Florian Rotberg of Invidis Details The State Of Digital Signage In EU, Middle East, And Rise Of Green Signage
November 10, 2021 by Dave Haynes
The Munich-based digital signage consultancy invidis has been doing an annual yearbook publication for the past decade that is something of an industry bible for the European and Middle Eastern markets, and with each annual edition it gets a little more detailed and broader in its scope.
The company does a German version and another one in English to service the rest of the region. There are many, many industry reports out there purporting to have a real understanding and data about the digital signage industry, but most of those reports are expensive and frankly not worth the money.
The invidis yearbook, in contrast, is rich in detail, and full of insights from people who know the business at an expert level.
And the best part, it’s a free download – with the report bankrolled by sponsor advertisers.
I caught up with Florian Rotberg, one of the principals at invidis, to talk about this year’s insights, and why the focal point for 2021 was on what they call green signage.
Florian. Thank you for joining me. You’re just back from Dubai!
Florian Rotberg: Thanks for having me. Yeah, it was very exciting in Dubai at Expo 2020, and we spent a few days there. It was still very hot, but it’s fascinating to see how immersive signage can be in today’s show.
Yeah. There’s digital signage all through the Expo site, right?.
Florian Rotberg: It’s fascinating. It’s LED with a lot of projections. During normal times, you don’t see that much projection, but in this special country pavilion, there were 180 of them, it’s fascinating to see. It’s also great to see what works and what doesn’t because some of the countries run out of money or never really had a good plan and you feel it immediately. So you enter the room and go, “oh, that’s crap, I’m leaving,” and unfortunately, sometimes you have to wait two to three hours at some of the very popular pavilions. So then it’s not a good experience, but in general, it’s fascinating to see what’s the coolest thing.
It’s not only LED and projection, but it’s also how that’s really integrated in architecture and not only how it integrated into the room, but also a lot of mirrors. So one of my favorite things, and I’ve talked about it many times before, it’s really how you combine signage, how you combine LED or projection with mirror. You can do fantastic things and you see some really cool pavilions.
Yeah. There was a new observatory that just opened up in New York, overlooking Madison Avenue in Midtown and it’s got a big LED wall, but it’s also three levels of mirrored ceilings and floors and walls and everything else and reflects like crazy. I was trying to wrap my head around it, but it’s that kind of thing where it becomes just an infinite space.
Florian Rotberg: Exactly, and it feels immersive and it can create great experiences there, and we took 1400 photos and 70 hours of video, so we’ll put everything together in the next week we would publish it on Invidis Meets World on YouTube where you can watch it and we will show a lot of other stuff also obviously.
What is invidisXworld?
Florian Rotberg: So invidisXworld is something we started before the pandemic, and we decided because signage is so much about content, so much about the whole room, it’s not only the digital canvas, but how people move in front of the screen and what a brand or the vendors really want to achieve.
And so we decided, we have to travel. We have to go there. We have to talk with the people who designed it, and we have to just experience ourselves and then to tell the audience how it really feels. So we just hired the camera team, and we went off to Sweden and to Berlin which is still both in Europe, so it was easier to reach, and we spent a week there and talked with dozens of experts and visited museums. Some of the museums just opened for us because they were all closed because of a lockdown, and we went to Volvo, to H&M, to different places, to headquarters and talk with the guys who are responsible for that. It’s a fascinating show and people like it and we get quite good feedback.
So we’re working in a visual medium, and you’re actually using video?
Florian Rotberg: Yes!
Florian Rotberg: To be honest, I always thought photos are so cool, it’s so easy, but unfortunately video is so much better, but it’s very expensive. It’s not just you spending a week somewhere, you have a whole camera team, and almost like a broadcast team, we have a video guy, sound guy, a producer, and you have to feed them and that is sometimes difficult. So you have to manage them almost like kids, but at the end of the day, you get some really good footage afterwards and it’s worth the trouble.
For people who haven’t been to Dubai, as you say, it’s fascinating. I find it extremely weird, but the degree of digital signage there, all these projects, and a lot of them are big budget projects, are they instructive or are they one-offs where you look at them and go, that’s really cool, but, that’s not something that’s ever going to scale?
