This month, we welcome Nick Smith, CEO, Elonex Outdoor Media, Birmingham, U.K.
- Please tell us about your background and what drew you into the world of Digital Out-of-Home.
My background is in computers and consumer electronics. Over the years, I’ve been heavily involved in the evolution of technology in that sector. I set up my first business using just £100 and sold PC’s during the boom years of the late 1980s, whilst also bringing new consumer electronic products to market. At its height, the business employed 500 staff and had a turnover of £330 million. It was a main supplier to tier one retailers, selling 20,000 PCs directly to consumers every month and responsible for launching such products in the UK as Smart TV’s, eBooks and tablet computers.
Having enjoyed much success, that business was sold in the early 2000s and I then moved on to acquiring and restructuring failing computer firms in order to return them to profit. I was then drawn into the world of Digital Out-of-Home by a twist of fate and a new found association with Elonex.
- Although the company Elonex was founded in 1986, it seems that it was initially developing laptops, tablets and ebooks. At what stage and how did it start moving into DOOH? Were you involved at that time?
Yes, Elonex was a major player in consumer electronics. It was actually my main competitor during the boom times described above and the brand was, and remains, a prestigious one. Retailers wanted Elonex consumer products, and whilst developing laptops, tablets and ebooks, the firm was taking on the likes of Apple. In fact, it wasn’t just taking them on, it was enjoying a good share of the market. For example, it was responsible for 6.8% of all tablet computers sold in 2008.
When the opportunity arose to buy Elonex in 2006, I fought off stiff competition to do so, as there were lots of other interested parties keen to take on the pedigree of the brand. Successful in purchasing the firm, I with my management reached a point in 2012 where the decision was made that Elonex should retreat from the consumer electronics market for a short period of R&D, but fully intended to re-enter when the retail sector stabilized.
At that time, it was vital to keep the Elonex brand alive and prominent in the public eye, and that twist of fate I mentioned earlier saw our first move into DOOH! We decided sports sponsorship was the best way to keep the Elonex brand in the spotlight and approached several Premiership Football Clubs to discuss opportunities. However, we quickly realised that football was delivering a global audience, and we wanted to reach local markets. Offering us better fit was the game of professional Rugby Union, and we agreed on a sponsorship deal with Gloucester Rugby. Part of that deal involved us manufacturing and installing a giant LED screen, pitch side, at the Club’s Kingsholm Stadium, which we were to deliver at no cost in return for holding exclusive advertising rights.
So with that giant LED screen in place, we had started to become, albeit on a limited scale, DOOH operators!
- While Elonex Outdoor Media has many digital roadside boards, screens in malls, and more, it seems heavily involved now in many sports locales. Can you please explain how that came about, and a little about your other divisions, as well?
At the start of this DOOH journey, our involvement in sport had already dated back many years, and Elonex had always sponsored professional teams and major events as part of its own marketing strategy. We had, therefore, seen the power of sports advertising and the high yield returns it can deliver. Actually we still do, with photographs and video footage always keeping our sponsorships alive. For example, you’ll often still see the successful Wimbledon football team of the 1980’s, Vinnie Jones and all, wearing Elonex sponsored shirts; and when David Beckham’s famous goal from the halfway line is replayed on TV, the goal he scored in has an Elonex advertising hoarding right behind it!
So we had a natural instinct for sport, and following on from the deal at Gloucester Rugby in 2012, we started to sign similar agreements at other rugby clubs and cricket stadiums around the UK, where we would manufacture and install LED screens and pitch side perimeters in return for exclusive advertising rights. Again, at this initial stage, the screens were primarily intended to promote the Elonex brand. However, we very quickly had lots of advertising space on our hands, which of course held commercial value. At that point, our appetite to become a force in the DOOH sector really intensified, so as well as continuing to increase our presence in sports stadiums, we started to look at large-format digital roadside billboards. We invested in our first roadside screen: a 30 square metre screen in Coventry. We sound discovered that producing an even larger format screen was slightly cost prohibitive. Our R&D team therefore set about devising a means of manufacturing large scale LED screen systems cost effectively. And once a solution was found, tried and tested, we embarked on establishing what has now become an impressive network of digital roadside billboards.
These days, we have a pretty even spread of digital screens across our roadside, sports and shopping mall divisions. In addition, we are making great strides in the entertainment, exhibition and conference sectors, with our Experiential division responsible for manufacturing and installing hundreds of digital screens at major venues across the UK, including at ExCeL London and the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham.
- And where do Apricot Consumer Technology and One Group fit into the picture?
