Brian Nutt Explains How Adificial Automates Creative Production, Potentially For Pennies Per Ad Spot
December 7, 2022 by Dave Haynes
There have been a few companies that have come along in recent years offering a platform that used templates, image library and stored data to largely automate the production of videos – but few if any of them had their heads wrapped around how that might work with and for digital signage networks.
A Louisville, KY start-up is taking a run at the concept, and the big difference with Adificial is that its CEO and co-founder started and ran a digital signage software company for many years … so he has his head around the desire for content automation when it comes to videos that find their way to screens.
Some listeners will know Brian Nutt as the founder of Codigo, which had built up a strong and interesting business focused mainly on regional banking. That business was acquired in 2018 by Spectrio, which now also owns and publishes Sixteen:Nine, and Brian spent a few years away from the business, before thinking about and pulling together Adificial. It’s a platform that uses web services and the scalability of cloud computing to enable HTML5-driven motion media files to be generated quickly and easily, by the hundreds or thousands. At scale, a motion file unique to a person or place can cost only pennies.
Nutt is a digital signage guy, but he’s launching Adificial with a focus on media embedded in staff and customer emails. That makes sense, as the idea is that this platform can generate many thousands of custom videos for emails, versus the dozens or maybe hundreds that might be needed by a digital signage network that wants different messaging for, let’s say, each store in a chain.
But the capabilities are there to make this relevant for digital signage. Have a listen.
David: Hey, Brian. Thank you for joining me. For people who don’t know you or maybe recall you from your past, can you give me your background and what you were doing with Codigo?
Brian Nutt: Sure and great to talk to you again, Dave. Codigo was a digital signage company that I founded back in around 2004, so set up kinda early on in the trajectory of digital signage. That morphed into us introducing a number of different retail media products, interactive kiosks, overhead music, on-hold messaging, all that type of, and we had a focus on financial institutions, really, like regional, local banks and credit unions. Although towards the end there, when I sold Codigo in 2018, we had installations around the world and all sorts of different industries from restaurants, universities, office complexes, and all the places that you would see a digital sign installed today, or retail media, as I said.
Did that and sold that in 2018, took a few years off and launched this new project which is pretty exciting.
David: So what is Adificial?
Brian Nutt: Yeah, so Adificial really began I guess in terms of me thinking about this back before I sold Codigo, so Codigo and I think like a lot of digital signage products, at least today, maybe not back then, but we had the pretty robust online content engine for creating content that could be either sent down to a kiosk or digital signage or any of the devices, whether it was on-hold messaging or any of those things, you could create the content on the web, and so I had this idea that might be an exciting product as a standalone product.
We never launched it, and it’s probably a good idea because folks like Canva came along, and Promo and these other products came along, and they did a pretty good job so I’m glad I didn’t do it, but after little time off, I was still thinking about the product and just how video is forcing businesses to do things differently, and this requirement today to personalize content for folks that are your customers or are interested in the product.
So the idea of an Adificial is to solve the problem that’s traditionally been around video, which is, it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming and yet the requirement of it by consumers continues to race forward daily, and then the age today where data, people are willing to share their data with brands freely and why is video passive still? Why is it that it’s audience-based where I press play and I watch it and Dave gets the same video as I do, even though we have totally different lives and we live in different spots and have different ages and all those things.
It’s this idea that you can make videos personalized with data. What I know about you, I should be able to map brand assets, audio, video, and language even, and insert interactive elements, calendar invites, pdf, downloads, buttons, and anything like that into the video. So it’s fully interactive and engaging in ways that just really haven’t been largely available and at reasonable rates.
David: So this is a content automation platform?
Brian Nutt: Yes. I would wrap it up by saying we’re not in the marketing automation space. We’re not trying to compete with Mailchimp or anything like that, what we’re trying to do is automate the production of the video with data and available assets and return that piece of content back to the market automation platform that would then send it out, primarily via email, although I can see this transition to social and SMS in any other way that you communicate to consumers.
