Mark Coxon On Why Integration Giant AVI-SPL Now Has A Focus On Experience Technology

May 17, 2023 by Dave Haynes

AVI-SPL is one of the largest pro AV integrators on the planet, but for the longest time, if I was asked if I knew anyone at that company specifically on the digital signage file, I’d say “Nope.”

As far as I knew, and the same for a lot of people involved in digital signage, AVI-SPL was much more focused on traditional pro AV work like unified communications and control rooms. While AVI-SPL delivered some digital signage projects, it wasn’t a real focus. But that started to change a few years ago when the Tampa-based company spun up a new business unit called the Experience Technology Group, or XTG. Now it has some 30 people working on projects driven by the impact of visuals, and directly involving other architects, designers and creative shops.

Now, that’s 30 people in a company that has 3,700 other staff, but the group works with some 300 customer-facing sales people, and gets pulled in to opportunities and projects when clients start expressing interests or needs that are about more than just function, like whiteboards and conferencing systems.

I had a great, very thoughtful talk with Mark Coxon, an industry veteran who joined the company about a year ago and is one of XTG’s business development directors. We get into both the science and emotional sides of experiential projects, and how these kinds of projects work when they’re guided by ideas and desired outcomes, and not just the Wow Factor of big screens.

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Mark, what is your role at AVI-SPL? 

Mark Coxon: I am a business development director in our XTG division, which is our Experience Technology Group, so what I do is work with our regional account managers as well as our partner ecosystem to identify opportunities to build amazing experiences. 

So your regional people would come across an opportunity, let’s say, it’s a corporate workplace that says, “We want to put a big ass LED display in our lobby. We don’t know what to do or what to put on or anything else. What do we do?” And your regional person might have a kind of deer-in-the-headlights sort of reaction and call you or somebody on your team and say, okay, I need help here.

Mark Coxon: Yeah. So a lot of our opportunities do arise within the regions themselves, right? Because AVI-SPL is a huge corporation. We have, I think, 300+ sellers out in the marketplace, across the world, talking to clients, managing accounts where they might do a lot more of the typical AV that you see out in the space: conference rooms and auditoriums, et cetera, and they’ll come across customers saying, “Oh, I think we want to add a wow factor to this lobby” or “We’re thinking about building an experience center to show off some of the new innovation that we came out with this year.” And so they’ll engage our group, which is an overlay to the whole company, and bring us in, and we can really start to give, I guess, some form to that process and make sure they get what they want at the end of it. 

So you have a BizDev role, but it sounds like there’s a fair amount of sales, engineering, and front-end consulting involved in it.

Mark Coxon: Yeah, it’s funny. AVI-SPL isn’t really known in the market for experiential work, but we’ve done a lot of it. We’ve done a lot of it in pockets over the years for these customers, but it was never really organized under a division, and so that’s why XTG exists. We’ve organized this portfolio of work in this division and assigned it to a team of people. We have about 30 people on our team now that overlay the country, and that team consists of people like me, business development directors, and we come from different backgrounds, some come from fabrication, some come from the consulting world, some like me come from all over the place within the industry from an integration perspective, and then we also have technologists on the team whose job is really exactly what you said to be those people who are thinking about the art of the possible.

“All right, this customer’s asked for this outcome. They have these people coming to their building. They want them to feel this. They want this actionable insight out of the space.” And they’re the ones who actually come up with the ideas on what kind of technology could we use to execute this and if we were to pull this off, what would it take for us to do that? And then they start to come up with rough sketches of what the technology would be to execute on that outcome. 

Yeah, it’s interesting. Through the years, I’ve been asked who do you know over at AVI-SPL and I’ll say nobody from the context of digital signage, and the company’s been known as a very large company, and it’s very active. But doing more, if this is the right term, traditional AV work in the corporate workplace, that sort of thing, and as you said, pockets of activity in digital signage, but nothing organized.

So was it recognized within the company that we need to aggregate this and put ourselves forward as being directly in this as opposed to people discovering that, oh, you do that too?

Mark Coxon: Correct. XTG’s definitely a targeted branding effort at consolidating this work and this expertise we have in things like executive briefing centers, museums, welcome centers, visitors centers, hall of fame experiences, et cetera, that we’ve done over the years for enterprise, higher-ed, and really creating some emphasis around that type of work that we do, for sure. 