Florian Rotberg: It’s changing. In the past, it was just about the “wow of the moment” and afterwards, they all forgot about it. Nobody cared about maintenance, and after a year it just looked horrible, because nobody invested in content and nobody cared about it, and to be honest, even till today, the majority of the digital touchpoints are still not really connected to any backend systems or so and there are various reasons for that.
One is when they open something and then they forget about it. People change jobs really fast. So even the person who is responsible for that leaves a job after a year or so, and so nobody has ownership anymore, and last but not least, these countries are relatively small, so reaching scale is very difficult, even for big chains, maybe maybe 40 stores or so getting scale is difficult.
And they’re interested in the “wow” and unfortunately not so much until four to five or seven year long contracts.
But you said it’s changing?
Florian Rotberg: Yep. It’s changing, getting smarter, getting more connected. To be honest, the region is the most digitally advanced region with a very young population.
They have two-three mobile phones, and they’re very open to all of this stuff. So it is changing, and we talked, while we were there, to one of the biggest telecommunication companies there, and we were at one of their flagship stores and they now have 170 stores and they have really good connections, and they really think in customer journeys.
We also visited a smart hospital, which was really cool. You identify yourself when you enter the hospital with your ID card and then it takes a photo of you and then you walk through the hospital and it detects you and makes sure that you’re in the right room, that the right person is there and everything. So very smart and they’re really starting to think about journeys and to improve processes. So at the smart hospital, the process before was three days with all the examinations until you got to stand for your visa renewal, and now it’s down to 30 minutes, which is incredible, and this is only possible with digital.
So I wanted to chat for a number of reasons, but the principal one was the yearbook that Invidis puts out. Could you explain what that is and how it works?
Florian Rotberg: Some people call it the Bible of the industry. I’m not sure if I would call it that, but yeah, it’s an annual book we have been publishing for 11 year now and it’s free to download on Invidis.com and it basically gives a yearly update about the latest trends. We have lots of rankings there, especially this year since it was quite interesting. You know, like the largest CMS providers worldwide, and which verticals are most important for digital signage, etc.
We just give an analysis of the market, what has happened and also an outlook on what trends are coming up and what to understand, and the main topic this year is Green Signage. I know many of your listeners are based in North America, but over here in Europe, it’s a huge topic. During the pandemic, the interest in more sustainable solutions has improved dramatically, and so more and more brands are looking to also operate their signage networks more sustainably, and what’s most interesting when we did all the research is that 80% of the carbon footprint of a digital signage project is during operations. So for five-six years, the whole thing is operating. It’s not so much the production, it’s not so much the shipping. Yes, it’s still 10-20%, but 80%, that’s the biggest lever, and so it’s not only about buying a more sustainable, more conscious signage solution, but it’s really about how to improve existing installations.
And there are so many things you can improve and you can reduce power consumption with the right content. Turning it off at night, it’s so unfortunate that the majority of the signage runs 24/7 even if there are no people around. Kiosks systems, they all run 24.7. There’s no reason if a kiosk system is somewhere on a factory floor and the floor is closed or in the evening, or at night, it’s still running. In the beginning, especially with LEDs, obviously they consume a lot of power. So there are a lot of levers and ways to be more conscious and more sustainable.
Do you think part of that is simply the early days of the legacy of digital signage software and hardware is that you were afraid to kind of power it down cause it would come back?
Florian Rotberg: Exactly. Yeah, that’s the main thing, at least that’s what the technical integrators always say. Some, especially on some more recent screens, turn off the sensors, the light sensors and everything because the marketing department wanted the red as close as possible to their official red and obviously that doesn’t work if you change the brightness of the screen but things are changing really fast.
And what’s most interesting now with the pandemic and about sustainability is that signage has become a CEO topic for the first time. In the past years, they never really cared about digital signage, but now they really have to report it to their shareholders: how they could improve operations, where they could reduce the carbon footprint and digital signage plays an important role.
Interesting. The yearbook is primarily focused on Europe and the Middle East, right?
Florian Rotberg: Yes. That’s how we started. We started this in Germany and then we extended it and now it’s more or less all over Europe and every year we add a few more countries. Last big thing was the Nordics, and currently we’re working on France, Spain and UK, so next year, we will also have rankings for these countries, and yeah, especially in Europe most markets were quite national markets and now some bigger international players are really growing and Europe is seen as one market, and so it’s important to have all of them and that includes the UK.
