If you have seen my desk either at work or at home, or the desktop of my Macbook, you would know that organization does not appear to be my strong suit. I like to think of it as a Beautiful Mind thing, but the truth is probably less spectacular. I try to do better with my email, filing those emails that are keepers in an appropriate folder. I love MSGFiler for simplifying that task, by the way. I try to glance through the folders periodically to make sure that I am current on where things are. One of those folders I call The Graveyard. It is where I dump the email traces of fizzled leads, unfunded wins and failed customers. Ideally, most of the contents of The Graveyard are ancient memory. But it is not a perfect world, as we are reminded daily. Some of the Graveyard subfolders make me chuckle, some make me cringe, some just leave me shaking my head (what were they thinking?). I keep the folder around, as things tend to go in circles and there is quite a bit of knowledge to be gained from each fiasco.
The Graveyard would exist in the best of times, given the nature of the field we plow. However, it seems to me that The Graveyard is actually a microcosm of DOOH: an industry that has tended to get out in front of itself; a technology-based industry that has attracted more dreamers and schemers than true entrepreneurs; an industry that seems to be in a rush to evolve before it even has an identity. And my best guess is that as a group, our collective Graveyards are going to grow before the marketplace resolves the DOOH picture itself. There are a number of indicators that such a process is underway, and will lead in short order to what I would term an impending DOOH Spring:
The two most recent reports from organizations that conduct active research on digital signage business trends were both trending in the wrong direction. The Platt Retail Institute tracks the North American Digital Signage Index on a quarterly basis. In July, we looked at the 2Q results here. The DSE Business Barometer also polls industry participants on a quarterly basis. Their most recent report showed a definite downtrend in optimism regarding the economy, as well as tempered enthusiasm for digital signage industry prospects. In both cases, industry players answer questions without attribution, and even then tend to err on the side of optimism. Even slight dips in optimism are noteworthy. One wonders if some folks even responded. The negativity would seem to indicate deferred spending plans by customers and prospects and portends some new additions to the collective Graveyard.
There has been a real dearth of significant wins and launches of new networks for quite some time. True, some deals (present company included) are kept under wraps for what seems like ages, but word gets out when big deals go down, and there hasn’t been more than the occasional eyebrow raiser for about a year. That doesn’t mean that there are no new deals and no new network launches. It means they are generally smaller in scope and impact. Instead of a steady stream of new deals, we are relegated to reading periodic updates on existing deals, such as DDN’s Harris’ 7-Eleven network, which is rolling out at a very good pace since the closure of an epic goat rodeo of a process. I hope it does well. So does 7-Eleven, who has no downside. Regardless, there is clearly pent-up demand in the marketplace. There is interest and there is money, but there seems to be no urgency.
There are some very experienced executives from both the technology and network sides that are independent at the moment. What that means is that there are more connected and tested folks out there available to consult, lead and advise than ever before. By way of example, Lou Giacalone recently joined the ranks of consultants, leaving Haivision shortly after they bought Coolsign. I haven’t spoken with Lou since he left, but he has boundless energy and passion for this business, and I suspect he’ll be heard from soon. Steve Nesbit, formerly top dog at Reflect, has done a nice job of keeping active and networked since his departure. Don’t bet against that list of independent veterans growing by two or three by March. There are a few very experienced leaders on the network operations side also working actively independently. Having veteran talent on the sidelines could be viewed as a negative, but the fact that this type of talent has not left the industry means that there are opportunities they are seeing. That would be another signal of pent-up demand.
So what happens in the DOOH Spring? I believe that there will be an unleashing of pent-up capital, pent up demand and pent-up frustration that will transform the digital signage space with great speed. The capital will be deployed to launch new projects and make bets on existing players either through direct investment or acquisition. The pent-up demand will fuel the projects and help clarify the winning sectors and players to the investors. That in turn will create demand for experienced DOOH executives, both as management prospects and advisors. Finally, the frustration of slogging through the doubly thick mud of recession and fragmentation will be too much for investors in many entities on the network and technology sides of the table. They will call in their chips and walk from the table. That alone would have seismic impact on the DOOH landscape, and it may not be a terrible thing.
It will become clear to all players in the crowded digital signage space that if they have not established a solid foundation as well as a go-forward strategy to dominate, then survival itself will be difficult, even as demand explodes. The forces of the DOOH Spring will change things forever. It may not be a Tahir Square moment, but you’ll be able to track it on Twitter just the same. Until then, feel free to whistle past The Graveyard.