Going Corporate
Posted Jun 1, 2008

It’s been said that producers of corporate video, especially large operations, tend to be more secretive about their best practices than wedding and event videographers, who share willingly on forums, at conventions, and in magazines like EventDV. But here we feature four companies, in various stages of either transitioning to B2B-only or dividing their time between wedding and events and corporate, and they all transcend that stereotype. They share their thoughts behind trading bar mitzvahs for boardrooms, advice on the perfect pitch, and even their shopping list for the corporate-producer-to-be.Who better to lead off the discussion than the trio best known for mastering the move to corporate—Lance Gray, Russ Jolly, and Brian Gunn of Dallas-based PixelPops Design? Joining them are industry blogging guru Ron Dawson of Cinematic Studios in Silicon Valley; Edit 1 Media’s SDE laureate Laura Randall from Tacoma, Wash.; and Darrell the double-life-videographer Boeck, principal of Brookfield, Wis.-based Creative Images.

Each has a unique take on taking on corporate. For example, even before PixelPops’ three principals (all of whom had successful studios of their own) solidified their partnership, they had their sights set on the corporate market. Jolly, who met Gray and Gunn through a local video association shortly after he relocated to Dallas, remembers, "The very first conversation that Lance and I had about merging our talents was 100% focused on being a corporate media production company."

Dawson still dabbles in weddings as a boutique operation, on a referral-only basis. But he devotes the majority of his time to producing work for top-rated professional photographers.Randall’s move away from weddings continues to be a slow, cautious process. She doesn’t want to cut all ties, but she sees her future as a corporate video producer and reducing her wedding work to SDE-only packages. And Boeck defies them all by insisting that nurturing both markets is the best way to go.

figure 1 Crossing the Line
No one defies the cliché of the closed-door corporate video production company like PixelPops, an outfit best known in the wedding and event video world for its DVD menu templates, website design and hosting services, and Gray’s Photoshop tutorials. Gray (left, in the image), Gunn (center), and Jolly (right) aren’t shy about sharing their secrets, including their reason for making corporate their cash cow.

"The absolute reality is that event work cannot touch the amount of compensation that corporate work holds," Gray admits. "We had to look at the fact that in the beginning, we needed to figure out how to pay three partner salaries, plus all expenses—not an easy task. Our first corporate gig as partners was a $15K job. It probably took us 3–4 weeks to complete. These days, we’ve been known to kick through $40K jobs in just one week." Compared to their first year in business, 2008’s Q1 profits are up 150%.

Even better news is that their salaries don’t come at the expense of creative fulfillment. Jolly describes their work as "taking an otherwise dull job and making it spectacular." They even go so far as to say that corporate work offers more opportunity for creative expression than weddings and events. Gray compares the two: "The difference between events and corporate is that corporate is has a lot more variety than an event. That’s simply because you can line up 20 events and they all have basically the same overall story or concept. Not so with corporate. One day, we’re working on 3D graphics for one client trade show booth and the next day we’re creating a video about a Lear jet company."

"How can that not be fulfilling?" Gunn adds.

figure 1 Ron Dawson (left, photo by Jules Bianchi) made the switch from weddings to corporate in April 2007 after his business coach, with whom he was bartering services, gave him some first-class advice. "She loved my work and felt that I was undercutting myself in trying to peddle $5K–$10K wedding videos," he says. "She felt I should be going after much larger fish."

But business was going swimmingly. Producing only 20 weddings a year earned him more than enough to stay afloat. "I knew I wanted so much more for my kids," he says. "To generate the kind of income I wanted to supply my family with, I knew I’d have to either average way more per wedding than I realistically thought was possible, or become a high-volume wedding business."

