From the vantage point of a 60-foot screen tower in an IMAX theater, the problems of integrating audio and video systems probably seem pretty miniscule. Checking that all the loudspeakers behind a 5-story projection screen are going to do their part in creating a cinematic spectacle of epic proportions will make any job seem easy.
L-R: MediaMerge's Doug Jackson, technical services; Tim Ogletree, systems engineering; Ken McKibben, project management/operations. At first, Ogletree and McKibben relied on their IMAX background to take on high-end home theater work in addition to their work in the worship market.
That bird's eye view on how numerous technologies come together to create the big picture is how MediaMerge co-founder Ken McKibben saw the audiovisual business-the disparate conglomeration of sound and video installation companies that existed around the turning of the millennium needed to be revamped as a business of true systems integrators. At the time, McKibben was working for Sonics Associates, a wholly owned IMAX subsidiary in Birmingham, AL, as the latest step in a career that had taken him from live sound and recording gigs to systems installation work. Now, with the most advanced projection systems in the world a daily part of his life, McKibben's next move became apparent.
He started thinking about heading out on his own and starting an audiovisual design services company, but he realized that he needed a good designer to make his plans a reality. Fortunately, he was soon provided with the right business partner-someone who was developing a nearly identical plan for a new type of systems integration company. That someone was Tim Ogletree, a musician who also familiarized himself with the audio world before and while he worked as a systems designer at Sonics Associates. From the moment the two met and started sharing their surprisingly similar philosophies on the burgeoning business of systems integration, destiny was at work.
Borne of these discussions was the design/build firm known as MediaMerge, established in 2001 in Birmingham, AL. Houses of worship were definitely on the agenda from the start, as that market was already proving to have quite a bit of potential in nearby Atlanta, and "Birmingham usually lags Atlanta by a few years," McKibben recalled.
At first, Ogletree and McKibben relied on their IMAX background to take on high-end home theater work in addition to their work in the worship market. But in the end, their true passion won out, and today the company works on churches around the country. But the duo's IMAX experience wouldn't go to waste. In 2002, Doug Jackson from Sonics Associates approached MediaMerge with a proposal to launch an IMAX service division within MediaMerge. At first, the idea was greeted with reluctance by the young company, but in the end, "we decided that if all we got out of it was a service department that was supported by the IMAX service contracts, then it would be well worth the investment of time and money. As it turned out it's been very profitable for us and enabled us to tackle service more aggressively."
The Avalon Church in McDonough, GA is actually "in-the-round." There are two other projection screens not pictured.
Today, MediaMerge is the world's largest third-party servicing agent for IMAX theaters, with a growing list of clients that currently includes theaters in Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. The company's success in that market is best encapsulated in the extraordinary up-time that IMAX clients experience with MediaMerge on board.
MediaMerge's dedicated 24/7 service department staff tackles everything from IMAX maintenance to trouble with a pastor's microphone. "They handle houses of worship and IMAX service-there's a lot of overlap in the skill sets," McKibben explained, emphasizing that MediaMerge's service personnel are precisely that alone. These aren't installers who are picking up the phone between trips to the job site. "Service is an art that's completely different than what you get through the install side of things," he explained.
"Troubleshooting takes a different mindset and a very specific set of skills and tools. So we decided that we wanted our service guys to be just service guys. They're very good at what they do, and 95 percent of problems are resolved on the telephone."
MediaMerge's training efforts go hand in hand with its systems design and service efforts. As a company devoted to 600-1,000-seat churches, with some projects far exceeding those numbers, the team knows what works in a worship environment and what doesn't. Olgetree's designs reflect a knowledge of the needs of volunteer operators, and the company's training efforts go on indefinitely until a client feels completely comfortable with the technology. "From the very get-go we recognized that it doesn't matter what you put in, if these volunteers can't use it, it's no good," McKibben said.
The company also presents the occasional in-depth training seminar for the worship market, and also reaches out to architects through educational luncheons focused on topics like acoustics and lighting. This information exchange has opened the door to better communication with architects, and now MediaMerge has a number of relationships with architects who often send church projects their way. "They identify projects where the client's looking for something a little bit more advanced, or they recognize that the client doesn't already have a relationship in place, and they'll steer them toward us," McKibben said. "Probably 30 to 40 percent of our business comes through that channel."
The full integration approach has proved to be well-suited to the worship market, as has MediaMerge's design/build approach. When the company was launched, that process was still fairly new to the industry, but they stuck to their objectives and soon discovered that churches were looking for a long-term relationship with a company that could design, implement and maintain their audiovisual system. "What we suspected about the church market is that it's definitely a relationship-based business," observed Ogletree. "Churches are looking for more than just someone to surprise them with some equipment and leave."