If you have been around the digital signage industry for even a little while, you’d know Rich Ventura – the very active board member and then chair of the Digital Signage Federation, and pretty much the front man for NEC Display.
But now, after about 20 years with NEC, he’s now at Sony – running its B2B group, which includes digital signage products.
I caught up with Rich last week to talk about the job change, and where Sony sits in the signage and AV ecosystems. We get into Sony’s smart displays, where Sony is at with software, and the past, present and future of its gorgeous but big-dollar micro LED displays.
He even drops a hint that maybe we’ll see more LED from Sony.
Have a listen …
So, Rich, good to chat with you. You have moved on. People know you from many, many years at NEC and now you are at Sony. What prompted the move?
Rich: You know, some people say it was kind of a midlife crisis and I kind of laugh at that. As I’ve told everybody in the 20 years at NEC, and I love NEC, and I always will and I tell everybody at NEC family, it was an opportunity that just made a lot of sense form my career. It had to be a really, really amazing opportunity for me to move and you know, I looked at the direction Sony wants to go, I looked at the leadership within Sony, I looked at the technology, I looked at all those different things. And it was that really great opportunity.
And I think it was also that opportunity to give me the ability of driving change even further and adding to my skill set, but you know, going looking at the tech and the direction that Sony wants to go, it was just hard to say no. It was a hard decision to say yes. But it was also a hard decision to say no.
So what is the gig?
Rich: You know, it’s basically running and leading our B2B organization. And I hate to say running and leading because it’s really, to me, it’s more supporting and growing and partnering within the B2B organization with all the people that we have there, to really grow our business. It’s for North America.
So you look within the B2B organization, it’s working with our BRAVIA professional displays. We do also have access to some of our consumer products as well, working with our CLED product, which is really just an amazing technology. It’s working with our projector group, projector products, an area I’ve never really worked with before, our PTZ cameras space, our boom mikes. We have Edge analytics, but it’s not the type of Edge analytics people are used to hearing me talk about. It’s really around distance learning and the classroom. And looking at any of those types of solutions that fit within our pro AV space.
Is broadcast on your portfolio as well?
Rich: No, it’s not. That’s gonna be a different group in there. But we have kind of that touch and that’s what that PTZ camera base is because there’s some products that we have that can play in both the AV space but also in the broadcast space.
Right. So, you know, this is a digital signage podcast, so I will tend to talk about that. I’m curious about where Sony is in the context of signage, because Sony has had a product out there in different ways for at least 15 years, and they’ve kind of been in and out of signage.
You know, they’ve had booths at the trade shows, and then they kind of disappeared. And they seem to have software, but maybe they don’t. They were the first guys, as far as I know, to do system-on-chip displays. But, you know, Samsung made a lot more noise about it than them and on and on. So, where are they at?
Rich: It’s great. I mean, part of the reason or part of my decision criteria to come over here was I did look at the SOC play and what we’re doing. And if you look at it, you know, our displays have an SOC chip on it, we’re running Android. It’s not a Sony operating system, It’s an Android operating system. And there was a lot of attractiveness to that and I see this great opportunity within digital signage. I mean you look at how the industry has gone, you’ve got organizations that have their own operating system, and they’re running this closed environment, so to speak, right?
And then you have organizations that are not running operations. They’re just running this massively open environment where you can use these different types of computers and open an operating system. And in Sony, we kind of can go both directions. We have this Android operating system, which is fairly open. But it’s designed for our displays. And one of the things I want to look at is how can we capitalize on that and you’d be amazed, or you may not be amazed, but the first week of me joining Sony, so many CMS companies called me saying, “we want to work with Sony.”
And I said great, let me understand where we’re at. To me, I look at digital signage as still a very young industry. I always refer to the industry we’re in today as really that fourth industrial revolution. We’re focusing on IoT, in an everything’s connected device world and digital signage is a massive part of it. Nobody has truly capitalized on that. And so when I came into Sony and had my conversations with leadership and everyone, they said, well, we don’t focus that much on digital signage, because there’s everybody’s doing business in there, and I said actually, they’re not. They’re not doing it the right way. And I think even with what’s happening with COVID, digital signage has taken on this whole different life and this whole opportunity.
And to me, this is very opportunistic for Sony, and what we can do and I’m having a lot of late night conversations with our team in Japan. I’m talking a lot with our team here. I’m talking to a lot of different software companies and looking at what has been our strategy, so it’s here and where do we want to grow? And where do we our strategy being and that’s part of my first 30-45 days, laying out what is our strategy. Digital signage has got a massive opportunity for us. There’s a lot of upside to it. I think we need to have, I don’t want to say open our eyes a little bit differently, but I think we need to look at it a little differently than what we have historically. And I think you’re gonna see a lot of really exciting stuff coming from us, both in the near future and long term future around digital signage.
