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7 @ Eleven with FOUNDER AND MANAGING DIRECTOR, NIKK SMITH

Welcome again to 7 @ Eleven. In case you missed our first edition, we’re sharing seven short and snappy answers from people in our team that will hopefully create laughter,

surprise and intriguing revelations, all while you enjoy your mid-morning cuppa.


This week, we had the pleasure of catching up with Nikk Smith, Managing Director of Pixel. This week’s edition contains a treasure trove of insights from Nikk, one of our founders and a true digital signage veteran. So you grab the coffee, and we’ll spill the tea.


It’s a humid grey morning in early June as we sit down to catch up (can someone let the weather know it's summer?) but there’s no need for sunshine here, as the topic of digital signage and Nikk’s other expert subject, motorbikes, is enough to light up the room.


Nikk, welcome! The busiest man in the business, yet you still made time for our good old Q&A, we’re very grateful. Ready to share your secret sauce?


Yep, let's crack on.


Pixel has just turned 19 - what was the initial goal when you started the business and how has that changed over the years?


We originally wanted the business to focus on content design and production for out-of-home and digital signage. I could see that there were a lot of displays being installed in various retail environments and, pretty much without exception, the content on them was appalling - essentially it was either a static poster or a silent TV ad, neither of which were fit for purpose or maximising the full capabilities of a digital signage strategy.

What we found in our first two years, though, was that the commercial model was not going to work - brands are incredibly tied into their agencies and most projects start with the hardware, so we decided to adapt the business to suit the market, adding hardware installation and support to the content production and management services we already had in place. Since then, we’ve scaled the company in line with our client’s needs, adding team members to the support, build, development, studio, engineering and project management departments, as well as creating totally new departments such as logistics, IT and warehousing.


What makes Pixel different from other digital signage and creative agencies?


I think it’s a few things. We’re the biggest UK pure play provider for one, with nearly 90 full-time staff on the books. This helps us win and service the larger projects, as well as having all the services in-house, including content production, so we maintain the quality and the flexibility needed by retail clients, but the main thing is that we always go above and beyond to make things happen and take responsibility when things go wrong. I’ve always tried to hire people who have the right personality to keep this ethos in the business - skills can be trained but attitude can’t.


If a brand wanted to be a step ahead of the competition in terms of digital signage, what advice would you give them?


I would say that the vast majority of the time, you don’t need to follow trends, because they tend to be hype-driven, and actually not that useful in the real world. Innovation in our industry happens in places people don't realise. What people regard on the outside as innovation in signage, like holograms and other gimmicks, absolutely have a place at the table, but digital signage in general is about putting a blank canvas into a space and using it well. That might sound boring, but it’s what it will always come back to - content.


Canvas installation will be restricted by the space you have available, that’s why the advent of LED was so groundbreaking because you can make much better use of your space with unique shapes. Projection and projection mapping are also great ways to introduce flexibility when compared to standard LCD aspect ratios. But fundamentally, to do a good job, you should be thinking about the content on them in the context of the customer journey, and making sure it's legible, eye-catching, accurate and automated. It’s less sexy when you talk about it like that, but that’s what the real benefits of digital signage are.


What would be a good example of a time when knowledge and experience has prevailed over initial concepts?


Store design generally looks at things from an aesthetics point of view, and it's very rare that you’ll see one that doesn't look great on paper. But we have seen concept designs where signage has been proposed in a place we know it simply won't work.


Banners hanging at a high level, above the aisle, are great in principle to utilise empty space, but in the vast majority of cases, people are not looking up when they’re shopping, they’re looking at eye-level and down, that's our natural tendency. So we’d say - don't do it, your money will be wasted and could be better spent on the right applications in the right places. That’s where Pixel adds real value, through pragmatism, 19 years of experience, and the understanding of when to advise clients not to do that exciting, expensive idea that won't drive ROI, but instead achieve the best results possible, without being frivolous.


What’s been your most satisfying project to date and why?


For scale, innovation and being ahead of its time, it would have to be Argos. Purely because, 10 years later it’s still one of the best examples of a fully integrated retail digital media network that's fully unified with the business operations. Pixel was responsible for providing the full media player infrastructure, content management platform, scripts and integration with their legacy systems. Playlists and content can be generated in real-time so that each store has a unique content loop, reflecting its status. This is really different to the traditional approach of manually managing content; you're still targeting products in stores, but you're making sure those products are available to buy before you promote them, using live data to display live pricing and stock and making sure you’ve got parity between all channels - in this case, tablets, digital displays, website and mobile app, forming a true omnichannel approach.


Other standouts for me include Lloyds Bank who we’ve worked with for over 13 years. It’s been exciting to grow with them and enable experiments in their flagship locations using interesting combinations of technology, like LED, projection, and LCD which was the first time we had ever done that. It’s unusual for a client to be so willing to consider the use of such a variety of methods of production, and we love that about them.


WH Smith storefront facades are also a highlight. They weren't the first to do this, but they have certainly been the first to do them at scale and effectively make good use of them with high-impact, commercial content. It’s a great example of a signage network that is adding real value to their operation, as well as giving them retail stand out and driving footfall. Not many solutions make this level of impact.


Now for the fun stuff...


If you could have been the lead singer/musician of any band in history, who would it be and why?


Well I wouldn't be the lead singer of any brand, being front and centre is my worst nightmare - so I would definitely be the bass player or drummer! (For the readers - Nikk is being a bit modest here, and can actually play both of those instruments). I would lean more towards the rock side of things from a performing point of view… Hmmm, niche or stadium filler? (scratches head). OK, I think I'd be Jimmi Hendrix’s drummer. A proper seminal artist who totally changed rock music.


(Other contenders included Led Zeppelin & Pink Floyd, but Hendrix just pipped them to the post, and we can see your answer was bold as love, Nikk.)


The subject we all love… food! If you could travel to any country just to eat its cuisine, which country would you choose and why?


(Without hesitation) Spain for seafood paella. My favourite beer is Belgian though, so if there was an option to combine the two, that would be my ideal choice. The setting would be by the sea, a lakeside or a piazza, somewhere there’s something going on so I can people-watch while savouring the food.


(Ok we’ll meet you there)


Ok, we said seven questions but here’s one more!

If you had an entire day with no responsibilities or obligations, how would you spend your free time?


If the weather was good, riding my motorbike down a mountain pass. If the weather was bad, I’d do the same in my car!


I’m not bothered about doing really high speeds, I love the curves of the road. For me, it's about the control of the bike when you're going around a corner at 50-60mph and leaning into it. You have to be fully focused, so it’s almost meditative - you don't have a chance to think about anything else. In seeking the curves alongside rivers and mountains you tend to get picturesque views, too. My favourite road in the UK is a recent discovery between Welshpool and Llandovery in Wales, what a ride!


(FYI There are quite a few petrol heads at Pixel and weekend rides are a common Monday morning topic!)


Thanks for taking the time out of your super busy schedule to sit down with us today Nikk, we really enjoyed learning more about the evolution of Pixel, the secrets to signage success as well as a bit about you on a personal level too. Watch out Goodwood, Pixel’s car park is on form to give you a run for your money!


Thanks to our readers too, we hope you enjoyed the second edition and will join us again for our next 7 @ Eleven soon.


Pixel Inspiration


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