, and others, and really being able to best package and position their inventory, no matter however a brand or agency wants to transact against it, whether that be through a direct IO or by way of a programmatic channel.

If you had to do your elevator pitch, the 25 words or less of what all that you do, what would you say? 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, I would say that we turn our network operators' side business, which is bringing third-party advertising through their screens, to our main business.

So that includes everything from ad operations, media packaging, CPM management, optimization of deal flow and management of their inventory, both through the direct and programmatic channels, in such a way that's going to maximize the revenue that they see from agencies, brands, and demand-side platforms. There are some analogous companies in the digital space. Some of those companies are Inc.’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies in 2019. There’s a comany by the name of Freestar, who I really admire the way that they've grown and built their business. 

Cafe Media, Adpushup, are all examples of companies that exist to really demystify for publishers and companies, how to maximize their revenue generation and take advantage of existing technology. So we're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're most certainly not trying to be a supply-side platform. But our goal is to be the best possible service layer, leveraging technologies like a Vistar or Place Exchange and others, and being able to build lightweight technology on top of that, whose entire purpose is to realize greater revenue and greater efficiencies in the sales and ad management process. 

So you've got companies who have screens associated with their business, for whatever reason, like during waiting rooms or in Touch Tunes that have digital jukeboxes that also have screens that you can sell ads on, but it's not their core business so effectively they can outsource all of that to you, to people who understand the game, understand the process and everything else, instead of trying to understand that internally and be a skunkworks and a business that spends 98% of its time on other matters, right?

David Weinfeld: That's exactly right, and what I've seen historically is that it's very hard for those types of businesses to hire really strong and capable media salespeople, and for good reason, because they're not media businesses, and so they ultimately are challenged from the outset, whereas it's much better and actually a lot less costly and creates a lot more opportunity and potential against their inventory to bring in a company like Screenverse where that's our entire focus.

I really like to think about companies and their capabilities. What can you be the best in the world? What is your superpower? Well, our superpower is monetizing digital screens in the physical world, and so if we have companies like Touch Tunes who are incredible in building out distributor relationships and building out the largest footprint of digital jukeboxes in the US and globally, or a company like Pursuant Health, who has kiosks in every single Walmart store nationwide for blood pressure, BMI assessments, and other major health assessments. That's what they're best at in the world, so let us manage the media business and the media side, and especially as programmatic becomes an increasingly important part of the digital out-of-home landscape, understanding the nuances of that channel and how best to navigate different SSPs and DSPs, agencies and the way in which they're transacting, whether direct or programmatic becomes really important. And it ensures that their inventory is getting in front of the right buyers and that they're seeing the greatest value from their inventory and by packaging partners together, we're able to create some really unique audience segments, such that, by itself, a network might not have the scale to get the attention of a major brand, like Starbucks or Unilever, but together complemented with other assets and other inventory, it tells a complete story.

So a digital out-of-home network, in something like let's say waiting rooms or whatever, they could do direct sales themselves, but they're going to have to hire people to do that. They could get a rep shop, but they rep all kinds of things that might not even be digital, or they could think that they could just use programmatic, but the reality is programmatic isn't going to fill their inventory. 

So you need to have this hybrid and you either do it internally, or you go to somebody like your company, right? 

David Weinfeld: That's exactly right, and there are a lot of companies who really media or being ad supported is their core focus. So you have companies like Doctor's offices, patient points, or you have companies in gyms, Zoom media, right? Those are not our target partners because they already have in-house sales teams and the entire business is built on how do I monetize those assets? But we really look at companies that otherwise might be in similar environments. 

So we have a partner in a company called Touch Source that is one of the largest providers of office building directories and screens and major healthcare offices to the tune of 10,000 screens nationwide, whose superpower is building out these great solutions and interactive experiences and managing tenant databases and directory user experiences, but there is an advertising opportunity there, and one that in order for them to hire an in-house sales team and think through all the nuances of how they marry that against their existing business, is we formed a partnership with Touch Source, such that we can really manage and own that and act as a consultative partner, and we certainly work together to strategically think about which screens within their overall portfolio of 10,000 make the most sense to bring third-party advertising to, and we're not recommending or saying that, “Hey, our expectation is to light up advertising on all 10,000” but we are in the process and we're at a hundred buildings today, but our expectation is to be in the not too distant future at a thousand buildings, where you're talking about is a network that has multi-million dollar media sales potential in a post-COVID environment, and one that otherwise would have struggled to access those dollars, even by just connecting to programmatic pipes like a Vistar Media or Place Exchange. 

You still need people, even though it's technology-based and there are automated workflows, you still need people to manage these systems and there are still relationships at the core of the transactions that happen, and so that's really what we say, there's an opportunity to connect to an exchange and gather low-level dollars but you understand CPM, you understand the dynamics of the demand and supply within the ecosystem and what the competitive landscape looks like, and all of a sudden we became not just a cost center to our business, but we realized success in partnership with our network operators, such that it hopefully is an easy decision for them to work with us. 

Yeah, it's been interesting to listen to this because I admittedly didn't fully understand what Screenverse did, but now I do, and one of the reasons I understand it is I've lived it. Years and years ago, I started a network in the pedestrian corridor system underneath downtown Toronto. There's like miles and miles of walkways with retail down there and everything, and hundreds of thousands of people. Great media environment, in a lot of ways, but this is 2003-2004, and people didn't get it. So I needed professional salespeople to do that for me, and I tried doing partnerships with companies who were already digital out-of-home, and while they understood the pattern and everything else, they just weren't fully invested in it because they had their own product to sell, and at the end of a meeting, they went, “Oh, by the way, we have this thing too. I'm not quite sure what it is, but are you interested? No? Okay. Bye.” 

It just didn't work. You need somebody who's focused. 

David Weinfeld: Absolutely. It's really where opportunity meets execution.

And the understanding and we're entering an environment and thanks to programmatic, and I really, especially the more time that I've spent on the demand side, I have a much greater appreciation for the work that Michael Provenzano and the earliest employees at Vistar did, and frankly, building out the programmatic market.

But now that they have, and now that it's much more robust and it's still in its early innings, there is an opportunity for networks like that to get access to dollars that they otherwise would have been challenged to, but to do it entirely on your own and not understand the advanced capabilities or options that are available to you, it is essentially leaving dollars on the table and programmatic is all about minimizing loss and maximizing gain, and so if you can be in a position where you can bring in the right partner, and again, we're a partner. We don't physically own any screens. We haven't invested capital in building out screens. So we don't have any interests that could otherwise be muddied by bringing on additional networks.

We curate the partners that we work with. We say more “No” than we do “Yes”, and it's really important that we think about how they fit within our portfolio, not just in the near term, but in the longterm and how our sales team, frankly, can be successful on their behalf because the last thing I would ever want to do is set unrealistic expectations, which I think can very easily happen, not just in this industry, but really any media space of well, I have this many millions of impressions that equates to this media value so I should generate a million dollars a month and that's nice on paper, and it's nice when you build out projections, but the reality tells a very different story.

And one of the things that, myself, Adam, our team prides herself on as being very open and transparent with our partners and setting very clear expectations of this is what we believe your network is worth, this is what we believe that we can deliver in terms of value. Our hopes far exceed those numbers, but we also don't want to go into a relationship where the numbers far outweigh what we think the market can bear. We do have very high hopes, or as optimistic as I think anyone in this space around where digital out-of-home can grow and what it can become in the media mix. But the reality is that programmatic is still a small part of digital out-of-home spending, it's around 5-6% of our overall spending, and thanks to COVID in industry and out-of-home in the US that was approaching $9 billion, got knocked down to between $6-7 billion and is fighting its way back. But I've long believed that in order to unlock the greater demand and revenue that should be coming into out-of-home in general, it's going to be by way of digital buyers. It's going to be by way of buyers who understand that, layering in contextually relevant digital playspace like with a partner of ours, the bulletin who was in a high rise, residential apartment buildings in major cities in the US, layering that with targeted campaigns, it's hard to beat for a D2C brand like a GoPro or Hell Fresh, or Uber eats, but right now they're not really thinking about that within their total strategy. That of course incorporates Facebook and Google and Instagram and connected TV, and so if we can get any access to those budgets, we should become a much more important, incredible part of the total media landscape.

Is there a distinction between endemic and non-endemic advertising at this point or is it all just like data flags? 

David Weinfeld: We really think about it on a network by network and kind of category of venues standpoint. So with the network, like Touch Tunes and, by way of our acquisition of the Danaher group and bringing on incredible talent in the form of Susan Danaher, former DPAA President, CRO at Ad Space (now Lightbox), SVP at Viacom, Victor Germaine, who was a VP at Screen Vision and major sales leader at GSTV and bringing those individuals into our business, but their specialization and where they really focus their energy were on vice categories naturally like beer and alcohol, who were endemic brands through the bar and restaurant category, just as much as you might say for an office building network. That would be B2B financial services or a retail-based network. Endemic brands are much more CPG-focused, but we do see also across all categories because we see a lot of otherwise non-endemic spend from insurance companies and others that you might not immediately connect with a bar and restaurant environment, but who make a ton of sense, just the nature of the audience. 

So it really depends upon the brand and agency and what their objectives are. If their objective is to really be where the product is sold, well that's why we do a lot of business with Anheuser-Busch and Heineken. But if you're also thinking about a brand that has a relationship by category adjacency, or just reaching that audience. So think about any of the brands like Uber, Lyft advertising in a bar or restaurant, or a brand like a USAA advertising in a Walmart location, the product itself isn't sold there, but certainly, the constituency that they're looking to reach, that they target by way of other channels are very present in those environments, and so we have a mix, but it really speaks to how we position different networks, and the reality is when you undertake a business like Screenverse, you end up having networks across a variety of categories. It's our responsibility and job then to figure out how best to package and curate that, not just for ourselves, but for the market et all. 

So we're not just going to an agency and presenting a disparate menu of offerings but we understand their client mix. We understand the way in which they buy and what their objective is. So we might just say, “Hey, for the types of brands that you represent, and the fact that you're looking to reach a millennial audience, then you're best suited reaching them in bars and restaurants or reaching them in high rise apartment buildings in cities like Chicago, New York, and DC” versus a brand like USAA, that's looking to reach a much broader population across the entire country, and that's where you start pushing them into inventory, like in Walmarts or grocery stores or convenience stores where they can segment potentially against an older demographic or certainly a broader segment of the overall population.

So if I did a spreadsheet exercise of costs of taking ad sales and media operations, in-house versus outsourcing to Screenverse, how is that going to look? 

Is it going to be more costly to do it internally or more costly to do it through you guys? 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, so we actually, in many cases do this modeling with our partners and it's definitely more costly internally to make that happen. But the other aspect is even if the model shows that it might be less costly, by way of, “if I hire three people, I can build up this sales organization”, you have to look at it and say, what is the success you're going to yield? And that to me is even more important than just doing your cost exercise and saying, all right, I'm going to need two senior sellers and an ad operations person to build up any type of sales business unit, but that alone isn't really going to be successful and do those individual sellers. It's not an easy thing to find people that know the digital out-of-home space and know how best to navigate out-of-home agencies and digital agencies, and are they going to be equipped to really tell a story that's large enough to get your network noticed, but that's also why we look to have our model based on success, such that we're not a hard and fast cost against the business at the outset, but we see success when our partnerships see success. So ours is really a percentage of revenue-based model, such that it's not, you need to make this large upfront investment. We actually believe as much as you do in the potential of this, and we're going to invest a lot of time and energy upfront to get our team trained upon the inventory, to package the inventory, to leverage our relationships across the industry to tell your story and activate you on programmatic platforms if you haven't done so, help you build out those integrations, if you don't yet have them.

And so there's a lot of nuances in that, but I would look really to what's the totality of success that a network could realize trying to go it on their own versus trying to partner with a company like Screenverse, and what we found with a lot of those partners is it becomes a very large challenge to try to do it on their own. And I give everyone the absolute best of lock-in and I support any network that wants to build out their own sales team and thinks that if it's core to your business and you can be the best in the world at selling your inventory, then you absolutely should be the ones to do it. But if it's something you're trying to do on the side, and it's really not part of your brand value, it's not part of your overall culture, overall story, I've seen that very hard and it feels like an extra appendage that doesn't necessarily fit within a company. What we can do is say, we're going to be here and consult you. You don't need to worry about becoming experts in this because guess what? We're thinking about this day in and day out, hour after hour, and we're going to meet with you regularly. We're going to provide you with updates. We're going to demystify the industry in a way that I'm hopeful that, even if we have a network relationship where after two or three years they go, you know what, you've helped us so much, we've actually now had the confidence and belief that we can do this in house, I still see that as a successful outcome because we delivered on the promise of helping them grow their business. I, of course, would love to be with our partners for 10+ years and really build out the highest level of success. But if they decide to bring that in-house, after we've helped them level up their understanding and connections with them, that's successful. 

Yeah. Everything you said is so spot on and I wanted to say something about cultural fit and you did, just cause I have seen that as well, where you see a media operation bolted onto the side of a very traditional company and I've watched it play out and it almost never works just because, as one person described it, we’re the land of misfit toys, you just don't fit! 

David Weinfeld: What's funny too, and I look at it this way and I wake up every day energized by trying to change this mindset. But even if you look at out-of-home overall, so out-of-home is a marginalized part of the media industry. Overall, it really occupies sub 5% of total media spend. When you look across all channels, then within out-of-home, digital out-of-home is the minority of revenue. That's certainly changing and shifting in the US and other parts of the world. But then within digital out-of-home, digital place-based, this is very much the marginalized aspect then is looked at as a subcategory, knowing that digital billboards take up a lion's share of dollars.

And so I wake up every single day excited because I'm in the area that is that diamond in the rough that has the greatest potential that is maybe being undervalued and underutilized, but it's growing, and it's in an area that I do believe in its efficacy and value, and there are so many studies and so many data points that I know you've read, and the readers of your blog that you published, that people have talked about on this podcast of the efficacy of marrying digital out-of-home with mobile, with social, with connected TV. I just believe in my heart of hearts and I know it's taken longer in many cases than a lot of people have expected. But I so directly believe that once more people start seeing those studies and realizing the results for themselves and leading into space and thanks to programmatic and DSPs, like the Tradedesk and Verizon media and EMOBI and Adelphic and others leaning in and ushering those digital buyers that have access to larger budgets into our space. That's really what's going to drive a sea change and that's what I wake up each and every day, knowing, we're nowhere near where we need to be or where we can be even as a company or as an industry overall. But boy, if I can be part in any way, shape, or form of ushering that forward for my team, my partners, the industry overall, that's what drives me because I look at it as if we can bring more revenue to our company that otherwise looked at advertising as this headache, or this is a tough thing to manage. 

But all of a sudden, by working with us, they're seeing seven figures of revenue and they're much confident with understanding, right? It can be hard when you look at programmatic and you see peaks and valleys of revenue and disparate spending come through, and it can be very confusing. But once you have someone that can walk you through the dynamics of how people are going in and spending and how we build deeper relationships with them and what's happening indirectly. Now all of a sudden you're part of a business that, maybe you're not driving the car, but you're a much more confident passenger. And when you're a much more competent passenger, the great news there is you're much more willing to then make investments and build out your network and build out your infrastructure, and ultimately that benefits the networks, it benefits the advertisers, it benefits the SSPs. It benefits the DSPs. And that's what really drove me to start this business and why, when I was at a company in this space, like Vistar that was innovating and driving change and was very successful, that I just felt this push, that there was an opportunity for someone with my background and experience and with Adam and now bringing on Susan Danaher and Victor Germaine and our larger team and the expertise that each of them brings to the table, we have the opportunity to really build a company that has staying power that can ultimately bring an enormous amount of value and also create some efficiencies for SSPs or create efficiencies for networks that they otherwise might have been challenged to find on their own. 

Are you bootstrapped? 

David Weinfeld: So we've raised a small friends and family pre-seed round of just around $400,000, but actually we'd been profitable in 2020.

We officially incorporated the business at the end of April 2020. We were profitable in 2020, we're profitable today and, we're thinking about it what does raising funding against this business look like? And we look at it, not as a requirement, but as a mechanism to accelerate growth. You know the most important pillars of our business are great people and great network partners. 

So the deal you did with Danaher Group, it's probably more like a joint venture sort of thing in a lot of ways? Because obviously, you couldn't buy them out in the traditional sense of a private equity deal or something. 