Yeah, despite Brexit. Is what happens in Europe indicative of what is happening globally or is it its own thing?
Florian Rotberg: The whole green stuff is probably the most advanced in Europe.
Yeah, you don’t hear about it in North America. Honestly, I’ve never heard anybody bring it up.
Florian Rotberg: Yeah, but over here, especially in the Nordics, it’s very important, and just for example, electricity is 10 times more expensive in Germany compared to Korea, for example. Even the designers and the engineers who create new solutions, they’re not aware of how important power consumption is and life is changing, and I think this whole climate debate we are currently having, I think it will become more important, not only in Europe, but also in the US.
I know that Europe and the Middle East primarily, I’ve heard other people talk about the real action these days being in China and in India and I wonder how hard it must be, particularly with China, to try to wrap your arms around who the major players are, what activities are going on, any of those things?.
Florian Rotberg: Yeah, China is a very difficult market. There’s a lot of potential but it’s very difficult as an analyst, really, to look at the market and it’s so different.
Interestingly enough, there are a few bigger digital signage integrators based in Europe and North America who also have offices in China and they’re pretty much doing this stuff for all the big luxury brands and so. So there’s some European and then North American guys who really are trying to do stuff in Shanghai and the big cities, but the general market is just huge, and you probably talked to Chris Regal or so, because he’s very successful in India and in China, but he’s targeting more of the mid market and the European players, they’re just looking at how to bring Italian and French brands to China.
And those European brands and other brands, would they rather bring familiar companies into the country to do that for them, as opposed to hiring local firms?
Florian Rotberg: At the end of the day, that’s the case, but that’s also with North America, that’s the success of the media to be honest. Media’s strength in Europe is that they represent America, the American customers here.
So what is happening in terms of the yearbook? Obviously we’re hopefully coming out of a rather rough couple of years. I noticed in the report that the countries in Europe, at least that had a particularly rough time were France and the UK versus some of the other countries that were down, but not to the same level. Why did that happen?
Florian Rotberg: Because of the lockdown. We had different levels and different lengths of lockdown, and just looking at Australia, they had a three months lockdown. Now that obviously has a huge impact because the stores were closed, and even if it’s a brand that’s willing to spend money and to upgrade the stores, they couldn’t because technicians weren’t allowed to enter the stores.
I know, in past discussions around this, that Europe’s an interesting market in that dominant players in many respects are dominant by country, as opposed to across the continent?
Florian Rotberg: That has been the case, absolutely. But this is currently changing. So we have, we call them the Top 3, they are the three largest pure play digital signage integrators, and they’ve all been acquired more or less by private equity and now they’re buying competitors in the big markets. All three of them really try to grow into a pan-European or international player.
But in relative terms to the North American guys, AVI, SPL, Diversified and Stratacache, they’re tiny, right?
Florian Rotberg: They are tiny. They hope to change that but they are very small. But to be honest if you look at AVI, SPL or even Diversified, they’re not pure digital signage, they do a lot of Pro AV, IT stuff, so you should compare apples with apples, but still X times larger than the biggest in Europe.
AVI, SPL just announced, I think, it’s called the Experience Technology Group. So they seem to be recognizing that they need to get more serious about signage and venue based displays.
Florian Rotberg: Oh, yeah, and I love what they do. They’re really smart in creating this platform to manage different AV solutions and everything. So I think that it’s a smart approach, and also now looking out to create more immersive experiences because if you have expertise there, you can really export it throughout the world. So that works quite well.
But in Europe, we still have the problem of 25 different languages and really creating concepts, which you need to understand the culture and yes, there’s a big difference between Sweden and Spain or Italy and Ireland also. So really to understand that, and that was a reason why there were large local players and still, if you look how these big three or at least three for European sizes and how they’re growing, they all built up little local creative teams and sales teams in each countries because you need to have this local expertise, you need to speak the language of the client, and you need to understand what they really want to achieve.
