Kevin and Catie O’Keefe founded the eponymousin Washington, DC in 1979. Over the next three decades they’ve watched the video and event-production industry change its technologies from bulky boxes of videotape to memory cards the size of a quarter. They’ve navigated the rise of social media and the demise of the synchronized slideshow presentation and have driven expectations toward finely crafted multi-screen presentations in light-sculptured spaces. Thriving through economic downturns by keeping the focus on the client and the client’s job security has given O’Keefe Communications a “big trust factor,” as Kevin O’Keefe put it when we spoke with him from his office in the nation’s capital.
Trained in mass communications and film production, Kevin worked in these industries after graduating from the University of Denver. He moved northeast for freelance work until settling in Washington in 1972. Initially he worked as Director of Audio/Visual at the United Way, then helped kick off a national commercial campaign with the National Football League. He met his wife, Catie, soon after and the couple joined forces to start O’Keefe Communications. Their client list demonstrates a continued commitment to work with similar nonprofits and community-improvement associations.
“The two of us decided to get clients on our own, not through other production companies,” says Kevin. “We financed in the beginning with credit cards. We did mostly multi-image work, but we had to learn to run a business: taxes, rent, the legalities of it all kind of took us by surprise. As we went along we realized things like, ‘Oh, I have to pay sales tax on this stuff!’ Those types of things dawn on you.”
Their first love was the creative side, coming up with new and exciting ways convey their clients’ messages. But the challenge was to be able to produce excellent work in an efficient manner so as “not simply to go quite as crazy with all your ideas as you might like but also to make a dollar at the end of a project.”
Building a reputation is important for any business, and Kevin stressed the early push to get a first job, then a second based on the reputation of the first, and so on. “Fortunately, we got a couple of clients in our second or third year of business who are still clients today. If you luck into that [connection] and do a good job for people, sometimes it can carry you for thirty years.”
We did have times when clients cancelled a project [because of the present recession]. But for the most part, we kept working but we had to trim costs one way or another. We had to re-bid a number of projects and scale back in certain areas. Hopefully, for the clients who left, they will come back as the economy does.”
He also noted notable changes in perceptions about larger projects. Many clients can afford them, but don’t want to appear profligate by their stockholders. Kevin believes these clients will also return to request his company’s services. “I think part of the reaction to the recession has been ‘We’re going to take a lot of that graphic design and video production in-house, because really, how hard could it be? We have Photoshop and Final Cut.’ But they soon realize they can’t do it. There is a professional skill to this industry, and I think we’re seeing an early shift back to where production value is starting to come back, and people want to have stuff that looks good.”
Kevin stressed the fact that his company’s success comes from its focus on the client and on keeping a longer-term perspective on the latest technologies that clients sometimes clamor for. In the case of O’Keefe Communications, exploration of social media has proved comparatively unhelpful, despite the winning of the DelCor Social Media Sweet Spot award on behalf of the International Special Events Society of Greater Washington for their efforts. “A lot of our business comes as repeats or from referrals of people who move from a client’s business. There is a big trust factor in our business. When we create an event for somebody, and our client is in charge of it, if it bombs, our client can lose his job over it. It’s intense and a scary thing for them to be that exposed. Social media does not seem to convey any of that.”
Nevertheless, the company certainly works to guide clients through the maze of social media. “The cost of entry is so low that it can be worth trying and it can deliver for many. But without a strong strategy, a company’s foray into social media might get lost in the ‘white noise’.”
The changes in video technology, both production and distribution, are the focus of O’Keefe Communications. The improvements in broadband technologies and YouTube-type delivery methods have meant higher-quality work can be distributed than was true even a few years ago. Nevertheless, their work is still backed up to BetaCamSP tape for added security. The look is almost HD quality, but without the 20-odd percent higher costs. Moreover, HD video remains difficult to distribute. O’Keefe Communications wants to be “in the middle of the technology curve,” using field-tested tools before accepting anything new as part of their work flow. The real strength comes from the focus on the clients’ job security and the ability to foster strong bonds with clients over many projects and through many business cycles – even if it means rebidding work the company had done in the past.
“But the digitization of animation and video editing are just incredible! We can offer animation that our clients couldn’t have afforded in the past. Today you can have a high-end digital editing suite that you can buy for $50,000, including monitors and computers. Before, that same kind of investment would have been $600-700,000 dollars. That has been a wonderful advance for us!”
Their client base included a number of not-for-profit enterprises like the Miriam’s Kitchen, which has helped the poor and homeless in the nation’s capital for a quarter of a century. O’Keefe believes in Miriam’s Kitchen’s mission of “providing services to address the causes and consequences of homelessness in an atmosphere of dignity and respect in the Washington, DC community,” and his company has been a part of their fundraising campaigns for seven of those years. Much of the job satisfaction clearly comes from giving agencies and charities the same standards of production as their corporate clients.(AAHSA) and the DC-based