Phil Cohen is one of the people in DOOH that I admire most, and it isn’t because he is a customer (he isn’t), but because what you see is what you get with Phil. He is passionate and opinionated, as well as thoughtful and deeply experienced. He knows what he is best at and he focuses on that. He has enough of a big picture view to want others to succeed, because a rising tide will float his boat as well. That isn’t a throwaway phrase for Phil, as it is for others. He invests time and money in three industry associations that I am aware of, and it isn’t a selfish gesture or about the shameless self-promotion that we see from others. It is genuine. Last year, when Phil started up his vlog, Cohen on Content, I was not sure where it was going. I’m not sure Phil knew either, but he was going to figure it out. His initial rants on content lost a little bit of steam after a few weeks, and Phil was smart enough to use his camera and time to broaden the focus of the vlog’s content. Brilliant. Phil’s gravelly interviews quickly became a fixture at industry trade shows, sitting down with anyone and everyone he found both interesting and interested. Topics branched out to technology, capital, networks and more. Bingo!: Cohen on Content became a resource for others to rant along with Phil. Imagine that… a passionate content guy adapts his own content to keep it and himself relevant. I have no idea what Phil’s viewership numbers are at this point, but I would bet that they are significant, based on Twitter activity and general buzz. This thing has legs.
A couple of weeks ago, Phil issued a rant because he was upset at a friend’s son, who bragged to Phil that he was entering the digital signage space in a big way, and had already purchased 300 Samsung displays and an unnamed software package. Phil took the kid to the woodshed for investing in the technology before he knew what he actually wanted to accomplish. His advice, which was sound, was to have a plan, objectives and goals, and then match the technology to that plan. Sort of like drilling a round hole and then buying round pegs: things tend to work better that way. Phil blamed the mentality of vendors who claim that they can deliver everything without understanding needs. As an example, he went on to take his own vendor, Stu Armstrong, to task for positioning his newly merged company was a “one stop shop”. Phil called BS on that, recognizing (as most sane people do) that adding ethernet extenders to a software company does not make it vertical. Figure out what you do well, and focus on that. At least Phil practices what he preaches. I will confess that I especially enjoyed that segment of the rant, although in fairness Stu’s pitch-laden comments in a previous segment didn’t really sound like he was claiming to be vertical, just willing to be a single point of accountability. Phil clarified a couple of days later, after apparently receiving some emails, perhaps including one from The Future of Digital Signage. In the last rant, which was actually quite calm, he pinned the problem on the vested interests of integrators, who are motivated to sell the lines they carry, not necessarily the best fit for the customer needs. Phil believes that we should all demand “agnosticity” from an integrator, and while I think he has that concept right, it will never be delivered through an AV integrator in our industry. The fact is that most represent several hardware vendors, and will favor the one that they believe will give them an edge in any particular deal. The tipping point may be function, price, margin, availability, warranty or something else. That does not make them bad people, and they serve a vital role in the business. They don’t represent themselves as truly agnostic in the first place. Most AV integrators only resell a couple of software solutions: one of the big channel feeders (usually Scala), and another more accessible solution. There is no effort to look further, because it is simply too painful a process for them to do so. Hardware is easier. Again, this does not make them bad people, just focused business people.
Newbies like the son of Phil’s friend who start with an AV integrator are simply not going to have many solutions to choose from. After all, a Ford dealer is not going to offer you a Toyota test drive and quote. The type of independence Phil speaks of is delivered through consulting firms with requirements checklists, not AV integrators with line cards. A consultant deals with process. An AV integrator deals with product. Our industry is dominated by the AV integrators, and is ready for consultants, and there is plenty of need and room for both.
In the retail IT world that I came from, there were lots of consulting firms managing systems integration for key applications such as POS, merchandising, planning, warehouse management, workforce management and much more. Each had a process for making software and hardware selections, and most were pretty agnostic. Some had the horses to also manage the integration and deployment tasks. We just don’t see that yet in digital signage. While there are a few reputable folks out there providing process, expertise and independent guidance, there are more than a few charlatans selling smoke, mirrors and wire jobs as well. We still haven’t seen digital signage become a practice area for larger firms that have the muscle to implement as well. I’ve often said that when we get to that point, we will have arrived. One reason why we have not may be that even the large corporate buyers of digital signage technology have in many cases either run the process themselves, or outsourced it to a trusted integrator. That would seldom happen in retail. As Phil says in his first rant, “bring somebody in”. It is the best insurance policy against making a big mistake. We have great AV integrators, and we need more great consultants on the front end of projects. They are not mutually exclusive by any means. Having a few more big picture thinkers like Phil Cohen wouldn’t hurt either.