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The Consultant vs. The Integrator: Partnership, not Competition

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The relationship between the AV consultant and the AV integrator can be complicated, but middle ground can be found

If mimicry is the highest form of flattery, then pantomime is the lowest form of mockery. Herein, we will explore the complex and comical and often cynical relationship between audio/visual consultants and integrators; where they are similar, where they differ and explore just how intricate and contradictory their interplay can be. 

Forever the on-going battle to avoid, evade and surpass one another in the arena of professional la guerre, the consultant and the integrator are often at odds with each other. Yet, in truth, they only ever overlap when in competition, as they are actually mutually exclusive. When perceived objectively they are in truth not adversarial, but rather individual and distant partners. Despite offering many of the same services, the relationship is more analogous to that of a paralegal and an attorney. While the lawyer can and may offer to do all the work from start to finish, more often than not the client is left with large bills and not the work product or results they expected. Since the attorney bills/makes most of their money in litigation and trial work, so too the integrator has the best margins on equipment and labor. Now, I admit this is a particularly obtuse and negative equivocation and numerous integrators offer pre-sale and design services as well. And, these services have incredibly high margins for them, when executed and completed on budget.

Conversely, the analogy of the paralegal to the consultant may be far more apropos. Just as the paralegal drafts documents, reviews filings and can advise on strategy, the AV consultant functions in precisely the same manner. Providing experienced counsel and drafting scopes of work, drawings and reviewing bids, while letting the client either do the “work” themselves or hiring an experienced agent/contractor to do the labor.

While this analogy may seem contrived or forced, it nonetheless paints a more comprehensive picture. And comprehension, especially of intentions, is critical to differentiating between the consultant and the integrator. AV consultants, for the most part, are agnostic on equipment and platforms. Making them a more honest broker when in the program or design phase of a project. Whereas, is often the case but not always, integrators may have purchasing quotas to meet, inventory to clear and more frequently now, rebate agreements. This can influence their design choices to a client’s detriment. These end-of-the-year rebates can mean millions of dollars in cashback for large integrators and drive a lot of their design decisions. Being a truly honest and impartial arbiter for your client, whether they are an architect, a government agency or all the more so, if it is the end use; is paramount to properly conducting AV design and engineering.

To switch gears now! 

It should not be said that I am biased against integrators, they are some of my best customers and at the core of my business. Since times of old, the integrator has been the primary systems designer and engineer. Thus, making that same firm the choice selection for purchasing products and installation services. But as I just mentioned, if their position is driven by allegiances to certain manufacturers rather than the individual client’s needs, there can be a conflict. Not that consultants cannot have similar conflicts; many have special arrangements with select manufacturers to spec only their product, which then involves some form of ‘kick-back’ and/or incentive program like that previously mentioned with integrators. 

Consultants can equally be the bane of the integrator. A less than qualified consultant who gives poor advice, speaks without knowing or having done, or worse just provides inadequate design work can ruin a project and drive up costs. I cannot say the number of times I have seen certain AV designs from particular consultants, which no matter the job, are inevitably flawed. Or even more insidious, designed to be installed by one very specific integrator. While I cannot, nor will I ever name names, the larger point is that mistakes in design become huge cost succubae in later stages of the project. Far too often, many consultants have never worked in the field doing actual install and commissioning. Thus, they lack certain practical knowledge and application experience, which plays a critical role in properly designing and specifying equipment. 

This leads us into the real axe to grind in this face off: Who is really to blame? Who is more the fly in the other’s ointment? In truth, it is neither. Each plays their own role in the conception, design, implementation and execution of any given audio/visual project. While it is easy for integrators to blame consultants for not knowing the practical commissioning applications of how two pieces of gear integrate; it is equally obnoxious and wrong for consultants to ignore mission critical details hoping the next person in the chain will just ‘figure it out’. And while I despise oversimplifications of complex issues, for the sake of brevity and pith I will set a nice little bow on top of this soliloquy. 

What we need, across the industry, is greater communication and cooperation. Manufacturers need to stop making interoperability a jigsaw puzzle and certifications more difficult or expensive to obtain than a master’s degree. Installers need to be better trained and trusted to do their work without micro-management. Engineers, whether an integrator or a consultant, need to be honest, agnostic and experienced designers with an eye towards longevity and foreseeing potential pitfalls. We all need to be better! And we need to collaborate and cooperate, share information, experience and cultivate groups for sharing perspectives. We will all make more money, do better work and our clients will be serviced better. Instead of striking out our own little fiefdoms across the fruited plain of commercial contracting, we need to found collectives of talent and innovation. Then we will be doing ourselves and our industry a grander service.

Sean Reid is a consultant and owner of Astroman AV.

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