David: So if I’m running a digital signage network, and I have a hundred different stores and I want a video for each of those stores, but I want it localized to each of those stores, instead of getting an agency or in-house designer to generate a hundred different videos, you would run it through this and it would use data to generate those hundred videos?
Brian Nutt: That’s a decent comparison, but this product’s really not built for digital signage. So imagine a little bit bigger than that. You know the value of data on your consumer today is tremendously high. So if you have a CRM that has 10,000 people that are either current customers or leads or somewhere along the customer journey.
What we do is we could produce videos for all of them and you insert video into your marketing stack, into the customer journey and send it out via email.
David: Oh, okay. Are the files not big enough to run on a large format screen?
Brian Nutt: They could, and in fact, when I initially started this, the idea was to send content to any device, but we’ve narrowed that down and focused on market automation platforms. But there’s no reason it couldn’t morph into a digital signage play. It’s just not today.
David: Right, because there’s more scale in those and it’s just a bigger business.
Brian Nutt: Yes.
David: So it’s one of those things like Poppulo, App Space, and some of these other companies that are starting to blend platforms, where it’s one stock that can send to a digital screen, that can also send to a smartphone, to a tablet, to a website, whatever. It would kind of plug into that kind of thing.
Brian Nutt: Yes, and here’s the other reason that I’ve gotten into this, and I’m a huge believer in power digital signage, obviously. But at Codigo, our growth was really built around this incredible drive to build more stores, more locations, more branches in the banking space, and so we leveraged that and grew off that and really benefited from it. But today what’s happening is, in fact, I was looking just recently, they’re suggesting that in the next five years, 50,000 retail stores will close.
Since 2009, when we were going into the great recession, banks and credit unions numbered about 15,000 total, that’s not branches. Today, there are about 7,000. So it’s this consolidation and push not including the number of locations that close during the pandemic, what 20,000 retail stores, something like that.
So what’s happening, in my opinion, is the store or branch does a couple of things. One, it’s meant to educate a person in person on the product, build trust, and sell products. But if stores are closing, people aren’t going to the store, how do you communicate to them personally and to me, the conversation today is done in data. If I’m willing to give a brand my data, trust them with that, even if it’s unreasonable. I’m not going to the store. I never wanna meet a person that’s going to tell me about a shoe or a bank loan or whatever, but that doesn’t mean I don’t expect you to communicate back to me with things that are specific to me, to help me learn about products, build trust, and ultimately sell me something. So that’s taking it from the digital science in-store installation, that’s the next progression of what we’re trying to solve.
David: It’s another output.
Brian Nutt: Yeah, exactly.
David: So how does this work?
Brian Nutt: I guess, where do you want me to start? It did take quite a while to figure it out honestly. You start with this gigantic idea and then try to distill it down into something actionable. So that’s where we are now.
But at the finest level, it’s really not that dissimilar from digital signage. It’s just one level deeper in how you’re delivering the content, so you know the right time, right place, right person, all those things. And a large well of content that’s either procured the third party ShutterStock, et cetera, or first party to the brand and then using technology to map these pieces of content to data, and data could be something like just knowing your name and having it be, “Hello Dave”, and so if the first name equals Dave, then show the text Dave on the first screen and if language equals Spanish, say, “Hola Dave”, and that’s really what it is.
It’s mapping data smartly to assets, no matter whether it’s something as simple as text or a background image or a video, things like that, and then you stitch those together based on where you are in the process towards, or whatever it’s you’re involved in. It could be something like onboarding an employee. It could be obviously selling someone, onboarding them on a product, or following up with a customer service issue, and you do it at scale. Because you can automate it.
David: So if you have the data tables, you have the image assets, and you have maybe some core templates, you could conceivably generate 10,000 videos that are all tailored to each individual?
Brian Nutt: That’s exactly right.
David: Are you dependent on templates?
