SageNet’s IV Dickson On How Large Companies Now See Digital Signage As A Consequential Part Of Their Operations

April 17, 2024 by Dave Haynes

When I first spoke with industry lifer IV Dickson about his move from software to the managed services firm SageNet, the company was still in the relatively early days of getting itself organized to chase and then service digital signage opportunities. Five years on, digital in environments like chain retail and QSR are a core, what he calls consequential, part of the Oklahoma company’s overall business.

SageNet’s role has evolved from being an IT-centric managed services company that was adding digital signage to its deployment and network management capabilities, to having a main service line called SageView. It’s a full-meal-deal suite of solutions and services that run from the ideation stage all the way through deployment and ongoing management.

These kinds of turnkey, all-in solutions are relatively common now in the marketplace, but the SageNet twist is its deep roots, experience and acumen in the hard-core aspects of networking design, connectivity and cybersecurity.

Dickson started out at SageNet as the digital signage guy, but as business has grown, and with it the staffing and skillsets associated with that work, he now has a role as SageNet’s Chief Innovation Officer – looking more broadly at all the technologies that have a role in or influence customer projects.

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IV Dickson, how are you doing, sir? 

IV Dickson: I’m doing well. Thank you, Dave. How are you this morning? 

I am good. We haven’t chatted in a while. We did a podcast back in 2019, so I would say it’s time for an update. 

IV Dickson: We did. A lot has happened in five years, if nothing else, a pandemic, but also just a lot has happened in the SageNet, and SageView world for us.

Yes. The last time I saw you, we were walking up a very long hill to the Barcelona Football stadium, and you’re probably keeping a wary eye on me to make sure I didn’t have a heart attack. 

IV Dickson: Yeah, I don’t know. It might have been mutual there, Dave, but I do know, though it was worth the walk. I will say that it was worth the walk. 

Every little bit of it.

So over those five years, quite a bit has changed with your company. I would say the big thing from my perspective is five years ago, SageNet was starting to get heavy into digital signage, but it was one of the things that a larger company did. When I look at the website now, I kind of see SageNet leading in certain respects with what it does in terms of digital experience and digital signage in general. Is that a fair assessment?

IV Dickson: It is a fair assessment. And, by the way, my marketing team will be very glad to hear that because I think that’s a position that we want to take and have taken. But we’ve also positioned ourselves in the market to be that, but also executed in the market to be that, and I think if I think about five years ago, one of the things I think I probably even said it five years ago in, in this podcast was we’re a managed service provider in an integrator world. That really hasn’t changed in many respects. There are still great integrators out there. However, what really has changed for us is the way people are now coming and looking at digital experience, digital engagement, and pure digital signage, right? 

Call it passive or a kind of consumable digital signage. It’s become more important today than ever to manage that in an ongoing fashion, and management is not just content. It’s everything. Is the screen on? Is the player running? If it’s broken, or when it’s broken, how are you getting it fixed? And that’s a big piece of the puzzle, and over five years, we’ve grown a lot. I mean, we’ve grown exponentially to be honest in this area. We were a few customers with a few thousand devices out in the world, and now we’re north of a hundred thousand devices that are under management in that digital experience realm.

So, as a managed services company as a whole, what do digital signage and digital signage-ish activities represent for the company? I don’t need an exact percentage, but I’m curious. 

IV Dickson: That’s a great question because it’s something that actually was a driver for me in my previous role at SageNet as the VP of digital signage and digital experience: to make it a consequential piece of our business. And so at this point in time, whereas five years ago, it was just a mosquito kind of on the sideline of our portfolio. It is now one of the pillars of our organization. So if you look at our organization, historically, we still track the traditional managed services of circuitry and router switch firewalls. However, now, the idea of IOT and IOT management, digital experience, and digital signage management kind of lined up in three pillars for us. 

I have heard a few times now that one of the things that’s really changed in the last five years or so again is how, historically, the first meetings that you would have with a larger enterprise-level customer or prospective customer would be with the visual merchandising people, HR people, business communicators, that sort of thing, and the IT people would be there, but only begrudgingly. And, now they tend to lead these initiatives and guide them. 

Have you seen that? Does it help the case for SageNet because they’re familiar with the kind of work that you do? 