David Weinfeld: Yeah. So I would definitely categorize it as more of an acquihire, and so really being able to bring those individuals in-house. Thanks to our growth and thanks to the revenue that we build, our equity has value. So there are definitely mechanisms within our partnership that involve that, and so that the Danaher group team that's now joined with Screenverse can participate in the success and growth, and that's really ultimately how we were able to put that together, and it was on the back of getting to know Sue for many years in this industry and really aligning on the vision.

I had such admiration for the business she had built at the Danaher group and the importance of the relationship that she and Victor and their operations lead, Taylor had with touch tunes so much so that they were truly an extension of that company, and I said that's so much in line with the vision that we have for the partnerships that we form on the supply side at Screenverse, and we would love to bring your leadership, your knowledge, your experience into our business, and oh, by the way, we get an incredible network in the form of Touch Tunes, and we can just have that part of our overall growth and at a time where bars and restaurants have been challenged in light of COVID.

But now that we're starting to come out and restrictions have all but been eased across the entire US, Los Angeles and California were the final metropolitan areas that had any restrictions on bars that have since been lifted and really say, “Hey, bars and restaurants are hopping right now”, and so if I'm going to double down on any piece of inventory, it's going to be in that segment. And if I'm going to double down on talent, it's going to be with people like Sue Danna, her Victor Germaine, and Taylor, and that team and their knowledge and so much of what they bring into our business is fueling growth, not just against Touch Tunes, but against all of our partners, and as we bring on additional sales directors, as we bring on additional operations, team members, it's really all geared toward how do we maximize success for the network partners that we work with and how do we ultimately build campaigns that are going to drive tangible results for those brands, such that they continue to invest, not just in us, but in digital out-of-home and digital place-based in general

All right, David, that was terrific. We could have talked a lot longer, but I'm afraid we gotta wrap this up. Great to catch up with you. 

David Weinfeld: Yeah, it was absolutely great to catch up with you, Dave. You're someone who I have absolutely, in the past, love working with, who I have such great respect for in this industry.

Thank you for having me on the podcast and really look forward to being able to continue having these conversations and sharing the growth story of Screenverse with you and your audience.

John Steinhauer, Barco

John Steinhauer, Barco

June 30, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Technology advances have made it feasible and relatively easy to fill large spaces, inside or outside, with big digital visuals that fill a defined space like a building lobby or other physical structure - with the idea of creating experiences that are memorable and have some sort of desired impact.

It's being done with large format LED video walls, with projection mapping and still, in some cases, with skinny bezel LCD.

Barco is in an interesting position because the company does all three, and has done so for many years. One of the first high-profile examples of what's been coined "techorating" (not my favorite phrase, but I get it) was the Comcast headquarters tower in Philly, which filled the entire back wall of its vast lobby with LED. That project was done, more than a dozen years ago, using fine pitch Barco LED product, and the experience is now a tourist attraction.

I spoke with John Steinhauer, VP of Entertainment for Barco in the Americas, about the whole notion of incorporating large format digital into the original design or renovations for large spaces - from building lobbies to airports and attractions. We talk about the business model and recommended approaches.

We also get into his experience in the past year. He started his new role - driving business for things like entertainment attractions, sports venues, live event and cinema - just as COVID hit, and all those activities dried up.

They're coming back, he says, in a BIG way. 

 

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TRANSCRIPT

John, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what your role is at Barco? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, of course. First, Dave, thanks for having me. I really appreciate spending some time with you today. I am the Vice President of Entertainment for the Americas at Barco and I came to this position at an interesting time, almost the first days of the pandemic.

Timing is everything they say, and I like to tell people that my first year has been an eventful year, but certainly, there've been no events and that was a challenge. But it did put us in a position to really look at our organization, look at our strategy or go to market, fortify our strengths and address our weaknesses. So it's really been a great first year and reflecting on it now and we’re getting prepared for the big recovery, is what this is all about currently, and I think we are. 

VP Entertainment sound like something teenage kids would love to have for their dad? What does it encompass? 

John Steinhauer: I think eventually it will encompass some free tickets to shows. I know that you're right, Dave, my kids said, wow, that's a great job. What are the perks? 

Yeah, but I'll define what entertainment is at Barco. It is our live events business, our rental and staging business, our proAV business, and our cinema business. There's also a group that does high-end residential and simulation, which is a really interesting business for us with flight simulators and things like that, a lot of government contracts. So we really have a wide expansive portfolio that addresses a lot of very different applications.

As you said, just as you got started, I'm sure one of your first charges was to identify what the opportunity pipeline looks like and everything else, and then a pandemic hit and most of your markets dried up. 

John Steinhauer: Exactly. There were really spots of innovation along the way to where I was really impressed by the live events industry and their resiliency and their creativity and how nimble they are, just by virtue of what they do. They build these elaborate systems and solutions for one night and they tear them down and take them somewhere else the next day. It's just who they are in terms of being nimble and things like using LED for XR stages, it became something really interesting, and a lot of people started driving a new form of production, you know camera production in front of the LED. So things like that came out, and other trends are really blossoming now around immersive museums, for example.

So I think this is an industry that has a lot of resolve and it's going to take much more than a pandemic to bring it down. I'll tell you, I've been really impressed by the caliber of the partners we have and their strength and keeping a positive attitude, and really looking for ways to drive forward. If an industry ever deserved a comeback as this one does, it's going to be epic. I tell people that a lot, and when everybody hits the road at the same time, which every artist is hoping to do, it's going to be the recovery of a lifetime, I think, and we're really looking forward to it. 

Why do you describe it that way? Are you hearing that sort of thing that there's going to be this tidal wave of live events and installations and everything else? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, everything from residencies in Las Vegas being announced, to the first shows putting dates out now. We do think there'll be a little latency around the sales side of the business because so much equipment has been dormant for so long, and it's finally going to be back at work. So it's not a statement on sales as much as it is on activity levels that will eventually become, I think, a boom all the way around. 

You talked about the pause that COVID has created, and I've certainly spoken with a number of companies who said they use the past 15-16 months to examine what they do, their processes and their products and the whole nine yards. 

I would imagine the same thing as applied here, that a lot of the people who are in the various facets of the entertainment industry, see the time to re-examine how they do things and maybe stop the momentum that kind of saw them doing things a certain way because they'd always done it that way.

John Steinhauer: Yeah, definitely, and for us at Barco, we've had a history of being somewhat of a siloed company and difficult to do business with at times, and we had a chance to really reflect during this pause to just figure out culturally, what needed to change in how we went to the market and how we work together internally and just making it an easier experience to do business with us.

I think when things light up, the community is really going to feel that. I know that during the downs. They're feeling it, we're staying connected. We have furloughed employees, like most of our customers have too. We're bringing back people. We're actually investing in hiring now, too. I think the future looks bright. We're guilty of investing ahead of revenue a little bit because we know it's a safe bet. This is an industry we know a lot about. We consider ourselves members of the community and not just vendors to the community. So we're reading the tea leaves and getting ready for what we think is going to be an explosive rebound. 

Barco is in an interesting position because when we talk about some of these large-format displays that you see in live events and museums and buildings and everything else, they're LED, they're fine-pitch LED, but you can do fine-pitch LED, but you can also do projection and you can also do a narrow-bezel LCD.

You've got the UniSee product, which genuinely has narrow bezels, unlike sometimes I see the product literature, I think that's not terribly narrow, but you're calling it invisible. 

John Steinhauer: Yeah. We have a broad portfolio and you're right, and UniSee is definitely a big part of that portfolio.

An LED is the first thing people think of when they think of wow factor in large format. But when you add in projection as you said, things like projection mapping are really experiencing a resurgence now, because not only are businesses trying to bring their employees back to their offices but the cities and municipalities are trying to get people out of their homes again.

We're doing some incredibly creative outdoor mapping On bridges, landmark buildings, and cathedrals, and it's a global trend that is really exciting for us because we have a lot of horsepowers when it comes to those super high lumen projectors. 

And the other big shift there is that it's a lot easier to do.

I wrote a book, like a coffee table book, about projection mapping, 10 years ago, and at that time, it was just starting to emerge, but it was incredibly complicated to do, just the alignment and everything else, and now it's almost widgetized software. 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, and it's crazy flexible too.

If you look at this trend of the Van Gogh exhibits, that's going around the world, really taking traction here in the US too in multiple cities. They're re-purposing real estate, and sometimes warehouses and old buildings and building a museum and so think about that, the complexities of mapping, where you have to place the projectors. You're just going into an environment that is unknown sometimes and very different at times, and trying to position everything to get it just right, and that series has been incredibly successful for us, and we have a line of projectors that fits the bill perfectly, and it's one of those situations, it was something in our portfolio that wasn't the rocket ship. 

It was the G-60 that I'm referring to, and this particular application put it on the map to the point where it's a supply chain issue now, and that's another podcast talking about the supply chain challenges currently, but it's interesting too when these things hit, you're not really sure what's going to emerge as the solution for the future. You have to ride with the industry, I think and follow the community, especially the creative side of the business. If you ever put a product out in the market, tell them this is what it does. It won't succeed. They'll tell you what it will do and you'll work with them to make sure it does. 

Yeah, I was gonna say that I did an interview the other day where I was the person being interviewed and we're talking about trends and everything else and I said, one of the big mistakes I see over and over again regardless of the size of the project is people go in thinking about how they're going to apply a particular type of technology instead of, looking at the scenario, the environment, the circumstances, the dynamics of it and everything else, and then figuring out okay, if we're going to do something here, what would be the technology that would work best? 

But, you see over and over again, people saying, “I'm going to put in a big LED video wall”, or “I'm going to put in a fine bezel or a narrow bezel LCD video wall here”, and they don't really know why. They haven't really thought about the content yet, but they’re going to do it. 

John Steinhauer: Exactly, and I think one of the strengths of our portfolio, in just that situation, we've been doing this during the downturn with the re-educating ourselves teams and training them, is that we're not selling tiles. We're listening to what the application is, what the experience needs to be, and then fitting a solution into that, and one of the nice things about the entertainment businesses is that we do get to speak directly with the creative decision-makers and the folks that are doing the design early enough, where we can have those kinds of conversations. We're not just responding to RFPs and things like that. 

Yeah. One of the things that have also impressed me lately is when you have jobs that mash-up different technologies. So instead of it just being a LED video wall, that's part of it, but there's also projection and they're reactive with each other and they're synced. That to me is really exciting ‘cause you're doing the walls, you're doing the ceiling, you're doing the floors, potentially. 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, and that's we're going to get to this “techorating” idea, and it's interesting because that term is old, it's I think it dates back to ‘08-’07, maybe even earlier.

That term used to mean something, and I think now it means something very different, but it's what you just described. It's the overall experience, and there can be a number of ways you get there and it's not necessarily a wow factor lobby at a casino, it can be eBay's headquarters in California, it can be any corporate customer. 

I know you have a digital signage background, a lot of signage, essentially pushes information to your people, and that plus an information and an entertainment component to that, and an immersive environment that draws people to the environment, whether it's bringing employees back or bringing people out of their homes into a city street, this application is different than the original, the original “techorating” trend. 

Yeah, techorating is one of those terms that makes me cringe a little bit, but not as much as phygital. That one, just nails on a chalkboard, but I get it, I understand the concept around it. 

What are you actually seeing out there? I think of techorating, going back to the Comcast Tower, which is actually a Barco installation going back a dozen years, maybe even more, where they filled a whole wall with LEDs that picked up the look and the look of the side wood walls, and all of a sudden stuff appears on it. Are we seeing much more of that? I get the sense that it's happening, but we're all in our little bunkers here, so I don't see it in person anymore.

John Steinhauer: Yeah, exactly, and that's the whole point, right? I think what employers are trying to do is creating that pull back to the office instead of just saying, okay, here's how it is, you have to come back to work. Cause we know how that's going out there, people are getting comfortable in a new workplace and some roles will be distributed and remote, and we're even going through this at Barco. Some roles really require you to be in the office. 

With the whole techorating, I think it's interesting because at one point, it was all flash and no one's ever seen it before, and I always go back to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, that's the first time I really experienced it. Super cool. But this is more, I think a lighthouse rediscovery of that. The concept's there, but it's really safely drawing ships back to shore, bringing the employees back into their workplaces, and depending on budgets, it can be very elaborate, it can be the kinds of things you saw in that lobby at the Cosmopolitan, or it can be just more technology than usual in different places, like not just in the experience center up on the top floor, but throughout the organization, multi-purpose rooms will have more technology in them in different types of content.

I think this is also a great opportunity for our content providers. Companies who do this where, you know, before putting up displays in a break room or something was all about new policies, new hires, the temperature of the stock ticker, whatever. Now, employers want to create content that's compelling and creative in those spaces.

Are you working directly or through some of the AV consultants that work with Barco, are you talking to people who design physical spaces and to engineers and to architects? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, architects, meeting planners, all the above, consultants, everything you mentioned, Dave, that is the community. That's really driving this because, unline pre-pandemic, where we were and before trends like this, it was very much established, “This is what you do. The briefing center is on the top floor. This is what resides in this room, this room, and this room.”

Now companies are taking a fresh approach and they need guidance. They need expertise, and they're calling in these creative content companies to help. 

And is that part of the secret sauce, not making this an AV or IT project? It has to be something like from the very first meeting, the site survey, the walk-through, the whole bit where you've got to have the creative people, you've got to have the architect. You've got to have all the different parties that are going to touch on this to really make it work. Because if you just put in a screen and then say, now we need something on it, that's not going to work! 

John Steinhauer: Exactly, and it is that immersive experience approach to these environments that weren’t there before.

What's the business argument? 

John Steinhauer: I think the business argument mostly right now is bringing those folks back into the office, and having a compelling reason to get them out of their space. If we had a video for this podcast, I could show you that I have a very carefully curated environment in my home office but I started in the video conferencing world. We were trying to get HD out at Lifesize early days, and I learned that early on. There are a lot of colors in my office, Placed in the right places. Most people don't do that, and I'm sure you've experienced this because everyone has. You've seen everything in the background.

You've seen spouses walking by, you've seen dogs and cats and landscapers wailing into the un-muted microphones outside the windows. 

In Canada, we have members of parliament who stripped down in the middle of conference calls.  

John Steinhauer: I've seen that viral clip, yes. (Laughter)

So I think what employers need is that environment where people say, okay I want to come back, and not only that, I want to be proud of the company I work for.

I work for a great organization. This is a cool job, and I love going to work every day, and the 30-40 minute commute is worth it because I have great bandwidth, I have amazing facilities, all those things, and this is just a part of that puzzle, bringing those employees back, I think.

Is that being driven by the employers? I mean, If you're the anchor tenant in an office tower of some kind or big house office block, that's one thing, but in a lot of cases, you have office towers where they might have 20 different tenants, and I've heard a number of times that commercial property owners are “techorating” their lobbies and other spaces because, A) it attracts tenants and B) it hangs on all the ones they have.

John Steinhauer: Exactly. Yeah, I think you've totally seen it in those types of spaces and other kinds of perks. We just built a new space in California, I was there earlier this week. We have a little health club in there, a little gym, all those amenities, to attract your folks back in.

Does it have to be on a grand scale, or are you seeing stuff that fits the size and maybe in a less vast space, you can also do something compelling? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, it totally fits the size, and again, I'll mention my trip to California this week. We have a lot of LEDs in our office. We don't have big voltage ceilings. We don't have a big grand lobby, but they're placed properly where it makes the space seem bigger, it really does, but it doesn't overpower the space. 

We had a really good design consultation upfront on how to utilize the space appropriately because you're right too, you can totally overpower an environment. There can be heat dissipation issues that you don't anticipate and you can turn your office into a tanning salon after a while if you have too many LEDs on them. 

Yeah, and I think that gets lost sometimes, in that everybody understandably because these are six-figure, potentially seven-figure projects. There's a lot of money involved and the buyers are looking at the visual quality of the displays, obviously, but maybe they're not thinking so much about things like heat generation, power consumption, weight, all those sorts of things. 

John Steinhauer: Absolutely. Yeah, and those are important considerations, and that's why it really comes down to that team of consultants upfront. Everyone from the consultant themselves to the meeting space, the real estate, this is a team sell. We used to call it, I came from Whitlock before I joined Barco. So we were a large systems integrator, and we used to call it the Team bus. 

We put everybody on the Team bus to go to that meeting because we have to consider all those things before anybody sends out a quote or starts thinking about how they're going to put this together. All those considerations have to be taken into account. 