Brian Nutt: Again, it’s very similar to digital science in many ways. So what we’re doing, just like we did at Codigo, is leveraging a high degree of design skill and allowing folks to manipulate that as they choose. Now we’ve done a couple of things a little smarter this way, which is we’re building in functions where we call it a branded function, which I guess is kinda out there in the market in software where you just click a button and it’ll map your brand assets the best it can to template that we’re building, but the same thing with Codigo is that we have a pretty high-end content editor that allows you to build whatever you want.
David: Do you need to have graphic design skills?
Brian Nutt: Not a high degree of them. As I said, it’s very similar to what we did at Codigo from a user experience perspective.
David: So you wanna have somebody using this who has some core design chops and knows not to use Comic Sans for a font, or use pink and everything?
Brian Nutt: Exactly. I can barely sign my name much less, create a piece of content that’s gonna be sent out to thousands of consumers and I’ll never do that. But the thing about this is not the design skills. It’s meant to be, the whole set it and forget it attitude, which is once we have content mapped and I have the data that’s associated with different pieces of content, and I have the story, we call it a story setup, and maybe I’ll give you an example:
If they use a CRM and I have David Haynes who showed interest in Red Wine and you wanna join the wine club, the Friday Wine Club at the local wine establishment. So you show interest in that, and in their CRM you meet a condition that says, “Hey, Dave just joined the wine club” and what traditionally happens is when you meet that condition, you’re sending an email and the email says, “Hey Dave, thanks so much for your interest in the wine club”, and it’s got a picture or something of it, there, and maybe it shows people what the wine club. Well frankly, that’s boring.
So what we wanna do is take that same approach and it’s all that is: a form, it’s all merge fields. “Hello, first name” – it just that it happens to be Dave. “Thank you for your interest in Product ID” – wine club, or whatever that it might be. Brian might be a white wine drinker, but it all comes from the same engine, so it’s effectively a similar approach. We’re taking data from those systems, current systems, we’re not trying to be a CRM and mapping that to assets that we have, whether they’re the first party to this, in this case, the wine club or something that we’ve provided you from a third party library, and then turning that into video, right? Stitching each of these assets together with dynamic fields that represent, “Hey, Dave, thanks for your interest in the wine club. All the red wine drinkers are meeting down the road on Friday afternoon. Come by. Would you like to attend?” You could click yes.
David: Gotcha. So this is rules-based, it’s not AI?
Brian Nutt: Today, no.
David: So there’s a plan?
Brian Nutt: There’s a grand plan.
David: So what are the outputs like? What’s the output file?
Brian Nutt: The output file as well as a URL, and so what we’re generating is a PURL, a personalized URL.
David: So it’s not an mp4, it’s not a video file of any kind, it’s an HTML5 file?
Brian Nutt: Yes.
David: Do you work in parallel with a CRM system or how do the two platforms play together?
Brian Nutt: Yeah, now we’re going to beta in February. Today, there are a number of different ways to do it. You can either upload it yourself or you can, there are a number of systems that can automate the transfer of data, like Zapier, et cetera.
And you map these just like anything else. If you have a list of people that meet conditions, like the Red Wine Club, you take that data and get it to our system. As long as we understand what the fields are, then we can choose the correct content to weave together and return it back to you as a PURL, which can then be sent out as an email.
David: How seamless will it be?
Brian Nutt: It should be very seamless. Take any system, let’s take Mailchimp for example. There are custom fields and automation that allow you to insert links into an email template or a landing page. So we’re routing on top of those existing systems and the features that they have and so once you have that, you can have a custom record for each person, like Dave O’Brien or whomever that updates itself, and when those conditions are met, it knows to send the email.
David: So would you use APIs or would you use middleware like you were mentioning like Zapier?
Brian Nutt: That’s the first way to do it. Oddly in the financial space, it’s more of a security requirement. Rather than doing that, oftentimes I’ll just use SMTP, which seems old school, but there are reasons to do so, like man-in-the-middle attacks, and things like that. But there are ways to do this. Now, do we wanna integrate with as many systems as we possibly can? We’ll let the market dictate that.
