John McCauley Relates How Velocity – An IT Managed Services – Found Its Way Into Running And Selling Digital OOH Networks
November 3, 2021 by Dave Haynes
More and more traditional integrators and IT services companies are finding their way into the digital signage industry, but I can’t recall seeing one of them getting seriously into the media side of business … until now.
A well-established IT managed services company based near Toledo, Ohio – called Velocity – is not only providing technical services to digital out of home media companies, it’s directly selling media.
The company describes its media solutions business unit as being an an end-to-end digital signage provider – doing hardware, software, installation, tech support, media sales and everything in between.
Velocity runs and owns digital screen networks in groceries, cinema lobbies and hotels, and is looking to grow its footprint.
I had an interesting chat with the company’s Senior VP of Digital Media, John McCauley.
John, thank you for joining me. I was intrigued when I heard and started reading about Velocity that here is a managed services company, a managed services provider that does a lot of IT work, but they have a media wing and I thought, oh, that’s different.
John McCauley: Yes it is, and I think we have a very enthusiastic CEO, Greg Kiley who has really taken to the place-based digital out-of-home media’s core component and how it stitches together with our overall managed services business, and I think we’re starting to really see the benefits of it with the investments that we’ve made in both resources and just alliances through COVID. So it’s exciting times.
Okay. So let’s back up a little bit. Can you tell me a little bit about what Velocity is all about, where it’s based, how large a company it is, those sorts of things?
John McCauley: We’re based in Holland, Ohio. It’s near Toledo and the company started 15+years ago. Greg Kiley, the CEO, created a rollup of local, regional voice and data services. And from that you create some scale and you create some efficiencies for customers, allowing sort of one-stop shop across like multiple locations across multiple areas of the country, and that proved to be a very fruitful business, saving money of course, and really creating some stickiness between customers.
The managed services, the network services, what else can you do on that connection? That was like a birth of where other aspects of the company could grow, and sectors that we’d like to be in including retail and hospitality and entertainment. All those things started to really converge and the company had a lot of success probably for a good 15+ years and two years ago, more or less, we got into sort of the digital out-of-home business and always had connection to our customers and really in response to the customers thinking, what else can we do on the connection?
Starting with merchandising signs, thinking about hotels and maybe retail, those locations would use those to promote offerings and then over time, we start to explore with our customers, can we turn this into a media opportunity, which obviously would provide revenue back to them, creating another revenue opportunity for the company. And I think the timing of that is all very serendipitous for us because digital out-of-home, and technology enabled selling are all converging, and that’s a big part of the growth in digital out-of-home is this sort of the technology and the digitization of signs, and we find ourselves in a very interesting and exciting place right now.
Did you have end-user customers who were pushing Velocity on some sort of a cost-recovery model, saying, could we put in signs and make money back on these things or was this more something that Velocity came up with?
John McCauley: I think a little more on our side and then the clients obviously are the beneficiaries of it. I think a company like us is thinking about all sorts of growth opportunities and also thinking about ways for more customers to come into the fold. We want to be able to provide as much stickiness as we can. So whether you would come in through our network services side of things and we bring digital signage solutions to you or someone comes in through the digital signage solutions and we’re able to extend them network services.
The company is very focused on being deep and across the board with as many solutions as we can for our customers.
So right now, if I’m looking at your website, you do call centers services, repair depot, onsite techs, back office support, project management, all the kind of traditional things that you would have out of IT managed services and telecom managed services.
I remember having a client in the auto sector that had a digital signage department and they described themselves as the land of misfit toys. They didn’t really fit in with the rest of the company. Culturally, how does the media wing fit within a whole bunch of guys or people who are IT services people?
John McCauley: I think we fit very nicely together. There’s a lot of similarities within that. First and foremost, we’re very customer centric, right? So I think when you start as being customer centric, whether you’re providing an immediate solution for a customer or a sort of technology managed services solution, you end up in the right place aligned around that. There’s also a lot of cross-pollination, whether you work with CMS systems, or digital signage sort of capabilities, you’re working very closely with your IT group, and then also as you’re supporting your customers, right?
