by John A. Cook CTS, Vice President, The Sextant Group

The field of Audiovisual Consulting was created in the mid-1960’s by Hubert Wilke.

Craig Park, now a Principal in our Omaha office, was one of Hubert’s early employees. I never had the privilege of meeting Hubert, but Craig tells me that Hubert’s vision focused on how unbiased technical consulting, combined with good architecture, could facilitate the creation of effective presentation spaces.

Since then, AV Consultants have continued with the “unbiased” portion of that vision, realizing that true independence delivers significant benefits to Architects and Owners, which is why many such firms will describe themselves as being “fiercely independent” or similar.

A Declaration of Independence, according to the AV Industry

InfoComm is the leading trade association for the audiovisual industry and runs a number of trade shows internationally. The North America show draws over 30,000 attendees annually, so this is THE group within AV. InfoComm also has a number of subgroups called “Councils” to serve various constituent groups – Manufacturers Council, Technology Managers Council, Systems Integration Leadership Council and so on.

The council we belong to is the Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technology (ICAT) Council. (This is pronounced “eye-cat” and named well before there was an i-Everything.) The oath to join ICAT is quite clear:

“My firm derives no revenue from the manufacture, sale or installation of any product, if such association could jeopardize, tend to jeopardize or give the impression of jeopardizing the ability to render an independent, unbiased decision regarding product specifications or related matters. Further, the firm has not ongoing exclusive affiliation with any group that provides services or installs audiovisual, sound or video systems where that affiliation could reflect an inability to make unbiased decisions or recommendations regarding the services of that group.“

While not prose worthy of Thomas Jefferson, the declaration of independence is clear: firms that cannot sign that pledge are not considered to be “consultants” by the industry.

This is why I have been bothered several times recently from:
• A furniture reseller claiming to be a “Technology Consultant.”
• A home theater installation firm offering “AV Consulting” services
• An AV Systems Integrator and installation company who created a “wing” of their firm to be “agnostic consultants”

The AV industry, which these firms are a part of, does not consider them to be consultants. They know this, but they continue to position themselves as something that they are not. This bothers me.

The Large Print Giveth and the Small Print Taketh Away…

Some Owners and Architects are bothered by this too and include a definition of independence as language in the fine print of contracts – but many do not. Unfortunately, other Owners and Architects think they are protecting themselves by simply not allowing the same “firm” that designs and specifies the systems to also bid on supplying and installing the systems.

But the Owner is not receiving unbiased counsel when some firms are designers on Monday and installers on Tuesday, through a simple name change or a “wing” of the same firm or whatever legal gymnastics they want to use. And, if the installation firm is not authorized to sell and install items from a certain manufacturer, what are the chances that those products will get a fair evaluation and consideration for your project?

Further, do not believe claims that a firm is “agnostic” and authorized to sell any product from any manufacturer – that is simply not true, as many manufacturers require specialized training, certifications, volume purchase level and so on. (In fact, some manufacturers have recently reduced the number of resellers, preferring to focus resources on a smaller number of dealers.) This may be true of a very small handful of large AV integration firms with hundreds of employees, but those firms tend to be prudent enough not to call themselves independent consultants.

Worse yet, some Owners and Architects assume that a firm offering “consulting” services in the AV field do so from an unbiased perspective and are not resellers of equipment.

And Here Is Where My Rant Starts…

I am not saying that the business model of truly independent consulting is the only viable business model. I was in the AV systems integration business for 13 years – and loved it. I made great friends, learned a ton and made more money as a systems integrator than as a consultant. (If anyone thinks there is more money to be made doing AV consulting than design/build, I suggest that you call my wife. She will be quite happy to set you straight on that one!)

So I know that AV systems integrator, rep, reseller, and design/build contractor are all worthwhile and valuable roles to play. These people have plenty to contribute to the industry, and we all benefit from their participation. I wish them well, truly.

But I feel strongly that firms should be honest and upfront about their positioning in the marketplace.

Some companies make $5,000 profit if they recommend and sell Product A or $10,000 profit for Product B (even with the same selling price to the Owner!). They sign contracts with specific manufacturers to represent their products, commit to certain product sales volumes, benefit from achieving certain sales goals, receive spiffs for selling specific products, and even occasionally get compensated for recommending certain products even if the products are eventually sold by others (that is a new one!). All those can be part of the gig as a systems integrator.

If some of these are true of your firm, then celebrate it. Be proud of it. Do it well. Be best in your market at it.

But do not call yourself an independent consultant (or an agnostic consultant or some other marketing term you fabricate). I believe – and the AV industry agrees with me – it is impossible for you to provide unbiased counsel in the same manner as firms who do not have conflicting incentives. I have 13 years wearing one hat, and 13 years wearing the other hat. Both are comfortable. Fit great. But they cannot be worn at the same time.

I promise to settle down now… but don’t get me started about firms who skirt the rules of MBE/WBE participation in order to qualify for more opportunities… but that is a rant for another day; to be continued… (And if you are interested in Craig Park’s thoughts on this topic, see his rant. And tell him to get back on the Zoloft.)

Outside of the office, I am an occasional practitioner of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu. At the office, I am glad to not practice Linguistic Ju-Jitsu in explaining our firm. I am happier to be like Popeye … I yam what I yam.


About the Author
John A. Cook CTS is a Vice President for The Sextant Group.