Becoming a wedding Wal-mart was something Dawson definitely didn’t want. So he switched his focus to commercial work—serving photographer clients, in particular—where the average project would pay more. Now Dawson says he’s living his dream as a filmmaker; he’s absolutely fulfilled, creatively, doing corporate work, in part because of his niche clientele. "Because we primarily serve creative professionals, the work we do for them has to be creative. Also, our specialty is creating web promos that have to go viral. That means we have to make creative and entertaining pieces that people will want to share. I’ve also had the opportunity to do a number of fun concept videos starring high-profile photographers. They’ve been widely viewed in the pro photo community and are a blast to shoot and edit. I’ve scripted and directed them all."

figure 1Back in March 2006, 4 years after Edit 1 Media came onto the corporate scene, Laura Randall (left, with her husband and partner Chris) was quoted in an EventDV article as saying, "I know the money is better in corporate video, but I have a passion for interacting with people and documenting emotional times in their lives."

She went on to explain how weddings had accounted for 80% of Edit 1 Media’s projects since she and her husband, Chris, launched the company. A little has changed since then; most notably, their efforts to whittle down of the wedding side of the business. But even though wedding work still accounts for about 75% of the company’s workload and only 25% of its income, Laura doesn’t want to completely divorce the company from weddings because, she says, "they speak to a lot of the values we have as a family."

No overnight shift, the company is in a transitional phase right now. "I haven’t had the time to really sit down and create the plan that I want to," Randall explains. "We still have a backlog of weddings to edit," so for now she’s waiting for the breathing room she needs to lay out her strategy.

"Until I know I’ve got the time to dedicate to take on another couple of large clients," Randall says she is hesitant to pull out all the stops to bring those clients on board.

For better or for worse, Darrell Boeck is keeping his commitment to the world of wedding video, while building relationships with corporate clients, calling it a mistake for wedding videographers to burn the bridges they’ve built and go after corporate as their sole source of income. "As wedding videographers, we worked so hard to get the phone to ring. Why tell that person you no longer offer weddings? Instead, raise your price and let supply and demand determine your pricing," he advises.

Boeck believes that there is business safety in diversifying. "Offering more than just weddings means we do not have to worry about bookings being down, attending bridal fairs, etc." For him, the jump to corporate is a no-brainer: Wedding videographers, he says, "have all the gear we need for corporate work, so why not? Instead of being a ‘wedding video production company,’ we are a ‘video production company.’"

He enjoys—even relies on—the variety of work. "It is quite refreshing to be able to break away from weddings and put together corporate projects. They allow us to use tools that we have, but are not appropriate for weddings, like graphics, creative titles, etc. It is also nice to get back to weddings, since they offer a style not often appropriate for corporate work, such as emotional music, soft images, etc. So, offering both really keeps us fresh."

figure 1 Making Corporate Business Pop
Ask Brian Gunn how to go about booking your first corporate client and he might throw the question right back at you: "How did you get your customers when you started being a wedding videographer?" He’d remind you, "They didn’t just rain down from heaven." Gunn landed his first pre-PixelPops corporate production gig thanks to a relationship he had with Fossil Watches, a company for whom he’d done duplication work. Soon, he says, their relationship blossomed, and Fossil was hiring him to take on bigger and more elaborate productions. "Finally, they threw a really big one at me—a training video—and I thought, I could really use some help on this." So he called his colleague Lance Gray. Gunn says that the production was unlike any that either had done up to that point, and they had the time of their lives. "It was from the hip, all day, multiple locations, and a blast," he remembers, and their partnership solidified. "From that one shoot we realized there was a dynamic there. That one shoot is what catapulted us into working together." Fossil became one of PixelPops’ biggest clients in their early days.

These days, business comes from a combination of word-of-mouth referrals, advertising, a web presence, cross-selling, and networking. They are very aggressive about seeking out clients and following up on leads, all but sending roses to potential customers. For example, one day Gunn was taking a Greyhound bus tour of historical sites in Dallas. En route to the parking lot at the end of the tour, the guide showed a video. Thinking to himself, "Oh man, we could just blow that video away," when the tour was over, he chased down the tour guide, who just happened to be the CEO of the Dallas Historical Society. He introduced himself and explained his line of work. The rest is history: That move led to the production of a short documentary featuring archival footage from Bonnie and Clyde’s capture—which was the first time the 16mm film had seen the light of day in 60 years; it had been tucked away in an attic belonging to the son of a police officer who filmed the ambush. That short was on a loop for 4 weeks at the Historical Society; it was viewed by an estimated 4.5 million visitors. Just goes to show, as Brian says, "You never know where jobs are going to come from."

