Publicis Sapient’s Jackie Walker On Premise, The Giant Global Agency’s Digital Signage Solution
December 16, 2020 by Dave Haynes
There is a long history of very large companies of all descriptions finding their way into the digital signage industry, but they have tended to come in with fanfare and then exit quietly out a side door.
Often, the digital signage effort is a bit of a skunkworks that doesn’t have a lot of energy behind it within giant companies that do a 1,000 other things.
That does not appear to be the case with Publicis Sapient, a giant interactive agency that has offices all over the world, 20,000 staffers, and a product and service called Premise, that does digital signage among a bunch of things.
The company has been working on it for 10 years, and has some very big, but unnamed clients using a platform that is all about data and speaks directly to the concept of omnichannel and the goal of producing content once and publishing to many devices and platforms.
Jackie Walker has been working on Premise since it was just a notion, and is what they call the capability lead. We had a great chat about the roots of Premise, how the team works with clients, and the present and future of signage, which is all about APIs, data and the end of walled software gardens.
Hi, Jackie, we haven’t met in person, but it’s great to meet you virtually. I have certainly known about Publicis for many years at Sapient and when you were dabbling or when the company was dabbling in signage through Sapient Nitro. So I was intrigued recently when I saw a press release about Sapient and a platform called Premise, and I wanted to find out all about it, and you’re the product manager (product lead) on it?
Jackie Walker: That’s right. I have been working on it for the last 11 years, so I am very close to the solution.
This is your baby.
Jackie Walker: This is my firstborn, yep.
Is it temperamental?
Jackie Walker: Yes. I have had two human babies since, but this is the one.
Okay, let’s go to the very basics of it. What is it?
Jackie Walker: Yeah. So let me tell you who we are first, for those of your listeners who don’t really know who we are. The Publicis group is, of course, one of the largest media holding companies in the world, with about 80,000 employees. A few years ago, Sapient, which was an independent company, was acquired by Publicis.
So now we are Publicis Sapient. We’re about 20,000 employees, in 53 offices worldwide and in terms of our capabilities, we’re basically the digital transformation hub of Publicis group. So we think about strategy, consulting, customer experience, and then agile engineering, and so about half of our people are really technologists and engineers. And we think about how we digitally enable our clients in terms of both, the way that they work and also the way that they serve their customers. So pretty broad scope.
I’ve been with the company for over 10 years. This was my first project. It wasn’t called a Premise when I joined, and really what we were trying to do was, back then, that was when everybody was just learning how to spell omnichannel and put it on a PowerPoint slide, and really my first project was, we called it the Super Secret Airport Project and back then the idea was to take the airport space (because it is a slightly underserved market) and really think about how we fleshed out an omnichannel solution. So we built this end to end platform that was all about content management, real-time data, airport flight data, and built the solution that would enable our clients to drive their websites, their mobile applications, and then later digital signage from one common platform.
So that was really the frame.
Was this driven by a client ask or was this like a hole in the market that you guys thought you could fill?
Jackie Walker: I think it was a “hole in the market”/”wouldn’t it be cool if”, right? So there was a group of people in Boston, the spouse of one of our team members who worked for SH&E, an airport consultancy, and they were talking about the ways that airports really struggled to communicate consistently with their customers across channels, right? Back then it was not uncommon that an airport would be operating 3-5 content management systems for each of their individual platforms, and so the idea was that we should consolidate this, right? We have a unique point of view, we have a skillset to do all of this, website development, app development, content management, system development from an enterprise lens. Let’s see where this goes. And then we started signing up airports to actually deliver some of those capabilities.
Now, is it in the DNA of the company to build your own platforms as opposed to partnering? Because 10 years ago, it’s not like somebody was wandering around the streets saying, “Please, God, somebody come up with a digital signage CMS.” There were all too many of them.
Jackie Walker: Yeah, that’s very true. So we partner a lot and typically, even from the beginning, when we started this program, we were using SDL Tridion, which was a pretty well-established, web, and mobile CMS at that time. That was really the content foundation of what we were building.