It’s a little bit challenging though, because Sony primarily, if you set aside the CLED product, which we’ll talk about, but the on the LCD flat panel side, it seems to be increasingly a commodity play and the big Korean guys like LG and Samsung seem to be backing off of it a little bit because it can’t compete with China panels.
Rich: Totally and I think you’ve always known my opinion about value. If you look at what I have shared with the organization in my first week, I have really three core values when looking at our business. Everything we have to do needs to drive value. So if we’re delivering a 55-inch LCD, we’re delivering a PTZ camera, CLED, whatever it is, there has to be value driven to our customers.
Well, the way we drive value is really twofold. One is we drive value by being easier to engage and work with, not having complex systems. And you know, some people say, that’s what you said when you were at NEC and I go well, I believe in that. I mean, I believe that as an organization, to drive value, we have to be easier to work with. We have to have systems that work very well together that go all the way down to the level of our platforms, where with Android, being able to integrate into that, being able to deploy our product, being able to purchase a product, all those things have to be easier. And that drives value.
The second aspect of it is solutions focused. And I don’t mean taking a monitor mount and a cable and throwing it in a box. Solutions focus, to me, means solving pain points for our customers. We’re creating an opportunity for them to impact their business. And so when we look at those three things, our focus is not to sell at the lowest price point, our focus is not to compete at a dollar for dollar. Our focus is really competing at the value, how do we drive that value to our customers? If you look at our product category, we don’t have 100 SKUs. What we have though, are very focused SKUs that can work well in the corporate space, well in the education space, work well in the transportation space, the wayfinding space.
Okay, so you don’t really, I mean you would take the opportunity if it came along, but the high volume commodity-ish stuff like digital menu boards, that sort of thing where you’re just selling large volumes of them isn’t really the play. It’s going to be more around situations where you need very high quality displays.
Rich: You know me, I’m gonna go after every deal I can, right? I’m gonna be opportunistic, but I also need to maintain and make sure that we’re doing it profitably. What I don’t want to do is, I don’t want to give up quality, I don’t want to give up support. I don’t want to give all those things that we’re known for just so that we can sell, you know, 10,000 displays.
It’s interesting when I’ve asked our employees, why do people buy Sony? And the answer has been almost identical across the line. It’s been around our quality, it’s been around our technology, it’s been around our reliability, those things that I value very heavily. And so how do we do that? Grow the business, maintain profitability, and really deliver on the value. It’s a difficult task, right? And especially as we see more and more of the commoditization happening out there, and, and that’s where I’m really challenging the team. And that’s where I’m even challenging our partners, from our technology partners and even our channel partners. How do we do that? And where can we become opportunistic to go after the right business and deliver the right solutions and value to our partners?
And right now, is that partners as you describe them, is that a reseller channel partner ecosystem that you primarily sell through?
Rich: Yeah, we are a channel organization. We have very strong relationships with our distribution partners. Our regional integrators are national integrators. We have really strong relationships with them. And I want to find ways to expand that relationship with them and how can we help them grow their business and really take on more of that solution. Not meaning any meaning Sony taking on that solution, but how do we help them take on that ability of growing their capabilities and growing their value add. At the same time though, I’m going to be very opportunistic and see what are the ways that we can help them with differentiation from Sony as well.
Sure. So in the ecosystem, where do you think right now or historically, these channel partners have been kind of jammed up to like, where do they need the help?
Rich: It’d be easy for me to say well, they need XYZ, but I think they’re all different. Every one of these channel partners, really out of necessity and opportunity have really differentiated themselves. Some have the most amazing content creation organizations. Some of them have amazing installation capabilities and service. That’s really where integrators have always cut their teeth, it’s been around integration services. Some of them have just amazing levels of partnerships. So it’s really looking at every level with them, where can we help them?
And I’ll use a really easy example, there’s a partner that I had a call with in my first week as one of our channel partners, and they cut their teeth and broadcast an audio, that’s where they’ve always focused their attention. And digital signage is a new realm for them. And so as we were talking through and I asked him, you know, who do you partner with, who have you talked to and stuff like that? We started talking about organizations that are out there, from a software perspective. And the knowledge base that we have is very valuable to them. And so the fact that we can help steer them and look at who are the right types of companies to work with, or as you verticalized, who are the right players in different vertical markets, that becomes very valuable.