David: Because it’s HTML5, is it responsive?
Brian Nutt: Responsive to the size of the device? Is that what you mean, like web responsive?
David: The screen resolution, and if it’s going out on Facebook, it’s a 4:3 square and if it’s going out on a larger screen, it’s a 16:9 rectangle?
Brian Nutt: Yeah, again, it’s very similar to the product we had with Codigo, which is, you can do custom resolutions, you can do whatever you want, but then again, it’s gotta be responsive to the area of the device, or in this case, the browser, whether that’s mobile or your laptop or tablet or whatever.
David: So when you look at this from financial aspects, what’s the benefits argument of doing this versus producing individual videos? It’s pretty obvious, but tell me nonetheless.
Brian Nutt: As I said, producing videos is incredibly expensive, and I’ve termed it the content gap, which is what I call, it’s the distance between what consumers require in video – and they want everything in the video – and what businesses can reasonably produce. So it’s not just the cost, a lot of times people outsource this stuff, and then it’s got a shelf life.
But with what we’re doing we think we can reasonably produce hundreds of thousands of videos, for pennies on the dollar, and I say video because that’s what people understand, but it’s actually HTML that you render, that’s the other component that is good. It’s favorable.
Now, will that be something that every brand wants? Do they want rendered videos? Sure, there might be folks that require rendered video, and maybe we’ll do that at one point we actually did, at Codigo, we ended up using a very similar approach. Then we built a rendering engine that rendered as HTML5 to true video. But today it’s HTML5 and it’s just from hosting to production to the delivery of it, it drives the cost down to prices that were impossible.
David: So when you go to market in a couple of months, two or three months, what am I paying? Am I subscribing to something? Am I buying an enterprise license?
Brian Nutt: It’s a SaaS model, and it’s usage-based too. So it’s a tiered-based model similar to the digital signage space, there definitely be some content creation elements to it where we assist clients if they need the content made, and you probably remember at Codigo we did that as well. It’s the same approach here, and it really depends. It’s hard to give you a specific pricing point. But I think most customers will probably land somewhere between $500 and $1500 a month. That’s where I think it would be. It could be far higher, depending on usage.
I was at a trade show recently and there’s a customer of mine, who said that they sent out emails last month. Well, If you make 140,000 videos, it might be a little higher, but that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to do the same thing as the last business, which may get a very attractive price that they can leverage.
David: So that’s the scale argument why it makes more sense for a cable company or a phone company or power company, something like that, that has tens of thousands of subscribers and customers versus something like a digital signage network, which as I said, might have a hundred iterations of a similar ad, and you don’t get the same economies of scale from.
Brian Nutt: That’s right, and in a lot of ways I feel like this is very similar to when I started Codigo. I remember telling people, I’m going to replace printed posters on the wall with flat screens, and they’re like, what? And I’d say it’s called digital signage. They’ll say, oh, you mean like those LED, those red blinky lights that go across like that? I’m like no. That’s not what I mean, and I would go around with a 42-inch screen, and those things were heavy, and so it’s almost the same thing where I have to show this to everyone so they can understand this, and go oh I can use this. There are all these different permutations of a relationship with a client or an onboarding of one or whatever it is and then they kinda get it so that’s where we are.
David: Yeah, that’s very familiar to me. Years ago, back in the mid-2010s, I had a little spin-out product that I did with a Korean partner called Spotamate, and it was automating videos based on templates and by far my biggest challenge was education. Because people just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. So how are you gonna deal with that?
Brian Nutt: I think that today, the state of the consumer today around video is totally different, and the other thing is that I think Spotimate was sort of Adobe-reliant, right?
David: Yeah, it was an Adobe plugin.
