And What do YOU do for a Living?
By the time of the publication above, even a magazine with “Audio-Visual” in its name knew that those it catered to had an inflated sense of themselves. The 1981 Media All-Stars…. We weren’t in “audio-visual”; we were in multimedia, or film, or media, or communications, or….. ANYTHING but audio-visual.
After, all “a-v” meant those geeks in school who knew how to set up 16mm Bell & Howell Film-o-Sound projectors, who knew how to use the slide projector’s zoom lens, or who got extra credit for advancing the filmstrip every time it went “ping”. What we were doing for a living, despite using many of these same tools, was different… it was…. it was….
Actually, none of us knew. Even at the height of our careers, the majority of those in the picture above didn’t quite know what they did for a living — at least they had a hard time putting it in a sentence. It had something to do with slide shows, but some produced big ones with live casts, some did thoughtful two projector documentaries, some had moved on to film, some were technical wizards, some were writers, and all of them had trouble at cocktail parties when someone asked, “What do you do for a living?”
“I’ll take one of those — — things that you do.”
It was one thing if your friends or parents couldn’t explain what you did, but the real laugh to me was that our clients didn’t have a clue either. They just knew it worked.
An early customer of ours, Mike Krawczyk of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, called our stuff “slide talks”. Another, Joe Caruso, of the Milwaukee County Transit System, called them slide-films. Referring to the technical end, client Martin Panning of RipSteel termed our stuff “spaghetti”, since he had to drag projectors and cables around to show his show.
Whatever it was, we liked what we did. Our stuff had scripts, soundtracks, and pictures, and it was all timed together. Audiences laughed, cried, or snored. But it was usually in a movie-like setting — a darkened room.
Although text slides and speaker support type slides were a big part of many people’s businesses, that was not our original intent when we began. Our original “brochure”, called the SLI “Prospectus”, promoted the story-telling strengths of slides dissolving to music and specifically touted our “exclusive” twin-dissolve process.
After we got a few shows under our belt (we called ’em “shows”; that seemed to give them some heft), we realized we had developed a few rules. These rules helped our work look like something more than two projectors, a dissolve, and a Wollensak cassette deck:
- No vertical slides. We never wanted to break the theatrical illusion of film.
- Heavy-duty soundtracks. Sound effects, interviews, and music (often music we would never listen to ourselves) added perceived value to the package.
- Constant emotional and pacing changes, dictated by the music. A new concept was always heralded by new music.
- Narration fit for Ed McMahon. Tight scripts, few words, incomplete sentences. (Our scripts rarely were received well unless read out loud to the client).
- In-camera tricks that mirrored the hot cinematographic techniques of the late sixties and early seventies, so people thought they were watching a film. Rack focus. In-camera pans (daring when you only have two projectors).
- The use of basic film language. Long Shot. Medium Shot. Close-up. Cutaway. This was a by-product of the film classes I took at Marquette.
In short, the language of a good movie. I guess, if we could have made films, we would have. But that involved money and money wasn’t part of the deal. In 1972, there were industrial film companies, filmstrip and art-slide type companies, and, across the country, punks like us. We didn’t fit into the other categories, and we didn’t like the phrase “audio-visual” but, dammit, we were stuck with it.
What we did try to do was bring a heightened sense of art, communication, and urgency to “a-v”. Since the “old school” of producers seemed to basically be producing schlock (so we thought), we worked extra-hard to add value to what we did, Not that we defined it that way. We just knew that you were only as good as the last show you did, and that’s all we had to show. We were 22. We had NO body of work.
Even something as “average” as a religious training filmstrip was treated as the second coming. Here’s our summary of our pitch to the religious magazine Hi-Time:
All this for a filmstrip entitled, “Afraid to teach Religion?”
Later, I’ll talk about the various partners and personalities in our little history. All added something to the definition of what we did. After three or four years of slide shows, we were also doing filmstrips, film, and multi-media extravaganzas (such as the “Urban River” exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Center, which featured eight screens, quad sound, and led to the eventual development of a full multi-media department at the renamed “art Museum”). So for a while, were were called SLI Multimedia, then, Sorgel-Lee Multimedia.
