Tim Zanker has been at the helm of O’Keefe Communications since 2016, but his history and commitment with the company dates to 1992, and journeys through evolutions of technology, media platforms and digital formats that have unexpectedly landed at virtual production.
Zanker is the president of O’Keefe Communications, a small digital media and virtual events production company of 10 designers, managers, producers, creatives and editors taking a team approach to media projects. Those projects now include large virtual conferences and events, but it wasn’t always that way.
O’Keefe Communications was founded in 1979 by a husband-and-wife team as a film and multi-image company. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, the company evolved into video and digital media, and began producing live events in the ‘90s. Those events were mostly trade shows, business meetings and sales launches, which involved a lot of equipment, labor, stage set up, scripting and coaching. Basically, the whole package, as Zanker describes it.
Zanker studied photography and filmmaking at Rochester Institute of Technology from 1977–1982, and joined O’Keefe Communications in 1992 as a multimedia producer. Eventually, he began running the live events portion of the business, and in the early 2000s, became a vice president.
When the owners were discussing retirement, Zanker decided to buy the company and keep it going. He took over in 2016, and has been with the company for 28 years.
“I felt a really strong commitment to both the employees and our clients to keep the company and our mission going, especially with ownership that was known and trusted,” Zanker told WashingtonExec.
As president, he oversees the direction of the company, developing new business opportunities and managing existent client relationships. He also plays a very active role in productions, which now, thanks to restrictions and challenges surrounding the pandemic, have shifted to virtual events.
“We were kind of uniquely positioned for [virtual events] already because we have core competencies of messaging, graphics design, video production and content delivery,” Zanker explained. “Those are all things that play perfectly for virtual events.”
The original values that drive the company haven’t changed, either: think creatively, produce effectively and act honestly. In fact, that mission statement is literally written on the walls in the office, and it has a deeper meaning.
Think creatively refers to approaching every project from a fresh perspective rather than creating templates for similar projects or forming cookie-cutter approaches.
Produce effectively refers to effective messaging and results-based efforts to create the best content and events the team can.
And act honestly, Zanker says, is in some ways, the most important part of the mission.
“By act honestly, we do what we say we’ll do for the price we say we’ll do it,” he said. “We never overcharge a client. We always try to be very upfront about potential challenges that everyone might face during a project, and everything’s just very open, transparent and above board.”
Those are the foundational principles still fueling O’Keefe Communications’ work, which continues to provide creative and technical services to share and broadcast experiences and messaging. Its projects span education sessions, livestream awards and webcast virtual training for associations, businesses, government and nonprofit agencies.
The team driving those projects remains small and tight knit, with a unique independent management style.
Quality over Quantity
“O’Keefe Communications is made up primarily of designers, producers, editors,” Zanker said. “And we all, without fail,
are very self-motivated, have a really great work ethic, are highly creative and very importantly, have a sense of humor and playfulness, and that ties into the creativity part of it.”
While in total the company is a group of 10, each member tends to be managers of smaller teams, thanks to a much larger extended workforce of freelancers and subcontractors.
“All of us as producers are team leaders, and that’s something we look for when we’re hiring,” Zanker said. “Somebody who can lead a small team, be a great project manager, be highly creative and very self-motivated.”
Fostering and maintaining that internal culture and diversity is crucial, Zanker says. The company has creative meetings and fun brainstorming sessions, encourages water cooler creative conversations or “drive-by” creative conversations, and keeps the line of communication open.
“If somebody has the germ of an idea, they need to feel free to be able to bounce that off of other team members,” Zanker said.
That has been a bit more challenging during the pandemic as people work remotely and can’t just pop into each other’s office or spark conversation in the hallway. But Zanker says his team is adapting to doing that in a virtual world.
“We’re open to everybody’s ideas,” he said. “When we have a creative meeting, a lot of times, everyone will be in it, no matter what their position is and what their specialty is. We’re open to all ideas, we’re open to perspectives.”
That mix of perspectives follows Zanker’s emphasis on having a diverse team.
“I believe really strongly in having a diverse group,” he said. “It’s something that I work hard on building. We’re diverse racially, we’re diverse in nationalities. We have people that were born overseas and some of the freelancers we work with are in other countries. All of those things help give us a little bit of an edge.”