We didn’t want to build a “CMS” to use that kind of terminology, because most of our clients if you think about it, are operating enterprise CMS solutions, and so part of the “what if?” was, this novel idea that a customer could change their content in one place and that content change would immediately publish on their website, their mobile app, their digital signage, which is a little bit of a different frame of the problem, I think.
Yeah. Certainly, you know you’re joking about omnichannel and learning how to spell it, the whole premise has been around for a very long time, but I’ve noticed in the last two or three years, it’s really come to fruition and you seem to get a lot of pushback from larger companies, potential clients essentially say, “I don’t want to have 4-5 different platforms to do my messaging, I want to do it off of one thing and it should go everywhere. I don’t want to have this walled garden for digital signage and another walled garden for mobile, communications, and so on.”
Was that the thinking?
Jackie Walker: A hundred percent, and again, back then, like omnichannel, was a word on a PowerPoint, right? We had these cute diagrams that contained phrases like “all your enterprise services and you’re going to have this API layer”, and everybody had to learn how to spell, right? And then all of a sudden magically all these consumer channels are just consuming data consistently through these APIs and it’s all gonna work. That was really, I think the North star of that vision, but it’s taken a little while for clients to actually get to that level of sophistication and that’s been one of the things we’ve been watching closely is that progression where this dream of having these fully API enabled enterprises is now getting to a point where that is the expectation, right?
Clients have all their infrastructure in the cloud, they’re using common systems. They’re starting to do consolidation across content, and now they’re starting to do consolidation of data. And to me, that’s the other key piece of the puzzle, it’s not just thinking about the content and the customer experience and the POS or the product inventory systems or their content management system, but then also thinking about how their customers interact with all of that data, all of that experience, and making sure that data is able to be used consistently across channels. So no content silos, no data silos.
And when you started down this path 10 years ago, shared data was not easy. You could have these conversations, but they would say, integrating with our data set and all that is a quarter-million-dollar job, or it’s just not possible, or you can’t see it where it’s not secure or we’re worried about it being secure and on, there were all these problems. Now, data’s pretty easy to get out, right?
Jackie Walker: That’s right, yeah. It’s definitely gotten much easier and just the flexibility has improved greatly as well. I think clients are used to it as well. You know, you’re going to have an interface that you’re exposing and then all of your channels that you’re deploying are pulling from that content.
So I think, yeah, there’s been a huge transformation there, which has been a big enabler.
Do you have to, when you’re working with clients, explain that integrating data is more than just being able to pull a number from one directory or folder or whatever it may be and make it show up on a screen and make it show up on another device, that there’s more to it than that?
Jackie Walker: Yeah. So I think that’s the thing that’s really interesting about digital signage, and I had the benefit of building websites and building mobile apps before we started on digital signage, so I had that digital experience frame of reference, right? This is how it works, this is how you’re going to build a web page that’s going to be pulling content from 10 or 11 different data sources, stitching that together and you understand how that works. And then you look at digital signage and it’s a little bit of a novel problem, right? Because there are some differences with digital signage. Like the analogy I use is, if you build a mobile app, you’re going to build one piece of software, you’re going to deploy it on a cloud infrastructure, back then it was a physical infrastructure. You deploy it on infrastructure, your problem as the enterprise, like the client-side is worrying that you’re hopefully releasing defect-free software and your infrastructure, your cloud is stable, right? You don’t have to worry about Tom, Dick and Harry’s mobile phone. Do they have connectivity? Is their phone charged? Like all this stuff, right? That’s not your problem and the customer understands that.
With digital signage, every little digital sign you put out in the world is your baby and now you’re responsible for making sure that it has power, it has the internet, it has content, no matter what happens, it has content, and so there was a little bit of reframing that we had to overcome to be able to make sure that we were solving that problem comprehensively. And those differences really ended up being what guided the product development for premise and the digital signage solution was this idea that we were thinking about bridging that gap between an API enabled customer ecosystem and deployed digital signage at scale. So we were trying to fill that hole between the two.
