We chatted to Rob Fish-founder of Multi-Media, who enlightened us on how the company was started. It’s worth noting that technology was vastly different back then….
In the early eighties, Rob was involved in technical sales of air brake systems and spares to the trucking industry in the Western Cape, and by his own admission, doing reasonably well at it too.
At that time, video projectors commonly used today, were still in their infancy, and the backbone of the then fledgling Audio Visual industry, was driven by the now antiquated slide projection. Often, these were grouped together in banks of 3, and the images controlled to dissolve from one to the next, given an illusion of moving imagery. A “big show” could consist of 9 or more such projectors on a wide screen.
Lighting was static, and the bigger the show, the more lights were needed. Colour was achieved by carefully planning which fixtures would get a colour gel, and once set-up, there was no quick way to change – unlike today with intelligent lights that change positions, colours and patterns at the flick of a switch! These fixtures had a voracious appetite for power, and with todays LED technology, could probably power up a small suburb on the equivalent of a decent sized show back then!
Rob’s first foray into the industry was when he was persuaded by his friend at the time Ron Harries, to moonlight on the factory launch in Uitenhage of the Audi 500 which had just been launched in South Africa – unaware that this experience would set his life on a new and exciting path. After this launch, Ron suggested that Rob was so adept at his new found skills, that he should leave the trucking business, and embark on a new career, setting him up with some of the industries hot shots at the time, Peter Den Hartog and Terry O’Keefe of D&O Studios in Cape Town.
Around this time, the AV industry really took off, and with the D&O staging division grew very rapidly, both Ron and Rob were appointed directors. It was during this period that The Southern Life Association merged with Anglo American Life – forming what was to be come known as “The Southern” This was a major launch for D&O; and consisted of a Road Show staged in different venues, all across the country.
In those days, the Carlton Hotel in downtown Johannesburg was the place to be, and apart from hosting many prestigious events, was also where luminaries such as Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton made their homes when in South Africa. Not long after this, differences amongst the directors had Rob and Ron deciding to call it a day with D&O, and the two decided go out and give it a go on their own. Each armed with a single slide projector, their only parting gift from the company, “Avent Staging” was formed on the proverbial sniff of an oil rag, big dreams and loads of enthusiasm.
Their very first staging job was a road show for Tiger Brands to launch a new breakfast cereal “Oats So Easy”. The client was advertising agency, Rightford, Searle-Tripp and Makin – who later went on, to join forces with Ogilvy and Mather – still a leader in the advertising industry today. Because finances were tight, Rob relied on handshake agreements with many suppliers in the industry extending credit to the new business, and these gentleman, as Rob refers to them, were instrumental in getting the business off the ground. Business lesson #1 was learned. Always act with integrity, and this is still a cornerstone of the business today.
The years 1985 to 1991 saw a period of sustained growth, and Rob spent a considerable amount of time on the road each year with Sanlam and the staging of the “Chairman’s Road Show” Rob tells a story of one of those particular events where the presentation was held in a small Western Transvaal town, now the North West province. There was not enough power to run both the kitchen and the presentation, and so Rob had to resort to sourcing additional power from an office building next door. While this helped, guests could still only be fed after the presentation, when more power was available for the kitchen. 25 years later, not only is Sanlam our longest standing client, but power concerns are still a most topical issue!
Windows 3.0 had been released – with an awe inspiring 16 colour advanced graphics ability – floppy discs were used for storage, the internet was still only being spoken about and cell phones were still 3 years away from launching in SA. It was against this backdrop when once again directors’ differences cropped up, leading to Ron and Rob deciding to part ways. The year was 1991 – and this was truly the start of Multi-Media, as we know it today. Rob bought a property in Tokai and it was from here that the business roots were formed.
After the first month on his own, business lesson # 2 came knocking. Revenue Services came looking for a substantial amount of money in unpaid taxes due by the now closed Avent Staging business. Rob, never being in control of the finances for this company and trusting his partner, was unaware of this situation, and thus after much sacrifice, went about paying off SARS over the next 4 years. He took full responsibility for the naive mistakes he had made and resolved to never experience similar issues ever again. It was at this point, that Rob realised that this ‘thing’ – being the AV industry – was dragging him along at its own pace, and now was the time for him to take control and create the path along which he chose to operate.
25 years on, Multi-Media continues to keep a clean set of books and is held in high-regard by suppliers, staff and freelancers alike. Interestingly, the name Multi-Media was not necessarily a first choice for Rob. At the time, Rob considered “Multi-Medium” – this being a reference for “many forms of media” – but ‘medium’ did not sound right, nor exactly inspire thoughts of excellence, and so Multi-Media was decided upon. While the thought still remains relevant, these days Multi-Media has become more synonymous as a generic term across many industries for combining various forms of communication, often in an IT related way.
Along with this, Multi-Media drew attention from the M-NET legal department when they noticed that the Multi-Media logo bore a striking resemblance to that of M-NET at the time. Knowing which battles to take on, the Multi-Media logo was changed, and thus avoided a possible costly legal dispute.
In the late 90’s, Tim Fish, whilst still in high school, started showing an interest in the events industry, and started earning some pocket money during his school holidays, joining Rob on some of the road shows. After he completed his schooling and with no motivation from his dad, he joined the company as a junior technician and immediately began to excel. All this time, Multi- Media was still firmly rooted in Cape Town, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the Johannesburg offices were established when Tim decided to relocate to run the branch.
Looking back, Rob comments on an industry that consistently humbles in the friendships that were made under stressful times, as well as the human spirit and endeavour in finding creative solutions to problems that at times, most didn’t know exist. The establishment of the Johannesburg office heralds the next part of the Multi-Media journey, and we will explore this further when we chat to Tim in our next letter.