IV Dickson: Yes, and yes. Yes, we are seeing that shift in who’s leading the effort, and yes, that has been obviously fruitful for SageNet, but also just for the market as in general, to be honest. What I mean by that is that the marketing initiative has not been dampened; it’s still the guiding light or the Northtar associated with the effort.

Now, you’re getting buy-in from the organization about the importance of this type of infrastructure in a distributed environment. So if you have a thousand restaurants or five hundred or a thousand stores, all of a sudden, when you have a director or even a CIO-level IT person in the room saying this is something that’s consequential to our business, that changes the level of investment from a general brand perspective. The other thing that we’ve seen, to be honest, is that we’ve seen its scope outside of it, marketing and even operational folks that are in the building, or as everybody’s talking about retail media networks and how this bigger trade or merchandiser world factors into that conversation as well, depending on the brand.

One of SageNet’s other big pillars is cybersecurity. Are you finding that’s helpful in the pitch and in the ongoing effort for clients in that you have that pedigree, you have that understanding? It’s not, “Yeah, we do have a cyber guy. His name is, let me look it up.” It’s part of your DNA. 

IV Dickson: Exactly. It’s one of the greatest parts of our extended portfolio. So, about a year ago, I took the role of chief innovation officer, and it’s been a journey for me, not only to understand some of the technologies that I didn’t understand well but also to understand some of the technologies and wrap my brain around how do customers see that footprint and to your point about cyber security if you look not only at cyber, but you look at how cellular is affecting the market and you also look at the pure infrastructure that’s going into one of these restaurants or into one of these retailers, and you start to realize that the POS that used the point of sale that used to be one of the primary network consumers, and by the way, it’s still one of the primary from a cyber perspective. 

However, it’s a very small footprint compared to all the other aggregate devices that they now have talking on the network, whether that be IOT monitoring devices or whether it be digital signage and digital experience devices, or whether it be guest and or brand WiFi, all of a sudden the cyber level or the management of that connectivity becomes even more important than it was maybe ten years ago. And now you have changes in that market around not only how it’s managed, but also around protocols that are being utilized, and you start to look at PCI 4. 0, and all of a sudden the brands are getting that much more intense in their needs, but also smarter in their requirements.

And so when you bring in a media player and a screen, they no longer say, “Hey, we’re going to stick this on the network.” They want a deep dive into how that’s going to communicate and communicate with what and for what purposes. 

Yeah. I think many more traditional pro IV integration companies and solutions providers lack that perspective and experience.

When you look at something like a restaurant or a retail operation, as you just said, all the different business systems and sensors and everything falling into it, it’s just a big chart to be able to try to understand all that. 

IV Dickson: It is, and luckily I have fantastic team members, right?

We’ve brought in folks with senior-level capabilities from the industry, not only from pure restaurant retail but also from the I.T. on the side. We have fantastic folks in our organization to be able to tackle that because, to your point, one of the differences, and I talked to many of our partners about this in the industry. One of the differences in our business that a lot of people don’t recognize from a traditional integrator perspective is when we walk in the door as SageNet, we make two near assumptions. 

If we’re talking to a restaurant or even a retailer, we make the assumption that you’re geographically dispersed, which means you’re probably over at least 5, if not 10, or 50 States. So you’re all over the country. But the second assumption we make is that your ownership environment is potentially variable. What that means is it could be a franchise, a dealer, or some qualification of the licensee, and in that scenario, you’re then adding a layer of complexity to that individualized brick-and-mortar environment that you’re servicing, and that creates major complexity in the process. 

Yeah, cause they might not all use the same business systems for some core operations, right? 

IV Dickson: You got it. Especially when you get into the dealer and licensee world, and that’s really where our focus on that, what happens in the “four walls” of that local environment, and then how do we bring that back to a more macro level of IT and AV management? 

One of the things that SageNet did, and I assume, added to its breadth of capabilities and bench strength, was acquiring Convergent back in, I think, 2021. Why was that done, and what does that meant? 

IV Dickson: We did acquire Convergent Media Systems back in 2021 and it’s an interesting conversation about why was it done versus what has it meant. I think actually it’s relative to both, and yet there’s some separation, right? The interesting thing that a lot of folks don’t know is that there was some distant relationship between SageNet and Convergent prior to the acquisition because of the VSAT environment that SageNet acquired from SpaceNet, the better part of 10+ years ago, and so part of our business is VSAT Uplink for connectivity and Convergent back in the day was doing much of their delivery of Corp comm and digital signage and whatnot, TV broadcast type work over VSAT protocols. 

