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Imagine Communications: Rising to today’s challenges

Digital Studio ME caught up with Anas Hantash, head of Middle East, S. Asia and N. Africa, Imagine Communications to discuss the company’s regional operations, business challenges in the post-pandemic era and how the industry needs to adapt to the realities of the new normal

Imagine Communications: Rising to today’s challenges

Please elaborate on Imagine’s business operations in the region.

We have had a presence as a regional team since 2008. We continue to grow: our team includes professional service, engineers, presales, solution architects and bid managers – we are far more than just a sales office.

This has always been an essential part of Imagine’s culture: if we commit to a region, we really commit. This presence is a key factor why our customers choose Imagine. It means we speak the language and understand the culture of our industry, as well as providing excellent solutions.

Looking at what we see, there are two distinct sectors in the broadcast industry in the region. Public broadcasters, often state-run, have a broad public service obligation; private broadcasters, usually financed by advertising, need to reach large audiences and generate strong revenue streams. Additionally, of course, there are the production houses that offer their services to these two distinct broadcasters.

In turn, we have to treat them differently because of their different demands and different cultures. It helps that Imagine has an extensive portfolio and a broad mix of products, certainly compared to other businesses in the market. Our local knowledge and understanding give us the ability to be agile, to fill gaps in the market. For instance, if the requirement for playout is saturated, then we can sell ad management solutions or core networking infrastructure for a studio or an OB truck.

We have created an expectation of a high level of support, and that is seen as a significant advantage. We focus on maintaining customers while planning to win new business.

How has business outlook and customer demand evolved this year?

It is all about the content, today more than ever. Our customers want to talk about quality and reach. How do we get the right content quality to the largest targeted audience? Public broadcasters need to serve the whole audience on all platforms; private broadcasters are looking to build audiences through quality and content.

When we are talking with customers, the conversation is often about setting the balance between production and playout budgets. We talk about pain points – we need to understand the business challenges facing our customers to offer them the right solution.

In 2020, if a client has to spend more on content, then we have to find ways to reduce the total cost of ownership of the playout chain.

But at its heart, it is all about understanding the customer. If they are successful, they will grow, and if they grow then we will grow, too.

How do you envisage things going forward? What is the new normal?

Top of the agenda is education and planning toward an IP future. Everyone now understands that they have to jump into IP – they need to respect existing investments, but there is no going back – so we have a responsibility to help our customers make this transition.

SMPTE ST 2110 is getting super clear to customers. They see it as the path forward. But it depends on addressing new challenges such as mixing broadcast engineering and networking IT skills, hence the need for education and sharing of experiences.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a change in priorities. Things that were on the shelf, to be addressed “one day,” have been pushed to the fore.

Remote control and remote functionality are now a must-have. Business continuity is at the centre of everyone’s attention. We realise now that it is not just a question of having a backup set of equipment. We need to plan to transform the entire operation chain, from operator intensive to remotely controlled and highly automated.

Vendors like Imagine have built solutions with this kind of functionality. Remote operation is everyone’s top priority now.

What adjustments have been made to the industry’s outlook?

If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is that we look online for everything. Whether it is grocery shopping, education, or a consultation with a doctor, we do it online. That has been a huge learning curve for everyone.

This trend will, of course, carry over into our industry. Our customers will be looking to refocus their operations, from remote production to flexible and scalable delivery. Monetising and optimising inventory across multiplatform/OTT is also a central area of focus to evolve with changes in the business and the industry easily – it is not an add-on anymore.

The economic impact of recent months has only added to the pressure on the media industry. Customers think twice about spending the dollar: on what, when and with whom.

What is the role of automation in this industry, particularly given that most operations are now being handled remotely?

Imagine has long been associated with automation, originally in playout but also workflow, content and ad management. Recently, we installed some flexible, standards-based IP business continuity solutions that synchronise between main and disaster recovery sites and are completely automated.

Workflows run from both sites seamlessly. We have redundancy solutions as part of our Versio modular playout platform, so we don’t look at just a 1+1. It is more of N+M for playout redundancy. Even 1+N – if I have a critical channel, then I can have several instances, not just one backup. Clearly, the key product for business continuity is automation.

The Imagine team helped customers jump into disaster recovery remotely. We used Zoom and Team calls to help our customers test their systems and make sure everything is functional. It was good to see how well it worked in the real world.

How has Imagine responded to the global pandemic, both in terms of its employees and its customers?

Imagine’s approach towards the pandemic has been to implement a plan that focuses on three main areas: ensure the safety and well-being of our employees, continue to support our customers, and fulfil our business commitments and obligations.

We aimed to be proactive in this. As soon as it seemed likely that there would be restrictions on travel and meeting customers, we reached out to all users to schedule a practice run on remote connections to their systems. This allowed us to check in advance if we were going to be able to provide the level of support that we pride ourselves on. Our customers understood and worked with us on this.

It is essential to understand that all aspects of our business have continued, even through distanced contact. We have successfully closed deals in the last few months and have delivered solutions as per customers’ requirements.

A good example is the new integrated playout infrastructure project at Saudi Broadcasting Authority, which won the “Outstanding Achievement in Workflow” award in the 2020 Digital Studio Middle East Awards. The project required us to build a new, highly resilient playout centre, and later added five geographically dispersed disaster recovery sites to the contract.

We delivered the systems preconfigured to our customer sites. Thereafter, through remote access Team and Zoom calls, we trouble-shot the installations and provided the necessary training. The systems were fully commissioned and handed over without us being on-site. That is just one example of the way we have been active even when we cannot get out and about.

What would be your advice on how to adapt business models to address the changing demands of customers?

Work closely together. Understand the business challenges and adapt your solutions to suit them. Develop phasing to meet budgets and cash flow, as well as operational demands. It is a real partnership.

We have to work together to get to a win-win scenario.

What are the top things that the industry should focus on right now?

It is a content game. It has always been so, but it is the big thing to focus on right now. If you can deliver the content that delights your audience, you will optimise your services for advertising and sponsorship.

As I mentioned earlier, everyone is online all the time. That means flexibility in making and monetising TV for multiple platforms to fast-track time to revenue must be the focus. It is the only way to efficiently deliver the right content to a fragmented, anywhere/anytime audience.

Finally, one must think in terms of total cost of ownership. Virtualised software-centric solutions mean you can move from a CAPEX business towards OPEX model. You need to think about how you can transform your own business planning to take best advantage of OPEX funding, and how that will affect your capital spending plans.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Stay healthy!

Our industry is changing rapidly, and we have to keep everyone’s focus on continually improving productivity and creativity. At Imagine Communications, we are already working successfully with clients on that. We need to share that expertise and experience across the wider industry, so we all benefit.

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