Yeah, there’s been any number of very large companies that have decided, we’re going to write a digital signage module or we’re going to branch into this. And they get a basic platform working where files are playing one after another, maybe not even with a black gap in between them or whatever, and they’re rubbing their hands together and saying, “Hey, we’ve done it!”
There are a lot of problems that can develop, as you’ve said, and I suspect you guys discovered over time that once you have all these deployed devices in all kinds of different environments, all kinds of hell can break loose.
Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely and I think that’s an important differentiation too. I think there are so many signage solutions that were born out of looping media, right? And so the conversation is how do I build the best playlist? And there might be interruptions, there might be things that go into that but by and large, you’re thinking about full-screen video, how many video segments of the screen can I have, maybe I’ll have an RSS ticker, like you’re thinking about slicing and dicing the screen, but your primary content is video content.
And I think for us, we’ve always been approaching this thinking about modularized data-driven content. So even if you think about what we are doing in the airports, we weren’t just thinking about a video playlist, we were thinking about what’s the list of restaurants that’s going to show up. What’s the list of restaurants that are going to show up that might be different if I know that there’s a flight delay next to that gate, and so all of that is query-based data.
Back in the day, our first clients were using Flex for the interface. Obviously now everything is HTML5, but it’s all modularized content and so I think it’s a different way of looking at the content problem as well. Are you thinking about big full-screen content? Which again, then you’re thinking about how you manage a playlist and make sure that your large video files get moved down to the device without getting corrupted, all that kind of stuff.
Whereas if you’re thinking about this HTML5 content, it’s just a little bit of a different frame of reference in terms of what you have to be able to do, the different pieces that come together to enable that, and then the analytics as well, right? Like how are you getting a level of analytics that is again, akin to what customers are used to from web and mobile channels.
So tell me what Premise is, and if I’m a cranky CMO or CEO in a meeting with your team, and I say, “why do I need this versus brand X digital signage CMS that I’m already using?”
Jackie Walker: Yeah, I’ve had many experiences where I’ve worked with customers who have already gone through a digital signage selection process, they’ve already picked their partner. And they say, “Okay, we are working with X platform and now we want to deliver an experience on top of that platform, what can we do?” And the problem is typically that they didn’t ask the right questions about the software capabilities when they were doing the platform selection and then when it comes to the time to actually think about the experience, now they’re designing backward from the platform capabilities, as opposed to designing forward from the customer experience, which is the position you always want to be in. So I think when I think about what Premise and how it’s different, it’s really thinking about in-venue experience enablement.
We say in-venue because we might mean a QSR, we might mean a retail store, we might mean a hotel. So any physical place, we’re really focusing on the real-time analytics and AB testing capabilities, and we’re focusing on integrations and that is really at the forefront. So if I’m working with a QSR, the starting point is going to be the point of sale, it’s going to be their product database, it’s going to be their product photography. We’re going to want to know as much as possible about their data models and so that we are thinking about it from what can we reuse, what do we tack onto, what are the places where we can create leverage points from what they already have, and then we’re filling in the gaps, to be able to support the additional needs for digital signage that are maybe slightly different than what their needs are for web or mobile.
I might not have big video assets for the web, or certainly for mobile. I might want to use different types of product photography, I might need some different ways of thinking about that. So that’s really the approach for us and I think a lot of our clients understand it because they’ve dabbled and what they’ve seen with other solutions is that they’re not able to get the level of integration that they’re expecting.
So they’ll go through the initial conversations, the technical design and think we’re going to integrate with our CMS. And I think, when you say those words, they can mean different things to the vendor and the client, right? The vendor might mean I’m going to pull a data dump every seven days and the client thinks, if it’s integrated to my CMS, I’m going to make a change in my CMS and it’s going to publish, and so I think a lot of clients are now starting to get to that level of sophistication and understanding where they’re realizing that there is a little bit of a gap between what the current capabilities are in the market and what they want to deliver.