Is that going to be problematic going forward because people are going to be more reticent to travel. Even if they're vaccinated, they just say, you know what, I haven't traveled in a year and a half, I don't need to as much, or do you think it'll just shift back to on-site meetings because if you want to do this you gotta be there? 

John Steinhauer: I think hybrid is here to stay. I'll be honest with you as someone who walks the walk, right? Last week I was in Atlanta for a live event, and it was spectacular. It was an opportunity to shake hands, see old friends, and have corridor conversations between the sessions, and I flew home thinking, this is the greatest thing, I missed it so much, this is the only way to go. And the following day I had to part two of that session, which was a virtual session. Big WebEx, a hundred people at it, instead of the smaller group based on COVID guidelines of how many you can have in the office in Atlanta. 

So when I flew back here to Phoenix and I hosted that one, I just experienced all the benefits of reaching that many more people all at one time. The interactive chat boards we had, and we had production value on one side, and it was the best one to punch ever. I left there thinking, what we need to do as an organization is we have to figure it out to do both at once, right? We have to have that virtual aspect to go along with the live aspect so we can stream out to more people, we’re looking into doing that with our next event, and I think that's going to carry over into live entertainment too, where these concerts, some cities are going to have restrictions on capacity, how many people can be in the arena and there's going to need to be that live stream that goes out.

But there has to be value wrapped around it, incentive like a backstage meet and greet on video, question and answer for the artists after or before the show. All these pieces that first of all, make it something that you can charge for but also make it accessible to more people. So I think hybrid, overall, it's not a trend at all. It's something that's here to stay. 

We've talked about office lobbies, building lobbies, that sort of thing, and you also mentioned museums and extended reality for production sets and so on. What kind of applications are you seeing out there?

John Steinhauer: The most established application is the Van Gogh tour that's on right now, and that's projection mapping on a large scale. So about 70 to 100 projectors in each location, just a lot of expertise in the mapping side of it. It's just incredible. 

I have not been to one yet. I've been invited to an opening and in London in a few weeks, when I go over there with some customers, hopefully, guidelines permitting and that one’s called The Impressionists, so it’s a different group of artists. But that is quite established. The XR stage stuff, the shooting in front of the video wall is also in the trend stage right now. We speak to a lot of people that are really active in that space and they believe that's here to stay too, but in a more of a hybrid: some location shooting, which is very expensive and some studio shooting around the LED wall.

We play a big role in that with our image processing and it's an important sector for us. We feel as though there might be a shift from this pop-up experience out there. There was a need in the community, rose to the occasion, and created these studios and warehouses and all different kinds of locations. We think that trends are going to continue into the actual film studios and the Universals and the Sonys of the world too and that they'd have their own facilities over time. But right now it is in that trend phase, where it's all being outsourced to out of necessity. 

Was that purely triggered by COVID or were some production companies starting to do that anyway?

John Steinhauer: They were starting to do that and they were on the bleeding edge, when this happened, it became more viable.

What about other places like attractions and sports and entertainment venues? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, sports, in particular, has always been good for us. If you're a hockey fan, you're Canadian, so please tell me you're a hockey fan. 

I have to say it quietly, or I'll lose my passport, but I'm more into Premier League Football. 

John Steinhauer: Okay. Fair enough. You know the playoffs are going on right now. The Canadiens are making it to the Stanley cup. The team they beat, Las Vegas Knights are a customer of ours, and if you watch the openings and I love the difference between the arenas, right? Because Canada has a very limited capacity for the crowd, it is very obvious, and then when you go to Vegas, it's a full house. The Canadian venue doesn't have the same amount of technology built into it, and it's pretty obvious when you watch on TV, but when you watch the Knights, well, it's Vegas too.

But man, do they put on a show, and part of their show is our ice mapping. So the ice show you see at the beginning with all the player’s names and the flags when the anthems are being sung, that's all our technology up in the rafters and we've had a lot of reference sites where we're doing that in the NHL, a lot of new franchises or some anyway, coming into the league that we're working with. My New York Islanders. I’m a born and raised Long Islander. Hopefully, we'll win tonight and advance. But they're building a new arena in Belmont, New York, which is right by the horse racetrack, and we're working with them on design and things now, too. So yeah, in the sports arenas, mapping is a very good business for us. 

These are all-immersive, somewhat specialized things, but there's a long tail in all these kinds of facilities, particularly when you get to sports and entertainment venues where they're putting LED all over the damn place, is it inherent that you have to sell across the whole venue? 

Like you can do the LED ribbon boards, you could do the scoreboard, you could do the big, fine pitch displays on the concourse and the whole bed, or can you just do the projection mapping? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, this is where our great partners come into play, and I'll speak about Whitlock, which is no longer around, the expertise that we brought to the table was... 

They’re part of AVI-SPL, in case anybody's wondering, they didn't just die. 

John Steinhauer: No, they didn't die. I exited before that piece of the puzzle came together. So I've never been a part of that team, but yeah, it turned into the big mega guys in the industry and they are very skilled at putting together applications like this, everything from scoreboards and things that you mentioned that we don't do. They have access to that technology, all the audio, which is, a huge part of the venues. They do all that kind of stuff too. 

So I'm an architect listening to this, or I'm a designer or end-user potentially, how does one engage with Barco? Is it through your partners or is it direct? How does all that work? 

John Steinhauer: Yeah, it's through our partners, and through our sales team here in the Americas. But the best way I would say, because I want to have something concrete to say here at the end, in terms of contacting us, is to contact me, you can contact me directly and I can steer you into any direction you need.

John.Steinhauer@Barco.com, and I'd be happy to help anyone who needs more information. 

Perfect. That's a great way to end it. 

John Steinhauer: Thank you, Dave. 

Thank you. I appreciate your time. 

 

Paul Miller, Questex

Paul Miller, Questex

June 23, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

When news broke back in March that the live events and publishing firm Questex had bought the assets of Digital Signage Expo, there was, understandably, a lot of interest and speculation about whether that might mean the defunct trade show and conference would be revived.

It will be, likely around the same timeframe as the past, and back in Las Vegas. It is also likely it will have the same name - though it might just be called DSE. 

What's also clear is that it will not be a simple re-boot of the old show - which makes perfect sense, since the Digital Signage Expo that ran for 15+ years would politely be described as spinning its wheels - with attendance flatlined and exhibitor counts shrinking.

I contacted Questex when news first broke of the DSE assets being acquired at auction, and have had a few conversations since then with the company, including its CEO Paul Miller.

I wasn't sure how much he could tell me, but we had a terrific, very open chat about what went down, and his company's thinking around a new and different DSE in 2022. 

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TRANSCRIPT

David: Paul. Thank you for joining me. Who is Questex? 

Paul Miller: Hi, Dave, thanks for having me first and foremost. Questex is a media and information services business that produces events alongside its media sites. We have been in existence as a company for about 15 years, just over. We are a company that focuses on really five or six markets, that is the life sciences and healthcare markets, the technology markets, and then we also focus on the areas of travel hospitality & wellness, and all of that is wrapped up around a focus on the experience economy. That's who we are and we do events, we do media websites, we do all kinds of connecting of buyers and sellers in those areas. 

David: So of those properties that you have in the context of the Pro AV world, what would people who are listening to this most likely know, LDI or the Nightclub & Bar Show? 

Paul Miller: Yeah. They would probably know our Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas, mainly because that would have been in history. Some cases would collaborate with DSE and in some cases would just sit alongside so they would know that. 

They probably would know the Lighting Dimension Show, the LDI show that you mentioned. Yeah, that's also one that is quite well known in this space. I would say outside of that, there are events that I think are relevant in the hotel area, in the spa area, in the gym area where we’re connecting owners of hotels & operators of hotels and gyms and spas with various people that want to sell into those spaces. So of course digital signage is a huge area for all of those end users. So they may not know those, but certainly, I think they're areas that we think are very relevant. 

David: We'll get into acquiring assets of DSE, but I was curious when that happened, so I looked up Questex to see who they are and how they work and I get a sense that your typical approach is you have publishing wing as a foundational thing that kind of sets the content for that particular vertical market, and then you grow and market the live event off of that. Is that a fair assessment? 

Paul Miller: Yeah, I think that's a good assessment, Dave.

We believe that we should be engaged with communities 365 days through the year because people don't always wait for an event before they make their decision. So we want to help them through that buying process through content that attracts them to our websites. As they interact with that content, we like to use that data to produce what we would consider a very relevant show. So when you come to the show, it's content that's been popular throughout the year, probably speakers that have been writing content that you can come and meet live. So we see a full connection between how people in the B2B world look for content, and how they go through that buying process, and the event is part of that. 

In many cases, it's an exciting part of it, because people come to actually buy. In some cases, they come to network. In some cases, they come to get educated, and in some cases, all three. So, that idea that we would just do an event, and then see you next year is not really in our DNA. We're more, “Hey, we want to serve you throughout the year, and we'd love to see you live at the event if relevant.” 

David: And I also get a sense that that the events look different depending on the vertical. So you don't necessarily do a full trade show with exhibits for a certain vertical because it really doesn't fit, whereas, for other verticals, it may. 

Paul Miller: That actually is a really astute comment. I think sometimes in our world, not the digital signage world. This is our world at Questex. We sometimes talk about events a little bit like somebody saying, “I'm going on vacation to Africa,” and your first question is what country you're going to because you’re going to have a different experience depending on where you're going. 

In the events world too, there are various flavors. In some events, it truly is sort of a cash and carry. You bring in your goods, you set up your store and people come in and they buy your goods, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. By the way, I do not think that applies to digital signage, certainly on the whole, but that there is a flavor of event that we do that sort of emulates that, that is very much you come in to buy stuff and the exhibitors are there to sell stuff and success is how much did I sell, frankly?

And then there are the educational type events which sort of surround large conferences. I think you'd be familiar with these: great speakers, good education, and some really good networking off-piece at the hotel bar afterward, et cetera, and then you can get into some really specific events which are matchmaking buyers with sellers. This particular buyer is looking for this solution and we're going to put you in a room with this seller. They tend to be more intimate, very VIP, in some cases, we will host those buyers. So we tend to be, and I think your comment is right on. We tend to look for what fits what element of the market at the right time.

I think where it gets exciting, Dave, and this probably leads us into sort of our thoughts around the Digital Signage Expo is that in many cases you can do all three. You can have a great conference, you can have a great show, trade show floor, and you can do great matchmaking, and it doesn't work all the time. We have a feeling that it is relevant to DSE from what we've been hearing from the market, but you're absolutely right on the money. We don't really have a one size fits all approach as a company, and I think given the communities we serve, that would be very difficult for us to shoehorn in certain templates if you will. 

David: Right. So back in, I think you said it was April, but you acquired the assets of Exponation. What did you actually acquire? 

Paul Miller: We acquired the assets of Digital Signage Expo which would have included the trademarks, the websites, the database, the customer database. I think that was about it. A few other URLs, websites that sort of surrounded the industry a little bit. But everything that Exponation had that was DSE-related is what we acquired. 

David: And how did that happen? Was there like a Broker who came to you and said, “Hey, we have this”, or do you have people who just pay attention to this sort of thing? 

Paul Miller: No, it was strange, to be honest. The last year has been strange in many ways. Firstly, we’re very aware at Questex of DSC. We had, as mentioned at the start, we had seen the show, we had visited the show. I wandered over to the show while at our Nightclub & Bar event.

David: Just to sober up? (Laughter)

Paul Miller: Yeah, actually, just to see what it's like at a B2B show that isn't serving alcohol, which is a different field, and actually we had been impressed for many years with the show. We certainly didn't really know the understories and what was really going on, but from a very shallow view, I would say, the show looked very professional. There were great companies, and there was good buzz, and we always said to each other that, that looks like a great event, and that was about it, just for the record. 

Then I forget the actual timing, but sometime in the fall of last year, we obviously saw the story that Exponation had filed for Chapter 7, and that sort of alerted us about that a lot of us that are in the events business, the pandemic has been devastating. It wasn't that it was a surprise, but to be honest as having that sort of very narrow and shallow knowledge of the show, we were like, wow that's a shame that, that was a good looking event and we're probably going to see more of this was our initial reaction. Then what happened, Dave is that we got a notice from, I think it was the bankruptcy court. I can't remember who it was, but anyway, we got a notice that the assets were going to be auctioned to help raise funds, for those people that the debt was owed to if you will.

So we said, okay we like these assets and we've got some things that we could bring to the event, or this was before we knew, by the way, that might be relevant. So we entered into an auction process and it was the first time in my career that I've ever been through such a process and it truly was a person on the phone, basically banging the gavel and saying, “Yep,  sold to the people at the back,” and that ended up being us. We obviously then did a lot of homework before we went into the auction. We got our hands around a little bit. What was the size of the show? What was the target audience for the show? What do we think we could bring to the show? And it checked a lot of boxes for us. Yeah, we went into the auction seriously and we won that auction, and then, of course, you find what actually have we acquired? And that was a fascinating sort of few weeks of research. 

David: I've spoken with you in the past, I've spoken with someone else from your company and a consultant, Brent Gleason, who you've engaged to help out with this. 

I'm curious, as you've done your kind of due diligence and exploration of the industry, what have you been hearing about the industry, your impressions on that, but also, we can go from there to what are you going to do? 

Paul Miller: Sure. So firstly I have to say, and I think you know this that there wasn't a lot of ho-hum type of commentary in the research when we went to the industry. People were very passionate about space, very passionate about this product. Not all of it positive. I think there've been some negative experiences for certain people, but what we did find, Dave, was that this is an industry that is going through terrific growth and that growth looks to be sustainable, certainly, through the next half a decade if not beyond in our opinion, so great sort of 7.5% CAGR growth rates, touches a lot of verticals, and I know that people listening and yourself would know this, but this was our learning, touching verticals as diverse as healthcare, through to retail, through to hotels, houses of worship, hotels. So that was really interesting for us.

We also found and heard that the industry actually wanted a place to gather. They do see this as an industry that has its unique personality. It's not all about one thing or another thing, and there are definitely some trends that are coming in, the digital out of home space for instance, that in my opinion, is akin to what happened between print and the internet, back in the late nineties, a lot of data starts to be kicked off and a lot of backend technology starts to get into play. With digital signage becoming the forefront of that, it's where people first interact. So we got very excited very quickly. Some of the comments frankly, were hard to swallow or people saying, “Hey, the event was not what it used to be.” “It was starting to lose a little bit of its luster.” 

Obviously when the show was canceled last year. Some people were really quite upset about the lack of refunds and what went on there, and I fully understand that. We had to cancel a lot of events last year as well. It was a very tough scenario for everybody, but the industry we felt as we got into it had an opinion, and it was a strong opinion and people wanted to talk. We had incoming people calling us saying, “I want to talk to you about what you've bought here and let you know what you've got.”

And actually Brad was one of those, by the way, Brad said, look, I have a lot of history with the show, and I'd love to help reinvent it along the lines that I feel, and I think what the industry feels it should have been going in any way. So look, we have the ability to “start again” in many ways. I don't think the Exponation had that ability. They had a product, they had to try to grow that product. We've acquired a set of assets, but we have a real strong ability to listen to the community and try to create a new experience for the community that they're telling us they want. And that's unique. So, we purposely were have been extremely patient. We just said, let's listen, and the more we listen, the more we're finding that the industry wants an event, it wants a place to gather, but it doesn't really want your grandmother's DSC. 

I think the event has reached its limit, if you will, in terms of value and people wanted to do something else going forward, without losing some of the great things about the event, seems like it was a fantastic place for the industry to network and meet once a year. We don't want to lose that. That's a super reason for having an event. So, it's been a real experience. I mean, this is a very good acquisition from my experience, acquired through auction had gone into Chapter 7 through the pandemic and it has a set of stakeholders that really want to have a say. I mean, nobody said, sorry, I don't want to talk about it, or, I don't really have a comment. Everybody had something to say and I think that's great. That shows some passion. It shows some engagement. It’s just that not all of the comments were positive, I have to be honest.

David: Oh, for sure. When we chatted in the past, I said, I don't think there's enough to do at a trade show with a whole bunch of exhibit stands and everything, the way it was done in the past. There's a diminishing number of companies that want to spend those kinds of dollars, and I just didn't see it. Is that what you’re hearing more broadly? 

Paul Miller: Not really, no. I get your point, and we actually gave people the ability to tell us what they really want. Now, I will say that the number one thing that's coming back is that we want to meet people that are going to buy our product. So we want to meet, we don't really want to just get together and talk to each other. But it's a very expensive meeting to just talk to other people in the industry. So there's been a lot of questions to us like, do you reach people in the hotel industry? Do you reach people in the restaurant space? Do you reach people in other areas where digital signage is needed and can be engaged with? 