In terms of fostering morale, especially during the pandemic, Zanker feels the best way to keep spirits up is to treat everybody with respect and dignity, to listen to all and to let employees chart their own path.
“That’s kind of an important part of our company; we don’t tightly define somebody’s role,” Zanker said. “We let them experiment and kind of keep the guard rails far apart, if you will.”
Zanker allows employees to define their own job and position within the company after having spent a year or so with the team.
That emphasis on culture expands to the company’s client relationships, too. Zanker looks for long-term relationships with clients. He’s passionate about developing that trust and collaboration and is proud of O’Keefe Communications’ ability to maintain business with certain clients for decades.
“We’d like our clients to think of us as an extension of their team,” Zanker said. “That’s what we enjoy the most.”
Evolutions are Inevitable
O’Keefe Communications has been in the live event game for years, putting together conferences of 300-10,000 attendees, producing all content for the large screens, developing the technical designs and so on.
“We would bring in three or four tractor trailers full of equipment and build out a whole environment, to basically engage the audience,” he said. “And then everything that goes to screen, everything that happens on stage, from the moment people walk into the room until the moment they leave, we try to have total control over that.”
But as of March, the company has expanded its expertise to the virtual events space. The live event business has completely dried up since the start of COVID-19, and Zanker doesn’t see it coming back for quite some time. Even when it does, he believes the virtual aspect is here to stay.
“Rather than trying to tough it out and get through it, we pivoted to virtual events. Within a matter of months, we have become incredibly busy and very, very successful from a business standpoint,” he said.
Virtual events are composed of either live streaming and remote video capture of presenters and material, or prerecording an entire program and editing and posting on a webinar platform.
As Zanker mentioned, his team was uniquely positioned to already do those things.
“We’ve been doing video production since the ‘80s and producing content and figuring out how to engage audiences and how best to communicate a client’s message,” Zanker said. “Basically, we’re doing the same thing that we’ve always done. We’re just doing it through a different medium.”
Even pre-pandemic, O’Keefe Communications didn’t look at the evolution of technologies, platforms and mediums for engagement as a challenge. It’s always been an opportunity, adding more tools to the company’s toolkit.
“A lot of us are very technologically savvy and are always looking for new ways to do things and new methods and unique and better ways to present a client’s message to do an event, to produce a video,” Zanker said. “So, we’re always hungry for change and hungry for new things.”
To keep up with the pace of change, Zanker likes to be continuously learning. That’s part of the company’s commitment to thinking creatively.
That mentality has greatly benefited the company during these unprecedented times, and is shaping where O’Keefe Communications will go. Zanker said the way his team has evolved in the last five months has been remarkable.
“It’s really amazing what a small, talented smart team can do when given the opportunities to change. I see us being more involved going forward in the strategy and formulation of virtual programming, not just the execution of the content and event,” he said.
And when live events return, Zanker is excited for the opportunities of working at the intersection of live and virtual events.
“I really see opportunity for us to do great things and for growth,” he added.
The Proof is in the Projects
It’s difficult for Zanker to point out just a few notable productions during his years with the company. Prior to the pandemic, he’d call out some of the impressive big live events he worked on. And while the events may look different now, the amount of hard work, innovation and creativity that goes into them remain.
In mid-March, during the peak of the pandemic, O’Keefe Communications produced a rapid-response webcast for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization to replace a prior-planned plenary session. This event was originally to be a large in-person summit for the biotech innovators community working on solutions to the pandemic, wanting to discuss how government, private industry and academia could work together to develop a vaccine.
O’Keefe Communications put together the entire virtual event — its first one during the pandemic — in just a couple of weeks.
“I was really proud of that,” Zanker said.
The company has produced virtual award ceremonies, webcasts, general sessions and events since, including WashingtonExec’s own virtual Chief Officer Awards. It’s even working on a multi-episode live cooking competition and fundraising event that will feature celebrity chefs.
“It was a very large live event, and we are transforming that into a virtual show, which I think is pretty neat,” Zanker said.
That’s why he is particularly proud of what the O’Keefe Communications team has accomplished this year.
“It really gives me a lot of pride to see what they’ve been able to pull off under really difficult and challenging situations,” Zanker said. Even during personal challenges, his team has been able to completely pivot what it does and how it does it, while staying true to the company’s 40-year legacy.