Scott Lyons: From hip hop to blue chip

He got fed up working for MTV so he set up his own company. Now the Perfunktory Group is making a name for itself in webcasting.
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The Independent Online

Scott Lyons can't stop talking. Though he is suffering from allergies and builders are banging away next door, he is rattling on as fast as he can about his company. But Lyons isn't just all talk. As co-founder and director of development of the four-year-old Perfunktory Group, he's ridden the technology currents, expanding a small TV production company into an agency that's made a name for itself in webcasting and interactive TV. What's more, he's only 26.

Looking very much the creative type with his long sideburns and trendy jeans, Lyons began his career early. At the age of 19, the Florida native did work experience at MTV during his third year at university. When his short spell in the workplace ended, Lyons decided to quit school and stay on at MTV. "I already had my foot in the door, so I decided to stay," he says. "My father wasn't too happy about it. He said I tricked him into letting me go to New York, since once I got there, I knew I was never going back to Florida."

At MTV, Lyons started out in the press relations office. From there, he worked his way up, moving to the off-air creative department that designed the logos, graphics and books for all of MTV's off-camera activities. Initially, he found the experience "excellent", giving him a wide exposure to the different aspects of marketing and design.

But by his third year at MTV, Lyons had begun to get bored. "I had all these great ideas I wanted to work on, but it was hard to get anyone interested in my ideas. I felt that MTV had lost its vision. It had become a huge corporate giant, and it felt as if they'd stuck a tube in me and were draining all of my creative energy away. There was so much back-stabbing and climbing up on each other there."

That's when Lyons decided to start his own production company, which he named the Perfunktory Group. The company's first job took Lyons to Israel, where he shot promotional videos for the World Zionist Organisation. "It was a lot of fun," he recalls. "Most of the team were used to shooting things for the music industry and all of a sudden we were in Israel, shooting stuff for the World Zionist Organisation."

That led to more jobs, and eventually to the break that would bring Lyons to London. He first came to Britain when he was shooting Lost in Bass, a drum'n'bass and trip hop documentary. "I came to Britain about six times during the shooting and fell in love with London." He loved it so much, he brought the Perfunktory Group to the UK. But the move wasn't entirely smooth.

"Coming over to the UK was like being born again," he says. He moved to London with Perfunktory's co-founder, Rachel Etienne. "We had no history in this country, no one knew us, and we didn't know anyone. Banks wouldn't talk to us. We couldn't get a credit card. We didn't know many of the cultural references. It was very, very hard."

But he persisted, making cold calls to potential clients. "I would think about who I wanted to work with and I would give them a call and say, 'Hey, I think you need this'." The tactic eventually paid off. Egg, the internet bank, signed the Perfunktory Group on, asking them to create original programming to be broadcast on Open, BSkyB's now-defunct interactive shopping channel.

It's an approach that the persistent Lyons still uses. "We're getting more referrals now, but [cold calling] is one way to ensure you work with companies you want to work with," he says. So far, Perfunktory has signed on such blue-chip clients as British Airways, MTV and VH1.

Aside from its work with corporate clients, the Perfunktory Group is still very much in touch with its music roots, winning the contracts to broadcast several music festivals, including Brighton's Essential Festival and Sweden's biggest music festival, Hultsfred. In fact, it was Lyons's idea to approach the Essential Festival. At first, the Perfunktory Group thought that it could shoot it for television, but was worried that there wouldn't be enough interest in it. That's when Lyons thought, "Why not a webcast?" Aside from the webcast, Perfunktory built a webcasting portal for the Essential Festival (thesiteforsound. com), which then sold the rights of the webcasts to other portals.

Lyons believes Perfunktory's clients are most attracted to the company's high webcasting standards. He says that production costs for webcasts can run almost as high as producing the same amount of footage for television. "Unfortunately, there is a huge mindset difference between shooting for TV and shooting for the internet," he says. "Many other webcasters don't come from a production background as we do, they come from a 'techie' background. They're more concerned with the technology, not how the product looks in the end."

Perfunktory has also worked on perfecting the way footage is shot for the Web. For example, Lyons notes that while fast-moving pictures work well on television, they don't work well on the Web, where they tend to pixelate. But isn't worrying about quality a waste of time, especially at a time when few surfers have broadband connections? On the contrary, says Lyons. If you shoot high-quality footage, it can be sold or reused. "For example, we shot footage for the music promoters Mean Fiddler which was eventually sold to Channel 4."

But Lyons admits that, like many in the internet industry, he is waiting for the day when broadband becomes a mainstream reality. "I have no nice things to say about BT," says Lyons. "The company has stalled and stalled on ADSL [Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line], and Oftel hasn't been strict enough with it."

Lyons also thinks the Government has "got it wrong" when it comes to broadband. "This government isn't putting enough support behind ADSL," he says. "It's very short-sighted. Without their help, this industry will fall behind."

But, that said, several mainstream webcasts have proved that an audience is out there. First up was Paul McCartney's concert from Liverpool's Cavern Club in 1999. The webcast attracted 3 million viewers worldwide. Last year, Madonna's concert at the Brixton Academy pulled in 9 million viewers.

"That's the great thing about webcasting – your audience is worldwide," says Lyons. "When we did the webcast for Hultsfred [the Swedish music festival], viewers came from as far away as China, Saudi Arabia and Russia. When the BBC broadcasts Glastonbury, they can only show it to British viewers. Imagine if more people had broadband."

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