And when we've explained, as I did up top, that these are the markets we're in, people have gone, if you can get those folks to attend an event, we absolutely will bring a booth and we absolutely will exhibit, but you gotta bring buyers. You're not going to get away with putting up an exhibit and meeting without competitors across the aisle, that’s not enough. 

David: Right. I know with Exponation, they worked their butts off trying to get brands to show up, to a level that they were putting them on advisory boards and things like that, just to make them feel like they should be there. 

Paul Miller: Yeah. Look, I've been in the events space for sort of 25 years. It is not easy, particularly when, and this is where it comes back to the strategy of Questex, I think compared with Exponation, we're a huge believer in content.

I think I've said this to you before content is still king or queen, but the kingdom is data. Once you have people and you've attracted them, around content, it's really about understanding what their needs are, what they're looking for, engaging with them, and I think if you're a pure-play event company, what you do is you put on an event once a year, you're sort of reliant on a lot of partners to produce that content for you, and not in your environment. So you don't get the data as much, and I think that makes it very difficult in complete deference to what Exponation was trying to do. 

I think they were trying to do the right thing, but when you don't have that daily engagement with the community, it's quite hard to hit it out of the park on every single thing. You're going to find your content probably gets a bit tired, sometimes the loudest voice gets to be the speaker, as opposed to the one that everybody wants to hear. There are certain things that data takes out of the room. It takes that emotion out of the room and it says like this audience is engaging with this type of content, that's what they want to see live. That I think gives you a little bit more data-driven decision-making around what the industry wants, as opposed to my gut feel or what somebody just told me at the bar last week at the show. 

David: So, based on everything you've been hearing, everything your team has been doing, do you have the bones of an idea of what we’re going to see?

Paul Miller: Yeah we do. I think that's a good description. I'm not sure we're fully fleshed out, but I can certainly tell you a few things that we're going to do. 

Number one, we are going to relaunch the show. Just to be clear from the top, we are going to relaunch the show. We do think that the show has to be repositioned somewhat to be a broader show to bring in those customers, as I mentioned, We're looking at experiences around a broad-based agenda of life and business and mid the re-emergence of society and the global economy. So this is more about where does digital signage fit in the “roaring 20S”? So we are looking to bring back the event. We're looking at next Spring and we are looking at Las Vegas. I can't go much further than that at this point in time, because we are obviously trying to secure venues and we're trying to secure dates, and that by the way, is easier said than done in a post-pandemic environment and everybody wants dates.

But we do have our Nightclub & Bar rebranded as our Bar & Restaurant event in Las Vegas next spring. There's the possibility of bringing that together again if you will. We will have an exhibit floor but also adding things like show floor experiences, very inclusive. You know, “let's demonstrate some applications, do some showcases, have some themed presentation stages.” So a lot of buzz on the show floor, but at the same time, a really engaging conference program, lots of curated presentations, tracks based on innovative applications, why do this, what are the outcomes, what you should be looking for?

And last but not least we are hoping to have multiple layers of networking at the event. That's one thing that this community told us is, “Please don't lose the networking!” 

As I think, you know more than I know, great parties, great places for the industry to come together and celebrate, learn to buy, to sell. So yeah, we were even looking at guides around Las Vegas itself, tours of installations so people can learn, form real-life applications, not just what somebody might tell you what could happen. Let's curate some tours, and we do that by the way, for our Bar & Restaurant event, we take people behind the scenes at a Nightclub behind the scenes of a Vegas restaurant, so they can see everything from point of sale applications through to what's going on in the kitchen, and how does the food come out? We think that the audience, the community is telling us it wants more, hands-on more, show me what works, more education, more demos and bring it all together as an event that is an experience beyond just, ”I walk the show floor and I meet a couple of friends at the bar.”

David: Yeah. I've certainly heard many times and when I did a little survey asking about, where should a trade show go? The comment that's stuck in my head was, I know when I go to something like DSE, I'm landing, and that's what I'm doing that week, or for the next two, three days, that's my subject matter versus an ISE or an InfoComm, which are great shows, but they're Omni shows covering a whole bunch of different vertical industries and technologies and everything else and you don't have this aggregate of people who are just there for digital signage. Now you could go to a party and talk to 20 people, and they're all doing things that have nothing to do with digital signage, but they're in AV. 

Paul Miller: Yeah, by the way, I think both are relevant. A lot of respect for ISE and InfoComm and the AVIXA Association in general, I think they do great stuff by the way.

And I think there is relevance in attending a show that is broader than just the sort of industry that you're in. I think that's where you do see adjacencies and ideas that might be applicable. But what was loud and clear from this community was we wanted our own place. There's enough going on in the digital signage space for us to need to focus on our industry, our solutions, our ecosystem for us to want our own place, and that, by the way, was one of the key learnings over the last 8 to 10 weeks of listening to people. 

There wasn't one person who said, I don't think the industry needs its own place. There are a few people who said can I afford the time to go to all of these events? And I think that's a relevant comment and that's all about saying, well, we have to win your respect to get your time, and we have to have a program that you walk away after two or three days or a week, and you go, “Wow, I'm going to recommend this to my friends because these guys really put something on that it creates a fear of missing out if I'm not there, and I think more importantly than all of that actually creates business interactions. People actually do write orders and they do write RFPs at the event.” That's what we're here for at the end of the day. 

So yeah, I think the need for an event that's focused on this particular community is clear: that's actually a box that was checked very clearly. it wasn't a 50-50 decision.

David: There will be people who listen to this and think that's great that you're doing a show, but spring in Las Vegas or just spring in general in the trade show industry is very crowded. There's a lot going on and you're putting this in between ISC and InfoComm, which are AV shows, there's NAB, all these other ones that happening around then there, I've heard many people say it would be lovely if an event like this was in the fall instead.

Paul Miller: Yeah. Unfortunately, the fall is also busy. It's got its own interesting issues and particularly around the pandemic where shows have been moved around, and they're off cycles. The feedback that we got, Dave, was again, you're right, “It's crowded. Please don't put it over the top of another show because we don't want to be forced into a decision. Do we go to this or this?” 

The feedback we got was, “We liked where it was before,” which was, around that April timeframe, spring timeframe. So we've taken that into account and we didn't have any huge set of people saying, “Hey, move it to November or get it out of the way.” The other option we had by the way was to think about, do we put it alongside our lighting show, which is in the fall, October, November. 

The more we get into it, the more it becomes clear to us that actually, the lighting show is not as relevant as an audience, they tend to be lighting designers, people that are doing the rigging of lighting, et cetera. A better audience would be people that are buying stuff for their restaurant for us. So yeah, we're never going to get a date that's going to satisfy everybody, unfortunately. Our feeling is we have the best chance to bring the right set of buyers to this event in the spring of next year. 

David: And if you do it somewhat in tandem with an existing show like your Bar & Restaurant show, I imagine there's some efficiency around Ops people, like, you don't have to bring double the staff. You may bring more than you would for one show, but not of double compliment. 

Paul Miller: Yeah, the efficiencies come with, obviously the show place itself. So if we do go to the Las Vegas convention center, obviously you get efficiency. If you do two in one, if you will. 

From our team perspective, maybe Dave, in terms of we could send seven people rather than two sets of five, for instance, which is where I think you're going. But I'm not sure, I think what we're looking at for this event is and also by the way, for the Bar & Restaurant event, as you can imagine, the experiences there are pretty high end. You've got people launching new dreams. You've got people launching new bar and restaurant concepts. So I think that it would be the same as at a reinvigorated DSE. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not looking for cost efficiencies, let me put it that way. That wouldn't be the reason for doing it. 

David: When do you think you'll have a launch or an announcement saying we're going to do this? 

Paul Miller: We're in the midst of recruiting an advisory board. We're getting some great traction there, by the way. I can give you a few names if that helps. I would say we are a matter of weeks away from a full announcement and maybe not many weeks. 

David: Yeah, and I guess you really have to be because planning cycles are long, right? People are already budgeting for 2022. 

Paul Miller: We gotta get moving, yeah.

It's not just the budgeting aspect of this. It's the sales team that has to be implemented. You've got to have your content team in place. Your advisory board needs to meet so we can start to get around the sort of flavor of the show. So no, we gotta get our skates on, no doubt about it.

David: So who are some of your advisors that you can say? 

Paul Miller: Some that I can say, and by the way, there are a number of others that we think are going to be really exciting for the community to hear about, but we've got Rich Ventura, B2B Business line manager at Sony, I think previously the chairman of the DSF. We've got Rick Robinson, Chief Strategy Officer for Billups, leading voice in the out-of-home industry, and by the way, a play on the advisory board, just for the record is these four quadrants, there's the industry veterans, those people that really know this space, the new voices, and the new faces. We said we're going to reinvigorate, let's get some new voices. So Jackie Walker, digital signage subject matter expert at Publicis Sapient is one of those. 

We've got a number of others. Laura Davis Taylor retail & reality, we've got some people here that I think are going to bring some really great new voices and faces alongside the veterans, also strategic partners that we're looking at, and of course, people like yourself in the media. We'd like to have a balance of all of the above and if we're going to deliver on our promise of a reinvigorated show, I think the definition of insanity is doing something the same way and then expecting a different outcome, so we've got to make some changes here and reinvigorate the advisory board, get new names and voices and faces involved, but don't throw away the baby with the bathwater either, make sure you've still got the people that know what they're talking about. 

David: The last question I suppose is will it be called Digital Signage Expo or it'd be something else, or is that TBD?

Paul Miller: Yeah, that's a great question. We have, interestingly, sometimes for how things happen without doing more sort of fundamental research, but internally we're using the DSE acronym quite a lot. I don't know is it Digital Signage Expo? Is it Digital Signage Experience? Is it DSE? At the moment where we're sticking with brand equity. Words and all that come with digital signage expo, but it's interesting internally, and we do refer a lot to it as DSE, and sometimes that just turned into the experience as opposed to the expo. So a little bit more about the industry, a little bit less about the product itself.

I would say a personal front, from what I've heard from customers, Digital Signage Expo is fine. People are calling it DSE anyway, and I don't know if I want to go through a massive rebranding exercise at the same time we're doing a relaunch of the event. 

David: Yeah. It's more of the communications and the people you bring on board and everything else. 

Paul Miller: I think so, yeah. At the end of the day, I think it is: have we delivered a product that people go to and say you know what, these guys are on the path to creating a must-go-to event, we did some business, it was great to meet the community again, and I learned a lot. If we can check those boxes, I think we can then start to think about, okay, what now? And at the moment, we're just fully focused on producing something that people walk away from Vegas going, “These guys nailed it, they listened and we've got an event that's a must go for our industry, and they want to listen to some more on how we can make improvements from stage one.”

So I think at the end of the day, that's what really matters. Yes, people have a lot of opinions. Yes, there's a lot of baggage. Yes, there's a lot of words that we're using right now that I hope resonate with the industry. But at the end of the day, it's did we deliver? 

David: All right, Paul, thank you. I appreciate your time. 

Paul Miller: Dave, it's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

 

Jay Leedy, Sony

Jay Leedy, Sony

June 16, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

Sony has been around digital signage for pretty much as long as the industry, but in all my time around this sector I haven't had a particularly strong sense that the company was really serious about digital signage. Until the last year or so.

First, the company attracted Rich Ventura over from NEC, and Ventura is as well-known, knowledgeable and hyper-connected as they come in this business.

A few months later, Jay Leedy left the huge AV integrator Diversified to join Sony, and while he's maybe not quite as connected as Rich, he's still really well known in this sector, and knows his stuff. Locked down for months like most of us, Leedy's spent his first year with Sony building up relationships with the ecosystem and raising awareness that Sony really, truly is in the digital signage business in a serious way.

In our chat, we cover a bunch of things - most notably Sony's own approach to so-called smart displays. While Samsung and LG have proprietary operating systems for their smart screens, and their main competitors use Android, Sony uses Android TV. We get into what that means, in terms of benefits like power and features, and a small number of quirks that owe to its being, at its core, a consumer product.

Leedy's gig, in part, is making the developer system aware that Sony has a "pro mode" for Android TV, and how digital signage software companies that already support Android can add support for Android TV quickly and easily.

We also get into where Leedy is seeing marketplace demand right now, and where the industry is going in terms of emerging technologies.

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TRANSCRIPT

Mr. Leedy, thanks for joining me. You have, in the past year or so, gone from one company to another. What are you doing at Sony? 

Jay Leedy: Hey, Dave. Good to talk to you as well. So when I left Diversified, I had been doing a lot of work in business development for strategic partners, and also working with a lot of the offices globally, driving digital signage solutions through local relationships.

Similar work, as when I moved to Sony. I'm part of an organization that is really part of their factory planning and product roadmap team called HES or Home Entertainment & Sound, which is a funny name for an organization in my focus, which is really exclusively B2B, but it sheds a little light on our strategy and how we're developing our Bravia product, with a lot of efficiencies in manufacturing and kind of common components from our consumer line, we poured it into a discrete line of Bravia products. 

So I do a lot of partnership development, really taking cues from our professional sales organization that Richard Ventura leads, and based on their feedback and voice of customer insights, leverage that into developing solutions or effecting changes to our hardware components that are made to better serve the B2B market, and in cases where we have gaps in capability, build-out partnership ecosystems to serve that. So my focus immediately, since I came on, which has been about eight months, has really been around digital signage and building out a broad partner ecosystem to serve that market.

Yeah, I think it's interesting because I spoke with Richard when he came over to Sony and talked a little bit about his plans and everything else, and I think it's fair to say that Sony in the past decade or so, hasn't been all that present, maybe by design or just circumstance or marketing, I don't know, in the digital signage sector, but I would say in the past year or so, it seems much more a part of it and not might owe to people like you and Rich and others who are known in the ecosystem and have those deep contacts and everything else. 

Has it been work to get the digital signage ecosystem, understanding that, “Hey, Sony is a player on the B2B side, and we are interested in talking to you and we do have products that are very digital signage appropriate”? 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey, and I'll be honest when I saw Sony at the very last DSE, the same year that LG had decided not to attend. It was a bit of a head-scratcher for me too, I was still at Diversified at the time and had not worked with Sony at all in my capacity there but certainly, with Rich Ventura joining and my coming on, roughly six months after he joined, there's been a distinct focus and an investment at the headquarters level to go after this market seriously. 

We've had a Pro Bravia line of products since 2018, but to your earlier point, we have been relatively Invisible to the market so a number of the folks that I reached out to after I joined Sony on the SI and reseller side, comments were, “Where have you guys been? You've got a great brand. You've got great quality. Everybody knows Sony.” But for whatever reason, we had chosen not to really go aggressively after the B2B market and for a number of years, we were really solely focused on consumers.

But as you know, there's a huge opportunity in B2B, and coming on and engaging with partners, helping them understand our current strategy, which is really around an Android TV-based system on a chip, that's been surprisingly and enthusiastically met with a lot of optimism and support in the digital signage partnership community. So I think that's largely because it's not proprietary [latform that needs to be developed there, they can use existing development talent that is already familiar with developing for Android and work with us without having to develop a new skill set or onboard new resources.

Yeah, I think it's interesting because everybody thinks about Samsung as the company that really introduced the idea of “smart signage” with their system on chip displays, going back to 2013 or something. But I pretty strongly believed that Sony actually had a smart TV and a smart digital signage product before Samsung by a year or so, but it was, as we were just talking about not all that heavily marketed and there wasn't a lot of awareness around it, but Sony has been at this for quite some time.

Jay Leedy: We did have a line that I just learned about actually proceeding with our 2018 launch of Pro Bravia that was more of an ODM approach. So because of that, we didn't control the entire solution stack. Now that we do you have that level of control and a strong partnership with Google and the Android team, that combined with inherent components that we've always built into our devices with respect to image processing and high-quality screen components, that's really helped us accelerate, I think.

A lot of it, to your point, is really about getting the word out and talking with our reseller and SI community, as well as the consultant community to help them understand that this is a real line, we're committed, and we're not dipping our toes into proverbial water. Like this is something that we have deep investment in and commitment at the highest levels of the organization to go after. 

You talked about how easy it is to develop for Android since you don't have to have a proprietary operating system, but is there a clear distinction between Android and Android TV, in terms of development? 

Like I've heard some software companies say, “Yeah, the Sony product is great, but it's Android TV. It's not Android as we know it. So it's different. We have to develop differently. There are limitations on what we can do and everything else.” How accurate is that? 