So there was some natural connection there that kind of tied the two organizations together. However, at the really the kind of height of the pandemic, luckily, in some respects, but also prescribed in others, SageNet had grown, and our SageView digital offering had grown to about half of the size that it is today, and we’ve done that organically, right? We had team members that we had grown a fair amount of operational team members at the time. We had brought on Rob Suffoletta back from the Seneca day to day, and he was there a few years ago. And, so things were starting to churn, and we were about half the size that we are today.

The acquisition at the time of Convergent took that business and positioned it in a place where it was about double, not quite, but about double, and so it was very substantial. The other piece of that puzzle and I’m very proud to say this, is we acquired some really fantastic folks in that acquisition, including some real leaders in the digital industry who have substantially more experience than I do, 30 years in this industry from broadcast to digital signage. So, in that moment, we kind of bolstered our operational environment. 

What subsequently has happened, and it’s a good outcome of any acquisition when you can make this happen, we are now a broader force to deal with in the market. So our capabilities are beyond just Installation, monitoring, and management of hardware and software, and now we have capabilities to build solutions, to code against APIs and or pure I.P. We also have creative capabilities to augment what customers may have or what they may want through our experience labs group and so there’s the footprint now of the capabilities that we bring to the table is a much more rounded out environment than it was three years ago when we first made that acquisition. 

Now, does that all roll up under SageView? 

IV Dickson: Yes, that’s correct. Yeah, SageView is a SageNet sub-brand, as you would call it, and that is specifically digital experience and digital signage. There’s some kind of muddying of the waters between that and our SageIoT environment. 

I remember going back a couple of years, I think I referenced it as kind of a full meal deal offer now that you can take a project right from the idea stage all the way through to ongoing management and do things like you just mentioned, doing the creative work and so on.

IV Dickson: Yes, that’s exactly right. And if you look at just digital experience, our capabilities to now engineer and design an outcome and a solution and then bring that to fruition by hardware acquisition as well as configure kit and install. But then all of that, as we still really talk about on a daily basis, it’s every conversation that we have. We do a lot of that just for the purpose of day two because still, five years later, we talked about this five years ago, I’m sure, the value of that technology is on day two or day fifty or day five hundred. It’s only as somebody in my organization says: day one is only cool for 24 hours, right?

So that’s really a big piece of that. But then, as we were talking about earlier, with regards to the portfolio, when you expand that digital experience, that SageView footprint and you start to add SageConnect, whether that be cellular or otherwise, you start to add SageIoT, then all of a sudden the footprint even gets bigger in terms of that, and that’s really where we strive, and you look at someone like Noodles & Co, for example, that’s a solution that we have been a network provider for many years. Last year, we subsequently rolled out to all of their corporate locations with digital and a network upgrade. but that’s where the entire infrastructure of those four walls is key to that conversation.

Are you having companies come to you primarily with the idea that SageNet is capable of handling the degree of scale that we’re looking at. We need to be out to 800 stores in the next six months or something like that versus jobs that, let’s say, an Electrosonic, those kinds of companies might do that’s an airport, it’s one location. It’s one big wow factor thing that I suppose you guys could do in theory, but that’s not really your sweet spot, is it? 

IV Dickson: No, not at all. And actually, to be totally honest with you, we sometimes leave those deals on the table on purpose and when you talk about scale and deployment, that is such a key piece to this environment that people do forget and it’s hard to roll out that type of technology not only at scale but fast, and these retailers and restaurants expect fast.

Back in 2021, we were in the midst of a deal that we are still managing today. They had extremely high expectations of rollout, and we were doing nearly 300 installations a day during the month of June 2021, and we did the better part of 10,000 installations in eleven months. 

Was this retail or QSR? 

IV Dickson: Retail, but I mentioned Noodles & Co, that’s about 400 locations. We did all of that in the 2023 calendar year for the most part, some 95+ percent.

So you have to have some serious project managers. 