We have a grocery network and a hospitality network and others, and the responsiveness, we all work well together, right? If a sign goes down, you’re tapping into your managed services group, the call center is contacting us and it’s very symbiotic, and I think the way the company has put these pieces together has worked well. I can definitely see in other places where they may be assembled versus orchestrated, you’d probably see a bit of a difference.
So the media solutions business unit, if you want to call it that, what all is in that?
John McCauley: So we have networks and hospitality, grocery. We have a relationship with cinemas and Cinema lobbies also within Redbox in video toppers on top of Redbox kiosks, and then through another group, as part of a media solution, we have a direct sales group that represents inventory within bars, transit centers, and convenience stores.
So that mixture of that portfolio of media opportunities allows us to leverage a direct sales group that is working on just a representation basis to help bring into the fold of particular deals of other media that we own and operate, and similarly, if we go owned and operate, we can look to extend those opportunities within networks that we represent. I think within the digital out-of-home space, it’s important to have that sort of portfolio approach, allows us to nurture some networks, develop other networks, and I think overall a lot is happening in the space and allows us to be nimble too.
Did you start with direct sales or was that a kind of a lesson learned, that we can’t really use a rep shop, we need to bring this in-house?
John McCauley: We have an affiliate approach. So I would say our channel strategy where we do use Programmatic, of course, everybody needs to connect to Programmatic. We have third-party relationships with people that may have endemic relationships, maybe particularly within grocery. ScreenVision Media represents some of our inventory and they are leveraging the on-screen advertising and people who want to get close to that customer and extend them outside the cinema. So that sort of has its own strategy, and then our direct group is really a traditional digital out-of-home group. So you can’t forget that part of the stack of revenue coming in, and I think as we think about revenue and I know a lot of people in the digital out-of-home space think about this is where the layers of the cake are coming from.
It may be in the beginning of the year when the media is not as heavy, like 15% of media might be spent in the first quarter, you might be a little more Programmatic oriented, right? As you get open exchange, not PMP, as you get to later in the year where maybe 40% of the media spend could be in Q4, you’re probably going to be more PMP and maybe a little less open exchange. And so that mix of portfolios could also change by the sector, vertical that you’re in.
We consciously did that and I think bringing in the digital out-of-home was on the roadmap. It just took us as we started to make our acquisitions and some of the other affiliates came in, but they all have to work together. We’re working very closely as a centralized resource, coordinating the efforts, because that’s how you maximize the revenue.
The grocery network you acquired, has that been the model for all the media properties you’re in?
John McCauley: That was something that we were interested in grocery and retail. That opportunity came our way and we definitely saw our chance to leverage our relationship with our affiliates, as well as combine that with some strategic things that were coming down the road, but many things we just built from scratch. At the hotel and hospitality network, I think there was a recent release that went out with G6. That’s something that there is no network that begins, right? So we’re deploying the signs and we’re starting it from scratch, and I think you’ll, over time, see even more from us where we’re combining opportunities where there may be existing networks in place, but we can be the catalyst for more digitization and more growth.
So the G6 one, that’s an operator of a series of Motel 6s, right?
John McCauley: Correct. Yes, and hotels are an interesting sort of vertical in the digital out-of-home, not quite landed with media buyers yet, but there’s a tremendous amount of purchasing power that resides within hotel guests. Obviously if you stay at a hotel for longer periods of time, you’re going to be spending more money in the local economy. But even if you were to go in and have a short-term stay right, more than likely, you’re going to be spending some money in the economy.
We also know from just the dwell time, as people are considering things, landing a message that may be more regional in nature, or maybe it’s a specific product, that’s yet another impression that’s made on a customer or potential customer, as they’re within the lobbies. There’s a little bit of work to do within hospitality, but we’re super bullish on that, particularly when you see that the spending ultimately at the end of the day, media agencies and advertisers are looking for what’s that incremental media that I can bring to my campaign and media mix that can be the extra, what’s going to help me close the loop? And I think when you’re sitting in front of people who are away from home, you know they’re going to be spending money. That’s definitely an opportunity to influence purchase.
