In 25 years working in the video production business I have a fairly good number of war stories. Unfortunately for those around me a simple request can lead to someone having to hear one.
Recently a client asked if we would record an executive giving a speech. I explained that recording speeches or live presentations was outside the scope of what we do, mostly because the skill set of our crew and the equipment we have is better suited for TV commercial or digital cinema production. I recommended a great team of event videographers he could use, but since this client is a good personal friend and seemed unsure as to why I would decline the opportunity I felt compelled to tell him the real reason we steer clear of these kinds of jobs.
Like many simple video assignments, the call to record a speech or presentation is just that, a simple video assignment. Simple video assignments usually have the following traits: a limited budget, a vague purpose, short notice and very little control over the environment or circumstances. These traits often lead to mediocre video that at the very least does not represent us well. In fact, the potential for disaster is much greater on a simple video assignment than on a well-planned video project.
When pressed further as to why a video production company would decline a simple video assignment, I had no choice but to go to one of my stories. It’s a long and boring one, and for my friend, having to hear it would become the penalty and punishment for questioning my initial decision to decline the job.
About fifteen years ago our company was doing a great deal of work for a local PR firm. The PR firm’s young account executive that handled one of the firm’s major clients asked us to record a sales presentation for her client. She explained that the company CEO and VP of Sales would be presenting their equipment to prospective customers, including Purchasing and IT executives from around the country. The client asked her to find someone to video record it, and that the recording would be edited and shared with those who could not be there. With that information we quoted a videographer and an assistant to be sure it was well covered.
The account executive at the PR firm called me back and told me that her client, the Fortune 500 company that was holding the major event, did not want to pay for the assistant. She advised us that the only way the job would move forward would be if we cut the assistant from the budget and make the videographer perform the job solo. Although I advised against it, ultimately we dropped the video assistant from the quote and even discounted the cost of the videographer to fit their budget. This turned out to be a big mistake.
In an effort to be sure the job would be handled properly I drafted our best videographer, Bill, for the assignment. Bill had more than thirty-five years in video production. He was my mentor in the business, as I worked for him on a freelance basis early in my career. Bill then came to work for us after retiring from one of the largest corporations in Ohio where he had worked in corporate video since 1971. In addition to shooting numerous promotional films and corporate video projects he had probably recorded thousands of executive speeches in his career. Bill was without question the most qualified person for this assignment.
With all of Bill’s experience in shooting corporate events and executive speeches, he would make a habit of showing up extremely early, usually hours before the event started. On the day of the major company event Bill showed up at 6am. The Vice-president of Public Relations for the major company, Bob, also showed up at 6am. Bill introduces himself to Bob and they strike up a conversation as Bill starts setting up the camera. As it turns out, Bob and Bill were the same age, and had both spent their entire career working in corporate communications. They also grew up in the same area. Of the many things they had in common, they both had discovered the secret to success is showing up at 6am. Alone in these early morning hours, Bill and Bob formed a fast friendship, comparing names of people they knew in common and discussing the details of the event. Their conversation ended with Bob, the VP of PR, telling our videographer Bill to please ask if he needs anything.
Around 7:30am or so a wave of company employees come into the presentation area, including the account executive from the PR firm and Bob’s employee, Julie. Julie just graduated college and is working for Bob in the PR department at the company. She also manages the relationship with the PR firm. Julie and the account executive are both young, both on their first job out of college, and both ready to take on the world. They are also both nervous about working a high-profile event in front of the company top brass. As the CEO, VP of Sales and other high-powered executives enter the large common area everyone goes into show mode. All the company’s high tech equipment was ready for demonstration and the screens were lit up with the company logo. The first slide was cued up and ready. Our videographer Bill had put the lavalier microphones on the CEO and the VP of Sales. The prospective customers, who traveled from around the world to see this new equipment, were now entering the room. The show was starting.
The CEO welcomed the guests and thanked them for attending. He then turned the presentation over to the VP of Sales, who spoke for about twenty minutes. Suddenly he went off-script and in a surprise move asked everyone in the room to step over to another area to get a closer look at a piece of equipment that the company was about to release to the market. All the attendees got out of their seats and walked over to this new equipment. Fortunately our videographer had experienced this sort of change in script or unplanned move during a live presentation and knew what to do. Bill picked up his camera and tripod and moved across the back of the area to have the right vantage point to continue recording. The VP of Sales brings out an engineer who begins his presentation by moving about the equipment pointing out various features and technical achievements.
As the presentation goes on, Bill realizes he will soon need additional media for the camera, as the disc he was recording on was nearly full. When he moved the camera and tripod to the new location he immediately continued to record the presentation. Since he did not have an assistant to help him move the black case that contained the extra media, batteries and other support gear it was left in the corner. He looked over at the black case located near his original camera position and considered letting the camera continue to record unattended on a wide angle while he walked over and retrieved it. He took his headphones off as he contemplated the issue and made eye contact with his new friend Bob, the VP of PR, who had been standing next to him during the presentation.
Bob realized there was some concern and quietly whispered to Bill an offer to help. Bill whispered back, pointing to the black case in the back corner of the room. Upon realizing the situation the VP of Public Relations and Bill’s new friend took it upon himself to walk over to the corner, pick up the black case and bring it over to Bill. All of this while the show and tell presentation is going on, uninterrupted. Bill thanked Bob, opened the case, retrieved a blank media disc and quickly swapped it with the one in the camera. The problem had been solved, or so he thought.