You’ve done a ranking of the Top 10 Global CMS software platforms, and I’m making some assumptions that there are some CMS platforms in China that you and I probably have never even heard of and that they are probably huge as well. But were you surprised by who showed up on this list?
Florian Rotberg: Some surprises, yes. I mean there’s a small asterisk next to it. So it’s just the best of our knowledge, obviously. I’m sure there are many but one big problem is always Samsung. They never report anything, and it’s really difficult.
So the largest one is Stratacache. It’s a little bit more than 3 million active licenses, and one of the surprises was that the top three players were Navori. I’m not sure if many of your listeners have heard about Navori. They’re based in Switzerland.
They’re pretty big in North America actually.
Florian Rotberg: Yeah, not so much in Europe, funnily enough, even though they came out of Europe and yes, they have more than 1 million active subscribers. So that’s quite cool, and then you see some more vertical ones who are growing through acquisitions a lot and socialists like BroadSign, it’s great to see. We have followed BroadSign for more than 15 years now, and it’s great to see how they have become the standard in the digital out-of-home industry. It’s quite impressive.
Yeah, they’ve risen to a level where they pretty much own that vertical and I always try to coach software companies that you really don’t want to be a generalist. You want to have a focus on something and they probably more than anybody have done that in digital out-of-home.
Florian Rotberg: Yeah, but the same with Four Winds etc., they all are specialists, or at least they are focusing more and more on certain verticals.
Yeah, Four Winds barely calls itself a digital signage company now. They’re talking about the workplace and the same with Ops Space.
Florian Rotberg: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I think there was just an announcement in that space today.
So what are you seeing in terms of trends in the industry? As you mentioned, the shift to, or the interest in green signage is one thing. What else are you seeing happening out there?
Florian Rotberg: The biggest challenge currently across the world is to manage the supply chain shortage. Unfortunately, that won’t go away in 2022. If you read the Financial Times, if you talk to all the people, you just read it every day and most people expect that to last at least until the end of next year.
And that’s pretty bad news because the order books are as full as they were before. There’s a lot of demand for signage at the end of the pandemic, and unfortunately 2022 will still be a difficult year. Secondly, we have a shortage of talents and whoever you talk to, I’m sure you also get calls about companies saying, we’re desperately looking for a new manager and I get them every day and that’s a huge issue and then shortage in diversity, shortages of women, of everything. It’s still a very male dominated thing, and today InfoComm opened and I’m sure the majority of them are men, as always, and so we see these three shortages: supply chain, talent and diversity.
When I get asked to organize panels particularly with an organization like the AVIXA, which has diversity initiatives and everything else, they really encourage me to make sure that I’m finding women and people of color and so on, and I’m completely supportive of that, but it’s hard.
Florian Rotberg: It is hard, yeah. It’s not easy. I fully understand, but alsowhen you look more in the new work, in the hybrid world, it’s all about hybrid and that’s very challenging for everyone. It’s easy to have everyone at home. It’s easy to have everyone on location, but managing these hybrid workspaces is very difficult. How can you create meetings where everything feels included and often you communicate with eyes and with every single one that’s very difficult to do when alf of the people are somewhere at home or so. So you need lots of creativity and innovative solutions to manage that. So that’s also something which will definitely remain.
And we’re seeing gimmicks coming up there, like this idea of the metaverse and using quasi holograms, so that it feels like you’re sitting across from a real person when it’s not obviously, do you see any potential for that stuff?
Florian Rotberg: To be honest, it’s a one way road because it’s nice for the guys who are in the office, but for the guys who are sitting at home in front of this small screen, it doesn’t help them at all, and you need to have both sides and you need to empower both sides, and so I think at the end of the day, it’s difficult to solve and we haven’t seen any solution.
I think the cool part is teleportation stuff, and last week in Dubai, there was also an IT show. It was just the biggest and it was unbelievable how full it was like before the pandemic, and they had these cool mirrors and everything. So it looked like somebody was in the room, when obviously he wasn’t. And so it’s great to see, but it doesn’t help people at home, and so that still remains a challenge.
And I wanted to go to that show. I’ve seen some videos of some booths from some companies, and it looked insane.