I’m guessing and it’s purely a guess, but given the history of digital out-of-home, a lot of the networks that kind of bubbled up were often by entrepreneurs who were bootstrapped and were going into places like Motel 6 owner group or whatever, and saying, we can do this for you, we can put these screens in and so on, and maybe in the early days they accepted that. But I think the experience was such that so many of those kinds of bootstrap companies went out of business, that a large well-established IT services firm is probably more readily welcomed in the office to talk about it.
John McCauley: I think the key thing about it is, even if you can bootstrap the signage deployment, ultimately at the end of the day, it’s going to be the service, right? With signs, always there’s cane activity issues, something goes down the monitoring, the maintenance, right? The ability to help program through CMS systems and that ultimately is how you get across the finish line, and it’s super difficult to do, I think if you’re bootstrapping and we have the benefit of the resources of Velocity, to create an infrastructure that allows us to support these networks and obviously as we scale, we continue to look at sort of our resources, but we’re very much on the radar screen of how we continue to provide that level of resourcing.
So I’m an owner of numerous motor inns in the US Southwest or something like that, and I approach you guys, what all would you be able to do? Do you take it right from start to finish and aftercare or are there things that you still leave for others?
John McCauley: Yeah, this would be end to end. Our way of choice of moving forward is design, I think sometimes that’s often missed, what’s the best place to deploy? What is the best signage to use? Getting them deployed and then ongoing monitoring of the deployment, and ultimately, depending on whether the customer wants it or not is bringing advertising. But whether you bring the advertising or not, there’s a CMS system component and we find if we have everything from the beginning to the end, we can provide the highest level of service for the customer, and look, I don’t think it’s really lost on our customers who are in the hotel business. Sometimes we use the term digital concierge for the signage that we provide in the lobby because that’s allowing the hotel to communicate.
These are the services that are available within the hotel. Sometimes it could be a restaurant, right? They are in there and it helps them drive money, sometimes it’s a rewards program. ESA has something called the perks program, which allows their guests to download an app and get deals in the community. So that level of communication, we want to be able to provide that CMS component and then advertising is something, and I think generally speaking, when it’s handled end to end in a one-stop shop, you’re going to get the most from your primary customer, and you can bring the most service, and therefore the most benefit whether it’s going to be efficiencies, savings, and obviously, revenue.
I remember with telecoms companies going back 15 years or so, they started looking at digital signage and described it very much as you did a little bit earlier on, where it’s a layered service thing where we’re already providing the connectivity and the the boots on the ground, so to speak, to come in and repair things. So why not layer this on top of it? Just in the same way that we could maybe layer this building security or whatever.
John McCauley: I think layered services is a nice way to describe it, and I think when you’re working with companies like Velocity where you’re very customer focused and looking to help drive value, for your customer, these things come up and I do think that this digitization of signage and communication, while some people may feel like that’s a lot to undertake, once you have it, you’re taking the communication and you’re changing it up, like on a much more frequent basis.
If you think about movie theaters, and think about menu boards, that used to be that you put them into sort of a plug board, “Popcorn costs $2.50”. Nowadays, a lot of movie theaters have digital menu boards and those digital menu boards allow things to be like by movie, you can change what the offering is. Here’s the pack you’re going to be focusing on around the time of day and that has really proven to be a driver of an anchor mentality, and that I think is ultimately the proof of the pudding, and I think more people are coming around to that. Posters, things like that, where people would do analog, you can take the same image, send it across digitally, and that now can be customized and tweaked regionally by the market, targeted by time of day, and I think those benefits are becoming much more real to people now, and I think with COVID, in particular, people took the time to think about how digital and technology play a role in my company and I think we’ll start to continue to see even more disease of analog opportunities and more exploration of where some signage could be put into venues to drive the revenue and create some efficiencies.