It’s a safe bet, however, that many will come walking right in the storefront of Action Video, PixelPops’ consumer-side duplication and transfer business. Playing the pedestrian card, they count on cross-selling their services to folks at the time of purchase—hot business compared to cold calling. You can almost hear Brian’s hands rubbing together as he tells it: "People will come in off the street because of our ad in the Yellow Pages for dubbing and drop off their tape. And when they come back in, that’s when we hit ’em. We’ve got a demo playing in the lobby showing all of our other services, and I swear, 8 times out of 10, when somebody comes back in to pick up their order, the line you hear is, ‘Oh, I didn’t know y’all did production, or websites, or graphic design.’"

And before they know it, they’re asking for something they didn’t come in for. "Lo and behold, the lady picking up the video just happens to be the secretary of the CEO of some big corporation, and she’ll tell us, ‘My boss needs a new marketing video. Is that something y’all could do?’ It’s like what McDonald’s does. You come in for one thing and they ask you, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ It’s that easy. That’s why they do it."

figure 1 Dawson. Ron Dawson.
Ron Dawson, known in wedding and event circles for his Bridal Boot Camp concept video and his popular blogging and business seminars, makes no bones about why he was hired for his first corporate job: "Because I was an ex-employee of Intuit and people there already knew I was good at video," he says. QuickBooks, a division of Intuit, heard he left to start his own video company, and when they had a need, "they naturally gave me a call." His mission: to create a concept video. He chose a James Bond motif and, not surprisingly, calls the experience "a blast."

But it’s weddings that are getting the boot now, as Dawson banks on his role as a producer of work for high-end photographers. "A really cool spin on our switch is that our niche is specializing in serving the pro photographic community." His decision to continue was an obvious one: In less than a year, he tripled his corporate revenue from the year before thanks to his commercial work.

Ironically, his idea to move to corporate was inspired by something he did in hopes of building up his wedding business. "Last year when I first pitched my services to Wedding & Portrait Photographers International to do a recap of their annual convention, it was to network with wedding photographers to get more wedding business. Once I was at the convention, though, I realized that there was a bigger business marketing to the companies that serviced wedding and portrait photographers. These were major corporations who sponsored top photographers the way major athletes get sponsored. Names like Adobe, Nikon, Kodak, Canon, Epson, and more were paying top dollar to have their brands represented by the top photographers.

"More than 10,000 photographers from around the world were at this trade show," he continues. "I knew that in switching my focus to commercial work, specializing in the pro photographic community would be the way to do it."

Montage Maven
Laura Randall credits her response to an ad on Videographer.com for setting the wheels in motion for Edit 1 Media’s move into the corporate video world. It was a shoot/photo montage for a limousine magazine company’s annual trade show and 20th anniversary in Las Vegas. When she learned that she was the first and one of very few videographers to respond to the request for a bid, she was puzzled. "It drives me nuts when people complain that they don’t get any work and then I hear that we were one of the only people to respond. What’s the point of advertising if you won’t respond?" she wonders."We had hundreds of magazine covers, 900 images total, to put into this montage," she remembers, laughing. "It’s something I wouldn’t even show anybody. It was pretty bad. And they absolutely loved it!" Their next corporate job wasn’t much of a stretch to get from there. It turned out the husband of the owner of the limousine company was also a business owner in need of a video.

