Creative Technology: In Profile
Having already secured its position as a prominent supplier of audio visual and technical staging services across a wide cross section of global markets, Creative Technology has worked on some of the most high profile projects, but the past year has been a particularly outstanding period for the company. TPi’s Zoe Mutter visited the UK headquarters in West Sussex to speak to CEO Europe and Middle East, Dave Crump, about organic development, building a well-established brand and achievements to be proud of.
“One of the things that really sets Creative Technology apart from most of our more obvious competitors is the diversification of what we do,” said Dave Crump, CEO Europe and Middle East and one of the company’s founding members. “In the UK our business is split across three or four very distinct market sectors. Music and touring is obviously a big focus and we are a serious player, but it only represents about 20% of our business. Corporate events, TV, sports and major ceremonies all make roughly equal contributions to the overall CT mix.”
Every year since the company’s formation 27 years ago has brought a succession of exciting projects in ever increasing markets, expanding the service offered to future customers. However, in the past 12 months Creative Technology has taken pride in playing a central role in the London Olympics ceremonies and seen their achievements recognised at this year’s TPi Awards, at which they were crowned Favourite Video Services Company.
Following a tour of the UK headquarters in Crawley, West Sussex - which also comprises a specialised LED department and audio division, Dimension - Crump pointed out that although Creative Technology is an AV staging company with a larger focus on the visual, it has a significant and growing audio element: “Our core strength is turning other’s creative ideas into technical reality in a live show environment. Almost everything we do involves supply of both equipment and people - we’re not a box rental company and most kit we operate is at the high end of the technical spectrum.
“We work with literally hundreds of manufacturers and this is a very dynamic thing. We select the right products for a specific job and constantly research what is the best available in the market. Recently we bought a lot of Panasonic projectors and switchers, primarily because they are one of the best in class at present and secondly because of their connection with the Olympics and the huge amount of business we did around that.”
CT stocks thousands of products and its dominant LED supplier is currently Barco or Live Dots. Crump believes that over the last two years the company has released some impressive products and the CT team has now developed a close collaborative relationship with them. The business also bought a large amount of DigiLED products for CT’s US business and for Pink’s tour, currently moving from the US to Europe.
“From a video perspective, almost everything we do involves a large screen and therefore projectors and LED have to be top of that list. But equally it’s rare to do a show without a playback system of some sort,” continued Crump. “Our preferred system is Dataton Watchout and we are arguably one of its most sophisticated users. However, we also stock most of the leading media servers and have multiple Catalysts, Hippotizers, Pandora’s Boxes and - most recently on the back of the Olympics - Ai Immersive systems. The US and Asia are users of d3 so we can credibly claim to have everything in the media server / playback arena.
“CT are having another series of Open Days in May, which for this year takes the form of an integrated visual production suite and media server workshop. Watchout, Catalyst, d3, Green Hippo, Avolites Media and VYV with Photon will be there giving everyone a chance to see how these products can transform an event.”
Creative Technology in its current form is primarily the amalgamation of two businesses established in the ‘80s, both of which were set up as wholly owned subsidiaries of the Avesco Group and have remained so ever since. Screenco was formed in 1985 by Dave Crump and specialised in large screen display systems, while Creative Technology was set up the following year by Graham Andrews and specialised in production systems and specialist playback and content solutions.
The two businesses co-existed under their own brands until 2002 when they were merged into one company, primarily due to the convergence of their respective activities and markets and in part to rationalise the businesses following the post 9 / 11 downturn. Crump and Andrews both continue to be very actively involved in the businesses, with Crump running the operations in Europe and the Middle East whilst Andrews - based in LA - runs the North American and Asian businesses.
“Many of the key people on both sides of the Atlantic have been with the business since the beginning and many leading players in other video based services businesses started their careers at CT,” explained Crump. “Richard Murray who founded Avesco - and through that both Screenco and CT - continues to be involved in the business and is Chairman of the Avesco Group plc.”
The founding members of Creative Technology have witnessed industry progression in multiple sectors since the company was set up. Crump elaborated: “It has grown up. In the early ‘80s the event industry we know today was just beginning. The first corporate production companies were being formed, live production was becoming more sophisticated and some of the earliest one-off technologies were becoming widely used and more reliable. The earliest video projectors, video walls and outdoor displays were appearing, but none of the acronyms of today such as LED, LCD or DLP had been heard of in or around production circles.”
The one thing that has been a constant in CT’s existence, however, has been the focus on all things video and the use of HD. “We first introduced HD as a presentation format in 1987, long before it was considered viable for domestic use or as a general acquisition format,” he continued.