IV Dickson: We do have some serious project managers. That’s one of the things I really like is we have those called macro or global project managers. We also have a really amazing field management team, and those folks are dealing with config, the kit, and our national logistics center and getting it out. Then, the onsite technicians make sure that the installation is done correctly. 

Is the competitive landscape evolving? Are you seeing different kinds of companies getting in the competitive mix of opportunities? 

IV Dickson: You know, when you started to ask that question, I thought, boy, howdy, has it changed!

If you look at the vertical markets, some things are identical to what they were before. I would say retail is still pretty similar. The folks who play in retail and who really excel in retail haven’t changed a ton. Where we do see a lot of change in the market space from a competitive landscape perspective, QSR is a quick-serve restaurant and fast casual. Not only are there a lot of new names, but they’re also not really new to the market. They’re new in that space. There’s also a lot of different offerings and it’s very cloudy. It’s extremely cloudy and selecting a provider because we’re not there’s a, there are a handful of folks that do what we do or similar to what we do.

There’s a handful of folks who really are on the manufacturing side and creating great technologies. But they’re selling those as holistic solutions, and they might not be, and then you still have the historic landscape of the content management systems, and CMS is out there that everybody goes, well, I don’t know what to do with 85 CMSs, right? So that’s where the competitive landscape is still the same, and yet you are seeing a lot of volatility in who’s in the room. 

Does it get murky because you have all kinds of companies with different sorts of software-driven systems that can bolt on a very rudimentary digital signage application and say, okay, here we’ve got a digital menus application for you? You don’t need to buy a license, a CMS, or something else; just use this. Do you get those questions? 

IV Dickson: You do, and you get some of that bolt-on conversation, and by the way, some of that is probably in our pitch deck as well because there are things that we do that are custom to a customer or customized for a customer around that. However, if you think about my background, I was at Scala Stratacache and back at NanoNation, and we’re talking over 20 years, I’ve watched a lot of that change. I think a lot of people today, there’s two factors that kind of drive that. 

One is that many people don’t understand the complexity of managing an enterprise-level menu. They think they’re template managers; they think simple integrations will do it. When you get down to what might be fifty or a hundred or even two hundred configurations, it’s extremely complex to manage all that content and data.

I think the other thing though, that’s driving that conversation that the customer really struggles with picking the right solution is today, data integration and usage in menus is higher than it’s ever been. The ability to get calories and price and even dynamic images or have dynamic capabilities to resort menus based on configurations. There’s more landscape around that type of capability than we’ve ever had before. That clutters the idea of what my CMS does in its pure interface. What is the UI to take care of versus what am I going to have to go build and manage? And we, to be honest, in many respects, have fantastic CMS partners, and yet we downplay the use of that interface because most customers want that managed, and so they’re not going to go and become experts inside of a CMS interface.

Yeah. Years ago, a very large QSR contacted me. They were very irritated with their CMS company because of some business moves that they made. They engaged me as a consultant, and one of the first questions was, what do you think of the software, because, you know, they wanted to consider moving on from it. 

And I said, well, we’ve never seen it, and I said, pardon me, and they said, well, it’s all managed, and I said, well, can you get a log in? And they’re like, well, we can ask for one, but we’ve never logged in or anything, and I thought, whoa, this is like completely managed remotely. I guess it was a glimpse of where a lot of the business was going because you’d want to focus on making coffees or whatever.

IV Dickson: Yeah, it is, absolutely, and also, you have layers of software that are above the CMS now that are as valuable or more valuable, and yet they feed the outcome of the CMS, right? They feed the outcome of the menu, so if you have mobile data, a menu data management system, Adobe Experience Manager, or some other creative digital asset management environment, those are all sitting in a macro environment above that CMS, feeding into it and then getting distributed to those individual locations. 

With SageU, you also introduced something called digital merchandiser two or three months ago, where you’re doing some degree of software, like presentation-level software and management software, that might more traditionally be done by a CMS.

Is there a bit of a dance that you have to do with your partners where it doesn’t feel like you’re starting to eat through their lunch? 

IV Dickson: Yes and no. I think the real key to that conversation is that SageNet builds and deploys solutions in the end. We utilize best-in-breed outcomes from hardware and software providers to do that, and we utilize incredibly talented and skilled folks on the inside of our team who do that as well. Our head of R&D, David Kai, who also oversees our IOT buildout, comes to the table and sees this from a greater solution perspective.

