The Death of the AV Generalist

If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll notice that I have rarely predicted the death of any particular technology or business model. Sure, I have my ideas on where the industry is heading or which technologies may ultimately win out in the end, but I never go so far as to say this is the only technology that will survive or the only potential outcome based on all of the variables.

In fact, you will find that in the past, when people have predicted the death of certain video transport methods or of projections screens, I have been quick to lobby a counterpoint to that technology obituary.

With that, I find myself in a bit of conflict and definitely in an odd position, at least for me, in writing about the death of the AV Generalist.

AV businesses come in all different shapes and sizes and many diverse backgrounds. They range from the 5 million dollar-a-year firm with 15 employees to the 600 million dollar behemoths with thousands of employees. The history of each company varies. They come from broadcast or from telecom or from structured wiring or from security or from home theater or from content creation. Over the years, due to their client relationships, these firms added more and more AV services to provide and connect their clients’ electronic equipment as part of their larger service offering.  This resulted in a large number of firms doing what I am calling “general” AV.

You know the job. It is the conference room that needs a TV, a couple of speakers, a microphone, an audio mixer and amplifier, a speakerphone, a camera and some type of cabling in the table to connect it all together. It’s the classroom that had a drop down projector screen, an installed projector on the ceiling, an amplifier, a couple of speakers and cables to connect the teacher’s desk back to the system. In the past, there were enough of these “general” AV jobs to feed the large ecosystem of integrators.  But as always happens, the world started to change.

Two trends have gradually eroded the once fertile ground of the AV Generalist. 

The first is the trend of simplification. Today, many of the hardware components that were once needed to make a system operational have either been moved to software or consolidated into single pieces of hardware.

The second trend really is a result of the first. Companies are bringing some AV in-house. As systems become simpler to deploy, many organizations are starting to hire and utilize internal resources to deploy them. The installation that once took a week and an AV subcontractor to complete is many times now completed in a day by an IT or facilities technician working for the company itself.

Given these two trends, companies that thrive on these type of installs are clearly in trouble. The habitat they once thrived in is being rapidly destroyed meaning that it is time to find a way to evolve.

Enter specialization. 

Lest you think this is all a tale of doom and gloom, I assure you that it is not. With the death of the AV generalist comes the opportunity for the AV Specialist to excel.

Now, of course, there are specialty markets like museums, stadiums, etc. and perhaps your firm is well suited to move into that territory, but most likely, that will take some longer-term investments in building both skillsets and relationships that your company does not yet have. This is a great way to specialize but takes investment and a longer path to ROI.

For businesses that can’t make that investment or sustain that period of time, are there opportunities for a quicker path? I have a couple ideas on how these companies can specialize as well.

So how do you decide where to shift your specialization efforts and to define your company’s role in this new ecosystem?

The first place to look is in your history. 

If you came from broadcast, for example, it may be best to refocus on that heritage. This doesn’t necessarily mean retreating to a smaller pond though. Although broadcast, in this case, maybe the historic market, it means a much different thing today than it has in the past. Where broadcast may have once been limited to outfitting TV stations and trucks, today broadcast has expanded dramatically. Any church that streams its services, any school that does distance learning, or any company doing remote all-hands meetings and creating channels of internal content is now in the broadcast category. There are many intricacies in selecting cameras, lighting, camera control and extension systems, creating secure video networks, managing content, etc. that mean the company’s internal AV staff will still be looking for assistance with these types of designs, installations, and long-term support. The same could be said for access control, security, CCTV, etc.

The second place to look is in the knowledge gaps. 

I hear industry chatter all the time about audio in conference rooms. As customers move to out of the box conferencing systems installed by their own internal AV teams, audio seems to be a place that suffers. The in-house team is great at getting everything installed and connected, but perhaps they don’t know enough about the microphone and speaker selection and placement, or DSP programming, or acoustics, etc. Here is an opportunity to shift the value proposition. Concede the installation of the video equipment and PC running the software-based codec, and instead become conference audio specialists.  Position yourself in that gap as the team that helps them by making sure everything sounds as good as possible as opposed to being the guys who hang TVs and speakers.  Take cues from the market to determine where these gaps lie and position your firm as specialists to fill these gaps based on your skillsets.

The third place to look is efficiencies and logistics. 

For those of you who have been thinking I’m nuts, and companies still need help with the simplified systems of today, especially for large rollouts, this is for you. Companies may very well need this help, but in order to get this type of work, you will need to be a specialist in logistics or supply chain. Your unique value may be that you are a specialist in labor laws and import practices. For integrators doing government work, specialize in navigating the contract vehicles necessary to meet the complicated labor and equipment requirements. For managed service companies, specialize in reporting and monitoring of systems to consistently meet the required SLAs.

If specializing still doesn’t seem like something within your wheelhouse, it seems there may, in fact, be one more option.

Work directly for your former client’s in-house AV department. 

As companies bring general AV in-house, they will need people to design, implement and support these AV systems.  The market has already shown over the years that these companies typically recruit from their current subcontractor pools. I know many people in Fortune 500 companies that have hired former integrator project managers to come run their in-house AV, and I only see this trend continuing as more and more companies move towards having basic AV support as part of their business structure.

As you can see, there are several ways to leverage your business’ legacy, skillsets and personnel to turn the corner from AV Generalist to AV Specialist or to continue business as usual, albeit wearing a new company t-shirt. The only strategy that is sure to fail is to put your head down and double down on work that is surely starting to decline.

Am I wrong? Is the AV Generalist alive and well?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.