Throughout its history, CT has also evolved with the industry by making acquisitions and growing organically. In the US it acquired San Francisco-based AVTS and Chicago-based Media Control. “These acquisitions allowed us to fast track our development across the Atlantic, however we had already established CT and Screenco operations in the US prior to these deals,” said Crump.
“Everywhere else, our growth has been driven by organic development and employing the right dynamic and entrepreneurial people or teams in specific markets or territories. In some cases, such as Doha and Asia, we have moved key people from the UK to set up new operations. In other markets, such as Germany and Dubai, we have recruited locally and opportunistically and built teams around these people. Either way our business is all about people, they have always been and will always be our greatest asset.”
During TPi’s visit to the Crawley offices, Crump provided an overview of the company’s vibrant global set-up as well as its operation based in the UK. Focussed around two businesses - Creative Technology being the core and Dimension Audio adding the A into AV - the UK business is run like a well-oiled machine.
In the UK the audio aspect of Creative Technology was set up as a separate company, while everywhere else in the world audio activities trade under the CT banner. Originally founded in 1991 by Derek Zieber - who now handles audio for many sophisticated live broadcast events such as The Brits and the Jubilee Concerts - Dimension has been run by Mark Boden since 2005. Boden joined Dimension in 1998 when Zieber decided to pursue a freelance career.
“The Dimension brand is well established, the team is incredibly proud of it and therefore there is no sense in changing it. Unlike some of our well-known competitors we believe in retaining identity and allowing individuals to flourish wherever we can,” said Crump.
The business operates from a separate site a few hundred metres from CT’s main Crawley operation, but utilises shared central resources such as accounting, logistics and IT. “Dimension employs 20 people and is probably amongst the top five audio businesses in the UK despite maintaining a relatively low profile. Its clients cover the entire event spectrum from music, through theatre, corporate and an increasing amount of install business,” he added.
Dimension has grown steadily over the years. 2012, however, saw a huge increase in both inventory and staff on the back of the company’s involvement in Sports Technology - the joint venture business between CT and Delta, which supplied the majority of the audio and wired comms for the Olympics. “This puts us in a really good place going forward. We have a great team, up to date inventory and you’ll hear more from Dimension going forward,” said Crump.
“Similarly, CT has seen a huge shot in the arm on the back of the Olympics. Our contracts to deliver the video systems for all of the sports venues alongside Ceremonies and several pavilions have allowed us to upgrade and replace much of our inventory at a time when many competitors are struggling for cash and making do with ageing equipment.”
The long forward visibility of the Olympics also allowed the company to focus development of its people resource, adding around 30 full-time positions in the UK, most of which are on-site technical people that have been developed and trained in-house. “Legacy is a massively overused word when applied to Olympics, but I really believe in our case we are a much better equipped and stronger business as a result of the investments we have been able to make on the back of our Olympic contracts,” he continued.
CORE OF THE COMPANY
The central core of the UK business is built around the project management team - 15 to 20 experienced project managers who handle the day-to-day dealing with customers and retain full ownership of their projects from initial brief and quotation through planning, delivery, sorting the extras and sending the invoice. Managing Director of CT, Mark Elliott, has operational responsibility for everything the company does from the London and Dutch, Dubai and Doha operations, which all report into London.
“Whilst most of our PMs work across multiple market areas, we are migrating towards a structure where we build smaller teams focussed around more specialised market areas,” said Crump. “If the PMs provide the central core of what we do they are surrounded by a number of key departments and operations, each fundamental to the operation of the business. The team of PMs is backed up by an experienced support team who deal with crewing, travel and logistics, alongside a group of project engineers. These are the clever technical people seconded onto the more complex projects to figure out how to make it all work and handle the detailed on-site engineering and operation.”
For team members like Project Manager, Paul Gilzene, who joined the company in 2001 through MCL - part of the Avesco Group - there are multiple reasons he has remained there. “When the MCL offices moved location I was asked to join CT. The move was quite daunting as they’re regarded as one of the most prestigious companies in the industry, but it was a very comfortable transition,” said Gilzene.
“The staff around me and throughout the company made my job easy, providing me with tonnes of assistance and surrounding me with a vast knowledge of the trade. The type of work is also extremely varied and diverse, which makes for an ever challenging workload, but this keeps it interesting and is the main reason I have been here for as long as I have.”
The development of close working relationships with clients has been a direct result of the team of highly efficient and hardworking project managers the company has built up. “These are the guys that maintain a regular dialogue with a relatively small group of specific clients. They know what our customers are trying to do and we go to great lengths to ensure all the PMs are kept fully up to speed with the latest technology we, and our competitors, are offering,” said Crump.
