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Content Congestion; the need for modern production & approval workstreams

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Eric Fulmer, VP Operations & Strategic Growth at Capture Integration, shares his third exclusive article with WhichPLM. Eric first explored the challenges for visual content production in a multi-channel world, then looked at closing the data “black hole” of visual content production. Now he turns to creative production workflows that must be modernized to adapt to the new realities of “fast content.”

Eric thumbSpeed is King, and Relevance is Queen

The “fast fashion” trend may have passed its peak, but “fast content” is the new reality for every brand today. Change is constant, and the concept of a rigidly structured “season” is dying.

Once, designers told the consumer what to “want.” Curation was more about the designer’s taste and ability to anticipate what would appeal to a broad swath of the brand’s clients. But this structure is under siege, as consumers take charge and demand to see content that is not just on trend, but tuned to her personal taste so she can “self curate.”

Brands are also reducing agency outsourcing and taking much more control over content creation. This is a reaction to the increased velocity and margin pressures of the market, as well as the realization that the brand must engage more directly with each customer as part of their brand culture.

These radical shifts are wreaking havoc on the internal creative production processes at fashion brands. In order to deliver more personalized content, the first step is to produce (obviously)… more content! To do so, the brand must scale the “front end” of the content creation process in a variety of ways:

  • Generating more briefs to request more creative production work
  • Creating new types of campaigns to leverage the unique strengths of new channels
  • Increasing the number of product photography views/angles
  • Creating richer and more varied product copy/stories
  • Seeking out third-party content that relates to the brand
  • Repurposing user-generated content
  • Incorporating new content types, such as video

Monolithic “Workflow” gives way to Parallel “Workstreams”

Once the brand embraces the reality that the modern multi-channel digital world demands more – and more varied – content, it’s quite obvious that a single creative production workflow cannot accommodate this explosion of content types. For example, the tools and processes needed to scale studio photography for producing additional angles on every garment are entirely distinct from the tools and processes needed to identify, curate and repurpose user-generated content.

A foundational step in this process is to institutionalize the idea of parallel creative production “workstreams” that often consist of similar conceptual steps (e.g. creation, curation, management and distribution), but require very different tools and processes to complete those steps.

Defining and maintaining multiple creative production workstreams is a huge challenge on several fronts. First, brands rarely have deep benches of in-house talent for merging creative needs with process tools. Information Technology (IT) organizations are optimized and staffed for basic infrastructure (“keeping the trains running on time”). Engaging with creative teams to extract business requirements and map those into workflow process tools is well outside the IT scope of expertise. Few consultants are deeply embedded in the fashion world and so most have little to offer in terms of specific solutions for this niche.

This challenge is magnified by the dynamic nature of the brand world and of creative production work in general; encompassing so many exceptions and edge cases. So even the perfect workstream today will need to evolve over the next 6-12 months, and change radically in 1-3 years. Then, there is the issue of user adoption. Creatives would, ideally, like to add zero tools to their process. They already have multiple tools in the Adobe Creative Suite to master, along with third-party applications such as Phase One’s Capture One. If they have to adopt another tool, they typically insist it must be a single tool to solve all their production problems, and not five new tools they need to learn. But no single tool encompasses the end-to-end needs of multiple creative workstreams.

In short, we know from our extensive experience with fashion brands that there are myriad failure points along the road to successfully implementing multiple creative workstreams.

Content Overload

By enlarging the funnel of incoming content, the brand will also experience an almost immediate bottleneck in the review/approval stage. A key factor: different channels entail different review/approval steps, so each channel of delivery typically requires its own approval workstream. A common example is that a Campaign image needs more approval steps that require different approvers, than an eCommerce image. This is where implementing review/approval software tools often gets bogged down. Just creating a place where content can be uploaded and users can make mark-ups and comments isn’t difficult. There are myriad serviceable tools that offer this core functionality. The problem is managing the different review/approval workstreams per channel of delivery.

Combine this with the need for faster content delivery than ever before, and you have a recipe for serious bottlenecks. If the review/approval process is circumvented for expediency, the brand risks a range of problems from a general lowering of brand standards to a serious and potentially viral “Photoshop fail” backlash – something I’m sure we’re all familiar with.

Clusterflunk stock photo.

Smart Assets to the Rescue

This is where the “smart assets” that I introduced earlier in this article series come into play. If you imagine thousands of assets needing to move through one of several end-to-end production workstreams, it becomes unmanageable to have users “pushing” groups of assets manually through each stage of the workstream. Rather, the assets should move through the process automatically (or, at minimum, “semi-automatically”). For example, in the review/approval stage, assets should be delivered to the review/approval platform in bulk (ideally through a “hot folder’ or automated triggering process), and each asset should “tell” the review/approval platform which workstream it must pass through. The review/approval platform then moves the asset through the correct approval step automatically. Because we are dealing with a smart asset, reviewers can not only see the asset’s visual properties, but review the rich metadata right alongside the asset to inform and provide context for reviewers.

This may sound like a pipe dream, but the technology is all in place today, and has been for over a decade. Adobe was brilliant in predicting the need for a standardized way to embed metadata into assets directly, without breaking the file format standards of those assets. By choosing to submit the resulting metadata architecture, Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP), to the International Standards Organization in 2004, Adobe was building a foundation for a future where “smart assets” were the norm. A future where applications from different vendors and on different platforms could exchange assets that retained huge repositories of commonly readable metadata.

What’s been missing from Adobe’s vision is the automated tagging of rich metadata at the point of asset creation to enable a full production workflow built on “smart assets.” Now that we have addressed that component via tools such as our ShotFlow One platform, the power of smart assets is being unleashed for fashion brands.

Next month I will discuss how smart assets become a key component of a “DAM revolution” to serve modern fashion brands. 

Eric Fulmer Eric Fulmer has been a pioneer in digital photography and digital asset workflow since the early 1990s when he joined Fuji’s Digital Imaging Division, where he worked with major corporations and cultural institutions including The Smithsonian Institution and The Metropolitan Museum of Art as they adopted digital workflows. Later, Eric worked with leading photography studios at both Leaf and Phase One, pioneers in digital capture systems and image processing workflows. He has led DAM integrations at major government institutions and played multiple roles in a startup SaaS platform vendor providing end-to-end creative production solutions for the world’s largest fashion and retail brands. He now leads the software team at Capture Integration, developing the ShotFlow One visual content production platform.