2011: Good, Bad and Fugly (Part 1)

December 29, 2011 by Dave Haynes

I wasn’t going to do a 2011 look-back thing because frankly, I operate in a little bit of a bubble in my home office and live bait shop, and don’t get out to see enough that I could tell you what really was the best and worst. How do you see everything, or even a lot?

Instead, I can only relate what I personally saw this year that impressed me, what made me shudder, and what launched me into WTF??? mode.

Today: The Good.

The Cosmopolitan in Lost Wages.

If you have been to Las Vegas and tried to get from A to B through a casino, you have seen endless carnival barker digital signs all but yelling at you to part with your money on a machine, at a table or in a restaurant or lounge. The content is always BIG and LOUD and as subtle as a hail storm.

Except at this slick new resort hotel on the strip. There are two elements that caught my eye – one subtle, the other blowing me away.

When you walk in off the strip, you start to notice how the digital screens over the slot banks and by the lounges are not visually yelling at you. The content is ambient and thoroughly unrelated to gaming or anything else to do with the Cosmo. It’s just interesting motion visuals that set a mood and tone.

Me and Preset partner Pat Hellberg stood one evening looking at this stuff, trying to sort out the strategy. As far as we could sort, it’s about differentiation. And on that count, it’s definitely a different approach.

Then at the back, at the actual hotel lobby and guest check-in area, there is this truly awesome video wall installation that turns the support columns into ambient video art walls. There are silhouettes, tall libraries of leather-bound books, all kinds of intriguing visuals. Where other hotels are telling guests to check out the new smoothie place in the food court or flagging a Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton reunion on Saturday night, this hotel is again just setting a mood and tone and telling people they are staying somewhere that’s unlike any of the competition.

The content is all, I think, by Digital Kitchen. It’s the only digital sign content I know of to win the top awards at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Easily, easily, the most compelling thing I saw all year.

That’s a special case, like the giant video wall of MicroTiles at the London Stock Exchange. These one-offs can inspire the industry, but they are not the sort of thing easily replicated because of the cost and circumstances.


What’s still a big dollar initiative, but entirely repeatable, was what I saw a few weeks ago at a pair of Uniqlo stores in New York. The Japanese apparel retailer (kinda like a Pacific Rim version of H&M) had stores on 34th Street and on Fifth Avenue lined with displays, built right into the physical design of the shop and in no way there as add-ons or after-thoughts.

The content, unlike the Cosmopolitan, is entirely direct. You can’t help but learn, wherever you look, what’s new or on sale, and how different clothing pieces fit together. You see screens as you walk in, walk through, and scale the escalators or stairs.

With hundreds of thin bezel NEC LCDs positioned around the stores, the budget for this would have been substantial. But so are the budgets for flooring materials, lighting, fixtures, you name it, in a new megastore. The point is that Uniqlo represents a retailer that looked, right from the early stages of store concept and design, at how digital fit in and how it would be used. They had objectives and strategies and made digital as fundamental to the experience as how shoppers are greeted and how they navigate the store.

That level of thinking and execution is still far too rare, and the suggestion that these are just flagships where normal budgets don’t apply doesn’t really hold. Panels aren’t really big ticket items anymore.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

At a more modest level I was impressed by the way the Monterey Bay Aquarium has built digital screens into the whole experience, from the time you walk in and see what amount to menu boards, and then throughout the facility. I was at several museums and public spaces this year, and it’s still unusual to see it all pulled together well. I was in a few big ticket, very famous places in New York where they haven’t even got the lighting right, never mind digital.


I was impressed, as well, by the way digital menu boards are taking over in the fast food sector and how the executions are getting better and better. My only real fast food vice now is coffee, so I see the inside of a lot of Tim Horton’s coffee shops up here. What I like about their approach is simplicity and clarity. They have tested all kinds of things – including whiz-bang sync’d screens where stuff zips around – and concluded what worked best was a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.

There is a teeny bit of food porn running on the five screens of a typical store, but for the most part the shops that have gone all digital just show customers what they can buy, using clean crisp visuals and fonts that are large enough to read.

The takeaway there is pretty simple. Just because you can run video and do all kinds of eye-popping things doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

On the industry side, a few things struck me:


The Digital Place-based Advertising Association seems to be making a genuine mark with the ad industry. The membership numbers are up (helped in part by a move away from country club pricing), but more to the point there were some 400 people at the DPAA media summit this fall and the majority were agency people. President Sue Danaher got some serious, serious players – who control millions and millions in ad spend – to catch cabs over to the Marriott in Times Square and spend time talking to the crowd specifically – and knowledgeably – about the sector.

There was the odd crappy presentation, but on balance it was a really solid day that had to be encouraging for anyone involved in buying and selling Digital OOH. If you do that stuff, set aside budget and time for next October when this event no doubt comes back.

One slightly depressing note is the liberal use of the term Digital Place-based at the event. I’d thought the sector had settled on Digital OOH and the what to call the medium debate was over. Apparently not. Sigh.

Stratacache, FWi and SignageLive

I have all kinds of conversations with senior people and get all kinds of back-channel chatter, so I know there are lots of software companies and media networks who’d happily sell or merge to recoup investments or simply keep themselves and their people employed. Few companies are truly rocking it, and it’s interesting that the ones who are probably doing best make the least marketplace noise.

Stratacache won the massive McDonald’s U.S. job for menu boards, and has quietly won a lot of other business, particularly with banks. Several are 10,000-unit plus orders, and you can be assured many software companies in this space don’t have 10,000 TOTAL subscriptions/licenses out there. I don’t think CEO Chris Riegel sleeps.

Four Winds Interactive has quietly built up a big book of business in casinos, campuses and hospitals, and had to move into much larger offices in Denver to accomodate all the new hires. They are north of 150 people now, and unlike some other software companies that built up big headcounts, that growth is based on revenues and not on the hopeful thinking of investors. Few people know who David Levin is, but he’s running a very hot company off of nothing but private money.

Watch both those companies next year, as well as SignageLive – which is waaaay more out there in the form of a Tweet-happy CEO Jason Cremins. Though based in the UK, he’s now hired a guy to build up North American business (to be announced soon) and he has a fully open platform and pricing model that resonates with the SMB crowd, and with larger networks whose CFOs turn white at the rolled-up monthly cost of most SaaS offers.


Selfishly, I have to mention DOOHgood, which started as DOOH4Relief. The effort to use unallocated media time on networks in North America and Europe to promote relief efforts like the disaster in Japan was extremely heartening. Scores of companies pitched in and millions of ad impressions were served, and that’s why I consider it one of the best things that happened. Not because I was involved.

The effort slipped into the shadows in the second half of the past year, but that’s a simple case of the people behind it all being really busy. The foundation is there, and the ability to react to the next unfortunately inevitable disaster is all in place.

Tomorrow (uh-oh), the bad …

  1. Many thanks for the mention Dave, very much appreciated and look forward to living up to our billing in 2012.

  2. Josh Byrd says:

    Great article, Dave. With great technology brings a great responsibility to use it effectively which in some cases, as you mentioned, less is more. I look forward to seeing more creativity in the digital signage industry in 2012!

Leave a comment