The show and tell portion wrapped up and the audience went back to their seats to finish the formal presentation. From the new camera position Bill could turn and continue recording as the CEO and VP of Sales moved back to their original places on the stage and at the podium. When the presentation was over Bill started packing up the camera gear. Bob came by, thanked Bill and offered to assist him in moving the gear to his car. Bill politely declined any help and thanked Bob for the assistance and conversation. Bill maneuvered all the gear through company security, out the front door to visitor parking, loaded it up and went back to the office.
As Bill and I were sitting in an edit room at the office reviewing the footage recorded at the presentation I get a phone call from the President of the PR firm. As it turned out we had a major problem on our hands. Bob’s PR employee Julie witnessed Bob assisting Bill with the black case. She was in complete shock when she saw this happening. Apparently after the meeting Julie took the PR firm account executive into a back room and demanded to know why the VP of PR was involved in moving a case for the cameraman. She was furious. She was embarrassed. She could not believe that someone as low in the chain as the cameraman would have the nerve to ask someone at the VP level to assist him. Julie felt this reflected poorly on her and that the PR firm was responsible for bringing in this unprepared and inexperienced videographer. She went on to say that this behavior was completely out of line and unprofessional. After this discussion ended the account executive called her boss, the President of the PR firm, who then called me.
Our company had been doing a great deal of work for this PR firm for many years and I knew the President well. I could hear in her voice as she told me this story that she shared my belief that the situation was not a situation. We both employ young professionals who are intimidated by executives or who are sometimes uncomfortable working with or managing those who have decades of experience. Employing them and coaching them as they leave the protection of the college bubble and step into the work world can be fun, humorous and frustrating all at the same time. However, for the President of the PR firm the concerns raised are serious and legitimate no matter the circumstances. Regardless of her age or experience, Julie is still the PR firm’s client.
As I was listening I began to consider what my response was going to be. I hesitated to respond immediately, keeping in mind that I was hearing feedback from my customer, and the customer is always right. In response to her concerns I explained that the real problem is that the job required an assistant. When she asked me why we didn’t send an assistant I explained that the original quote included an assistant for the videographer but that her client had cut it from the budget. I also pointed out that we discounted our rate at the client’s request so they could fit the video recording into their budget. None of this really mattered, as the situation was not going to change. Nor would there be any way to provide a remedy or solution to something that wasn’t really an issue, or so I thought. In order to help the PR firm mitigate the damage, I was asked to write a letter of apology to the PR firm and to their client, the major company. In this letter I was to indicate that it was our mistake for understaffing the job by only sending one person. My friend and client, the President and owner of the PR firm was asking me to take full responsibility and blame. She felt this was necessary to save her firm’s relationship with their client.
This letter of apology, which I wrote, was going to be presented to Julie and the PR department of the major company. Ironically it would probably arrive at the same time as the video, which was absolutely spectacular. Bill had done a great job. He had managed the audio perfectly. He had followed presenters that moved around. He was able to move from the presenter to the screen or from presenter to the equipment on cue, keeping everyone in perfect focus. He even managed to change out the camera recording media disc during a short break in the action, so no part of the presentation had been missed. He had delivered a great product, the value of which was probably several times what we were charging. Video recorded during live presentations where no lighting is used and there is a bright screen on a stage is usually pretty lousy. Bill had the experience and expertise to produce good video in bad circumstances. That’s why I had sent him in the first place. Even more frustrating was that our company had produced several successful high-end promotional videos for this client through the PR firm, yet our track record of success and our good name would now be damaged by this situation.
When Bill learned that there was essentially a PR problem he was in disbelief. To us this was clearly a case of something very simple completely blown out of proportion. Julie had no idea that her boss had offered to assist. She was not there early enough to realize the rapport that Bill and Bob had developed. We both agreed, however, that the customer is always right. With that, Bill indicated that he was done. This was too much, and that while he enjoyed the work it was time to enjoy life. After nearly forty years of success in video production this is how it would end. For both of us, this was a challenging moment. Bill officially retired.
At that moment I decided that our video production company was going to steer clear of the simple video assignment. Any request to video recording meetings, presentations or any other situation where we could not properly staff the job or control the circumstances would be declined. We decided to focus completely on projects that involve shooting to a script, where there is clear purpose to the content, or where there is a great deal of planning and forethought. This didn’t mean turning down anything that didn’t have a huge budget. It’s not about money it’s about purpose. If we are going to open ourselves up to the liability that comes with any project we are going to be sure it is a project we want to be working on. We began to seek out those who would see us as consultants, advisers or partners in a project. We still take on underfunded projects as long as the client sees value in our creative input. Going forward I decided it’s not about building an empire it’s about creating great work and building our brand.
We are well-positioned in the marketplace and I have found what works for us. It has taken twenty-five years to get to this point, but we are in a position to be able to decide which jobs we should take and which jobs should be avoided. I believe success comes by providing a solution for a client request, even if the solution doesn’t involve our company. If the client sees value in what you create and believes that you are the premium provider they will understand when you decline the simple assignment and still come back when they have a project.