Is there some cross-pollination happening when you do that? What I mean is, if you do some sort of immersive, experiential environment for a corporate workplace. Do they then two years later say, oh, by the way, we need new video conferencing capabilities or new meeting room signs, that sort of thing. Do you do that? 

Also, vice versa where you’re already in there doing collaboration work, and they say, we want to do something in our lobby with Wow Factory. Can you do that? 

Mark Coxon: Yeah, obviously, we see both of those happen. Places where we’re brought in maybe to do some specialty work, and of course, the other work at that point seems like more low-hanging fruit because it’s work that we excel at already and have a huge portfolio of as far as auditoriums, meeting spaces, et cetera, and then, yeah, like you said, vice versa. We’re coming in, and we’re doing a lot of work, and you walk through this amazing lobby where people are going to come in their first experience before they come there to meet. 

So let’s say somebody’s bringing a customer into their building, and they’re going to pitch a multimillion dollar sale with this customer that they have. How are they defining what that experience is gonna be within the building and just asking that question sometimes, who’s doing this space? This looks like a customer-facing, marketing-driven space, and a lot of times they don’t know that we do that work, and yeah, we stumble upon it that way as well. 

Do you guys go into prospective customers or existing customers pitching the idea of experiential spaces, or are you really operating off of their interest and initiative when they’re saying we’re interested in this?

I suspect it would be hard to pitch somebody saying, “You should have a big-ass LED video wall in your lobby.” 

Mark Coxon: Yeah. I call that technology in search of an application, and that’s definitely not what we do. There’s a great quote by Cedric Price, who was a mid-century architect, that says, “Technology is the answer, but what’s the question?” And that’s really what my job is within the team, and the business development team’s job is (we have a few business development managers), but our job is really what are you trying to accomplish in this space? What business outcomes are you trying to achieve when you’re looking at building this space?

We’re in this weird mode, right? Where a lot of companies are re-evaluating what it means to have an office in general, what it means to have physical space, whether that be retail, we just saw Bed, Bath & Beyond looking at closing up and citing online competition as one of the reasons, so what does it mean to have place-based retail today? And if we are going to build a space, what should it be? And really starting at that level. So I try to start with that level with people all the time, even in the enterprise. 

The question isn’t what do we do with the lease that we have or this space that we have? That’s part, but that’s the bridge. The real question is, if I had nothing, what would I build? And that’s really the end goal of what you should be moving towards, and so many times we really start breaking down the problem of: what are the impacts that you hope to make by having a physical office or a physical retail location? And then how do we move backward from that into how does that now affect what we design into space, including the technology that will go into there? 

It’s really reversing that. If we go in and just start telling people how cool it is to have an LED wall in their lobby, we’re selling from the wrong perspective. But if somebody says, you know what, when people come in here, they come in here, and they sit, and they go into their phone. So they’re waiting for a meeting. They come and sit in our lobby. They start looking at their phone, and suddenly they’re stuck in their email. They’re thinking about the seven things they have to do when they get back to the office, and they’re already moving past our meeting. We want to create something that actually creates some anticipation, some foreshadowing that tilts them into the anticipation of the meeting they’re about to have and not pull them out of our space and back into their workday. How do we accomplish that? 

And those types of conversations are much, much more fun to have and that could result at the end in having a 400-inch video while in the lobby, or it could result in maybe taking physical objects that the company’s made if they’re an aerospace company taking some of the innovations they have like rocket nozzles and things, and putting them on a shelf and letting people pick them up and play with them. And as they do, content launches, ambiently, around the room as they interface with these objects or whatever that happens to be. But really starting with who is here, why are they here? What are they interested in, and how do we engage them more? So that when they leave, they remember being here, and they actually take the actions we want them to take. So it’s a much different approach than screens first, right? 

Yeah. As you might expect, I get bombarded with emails and pitches and everything else every day talking about different projects and capabilities of companies, and I see the words experience and immersive overused and abused quite a bit, and I’m curious how you define immersive and how experience is defined because I get a sense that there’s this idea that experiential and immersive means that, you have to have a video wall that’s got gesture recognition and you’re going to wave your arms in front of it, and all these things are going to happen, or they’re synchronized lighting, or God knows what. 

