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Conversations: Michael Robinson, Manner Solutions

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Just last month our CEO, Mark Harrop, spoke with Michael Robinson of Manner Solutions. Manner Solutions offers a suite of software solutions catered specifically to the RFA market.

Mark Harrop: Firstly, I want to ask you to define Manner Solutions, in your own words?

Michael Robinson: In a nutshell, Manner is an innovative retail tech company offering a suite of cloud-based software solutions that enable creative-driven organizations to harness the power of their data and turn it into a competitive advantage. As far as we know, we are the only company offering a complete range of solutions designed specifically for RFA (retail, footwear & apparel) companies created by actual end users from the business – design, production, merchandising, marketing and archive.

Mark Harrop: And exactly what experiences are you referring to? Can you give me a little background on yourself and your team?

Michael Robinson: I have a broad marketing and communications background, combined with change management expertise. This diverse background has served me really well in creating and growing my company, Manner Solutions. Eric, my partner, has been a software developer for over 20 years. He runs the back of house at Manner Solutions, and I’m front of house – to use a restaurant business analogy.

Because of my experiences as a senior communicator and marketer at some of the largest ad agencies and leading fashion companies in the world, I have a deep understanding of the daily challenges brands face in today’s rapidly changing retail environment. Over the years, Eric and I have collected a crew of industry professionals that understand the industry, and our experiences provide us a view into the past that will create our client’s future. We have experienced their pain points in our own careers, and love helping our clients develop dynamic and normalized databases that deliver tremendous operational efficiencies. Our passion is to help businesses realize the power of their data and assets. It’s our mission to help our clients make key style information available so teams and individuals can make their own line sheets and maximize samples and creative content.

I worked very closely with the marketing and design leadership teams for several years at Ralph Lauren and I experienced first-hand how difficult it was to get the information that they and their teams needed. It could take weeks to pull together information from all the divisions, and almost instantly the information became static and outdated. Granted, Ralph Lauren was a very large and complex company but I saw a similar struggle, on a smaller scale, at Tory Burch. It was then that I had my ‘eureka moment’ and Eric and I formed Manner Solutions.

While data aggregation is not new, there wasn’t a product that captured a style’s metadata – product information, line sheets, images in DAM, editorial credits, ads, buys etc. – in one place and made it accessible to all the relevant departments. This is what The Vault, our platform, does. We believe in democratizing data. Instead of keeping information locked in workflow silos, The Vault turns silos on their side to create a pipeline where information can flow from department to department.

This seamless flow of information is critically important in complex, creative-driven organizations because so much is riding on each step of the design-market-archive process. Quite literally, a collection can fail because of one missed deadline.

Mark Harrop: You mentioned competitive advantage – please elaborate.

Michael Robinson: I would characterize the competitive advantages we offer as falling into two broad areas: actionable transparency and time and cost-saving efficiencies. On the first point, as you know all modern companies claim to be “data-driven”, however many CMOs feel absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of data in their organization. Most of the CMOs (Marketing and Merchants) we speak with tell us that they don’t feel better informed or more in control because of the data. Just the opposite, in fact. They are desperate for a simple way to turn all that data into useable and actionable information.

You’re familiar with the famous John Wannamaker saying, “I know that half of my advertising is working. I just don’t know which half.”

The Vault helps answer that age-old question. It provides real-time information and transparency into every aspect of the concept-design-production-marketing-sales-archive continuum, and allows the CMO and leadership team to pivot and take corrective action immediately. They no longer have to wait for weekly, monthly sales and marketing update meetings. The information is available to them 24/7 on their mobile devices.

Let me give you a quick example. The CMO at one of our clients – a well-regarded apparel brand – starts her day with a review of the preceding day’s sales. She downloads a report that breaks down the performance of every style they have in market. The report shows sales by channel and even details on advertising spend, placement, editorial credits and other assets available to speaking to their customers. All of this information is real-time, and accessible on an iPad or mobile device. That is a powerful competitive advantage to quickly see planned or active content. Our client can see where there are potential gaps or overlaps per style, looks or categories, and pivot or adjust based on sales or lack of performance. As we discussed before, we’re creating a “data lake” fueled with information from its source and they can mine to quickly answer questions and reach to real-time consumer demands. What used to take us a week to address we can quickly answer by using The Vault.

The other way The Vault delivers competitive advantage is by eliminating “Excel hell” by simplifying and streamlining the many manual processes by which most fashion companies use to collect and share data. One of our clients estimated that The Vault has reduced by 20-30% the time employees spend inputting data and creating reports.

Mark Harrop: And how does Manner compete with larger technology players?

Michael Robinson: Like the proverbial David, we have a powerful slingshot! Fashion is a complex business and its needs are not cookie-cutter, which is how Manner stands out. Everyone at the firm has deep-seeded knowledge and understanding of the business of fashion – from design to manufacturing to luxury retailing. This means that the onboarding time is minimal, and we are able to hit the ground running and can add value almost immediately.

One way we help executives and teams see the value of what we do is to share a vision of a system that breaks down the silos.

Think of each group – design, production, tech, merchandising, marketing, sales, customer services. The current state has them working on unique manual processes and files. They may have their own systems of record – a PLM, a CRM, an ERP – but there is nothing helping them see the relevant style metadata in one place. In many cases, style changes occur on a daily or hourly basis throughout the product development phases all the way up to cutting purchase orders (and even after that, unfortunately). We see changes in color, print size, fabrication, silhouette, quantity change, delivery, cost and so on.

The potential impact of inaccurately capturing the “change” in style data has a pervasive domino effect when it comes to reporting. In our experience, these changes are rarely communicated effectively to cross-functional teams, leading to mistakes that have major financial impact. Once executives see the ‘future state’ that The Vault offers, they have an “a-ha” moment and recognize that seamless data integration and sharing of information in real-time is a must-have for their organization.

Mark Harrop: And one final question to close – what do you see as the biggest threat to fashion businesses in the future?

Michael Robinson: In a word, people. An issue, that doesn’t get enough attention when brands talk about their investments in ‘technology’, is the impact of technology on employees. When fashion brands tout their “embrace of digital transformation,” their technology investments are almost exclusively externally-focused, e.g., ecommerce platforms, social media and interactive retail experiences. But brands also need to invest in technology to motivate and engage employees, and empower them to develop, produce, and market the most innovative and inspiring products possible.

We see a serious potential pipeline issue if brands continue to expect employees to operate in an analogue world of siloed departments, juggling massive excel outputs from multiple disjointed data sources. When putting together a cohesive story based on the available data becomes too much of a burden, employees will burn out. The result is high employee turnover and loss of institutional knowledge.

We believe there is tremendous value to be captured by sharing information across the entire organization. The Vault makes empowers and motivates teams because they see how they individually contribute to the success of the brand.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.