Jay Leedy: It's somewhat accurate. I'd say there are some trade-offs. There are some differences between Android TV and Android, specifically that Android TV was designed for watching TV so some of the capabilities like portrait view, for example, are not native in the application.

There's ways to work around that. There are currently some cash limitations on a per-app basis that we're working to address with Google as well, and there's also I think the impression that our Pro Bravia line is more of a consumer or prosumer approach, and to some degree, that's, I think informed by a lack of understanding that we have developed and enabled what we call “Pro mode” which turns off certain UI UX functionality, menus and exposes IP control and other capabilities that would be expected in a commercial line of product. So engineers that are unfamiliar with that may rightly or wrongly draw the conclusion that we're not built for commercial use.

We are in fact, and because of Android, we can expose IP capabilities that are already native to the solution, the device just has to be configured in a specific way in order to take advantage of that. We've also very quickly, to the credit of our software development team in the San Diego offices at Sony, in partnership with Tokyo have developed a device policy control application that enables deeper system level access and that has been a product of my working directly with that team and them better understanding what the requirements of the market or what the desires of partners are, and what is ultimately going to be really critical in helping us meet the market needs. 

So if I'm understanding that correctly, you may have developers from different companies going, yeah Android TV is just not going to be good enough, but if you can get them on a demo and get a sales engineer explaining what you can do, that changes their minds. 

Jay Leedy: It does, and I think what's important to a growing number of end customers and subsequently the managed service providers and SI that serve them is a need to be able to specify devices that can predictably plug into their existing device management and network topology infrastructure because MDM has grown so rapidly with bring your own device strategies and the need to manage disparate device types. The familiarity with Android has increased rapidly especially, where only three four years ago, Android was really looked at as something that posed potential risk to network administrators. 

Now they only embrace it, because they have the tools and familiarity with those tools as to how to effectively manage devices and also mitigate risk on their networks.

And I think with the new Sony Bravia lines that are out, I was reading an email the other day, I think it's like Android 10, right? 

Jay Leedy: That's right, yep, and with any of the devices that we release with Android TV, we're obligated to support up to three major updates. Ss Google releases new versions of Android, we would be compatible for three major releases so the Android 10 devices that are hitting the market now will be able to support up to Android 13, for example, which I think is really helpful in helping the developer community understand the extent to which we support their efforts as well. 

I think it was the guys over in the Czech Republic, SignageOS guys, who did a review of different smart displays and they took a look at the Sony and said, it was really good in terms of video handling and everything else, because it was a later version of Android versus some of the other ones. Is that something you're hearing? 

Jay Leedy: It is. Yeah, in fact, a couple of our partners, who've done initial assessments using benchmarking criteria and content mix and playlists that they use to benchmark all the various players that they evaluate, and in some cases they're even scorecarding and publicly publishing those results, and our performance based on those assessments has been consistent with purpose-built devices like an Intel NUC or a Mac Mini versus some of the others in the market that don't perform nearly as strongly. So I think that's partly because of the processing power that we have, our dedicated video processors as well. And, also having powerful connectivity handling and, some of the other components that really make these strong performing devices. 

So is there a “but” that comes up still? You know, “These are great, but they don't do this or they don't do that.” 

Jay Leedy: Yeah. We have a couple of limitations. One is that per app cache is currently at a max threshold of 2GB, which for many of the applications does not present a challenge, but when you get into scenarios where you're trying to cache locally assets that are fairly large, that can create a challenge. There's a limitation with native rotation, that when putting it into portrait mode, as we touched on earlier, it natively doesn't support that, but in most of the applications that we're testing, we have an answer for that with HTML and CSS workflows that don’t present any concern and we're actively working to resolve those issues and take that feedback and insight that we get from our partners and our resellers and customers.

And that's really my job is to carry those into our planning and roadmap afterwards. 

Yeah, so much of digital signage now is built up around web-based technologies that in the same way that you can have a responsive webpage that'll go into portrait for a smartphone, I assume the same thing is happening here, right? 

Jay Leedy: That's right. The trend, in general, is towards progressive web apps versus native applications, and better understanding that and helping our development team understand how we can address and create a kind of a fertile platform to be able to accommodate those strategies.

It is part of our focus as well, and that's really why we built this large ecosystem to get as much feedback as we can so that we can remain relevant and proactively drive into the market with the right tools for the community. 

So when I looked at Sony in recent years, if I would go to their booth at something like ISC and ask them about digital signage, they would look around and try to find somebody who knew about it and they drag somebody over and they may, or maybe not know much, and if they did, they would point me in a couple of directions to something called TEOS, which is what I gather is more of an office management collaboration toolset, and then there was some CMS software partnership with a company who I wasn't terribly familiar with so I would walk away from those little drive-by meetings and think, “okay, they're not really active in this”, but that's changed if you're talking to 40-60 different software companies you're trying to build something up? 

Jay Leedy: That's right, yeah, and the change is also in helping our professional sales organization and the product management and sales engineers better understand digital signage as a whole, but also the nuances and specialized differentiation between the different partners.

You're right, we did have limited expertise internally prior to Rich and myself coming on digital signage. We had made some inroads and I think had a strategy that entailed reselling digital signage software. That is really not our focus now. We really want to, at the end of the day, remove obstacles to specification and be able to plug into existing estates seamlessly with NSOC that has already pre-qualified as compatible or in the event that, we uncover an opportunity that doesn't have that compatibility or inherent that we have a process and a program to move quickly and ensure that performance evaluation can take place, both by putting a display in our partner's hands and putting their product in our software engineers hands and doing parallel testing and having a feedback loop that’s ongoing. 

So what are you hearing from the various companies out there? 

And God knows there are many of them that have been developing two different system-on-chip displays for several years now, and I say “they” in a global fashion and I understand, some haven't done that, but many have, where are they going and what are they doing? 

Jay Leedy: You mean in terms of…? 

The development, do you see a shift to smart displays from PCs, and do you see a different direction in terms of how they're developing? Cause I get a sense that the smart companies are understanding that they've got to stop just being this kind of island of activity where it just like digital science, you've got to be integrated. 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, you're right about that. I think generally there was a desire by the digital signage software community to consolidate their development resources as much as possible. So not maintaining expertise on a wide range of platforms is desirable. There's also been a shift away from any Chrome OS support and that the logical kind of migration is to support Android, so we're seeing that. 

We're also seeing, in general, a trend towards, using a SOC where possible versus a purpose-built device, both in terms of reducing the cost of hardware, as well as points of failure. But yet you're always going to have scenarios where there is a dedicated playback device may be required, higher-resolution or video walls, but more and more we're seeing a desire to specify and be able to run multiple applications on a single device that in many cases Bravia is built to be able to handle, and that goes beyond digital signage, it edges into typical AV installations and all the device control and integrated solutions in that market as well. 

So there's enough processing power on these two to handle to basically multitask or multithread? 

Jay Leedy: That's right. 

With the different software companies, are you getting any sense that they're coming or they're looking for an alternative to what they've been doing in the past, because some of the big guys, the Samsungs, and LGs of the world, in particular, have started introducing their own software platforms or CMS software?

Jay Leedy: Yeah, I'd say that's correct. There's a desire certainly by the leading software partners to align with manufacturers that are competing with their business, and that's the same with the systems integrators and managed service providers where we don't have a device monitoring network operations kind of service offering.

In some cases, there are manufacturers that have built up those practices and that creates a threat to the highest growth rate part of that industry sector, and it would make logical sense to align with the manufacturer that's staying in their lane, so to speak, and let them grow the business that is most attractive for them to realize returns on.

But the flip side of that argument is that if you are going with a company that has proprietary smart displays and its own CMS, it's kind of a matched set, so to speak, and therefore it simplifies the lives of the integrators. You just know that their displays and the software are already baked in and validated for it so that makes it simple for me. 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, I can see that. But I think flexibility is a big part of the need in the market. We're seeing that kind of confirmed with a number of touchpoints through the industry where especially when you're approaching a customer that has a fairly mature strategy and maybe legacy devices that are across a wide global estate that are not all going to be deemed end of life at the same time, they need to be able to have more interoperability and flexibility and also be able to capitalize on trends as they occur, and as relationships evolve and shift over the life of those things 

Does activity and interest in the signage sector differ from what it did 15-16 months ago?

Jay Leedy: That's a great question. I think I just read your Workplaces Reworked white paper yesterday, which was really well done by the way.

And you slept well last night, right? (Laughter) 

Jay Leedy: I did. We are seeing an increased interest in unified communication and hybrid working environments, or I think accelerating the need for physical spaces to be able to have more heads-up displays for situational awareness, all that stuff is driving that.

And I think there are also opportunities because of the way that these spaces are being organized differently to place communication tools where they previously didn't exist, as well as in the cases of huddle rooms and conference room spaces, there's a number of clients that are interested in activating both screens and using them as communication tools more passively when that environment is not being used for its primary purpose. That definitely has been a trend that we've seen, and I would expect to continue to grow. 

Setting workplace aside, are there verticals that seem to be emerging and other ones that are, you would maybe coach a solutions provider or software company to stay away from for now or not bother with? 

Jay Leedy: I think enterprise, education, healthcare, they all seem to be on a more of a growth trajectory. Obviously, QSR, especially for the drive-throughs, has gone through a major transformation, and there's not any in particular that I think I would steer anybody away from, honestly, we've seen investments that have been pretty significant in transportation as the operators of those hubs, in airports and train stations, have taken advantage of the less traffic. Being able to put labor to drive installation and overhauling those environments at a fraction of the cost, because they don't have to work overnight. They can work during the day. 

So there's not anyone in particular that I would say, I would steer away from necessarily where, as far as Sonny's line of product currently, we don't have an outdoor display. That's something that we may choose to bring to market in the future. But as far as working with Sony specifically, obviously, outdoor displays is not something that we would chase but there certainly seems to be plenty of momentum there. 

Yeah, I was walking through ISE a year and a half ago, and one of the things that stuck in my head was, “Dear God, there are a lot of companies selling outdoor kiosks,” and that was in Europe. So imagine North America and Asia and add all that up and holy smokes. 

So there's nobody sitting around going, “if only somebody would come out with an outdoor ready display for my use.” 

Jay Leedy: That's right, yeah. There seems to be plenty of options out there, but plenty of opportunities too as a result. 

Where do you see the digital signage software and technology going in terms of new developments and overarching trends?

Jay Leedy: Like I mentioned earlier with progressive web apps and a trend towards consolidating developer resources on really focusing on a single platform versus having to support a range of them is certainly a trend in broader integration as well. We're seeing that with companies like Mersive and Crestron, who are able to support digital signage playback in traditional AV applications, and I think beyond that, there are more comprehensive strategies evolving in corporate communications and using a range of different screen types from mobile phones to desktop to traditional digital signage as channels to communicate and meet the need of where the audience wants to receive that information in any shape or form across the entire chain.

So when you're working with the 40-50 companies that you're speaking with, what are they asking and why should they be involved with you? 

Jay Leedy: Mainly they're asking whether their existing native Android application can run on our device or whether they have to develop something unique and more often than not the answer is that their APK can be sideloaded onto our device and very little modification to their code is required. 

So a small job versus a six months job? 

Jay Leedy: Exactly, yeah. So that's really attractive, just to have another arrow in the quiver, so to speak and I think they're also looking for more ways to market.

The enthusiasm that we've gotten in general when they learned that Sony is leaning in and getting more serious about the B2B side of the business and digital signage in particular, they're super excited about it because, like many of us, myself included, some of the first electronics that we had relationships with as we were teenagers and young adults were Sony products, and the idea of working with a brand that has so much recognition in the market for quality, as well as so much innovation in various sectors of our business, including our interactive entertainment division and then this PlayStation product that just can't even stay on the shelves that we get a little bit of a Halo effect from that when approaching these various partners there, they're really excited about working with us. 

Yeah I'd be curious about that. When you come to a Sony display if you're looking at it versus some of the other manufacturers out there, I don't know, I'm thinking maybe you're not going to win a deal based on your price versus some other commodity product but if the buying decision is hanging around, at least in part on visual quality, then you're in the hunt. 

Jay Leedy: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That's a great point. In terms of color accuracy and acuity and things that are really important to brand marketers, we're absolutely in the hunt, if not first consideration, and I think that also translates to total cost ownership calculations, and some of the kind of quality benchmarks that we hit that are reflected in our warranties. 

The industry experts that have worked with us for a long time and as well as are familiar with a number of other manufacturers gravitate towards us because they know they can, more or less, set it and forget it. They're not going to incur costs that they may have to pass on to their customers for field remediation and things that may have been problematic for them previously. So yeah, that seems to really resonate as well. 

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

Jay Leedy: Absolutely. Dave, great to talk to you again, and I'm glad everything's going well for you.

 

 

Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

Christophe Billaud, Telelogos

June 9, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

I first bumped into Telelogos when I started going to ISE in Amsterdam, and while I'd never heard of the company, I wandered off impressed by what I'd seen.

The digital signage software company had a very solid platform and some of the deepest, most powerful device management tools I'd seen. It sounds boring, but that's the stuff that can really matter when you have big, scaled networks.

The company is French and has worked mainly with big, enterprise-level clients in that country, and in other parts of Europe. It has also had quite a bit of success in Asia and the Middle Wast, particularly in banks.

In the past year or so, Telelogos has started laying the groundwork in sales and business relationships to establish itself in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

I spoke with Christophe Billaud, the company's Managing Director.

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TRANSCRIPT

David: Christophe, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what Telelogos is all about, the background, and so on? 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, sure. We are a software company, a pure software company that comes from IT and have existed for more than 30 years now.

At the beginning of the company, we were making file transfer software and then a data synchronization and data integration software for four major retailers. In fact, the software was intended to basically automate, secure, and optimize the data change between one corporate server and a remote location. So mostly retailers who have a lot of different points of sale, and want you to secure their data transfer between all their shops and the head office. So that's where we come from the IT: Data synchronization, data integration, and then we added the device management features because customers want to manage their IT equipment, first the POS, then mobile devices, and all the equipment they have in the shops.

So we come from this world and10 years ago, something like that, we added a new domain in our portfolio: digital signage, and, and of course, as you understand when we develop the digital signage software, we didn't reinvent the wheel and we integrated inside our digital signage software, all the data synchronization integration and device management capability that we already had. So that's what makes it a little bit particular in this market as we come from this IT world and not from the content or the AV market. 

David: Yeah, that's really interesting. I talked about the importance of data integration and device management, and most of the companies in the digital signage industry, the software companies started with the presentation side of their platform and gradually they've added some degree of data integration, and they've got better about device management, but you've come at it from the complete opposite. You did all that stuff first and then added the presentation layer. 

Christophe Billaud: Exactly that, and again, that's what makes us a little bit particular and that's what is interesting in our positioning today as we’ll talk about later, but we think there is a shift between from the AV to also an IT world. That's what makes our offer interesting for the integrators, I think. 

David: How do you see that shift happening, is it just in the discussions or who's in the meetings, that sort of thing? 

Christophe Billaud: Of course when we discuss this with our customers and partners, but we see that in projects, it seemed that before most of the projects were about only broadcasting media with few interactions, almost no integration with the information system, even on the Seabright network.  But now it seems that there is a real trend towards exploiting the huge amounts of data that companies have. Everybody's talking about data mining, et cetera, but people usually don't truly know how to use that, but I think it's really a change for the industry, for the digital signage industry, because there is a great opportunity to use and make the most of these data with digital signage.

There was a possibility with platforms like ours to make these data visually accessible to the workers and customers and to use also this data to condition and to trigger the content to make it really efficient. So I think it's a real opportunity for all the industry. 

David: Yeah, I think it's really important to focus on data just because there's been this endless problem in the digital signage industry of how do you keep the screens populated with fresh content and relevant content? And the way you can really do that and make it hyper-relevant is using data from information systems that matter, and as you say, content that can be triggered and shaped and everything else by what the system is telling you. 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, and that gives also the possibility to have a wider customer range, because before digital signage was retail, banking, corporate, but now we see that it's across all verticals, can be manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, and what is really interesting is that digital signage is shifting from a “nice to have” application to a business-critical application. 

So that's really important for the customer because you are really optimizing for productivity and also for the system integrator because you are not just offering simple digital signage, like a loop, but you will offer a business application to the customer. So the value is not the same in the profit also. So that's really important for all the industry. 

David: Most of your business historically has focused on France and Western Europe, right? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, historically. But for example, we have been selling to Asia in China for almost 15 years now.