Florian Rotberg: It was, and a lot of booth people were waiting an hour more. Can you imagine that? Just to enter the booth because it was so full, it was unbelievable. We all had to wear a mask, no question about it, but we waited more than an hour just to get in. So yeah, it was amazing, and we produced lots of videos and we will publish that in the next couple of days.
It’s really cool stuff, especially in regards to retail technology, all the cool stuff, all the fancy things were robots and solar, but also AI and how it really works, and then some simpler solutions in all of these checkout carts and everything, and also these devices which measure you so you don’t have to find the right size without using camera technology, because obviously that’s something which most people don’t like. And it’s interesting to see what kind of solutions there are. Much of the stuff, it’s really something where you’re thinking, oh, it’d be great. If they would roll that out in the future, the majority of them are still in the prototype phase, but hopefully we will see lots of this coming up.
Your report coined a term, “Deep Signage” which I had not seen before, but I understand it and this idea of integrating back office systems with other business systems within a company. It sounds like that, particularly in Dubai, is really coming into play.
Florian Rotberg: Yeah, we try to form this term, deep signage, because for us, it’s important that you connect as much as possible, as long as digital is just a layout on something existing. It won’t really offer the experiences everyone needs and the benefits. So you have to connect it to the back office, and especially when we talk about moving away from just digital signage CMS, all the way to a digital experience platform, then you need to mix everything and then really connect. So deep signage is something we believe is one step towards digital experience.
Yeah, and how do you define digital experience platforms?
Florian Rotberg: Oh, that’s difficult. Yeah, when you download our book, we have a little picture there, and it’s four stages. We start with a digital poster, which is the most simple one. Then we have digital signage, then we have a digital signage experience platform, and then the ultimate is digital experience platform, because there’s a totally different approach to it, and when we talk about DXP, it’s not digital signage or mobile or online, which is in focus, but it’s really the data, it’s the experience which is in focus regardless on which channel you play it out, and it’s really orchestration of all of the different channels and different stories and media platforms, and that’s what digital experience platform is about.
But then many customers ask us who does it and who’s good at it, and it’s very difficult. There are only very few companies and most of them are totally vertically organized players like Zara,, I’m sure you know them, because they do everything, they own the factory, they own the warehouse, they own the shops, and they own the data and for them, it doesn’t matter if you go into a store, try something out and decide to buy it online, because they own the whole value chain and this is one of the few companies who really are able to deliver a DXP and make the most of it, but more will come definitely.
If you’re a smaller company, is it something you can even contemplate at a different kind of scale?
Florian Rotberg: No, it’s not worth it. I think you need to be very large, to be honest, and to really put up a DXP project, you probably need a few million just for setting it up.
You mentioned private equity companies and some of the integrators in Europe, or are you seeing a lot of private equity activity?
Florian Rotberg: Yes, it’s unbelievable. So much money in the market. That’s the reason that conservation is speeding up so fast, it’s unbelievable.
Why do you think that is right now? Is it distressed companies?
Florian Rotberg: No. We were surprised not at all, but maybe that’s also a European thing because the governments took care of that and so most of them kept their employees, which is a good thing now, because they didn’t have to retrain new people so it’s not about that.
It’s more about that the crisis wasn’t really an economic crisis. It was more of a human crisis, and so most companies still have a lot of money, except if you are a Chinese real estate company, then maybe you don’t. But in general, they have a lot of money. The private equity companies, they’re looking for new ways of spending it, and they all buy into the digitization of stationary retail. They fully understand that times have changed and you can only survive if you’re fully digital, and so that’s probably why they like it.
And then there are also some of the trends like we have the first valuation of more than a hundred million in Europe for an integrator, and this is one of the thresholds where, you know, private equity likes to come into the market. Zeta Display, they were almost at a hundred million valuation and it’s not much compared to the top three in the US but for Europe, that’s quite big, and that that made it really interesting for many others.
You also, in the report, talk about changing roles of the different companies in the ecosystem and how there are dinosaurs, disruptors and discovers. What do you mean by that?
Florian Rotberg: Ah, that’s quite interesting, especially when you look at software companies, some of them are reinventing themselves, and in the past,, there was the value chain and there were clearly defined roles. There was an integrator, the integrator usually owns the lead with the customer and he chose certain software and certain hardware and that was it basically, and then you did some stuff in the back and, but I think Chris Regal was the first one, when he quit Scala, he said “oh, I’m sick of just having 3-5% of the project, I want to have more”, and so he decided to build around software this whole end to end solution.
