Why Esprit Digital Has Broadened Its Custom Display Work To LED, And Bought Into A Shenzhen Factory
April 13, 2022 by Dave Haynes
Esprit Digital has been making and supporting custom display solutions for 20 years from facilities north of London, but the company recently took the interesting step of investing in their own manufacturing in China and expanding from LCD into LED.
The company has built up a reputation for putting together displays – from screens that line subway escalators to sidewalk totems – that manage to look sleek, but also have mission-critical reliability. Esprit has, for example, a major, longtime customer in the giant Westfield shopping center chain, and also works with big OOH media companies and retail brands.
I was intrigued by news that Esprit was getting into LED displays – a market that’s even more crowded than digital signage software – so I arranged a catch-up interview with owner Peter Livesey. I learned his angle is all about custom, or as Brits like him say, bespoke.
Peter, thank you for joining me. We’ve done a podcast in the past, but that was, I don’t know, in 1977 or something like that, so things have probably changed. Can you give me a background on what Espirit Digital is all about and really what the last couple of years has been like? Cause it’s been a little bit nutty.
Peter Livesey: To say the least. I think it was 1975 actually, but we won’t split hairs about that.
So you were in your forties then, I think?
Peter Livesey: Ooh, are we going to spar straight away? There are a lot of questions there. First of all, It’s great to be back because I think that’s where we are now and I think we, as an industry, as a world, are starting to come back to where we were a couple of years ago and we’re still here, Espirt Digital, we’re still going. We are stronger than ever.
It’s our 20th anniversary this month. So we’re very proud of that. We’re going to be doing some things to mark that and the reason we’re stronger than ever considering our traditional customer base effectively shut up shop and put everything on pause for the most part for the last two years for all the reasons we know, is because we did a strategic pivot.
We brought a technology called InstaScan, which allowed people to get into buildings and get into public spaces, it took the temperature, and it worked really well. It was a cheap, lightweight item, could be wall-mounted or freestanding. Anyway, we sold thousands of them, made them all here just north of London and distributed them around the world to people like Costco and it was a good one. That’s probably not the main reason we’re still here, but it certainly helped us.
It’s interesting because in Q2 2020, I saw no end of press releases from companies saying we’re selling these things now, and I did not see a lot of indication that there was a lot of take-up, but you’re saying it, it went great.
Peter Livesey: Yeah, absolutely. Particularly in the US, we did a lot of little big chains over there and it worked very well.
Yeah, I probably just haven’t seen them cause I’ve been locked in my room for two years now.
Peter Livesey: In that igloo of yours, I know. Now we’re back to what we really love, which is screen integration and our key verticals as ever digital out of home being number one, screens that generate money tend to tend to be the most interesting for us because everyone wants to push the envelope with every new project. So they always want new toys in the box and new sizes and new applications, and it’s great for our R&D team.
So your company would primarily be known for digital display totems, whether they’re interactive or “static” in terms of not being interactive, but they’re running video and all that stuff for street furniture, for shopping malls, that sort of thing, is that pretty accurate?
Peter Livesey: Historically, it’s always been malls, metros and airports inside and outside. It doesn’t have to be totems or kiosks or pods as we call them, it could be any shape screen. As long as it’s a professional solution that requires a player and some other toys, whether you talk to it by interacting, with touch screen or with gestures, or now with voice, we have a lovely voice platform where you can talk to screens and they can answer you and give you all kinds of information live, particularly for wayfinding, that’s an excellent application.
It doesn’t really matter how you talk to them and what CMS you use, all of that is secondary. What’s important to us is we design and build hardware solutions for, as I say, digital out of home smart cities and laterally in the last few years, retail, and that’s one of the things we’re going to come onto because retail screens, I think, it’s set to be a boom. It’s already now on every architect and design drawings, they’ve got screens built in. So regardless of where the retail is, if it’s in a high street or an airport, it makes no difference. Screens are a big part of the mix, and as I say, there’s never been a better time to talk to your customers. They’ve been gone for a while. You’ve got online eating your lunch. It’s definitely time to fight back with a much nicer experience in store and screens is a great way of starting, put a screen in your window, put the content, nice people come in, welcome them, maybe with a screen or a series of screens, and then have, partner sales screens dotted around the store to give people more micro information where wherever they want to go while they’re waiting for shop assistants to either catch up or to find out their query.