But from my point of view, there are times when an experience is just something that tells you if you’re confused about which way to go, things like that, something that just makes the space better. 

Mark Coxon: A hundred percent. So it’s funny that you mentioned that because although I’m on an experience team, I’m a big fan of the calm movement. How are we decreasing the technology we use for mundane tasks or throughout the day to create these analog, tactile, calm moments. I agree that the best definition of experience I’ve heard, and one I tried to adhere to was by Brian Solis. He used to be at Salesforce, I think he’s now at Service Now, but he’s written a lot of books on the experience economy.

And he said, an experience is an emotional reaction to a moment in time, and as you said, that doesn’t have to be an overwhelming jaw-dropping experience. It could be a relief like you said, that now I know where to go, or it could be a silent pause that allows you to reflect. I think there are a lot of ways that you can create an experience for a company. 

For me, immersive just means that it’s drawing the person in. It doesn’t have to be all-encompassing. Are there ways to do that? Yeah. I’ve given, and I’m going to give a course this year at Infocom on creating the new connection center. I’ve given some talks before on utilizing biology to give a deeper connection to your message. So things like engaging peripheral vision work because more of your brain turns on when your fight or flight response is activated when your peripheral vision is being activated. And so are there ways that we can use, potentially waves of light to focus people inward on a screen or on a position in a room. Are there ways to draw people through space to a place where we want them to dwell? How do we create experiences where we don’t, I guess, create congestion, right? Like putting a screen in the middle of a hallway, it could be a good idea as long as you’re not encouraging people to stand there for 15 minutes, as long as the dwell time there is 15-20 seconds, et cetera. 

So I think experience is also just how people interact with the space themselves, and immersion is a combination of all of those things. So engaging more senses always creates more memory, but that doesn’t have to be an active participation either. I think the things that are often overlooked in experience are opportunities to create, if it’s a movement of air, if it’s gentle waves, if it’s mechanical movement in a ceiling, if it’s an ambient soundscape that fills the space instead of white noise, all of these things can lend to experience, but they’re nothing that somebody stops and focuses on. They’re things that happen in the background that enhance what’s going on, without the person experiencing it really focusing on it, if that makes sense. 

Yeah, I’m listening to that, and I’m wondering how the people on the other side of the table are responding to that. I suspect some of them are leaning forward and very interested, and other ones are going, that sounds expensive! 

Mark Coxon: You do get that. You can definitely get that, and I think that’s why the co-design process is so important and not coming in with an idea of what you want to sell. Like earlier, you talked about me coming in and telling somebody why this experience is going to be important for them. Again, that’s me pushing something upstream that I’ve got an idea about. 

I always say my best tool in a meeting is a blank piece of paper. Because if I sit down and really listen to what people do in this space, what they’re trying to accomplish, all of those things, I’ll pick up little notes. I had a customer the other day who, the architect, had put together a mood board of what this space wanted to feel and look like. They built a lot of these common spaces that they’re talking about in architecture, We and Us spaces is what they’re calling them where they’re building these cafes with a lot of biophilia and wood and stone, and all of these things, and they’re like we want to do sound masking in here, and you’re like, okay, that’s great. So obviously, you want to keep the sound from moving back and forth, but what you’ve really created here is almost an urban park or a community park type feel in this space so instead of just flooding this with white noise or paint noise, why not create a nature scape or something like that’ll also keep the noise transfer down but really reinforce this idea that you’re outside in this natural environment as opposed to the hush of a quiet office or the hush of a pink noise or white noise air chiller or something that a lot of times you put in a office space where maybe you’re trying to focus on deep work and not on connection, right?

So it’s just really listening to those things. When you start to identify those, when people start to, I guess self align with certain ideas as you’re walking through what the different pieces are, they’re more invested in that. Then when you come into that space where the cost comes, they really then weigh that against the impact as opposed to comparing it to what four speakers playing white noise would cost in the space.

Is it like that book about a village in terms of these kinds of projects where it’s super important to have the architect involved, the engineers involved, all the different players who collaborate on a finished project as opposed to just the AV team coming in and executing this part of it?

