The AV Interview: Peter Hunt, Hewshott International
Peter Lloyd, January 31, 2013
If AV professionals can make a stronger case for their skills then they might be able to avoid being crushed by the IT sector. But the industry is going to have to prove its worth, as Peter Lloyd reports.
“We have to jump on to the IT steamroller and help steer it, rather than just letting it roll over us so that AV is squashed,” says Peter Hunt, ceo of international consultancy, Hewshott International.
Having set up Hewshott in the UK just 10 years ago, Hunt is now back in his adopted Perth, Western Australia, where he’s overseeing Hewshott offshoots in the Far East and Australasia. But he’s also distancing himself from the fashionable, if gloomy, view that AV is being flattened by IT.
IT is of course essential to AV, just as it’s essential to running an office or making a television programme.
But Hunt has come to believe that AV should be seen as an IT client, not a subset of it: “It’s now hard to imagine two items of AV equipment not ‘talking’ to each other through IT networks, but from an AV perspective the IT network and the connectivity and inter-connectivity within it is a facilitator, a vehicle to allow AV equipment to communicate – it is not core AV.”
Both IT-based manufacturers and distributors and their consumer electronics (CE) counterparts are increasingly focusing on the meeting rooms and facilities that used to be a purely AV preserve, and their presence has had a less than welcome influence (to resellers, if not users) on product pricing and margins. So it’s a good time to re-state what AV is all about, and what it delivers for the user.
“Core AV,” says Hunt, “is the application of technology in an architectural space or a space in which you are interacting with peoples’ senses – what they see and what they hear.
“The extent of IT’s input into this scenario is as a service provider delivering the sound and the pictures. The clever part about AV that turns it from average to excellent is how it sounds, how it is displayed, what it looks like and the atmosphere that it creates.
“AV is a discipline in its own right, and good AV is not simple – it can’t be designed on paper and implemented without an understanding of what makes AV work – the lighting, the acoustics, the décor and the furniture. The sightlines, the ambient light, the projector brightness and contrast, the choice and size of the screen, the placement of microphones – all these elements have a huge number of variables attached and they directly affect the user experience,” he says.
“The skill in AV lies in bringing a broad level of understanding to the space and taking a view on whether the proposals are acceptable, realistic and will work for the users.”
Put another way, it’s still an analogue experience rather than a digital one. “It’s how the AV in a space is used, not how it works that’s important to customers and users,” Hunt adds. “It’s the user experience that’s important. We are simply facilitators in ensuring that the users come out of their AV experience (which is facilitated by IT) happy, productive and completely unaware of the complexity and consideration that has gone into making their use of the AV system seamless and transparent.”
But having said all this, the IT influence on areas such as corporate procurement can’t be ignored: “The impact of IT on AV is irreversible, and it will penetrate more into this space,” says Hunt.
There are two major elements Hunt thinks we will see change in the next few years. One is the increased use of core IT products working with devices such as control systems, switchers and DSP and being sold as a software-only solution. This will drive the second change where AV integrators earn the majority of their revenue from installation and engineering services.
There are plenty of instances to suggest this is happening already, with companies (and residential users) supplying the kit they have bought from commodity sources and the installers/integrators being paid to connect it up.
And there has also been a migration from facilities management and CRES (corporate real estate) departments to IT and its procurement models. Some of these changes are irreversible, and there are arguments for allowing simple AV facilities – the kind where the user just plugs in a laptop in order to show their presentation on a flat screen or projector – to be commoditised, leaving ‘core AV’ skills to be used in more challenging, demanding bespoke or experiential applications.
It is these areas in which the AV designers have to control multiple devices and manage the content, which will remain the most demanding.
Pricing and procurement
“There is always going to be a market for design and build, a market where the end users are smaller firms and the value added reseller can sell goods at decent margins plus sell its engineering and design time and generate a good income,” says Hunt.
“But the value of those jobs is going to reduce over time. The bigger AV contracts will be procured in the same way as IT, because this is who is controlling the space. We are also going to see distributors being increasingly targeted by end users, and others who want to buy products direct from them.
“Consultancy becomes more important in complex and bespoke spaces. Letting the procurement guys loose out in the market sourcing as cheaply as they can is fine as long as the design is done properly and scoped right. If the procurement model is not handled carefully and followed properly, the desire to reduce cost will backfire spectacularly.”
Those designs, Hunt adds, will need to be very detailed “so, as much as it saddens me to say, the integrator will become an engineering resource who turns up and everything is there for them – they just have to unbox it, install and link it together.”