Brian Nutt: Yeah, so we’re skipping all that. So from a user perspective, it makes it a little easier to get started, since it’s a lot fewer steps to take, but from an education standpoint, I think people are starting to expect this. It’s like if you log in to Netflix and you see all these interesting shows that you know, that makes you think, oh, wow, boy, that’s something I would watch, you understand that there’s a data-driven decision behind that, and whether it’s content while you’re scrolling through on Instagram or across the web, all these technologies exist and I feel like most folks understand that when they see something like this, they get it, where before it might have and it still can be creepy. I’m not saying it can’t be, but depending on the use, before it was perceived entirely like that.
With the pandemic and, if you go back before the pandemic, or let’s go five years back, a lot of people didn’t wanna take videos. They didn’t wanna do a zoom call or whatever. They wanted to do it on the phone or they shut off their camera. But today, if I have a Zoom call with you and you don’t turn your camera on, I think something’s wrong. What’s going on? So it’s this drive to video and the requirement of a personalized experience that when people get this, I think they’ll be like, oh yeah they’ll understand.
David: So I realized, as you’ve said that your core market is email marketing, maybe social media, some of those things. If you have digital signage, software platforms, or solution providers who are interested because maybe they do this whole omnichannel thing and they see this as an opportunity, how would they work with you? Would it run in parallel?
Brian Nutt: That’s a sort of broad question to ask. I’m not sure I don’t have that nailed down yet. But I’d take all inquiries, so to speak. Because again the idea is to insert this into the marketing stack. So whether it’s digital signage or traditional email marketing, or any omnichannel approach, as you said, contacting a customer, why aren’t you using video? And so it does seem as I said from my perspective, the growth of digital signage, which isn’t anywhere, relies on footprint and as it declines or appears to decline at least from different ways. This is one of those ways to pick that up.
David: Yeah, and I think you’re gonna start seeing a lot more screens, but in places other than what people thought about, which was, in stores and so on, but there are all kinds of operational messaging that could stand to be personalized based on location, not personalized to individuals, but to the dynamics of that, area of a building or whatever.
Brian Nutt: Sure, and the same thing holds true. The level of personalization is all really based on the quality of the data that you have and if you try to make it too deep and too complicated, folks I think will shy away because, yeah, it might not be possible, remember, it’s the same thing with digital signage. You can make things super, super complex, and try to do all these really neat things, but the reality is a lot of people don’t have that capability.
So you can only deal with what is reasonably available to you from a data perspective, but there’s no reason you have to be specific to a person. Obviously, digital signage doesn’t do that but automates it specific to an area, of the work floor, or whatever that’s doable.
David: You’ve been out of digital signage for roughly four years now. I’m curious now having kinda left the industry, what’s your perspective on it now?
Brian Nutt: I think there has been a tremendous amount of consolidation, including me, right? So a lot of the players that existed before have been rolled up in some ways. So it’s like the wild west that existed when I really was looking back in the wild west, but it’s gotten a little more sterile, at least that’s my opinion. I think that the interesting pieces of it are in the hive stack arena with retargeting and programmatic ad buying, which I was never a really big proponent of the ad model. I think we talked about it before, but there are interesting ways to serve content and that’s really more, kinda what, where you’re going with what your comments were before, how do you serve that content to folks in a unique and timely way, and I think there will be, and there already has been this approach to multi-device from a screen, just one big screen, but honestly, since I got out, I haven’t paid a tremendous amount of attention to it.
David: What you’re doing is very current in terms of the shift more and more to using data integration and automated content so that it’s always relevant, so you’re doing what the industry’s doing.
Brian Nutt: All right, there you go.
David: So if people wanna find out more, where are they gonna find you online?
Brian Nutt: Yeah, it’s www.adificial.io – we’re signing up beta users, although it’ll be a closed group and already have a pretty good number that we’ve signed up from some past relationships.
But anybody who’s interested, just go on there and there’s a beta sign-up little form there, and you can learn about it.
David: And you’re bootstrapped?
Brian Nutt: Yeah, bootstrapped in entirety. I’ve got one co-founder who was actually with me at Codigo as well, and we’ve got a team of six developers working on this thing full-time and are pretty excited about it.
David: All right. It was great to catch up with you.
Brian Nutt: Yeah, you too, Dave.