Mark Coxon: A thousand percent. So many times, when we are brought in, what we end up doing and what I do with clients when they ask for an experience like this is one of the first things we want to do is almost a gap in overlaps kind of analysis with them. There is an ecosystem of partners that is necessary to create an experience. You’re going to have somebody that’s creating custom content. You may have two or three companies creating custom content. You may have to have a company specializing in video and live-action, live actors, et cetera, maybe somebody specializing in creating interactive user interfaces for touchscreens and all of those things. So you have these content creators. You do typically have somebody as an architect in this space that’s obviously defining what the space looks like. Many times you have an experiential design firm doing the story, right? What’s the strategy, what’s the story? How are we walking people through this space? That’s working with the marketing team in the company. Then you have custom fabricators building all this set work that the audiovisual goes into to create the look and feel that everybody has drawn down on the paper. 

So it does take a village, and many times that’s part of what we do, is we educate what it is that players are involved in a successful experience. Who are the stakeholders that you have involved with now? Do we need to get more stakeholders involved? Many times it might come through IT because they see it as a technology buying exercise and you really find out that marketing and the C-suite and human resources need to be involved because this is a system that’s meant to reconnect the employees of the company to the mission of what they’re doing every single day in space. And now all of a sudden that becomes a much higher strategy-level conversation on how it’s executed, and so it does take a village and it takes a great ecosystem of partners. I know that word’s overused too. I’ve used it twice. 

But it takes this great array of partners, which is one of our core strengths is that we have a partnership manager that works specifically on making sure that we have a broad array of partners that we can introduce into these projects with our customers to make sure that none of these gaps are left untouched and that the experience we deliver at the end is not just a piece of technology installed on a wall because the technology itself, you don’t get the value out of it when it’s installed in the building, you extract the value out of the system. The ROI comes from the use of the system over time to drive the outcomes that you were looking for and thinking of this as a construction project where I delivered the 400-inch LED screen, so we’re done, and the customer got what they paid for, they haven’t actually extracted any value out of that piece of equipment yet. It’s a depreciating asset until they play something on it that gets them the result that they want.

So we really try to focus on that instead of just our one part, and our, as I said earlier, we have our team. Our team, from a business development perspective, we walk through those things. Our technologists design the technology, but we also, when we take on a project, we have a program manager. And they’re involved from the beginning, they listen to the intent, and just like in the programming phase of architecture, when you talk about what is the intent of the space and what are the ways that we’re going to actually make some design decisions to facilitate that, the program manager really carries that spirit of the job and make sure that those partner handoffs, et cetera, are all going well and that everybody’s involved in delivering the final result and so we built a process by which we deliver that, and we believe in it, so yeah, it does take a village for sure. 

What is the breadth of services? 

I’m thinking of one company much smaller than AVI-SPL, but they can do the full experience including metal fabrication and creative design, all that. So they can pretty much go from inception to delivery out of the same shop as opposed to using partners, but for a large company with a whole bunch of partners in play, how much do you want to own and how much do you want to cross-pollinate and work together on things?

Mark Coxon: We’ve doubled down on partnership when it comes to that. Our core strength is delivering technology. That’s why our business was built, and that’s what we do best, so we focus on the design and implementation of those technology systems, and for the other pieces, we partner. So you know, w don’t build a lot of content. We do have a division called Video Link that does some content for video production for meetings, et cetera. 

But are we going to create computer animations for how our power plant works? No. We’re going to bring in a partner that knows how to do that every day to do that. Are we going to define for the company what their story should be based on their seven customer personas? No, we’re going to work with their marketing department, and if they need some help really coming up with a storyline, we’re going to bring in one of our branding and creative strategy partners to help with that because that’s what their core skill set is.

So we try to focus on what our operational excellence is, and that is delivering technology systems. But from the standpoint of the way that we approach the sales group, we’re not engaging in a process that’s designed to sell a particular technology. So it’s the difference between focusing on what we’re really good at and letting the cart dry the horse. I love the Maslow quote, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We try not to approach this, well, we need to sell 600 extra square meters of LED this quarter so this customer will get a video wall. That’s not the way that we approach this. 