So when you bring him into the room, it’s not a CMS discussion. It’s an outcome-driven customer and customer outcome-driven environment, and you and I have joked online. We talked a little bit about it in Barcelona. This is actually where I embrace the idea of physigital. I know there’s a lot of people who don’t like that, right? However, if you really think about the idea of physigital beyond just marketing fodder and you think physical and digital, the consumer who has made the decision to go to a brick-and-mortar location, they’ve made the decision to go to a C Store, they’ve made a decision to go to a restaurant, they’ve made a decision to go to a retailer. They have the expectation of how digital technology is going to affect that, but it’s just grown exponentially over the last five to ten years, especially with the pandemic. It created a situation where we did almost everything digitally. So now we’re going back to that. 

When you really think in that four-wall environment, and you think about, okay, they made it to my physical location. I now want digital to enhance their experience, then digital works for me, right? It becomes something of value. To that end, then we had to take what the infrastructure was and the solutions were the best-in-breed pieces that we had, and create solutions around that. So you mentioned digital merchandiser, there’s a new video out that’s about an artificial intelligence shoe kiosk that we showed. 

It’s about the integration of all the parts and bringing those to a space where they become seamless for the consumer, but they become wildly valuable for the brand. I joked at NRF because we showed lift and learn, and I’ve shown lift at learning at NRF before.

Probably in 2004? 

IV Dickson: You got it, right? However, the idea is that I walk into the store, look at something in the mobile app, walk up to the AI kiosk, ask it for a product, it shows me where that product is, I pick it up, and I’m then having a web and physical experience in a very similar manner, or a digital and physical experience.

Those capabilities have become possible because our engineering base in what we monitor and manage was extremely solid. We added the team members, not only through acquisition but also through a refinement of how we engage through experience labs and bringing David Kai into those conversations with software development capabilities and then really listening to our customer’s voice is key for this, and so that’s a big piece of this puzzle is really listening to what the customer is trying to accomplish, and finding the avenues where digital can help with that, not replace it, not be the only thing, but help with that transaction.

Last question. I’m curious because we’ve mentioned Barcelona a couple of times. I go for my own reasons. A lot of people go over cause they’re selling stuff or whatever. As a chief innovation officer, I suspect you’re going over there because there’s great wine, but that you’re there to kind of see what’s emerging, what’s different, and it’s a different walk than what you’re going to do, walking around NRF or InfoComm, that sort of thing? 

IV Dickson: Yeah, very much so. I mean, ISE, for me, is still a location that has more value. Visual technology in one place than anywhere else. I can spend three or four days walking around somewhat by myself or with colleagues, friends, or folks from the industry. But I can consume that and be able to say to myself, what’s out there that I’m not using, or how can I use something differently? You know, I use a quote many days, I think it was the MTV founder who said, “Innovation is taking two things that are known and putting them together in a new way.”

I think that’s actually the thing that we’ve somewhat forgotten in this industry is that sometimes we don’t have to go build something brand new if we can make something new and interesting out of pieces we already have. And, Barcelona, regardless of location, although Barcelona is a great location, the reality of that conversation is I go to look to see like, what are people doing? What is starting to drive the industry? And to see the year-over-year refinement of transparent OLED, and to see now the influx of transparent, or call them holographic, I don’t know that I would call them that, but that’s what the Muxwave folks call them that, that environment, but then also now to see what’s going on with Kinetic LED and moving pieces and parts while the LED is showing visual capabilities. But then, even going back, I took a video of Epson. They had a massive umbrella, and it was covered in projectors. It was just a reminder that technology is out there and how it gets used.

People often forget that this industry is not entirely new, and yet there are many different ways to do stuff that are actually super exciting. 

Yeah, I always say these trade shows are not about giant leaps; they’re incremental advances, and you have to have the knowledge and experience where it’s helpful to have that knowledge and experience to recognize, I go, oh, that’s interesting, they’ve done this. It’s not like I’m blown away by it, but oh, they’ve conquered this little challenge, and now it’s better.

IV Dickson: Yeah, that’s exactly right. 

IV, we could talk for three hours, but I try to keep these to a certain time window, so I’m going to shut this down. It was great chatting.

IV Dickson: Dave, thank you so much for the time, and look forward to seeing you soon out on the road.

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