The last time I was at a trade show of any size was ISC more than two years ago now, and I believe I bumped into you there, but one of my takeaways from that trade show was: I was amazed by how many companies in Europe had these indoor and outdoor display totems. So they all had variations on roughly the same thing. How do you compete in that market? How do you set yourself apart from them?
Peter Livesey: How do we set ourselves apart? We think we make the most reliable and the best looking kit on the market. It’s highly stylized. For instance, the new totem we’ve just put into the Westfield mall of the Netherlands is a good example. They’re sleek, black. They have beautiful ambient light displays down the side strips. They’re double-sided 75, and literally if you had them in your home, you would think it was a beautiful addition, and they’re in a high-end mall, Westfield’s first kind of digital transformation mall on mainland Europe. And, by all accounts, it adds to the overall appeal of the mall. It enhances Westfield’s brand, enhances it, and then the ad company, they can sell on a beautiful looking totem.
So we set ourselves apart by being competitively priced or being the best designed unit and it being reliable and reliabilities is key. You can’t put stuff out that is going to go wrong in the first six months you can’t. So our track record, starting with the London underground, where we had thousands of screens on the escalators in the early two thousands. They were there for 15 years, our stuff that we’ve put into Westfield around the world, Australia, we’re still looking after 600-700 units in America now on a daily basis. These things have been in for, probably since 2016 and by and large, the fault rate is so low on them, and that is because we use quality components inside a sensibly laid out solution that for me, looks and feels better on the inside than it does on the outside.
There seems to be two streams of activity. There are the companies that are designing indoor and outdoor display totems that they’re focused on almost making it a commodity, knocking them out with a kind of a standard shape and everything else and putting in a commercial display and saying, here you go, versus what you’re saying. It almost sounds like you have to, in certain respects, re-engineer a display and really think through everything if you want them to work happily in the field for many years.
Peter Livesey: Totally. That’s exactly it. No one else, I don’t believe, in the world knows as much about the actual screen and the panel itself than our guys that are in our building and they know what’s going to make those screens last and last, whether they’re inside in In a nice cushy mall in a city or they’re outside in a desert in Saudi as we’ve done them or outside Metro in Oslo where it’s freezing cold, no one knows how to make those screens work 24/7/365 for 5 to 10 years, and that’s something that, as you say, will set us apart.
What is actually harder, is it Oslo or Riyadh?
Peter Livesey: Any temperature extreme. We’ve dealt with them all, and then sometimes you get both in one place. In Oslo, it’s freezing cold for 10 months a year, it’s properly freezing, but for two months a year, it’s really warm. So you have to have the technology to be able to cope with that, and we’ve got it and we can prove it. We’ve got probably 20,000 of these kiosks out there around the world. We’re still doing remote and physical support on all the ones in America. We’ve just delivered a new double-sided outdoor 65-inch kiosk for an upscale mall in Austin, Texas and that follows hard on the heels of one that we did in NoHo in LA. So these are highly stylized, external, full sunlight, full out solutions that we don’t expect to see again for 10 years and that’s the thing.
So you can compete on price and volume, or you can compete on reliability and design, and obviously that the latter is more fruitful in probably many ways.
Peter Livesey: Yeah, listen, we’re not a maintenance business per se. We support our kits around the world. But we’re interested in making solutions that don’t go wrong. So if you have a maintenance contract, which effectively is your insurance, if they get vandalized or there is a problem, someone’s there too, within the SLA terms to make sure it gets fixed and we have SLAs of 4 hours sometimes, mostly 24 or 48 hours. But that’s not what drives our business, our business is all about reliability and yeah, we can compete on all those other elements and really the custom thing is the reason we’re having this catch-up today because the custom thing is what’s driving us into looking at our own brand of LED and this is why we’ve called it Lumos, which has got some Latin connotation lighting or something, but anyway, it’s a nice name. We like it, and it’s exciting because, historically obviously, we’ve supplied LEDs for many years from every manufacturer out there that’s worth anything.
We’ve put up some really huge LEDs because our skillset is that we can design and build the solution that goes around it, all of the substructure, and we can put things up in hostile environments and make sure that they last. Where there was the big hole was in custom LEDs, and LEDs that just had a price advantage, it also had a reliability to match anything that’s out, and Lumos has got that. We’ve got an enormous range. We are built into a factory in Shenzhen that we now control, and it’s a fully automated factory where literally the planets have lined up because I think it’s the right thing to have made this move for Esprit because we’ve got a huge customer base. We’re in 32 countries around the world now, and all the tenders that are coming out for kind of the big stuff, the smart cities and the digital out of home tend to have a LED element and LCD kiosk elements together. They’re not doing them separately like they always used to, and it makes a lot of sense now for them to go to a one stop shop, tf they’re happy with the service they get from Esprit.