The fight for self-definition is the biggest fight the fledgling firm has. And in our first ten years, we all fought for our favorite media. Ric liked slides. Rob (a partner you’ll meet later) liked film. I didn’t really care, since I did the soundtracks and acted more or less as creative director on most projects. One of our first promotions stressed the famous (since everyone’s used it) “all under one roof” concept, which says, basically, “we must be good, we got everything”. It could also mean, “so you’re not good at anything”. But in our constant search for definition, we felt that having photography, audio, and script in-house was a strength. I’m sure it was.
We kept fighting the “audio-visual” phrase, even, for a while saying “Sorgel-Lee Riordan Means Media”, which got us quite a few calls from radio stations trying to sell us time.
In fact, in our first few years, we got pretty cocky. Since we had three good writers on staff (Rob Riordan, Linda Duczman, and myself) we decided we could do what those martini drinkin’ ad boys did (I was very good at the martini part). We sent out a direct mail piece touting the fact that “A Recession is Good for Business” and letting folks know that our strength was that we didn’t need account executives. The ad agencies liked that. Simultaneously, we mouthed off in an interview with the Milwaukee Sentinel, which led to these headlines:
It took us a long time to get work from ad agencies. We got a lot of mail from them, though.
As we matured and had a number of successes under our belts, we grew to embrace the concept of “audio-visual”. This was probably our best period of self-definition. It was most accurately portrayed in a brochure that Paul Counsell and Neil Casey did for us. They were just out on their own, having split from Cramer-Krasselt, and needed a client. We needed help. Perfect.
They wrote for us, “If it’s audio-visual, we do it. From concept to completion. Our team of writers, directors, photographers, cinematographers, graphic designers, audio specialists, editors, and programmers will work with you from first draft to final applause.
Slide presentations. Videotapes. 16mm films (live action and animation). Filmstrips. With mono, stereo and quad sound”.
We can dress up a speech with a tray of slides. Or stand an audience on its collective ear with a multi-image extravaganza.
But perhaps most important, we know what to do when. We can match the right message, media, equipment and cost to your specific objectives. Then we add a bright dose of creative thinking.
Which means you get an effective presentation that’s on time, in budget, and refreshingly out of the ordinary.
Man, I wish I wrote that.
Those nice kids Counsell & Casey eventually ended back up with the small agency they had abandoned, C-K, except now it’s not so small.
GET OUT THOSE BUGGIE-WHIPS
At Sorgel-Lee’s height, we were doing extremely large stage shows, along with all kinds of other normal stuff (from filmstrips to film to video). But even Ad Age wouldn’t let us forget what business we were really in:
We began defining ourselves by the technology, something folks in visual communications often do (how many people do you know running web page companies today? Where will they be in ten years?)
We decided to embrace multi-image. Multi-Image was the phrase that described the 3,6,9 or 15 (or more) multiple projector slide shows that had taken over our industry. They had flash and pizzazz. They sold great. And they made for great meetings, at a time when there was no such thing as video projection. But by embracing that phrase, and not the broader definition of what we were doing, we were setting a timeline for ourselves. Audio-visual would have been safer.
One thing I’ve learned about marketing (and maybe it is only one thing) is that niche marketing is a fast fix that will work. Eventually, Sorgel-Lee dumped video, film, and even filmstrips to go with our “roots” — slides, renamed multi-image. This had a magnificent short-term impact. But the flip side is that you can die when your niche dies unless you adopt a broader definition… not as good for the short term, but better in the long run. If the railroad companies had only though of themselves as being in transportation, trains might have wings.
Nonetheless, once we pursued technology, the race was on. After I left the renamed (once again) Sorgel-Lee to start my own firm, I rebelled against technology, and started what we called an “A-V Agency”.
We’d do the thinking, and hire the production. But I had no real experience at that kind of finance and had a hard time letting go of the control of the creative production steps.
It wasn’t long before the broader A-V agency was once again abandoned in pursuit of the next big technological edge.
Ric got real big in slides. My company got real big in video. And yet both our companies closed during Thanksgiving week of 1989. Our technologies were no longer new, and the margins were no longer there. Ric and I met at Marc’s Big Boy a few blocks from the old Cass Street apartment to call it a draw.
Oh, and those A-V All-Stars at the beginning of this article? They’re mostly all out of business, too, one exception being a firm in Seattle that never married itself to “multi-image”, despite its strengths in that medium. They used the word “Communications” in their name. Well, it’s not “Audio-Visual”, but it’s close.
By the way, I STILL don’t know what I do for a living. But I don’t go to as many cocktail parties, either.