Taking a page from the PixelPops playbook, Randall has cross-sold wedding clients as well, simply by making them aware of her other services. Randall does this by enclosing a letter with final DVDs mailed to couples, asking for referrals. This has worked for her. In fact, a former wedding client is now Edit 1 Media’s largest corporate client, bringing the studio $80K to $100K in business each year.

figure 1 Wedding Hook-Up
Similarly, it was on referral from a wedding client that Darrell Boeck (left) booked his first corporate gig. "One of our brides worked for a company that needed a video," he explains. "Her boss was shopping video production companies and was shocked with the pricing. So, my bride said, ‘Why not call my wedding videographer? They do great work.’ She later told me she was laughed at, but I was brought in for an interview anyway. I explained to this conference room of 12 people—very intimidating—that yes, I am a wedding videographer, but the video they needed involved nothing more complicated than a wedding. I got the job and they were very happy."

A business-owning bride booked Boeck for his second corporate job, hiring him to produce four training videos totaling $20,000. And his corporate video business was born.

Weddings Cramping Your Style?
Of the many details you’ll want to think about before you become a corporate video producer is your brand. Will your website need a makeover? Does your company name reflect someone who is serious and ready for the corporate world? Obviously if you call yourself "Liz’s Wedding Memories," you’ll want to think about a new, or at least, dba name. You may need to create separate wedding and corporate portals from your homepage or contract a web designer to create an entirely separate website and URL.

From the beginning, PixelPops decided to keep it separated, creating three distinct names for each section of its business under one umbrella: Blue Sky Media Group (events), PixelPops (multimedia/production/products), and Action Video Service (duplication/film transfer). "In other words," explains Lance Gray, "we never crossed into the other. Monies flowed from each and all landed in the same account, but each has entity has its own look and feel."

Ron Dawson, too, has always had separate websites for his corporate and wedding work. "The biggest change perhaps has been in our blogs. Our corporate blog is the one I maintain primarily, and our wedding blog has been somewhat neglected. Most of the blogs we maintain are related to our work in the pro photographic community, one of the more popular being our weekly audio podcast F-Stop Beyond."

Commenting on the need to distance your corporate identity from the wedding world, Laura Randall complains that the perception of wedding videographers being amateur compared to corporate producers is "not fair. Those of us who do weddings know how hard they are to do, and to do well." She guesses that her split-personality website may be an obstacle.

"I feel like right now we’re probably not getting as much business as we could because when people come to our website, they have the option to click on corporate, weddings, or training. For some people, when they come to our site they think, ‘Oh they’re not that serious.’ There’s this stigma that wedding videographers are just hobbyists. Until people do see wedding videographers as serious production companies, I feel like we have to figure out how to separate our brands." She’s still figuring out exactly how to go about that, since Edit 1 Media is known in both worlds by the one name.Darrell Boeck agrees that "marketing for corporate is huge. Fortunately, early on in our business, we picked a rather generic name, Creative Images. If we had the word ‘wedding’ in our name, or it pertained to weddings, we would have needed to change it, or operate under two different names. It is wonderful for us to answer the phone under the name Creative Images, and have it apply to both markets."

While the two sides of Boeck’s business share a name, they each have their own website and business card. "We have ciwedding.com and civideo.com. Both sites are identical, except for the home page." Early on, he says, "we only had one website. Since we had all the wedding clients we could handle, it was much more important that we market for corporate work—so the website looked very corporate. This worked quite well and let prospective clients know we were not wedding videographers offering corporate video on the side, but we were a serious corporate video production company that also produced weddings."

Art of the Deal
Quoting your rate to couples may be second nature to you, but acing the pitch to a CEO or board of directors and settling on a quote is a game of its own. "This is where it turns into a poker game," Gunn says. "The one thing you want to find out from your client is their budget. What are they willing to spend? But they say, ‘Here’s what we want to do. How much?’ And you don’t want to under- or overbid it. And you say, ‘We can do it for you, but you’re going to have to tell us what your budget is.’"

Early in this negotiation process, Gunn says, clients aren’t especially forthcoming. But he won’t commit to a quote until he hears the full scope of the project. His tactic: "We go in, get the scope, and tell them, ‘For that, you’re looking in the neighborhood of $20K.’ Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, oh, that’s too much! We were thinking more like 15.’ Bingo. Now you know."

