Home Featured The Camel’s Back is Broken; Visual Content in a Multi-Channel Era

The Camel’s Back is Broken; Visual Content in a Multi-Channel Era

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Eric Fulmer, VP Operations & Strategic Growth at Capture Integration, shares his first exclusive article with WhichPLM. Capture Integration specialises in high-end digital photographic consultation, sales, training and support. An expert in e-Commerce & social media, Eric shares his thoughts with us on how e-Commerce and multi-channel growth has overloaded brand visual content production capacity. This piece marks the first in a four part series.

Eric thumbFashion brands are experiencing huge disruption in their business model, as the primary growth driver for the brand shifts from brick and mortar to digital. It’s become clear that stores and printed catalogs will not be the vehicles to take fashion into the next era, where social media and other digital channels are the new frontier for brand stories.

In order to play in the rapidly growing digital space, fashion brands must develop compelling content that drives engagement and conversion. Although video is clearly the hottest trend in content today, the demand for still imagery is growing exponentially, as well. Previously, many brands did not even photograph every product, as many were “store only.” Now, every Style or SKU is not only photographed, but typically at several angles (front, back, detail, etc.) in order to effectively merchandise the item on the brand site, as well as provide imagery to partners and the myriad digital channels, such as social, that can now leverage imagery to tell more compelling brand stories.

As visual content production shifts from a structured, seasonal schedule to a daily, high volume process, traditional photo production workflows are unable to keep pace. Processes that evolved for print advertising and catalog photography were based on seasonal schedules in which turnaround time for content could be anywhere from weeks to months, with little need for “extras”  like extensive metadata tagging on every asset.

One side effect of the need for so much product content is a dramatic increase in physical merchandise management as a key component of the creative workflow. Tracking and managing physical merchandise samples while simultaneously creating, approving and delivering data-rich, on-brand content to many target channels can, unsurprisingly, lead to a chaotic landscape that fuels inefficiency and wasted resources. The inability to make efficient use of time and resources is the largest visual content production obstacle brands face today. The lack of a user friendly and streamlined process for the handling of creative and product data, merchandise and assets from merchant to warehouse to websites, leaves a gaping hole in the profitability of visual content production in the current digital landscape.

Yesterday’s outdated workflows are simply unable to adapt to the high volume and “smarter asset” requirements intrinsic to the multi-channel digital world.

What do I mean by a “smart asset”? Every image or video that depicts products must be able to communicate core information about its contents, including:

  • The details about all the product(s) depicted (such as Style/SKU/UPC, Color, Department, etc.). This includes items such as shoes and accessories, that are critical for merchandising “looks” in digital channels;
  • Any limitations around asset usage rights, such as a time limit on asset usage imposed by a contract with the depicted model’s agency;
  • The intended usage of the asset (such as Campaign, e-Commerce, Social, etc.) which is important for driving the internal review/approval workflow needed to finalize that asset, as well as the appropriate usage once approved;
  • Creative notes from one production team to another, such as styling notes from Merchant to Photography team, retouching notes from Photography team to Post Production team, etc.

There are a range of approaches to addressing this challenge, which include:

  • Adding “people” resources
  • Optimizing “process” resources
  • A combination of both

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Our clients have found that adding “people” resources only works to a point, after which the additional personnel actually can become a drag on the production process if the process itself is weak, cumbersome or chaotic. Managing workloads and coordinating hand-offs between people and teams can become a crushing management burden as the number of people and teams proliferate. 

The key to optimizing creative teams is a balance of structure and autonomy that can be tricky to achieve. This is where optimizing process comes in. The right process provides the necessary structure for accelerating and scaling the work, without imparting an unacceptable burden on the creative teams. In fact, the right process frees the creative production teams from the low value work of chasing files, status and each other, and enables focus on the high value work they are paid for (…and love to do).

Process optimization is a topic for another day (and another author, as it isn’t my area of expertise). But a key component of addressing process optimization is looking at the tools utilized in the process. Often it’s hard to differentiate between process and tools because the two are inexorably linked in the minds of the people doing the work.

One clear trend we see among our clients is a desire to eliminate “silo” tools that have become intrinsic to their process, including:

  • spreadsheets
  • hard copy creative briefs
  • manually updated “shot lists”
  • proofs that circulate in “Job Jackets” for review
  • files flying back and forth as email attachments
  • …and the many other ‘non-optimized’ tools that have traditionally been utilized to plug ‘holes’ in the creative production process

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Many creative teams have made “baby steps” in this direction by moving from Excel sheets and hard copies to collaborative tools such as SmartSheet or Google Sheets. Some have replaced portable hard drives and email attachments with Dropbox and similar file sharing services. Just as with adding people resources, these modern tools can help relieve pressure on the production process …up to a point. But when there are suddenly a dozen different shared spreadsheet tabs in use by multiple teams, thousands of files in multiple Dropboxes, and still a ton of emails going back and forth to co-ordinate activity, the process bogs down again. This is where clients experience diminishing returns due to the “silo’d” nature of these technology tools.

Many fashion brands seek out one or more specialized software tools to address their specific challenges within creative production, which generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Project Management
  • Approval
  • Digital Asset Management (DAM)
  • Sample Tracking

Each of these technology tools has a value proposition to offer brand production teams, but often they fail to deliver the “magic bullet” that high volume creative production is searching for. My friend Clair Carter-Ginn, a Creative Operations consultant who until recently was VP of Creative Operations at Michael Kors, described her desire for a “conveyor belt” technology tool that would move creative content from one end of the process to the other. Given the exploding volume of work that must be delivered by a relatively small creative production team, this “conveyor belt” concept is definitely the right model to pursue. But creative work is not quite as simple, linear or infinitely repeatable as production assembly work, and there are many elements that are unique to each corporate environment. This leads to the need for custom-building a conveyor belt from available “parts,” such as selecting a Project Management tool from Vendor A, an approval tool from Vendor B, and a DAM tool from Vendor C. Where things can very challenging is getting these tools to behave like a single production pipeline and not three separate entities that require a lot of “handy carrying” of assets between them.

For example, a review and approval tool has much less intrinsic value if it lacks direct integration to the Project Management process. By only addressing a certain ‘piece of the puzzle,’ many process tools are not optimized for an ‘end to end’ fashion creative production process.

Unfortunately, this can result in fashion brands spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology tools to optimize creative production, only to find a lack of adoption and relatively weak ROI.

In next month’s article, I’ll dig into a specific approach to turning individual visual assets into their own mini-conveyor belts by making them “smart.”

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.