David: Are there particular verticals or types of companies that you tend to have worked with? 

Christophe Billaud: We work in all verticals, but it's true that we have a lot of banks in our portfolio. I was mentioning China, for instance, we're having China City Bank, Bank of Communication, Rural Bank. In Hong Kong, we have the ICBC. We had an interview with Nedbank, South Africa some days ago. In the Middle East, and of course some banks in Europe. So we have a lot of banks in our portfolio, I think because security is really an issue for them and to have a really robust infrastructure and that's what we offer with out software.

So yeah, baking is something really in our portfolio, but again, we have a really good market share and corporate and retail, and now we see a lot of new projects in manufacturing, supply chain, logistics as well. 

David: There's a lot of options out there. Why is it that they would go with you guys, given so many companies selling software solutions?

Christophe Billaud: Yes, I think we're talking about the shift from AV to IT, I think that's one y point for the partners now because we believe that in most projects like that when you have to integrate data, it's not only an AV project anymore because you have to integrate this data. You have to find a software solution, which is agile enough to be able to integrate the data at the beginning of the project but to make it evolve also, and that's really important because almost everybody is capable of hard coding and bespoke development for a project at the beginning. But you have to keep in mind that the project will evolve. You have to connect to the legacy system, but to all the new applications, et cetera. So you need to get the system, which is agile enough to do and thanks to where we come from, we have this data integration capability, which is really simple.

You just have to set parameters, and that really helps the partners to follow the customer and to follow the project, and there are all the things that are really important when we are going on any project. Because when we are talking about data integration, that means that you are in the company network. Before, usually with the projects, we were on a different network because there was no integration with the information system. Now, when you are in the network, of course, you will have security concerns. You have to make sure that your software would comply with it and security rules. So you must make sure that you have really robust software, that's also something that we offer, and the last thing that we see is that today most projects are not only traditional displays anymore, but you have a lot of new devices coming to the field. Of course, you have SOC inside the display, but you will have tablets, you have smartphones, kiosks, even IoT devices sometimes.

So you have a broader range of devices, and usually the traditional AV integrator, they are not used to that. So they are asking for tools, how can I manage these devices? How do I integrate this data? We will help them by providing them with the tool, and of course, the partnership and the service to follow them.

David: The kind of partners that you have in different countries, do they tend to be more on the IT side systems integrators side, then on the AV side and that’s traditionally putting in conference displays and things like that. Could they work with your platform?

Christophe Billaud: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, we have more AV partners than IT partners because this market is coming from the AV. So since the beginning, we had AV partners, but now it's true that we see new competitors for the AV industry, pure IT integrators because they can see digital signage project as a traditional IT project because, for them, displays like a screen, a player is like a PC. You have a network, you have data, so for them, it's an IT project, but of course, this is a company that will miss all the expertise on content, on these kinds of things, and I think that AV companies are going to take the skills of IT companies to be able to face this new competition. 

So to answer your question, we had a lot of AV integration companies. We still have a lot and most of our partners are still AV companies, even if we have a new kind of partners like Gemini or this kind of IT company because I think that bigger companies see digital signage as an interesting market, because it's not small project in silo in a company, but it can be across different services in bigger companies worldwide. 

David: As I mentioned earlier, there's a whole bunch of digital signer software options out there, and a lot of them are kind of islands of activity like you log into a digital signage system, you do all your content management and everything out of that, but it doesn't really relate to other systems it's its own thing.

Do you see the future being much more where digital signage is just a component of a larger sort of AV/IT initiative? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, I think we will have a lot of interaction between digital signage in global projects, and it will not be just a digital signage project. That's why we think that's our strategy, which is to focus on developing software is a good strategy for that because it will be something independent that will be able to interconnect with any kind of IT equipment in the company. 

David: Is it getting easier to extract and use data from different kinds of business systems than that in the past? 

Christophe Billaud: Easier, I'm not sure of because you have more and more applications, you have legacy applications, new applications, so I would not say that it's easier because you have a lot of data or multiple choices. That's why, I mean, it's really important to have a platform, which is really agile where you have just to set parameters, because if you make bespoke development, then you're stuck with what you have done at the beginning, it's really difficult to make it evolve and difficult to maintain and it's really costly. 

David: How do you encourage a sniff test on this sort of thing? Like with all these companies now saying, yes we do data handling, we do data integration. We can show real-time data. 

You've been doing that for 20-30 years. I suspect there's a difference between what some cloud-based CMS is saying and what you're saying. So if I'm an end-user, how do I sort out what's good, and what's kind of threadbare? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes. Sure. As you mentioned, everybody can say that they do data integration or even device management. But I think that the main difference is in the way you do it. Again, you can make bespoke development to be connected to one specific application. That will work. You can do it by coding but then you have a lot of different data sources when you want to change regularly the data structure, when you want to do a lot of things like that and make it evolve.

If you don't have just an easy software with parameter setting, which is ready to connect to different applications, that would be a nightmare. So all companies will be able to connect one specific application by coding. Everybody can do it, but to have software be able to connect to different application data sources, databases, just by setting parameters and to make it evolve reasonably, it's really something different. 

I mean, for all these users and all the integrators, I would say just come and talk to us where you can test out the software easily, see how it works, and how easy it is to use. 

David: think you have a lot of data connectors already pre-written, right?

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, that's the mechanism we have. We choose all of that and we also build a partnership with different companies and to be able to make that, for instance, we just launched a partnership with SAP in manufacturing. That's something really important to have access, to all this data and to be able to beta serve all these customers, to make all these data visually accessible again in manufacturing or transportation or logistics, for instance. 

David: So if you're hooking into an SAP system or something, is that relatively easy or is that like a quarter million dollar job? 

Christophe Billaud: No, it can be easy. I mean, like in every project, it depends on how far you want to go, how much data do you want to extract, the process you have, but no, once again, it can be something really easy to use. 

To begin a project, it's not a hundred million dollars and it can be done in some really easy steps.

David: When you're working with larger enterprise-grade companies and talking about things like data to data handling and device management, are they asking you about that, or are you selling that into them? Saying this is the sort of thing that you could do or do they already know. 

Christophe Billaud: With large companies, I would say it depends on the verticals.

For instance, in banking, they are used to doing that to get the financial data and the extraction into their information system. But for instance, manufacturing or transportation, logistics, they don't really have the use case. They don't even think of digital signage sometimes. So we have to tell them, yes, we can do some kind of digital dashboarding of what you can extract from your information system, from your ERP, and what you can have. 

I mean, they usually don't think of it. So in some industries, that's something really new. So we have to tell them about what we do, for example, all the verticals to the manufacturing and logistics, we tell them that it's possible with digital signage.

David: Once you tell them about it and explain that you can visualize your KPIs on the production floor of a factory or whatever. Do they still have to think about it and rationalize it, or they kind of conclude that would be very useful? 

Christophe Billaud: Really most of them think that it's really useful. It’s just that they have to find the time to make it. But yes, it's really a prediction game and something that is really important for them because they're always trying to find a way for the manufacturing to really bring this information in front of the worker when they are working and it's always a nightmare.

And that gives them these possibilities, and what is interesting with digital signage that you can have a mix between these KPI information coming from the information system, mixed with security information or in general communication, that's also something important. 

David: Yeah. I'm sure that if you just have screens up telling you what the production volumes are and all that, after a while it starts to become a wallpaper. But if you can blend it on other things, then people are going to look at it repeatedly. 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, exactly, and sometimes it's really prediction-oriented, meaning that when the guys are working on a specific operation, we will trigger the right content to tell him what he's doing right now two minutes after bringing another media. So, as I said before, you can make the data visually accessible and also trigger the right information during the operation process. That's also very important 

David: Where does Telelogos start and stop in terms of services? 

There are increasingly software companies who are becoming quasi integrators and also consultants on everything else. What's the scope of services you guys offer? 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, that's an interesting point. We have seen a lot of companies like that. I mean, coming from software and being integrators mostly in retail, because they want you to get there and say, “Okay, we do software, we got a name. We can have the project.” We do not think that's a good idea. We will keep our business model, which is really clear. We just do the software and we sell through via our business partners. First reason is that the integrators, they are our partners.

If we become a service and be an integrator, we become a competitor to our partners and that's not what we want to do, and secondly, I think that's not the trend of the market. If you look at the not only digital signage market but globally speaking for example on IT, we see that a lot of companies tried in the past to make software and then to add services. But finally, that you didn't make it because it's a different job, and again, you have your partner as a competitor, and we also feel when we discuss with customers now, especially large customers, that they want to build the best solution to be free. Sometimes they want to change a piece of the puzzle, not to be stuck with one partner and each priority solution. So I think for the customer, it's really important to be free and to have one integrator, which is the best solution, and if the customer is not happy with one or the other, then it can change.

I think one of the reasons also that digital signage projects, some years ago, where you just launch a project or a new concept in retail, for instance, and this concept will be the same for five years now. We see that there are a lot of needs for evolution, not only with the pandemic, but globally speaking. So you need to change the concept to change something, to connect to another data source, to do something new, and that means that you also need agility and you have to change that, and the last thing about that is that the digital signage project is also evolving, meaning that before you had one digital signage project in silo, in a company and more in a big company, we see several projects in different services in retail and supply chain then corporations and they will have different needs and they will not take one vendor that has a different solution every time, sometimes they will want to validate one software, one solution to use it for different services, sometimes not.

So they want to be free to change, and so I think that the future of the markets, that the company will choose their solution and they will choose an integrator to make the whole project. 

David: Yeah. I certainly hear that over and over again, that they don't want to deal with five different vendors, all pointing their fingers at each other when there's a problem, that they want to deal with one person, one company. 

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, I mean, they can have just one company in front of them, but inside the project, you have different solutions.

I think that's important for them, and when we are coming to IT, also in terms of security for the IT people, I think it's important for them to validate software security validation takes time in big companies. It's really important. So if, for example, in a big company, they have 5 or 10 different digital signage projects, because one is for retail and one is for corporate, etc. They don't want to validate 10 different software, but once they validate one, which is good for all that they are doing, they're usually happy to use it for different uses, and then they will choose an integrator to integrate all the solutions. 

David: Tell me about CLYD, it's a device manager, but it's its own entity. Is it not? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, it is because CLYD is a device management software. It's included in our digital signage suites media for display. So when you buy the entire digital signage solution, you have it on board, but there's also software and mobile device management, which is used on its own to manage mobile projects.

David: So it can be completely distinct from a digital signage project? 

Christophe Billaud: Exactly. It can be totally distinct, but of course, it's really useful in digital signage because it will allow you to manage not only the content with CMS, but to manage the device themselves, players, the displays, and that's also something which is more and more important that asking our partners and customer because they want to make sure that the project is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make sure everything is working by having software, hardware, inventory, to also be able to make what we call preventive maintenance.

And that's with this software, we can monitor any critical elements of the PC, so we can check the hardware software, the disc space, the fire, the nature studies, et cetera, and when there is a problem, automatically we'll have alarms and we can launch automatic action to prevent or fix the problem.

David: Do you sense that your buyer base, your customers understand the value of device management more than perhaps they did in the past? 

Christophe Billaud: Oh, yes, they do. That's for sure, because, again, before digital signage was just a project on the side. Even sometimes IT didn't even know that they had digital signage because it wasn't on their own network.

Now that it’s coming to the IT infrastructure, that's a must to manage the device, not only to make sure that it's working, but it's also to ensure security, to make sure that it complies with IT and security rules. For example, when today we have a lot of Android devices going on the field, I don't even know if the customer knows how many devices, Android devices, which are deployed are rooted systems, just because it's easier for the manufacturer and for the software provider to have a rooted system because, and it's a little bit technical, but in Android to make some particular function like reboot, or to make a silent installation, you have to get some special rights, but when you have a rooted system on your network, such a huge security breach.

So that's why you need a real device manager, which is loaded by Google and by Android to be able to pair from all these features and to ensure the security of the device, but now in big companies, security’s just a must and device management also is a must. 

David: The company started to take a look at North America as a market to expand into, I know you already have some partners there, but you're taking a serious look now at North America. Correct? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, completely. As we mentioned before, our major footprint in EMEA. We have a lot of customers in Asia also, in Africa. We now have an office in Mexico actually. But in the US even, we have some partners, and now we will have some nice customers, but it was some opportunities.

Now we want to expand our footprint in the US. That's really important for us, so to find new partners and we are also looking for an acquisition or merger or strategic partnership in North America to be able to accelerate and to really be able to build a real transnational company in EMEA, Asia, and America.

David: Is it a challenge to reach from France or because you've been doing Asia and elsewhere, it's just another market? 

Christophe Billaud: It's not just another market, I think. North America is a huge market. It’s a good market, a technical market. I mean, there are a lot of competitors there, and I think it's difficult to go quickly and have great visibility without having a local partner.

That's why we're really looking for a strategic partnership there. 

David: How was that going so far? 

Christophe Billaud: So far we are just trying to find the right company, but we are still looking for that. So if some company is interested to contact us to discuss it, we will be of course, totally open.

David: I speak with software companies and with private equity and VC companies, and there's a lot of shopping happening, right? 

Christophe Billaud: Yes, that's true.

David: So it's a competitive market in its own way. There's a lot of companies saying we would entertain a discussion and there's a lot of VCs saying we would love to be able to be introduced to X and Y.

Christophe Billaud: Yeah, that’s true, I mean digital signage, I would say is a recent market. So like all emerging markets, there are a lot of small companies and now they're reserved for consolidation, so that's totally natural, and it's true that there is a lot of consolidation now. But it's not that easy to find the right company with the same strategy and this mentality.

David: Yeah, there are lots of people who would happily sell to you, but do you want to buy them? 

(Laughter)

All right, Christophe, that was terrific. I appreciate you spending some time with me. 

Christophe Billaud: Thanks a lot, Dave. 

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

Transforming QSR Drive-Thru Roundtable

June 2, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

QSR has always been an interesting and very active sector for digital signage, with chain restaurant operators being early adopters of the technology for menu displays.

But the pandemic has shifted digital screens from being a better, more cost-efficient way to manage menus to being mission-critical to many operations - particularly when in-store ordering and dining was shut down in many places and the only way to do business was in the drive-thru lane.

Global Display Solutions (GDS), which makes outdoor displays for situations like drive-thrus, had an online panel session recently that explored the digital transformation of QSR. I was asked to moderate - a job made easy because I had really great panelists.

Along with Robert Heise of GDS, I chatted with Jackie Walker of Publicis Sapient, Dana Stotts of Arc Worldwide and Jeff Hastings, the super-smart CEO of BrightSign.

There was no presentation to sit through first, so what you have with the audio version of the session is about 60 minutes of insights on what's happening with digital signage in QSR. In short - lots! 

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Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

Neil Longuet-Higgins, The LED Studio

May 19, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

I was scrolling my way through my Linkedin feed recently when I stumbled across a post from a guy who said he was the inventor of the much-debated term digital signage, with a bio photo that showed him wielding a bottle of champagne that was about the size of a golf bag.

Clearly, I needed to speak with this guy.

So Neil Longuet-Higgins and I got on a podcast call the other day to talk about his claim to coining the term digital signage. Turns out he kind of adapted it from someone outside the industry, who was looking at a video wall, and didn't know what to call it.

He's been around pro AV and digital signage for some 30 years, so we talk about the early days and challenges. We also get more broadly into what he does - running sales for a company west of London called The LED Studio.

That company specs, designs, manufactures, rolls out and manages large format LED displays, including a new microLED video wall product that competes with the big boys of the display business.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS

TRANSCRIPT

All right, Neil, thank you for joining me. We've not met, but I was intrigued by what I saw on your LinkedIn bio that I stumbled across. It said you're the guy who invented the term or coined the term, “digital signage.” So it was your fault? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I'd like to think so. Some people might disagree. It was many years ago when I was running a video wall company in the UK and everybody used Barco monitors and electronic projection cubes, but no one was using them to advertise anything, and we ended up putting some small Barco monitor walls in 20 or 30 shopping centers in the UK, and we just called them video walls. There was no mystery to them. But then one day I had a phone call from a security guard who said, “Your digital sign is broken.” I said, what are you talking about? I think you've got the wrong number. He said, “No, your digital sign”, and I thought he was talking about neon or something, and then he went, “No, the one with all the pictures on it,” and I suddenly went oh, with the video screen? He said, yeah, and I actually thought about that after he'd made the call, I thought, “hmm, digital sign!”