I was curious about LED from the point of view of things like street furniture and the totems and other types of LCD products that you’ve done, as LED pixel pitches have improved and prices have come down, I’ve long wondered whether companies such as yours would start to transition from what can be highly engineered, needy, so to speak LCD displays into LED displays are going to typically last longer and probably need less engineering to keep them running, wherever they are.
Did you see the market going that way or do you think there’s always going to be a demand for LCD because of the resolution and clarity and everything else that you get from it?
Peter Livesey: That’s a great question. I’ve got some micro LED 0.8 downstairs, and it’s very hard to tell the difference. At the moment, historically LED has always been for distance viewing and LCD has been for up close and personal, and that’s the broad differential, and that’s merging into a gray area now where we can use LED in a lot more situations and that will improve and that will carry on evolving.
I think it is a stable technology and we can offer a 10 years warranty from the manufacturer. We can now make it bespoke, everything’s designed in the UK here and the factory just makes everything and we either distribute them direct from China to the customer and we either work to do the installation together, we’re doing a fabulous one at the moment for the world cup in Qatar. Can’t really mention it, but it’s this unbelievable hotel that is, I don’t know, six or seven, whatever it is, it’s the most expensive being built. And the atrium is going to have bespoke tiles as an art installation. So you’re going to walk into this atrium, you’re gonna look up and there’s going to be an enormous comb of LEDs. So every tile will have a mirror, its own mirror, and there’s hundreds of tiles and hundreds of mirrors and they form what we think is the world’s largest kaleidoscope, and all the FIFA are going to go like, how did that happen?
So that kind of thing, it just wasn’t possible a few years ago. It’s just that you couldn’t do bespoke like that, and now it’s absolutely possible. In the last couple of years, we’ve had this on our radar for a long time. So we haven’t launched it officially,but the list of the brands that we are currently using, and I mentioned retail, we’re talking about Valentino, Jimmy Choo, Dolce Gabbana, Fendi, Armani. The fact that they’ve prepared to use, effectively a new brand is a huge endorsement. It really is something that came out of an interesting idea that we’ve actually made happen, and I think we have got a real chance in the marketplace because it’s got lots of things going for it and it does what it says.
When you talk about bespoke, or as we say over here, custom, what’s the demand there? Because obviously there are a lot of LED manufacturers and they’re all doing LED cabinets that are squares or rectangles more often, and you put them together and you can derive all kinds of shapes, then there are the companies who want stuff that can wrap around columns and so on. So what’s the custom demand that you’re getting?
Peter Livesey: So there’s three verticals that I see and that is screens that make money, which we know all about, screens that give out information, which we also know all about, and then screens for art, and where those things are emerging, that’s where the custom element comes in, where you’ve got an odd shape like in Westfield, in the Netherlands, we had to build a specific LED because where they wanted to put it out the front door of the mall, there was a residential set of flats and they couldn’t get the zoning approved because this enormous residential block made an official complaint saying this thing’s going to be too bright and it’s going to affect our lives and all the rest of it. So we built a special louver that meant that they would never see it. So the lights, the light source, streamed towards the tracks, and obviously it’s got sensors, so it goes up and down, depending on the ambient light. That’s the easy part: it’s been around forever, but the whole part was having these louvers that directed the light away from the flat. So there’s a very simple example of a kind of bespoke LED.
So if you just had a big billboard shaped sign that somebody wanted in a shopping mall, they could buy that from hundreds of different companies and just tile together, 40 or a hundred or whatever LED cabinets, and off you go, but in your case, you’re dealing with demands. You can do those, I assume, but you’ve got customers saying, yeah, we need this to be curved, or we need this to do this special thing?
Peter Livesey: Absolutely. We’ve got a lot of advertising customers in the middle east, that you may or may not have heard of, and they have put up our kiosks and now they’re starting to put up our LEDs as well in some really fun environments. So Lumos now is in places like Morocco, Jordan we just put one up in Baghdad. Would you believe in Iraq? There’s no way that now is going to be priced out of having an LED built.