Elonex acquired Apricot, mainly for its brand potential. At the time, Apple was struggling with touch screen technology in laptop computers, and we believed the Apricot brand would allow us to develop an ‘Apple’ experience on a Microsoft platform. The marketing phrase of the day was ‘Apricot puts the bite back into Apple’ and we were a long way down the road with that before our increasing success in the DOOH market meant that we didn’t pursue things. Maybe we will again one day!
We own the trademark ‘One’ in technology, and One Group is actually our holding company. R&D towards developing new visual technology and the selling of innovative hardware are very much still at the core of our business, and that’s where One Group fits into the picture.
- Elonex seems to hold about 200 patents, stemming mainly from the company’s early days, I believe. Are any of them relevant to Elonex Outdoor’s products?
Yes, many of those patents relate to the days of Elonex consumer electronics, and some of the most famous ones we own involve the technology used in power-saving screens and power saving in computer memory modules. Elonex Realisations, based in Holland, is responsible for collecting patents and we still use some of the historic patents, and, of course, many of the more recent ones, such as Elonex Blacklight Technology, in the large-format LED systems we manufacture today.
- Altogether, how many digital billboards do you operate, and where are they mainly located? And if you counted all your screens in all your divisions, how many are there in total?
At last count, we operate 1,500 LED screens at 96 different locations in the UK, and we have another 9,292 digital and static displays across UK sports venues! That network is made up of screens of all shapes and sizes, with many being bespoke to Elonex and their locations, as well as also including the more traditional digital formats of 96, 48 and 6 sheets.
As a manufacturer, we have the flexibility to deliver screens with exact specifications to best fit the environment where they’re to be located. That, coupled with the ability to deliver traditional screen formats and being able to manage the commercial activity that’s broadcast on each of them, really does set us apart as a dynamic DOOH operator.
Until recently, our roadside digital billboards had mainly been located in and around Birmingham City Centre, but this has changed and we’re currently installing, on average, one new large format LED screen every week. In addition, we operate digital billboards in other City Centres, including in Manchester and Coventry, and are constantly in the market to acquire new sites. Indeed, right now our legal team is working overtime to keep pace with planning applications we currently have under consideration, so that number of screens above is always on the increase!
- You used to have one of Europe’s largest digital screen, located at Junction 9 of the M6 in the UK. How big was it, and when and why was it demolished?
This was groundbreaking for us and the industry, and probably announced Elonex as a serious player in the world of DOOH. The screen, which we think was the largest roadside site in Europe, measured a huge 5,000 sq. ft., and we’ll always be proud to say it was entirely manufactured, installed and operated by Elonex!
In fact, at the time it went live, that screen on the M6 was only the second roadside unit we had ever built, so we didn’t hang about in stating our intentions for the future! Not only did it raise the profile of Elonex as a DOOH operator, but it also allowed us to introduce brands of all sizes to the power of large-format digital outdoor advertising. Yes, big brands were keen to snap up airtime, but at all times we reserved space and priced it accordingly for regional firms to take advantage of – something which we continue to do across the Elonex digital network.
The site was actually decommissioned in January, 2017, mainly to make way for a new project, StarLights , which was being built just a short distance away on the M6, at a more iconic and Birmingham centric location.
- So what exactly is the new StarLights product?  What makes it so different from your other offerings? Will StarLights go up in other locations?
This is a brand new DOOH site rather than a product, although the screen itself uses technology never before seen in its format. StarLights is the name we’re giving to the new super-size digital billboard we installed in May, 2017, at the famous Spaghetti Junction on the M6 motorway. It’s an iconic location, with the screen actually being mounted on top of what was once the site of Birmingham’s main power station, and is now part of an entertainment complex known as Star City.
StarLights replaces the digital billboard we operated at Junction 9 of the M6 to meet market demands for a more Birmingham centric location, and is the first DOOH screen to carry Elonex LED High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology. The new digital billboard measures 200 square metres, is designed to be highly visible to traffic travelling in both directions, and dominates the landscape at the busiest motorway junction in Great Britain. Spaghetti Junction (Junction 6 of the M6) serves all main routes in and out of Birmingham City Centre, so the site will be the most prominent DOOH location in Central England.
The StarLights model is certainly something we aim to repeat in the near future in other areas of the UK, so we are currently on the lookout for similar iconic locations with the capacity to host such a huge structure and deliver the type of audience figures being achieved at Spaghetti Junction.
- You recently installed screens at the U.K. Roadchef Motorway Service areas. What is found at each, and how are the screens used?
