Dealerscope 2020 Hall of Fame: Tom Campbell, Video and Audio Center
As the chief technologist and corporate director for California-based experiential retailer Video and Audio Center, Dealerscope 2020 Hall of Fame honoree Tom Campbell occupies a unique and distinguished position as an influencer and trend-shaper in the consumer technology world.
The inception of his storied career stems from adolescence, when the yearning to be a broadcaster took hold at the age of 12. “I built my own little radio station with a 10-milliwatt AM transmitter,” he tells Dealerscope. “You’d hear the signal about two blocks away.” His enthusiasm soon led him to lobby the local St. Louis, Mo., station, KATZ, for air time, where, impressed with his interest and his knack for voice delivery, “they finally let me give the call letters during the breaks on weekends.”
Fast-forward to a stint in the Air Force, where Campbell studied advanced electronics and took college courses – all of which filled in the background in engineering and technology that helped him to evolve from part-time weekend disc jockey to full-fledged radio show host.
Campbell gained both experience and more and more broadcasting equity with moves to stations in different cities. “It’s like being a baseball player,” he reflects. “As you become successful, and gain followings, other stations make offers and you go to larger markets.”
He also specialized in on-air commercials for CE retailers like Matthews TV and Stereo City in San Francisco. Interviews were part of his broad portfolio of talents, too, and while at Station KYA there in the late ’60s, he conducted a live, long-distance conversation with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Montreal “bed-in for peace” event.
There, he had over 50 percent of the youth audience, and also did a weekend youth talk show. “On that show, we even had [psychologist and LSD therapy proponent] Timothy Leary and Jeff Donfeld from the White House do a debate. High school newspaper editors wrote editorials on it and the one selected as the best got a $10,000 scholarship from my sponsor, Coca-Cola. KYA was a big turning point for me, a major market, and that’s how my involvement with the White House began.”
Bud Wilkinson, the former football coach who served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in the early ’60s and then as an advisor to President Nixon, sought Campbell’s help to address the issues of the time with drugs and youth, which resulted in Campbell’s formation of a Youth Advisory Committee for the White House, for which he enlisted the counsel of top U.S. disc jockeys in eight key markets.
Since then, Campbell has served as a White House technology adviser for numerous administrations of both parties, and regularly consults on both political conventions; “I’m not seen as a political person, but rather as a technologist,” he says. Among his many honors are a Presidential Distinguished Service Award, given by President Bush for dedicated service to the White House and to the Executive Office of the President following the 9/11 attacks, and a CTA Hall of Fame Award in 2015, acknowledged by President Clinton in a congratulatory letter citing Campbell’s leadership and contributions to the consumer technology industry. He also received a proclamation read on the floor of the Senate for his role in introducing the first HDTVs to the market.
Shaping the Retail Landscape
In the ’80s, Campbell extended his advisory skills once again to CE retailers, teaming up with Dow Stereo’s president, Mike Romagnolo, until Dow’s sale to Tweeter. He then moved to a corporate director’s spot at CompUSA and to a director’s position at Ken Crane’s, with involvement in overall marketing and company direction.
For the past seven years, he has applied this same expertise to his role as chief technologist and corporate director for Video and Audio Center.
Campbell cites multiple influences on his career in the consumer technology world; among them are the late Joe Clayton of RCA and DISH, whom he describes a “a real ‘people’ person,” Gary Shapiro, CTA president and CEO, Michael Dunn of 20th Century Fox, Joseph and Mayer Akhtarzad, Video and Audio Center’s co-owners, who he says have been “inspirations in independent retailing and its evolution,” and many others.
“I’ve enjoyed introducing new technologies together with retailers and manufacturers,” Campbell says. What first inspired him to showcase CE product introductions at CE retailers, he adds, was a Nikon camera introduction he once witnessed at a Macy’s. “The place was packed.” Since then, he has counseled each retailer with whom he has worked to partner closely with vendors in spotlighting seminal product introductions with big, formal events tailored to generate media coverage and buzz.
“Our manufacturer relationships couldn’t be better. When there’s a new product, we’re there – showing the first 4K OLED by LG and the first 8K in the world for Samsung. We also recently introduced Sony’s Master Series 8K OLED TVs. When we do an event, the world gets to see the consumer excitement and the acceptance of the new technology. We show a $20,000 TV and sell eight or 10 the first night. People whip out their credit cards.”
It’s textbook high-touch retailing, and few do it better.
Campbell freely opines about the business’s future. “Retail is not dead; it’s evolving, and those who don’t evolve won’t survive. More and more ecommerce companies are opening up storefronts, because consumers still want to go where they can see, touch and validate their purchase in person. Our challenge is to be sure that once you come into a Video and Audio Center store, we overcome any objections – free setup and same-day delivery, if desired, and we even pay sales tax on many products. Why should consumers go back and buy online? We offer a better alternative. Online cannot offer seeing, feeling, touching, validating. People love that.
“People are busier and busier, and while others focus on discretionary spending – and there’s tremendous competition for that – I focus on discretionary time. Our stores are destinations, and our goal is to make it time well spent, and a pleasant experience for the consumer. Online can’t match that.”
Campbell is a strong proponent of a unified, double-barreled presentation of both hardware and software. “For the introduction of the first Samsung 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player, we showed and sold 20th Century Fox’s The Martian and had the studio there as well as the manufacturer. We work closely with content providers – that’s what sells the product. In our business, it’s content, content, content. Communication between our industry and the content industry is important – when we are in synch and support each other, it pays off.
“And now, look at streaming,” he continues. “It’s huge. If the consumer didn’t have the hardware technology, where would that be? It’s about the marriage between content and the hardware providers and the retailers.
“Competition is essential; it gets people interested in CE. But one company alone cannot support the whole category. And when we see stores folding up, it concerns me. We want the industry to survive. So we do try to give back to the industry.”
Campbell also believes in paying his experience forward, teaching branding and marketing as an adjunct faculty member of the Georgetown University Technology Management Graduate Program.
In musing about his time in retailing, Campbell is of the view that “it’s really all about relationships. For me, it’s been a wonderful number of years. I’ve been very fortunate. And I’m still inspired.”