So we started to promote it as Digital signage for advertising and the name stuck internally, and then some of the people, the suppliers would start to use it, and it just picked up from then, and I forgot about it for such a long time, and then eventually it came around and people would ask for digital signage, and so yeah, so a few people back in the day, remember it. 

It's interesting because it's a term that has been debated, really since it started to gain any kind of common usage and people would say, “That's not the best thing, puts it in a narrow box. It should be called dynamic digital signage, or it should be place-based media or on-premise.” Just all these different things. I've forgotten all the different terminology that was being suggested. 

Do you think it really matters as somebody who's been around it this long?  

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I don't think it does, to be honest, but it does great when people use something I'm not familiar with, or they seem to dream a new thing up just for the sake of it.

The classic buzzword at the moment is direct view LED. All LEDs have been direct view from the very first one. You don't look at it far from a mirror or anything, and I think LG coined the phrase initially to differentiate internally between their LCD screens that were backlit by LED. But it seems to be something that's picked on now. I prefer the phrase TruLED but it's like different countries and regions have different ideas. 

People will call an ordinary LED screen, a “video wall” when technically it's not. But people know what you mean. As long as people understand what you're talking about, that's fine. 

Why do you prefer TruLED? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I just think “direct view” describes nothing. It would be like saying your television at home is a direct view television.

Yeah, don't sneak up on it from the side. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, it'll spot you these days and it'll already be recording you. That's probably for sure. 

Yeah. It's interesting because LG would be one of those companies that caused the problem to begin with by marketing LED TVs when there were LCDs, but they had LED backlight arrays.

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, and I think we always try to call something new, with micro LED and mini LED. People will come up with different names for stuff to try and make it unique to them, and that's what the marketing of all products is about, to try and make something unique and get the buzzword out there.

How long have you been around “video walls” and digital signs generally? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: In the late 80s, early 90s, I was with a video company called Pro-Quip, and that ended up being one of the largest video wall companies in the world and through the 90s and got very big, and at the end of that company, we were looking at the beginning of the LED. 

What I like about being in the business so long is seeing some of the people who initially worked with me as junior technicians and things, they're now senior people within the industry and also some of the designers and people I worked with, are now stalwarts of the industry and they've designed a lot of LED screens and things like that.

So the video wall network that you're putting in shopping malls that were for advertising?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yes, it was. It was called center network television, and it was a great idea, but the costs of it and the reliability, it was too far ahead of its time because we were recording things initially on a Phillips laser disc which was very expensive, about 1500 pounds back then to get a single disk, and then we moved onto the Sony CRV desks but they suffer from all the dust the bad environment of shopping centers and things, and even the original CLT Barco screen technology, you used to have to stick your hand in the back initially to color balance it. It was dangerous stuff!

And I'm glad the technology has moved on, but I think if we would've been able to have flat screens that were memory sticks back then. I think it would have really taken off, but it was the cost of doing it was hard. 

So compared to today to do the same physical footprint of a video wall in that kind of environment, if you were doing it now, would it cost less than it did at that time or would it be a parity?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: It would cost less now, and one of the things was changing content. You could only afford to have a new laserdisc pressed once a month, and then you had to go around and physically change that content, and now we just take for granted that you'll just upload it via the cloud too, via whatever CMS system and that was just not even thought of back then. 

And you had to cross your fingers that the laserdisc player was going to last, right? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, they were forever falling over. 

They would last what, like 3000 hours, maybe? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: If we were very very lucky. 

Oh Lord. So you would have a tech out there, like every three months or something switching out a box?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, I mean, you would try and be a little bit proactive on things and, remove them and clean them and et cetera. But the housings that were made were fairly basic, and whereas they had vents for keeping the monitors cool, all the rubbish would get sucked in there, and yeah, laserdisc was never going to be a format for long-term use.

So if you're thinking back to the late 90s, what were the technologies that you were praying would come along that would make your life easier? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think when it came to the conversion of someone's advert to put on to any format, we always wanted a digital video player and it did happen in that time, and I remember thinking, “I don't really understand this,” cause there's not a disc spinning around or videotape running along with, where's the image coming from? But it was early hard drives done by, I think it was Digital Video Systemswho developed one of the early ones. And, that was the first big step to moving forward. 

And then I guess the next one would be well, really internet, but just high-speed connectivity so you could actually send a file out instead of driving it over?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Absolutely. That's key as it is with all systems these days. You've got to have that network around you or that internet and with that, the world is your oyster really. 

So you're now with a UK company called LED Studio running their sales?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: That's correct. LED Studio, we're celebrating our 10th year at the moment. It's one of the world's best-kept secrets. We are based in Swindon, we have a very large facility there and we have our own brand of LED screens called VOD Visual, and a lot of our business is OEM for other brand names, we do white labels for a lot of the UK integrators. But we are starting to promote ourselves as a proper brand because our technology is quite far advanced than many other people.

We've just introduced quite a few new products that are groundbreaking in the industry and people are suddenly going, “Oh, we should've been watching these guys. We are trying to catch up.”

It's a challenging industry to be in because there are so many companies selling roughly the same thing. How do you cut through all that? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: It's your product that speaks really. In the LED industry, everybody has over the last few years, self-declared themselves as experts. We actually have experts so the owner of our company is an expert. He designs the screens and we look at things in a different way. We try to keep LED simple. We try to keep it economical, and we just don't like to complicate things, whereas if you were to touch Samsung's The Wall screen, for example, you'll feel it's very hot. You won't burn your hand on that, but it makes you think it shouldn't be like that. So we've designed screens that run very cold. They have heat sinks to take the heat away from the LED and that gives you a better life span. It gives you much better color stability, and we just think there are obvious things that people are missing, but there are so many screens churned out of small Chinese factories.

Shenzhen back in the day was half a dozen companies and now it's a big town or city with thousands of manufacturers. They take no prisoners, they copy everything, and it's good in some ways, because technology moves on, but it means that every time you bring out something new, you only have a certain period with it while it is new.

Yeah, that's a challenge in that I would think in a lot of countries when you see a brand like LED Studio, it would be reasonable to assume that these guys are a reseller of some white-labeled product out of Shenzhen, they're just getting contracts manufactured, but it's really a happy sunshine 8:8:8 LED or whatever, as opposed to something that was originally designed.

But you're saying, you guys do the engineering, design to your specifications, and then get it to contract manufactured overseas somewhere?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: We have our own factory and everything is designed in the UK. We're just about to be awarded “Made in the UK” status. Obviously, the factories have to be in China because that's where the supply chain is.

But once things are made there, like the first part of the assembly, PCBs and things are done, all screens come to the UK for final testing and assembly. So by doing that, and normally in non-COVID times, our CEO spends two weeks of the month in China overseeing quality control and manufacturing, and that's been very difficult at the moment, but looking to get back out there very soon, hopefully. 

I've been to China, I've been to Shenzhen. There's a huge range of manufacturers from Intel-level cleanroom kinds of facilities to open window facilities. I remember one place where there were ducks walking outside and there were no controls at all. There's dust flying around the whole bit. So it must be difficult to try to do this without going there and keeping an eye on things.

Neil Longuet-Higgins: We often have some of the staff from China over in the UK, and so there's normally a kind of a fairly good fluid exchange of people, and that's where we win on things like that. Also, a lot of our businesses OEM. So those people will check us out very thoroughly, and we won't get the work if we were another one of those little companies. 

You have to compete with big multinational brands like Samsung and LG, all the way to very specific LED brands like Leyard, Unilumin, and those kinds of guys. How do you compete with them when they have the marketing muscle that you can only really dream about? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think that's the difficult thing. Samsung and LG, have absolutely millions of marketing and advertising spend, and it's all too easy with a certain project for them to step in and say, we'll give you some advertising and whatever, and that can bring their price down effectively.

So you know, you can't compete with that, but we compete with the fact that we believe we have a better product. It's a lot nicer, more economical, and has newer technology in it, and that's where we win. When people come to see us, they are quite amazed, and they see the passion that's in the company for LED screens.

Is the buying audience more mature? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think it's still pretty split. There is the kind of high-powered buyers that people would like to be talking to, but it's a massive market. Over the years I've had receptionists, who've been tasked with finding that company digital solution for the next five years, and what will starts as a telephone call from someone who knows nothing about it, can end up someone's spending millions. 

So you can never discount anything there. The verticals in this business are everywhere. There are the sports, the retails, et cetera, and there's always someone you've never heard of who could spend a lot of money with you.

When LED really started to get some traction in the pro AV marketplace, I would say it was maybe four or five years ago when you started to see fine pitch products come along then and everything was marketed around the pixel pitch. That was it. It was how you distinguish products, and it seems to have moved on from there, and buyers are more discerning and they're looking at contrast levels and energy efficiency and all kinds of things. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, energy efficiency is probably one of the most important things at the moment. We have a billboard that we've designed called, The Fusion. It's the most economical outdoor screen on the market. 

Whereas in the UK, a typical 48 sheet, that's six meters by three, would cost about 8k-10k pounds a year to actually run just on the electricity. The way our screens work now, that's down to about 2k-3k pounds. So it's a 70% saving by designing a better screen. 

And I suspect that's not widely known, is it? People think since it’s an LED so, therefore, it's automatically an energy miser, but they forget that there are thousands or millions of these little lights. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, absolutely, and just going back to what I said earlier there, the older type of screens had lots of fans, were very uneconomical. They got very hot, lots of screens still run very hot. They're not efficient and it's down to getting the LEDs themselves to work as cool as possible, and that gives you quality and life. 

We offer a warranty of up to 7 years on some of our products. You don't get that if you buy a cheap screen out of China. 

And a cheap screen out of China might look good on the trade show floor at ISC because they've spent two days color balancing and optimizing the thing, but it's not going to last that way, is it? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: No, definitely not. We walked around ISC and we had our screens on quite a few stands there, and they're normally set up pretty well but it's a minefield out there between a screen being built, and let's just say an AV company in the UK importing that and installing it, they normally won't have the correct equipment to color balance and things like that. But if you buy a good quality screen, we can't say the name of the company, we're putting some screens all over the world at the moment, and they're coming straight from our factory and they're going straight into retail units. They just work. They don't need color balancing. They don't need lots of setups. It's plug-and-play. We try and make it simple. So a stand builder can just put a screen in.

I've made the observation the last several months. I see LED as now being a mainstream product, whereas I think it was a niche going back, a couple of years and further back than that, but it seems when you start to see it in pubs and on the sides of fairly nondescript buildings and things like that, it's entered the mainstream. It's no longer something that's worthy of a press release when somebody puts one up. 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah. You see them everywhere. Some people think there's too much signage. I certainly don't agree with that. But yeah, they are becoming mainstream, but we are looking at a stage where a TruLED screen will be in your home in five years. 

Samsung and LG announced that they were pulling back from the LCD market because the technology was moving on in pixel pitch and that in LED and it won't be that long before your 55-inch screen in your living room is TruLED. I mean we've just made a 55-inch cabinet, which is the largest cabinet you can buy to replace the LCD video wall.

So there's variable pixel pitch and depending on your budget, whether you're retail or a control room where you need really high resolution or whatever, it's something that is lightweight, cheaper to run and it lasts twice as long as LCD. You know if an LCD goes wrong, you tend to throw it away. That's not very green. 

But the problem at least for now is, it's probably also wickedly expensive, right? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, absolutely. At the fine pixel pitch of, 0.7 or 0.4 or what have you, it's crazy money. But that's true of everything. It's a bit like when they said about computer memory to half in price and doubles in size every year, and it's a similar sort of scenario with LED. 

I assume you're talking about micro-LED and less so about mini-LED. Do you see the market moving to micro? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yes, it does. We've recently introduced the vivid micro-LED and that's proving really popular with high-end installs for both home and the office.

People have always been chasing resolution, and although everybody wants their screen to be 4K, most people don't run any 4K content on it. But yeah that's the future. Mico-LED will get bigger and bigger. 

And at what point does it become something that doesn't give people heart attacks when they see the price?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think realistically four to five years, we'll see that price come down. There will always be cheaper alternatives, and even now you get some people who will buy a TV that costs them 20k in the house, others are quite satisfied with something that's 200 pounds. So there will always be two different markets, but they will start to merge definitely over the next few years. 

Do you see much demand coming for - I don't want to say alternative - but maybe unconventional LED platforms like LED on glass, on film, mesh displays, that sort of thing?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Yeah, there are a few different things that are in the pipeline. We already have things like the mesh and the transparent screens and things like that, and some of those are on glass and some are on a more kind of structural format, but I think there's always something new that will pop up when someone has an idea. 

I don't know where the future will be. I think whatever format we end up with eventually. Receive cards and sending cards will disappear and things will merge and as it becomes a consumer product, that's I think when we'll get some big changes. 

I realize we're in a nutty time with COVID and everything, but I'm curious where you're seeing demand and where you expect demand to come as life normalizes?

Neil Longuet-Higgins: I think in the traditional market. Sports will always be a big thing. We've got the virtual studio and in filming, that's getting very popular now and there are big studios in construction around the world, and they're all wanting the next big thing. We're trying to develop that at the moment and hopefully by the end of this year, we will have a new product in that marketplace that will again, change the face of it. 

But until all these things really get going, I mean retail's a classic example where there's no money there at the moment. The high street is pretty dead, not many people can afford to put LED in their whole estate, but quite a few people would do it in their premiere stores and things like that. So there's still a big market there, as we're seeing with more people working away from the office or smaller offices, they're having more meeting rooms with better quality video links and screens to go with that. So that market is coming up. e

Even as LCD gradually fades away, that will be replaced with other markets. Digital menu boards or things like that at the moment, it's only an LCD market, but that will change as well. 

You've been running a LinkedIn messaging campaign coordinated with London Digital Signage Week, which I think is next week where you're saying, I think somewhat cheekily that we'll pick you up in a giant Texas-sized, Stretch Limousine, and show you around some of London's best LED installations. Is that a serious attempt? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Not really showing the stuff in London, we're based outside of London in Swindon, but we are in a couple of months opening a London showroom in Paddington, but at the moment, trying to get people who are not really traveling a lot from London to Swindon since it has become harder.

So I've put the offer out there that we will send a call for you or pick you up, take you back. You can have some refreshments on the way, and we're hoping that we'll take people out of the smoke and into the fields. 

And for those who don't live in the UK, where the heck is Swindon? 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: It's West of London, about an hour. So it's not far. 

So you could take a train out there, but if somebody wants to take you in a nice higher car, even better! 

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Absolutely. 

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

Neil Longuet-Higgins: Brilliant. It's been really good to chat, Dave.

 

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

Remco Veenbrink, VideowindoW

May 12, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

If you spend any time on Linkedin, or even platforms like Instagram and Twitter, you've likely seen quick videos of LED displays somewhere in Asia that are using anamorphic, three-dimensional creative to get viewer attention.

We've seen spaceships look like they are emerging from the screen. Giant sloshing waves inside what looks like an aquarium. Huge robot hands reaching out from the screen. And on and on.

It's becoming a thing. But it is not a terribly well understood thing.

Which is why Larry Zoll from Sensory Interactive, which does what it calls dynamic real estate, reached out and suggested the emerging creative trend would be a great thing to explore in a podcast conversation.

Zoll is the managing director for technology and innovation at his firm, and has been fielding questions and requests about this stuff for a long time now. What's clear is that not many people understand what's going on and how it works. For example, customers ask if the LED display technology they have in place, or are putting up, will support the anamorphic creative pieces they want to do.

The short answer is yes, because this is all about the creative, and not about the display hardware.

We had a really good chat about what this visual trickery is all about, how it's done, and its limitations. If you watch 10 videos out of China and South Korea that have anamorphic creative, you'll notice nine of them are shot at a very specific angle. Because the visual effect may only work from that angle. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Remco, thanks for joining me. Can you give me a rundown on what Video Window is all about? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. Thank you for having me, David. Video Window is a glare controlled with a media platform. You can compare us to segmented tintable glass, which doesn't exist. So it's tintable glass with segmentation and those segments work like addressable pixels and with those pixels, we control the transparency of the window. But as we show content, we can actually show interesting videos, graphic art as glare control. So our system controls the transparency of the content, and we're developing all kinds of nice content for Video Window to work like glare control.

So you can think of gamification. We already had Pong. We're now working on Space Invaders which can be controlled by passengers because our main target area sector is aviation right now in any public transportation hub. Based on QR codes, people can then grab their controller and play Space Invaders, but it is glare-controlled, and we also have generative video art. It's all glare control. 

