This year Saturn Communications Group, one of the UK’s leading digital communications companies, turns 20 years old.

With systems driving in excess of 20,000 screens across the globe, their client portfolio ranges from VW Group to Arriva Group to several major Cinema chains as well numerous NHS Trusts. From Saturn’s first project, ODEON’s flagship cinema at the newly opened Trafford Centre in 1998 to their most recent project at Manchester Piccadilly, Chris Welsh, Saturn’s MD, talks us through the company, the changes in the industry and what the future holds for digital communication.

What has been your biggest surprise in technology in the last 20 years?

Honestly, my biggest surprise in the industry is how slow technology has moved forward until the big changes came with wireless and cloud-based solutions. A lot of the things we do now, we were doing 20 years ago, the difference being everybody now understands the technology, embraces it and is not fearful of deploying the technology. I’d say the biggest technological hurdles were affordability and accessibility. In the early days, standard screens would cost up to £10,000 from a specialist manufacturer, and now the consumer is able to go to their local electrical dealership, or even supermarket, and get a screen for a fraction of the cost. As a consequence, digital communication has gone from being something of a high cost ‘nice to have’, to something which the market has embraced as a business tool and an absolute ’need to have’ in every environment – a key tool to both generate revenue and reduce business cost.

What was your first install and how does it compare to your most recent?

Our first install as previously mentioned was the Odeon Cinema at The Trafford Centre in Manchester. Coincidentally, one of our most recent installs was again for Odeon, transforming Birmingham Broadway Plaza Cinema into a high tech digital customer experience. When we look back at what we installed in Odeon Trafford Centre all those years ago – four plasma screens as well as a number of TV’s, contrast this with over 50 screens and a 6 x 3m LED wall at Birmingham Broadway Plaza. We can see 20 years on with the same client, how much more the technology has been adopted, accepted and even demanded by their customers.

What has been your biggest achievement?

I think the biggest achievement for Saturn, in an ever-changing market when technology pretty much drives the success of your business, is the fact that we’re still here and the business is still growing. We are very much regarded by the market as being at the forefront of our industry. Not just surviving 2 major recessions but continuing to grow and flourish in a very competitive market where few of our original competitors are still around 20 years on. We’re proud of our longevity and knowing, in a technological world that you can’t stand still - or you’ll get eaten up, we’ve continued to progress our development, our technology, our people and our processes to the point where we’re still regarded as cutting-edge technologists.

Where do you see digital in another 20 years?

Digital in another 20 years? Who knows? There’s currently a lot of talk in the industry regarding AR/VR, although it’s still very much experimental, R&D stuff. It’s a technology that’s interesting, it’s quite sexy, but no-one has really got a hand on the best way to utilise it in a B2B world. When we look back 5 years ago, people were seeing AR/VR as just something that might happen, so in 20 years who knows where it’ll be. One of the things that we can be absolutely sure of – in the world we live in, whether it be on the TV or mobile device, the world expects and demands instant information. We are not prepared to wait around for information anymore, instant access to data, instant access to a message, instant gratification of an order, instant information of where I’m going, will all be the norm. We’ve created, through technology, a very impatient world. People have demands for immediate, accurate and entertaining information. The desire and expectation to impart high quality, impactful information to the target audience, but also ensuring high quality, useful data is taken from that audience, is going to explode.

What do you think are the next ‘hot’ technologies?

The next phase of the communication industry growth is twofold. One is interactivity, no longer are we required to create solutions to just impart information to our audience, be they customers, employees etc. our message needs to be more targeted and relevant. In order to do this, as well as giving information, we need to engage with our audience by creating a two-way conversation to allow us to collect relevant data from that audience. Understanding their buying patterns, understanding their behaviours and tailoring our messaging, whatever they be, according to the individual or the demographic, rather than just hoping that if you leave the message on long enough you’ll hit the right person. It’s a combination of data acquisition (with GDPR and need for increased cyber security it’s not as straight forward as it was) and how we use that data to better promote our message. The second phase, from a screen perspective, is LED. We’re all familiar with the big screens of Piccadilly Circus and Times Square with dot matrix LED, but with major advances in LED technology, the image quality is getting to the same quality, if not better, than the screen you have in your living room at home. The price points for LED technology are taking them from a ‘wow-factor’ solution to a realistic alternative, particularly to video walls. We went through a transition from TVs to monitors to plasma screen to flat-screen LED and now we’re talking about dot matrix LED, but on a scale that’s never been seen before – that’s the next stage of development. Do I think LED will take over from other digital screens? I think for smaller screens, that comes down to affordability, are we ever going to see them in your living room – probably not, but you never know. There’s an awful lot of investment from all the major manufacturers now moving that technology on, improving that technology and making it more affordable.

You refer to Saturn as “solving communications problems and challenges”, what do you mean?

If you look on a list of all the major AV companies in the North West, the UK, Europe we probably don’t appear on any of them, if you look at a list of the major software providers, the results are similar. The reason for that is we do it differently. Our process is very much driven by solving communications problems, rather than selling a product, designing the right solution for the client, rather than providing the closest fit. We are not in a world where we think “what are the limitations of our software”, “what hardware is available”. Our first objective is always to ask our client, “what’s the problem?” We will establish their communications objectives, find out their challenges and problems and then we will design, specify and even manufacture a bespoke solution to solve that particular problem. The bespoke element is down to the fact that we write and own our software. A systems integrator that owns and develops its own CMS (Content Management Software) is almost unique in the industry. Our own CMS allows us to tailor, tweak or integrate the clients systems and data, ensuring we deliver the solution that they need, rather than the closest they can get. We will never install a screen without understanding the rationale behind it. There have been occasions in the past where clients have approached us requesting a specific number of screens and after consultation with ourselves, we have recommended less screens to better solve their problem. At the start of our process, our relationship with the client is built on solving the communications challenge and growing their business through communication instead of selling pieces of hardware and software. Obviously, these are important elements of the solution, but it is never where the process should start.