So now how do I use that to our advantage? And that’s the million dollar question. And I think as I work with the sales organization and our marketing organization, looking at who we have worked with, and where we’ve seen those values and create, to me really a tear of manufacturer partners, like you know, it’s our friends, it’s our family, and it’s our blood. Friends are those that we know each other, we work well together, right? Family is where we start getting that stickiness where we have some integrations together or we have ease, you know, I go back to the ease of use and the value. Blood is really where solutions come in and where our products are integrated with one another.
And that’s new for Sony and I think as we grow the business, it’s not going to be today, it’s not gonna be tomorrow, it’s going to happen over a period of time. That’s where we start driving and helping that value with that integration channel.
What do you think of the whole work-from-home thing and the realization amongst a lot of companies that, “Hey, maybe we don’t need this big office tower or five floors and an office tower. We can have one floor and everybody else just works from home”. What that’s going to mean for things like workplace communications and this idea that this was one of the next big frontiers for signage in particular that you can sell them all this stuff, because of the need to communicate in white collar environments?
Rich: So the selfish, opportunistic salesperson in me hates it, because it reduces my opportunity to sell. I love having a million tons of the top offices out there because I can sell a lot of products. The realist in me sees this as an opportunity to differentiate and drive value, whether it’s, you know, I go back to the Android player and the fact that we have simple solution for signage, and being able to get that to a company so that they can do simple, whether it’s information to their employees about COVID, and information about status and information about things going on in their business.
I think it’s also going to be opportunistic and challenging for us as manufacturers to look at. What are other ways that we communicate, right? Is it putting higher brightness displays in windows so that people can be communicated to? Is there going to be this growth within the out of home community? And are they going to have a different type of need with direct view LEDs? It’s all those things. One of the things I also see is, it’s a challenging opportunity from a technology perspective.
I go back to this being that industrial revolution around IoT. How do we deliver our tech that doesn’t require somebody to physically touch the monitor? How do we derive solutions that allow our customers to remotely monitor, manage and deploy their technology? Where they do have offices, and maybe they don’t have an employee in every single location? It’s all those things, I think are going to be a play for us. I’ve worked from home for many years. I mean, I carried a bag for NEC, right? So you look at my first 10 years at NEC, I worked from home, then I worked at an office, and now I’m back to working at home. So, I’m used to it. It’s definitely creating a new dynamic for employees. The engagement has to be different. We have to engage with our employees a lot different, we have to make sure that they feel engaged. I’ve seen some of these digital signage software companies like Signagelive, for example, building out platforms that allow them to engage at the employee level to their laptops. I think when we’re looking at what’s going on today, I think it’s gonna really drive creativity and innovation. And it’s gonna be really interesting, it’s gonna be fun to see how companies do innovate and drive engagement now.
So when I go to trade shows, when those things still happened, I would walk through, let’s say the last one was ISC, I walked through the big Sony booth and I would see a lot of information about a product, I think, it was called TEOS, which seemed to be primarily office based, digital room signs, that sort of thing, but I got a sense that there was a digital signage component to it, but you also have some sort of a signage-CMS product that maybe comes out of India or I’m not quite sure where from really, what are those things?
Rich: I’m still learning. (Laughter)
TEOS is really an interesting platform. I’m learning a lot about it. I got to spend some time last week with our team in Europe to understand it. To me, TEOS is like this office management, automation, communication platform. And it’s a platform, it’s not a piece of software. And I know that it’s critical to understand that it’s a platform, and it’s allowing us to look at, you know, room management and schedule management and there’s a digital signage element to it, but it’s not like if I were to rank like the top 10 features to it and functionalities, it’s not in that top five, because there’s a lot of other things behind it.
It’s a module.
Rich: It is. It’s not a standalone “I’m going to deploy this for my digital signage and that’s all I’m gonna do”, that’s not what it’s for. And so I’m really learning a lot about it. There’s some really cool capabilities with it. But it’s not something I would go and deploy in a retailer, for example. This is more for an office workspace environment. And you know, I’m definitely learning a lot about it. I think there’s some really cool capabilities in it. And you know, knowing my background when I’m working with software teams, I of course, start asking a million questions and blow their minds a little bit, but I think there’s some really cool things about it. The digital signage element you’re talking about is something else that I haven’t had a chance to go learn and spend my time on yet, but from what I see it, it’s very simplistic. It’s something that you can do within our environment.