Peter Livesey: No, you didn’t expect to be talking about that today, did you?
No, probably not. I’m curious about your decision to invest in a factory in Shenzhen because there would have to be all kinds of contract manufacturers over there who would do the work for you and no end of companies, who would a white label product for you? So why make the capital investment yourself?
Peter Livesey: Control. If I said anything else, I’d be lying. It needs to be just us. It needs to be the standard that we want. We’ve got our own people on the ground there, as I say, we do all the designs here, and yeah, it needs to be just us. Market is growing year on year, someone just announced a $25 million investment into their manufacturing capability, and they’re absolutely right.
I’m not going to say it’s going to explode exponentially, but it’s certainly going to grow in a decent way because it works.
And that growth comes amidst, I’ve heard descriptions that there are literally thousands of LED companies in China, understanding that the vast majority of them just serve the domestic market, but it’s not like there’s a scarcity of competition out there for you.
Peter Livesey: When I was 24, I had a factory in China, it wasn’t even in Shenzhen, it was miles inland, making red full color LED tickets that we used to put into shop windows. My brand was called Color Cell. So I know a lot about Chinese manufacturing, particularly in the LED world, and yes, you’re right. There are thousands of facilities. So you’ve got to know what you’re doing is a bit of a minefield out there. But I think we have the experience or I certainly have and the setup that we’ve got now will allow us to grow a lot and very quickly, and I think we are already starting to see the brand with all the majors. Certainly the retail clients and digital out of home aren’t spending as much money, obviously because of COVID but I had lunch with one of the CEOs of one of the biggest outdoors in Europe then he said, we’re very close to 2019.
I know he’s got a kind of a job to keep spirits up and stuff, and I really believed him when he said that, and I think anecdotally, everybody’s coming back, everyone’s going to be in Toronto for the world out of home. Then ISE and then there’s other events later in the year. So I think we’re getting there. We’re getting back to where we all were. It’s just been weird not doing any kind of business trips for two years.
Is there more and more demand to do something special and different when you’re doing something like a big LED display where it’s not enough anymore to just be large and be this particularly large rectangle sitting on a wall or whatever?
Peter Livesey: For a lot of applications, no. It literally just has to do that. It has to look good and it has to work for the warranty period, and that is the primary function, but there’s so many other factors involved. You’ve been to some of the facilities and you know that if you put the wrong diode or even the wrong wire, or use low grade stuff, yeah, you’re going to make the cheapest solution. But are the colors going to be any good, is the contrast going to be any good? Is the brightness going to be any good in six months in a year in five years? No, it just can’t be. We’re talking about electronics here.
So you’ve got to weigh up. What’s your budget? What do you want to achieve? If you just want to start your business off and just get noticed and then upgrade it in six months or two years then, yeah, you can go for a low grade option. If you’re a serious player, who’s got networks out there that you want to lose and sweat for 10 years, then you’ve got to pay that extra 10% upfront and get all the benefits down the line.
Is it a steady job to educate the buyers? I would assume the big established digital home media networks have lots of experience with this. You don’t have to explain to them the importance of reliability and quality components and so on, but there’s always a new subset of buyers that come along, are you always having to educate?
Peter Livesey: Okay. So this side of the pond, JCDecaux probably the biggest dogs, they’ll have super experienced buyers who know all about quality and what they want to achieve with any given network that they’re going to put in. So it’s less about an educational thing and more about keeping them up to date with any technological advances they don’t necessarily know about and just talking them through, and they know that we’re a highly experienced operator, who knows what we’re doing. So those kinds of conversations are valuable.
New entrants or a kind of second tier players, it’s slightly different. There’s a lot more hand holding the newer the entrant to the market is, and in some cases like when we did Westfield America, for instance, for the LCD network and for all the malls over there, their philosophy was look, we’ve been chosen to do all the kiosk network, indoor and outdoor therefore, we’re going to take their advice on everything from screen size, to brightness, to surrounds, to glass, to PC, to absolutely everything, and then if any of them go wrong, it’s their fault. They got to sort it out, and that’s worked really well for them.
You mentioned kiosks. I’m curious what the public and buyer demand is now for interactive displays. I’ve written a number of times about how, when the pandemic first broke out, I was wondering what this was going to mean for touchscreens? Is anybody going to use them anymore? And over time, we learned that the risk wasn’t all that great there and this is an aerosol problem more than anything else, and touchscreen demand actually went up, did you see that as well?