We don’t approach this from a technology-centric lens, but we know where we play well and what we deliver value in the market with, and that’s the technology portion.  

I wrote recently about a company that was, maybe not pivoting, but evolving into doing AV as a service, with the argument being that a lot of end-user customers would rather just have the whole project done as an operating line item as opposed to all the upfront costs of capital, and they don’t want to worry about recurring support and all that. They’d just rather pay a number and let somebody else do it. Is that something that comes up and that you offer? 

Mark Coxon: Yeah, it comes up all the time. I think customers are always looking for ways to understand how much of this you want to own from a content update perspective, from how you manage refreshes, from even how you buy a system, as you said. Is it an operational cost, or is it a capital expenditure? Is it a construction project, or is it an ongoing cost month over month? 

One place that we see this very specifically right now is we’re doing some virtual production and XR opportunities for clients, especially in the corporate space where they’re wanting to elevate their all-hands meetings or their product launches or any of those types of things. They’re often already buying those services in an operational cost format where. They’re going out and renting a studio, or they’re hiring a production company to come in and do these meetings for them. So they don’t want to take on a capital expenditure. They want that to continue to be an operational cost. So yeah, through things like creating a plan for leasing equipment by having a breadth of services onsite, like we have onsite managed services where we can embed an AVI-SPL employee in one of our businesses to run a center per se, or to run a virtual production studio for the customer so that they just come in, the stakeholders come in, they talk about the product they want to talk about, and somebody’s running all the front house, back house doing the streaming out to the other participants, et cetera. 

Yeah, we offer all of that, and that’s one of the great things about working with somebody like us is because we do have such a large footprint, we do have such a presence, we have 4,000 employees across the world, and we have onsite managed services available. We have the ability to buy things on the customer’s behalf and lease them, et cetera. That’s one of the great advantages of someone with a big footprint like us is we have the ability to do those things. 

What are the reference projects that you bring up? So you’re sitting in a meeting, and they say, “What have you guys done? Impress me!” 

What do you come back with? 

Mark Coxon: Yeah. There are always a few that we show. The Museum of the Future in Dubai is an amazing project that we did, and people were like, you guys did that project? I’m like, yeah, we did that project and delivered it through our Dubai office, which is an amazing office. That team is, hands down, an awesome team. But we show projects like that because that’s a space where people pretty much ride an elevator, like a space capsule, up into a space station and then come back to Earth in a future state, and the museum architecturally is beautiful, it’s an oval with a hole in the middle of it. You even wonder how it suspends itself, as well as just all the different things that are in there. There’s a touch interface where a half globe, a half spear actually swells up out of a flat table, and you can use it to articulate the earth. Who’s ever seen an interface like that before? 

So obviously, there were some great creative partners involved in the content and in that fabrication. But that’s obviously a showcase project that we talk about a lot, and then we have visitor centers and executive briefing centers. A lot of our executive briefing centers are very impressive, Honeywell and Charlotte is a beautiful center with everything from transparent LED to kiosks to volumetric displays with physical artifacts to a full four-wall cave immersion room with a touch interface in the middle to navigate through 3D environments.

And so we show a lot of those pieces. We try to show projects that have, I guess, a variety of execution styles because not everything needs to be a touchscreen. It’s to show someone that you could have 3D printed objects on a table, and as you pick up those objects, the video changes, and as you articulate that object, you can actually affect different parts of the video to launch. Those kinds of things are really cool and just show people that it doesn’t just have to be a touch screen on a wall. We’re not looking to put a big black rectangle on the finish you spent six months working on with the architect. We’re going to make sure that’s integrated into the space in the proper way.

Yeah, I’m a big fan of subtlety and just little things like present sensors that cost a few bucks to incorporate into a design. But you walk within a certain range, and it changes what’s on a screen, and “Oh, how’d that happen?” It’s great, but it’s not fancy, you’re not issuing a press release about it. 