“We also hold regular open days - usually at Riverside Studios - to showcase our latest technology. These are normally themed to a specific area and we also run in-house workshops either at CT or in some cases at clients’ premises to allow their teams to get hands on with the gear and meet the clever people we have behind the scenes. The Open Days we’re holding this year on 23 and 24 May are once again at Riverside - this time themed around media servers and production suites.”
Technical Operations, headed by John Denton, looks after all of the technical delivery both in terms of equipment and on site crew. In recent years the company has grown its in-house technical resource. Whilst still being heavily reliant on freelance crew, Creative Technology has an expanding and highly competent in-house technical and engineering team. Meawhile, warehousing, transport and general support operations are looked after by Mark Butterworth, including the team of prep managers, drivers and other support crew.
“None of this could happen without admin support and of course accounting,” continued Crump. “Including the satellite operations, we are around 150 people in the UK so we have an accounts and admin team headed by Commercial Director, Jon Denman, who provide all the back office support, count the cash and keep us all in check. The final piece of the jigsaw is sales / business development and marketing, providing a continuous stream of new leads and opportunities to fuel the operation and keep the machine running well into the future.
“We might be one of the biggest players in our market but I believe we have managed to retain the most important attributes of a small and highly responsive business and whilst the monthly overhead is pretty frightening, we are a pretty lean business compared to many.”
EXCELLING AT EVENTS
Following an impressive run of major ceremonies over the last few years - Doha, Beijing, Delhi and London, Creative Technology’s music and live event work is currently on the increase. “We have also done some great touring work - long-term stalwarts like Elton John and Rod Stewart have been complemented by some more dynamic acts such as Peter Gabriel, Radiohead and Pink. We also do the lion’s share of the major UK festivals and this goes right back to our early Screenco roots doing giant screens next to festival stages,” explained Crump.
The majority of the company’s touring business in the UK is handled by Adrian Offord from a sales perspective, and Paul Gilzene, Stuart Young, Pat Dore and Graham Miller look after project management. The company also works on a number of West End shows, with Wicked and Shrek being some of the best-known recent examples, plus major classical spectaculars at The O2 such as Les Miserables last year.
Creative Technology’s exhibition activities are mainly for car companies, but it also works on many of the large IT and consumer electronics shows for brands such as Sony. Over the last couple of years the company has also developed a digital wall system with Imagination for Ford, effectively turning their entire exhibition stand into a real-time digital canvas. This is shipped around the world to major shows on the motor show circuit.
“We can’t really mention sport without talking about the Olympics and Paralympics. Not only did we supply all four ceremonies and install the LED screens in the stadium, we also provided the video screens, sport presentation production and through our specially formed joint venture, Sports Technology, the audio and comms systems in all the other venues. On a regular basis we also supply Wimbledon, Queens, the ATP World Tour Finals, Twickenham and around 40 European golf tournaments every year,” added Crump.
A GLOBAL PRESENCE
Each of the company’s offices in Holland, Dubai and Doha has grown from CT London. Although still reporting to the London HQ, each has its own general manager, project management and - in the case of Dubai and Doha - a certain amount of dedicated equipment inventory and support infrastructure.
“The Middle East has been an important market for us for at least 10 years and we have had a formal presence there for the last eight. Our business mix there is similar to the UK, with a cross section of corporate work, music and sports, and we have been involved in many or most of the major ceremonies and spectaculars that have happened in the region,” said Crump.
In Holland the focus is more on sport and major live events. According to Crump, Holland has an almost unique appetite for spectacular one-off events involving local artists and incredible productions that run for short periods in a single venue. “Some of the most amazing images on our new website are from Dutch shows such as Symphonica in Rosso or Friends of Amstel,” he added.
Germany operates somewhat differently, with the market there currently polarised into two sectors - corporate and predominantly exhibit business operated from just outside Stuttgart and TV and entertainment, which is run by a small team close to Düsseldorf. The corporate work is mainly automotive – at the Geneva show which Creative Technology is currently looking after Audi, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Chorus from the company’s German operation, whilst the London office works on Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce.
“The guys in Düsseldorf predominantly cover the TV market based around Cologne and their big claim to fame for the last two years has been the Eurovision Song Contest, initially in Düsseldorf and last year in Baku in Azerbaijan. This year the show moves on to Sweden and a new production team so we will have to wait and see what happens there,” said Crump.