For any production, PixelPops can deliver what Russ Jolly calls "the Cadillac version, the Pontiac version, or the Volkswagen version." In other words, as Gunn puts it, "If they’re not willing to pay for it, are they willing to scale it back to get it done?"

When Ron Dawson gives an estimate, he uses a Google Docs (docs.google.com) spreadsheet to determine what the costs will be. "I itemize all preproduction, production, and postproduction costs using varying hourly rates. Depending on the size of the job, for production costs I usually group a shooter, camera, mics, and lights on one line item. This is what I do when it’s usually just a one-man crew, like for a small nonprofit client. For larger jobs, I’ll break out line items for both equipment and labor separately."

When presenting the estimate to the potential client, Dawson says, "I just write up a description of the deliverables without the line items. That gives me more flexibility in post. I will include in the description how many shooting hours, because that’s something the client can see. But for preproduction and post costs, I just go with the description (e.g., 5–6 minute promo video with opening motion graphics). That way, if in my budget I predict 20 hours of editing, but it only takes 15 hours, we still get paid the same because the client agrees to the full fee up front. Of course, that works the other way too. If it takes us 30 hours to edit, we don’t get any more money. The only time we give a potential client a fully itemized budget ahead of time is if they ask for it."

Laura Randall admits that her studio is still trying to figure out all the pricing stuff, in part because there are fewer visible business role models in corporate video than in the wedding video world. With notable exceptions like PixelPops, she finds that corporate producers generally have some sharing issues. "With weddings we’ve had this great community that is so open about sharing pricing and strategies," she says, "and I haven’t really found that in corporate work quite yet. You’re a lot more on your own trying to figure things out." As a result she’s been left to learn through trial and error, something she says she does very well.

Randall relates a story about a project she bid at $32K. After she didn’t get the booking, she assumed it was because her bid was too high. Just to be sure, she called up and asked why, and was surprised with the answer. It had nothing to do with the size of her bid. In fact, the winning bid was $76K, and the company who entered it was chosen because of the caliber of the work they demonstrated.

"Obviously the price was not the final factor. It made me realize there’s a lot more we have to do to get the bigger jobs." She also realized that "sometimes you can price yourself too low," which was a bit of a revelation for her, coming straight out of the wedding world. "There’s no such thing as pricing yourself too low in weddings," she says—at least from the client’s perspective.

Darrell Boeck has approached pricing somewhat differently. In the early days, he was unsure how to price, so he based it on his wedding packages, but doubled it. "For example, if a wedding required 30 hours but a corporate project required only 15 hours, I would charge the same price. So, corporate work was twice as profitable. Today, I pretty much have set rates for corporate projects. I know just what is required for a 4-to-5-minute promo video and can pretty much bid on it without much thought. To someone just starting out in corporate video, my advice is to not just consider the hours involved, but to also consider the overall value of the video. So, if you’re a fast editor, you should not punish yourself with a lower price just because you’re efficient. Instead, look at how much the video will help the client by making them money, or saving them money."

His bids are based on flat rates. "When I’m approached with a possible project, the first thing I do is try to determine the amount of time the project will require. Not just in shooting and editing, but everything else that goes into a project, from choosing the music to finding the voice talent to meetings and even phone calls. A lot of time can be spent on the phone discussing a project and my time is valuable. All that is billable," he explains. "I never did like giving clients an hourly rate, for two reasons: One, hourly rates appear quite expensive to a new client; and two, the client doesn’t know how many hours a project is going to take. That’s up to me to estimate since I am the professional. Instead, I give them a flat rate and stick to it, unless the project changes during production."

Gear! Camera! Action!
As a videographer, you know that "having to constantly buy new technical equipment is an occupation hazard," as Brian Gunn points out. But all these videographers were pleased with the minimal technical investment they found they needed to tackle corporate. As Lance Gray says, "Good rental houses can provide specialty equipment for those times when you need it."