Raising AV’s profile
It’s a vision of the future that some may find unpalatable, but it’s hard to argue with. However, it doesn’t answer the key question – how are AV companies (and/or consultants) going to earn the right to grab the wheel in the steamroller’s cab?
The first need, Hunt argues, is for the role of AV to be increased in profile, more professionally recognised – which means much more attention being paid to the kinds of certification and qualification which the IT sector is so awash with:
“Every large industry where money is being spent and which has an impact on peoples’ lives is governed by either formal qualifications or recognised standards. Despite the introduction of CTS and some of the manufacturers’ training courses we are just scratching the surface of where we need to be to come close to holding the sort of weight that is in IT, such as Cisco and Microsoft accreditation and the like.
“The intelligence is not just in the box but in the person who programs it and makes it work. The skill is in selecting the right person to do that work, and they can only do this if they are suitably qualified and certified,” he says.
“There is too ready a propensity for people in the AV industry to stick their hands up and say ‘I can do that’. Few really know whether or not they can. Sometimes it is too late by the time people find out they can’t do it.”
Subjectivity is also an issue, Hunt adds: “There is no benchmarking of skills and ability, so most AV companies are trying to capture business by becoming cheaper and cheaper.”
Instead of doing this, they should be “increasing the market’s perception of AV by employing expert sound, video and graphics people, paying them well and qualifying them well. This way, they can command a higher rate for their services because they have a tangible value, a skill that separates them.”
At the moment, he adds, “the problem is that you can get two or three AV guys for the same day rate as one IT guy – AV is perceived as not having the same ‘weight’ as IT, so it should be cheaper.
Controversial as ever, Hunt is frustrated about the quality of much AV sector training, pointing out that “too many manufacturers and distributors are providing free training courses and seminars just to get as many people as possible familiar with their product set: “Attending one of these courses doesn’t guarantee the participants know what they are talking about. One can go and sit there for two days and spend the whole time on their mobile looking at emails, but still walk out with a certificate.”
Learning from others
AV, Hunt says, should take a leaf (or several) out of the broadcast industry book: “When an AV project doesn’t look or sound very good very few people are equipped to analyse it. Only people who have been in the industry a long time who know when it’s wrong and why, can put their finger on the problem.
“In broadcast, you can’t touch a camera or sit in front of a control desk without having gone through formal training and certification procedures.”
Partly as a result, broadcast enjoys a different, more ‘purist’ relationship with IT, says Hunt: “The broadcast guys have ring-fenced themselves, saying to IT ‘you don’t know how to make programmes or mix sound, but we will use your high-speed links and RAID arrays’. I don’t think we are being as purist as we could be and should be about our area of work. We need to take it up a gear.”
However, it’s going to take more than benchmarking, qualifications and making a noise about individuals’ expertise to do that, and Hunt acknowledges that to be really successful and appreciated AV has to demonstrate its value to client organisations: “The most important thing we have to do is realise that AV systems are there to support our clients in getting their businesses to use AV as they do their PC and their mobile. Our role is to ensure they use technology in a way that enhances the way they work.
“The people coming into large organisations are increasingly IT and AV savvy and they are used to being able to plug stuff together and get it working – so we need to focus on clients’ needs as well as on the engineering skillset.
“There’s a massive wealth of skills and expertise in the AV industry, and it’s high time the industry stood out of the shadow of IT and started to reclaim some of the magic and creativity that differentiates us. We may not be able to fully steer the steamroller, but we can put one hand on the wheel.”
Re-named as Hewshott Associates and then Hewshott International, the Hewshott Media consultancy – launched in 2002 – has grown into a business that now operates in seven countries and employs 30 people.
It launched its first Far East office in 2005, and in 2007 added acoustics consultancy in Singapore and achieved ISO9001 certification. It now operates in the UK and Europe, Australasia and the Far East, working on projects which range from globally-standardised AV for significant Fortune 500 companies to its latest landmark opening – digital signage systems in the Perth Arena – which uses both conventional screens and wifi designed to provide live information to users’ tablets and phones within the venue.
In terms of markets, says Hunt: “Asia has a different style of doing business and is still probably two or so years behind Europe. India is another two or three years behind. Business in Australia is closer to the European model, although we are now seeing a shift away from architects running projects to project managers.
In terms of technology, Asia and India are as up to date as the rest of the world, just getting quality workmanship remains challenging”
One of consultants’ most important roles in international markets, he says, is “to ensure consistency of delivery and quality assurance. You have to take ownership of clients’ problems around the world and make sure that work is done properly and to the standards the client wants.”