What I will say is, there’s a necessity for it. As we all talk about, you know, that early SMB, that single screen environment that you don’t make your money on. But do I think it’s the silver bullet? I think you know me well enough to know that I’ve never considered any digital signage software package to be a silver bullet, you know, one package can’t do everything for everyone. So, I’m gonna reserve judgment till I’ve gotten to really see it and play with it, right? But it’s exciting to see that people are thinking about ways that we can deliver value. Everything goes back to my conversation around value.
Yeah, whenever you have your own CMS, it becomes this delicate little dance of what is it for, does it compete with your software partners and all that sort of thing. I don’t think any of the software partners who started calling you would be too worried about a totally entry level onesie-twosie kind of thing.
But I’ve chatted quite a bit with Samsung and Magicinfo through the years and they’re now at a point where they have a full-time Product Manager and they’re taking it very seriously, but you know, that starts to get really foreign in terms of the partner ecosystem that they have on the software side.
Rich: Yeah, I look at it as an opportunity. Hire as many product managers as you can, please. I look at it as an opportunity where we can partner with companies. I think you’ve known me long enough, and those in the industry have known me long enough, I take partnerships very seriously. And they’re a path to growth. And if I can have thousands of people out there pushing and talking about the Sony brand, that’s very valuable to me.
I’ve had a lot of people go to me and say, “You were at NEC all those years and you guys are one of the top dogs, why go to Sony?” And I say because Sony’s a top dog too, you just don’t realize it yet. And I think we’ve been quiet. I think everybody knows me well enough to know I’m not shy. I bleed my brand. I bleed my company. I told everybody on the team on day one, I’ve got your back. And my job here is to help us grow and really put us in that position that we’re going to be the top dog and I look at those opportunities with the products we have today, the partnerships and you know, the one product we haven’t talked about yet is CLED, I mean, I’m blown away by what that product can do. It is an absolutely beautiful technology. I know you and I have talked about it. When we first saw it, you first saw it, we talked about it in interviews, and you’ve asked me what’s my opinion of the CLED product, I said it’s pretty amazing looking. I don’t know anything about it yet, but it’s pretty cool looking.
The one thing I would ask about CLED and if people listening don’t know what it is, it’s Sony’s micro LED product which has been around about four or five years. Now yes, it looks amazing. I’ve stood really close to it and tried to figure out what was going on. And over the years I’ve learned more about what micro LED is. The one thing that I wondered about is that it seems to be the same product that it was three, four years ago when it first came out and in LED, everything’s evolving so quickly. I wonder where is it now? Is it on Gen 3, and I just don’t understand that.
Rich: Well, why fix anything if you made perfection day one? (Laughter)
I’m just kidding. I think we are evolving, right? I think where CLED is today and where we want to take it, you’re going to see we will evolve it, right? One of the things I really dive deeply into and it’s been an interesting experience, I think, for my business team, is really understanding all of our products whether it’s CLED, it’s BRAVIA to PTZ, you can have a list of it and having these calls with the product management team here, but also our team in Japan, and that’s challenging. I’m like okay, what are we going to do? How do we grow this business? How are we positioning ourselves against the competition in the industry?
You know, going back to my three things earlier about value, simplicity and solutions, what are we doing? And I think you’re going to see a lot of really cool stuff. I can’t go into depth about it at all, but I can tell you, there’s a lot of cool stuff that we’re working on and looking at. That being said, we’ve got some really, really amazing projects that are deploying the CLED product and the clarity of the product, the uniformity of the product, the technology behind it, is exactly what they need for those applications. And It’s not a utilitarian product at all.
No. I mean, I’ve seen it in the wild Now a couple of times. And just like in the trade shows being really impressed the one thing that worried me a little bit was the glossy finish that it has on it, seems to pick up reflection.
Rich: No, it does. And that’s, like I said the applications are very explicit for how it’s being used. You know, I’ve seen some I’ve seen pictures of some of the deployments that we’ve done. And I go, “Aha, that makes sense to me.” That makes sense on where it goes and why it goes in this application. It’s really a technology you need to really dive in to understand. It’s not like a traditional LED at all. And I’m still learning it. I mean, I’ve had nine meetings just specifically around CLED, and I still have a million questions everytime I get on the phone. So I’m excited about what it can do and how we can position it better in the market or how we currently position it, but how we continue to position it in the market.
Yeah, I think it’ll be important for people to understand the price points and how the technology is evolving. Because when that thing first came out, making a micro led of that scale would have been enormously expensive, just because the manufacturing technology wasn’t there. But, you know, micro LED is, I want to say it’s becoming commonplace, but it’s pretty widely adopted now. So, I would assume that you can do a hell of a lot more and you’ll make it more relatable price wise to more potential buyers. Yeah.