Further afield, the businesses in Asia and the US are structured in much the same way. In Asia the main operation is in Shanghai and Creative Technology has been active there for around six years and is one of the only Western players to have a real operation on the ground. “It’s been very tough, but we are now really starting to see the fruits of our endeavours. We are well established and are finally seeing a positive financial contribution coming from the region,” said Crump.
The operation in Shanghai is run by Simon Tibble, supported by a team of ex-pats - several of whom have moved over from London - and a growing local management and operational support team. The company also has a sales and project management office located in Hong Kong to support the production companies based there.
CT’s largest operation is in the US, with three main operational offices in LA, Las Vegas and Chicago and satellite sales and project management activities in San Francisco, Atlanta and the North East. “The US business is a little more integrated than Europe, benefitting from a single currency and language. Our business there is around 80% corporate and 20% entertainment and touring based,” he added.
But which events from Creative Technology’s 27-year history have solidified its position in the global landscape? For Crump, it’s a difficult choice, but Queen’s Wembley concert in 1986 - his first stadium show - stands out. “I also have to mention the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, Live 8 in Hyde Park and of course the Olympics in London. From a technology perspective the use of HD, digital video signals, and the development of LED technology have been major turning points and we have always been at the very forefront of technology adoption,” he added.
There are multiple factors behind the success of the ever-developing organisation - people, constant innovation, honesty and “a passion from the very top to the very bottom for doing live events and doing them well”. Also playing a crucial part in the longevity of Creative Technology has been the backer who was - and still is - prepared to fund the constant need for the latest equipment.
“What really makes us unique is the two guys that started the business are still running it today,” added Crump. “We have always been owned by a parent company that has funded us and we have kept our core team together for almost 30 years and steadily built on those foundations. None of us have, or will, sell out for millions. We do this because we love it and we get paid well for it.”
As well as having the constant backing to buy the latest and best gear when they have needed it, the Creative Technology team have also had the courage to cut back when times were tough and not over extend themselves. “Having a PLC as a parent, albeit a friendly one, means we have the corporate structure and discipline when we need it, but we are given the freedom to make our own decisions, choices and mistakes,” commented Crump.
The innovation, passion and hardworking team at the very heart of the company might have seen Creative Technology crowned Favourite Video Services Company at the 2013 TPi Awards, but what does Crump think makes Creative Technology stand out from other players in the market enough to justify winning such an award? “I’d like to say ‘we are better!’. However, we have some very good competitors and most are also good friends. In 2012 we had an incredible year and it was a fantastic reward for the entire team to be recognised for that,” exclaimed Crump. “I firmly believe we Brits are the best at technical event production. Many of the leading production managers around the globe are Brits and many of our oldest clients work all over the world and want us to be there to support them.”
In the past year development at the company has taken place in the form of hardware acquisition around the Olympics, with the company being able to totally upgrade and refresh much of its technical infrastructure. Fibre systems, signal conversion, routers and all the essential bits of engineering every system needs were upgraded and replaced.
“We have built an entirely new packaging architecture for our production systems, allowing much more compact and flexible solutions and have replaced almost our entire playback system fleet through the purchase of almost 200 Macs in various shapes and sizes,” explained Crump. “Most importantly we have replaced our entire big projector fleet with the new Panasonic 20k. Alongside this we have invested in a large quantity of Barco C5 indoor LED and most recently 8 and 12mm outdoor LED products.”
Creative Technology also takes great pride in its first class engineering team, led by Tim Volker, who continually searches out new products and modifies existing kit to push it to its limits. However, credit also needs to go to the company’s creative clients, pointed out Crump: “It is them who often come up with the wacky ideas. We simply work with them to figure out how to do it and then help them deliver the solution.
“The much-acclaimed stadium pixels pads at the London 2012 Opening and Closing Ceremonies were a good example. We decided right from the outset we did not want to deliver that project, however we were engaged by LOCOG as consultants to help develop the idea technically and help them choose the right people to make it happen. Judging by how it went down we got most of that right.”
A REAL LEGACY
With an incredible track record in delivering top quality service to a variety of projects, the Creative Technology team plans to continue this for every future event it is involved in, evolving along the way. “We’ve been doing it for 27 years and will keep going for a long time to come; we are all young enough and hungry enough,” concluded Crump.
“I believe, however, that the real legacy that companies like ours can get from London 2012 is to take what we did and show the world that we really do this well in England. The Australians built an entertainment business on the back of their Olympics and they have given many of us a run for our money over the years. Now is our chance to go out and do the same, not just in Sochi and Rio but also at major events throughout Europe and the rest of the world.”
Photos: © Creative Technology and Zoe Mutter