And then other companies, software companies from Sweden and other parts of Europe, they’re really also trying to change the way the value chain works. So they really want to be ISV+. So they want to do everything except hardware . Obviously the investors love that because that’s every single sale which would have recurring revenue and nobody wants to touch hardware, and Chris Regal always tells us that you need to also to understand how to learn, to manage it. Otherwise the service you mentioned will be really expensive. So it’s interesting to see if this ISV+ model will work out for them.
So that sounds like the dinosaurs are those who refused to adjust and adapt, and the disruptors are those that are doing things differently?
Florian Rotberg: Yup. We have some smaller, more aggressive players coming into the market and also players like Spector, many people hadn’t heard about them and now they have become really relevant
And there are also companies that, in some cases, are very large companies that can come into the market from outside, like consulting companies like Deloitte and so on and disrupt things as well, right?
Florian Rotberg: Absolutely. On a different level, but yes, Accenture, Deloitte, all of these guys and they are really close to the big enterprise. So usually they do at least double digits, sometimes triple digit contracts with blue chip companies every year and they’re trusted names. So it’s an easy one for BMW, Adidas, Nike, or whatever to hire one of them and to ask them to create a new digital concept. Unfortunately, most of them don’t know how digital signage works.
Yeah. So they always invent this great stuff. It looks fantastic on PowerPoint and everything, but then at the end of the day, they need to subcontract it to the signage contractor to solve the whole thing and make it work, and we have also seen the big four have failed as a digital signage company, and so it’s interesting, but eventually they will buy some digital signage companies I think.
Or hire smart people, you know? Over here in North America, I think about Gensler and Publicis Sapient, and they have some super smart people working for them now who really get this space and get the technology and everything else. So they’re getting there, but it’s a very small percentage of people within very large companies..
Florian Rotberg: You mentioned Gensler, it’s fascinating, and I’m sure we talked to the same people there and it’s really fascinating how with new projects now, they make more money with digital stuff rather than the traditional architectural stuff. So that’s fascinating. Not revenue wise, but from the bottom line, and that’s interesting to see because if you do digital consulting, obviously your margin is higher than with your standard architectural work. So it’s fascinating to see how architectural companies like this are really getting into the digital space and if you don’t see it as just a layer really integrated, you need to plan it from day one.
Last question: Is there a piece of technology or an emerging technology that gets you particularly excited?
Florian Rotberg: We are both not the youngest anymore. We have seen many technologies come and go, and I know one thing that never works is 3D.
So we were a little bit surprised to see how 3D in this false perspective on this LED wall worked, but I still think it’s a hype, to be honest.
Analytics, sensors, and IOT will make a difference, no question about it. But it’s not one technology, it’s more, I think a mindset of connecting everything and measuring everything and adapting to the audience in the milliseconds. I think that’s something we’re changing. It’s probably a whole range of different technologies.
Yeah, I’m of the same mindset. I tell people that the stuff that excites me would probably bore the pants off of them, and just in terms of its the operational stuff is being able to affect messaging based on what the data is telling you, and it may be really boring saying, go this way instead of that way, because that’s too busy over there or whatever, but that’s fabulous stuff and it makes a difference or whatever venue it is works.
Florian Rotberg: Exactly. It’s more the stuff under the hood, which really gets me excited and that’s also where you can really improve processes where you can really add value, and so that’s what we are mostly working on, and obviously customers want to pay for the glittery stuff on top of the rest. But no, but that’s where we see the biggest changes happening in the future.
So if people want to read the 2021 year book, how do they get it?
Florian Rotberg: It’s free to download at invidis.com and I think you also published an article, so you can also find it on your website a link to that, but it’s free to download, it’s 200 pages and not only this year’s edition, but if you also want to read some auditions, please come to our website a and download it there.
And you’re able to produce it for free because you get advertising sponsors to support it, right?
Florian Rotberg: Yes, but it’s still more work than we get from advertisements, I can tell you that
It was a pleasure catching up with you as always.
Florian Rotberg: Thanks for having me.