Crossing the Line: How Synergy Media Group Seizes Opportunities Others Miss

Design-build firm Synergy Media Group adds specifying wing BrightTree Studios, bringing integration and consulting under one roof and challenging the status quo.

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Bill McIntosh is usually smiling when you see him at industry events. The 34-year-old president of Pittsburgh-based Synergy Media Group (SMG) has a lot to smile about since the integration firm he founded eight years ago with CEO Greg Carpenter — “out of our garages” — expects to hit $6 million in revenue this year with only 17 employees.

One reason to smile is that SMG has a knack for finding opportunities that other integration firms seem to have missed. McIntosh demonstrated that at one of those industry events, CI Summit 2013, during a panel discussion in which he talked about how SMG has found success delivering broadcast-like solutions to customers in markets that hadn’t traditionally needed video content, including higher education and corporate.

Delivering what is now — a few years later — sometimes called “light broadcast” solutions to non-broadcast customers is one way that SMG quickly established itself, yet many long-established integration firms fail to appreciate their customers’ evolving need to create, manage and distribute video.

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“There is a large market for in-house production both in corporate America and higher education,” says David Vargo, principal of SMG. “For corporate clients, we have found that they are very interested in creating professional-grade training and marketing videos for both internal and external communications. In higher- ed, the focus is on the creation of online learning studios where professors are able to capture and distribute lectures to students across the globe. It’s finding those markets that didn’t exist five years ago that Synergy is very strong at.”

Synergy Media Group 
synmediagroup.com
Primary Location: Pittsburgh
Additional Locations: Columbus, Ohio
Principals: Bill McIntosh – president; Greg Carpenter – CEO; David Vargo—principal
Years in Business: 8
Employees: 17
Projected 2016 Revenue: $6 million
Number of Projects (2015) 66
Top 3 Markets: Corporate, Higher Education, Government
Top 5 Brands: Crestron, Planar, Hitachi, SVSi, Biamp

SMG offers content creation services to its customers, something very few traditional AV integrators have offered. “We see content creation as a major scope gap in the standard AV consultation and design-build model,” McIntosh says. “Most new audio-visual designs include building-wide digital signage solutions as it provides clients the ability to display relevant information and branding in a sexy package. However, all too often, the content is an afterthought so the content that is pushed to the displays is subpar and unprofessional, which leads to unsatisfied clients.

“It’s our responsibility as AV consultants and design-build integrators to provide turnkey solutions. We don’t provide audio processors or control systems that are inoperable, so why would we do that with digital signage?”

SMG’s traction in new markets gives McIntosh plenty to be happy about, but don’t let his smile fool you. The Carnegie Mellon University MBA graduate isn’t afraid to make enemies in business.

The design-build integration firm’s decision to launch a division that offers consulting services — BrightTree Studios — in 2014 has generated plenty of hate mail from traditional consultants, McIntosh acknowledges, as it has rocked long-established and heeded-to industry business practices and models.

Design-build integrators can’t act as independent consultants, because they’re not independent. The fact that they sell products calls into question how objective they’d be in specifying solutions for their customers. That has always been the industry’s approach.

“It’s finding those markets that didn’t exist five years ago that Synergy is very strong at.” —David Vargo, principal.

“It’s difficult to imagine a move that’s more controversial in the AV integration industry than an integrator crossing the line from design-build to consultant,” says NSCA executive director Chuck Wilson. “This is the type of thing that makes everyone uncomfortable and therefore we seldom discuss it publicly.”

With BrightTree expected to generate $1.2 million in service revenue in 2016, however, SMG doesn’t seem to mind the ripple effect it may have caused. Besides, McIntosh insists the traditional consulting model is due for some revisions.

Integrator Becomes Consultant

SMG didn’t originally plan to add consulting services to its design-build company. In fact, the decision came about as a result of the integration firm trying to go with the grain of the industry. SMG, along with just about every other integration firm during the early part of this decade, was extremely focused on generating more recurring revenue — and like almost every other integration firm, it wasn’t exactly working out the way it hoped.