So it's smart building glass that doubles as video walls. This would be a quick way of saying it? 

Remco Veenbrink: If you change the word “wall” for “window”, then yeah.

It works like a video wall, but it’s transparent and that way we don't need to be in front of a wall, we can be embedded into the glass, and we actually serve people, the planet, and profit. We can also reduce the CO2 emissions of a building and help in reducing the carbon footprint of that building. So there's the tintable glass aspect.

So what's the underlying technology. Is it switchable glass stuff or is it LED embedded in glass? 

Remco Veenbrink: It's liquid crystal. That's the core, it's a thin-film transistor liquid crystal display. So it's TFT. We started out with a twisted nematic, so TN LCD, and we recently developed a high-resolution display based on TFT. 

So when you say high resolution, for a typical structural glass panel that you're using would you be realizing full HD resolution or 4K, or how does all that work? 

Remco Veenbrink: It's 2K resolution right now, and we're happy to work together with an OEM who can actually build that for us, because before we had a 15 millimeter, like half an inch sized pixel that was a rather big pixel, but this new generation of Video Windows is built together with an OEM. 

Okay. So you're - I don't want to say approximating, it’s the wrong word - but the visual experience is not that much different from what you would see on a conventional LCD display then, in terms of resolution? 

Remco Veenbrink: Nope. It's a 2K square pixel resolution. So that's a bit different from a normal LCD display. They are subdivided into subpixels. So you have RGB sub-pixels, and we don't have those. We have square pixels, it’s a monochrome pixel. 

Is there any opportunity to go to RGB or is it always just the way you do it and it makes the most sense to be monochrome? 

Remco Veenbrink: RGB subpixels take away so much transparency that you need a backlight, and as we use the exterior light, the sunlight, the daylight as our backlight. So we wanted to make it as transparent as possible, and with RGB subpixels it's dark. It's pretty dark.

With LCD technology, I don't think we will get an RGB transparent screen that could work as glare control the way we use it. We've seen some interesting developments with the electoral wedding which was done by a Dutch professor. He came by, he showed the technique, but that's years out before that will be available.

That's a very fundamental technology that's still under development and that's a CMYK solution, and that means as there is no black in there it's pretty watercolorly still but it's an interesting technique. I don't think that with TFT LCD, we will ever see an RGB transparent display that can be used in the way that we do.

So using the natural sunlight as a rear illumination of the display, so to speak, what happens at night? 

Remco Veenbrink: Then our backlight is gone. Predominantly, we’re glare control so we embrace the sun. We embrace the daylight, instead of fighting it, whereas video walls would actually increase the lumen output and really put more nits in there. We actually have a higher contrast ratio when there's more sun. On the new panel, we're testing it and averaging it out but it's around 8 Watts per square meter, and we average this out because usually, you don't show a full black as an image. So when we put it as a full black image, it's around 8 Watts per square meter, and that's so little especially if you compare that to those high brightness screens, they become more efficient over time but that's 800 Watts easily per square meter.

So if you address the areas that we aim for 100-400 square meters, you're looking at some serious energy consumption, and yeah, for us the 200 square meters you could still run that on a normal outlet. It's very energy efficient.

So if I'm sitting in a departure lounge at the airport in Rotterdam, what am I seeing on this window glass? What's showing, and how does it look? 

Remco Veenbrink: Right now, we have content agreements with the local museum, with a local art Academy and they all provide content for us. So it's a lot of cultures, it's a lot of art. We also have poets that provide work. So we have poetry that shows, we make that with the motion graphics into an interesting film and we have a Pong playing, so you can log in with your phone and play pong and that's all in a mix. So we have five-minute mixes. So we show commercial content, we show artistic content and we show gamification, and yeah that's how we add value, and next to that, we also have a close connection to the internal communication department from the airport who uses our screen to address certain messages to passengers, for instance, all the COVID measures, we run that. In every other film, we show those measures that people should take into account. 

And you show operational stuff as well, like “You're at Gate 5 and this is a flight to..”, that sort of stuff? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, that's the new stuff but we haven't installed our new high-resolution screen yet. In two months, it will be installed, and there we can show flight information and wayfinding because that is too detailed for pixels with a 15-millimeter size, and even though we have a 25 square meter set up, you can only show one flight at a time and people like to have an overview. But that's definitely coming and that's what we're building right now, is the API integration to have that flight information shown on our hardware. 

And you mentioned you're primarily focused on mass transport, particularly airports. Why are they interested in your product?

Remco Veenbrink: Good point. Their main issue right now is non-aviation revenue, making more cash flow. So they need more money, and we can help them with increasing their non-aviation revenue by showing commercial content. So we have a threefold advantage. We have ad experience cause we're mostly at addressing the gate areas.

So we can add more experience for the passengers by showing artistic content, gamification, and interactive content. We can actually reduce the CO2 emission by helping the climate control system and by being more transparent which allows for daylight to be a bigger part of the basic illumination of that area. So we can help save energy, and then with the commercial content, we can help add non-aviation revenue so that we are addressing their biggest pain, that profit part. But, they all have to also live up to their goals, which is reduced CO2. 

When it comes to the media side of things on monetizing these window displays, do you get pushback because A) it's only in black and white, and B) it's only running during daylight hours.

Remco Veenbrink: The daylight hours, we can address. It's all proven technology. It's just not so sustainable and we really like the sustainable aspect of our proposition. The color, I tried to explain to them that if you have an 85-inch commercial content full-color all over the place anyway, do you really want a 100 square meter display to be full-color? Your entire terminal will be blended or washed away in all kinds of colors. 

Color is very intrusive apart from it being actively lit or, 

The fact that it's black and white allows for such a big screen to be part of your building. So it integrates really nicely and even has a soothing effect with our generative video content. We show biophilic design, so we show leaves and flowers and we imitate the canopy of a dense forest where sunlight is broken up, and we create a very nice shadow pattern, which is moving, which is very soothing and that shimmering light really is calming down the passengers. 

This is an added value that really doesn't need color. But there's a lot of communication that we can do with being monochrome and a lot of premium advertising is still done in black and white by choice because it just has a more premium feel to it.

Do airports typically use a tintable electronic glass of some kind, or is this new to them, regardless of whether it has the media capability that yours has? 

Remco Veenbrink: Tentacle glass is being implemented, I've seen it in a couple of American airports. That's done by either Sage or View, those are two big players. One is American, the other is French. 

Tintable glass is a good solution. It's just that it's pretty expensive, right? Your return on investment is taking pretty long. So with our solution, our segmented tintable glass pays for itself immediately because we offer it in a leasing option, so the costs for leasing are way below the profits for advertising. So actually we don't ask people if they want to buy our stuff, we ask them how much money they can make from their glass. 

So you work with some sort of a leasing company and if an airport comes to you, you are able to set something up for them?

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, that's how we do it. We work with the Global Leasing Company, or at least in the States, that's how we do it. So we reach out to them. We have a potential client in Luxembourg, for instance, how can you finance that, then they do their jobs and yeah, they find a leasing solution, and then we can offer it to them, and then, most of the time that's done pretty quickly. They take one week maybe, and then we can make them an offer, and then together with the media department of the airport, we can assess the media value for them, and then we can each see how far we can make a profit for them and how fast. 

And is it typically like most airports would have or at least substantial airports would have a media partner that owns the out-of-home media rights for that property, like a JCDecaux or whatever. Would they be the ones selling this space? 

Remco Veenbrink: It would be a collaboration. We had an airport that already had that concession in place. Decaux is a big player, Clear Channel in the States and there are many more players. Some airports still do it themselves. They don't have an intermediary agency in between. But we would work together with those players and agree to make an agreement. 

We saw in Europe, here in the airport that really like our solution for the added experience was to be installed near the security area where we also proposed a nice film for the security to show how it's done, those instructional films, but we had some nice content creators, and the airport really wanted it because they also had a glare control issue near the security area. So they just came to our table and said, “The two of you need to fix this.”

We see Decaux as a partner. We are not the media agency, we can turn any content into glare control and that is our main differentiation, and we don't have a sales department that reaches out to advertisers on a daily basis.

What about control of the displays, in terms of airports again Decaux or the airport themselves will have some sort of a content management system, whether it's Decaux with a BrightSign, or I don't know whether they're using Omnivex or whatever it may be. Do they work with your CMS or do they have to use your content management software to update your Video Window display?

Remco Veenbrink: The latter, because we need to adjust the content to work as glare control. So our content is the active layer, controlling the amount of glare control, controlling the amount of transparency. It's a good question by the way because that's what we're now working on with our software engineers, to create an API that can fetch content and then on the fly, adjust it. 

The challenge there is that our screens are depending on where they're placed, but they're so big that architecture and architectural elements like pillars and columns, and what have you are breaking up the display, the canvas, and the building is part of the canvas.

So what we want to automate, and this is under development, is to do an automated plan and scan, where we make sure that crucial areas are always shown at the unobstructed areas of our screen and logos, they cannot be obstructed by a pillar, eyes shouldn't be blocked by column, that type of intelligence. That's what we're now implementing in our content management system. Other than that, we have an editor standby that can do that on the fly, but if we want to move into programmatic advertising this has to be developed and that's what we're doing, but that comes with a lot of convolutional neural networking image recognition, it’s pretty next level. 

Complicated stuff, yeah. So speaking of complication you're having to come at this from a few different angles, and from what I can see from your background, you've got one founder, who's a Banker, and the other founder who's has a fine Arts degree, but you're dealing with structural glass design, you're dealing with the engineering of sound baffling at an airport, you're dealing with software for glare control and you're dealing with media displays. It's very involved. 

Remco Veenbrink: It's a lot of challenges, yeah, but we have great advisors. You know this is something across multiple sectors: glass construction glass is a world of itself with a lot of demands and safety regulations. We don't pretend to know that, but we do know people who are fully an expert in their field, and yeah we tied that all together. So we have the expert of liquid crystal display so he knows that world. Glass construction we work with Bill Kington who is really open to innovation. That's a strong name. The content management systems, we work with the best of the brightest from the technical university here in terms of computer engineering. 

So that is what we are developing in-house. We always reach out for the best expert available, and if he's not available, we make sure that he gets interested in what we're doing. 

So would you say you're a software company primarily? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. Now that we start using high-resolution screens, we decided to be agnostic in terms of our display components and we set up a whole spec sheet. It's built on our spec sheet but we're not intending to build displays, that's a whole industry in itself and pretty challenging and its margins. There's only a couple of OEMs left, so it's all consolidating.

Yeah, that is a market, and once again, there we just reached out to the best and they know how to do it. 

So if you're going to sell against some of the other technologies that are emerging out there like transparent mesh LED and LED on a film that can be adhered to window glass, and then even LED embedded in glass, what's the argument for your product versus those options? 

Remco Veenbrink: Those options are great, but they’re not glare control. So you can’t put them in the sun and try to read them. If you're looking against the sun with those structures, it's not happening. 

If the Window did not have any active glare control happening, is it 100% transparent, or is there a kind of sense of haze or how does it look? 

Remco Veenbrink: It's transparent, but as you probably know liquid crystal displays work with polarizers. So you don't have a hundred percent transparency, but the transparency that we have is very much comparable to glass that is implemented in buildings these days.

It's tinted in some ways?

Remco Veenbrink: There's always a tint in the glass, and there are coatings in the glass which are fixed. So the thing with that, and the great advantage of tintable glasses, for instance, in the winter, you don't want the block the heat. You can actually use the temperature that the sun produces in the infrared spectrum to warm up your terminal and that can really save a lot of money and really save a lot of energy and really help reduce the carbon footprint. So if you could switch on and off the ecoating, that would be really interesting. 

That doesn't exist. So Ttintable glass can really help to warm up in the winter, and in the summer we play our content a bit darker, and then it's tintable glass and you can really help to bring down the energy usage to a good place.

Are there any limits in terms of display performance or updating speed? So for instance, you can do 30 frames per second only?

Remco Veenbrink: We can do 60 frames per second, which really makes it stand out from the others that use the electrochromic process, which is a chemical process where ions go back and forth. That takes minutes. So you know, that will not bring any video footage to the window anytime soon, but there are developments which also use liquid crystal display. For instance, Merck is developing tintable glass based on that technology, and we were in touch with them.

We're in touch with the founders of that technology. Actually, they already exited the company, so those are our advisors. So these guys who have developed this for Merck are also advising us on how to do it, and yeah, they don't do segmented, they do mono cells, big mono cells, but switching time is indeed much faster.

And then there are suspended particle devices from research frontiers which also take seconds to alter the state. Nothing that we know of is as fast as our technology, which is 60 frames per second, and that allows for video.

And in terms of updating, if there was some sort of an alert for say a gas leak in an airport terminal and your CMS is tied into the alerting system, would it take minutes for that alert to show on your screen, or would it be as instantaneous as it would be on a normal digital sign?

Remco Veenbrink: No, we run with their signage systems. So, they can overrule any content that we’re playing, and they can own their communication tool, obviously.

So it's not going to take, as you were saying where some of these other technologies take several minutes for a new message to build on the screen or whatever. if there's an alert, it's an alert and it happens right away. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, we can install that. We haven't installed that yet, but yeah our technology allows for that. That's like an API integration where they have pre-set images or notifications that they can then push, and when they push something, it will over overwrite or override any other content. 

Okay. So you're in Rotterdam's airport right now. Are you fully in there or do you just have a demo?

Remco Veenbrink: No, we actually have two installations. One is facing Northeast and the other is facing Southeast. 

And that's like one exit away from your offices, right? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. 

And you're also in Amsterdam’s Schiphol? 

Remco Veenbrink: The funny thing is that the Schiphol group actually is the owner of Rotterdam airport.

So it’s a small country and the Schiphol group has several airports, amongst which also JFK Terminal 4 and Brisbane. So yes, we are talking to the Schiphol group, and they're all very eager to come over in two months to see our new installation, a high-resolution installation. So yeah, we have high hopes there.

So if I wanted to see Video Window right now, I would have to go through Rotterdam airport? 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah. For now, that's true. But we're also talking to a museum in Philadelphia that’s interested. We are discussing some installations with airports in the States. But due to Covid, it’s a bit quiet on that front. 

What's the state of the company right now? You’re obviously a startup. How big are you? How are you funded? 

Remco Veenbrink: Oh, we're bootstrap, self-funded so far and any investors out there can reach out to us. 

We are nine people at this point. As you said, there are two founders, and we have seven software engineers and they're all doing honors programs, and so they're the best of the brightest and we're very happy with our team, but we're looking to expand. 

We to set up shop maybe even the States, we were reached out by several system integrators who would like to represent us in the States and in Canada. Also in the middle East. So it’s starting to move fast now, and that's really great to see because as a startup, you have a dream, you build on it. That's great to see that it’s catching on and South by Southwest also really helped in that sense. We were pitching there. We were second in the future of travel still.

So that was a very nice experience, and we were also actually approached by a American investors. So we are discussing raising money. 

Yeah, there seems to be a fair amount of investor money out there right now. I get phone calls and emails. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, indeed. Yeah, interest is so low that, if you have money you better invest it into something. And yeah, it's a very likable product. It's pretty cool. It has a high wow factor. It serves people, the planet, profit, and it gets noticed. 

That's great. All right, Remco, thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Remco Veenbrink: Yeah, Dave, thank you very much for doing this podcast. 

 

 

 

ACE Roundtable: Personalization In DOOH And Digital Signage

ACE Roundtable: Personalization In DOOH And Digital Signage

April 28, 2021

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

As vaccination rates climb and we can seriously look at getting back to some normals in our daily lives, there's a lot of discussion happening around what consumers will expect, and accept, in terms of personalized digital marketing.

Things like appointment-based shopping and personalization grew more prevalent because of lockdowns and necessary pivots by brands, and consumers are now somewhat conditioned to services that are more tuned to their needs. 

But at the same time, there are still lots of concerns about things like being tracked in some way by technologies.

We talked about all this on a recent roundtable panel organized by Advocates for Connected Experiences, an umbrella organization that involves numerous industry associations and bodies that touch on advertising, retail, marketing and design.

I moderated the session, and noted how great it was that the gender balance was completely off, with one guy and a bunch of super-smart women.

My panelists included:

  • Kim Sarubbi, who chairs ACE
  • Debbie Haus, Retail Touchpoints
  • Kym Frank, Geopath
  • Cybelle Jones, SEGD
  • Beth Warren, CRI
  • Laura Davis-Taylor, InReality
  • Stephanie Gutnik, Verizon Media

This is a special edition of the podcast.

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