Mark Coxon: Yeah. We’ve been working on some projects where they’re talking about using real-time location services as people walk through the building. So they get badged in, or they get a card, and that card has a profile that maybe they’ve entered in, and as they walk through the space, the experience is personalized slightly to them, based on their profile or using things like data generated art. Humans are great at pattern recognition, and so if you’re putting audio/visual in a space that people work in every day, or people go into the office every day with these screens are in the background, you don’t want them to be counting down 15 seconds to read and then 32 seconds until the screen goes blue with white text and then: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, cue the video of the kid running through the park. 

That almost becomes like water torture at some point, right? It’s just the constant dripping of this repetitive content that goes on in the background. So how do we use things like occupancy sensors, and time of day weather outside, all of which create effects on these screens that are more ambient in times that they’re not being actively used for customer communication or employee communication? 

A lot of those things are really cool. So what you said, that subtlety, and really thinking of just the different moments. These are canvases that we can use for multiple things. Sometimes they need to be quiet and soothing for people to do their work. Other times they need to be loud and inspiring to get somebody’s attention and be able to design something that does that and know who to partner with on the backend from a hardware perspective for something like a content management system that can be on a schedule or can use sensor-based inputs to trigger different modes is really important.

Are you sensing or seeing any kind of a shift in the marketplace in terms of rising interest in a particular thing? 

I know you mentioned experience centers, but those have been around for a while, that’s an area where I get a sense because of the pandemic and everything, they’re elevating in importance because you don’t have as many people in the offices.

Mark Coxon: Yeah, I think experience centers are becoming more and more prominent. Companies are seeing if they can bring their customers in and create a memorable, relevant experience around their value story, that pays dividends for them.

I think we’re seeing more and more interest, as I said, in virtual and extended reality, virtual production, and extended reality stages for elevating corporate communications. Suppose every single one of your communications goes out in 16 squares on a VTC call. How do you punctuate those meetings so that the important ones are elevated and look different, feel different, and actually engage people differently? We’re seeing more and more of that. 

I will say, honestly, the big push is this: The challenge of physical space in a world that becomes more and more online, we have to get away from the idea of just utility because utility is going to be provided more conveniently, virtually. I can easily join a meeting from my kitchen table. I can easily buy a pair of pants on Amazon. So if we’re just looking for the utility of work or the utility of shopping or whatever that place is built to do, if we’re focusing on utility, we’re always going to lose to the online experience because it’s more convenient and the utility is the same. So we really have to focus on the personal experience.

Gensler did an experience index on public space a few years back, pre-pandemic, but people are in multiple modes when they go shopping, right? People are in the task-based mode of finding something to buy, but they’re also in a mode of exploration. They’re in a mode of connection. They’re in a mode of aspiration. Who do I want to be? What do I want to be? I want to be inspired. They’re looking for cultural connection. There are all these other motivations at play, and it’s the same when people come to interact in an office, when they join their team, when they go to a movie theater versus watching something on Netflix. There’s a reason the movie theaters haven’t died. It feels different to watch a movie in a movie theater, not just because of the scale of the screen or the audio, but because it feels different being in a room, having a shared experience with other people, hearing their reaction to something, hearing when they go silent, when they laugh and when they cheer.

Those are things that we can really build an experience around, and I always say technology has advanced to a space where technology is usually not the limiting factor, so technology’s no longer a huge challenge, space isn’t a huge challenge, to design a space or to be able to build a space that facilitates these things. So really, now we are in the challenge of getting somebody back to the office, getting somebody in a mall, it is a human-centric problem. That’s a human-centric exercise, and if we don’t start with experience design that addresses the human motivation of why they would go somewhere, and we just address the utility of how big a store need to be and how big a screen need to be for somebody to read the text? We’re never going to solve a human-based problem on why space is relevant, and so I think companies and customers are starting to see this more and more if we can start talking about: what is the human experience, and then how do we use space and technology to facilitate that? It’s just a different way to solve the problem. 

We have to flip the model in its head. We can’t start with a square building, add technology, and then hope people come and use it in the way that we designed it. That’s not experience design. 

All right, Mark, thank you very much—very interesting chat. 

Mark Coxon: Hey, thank you, Dave. I appreciate it.

  1. Mark Hothem says:

    Please add me to your email list!
    Thanks Dave.

    1. Dave Haynes says:

      Done, though there is a box on the right hand sidebar that allows readers to self-subscribe

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