Does it matter at all about focus? So if you’re doing Motel 6 lobbies and groceries in New York state and cinema lobbies, those are pretty different kinds of environments. Does it matter in terms of sales and support that you get a little more focused on one particular vertical or a couple of others?
John McCauley: I think from the support side of things, there’s a lot more commonality to the back end of how you support those signs because of this connectivity coming in, and I would say that would not have been the case years ago. It would have been more difficult to try to manage multiple like sectors, because maybe the differentiation of signage, maybe the CMS system you’re using, a lot of that stuff I think has gone away, making it easier to potentially manage like a variety of verticals, but in particular for the sales side of things, we like to think about our areas of focus proximity to retail and purchase.
So lots of times we’re nestled within retail, right? You’re in a grocery store, we have Redbox, you’re there and then the ability to be close to purchase. So whether you’re at a bar, you’re obviously purchasing in the bar, but oftentimes and with your in hand and the ability to influence purchase, I think is a big deal in digital out-of-home and our network is set up in that way to be around that. We would think about retail and proximity to purchase as a really key component of our business.
You mentioned CMS, is it a case where you’re using a partner firm’s CMS or have you developed your own?
John McCauley: We have our own CMS system and as we’ve taken on networks, we’ve had to work with other CMS systems, but ultimately I think in looking at the ad ecosystem, right? If you start at the far left with a DSP slide into the SSP, right? Then you have an ad server, then the CMS and the connectivity to the sign, I think for the most part people who are in the business that we’re in, they want to have the CMS connected to the sign, right? Because that’s really how you’re controlling the sign. You’re working with a third party on the signage and having that creates a larger scale and more efficiency. But at the end of the day, a lot of the CMS systems work the same.
We would obviously think ours is better because we were working to work on our signs and making sure they’re doing what we want to do, but I think he needed to have flexibility. So at the end of the day if you want to be in the business, you have to have a wide lens and work hard to get people to consider your CMS system.
Do you find with the end user customers who you work with and Target in particular that there’s any sort of demand that no, we need to work with this particular CMS partner, we need to use this particular smart display or operating system, or are they pretty open?
John McCauley: I think if you’re inheriting something, there’s already a bias, that, hey, we’ve used this and we’re looking for a new operator, and I think there are companies that would come in and maybe operate that and certainly we consider everything. I think when things are starting anew then you have the opportunity to bring to bear the capabilities that the company may have around sourcing and designing signage that works as well as the CMS system.
I think you need to be competitive, right? So if someone likes a particular CMS system, you understand what those needs are, and you obviously are going to be upgrading your CMS system to have those. So yeah, you need to be definitely paying attention to the marketplace. I think like in anything, whether it’s this business or any business, if you have blinders on, and are rigid and say, this is the way we do it, then ultimately you’re going to miss out on opportunities, right? Because the marketplace is going to dictate the services and the capabilities that you need to have.
Okay, so if I’m a digital place-based startup and I’m putting screens in, I’ll make something up in ski resort lounges or something like that, don’t think I’d do that one but anyways.
If I was being smart, I’d determine pretty quickly that I don’t know what I’m doing with technology and it would be great if I had a partner who did all that stuff for me, and I just focused on sales or even had sales done by somebody else, and I just run around and get the real estate agreements, is that something you’ll do where you just kind of take everything on?
John McCauley: Absolutely. That’s the type of thing we would put ourselves in position to do, and I think as you were indicating that sometimes we’re seeing the customer saying, yes, I’ll get the real estate because I have real estate, I want to convert some real estate, I want to better leverage my real estate, but ultimately we find that customers are trying to drive more revenue, right? Like in their existing business, how do they drive more revenue? I know you were using the ski resort, right? Can they get people to the lodge and buy more? Can they get them to do lessons? Ultimately the businesses are very focused on that.