Dawson says he changed nothing on the technical side. "I’m living proof that it’s the talent, not the equipment. I’m still shooting with the same PD150 I bought in the summer of 2002. My ‘deck’ is the same consumer Sony camcorder I used when I started. That’s right. No pro monitor. No HD camera. No $5,000 deck. When I need HD, I hire an HD shooter. Most of the work we do is for the web," he says, "so my computer monitor works great. When we start doing more work that really requires more precise color correction or black levels, I’ll invest in better equipment for that."

But if you’re in the dark about lighting, you’re going to have to learn. Having to get good shots using available light is often the bane of wedding videographers’ existence, but it also means they don’t have to worry about purchasing studio lighting equipment and putting it to effective use. Buying a lighting kit and learning how to use it are necessary prerequisites to working in the corporate video world.

Like many wedding videographers, Laura Randall had never worked with lighting prior to shooting corporate video. Good lighting where it’s necessary, she says, is "the number one thing that separates amateur corporate video from professional-looking video. I realized real quickly that we needed to learn a lot about lighting."

She purchased a DVD—Vortex Media’s How to Set Up, Light, and Shoot, Great-Looking Interviews—and recommends it to others who need lighting instruction for its "awesome advice. It tells you all the stuff to buy, like $1,500 worth of gear."

Another piece of equipment Randall recommends either renting or buying is a teleprompter because they make shooting that much more efficient. In fact, after spending hours drilling a dentist in his lines and shooting him fumbling like a middle school student with a handful of 3"x5" notecards, delivering a performance as colorful as an X-ray, she finally convinced him to use a teleprompter."He had written this book and he couldn’t remember the title because it was like 25 words long." When she reshot the sequence using the teleprompter, she says, "He looked at me and said, ‘Now I know what my book is called!’"

The procedure was over in a matter of minutes, which made the editing so much easier and saved the client a bunch of money. Teleprompters rent from about $250–$500 per day, but Randall says she’s gone the DIY route. "We just ordered specialty glass and made one ourselves," she says.

Randall also recommends learning how to chromakey, if you don’t already know how. She’s getting more and more requests to shoot walk-on videos for websites, projects that require both good lighting and green screen skills.

PixelPops has begun using green screen and compositing in their corporate video work quite a bit as well. In fact, for an upcoming project, they are considering taking what would otherwise be a multiple-day shoot at various locations with 13 different actors and condensing it into a couple of hours using green screen and mapping in the background.

figure 1 Game Plan
If you’re planning on climbing the ladder to corporate, have a plan, Ron Dawson says, as his final words of wisdom. "Create a business plan for what you plan to offer and what revenue will be."And, he says, it doesn’t hurt to pick the brain of someone who’s already done what you want to do. "In addition to the PixelPops guys, I like to read Kris Simmons’ blog MindYourVideoBusiness.com. He and I have had a very similar route to our businesses."

"Pace yourself," PixelPops’ Gray warns. "Know your limits, but don’t be afraid of the unknown. Also, don’t think you can just walk in and start commanding huge numbers. We’ve all done our share of free or low-paying gigs. But often, that’s what it takes to compile a demo reel."

In this respect, he says, establishing your corporate video business is much like building a reputation in the wedding and event video world. Just like someone doing events, you show the best work you have, and as time goes along, certain clips and jobs get replaced by better work."

To help you get the point where you’re producing better work, Randall says, "Watch other videos. Not from an ‘Oooh, how did they do that cool effect?’ perspective but, rather, ‘How is the message that they’re trying to get across being delivered?’"

In the end, though, the one message they all seem to agree on is just do it. Boeck--who's produced an instructional DVD for event videographers going corporate (left)--believes that those who are considering making the switch are already taking a step in the right direction. "You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Just stay within your comfort zone and only accept jobs you know you can handle."

Elizabeth Welsh is a freelance writer and editor based in Madison, Wisconsin.