Rich: Yeah and that happens, you know, we always talk about technology at that tech curve, right? So you’re the early adopters all the way through to the late adopters, and technology follows that curve, right? So even if you’re the early adopters, you don’t have a lot of volume, you don’t have the technology to drive things. Because it’s new. It’s a new idea. And it takes a while to happen. But I think that’s where I challenge our team. When I tell them I say our team, I am talking about everybody: our sales organization, our marketing organization, our development team, is how do we drive forward where that product, that platform is the right product, right platform for the marketplace and where it needs to go, but also fits the right applications and use cases. So like I said, I think you’ll see a lot of opportunity coming out of us with the CLED product.
It’s interesting that even today, you still have any number of people referring to any big outdoor LED board as a Jumbotron, which was a Sony product that came and went. But really the only Sony direct-view LED product I know of is the CLED. Are there any plans to expand? Or is that just such a crowded market and you’ll stay with this premium product, and that’ll be it?
Rich: All I can say is keep your eyes and ears open.
Yeah. Well that makes sense. I mean, you know, wherever it’s going, it’s hard not to have a range of products to suit different needs particularly in the business market.
One other thing I’m curious about is, is it an advantage to you or does it feel more comfortable in the fact that you spent 20 years working for a Japanese company already, so you understand the business culture? Because I would imagine somebody who’s spent all their time working just, with North American manufacturers or whatever going and starting to work with a Japanese business culture might be quite a shift for them.
Rich: So, it’s an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s an advantage because I’ve gotten to really learn so much, especially as I say, in the last three or four years of my career in NEC. I really spent a lot of time with our Japanese tema and I got to learn how they work and how we as an organization can work better with them and communicate better.
I think I always have to remind everybody that English is not their first language, right? And so as we share information with our team in Japan, they may be speaking to us in English, but they’re also computing this in their heads in Japanese to make sure they understand. So it’s very critical that we communicate and we’re very open and transparent with one another. That was the first thing.
The second thing is that I also can understand where their needs are, and you know, they’re not asking questions to be difficult, they’re not doing things that way. They truly want to understand, they truly want to be there with us and support us and so I’ve got that, and that’s been an awesome experience that I’ve had coming into this.
Where it’s not an advantage is I’ve got 20 years experience working with NEC and how they operate. Now I have a new organization. So I have a new vocabulary, I have a new chain of command, I have all those new things to learn, which is actually exciting. As I have told a lot of people, everybody’s been going, “How’s it going so far? Your week three!” and I go, yeah, just as excited as I was in week one. And they laugh go, well it’s only been two weeks, and I go, yeah, but you don’t understand, I’m excited and I think even my people are seeing that as I talk with them and even with the Japanese, it’s exciting. It’s such an exciting opportunity and I hope that I can transfer that excitement within the organization. So I see a lot of value in my history of working with the Japanese and going to work with Japanese organizations because I do have a history and I do have an understanding of how we work best with one another.
Well, this has been great. It’s great in a couple standpoints first, just catching up. But second, I’ve struggled to find the right person on the business side to talk to at Sony for many, many years. And now I have someone!
Rich: (Laughter) Well, it’s funny, Dave. I was talking with Allison in our marketing, social media Group, and I was actually talking with some of our product managers and business managers yesterday. And one of the things that I told him is that we need to be more present. We need to be more out there in the industry, whether it’s just social media, whether it’s speaking, training, it’s education. And those who know me well know that is something I really value heavily, right? And if not me, I don’t need to be the person doing it. And I really want to empower our organization to be more present in the industry. Because I look at it from a couple ways, one is it builds value. The second is it builds those bridges between our organizations, but also it shows just how much we can do and all that drives sales and all that drives relationships and everything else.
So, I’m excited because it kind of feels they have a little bit of a blank canvas to work with. But you know, if we sit down a year from now, and we talk about all the things that we did in this first year and, you know, let’s do that, let’s talk in a year from now, let’s talk about how much Sony’s changed. And I think the statement you just made, I hope I never hear that again, because I think you guys will see us more present in the industry. You’ll see us more present in the technology. You’re gonna see us out there more. And I’m really excited about seeing that happen.
All right, Rich, thanks for your time.
Rich: As always, thank you for inviting me and I look forward to continuing to have these conversations with everybody.
Probably virtually. (Laughter)
Rich: I do look forward to the day that I can actually travel and see some of our customers and partners and face to face again.
Yeah, me too.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.