A master’s in AV?

Pure AV’s Alan Marshall has been involved in audiovisual technology for over 25 years. From 35mm slides to MicroTiles he’s worked with it all but he’s never won an InAVation Award before. However that changed this year when Pure AV picked up a project award and Alan received Project Manager / Consultant of the Year.

It was a particular pleasure to present Alan Marshall with his award for Project Manager /Consultant of the Year, not just because he was a thoroughly deserving winner on this occasion but also because he’s genuinely passionate about the audiovisual industry as a whole.
Having been in it almost since “the beginning” he’s also in a position to give a great insight into how things have changed since he got started in AV.
“It was 1985 I came into this industry, I was working as an office equipment sales manager for Unilever, and the division I was working in was being sold on as it wasn’t a core business. I was given the option of moving to Oxfordshire, or taking redundancy.
“We didn’t particularly want to move at the time, so I was looking around and a job came up at Mediatech. I joined the company as general manager for their northern business based in Manchester.
“When I joined Mediatech, it was at the very start of the computer graphics era. We took on a product called Starburst from AVL, and no one in the company knew anything about it. In my previous role with Unilever I’d had a number of skirmishes with computers in the very early days, and so I got involved in Starburst and selling computer graphics equipment.
And what was Starburst? “Well, it was probably the very first professional computer graphics system. You drew on a computer screen and there was a 35mm film printer attached to it, and what you’d drawn on the screen came out as a 35mm slide.
“I guess it was a fore-runner of PowerPoint really. It was an easy way to produce business presentations, and at the time 35mm projection was king. “Essentially I took that product under my wing and sold a lot of it, but having charge of that division I learned a great deal about the rest of the technology around at the time.
“Presentation systems were based on video and 35mm slides. There was a lot of video production equipment, large screen video monitors, and multi-image 35mm slide systems. We were selling rigs of up to 36 projectors that all flashed on and off and brought in bits of images and animations. They were all computer controlled by AVL equipment. This kind of thing was sold into auditoriums and business facilities.
“Business presentations made use of dissolved pairs as a minimum, you were dissolving from one image to another on a pair of projectors to create a transition between slides.”
That’s not a million miles from how a presentation still works today, just with one less projector.
“Five years later, in 1990, I ran a management buyout from the Mediatech holding company and formed Avant Garde presentation consultants, based in Manchester. I ran that for ten years very successfully until we were hit with a very large bad debt. It badly damaged our credit rating. We tried to trade our way out of the trouble but eventually wound up the business.
“At the time the business failed, one of our customers was the TSK group, and they took the core of Avant Garde into the company and formed the audiovisual division of TSK, which I ran for them for ten years until May 2009 when TSK sold the business to Asysco (now Pro AV).”
Alan elected not to stay, and joined Pure AV in 2009 to continue his consulting work.
“In about 1995 an ex-colleague of mine from Mediatech recommended me to the Radisson Hotel Group and I started doing consultancy for them. I did about seven or eight hotels, and that is where it began.”
Alan’s consulting work has always been from within an AV company, not as part of a consultancy firm or for himself. A relatively unusual approach to the discipline, and not always an easy one as there will always be people who view it as incompatible with impartiality.
“There are people who say you can’t run with the hare and the hounds, but in my view I have done it successfully and with a measure of integrity for 15 years. Independence is a key factor in consultancy.”
But isn’t there a conflict at work between the business interests of the sales and consultancy? 
“It’s never been a problem for me. I sell, and I also consult, but I don’t sell while I’m consulting. I would defy anyone to challenge anything that goes into a consultancy document from me that would advantage my employer, other than the fact that the client might be impressed with what I do and sees that as a positive reflection on Pure AV.”
I wondered how the systems Alan has been involved in designing in the past differ from those of today. “Well, our first big contract as Avant Garde was for ICL – we fitted out their London, Finchley Square office. For us that was a huge job, it was about £100,000 worth of business then. In it’s day it was equivalent to what we’re doing now. There were computer inputs, video inputs, audio, rear projection system. There was very little different in concept to what we’re doing now. Obviously the technology is different, and the resolutions are higher but the idea remains the same.”
And what about systems integration? “That was going on then as well. I went over to AMX in Dallas in 1990 and I spent a week being trained on their kit. Before even Accent was around there was a basic control system. It gave you centralised control via IR, relays and logic inputs and outputs. When I was at Mediatech we were the first people I think in the UK to deal with AMX.”
“In terms of the technology changes it has to be improvements in projection brightness and contrast, which make projection usable now. In the early days it really wasn’t. It was all we had so we had to use it, but you were straining to see what was going on. Now, as long the budget’s there you can do what you want.
“In terms of the wider industry I think we can approach things from a much more scientific point of view these days. If you go back 20-odd years it was a question of putting your finger in the air and seeing which way the wind was blowing as to what you put in. It was all about experience or gut feel rather than about calculation.
“We didn’t know about band-width or what different signals are made up of. Of course there were guys in universities who knew that, but the AV industry outside was really flying by the seat of its pants. We didn’t have the training available that we do now. 
However, Marshall is still not convinced by the level the industry is at now. He’s one of very few people in the UK that hold InfoComm’s CTS-D qualification. It’s a demanding qualification to achieve, providing a rigorous test of knowledge. That part is fine, but in Alan’s view the difficulty is that it’s just not widely known about outside of audiovisual circles.
 “People don’t know where to position it in terms of other knowledge levels. One of the things that guts me about this industry is that we do ourselves no favours in terms of having a professional status in the wider employment world. We’re not seen as equivalent to architects or M&E guys or whatever. There are a lot of people in our industry who should be seen at that level and are not.” I asked if that’s because you can’t go to university and get a master’s degree in AV?
“I think it is yes. That’s a major issue. Despite the fact that there are buildings being put up with the express purpose of being used for audiovisual presentations we remain the poor relation in the chain. We’re brought in late into the process, we don’t get the chance to design rooms properly. In many AV rooms there are so many distractions and hang-ups and poor performance factors that detract from getting the message across in such spaces. That would not be acceptable in many other walks of life in the design process. We’re not allowed to design for purpose.
“I think part of the problem is that audiovisual cuts across so many different areas of science. Physics, electronics and even psychology are key elements of an audiovisual system design.”
The other problem, in Alan’s view, is that there’s no aspiration into the audiovisual industry.
“Until we can get a professional level, and the remuneration that comes with that level, people will not aspire to join the industry. People will just fall into it and stay there for the rest of their lives, which is what happens now.
“For example, I was talking to an accountant the other day, and his basic level of fee for his job is £200 per hour. Now I would say that audiovisual professionals need to know a wider range of topics to a similar level that an accountant does, but they earn a third as much as that if they are very lucky.
“The view I hold at the moment is that we won’t achieve that professional level until we divorce the services from the hardware. You don’t see architects making money from selling bricks. At the moment, most AV companies are both architect and builder, except we call it designer and installer.”

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