I had a conversation with someone in the hospitality business that manages a bunch of properties. They do a lot of merchandising of their onsite restaurants, their shows, all that. You can think like a Vegas casino type, that frame of mind, so they have all kinds of stuff that they’re trying to sell customers and all of it is manual. So if they need to change the priority of a piece of content, there’s a huge manual effort to go in and update their playlist on all of their screens. So we talked with them about what would it look like to build an AI engine on top of that?
It could look at occupancy in restaurants. It could look at ticket sales, yield projected versus what they’ve actually sold. So it could prioritize what are the things that I merchandise to my customers that are meaningful. I don’t want to merchandise a restaurant that’s sold out, that doesn’t help me, it doesn’t help the customer.
And what we found is that the level of metadata to be able to fuel an AI engine to be able to start to do some of that, even on a rules basis, just didn’t exist in the digital signage solution they were using. Even at that level, when you start to want to deploy AI and start to get more sophisticated about the ways that you’re deciding what content goes on the screens, I think the current vendor set, the current solution set in digital signage is somewhat lacking and that’s really why we’re in the business and we’re pursuing it so aggressively is that we keep hearing more and more of our clients talk about this unmet need.
And is that a function in a lot of cases of them being in there refresh cycle where they’re there four years in with a particular vendor realizing they like the notion of this, they like the outcomes of screens and so on, but they need to do more, and they’re now realizing their initial platform that they went with just doesn’t cut the mustard, so to speak?
Jackie Walker: Yeah, it’s a mix of both, some of our clients are in refresh cycles, some of our clients have just done pilots and they’re realizing that maybe what they thought they were going to get out of it isn’t really coming to fruition and then some of our clients are starting to look at this for the first time, right? They’re recognizing, especially QSRs at the drive-thrus, that’s a huge area of focus for us right now, because of COVID obviously you look at the market in the US, like 80% of QSR still have paper at the drive-thru. Now 90% of their business is going through the drive-thru. So there’s this huge gap between the capabilities that they’re able to deliver.
How are they going to meet customer expectations and the solutions that they have available? And we’re really saying if you’re going to do it for the first time, don’t think about what you want to do tomorrow, because maybe you just want a JPEG of your menu tomorrow, but once you make that huge CapEx investment, especially outdoors, be smart about what you’re going to do there because in the next five or seven years, you’re going to be wanting to do a lot more, probably. You’re co-investing in data initiatives, in loyalty programs, how do you connect the dots? That’s always my big call to clients, is to think about what’s the customer experience roadmap? And being a little bit aggressive so that you’re not making a mistake on the hardware you’re deploying, or even if you’re buying an all-in-one solution that you’re working with a partner that’s not going to be able to grow with you.
This sounds much more like an engagement, a project, as opposed to “All right, I’ll buy my software. I’ll use Publicis Sapient’s Premise, and you know, Bob’s your uncle, that’s it. You may get some support.”
It sounds like you guys want to be in the weeds with the client, from the ideation stage, all the way through to execution, right?
Jackie Walker: Yeah, you’re hitting the nail on the head. So the play for us is not the digital signage licenses, so to speak. That’s not the piece that we’re interested in. It’s not a set it and forget it solution. I think there’s a well-established part of the market that does that really well, like grab it and go.
What we’re really trying to do is work with customers who are looking for more involved customer experiences that are really trying to use this channel to make an impact on their business, that recognizes the value of analytics and AB testing, and that are thinking about how do they pave the path to driving differentiated customer experiences over time? And so there’s a little bit of consulting, there are a few creative services, there’s a ton of technology, all that kind of comes together when we’re engaging with a client.
I’m going to assume that your preferred client or the clients that you end up getting are those who have a history with agency services and work already, because they know how you guys roll and how things happen versus somebody who maybe started out with brand X digital signage CMS and has never really worked with an agency other than maybe producing some creative for them and all of a sudden there’s a full-tilt engagement, which is, you still got a few zeros attached to it and there’s a lot more involved.