Peter Livesey: Slightly. Back in 2012, there was a big thing called SARS in the far east, which had this kind of bird flu connotation, and the Japanese were in particular telling the world they’re never going to touch, they’re never going to share screens in a public place and demand just fell off over in that part of the world, and this time we had the same rumors with COVID that we wouldn’t be using touch screens for our wayfinding, for any other interactivity in store. We’re not seeing that at all, we’re still seeing demand for touch. But as I mentioned earlier, we’ve got two other good option gestures where you’d point your finger and you zoom in and out with your finger. That’s now using a camera triangulation technology, which is just some fun and it’s not difficult to achieve, and then voice, voice is a good one. Why not? Now, we’ve got reliable. The dialect was always the problem. I don’t know if you ever had a sat nav where you couldn’t talk because you spoke in Canadian and the sat nav only understood Welsh. But do you know what I mean?
It’s an endless problem for me.
Peter Livesey: Yeah. But now we’re over that.
So what is coming up for Esprit Digital in the next year or so that you’re obviously going to be expanding Lumos?
Peter Livesey: We’ve now got a team in America on the ground. So instead of running projects from the UK and running sales from the UK, we have a new head of sales, Simon Joseph, who ran sales for Trans Lux in the past, and he was an ex sky TV employee over here in Europe, and he’s also experienced in LED and he’s got a little team that is now making some good progress in the sports area for stadiums and arenas. And yeah, he’s got a big sale for a hotel in Dallas that’s going to be going live later in the year on the PGA. I think it’s the 18th hole of the PGA hotel, but I can’t announce it yet, but it’s a big one there. So he’s got his hands full because I think America is still, it’s going to be probably the biggest market for LED over the next five years and that team will grow organically. Likewise, we’ve got a new team in Scandinavia, and those guys are doing some great stuff over there and yeah, we want to get bigger, and I think that will happen.
And when you say you want to get bigger, what’s the size and state of the company right now? You’re privately held, how many folks do you have now?
Peter Livesey: There’s 35 in the UK office. We’ve got consulting partners out in the Middle East in particular, which is a very strong market for us, and these people around the world, as I say, business development, then I think we’re probably going to double it in the next two to three years, but it will depend on the uptake on Lumos largely, and also how quickly do you sell out of home spring bank? Because the biggest networks fare revenue generating screens. There’s no doubt about it, and if you’re going to put out, I don’t know, five hundred or a thousand in the city, there’s only a handful of players on the planet that can fulfill those needs, and we’re one of them.
So as they come back, we’ll win our fair share of those, and we’ll have to gear up accordingly. The company is in good shape. As you say, it is privately held at the moment. It’s all about getting the growth strategy right, having the right products and the right people, and one mantra that we live by is that it’s much easier to get into Esprit Digital than it is to get out of it. Most of my people, I don’t know if you read recently our director, James Welder, he’s just done 15 years, and our projects directors on 13, that kind of level, almost everyone’s been here for at least a decade, and these are all department heads who run lots of people and have the most experience, some of them in the whole industry.
Yeah. Employee retention is always a pretty good indicator of things.
Peter Livesey: Yeah. I like to think so. We are on a happy ship and we’ve got knowledge in the building. So when clients come down, we’ve turned this whole factory set up in Stevenage into a bit of a bit of a showroom. So you can come in, you can see all the different outdoor resolutions, you can look across the industrial park and see all these already lined up and then all the indoor ones are in here.
We want to get as many people coming over and having a look. We had probably our first visit from a US distributor and they came in and I think they liked what they saw and it all makes a lot of sense, and talking to people who are passionate, know about this stuff and who don’t cut corners, who will say no? We will say, no, you really don’t want to have that glass for that application. I know you want to save money, but if you just hear us out, this is the way to go. This is the right PC. This is the right panel to use on the LCD. We’re completely agnostic. We work with all the main panel manufacturers and we choose the right one for that application at that time and for your budget.
All right, Peter, a pleasure to catch up with you.
Peter Livesey: Yeah, likewise, Dave, you keep well, and no doubt, I’ll be seeing you at various events this year for the first time in ages and we’ll have a beer.
Yes, like I said, I haven’t really traveled at all since Amsterdam more than two years ago. So it’ll be almost weird to go to an airport, but thanks again!
Peter Livesey: Thank you.