Bringing advertising in, that’s obviously very complimentary, and we find that when you’re bringing advertisers into venues, particularly on the mix of them, local and regional play well because it’s sorta like the company you keep. If there’s some advertising in there, people go, oh, look at that. They’re advertising at the ski resort. I think that is also things that the venues like, they like to be immersed within either the community or things that their customers are feeling that are current.
You’ve grown a little bit in the media space through acquisition, is this an ongoing thing? Is Velocity looking for other networks that they may potentially acquire as well to build out their footprint?
John McCauley: I think we will always have our eyes on where we can be strategically accretive, particularly around these verticals and sectors and being close to retail and purchase and if there are things that pop up, we’re also actively looking. I would say that that’s very much in the forefront.
There’s a lot of digital out-of-home networks out there. Generally speaking, do you get a sense of how they’re doing? There’s obviously some large ones that are doing very well, but it’s been a rough couple of years for just about everybody.
John McCauley: Yeah, I think heading into that quarter before COVID shut everything down, they were really coming off a record year, having a record quarter digital out-of-home, and then basically the world’s shut down, and what we’re seeing is that traffic is certainly back, people are out and about, depending on where you are in the country, it could be a little bit less but certainly people are feeling more comfortable being vaccinated, and what we’re seeing is that a little bit of an over-indexing to transit and billboards. That’s the safe play, right? People are out there driving. I think people are over-indexing there.
In that middle sort of ground, like street furniture is almost back to where they need to be from the pre COVID levels, and then the place-based, essential markets, whether it’s grocery stores and others, they certainly have had the traffic, and they’re shown a little quicker recovery and then things that would be considered more discretionary, whether they be movie theaters or people could argue bars, whether that’s discretionary or not, but they serve an essential part of the communities. All of those types of things are definitely starting to show the rebounding and heading towards the trajectory of getting back to pre COVID levels.
But I think that’s just the cadence of the way people have responded to it. They have to see that the traffic is steady and consistent, that we can weather the storms of having variance that really impacted the traffic, and then ultimately I think Q4 is a good time for it, right? Because at the end of the day, Q4 is when many companies, whether you’re selling stuff, whether it be media or selling products, you need to get your impressions, you need to reach, you need to get impressions. You need to influence people who are in position to purchase. I think this quarter in particular will really start to provide the wind behind the sails heading into 2022. There was a DPAA conference last week which was really encouraging. It was well attended by 600 plus people in person at Chelsea Piers in New York. The energy was high, lots of clients there. Lots of things happening within the digital out-of-home, and I think there’s a lot of optimism around place-based.
And I think you told me in our pre-call that Velocity is a member of the DPAA?
John McCauley: Yeah, we’re members of the DPaA, and in my prior life, I was at the ScreenVision Media and I was on the board. So I’m very friendly and familiar with the leadership there, and I think they’ve done a very nice job.
Between the DPAA and the OAAA representing the industry, evangelizing the industry, making sure it’s staying top of mind with agencies and brands and CMOs, I think that’s an important component and I think there’s the retail networks whether it be Walmart doing Walmart Connect or Walgreens or CVS or our efforts at retail, I think they have a very high value, and I think people are really paying attention to the ability to influence customers with wallets out.
I assume, right now, Velocity is its revenue and its focus is heavily in its traditional business of IT services managed services and so on, and that the media side of it is a fairly small percentage of the revenue.
Is there a longer-term vision where Velocity starts to become more and more a media company?
John McCauley: We’d have to ask Greg and the leadership team about that, but I see a real enthusiasm for the media business and how the media business supports and can support other opportunities within the company, and so I think as a result of that, it’s strategic importance will continue to grow and so will the revenue but we definitely want to be in the business, whether we’re powering networks, whether we’re monetizing networks, there’s a lot of connectivity that we like being around the space and it plays very well into sort of the overall company of network services and then layering on the media services.
All right. That was terrific. I appreciate you taking some time with me.