What’s been your most tricky/ interesting project?

In truth they all are interesting and have their challenges. A recent project for Northern Rail at Manchester Piccadilly Station could be described as tricky, but I would describe it as a classic Saturn solution. The client came to us with a problem of which was a combination of both communication and health & safety. Their objective was to better manage the flow of people in a specific area of the station (platforms 13 & 14) by optimising use of the waiting room for those platforms. There was a fundamental need to provide accurate, up to the second information relating to train arrivals and departures for these two platforms. This in turn would increase customer trust in the information, ensuring they did not go to the platform too early (and cause congestion) or too late (and miss their train). We worked with Northern Rail to use live tracking data from the trains to create a real time graphic for passengers to clearly see where their train is, if they have time to get a drink and when they should go to the platform. It’s early days for the project, but feedback so far has been hugely positive.

How has the use of digital communication positively impacted your clients?

It’s difficult for us to measure the monetary value of the returns for our customers, in part due to subjectivity, but mainly due to clients’ understandable reluctance to share the information, particularly when have such a positive impact on the bottom line. What we do know, for example, in the cinema industry, is there has been significant measurable increase in retail sales by more effective and dynamic promotion of products, with the promotion of loyalty schemes, in particular, providing a marked increase in customer repeat business. In healthcare, things are slightly different. They are not trying to generate sales or repeat business, but more focussed on trying to create a calmer, less stressful environment for both patients and visitors by ensuring information is accurate, relevant and informative. Feedback from a number of trusts has shown that in locations where digital screens were deployed, the benefits of keeping patients informed and managing their expectations, significantly decreased the number of complaints & staff related incidents.

Why your own Content Management Software?

Seven or eight years ago when the world started talking about cloud-based software and beginning to understand the need, necessity and benefits of using it, Saturn were at a crossroads. We needed to decide; would we develop a new cloud-based CMS platform, or would we resell an existing solution, of which there are a great many, from one of our competitors. After significant discussions within our organisation the answer was clear – in order to ensure we could continue to deliver our key objectives for the solutions we provide; giving the client the right solution, rather than the closest possible fit, this would only be possible by owning and developing our own software. Historically, a high percentage of the solutions we have provided are not “off-the-shelf” CMS licenses, but more about adapting the software to meet the exact customer requirement through system modification, or data integration into our clients’ systems, and then displaying the output in the most impactful way on the screens. The only way we could possibly do that, and to retain that very powerful point of differentiation in the marketplace, was to own and develop our own software. Five years on, that was and continues to be absolutely the right decision and has subsequently led us to win and retain some major clients by providing solutions that most others in the marketplace could not have delivered.

How has working with other industry partners helped Saturn grow?

We’re very fortunate at Saturn to be working with some of the world’s leading suppliers to the AV industry. Manufacturers such as Samsung & NEC and partners like Owl/Midwich have always been tremendously supportive, right from the early days when we were a new business and we needed “friends”, to today where we very much regard are suppliers as business partners, working together to grow our mutual businesses. Without those such partners I can safely say we wouldn’t be here today.

Who are Planet 6 and UVU?

In the last few years we’ve launched two new companies under the Saturn Communications Group umbrella, one being Planet 6 Media, our own in-house design agency. We have always been acutely aware of the fact that the solution we deliver is only as good as the information that’s on the screen. A lot of our clients don’t have the skills, the resource, time or the money to “feed” their solution and ensure their objectives are achieved; Planet 6 was created in order to fulfil those requirements on behalf of the customer. For example, with Odeon we create and manage all of their on screen content in their estate, we work with all of the cinema industries major brands (Coca Cola, Disney etc) to promote and manage all of their movie and retail campaigns; we work with the VW Group to promote new car launches, Arriva Group on advertising rail campaigns, and numerous NHS trusts on marketing new healthcare initiatives. Planet 6 has quickly become one of the go-to creative agencies in digital communication, an agency that not only understands design, but the application of design within a digital signage environment. Since its inception in early 2017, UVU has already grown rapidly, across a number of sectors including cinema, transport and retail. A dynamic and reactive enclosure company, UVU not only provides protection for screen-based solutions from both the elements and the public, but also complements the requirements of the chosen environment to ensure they maintain the highest aesthetic value. It’s not just function, it’s form and function. At UVU, we’re very much mindful that although the function needs to be right, it very much needs to fit in with its environment. Where UVU has had significant success has been for outdoor use, and also when there’s a need for temporary information; whether that be on a foyer, a concourse in a busy rail station to manage disruption or any information outside of the “norm”. At UVU we design and developed a range of battery-powered mobile totems to be used in such situations.

What’s the future for Saturn?

The future for Saturn will be based on two things; one will be the technology available in the market place, the second will be how we apply that technology to solve problems. I think as time has progressed we have become better and more efficient at designing the appropriate solution. From an industry point of view the main challenge going forward is being aware of what technologies are in the marketplace and being aware of what technologies are coming. This will enable us to work with our clients and for our clients, to ensure we’re incorporating those thoughts, ideas, products and services to optimise the solutions we design. From a Saturn perspective, the core of what we do is our CMS, this will continue to evolve in a way that will be dictated by our clients, we always endeavour to be a market-driven organisation, taking into account what the client needs with the technologies in the marketplace, and then marrying them together; this will always be the major motivation for all of our innovations and developments going forward.

Saturn Communications