Jackie Walker: Yeah, I think that’s right, and it could be either, It could either be the marketing services side or it could be the systems integration side. So we definitely have had a lot of success in using the solution with existing clients where we already have a technology footprint with them and then it becomes about how do you leverage what you’re doing in one part of the business on this additional channel? I think that’s a huge part of the value proposition.
Yeah, and certainly a macro trend within digital signage is this idea of one throat to choke or turnkey solutions, I don’t want four vendors, all pointing fingers at each other when there’s an issue.
Jackie Walker: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that can be a little bit of a double-edged sword, right? Sometimes I think about what happens, and I’ve seen this with a number of clients where they treat digital signage as a siloed point solution.
“I’m going to buy digital signage,” and even the terminology, like a digital menu board is a great example, it sounds like you’re buying a physical thing.
“I’m Bill, I’m buying an object.”
Honestly, that’s a lot of how it’s sold by a lot of companies, which I think is goofy, but nonetheless, they saw it as SKU, as a thing.
Jackie Walker: Yep, absolutely, and I think what is becoming accepted is this idea that digital signage is a digital channel. It is like your website. It is like your mobile app. It is a digital touchpoint for a customer, and I think we, as an industry, haven’t done enough to push the capabilities and the thinking around the types of experiences that clients can deliver. It’s been allowed to function as this kind of siloed thing on the side. So you have, even in an organization, the people who are buying digital signage are often not the same organization that’s managing the rest of their digital customer channels, which is also a little bit mind-boggling sometimes.
So that’s another piece that I always try to encourage customers to think about. This is not a, not just a marketing problem, it’s not just an IT problem, and it’s certainly not just a store-ops problem. It’s actually an intersection of all three and you need to make sure that you’re bringing all three of those organizations along for the ride, to make sure that you’re going to end up with a solution that actually works and delivers value to the business.
Yeah, years ago I had a very large multinational brand consulting client that was putting signage solutions into their stores and the department I was working with was relationship marketing and they referred to themselves as the land of misfit toys.
It was just like skunkworks, they caught all the stuff that nobody else wanted to do. It makes me curious because I’ve seen this with other very large companies where they have created digital signage business units or effort, and it’s functioned largely as a skunkworks and you can tell it’s a skunkworks, and sometimes the people who are running it are people who put them there to get them the hell out of important meetings or whatever.
I’m not saying that in the slightest with what you’re doing.
Jackie Walker: I’m glad I gave you that impression.
Not in the slightest. You know your stuff, you’ve been doing this a long time, so in the larger context of Publicis Sapient, how much of an effort and how much visibility does this have in terms of the overall company? I know it’s hard to give a percentage, but…
Jackie Walker: That’s a great question. I think there was a period where it was a little bit of a side business, so to speak. We were doing things like this airport managed services platform for wayfinding. We had a bunch of different clients. It ended up extending to like retail casinos, we had a sports stadium that was using our wayfinding platform, but it was a little bit of this thing that was allowed to continue to progress, and then, I think what has happened in the last couple of years, as we’ve shifted our focus to digital business transformation, and I actually remember really well a conversation I had with my boss, like when we started internal communications around that change and frame.
I said, I’m really excited about what this will mean for the work that we’re doing with the Premise because it’s so tightly aligned to our strategy as a business, and he looked at me and I said, if you think about it, so many of our clients do so much of their business through their physical footprint when you think about retail, when you think about QSR, it’s insane for us to not have an offering that directly addresses the opportunity, to drive business impact in their physical venues, right? And the reality is, if you look at the solutions that are available, it’s not a place where we’re going to be able to readily partner with existing companies, existing CMS, digital signage solutions, to be able to deliver those types of outcomes. So for us, we actually think about it as the market is moving in this direction.
We had a ten-year plus headstart, I think. A lot of people in the industry will say that the future of digital signage is probably going to be driven by software, and I think we’re in a really great position to springboard that for ourselves and realize outcomes for our clients, in an accelerated manner because of this asset with Premise.
