Electric Storm

The electronic approach is becoming increasingly popular in business presentations, making clients more independent. Will this lead to production companies becoming redundant? asks Wendy Smith

The days of the big brash theatrical live event are past their sell-by date when it comes to getting the business message across to the desired audience. Nowadays companies prefer a more technological approach to their presentations. Gone are the flashing lights, dancing girls and dry ice – in have come huge screens and electronic wizardry and finely-tuned messaging.

Powerpoint has a lot to answer for. As the electronic presentation comes into its own, so we are led to believe, more corporate clients are getting clever and creating their own ready-made presentations with in-house computer equipment.

How is this development affecting the production companies? Are they sitting back and watching their business being snapped up by business presentation providers, or is there room for the production experts for a little while longer?

The past five years have seen a comprehensive shift in the balance of customers for equipment rental organisation Show Presentation Services. Five years ago the company’s business was nearly all production companies. Today, managing director Robin Coles describes it as “a straight split” between production companies and end users.

“It’s quite simple really. It’s a factor of a maturing market,” explains Cole. “When electronic presentations first arrived, they were seen as a black art and the end users would turn to the professionals. But with the arrival of Powerpoint, people are rightly or wrongly starting to devise the presentation process themselves. The difference is that electronic equipment has made putting a presentation together simpler, and it is accessible to everyone.”

The market, claims Coles, is more sophisticated and companies are “event aware”. “Ten years ago a company, such as Microsoft, wouldn’t have had the in-house knowledge to self-drive anything, but now it takes much more control.”

Sharn White, marketing manager for equipment hire company Blitz, agrees with Coles that more end users are going directly to suppliers, but the majority of the work is still with the production companies. “We find that if, say, a corporate client is going direct to the supplier, they are usually looking at smaller systems for smaller events.”

White maintains that the big live event is still being staged, but with a different emphasis. “We recently did a show for a major bank but this time it was all about big screens and not dancing girls. People want to impress with technology rather than anything else.”

Lois Jacobs, chairman of event company Caribina, feels that Powerpoint has indeed been advantageous as it has cut out some of the tedium of her company’s work. “Before, we would have to produce endless storyboards for the client for the presentation aspect of the event. Now they can make up their own storyboards and just give us the disk, which frees us to concentrate on fancier backgrounds and making the whole thing more professional.”

Jacobs concedes that the electronic presentation may have come into its own, but it is neither replacing live events nor putting companies like Caribina out of business: “Live events are an important forum and end users are still coming to us as the professionals for help.”

Empowering themselves

While end users are getting to grips with Powerpoint and empowering themselves, there is other technology they have yet to master. That leaves the field wide open for outsourcing and an army of production companies to boot.

“Of course a number of clients are doing their own work now,” concedes Nick Lamb, managing director of Crown Business Com munications. “But the speed of development of the Internet has meant a growth in lots of other services which still need outsourcing to people such as us.”

According to Clearwater Communications managing director Andrew Hillary, the way end users spend their budgets has been influenced by the growing choice of communications available to them: “There are many communication techniques for companies to choose from, giving credence to the idea that companies can convey and manipulate their own images and therefore control their own messages. But the issue is whether they are any good at it. Just because they have Powerpoint doesn’t mean they are good with it.”

Hillary doesn’t believe the days of the production company are over. “We just provide the thinking and tell the end user how to do it properly.”

Size of the company and complexity of the business presentation will also have an impact on the amount of outsourcing and style of working. Quite simply, the end user will often not be large enough to maintain the necessary technological resources or carry the people skills in-house. While a straightforward Powerpoint presentation can possibly be done in-house, it is a different story when the going gets technical and of course expensive.

Alwena Hall, operations director at Perspectives – the marketing communications agency recently bought by WPP Group, has seen the business presentation shift from the A3 flip-over chart to the electronic presentation over the past year. “The way we work with clients has also changed enormously,” she says. “It is far more of a working partnership, with the clients being the subject matter experts and us the communications experts.”

As far as Hall is concerned, clients still need input from companies, such as Perspectives. “They are often busy and just don’t have the technological or human resources in-house; we act as that extra department for them to dip in and out of.”

Hall also adds a word of caution about the ubiquitous Powerpoint, which often comes with its own complications.

“Powerpoint is becoming widespread but it can be incredibly unstable as a presentation tool and can often have lots of bugs. Often it still takes technological expertise to make sure that, say, the presentation is small enough to fit on the laptop.”

Caribina’s Jacobs echoes these sentiments. “Sometimes the executive making the presentation will put too much into the presentation and the audience won’t be able to read it. Or they can get so obsessed with working the presentation that they lose sight as to why they are there in the first place.”

Rosemary Dodd, account director at events company Pres.Co, also notes a change in the way clients will use a production company: “We don’t just produce presentations, today’s clients come to us also for added value services, such as advice and consultancy.”

Like Lamb, Dodd cites the speed of technological developments and required skills as the cause. “Things have moved on. People can do far more for themselves but, as the technology is moving so fast, they won’t have a 3D animated programme, for example, or an in-house programmer to hand. That kind of skill and equipment will need to be outsourced. They can’t afford to keep those skills on staff.”

Dangers of investment

Dodd draws an analogy between buying a TV for your sitting room and presentation equipment for the office – both can be expensively out of date within months. “It is quite dangerous to invest in technology for a company. It is our job to invest in the state-of-the-art equipment.”

One company large enough to have its own in-house production team is Maritz Inc. With annual income of more than $2bn (&£1.25bn), Maritz Inc is ranked seventh among the world’s top 50 market research companies. Its London office has its own in-house new media department headed by Phil Atkins, which is used a lot for Maritz’s own company pitches.

“It depends on how we perceive the value of the pitch as to how much we push the boat out for a presentation,” says Atkins. “We recently spent as much as &£25,000 on the presentation for a pitch – but we got the job so it was worth it.”

Even with these resources and budgets, Atkins and his department still find the need to outsource. “It depends on the time-line,” he says. But the main reasons why the company invests so heavily in its own production resources is for immediacy and security, particularly when pitching.

“We can afford to do this ourselves and the costs get swallowed up as a marketing expense,” says Atkins. “But it’s a different story if you are, say, a small PR company.”

So the message is clear. Powerpoint will continue to be a feature in electronic presentations of growing sophistication, and clients will become more adept at producing these presentations themselves. But while the costs of buying the equipment and keeping up with the skills continues to change at a gallop rather than a trot. It’s unlikely that end users will be putting the real production experts out of a job: for the moment, at least.

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