This is an on-going project, with Digital 48 sheets being installed at every Roadchef Service area in the UK to create a unique DOOH motorway network. We’re now well on the way to completing the project, and the screens are presenting lots of new and exciting DOOH advertising options for brands looking for exact targeting opportunities. The screens utilise Elonex Blacklight technology, and, whilst they can deliver vital public messaging, are in place to broadcast high impact DOOH advertising, with uptake already strong from car brands, leisure attractions, holiday destinations, and food and beverage firms.
- Altogether, how many different networks do you operate? What is the biggest buy ever made across your properties, and by what advertiser was it made?
To date we operate 96 different networks, and numbers are always on the increase!
The biggest buy made so far on the Elonex Digital Network was by an international casino group and leisure destination, which booked the total 24/7 domination of our properties in the Midlands over several days, to mark the opening of a new and high profile offering in the region. I think in addition to talking about the big buys, it’s important to mention those retained clients who advertise on the Elonex Digital Network continually. And we’re very strong in that area with multiple long-term holdings on sites across the UK, from clients who have advertised with us for three-to-four years so far.
- I believe you use Ayuda Media Systems for your content management. Is it used for all your properties? Since when, and why did you choose Ayuda? Have you now added any of Ayuda’s other services, as well?
We use the Ayuda system for content management at the majority of our DOOH sites, although we do use BroadSign and Aquire platforms in some specific venue and stadia environments. Ayuda became our system of choice due to offering a turnkey solution that we could further develop and, importantly, was capable of managing substantial network growth.
- With all your billboards, mall signage and sports facilities’ signage, am I correct in that you don’t have any in London proper?
Actually Elonex offers a very good spread of DOOH opportunities across the whole of the UK. Currently in the capital, we operate 35 sites inside the M25, including multiple screens at shopping malls, sports stadiums, plus at ExCeL London, where we provide an exclusive DOOH offering.
- I believe you have set up blast-resistant rubbish bins to deter terrorist bombs. How big are their digital screens, and how are they controlled? Where are they located?
Yes, these are our Digital Recycling Units that do have blast proof capabilities, and to which we acquired patents in Dec., 2015, in recognition of an ever-increasing terror threat. The units have many uses, including providing a safe solution to littering and a means of obstruction (due to their size and weight) in busy public places, but mainly provide a vital means of delivering public messaging in times of crisis via integrated one-metre-high digital screens.
Of course on a happier note, and depending on location, the screens can also broadcast regular DOOH advertising to provide yet another route to market for brands, but we’re very much concentrated on the security aspect right now. Currently, after what we’ve learnt over the last year or so working with local authorities and major venues, the units are undergoing even further development and we have orders already in the books from all over the world.
- Who supplies your various hardware? And are all your properties digital? Do any use beacons to help increase customer engagement?
Elonex is in full control of the design and manufacture of all the hardware contained in our digital network. Again, with a history in consumer electronics we’re well ahead of the game when it comes to producing digital screens of all sizes, and putting that together with our ability to operate and monetise every site we own, our team is quite a force to be reckoned with!
The vast majority of our properties are digital, because that’s really what we know, but we have acquired a limited number of static sites, particularly at sports stadiums, along the way. The use of beacons and other means of increasing customer engagement is, of course, always on our agenda, and we’re developing new technology and running pilot schemes at sports stadiums, roadside and in shopping malls as we speak.
- Are there any other verticals that Elonex Outdoor would like to enter? Why or why not?
Elonex is highly motivated to continue building a vast DOOH network across the UK, whilst pioneering technology in the medium. Although already boasting impressive numbers, the possibilities for expansion are massive. And it might not always be about who can build the biggest screens in the busiest areas. It’s all about display, so DOOH can play a major role in all lifestyle environments, and with Elonex pushing advances in technology, we can very definitely predict the future of DOOH will offer many new applications and opportunities, in addition to the advertising we see today.
- I believe that you also offer screens in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Are these growing areas for you? With which networks?
Our fastest growth areas are actually in UK mainland right now, and we’ll continue to focus upon them whilst actively looking for opportunities in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
- In terms of expansion, can you see Elonex Outdoor growing beyond the UK?
Historically, Elonex has always traded globally. However, our current focus is on the UK as we feel the DOOH market here is still emerging and offers great opportunities. From my own experience in consumer electronics, it’s very easy to identify other territories for growth and get carried away with them whilst ignoring the pitfalls they may present and forgetting about where your business is actually already well positioned to prosper.
Our current territory offers massive growth opportunities and we’ve worked hard to be able to take advantage of them. So for the foreseeable future, Elonex will continue to expand and develop, introduce new technology and innovation, and further build a formidable DOOH network right here in the UK, a market we know well and where we are highly respected.