Yeah, there are not many good things to say about COVID, but it has forced an accelerated digital transformation plans of a whole bunch of companies, retail, QSR, and beyond, from something that we’re going to do in three to five years to something they had to do in the next three to five months to survive, and I gather you’ve benefited from that.
Jackie Walker: Definitely. I think it’s just been this, at Publicis Sapient level, it’s really validated our strategy. I am a little bit of a Kool-Aid drinker, like I really believe in the work that we do, that’s why I’ve stuck around so long personally.
And that’s also why I haven’t made the choice to go to a more traditional digital signage company. I think that the unique perspective that we bring to the table because of the scope of work that we do for our customers every day, the focus on omnichannel, the focus on customer data, the focus on AI, the focus on marketing efficacy and performance marketing, we just have a completely different perspective and a completely different group of people and experts that we can bring into engagements to deliver outcomes that would be just absolutely impossible otherwise.
Now the last time I went to the National Retail Federation Show, there must have been at least 20 booths, maybe a lot more companies, all showing retail analytics, shopper analytics, computer vision-based stuff, sensor-based stuff.
You’re talking to a lot of retailers, you’re talking to a lot of large corporations. Do they see this as being as important as the vendors seem to think it is?
Jackie Walker: That’s a great question. I personally get frustrated with all these point solutions because I think they do end up being just that.
It’s like queue management, so we’re going to instrument the environment, we’re going to understand the queues and then that’s going to help us optimize customer service, or we’re going to now measure everyone’s temperature when they come in and that kind of theater around it is going to make people feel safer and better, and so there are all these little solutions that pop up that isn’t well integrated. It doesn’t all come together particularly well, right? Beacons, one of my favorite examples, we talk so much about Beacons and it’s like the mobile beacon and what are we going to do? And the push notifications, and now there’s a ton of movement around geo-fencing and QSRs too, you know, to hook into kitchen operations, but they’re really the same technologies that could be, if done right, enabling a ton of different types of capabilities of customer interactions, of different ways of driving value for the business on the customer, but instead, they’re thought about as these little things, dot one kind of additions, that doesn’t particularly connect.
So I think that’s a hard pill to swallow. They each has their own, it’s a different SaaS model. You have a SaaS subscription for this, you have a SaaS subscription for that, so I think that’s a big challenge. So that’s something I try to think about when I’m working with customers, what are the existing initiatives they have? What are the existing capabilities they have and how do you stitch them together in meaningful ways so that you’re maximizing their current investment, but also thinking about how you connect the dots moving forward.
I think QSR has some great opportunities ahead of it, with regard to different service methods. So now they’re pushing so many customers to mobile order and pay, which is fantastic, but they’re going through the drive-through still, like how do you deal with these customers? Because if you’re showing them the same menu board that you’re showing somebody who’s. trying to order, you just wasted an impression, so to speak, with that customer, right? You could have told them something new and different. You might have totally different messaging for them because you know them, or even if you don’t know them, they already ordered, right? Or if it’s a delivery driver, you know that it’s a delivery driver. You could know that. So how do you start to think about the intersections of these different service models and different technologies to create better customer experiences?
You mentioned customers. Are there any customers you’re actually allowed to reference and say, yeah, we work with these guys?
Jackie Walker: Not today, Dave, you know how that goes. (Laughter)
Oh yeah, the big agencies and big clients, you don’t mess with those accounts and upset them in any way, but we can think of Fortune 100, Fortune 500 kinds of companies?
Jackie Walker: That’s really the target group and the group that we work with the most. Yes, absolutely.
All right. this was terrific. We could have chatted for a lot longer. It was very nice to virtually meet you and hopefully, we meet each other in person someday.
Jackie Walker: Absolutely, when there’s offices again, right? (Laughter)
All right. I really appreciate you giving me some of your time.
Jackie Walker: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Dave, take care.