by Kevin Gepford
Creative Operations is on a roll.
Even just five years ago the term “Creative Ops” was barely even a thing. But now it’s popping up all over the place — via online jobs postings and LinkedIn, and conferences are beginning to take notice. Just a couple of years ago Henry Stewart added a day-long Creative Ops track to its premiere digital asset management conferences. And this year, Insight Exchange got into the action with a dedicated 2-day event of its own.
This is an exciting trend, and it’s right up my alley.
For the two decades that I’ve worked in the creative industry, one constant I’ve observed is that the enterprise is driven by the creative process. The operational side was stuck in a supporting role — just make things happen and don’t ask too many questions.
It’s truly great that Ops is finally getting a seat at the table, and bringing a new professionalism and strategic vision to the “how” part of producing successful creative work. Creative Ops is focused on managing and optimizing the supply chain. Eliminating frictions. Increasing the volume while decreasing the costs of creation. And having a hand in the tech and human stacks to accomplish it.
These were all hot topics at the Creative Operations Exchange conference, held in April 2017, in San Francisco. The 100 or so attendees spanned a range of industries from tech, to marketing, to creative agencies, and more.
I participated in an executive roundtable discussing the state of the role and where things are headed. However, for me the real reward came from listening and learning. The caliber of industry insight, and the quality of ideas presented, were amazing. As Nish Patel from ConceptShare noted, it felt like I had “found my tribe”.
So, what is that tribe thinking about? Here are 8 takeaways.
1) Constantly challenge your own status quo.
We have to constantly review our processes, and rethink and reimagine how our tools and systems are working. Are our people effective or frustrated? Do they have the right skills for today, as well as down the road? Are the digital tools that worked two years ago still relevant? Several presentations and panel discussions were devoted to various aspects of this topic. Continual self-discovery is in. Complacency is out.
2) The next frontier for Creative Ops is Metrics.
The most persuasive business cases for getting creative and production resources, not to mention investment in new systems, are built on what you can prove. By measuring it. In short, without stats, all you’ve got is opinions. A truly inspiring example (that people talked about for the next two days) came from Juliana Vail, head of international production at the online luxury shopping platform FarFetch. Juliana shared how daily data capture and analysis in their photography production environment helps identify bottlenecks and QA issues, and uncover insights for improving the work. This is not surprising. Metrics can yield actionable insights. And actionable insights can lead to amazing transformations. The payoff: Delivering on business goals like speeding time to market and reducing cost per asset.
“Once you automate routine work, you can use your people to do much smarter things.”
~ Vladimir Simovich
3) Automation helps the creativity flourish.
Automate wherever possible — this is a total “must” to manage the increasing volume of work expected from creative teams. The best place to look for efficiency is in repetitive and labor-intensive tasks. However, as much as Creative Operations may depend on automation, we also live in a world of exceptions that simply cannot be automated. Capture Integration’s Eric Fulmer estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of our work involves exceptions, which means the rest of the work needs to have an even higher degree of automation to compensate. The goal: To enable creative teams to focus on the areas where they shine — by producing higher value work. From Restoration Hardware, Vladimir Simovich said it very well: “Once you automate routine work, you can use your people to do much smarter things.”
4) Develop a sophisticated supply chain.
Optimizing the supply chain was probably the most macro concept from this event, presented by Nish Patel. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. But to get there you’ve got to rethink everything including the people, the process, and the technology, with metrics tying it all together. Creative Operations is important and critical for creating value for an organization. And it requires critical thinking and sophisticated problem solving up and down the entire pipeline.
5) Creative teams need tools that work.
Creative teams need better ways to manage projects, digital assets, and approvals. Without the right digital tools, things that should be easy… might not even be possible. As Eric Fulmer said, “When you’re pasting images into a spreadsheet, you know you have a problem.” Spreadsheets don’t scale. Neither does email. A business that depends on this is a business at risk. As Steve Kalalian from Industrial Color observed, “Inefficiency at scale is a very scary thing. But then “Why”, asked Nish Patel, “is there no budget for getting out of email or spreadsheets?” That’s an interesting question.
In my view, email and spreadsheets aren’t even neutral — they’re negative. They sprawl, they bog down. Every entry makes it ever harder to establish context and make sense of things. To escape that particular hell, one of the most crucial tech needs in any creative ecosystem is a tool to manage review and approval. I’ve devoted a significant part of my career developing systems in-house to answer this need. Once rank and file users see the magic of a good digital toolset, they will not miss the old days. But even then, in a situation where the tech has proven its worth, getting funding and support from leadership can still be a challenge that I have personally seen and experienced.
“There’s no silver bullet – you have to accept multiple tools.”
~ Eric Fulmer
6) No system exists that will do everything you need.
“There is no silver bullet — so you have to accept multiple tools,” according to Eric Fulmer. This is a hard truth to accept, and an even harder problem to solve. This is not likely to change. I really don’t foresee one-size-fits-all solutions appearing anytime soon. Probably the opposite. I think the diversity in use cases will foster diversity on the solutions side. From a vendor perspective, this means there is still a ton of opportunity in this space to specialize and find success. (Yet, there’s also risk in over-specialization.) On the flip side, it’ll become harder than ever for clients and buyers to figure out the right solution for their needs. Maybe the big winners here will be consultants.
7) The future of digital tools is integration.
The tech challenge for Creative Ops is to identify the right digital tools, shrink the total number of tools in use, and then get those tools working together. This is going to require vendors to cooperate, to form multiple strategic partnerships, and offer integrations way beyond just publishing open API’s or partnering as a way to glom on more features. One great example comes from the review and approval system ConceptShare. They’ve been working on an interesting and purposeful integration with Jira, and they seem to be guided by a clear understanding of genuine needs in the marketplace. In the future I believe we will see much more of this type of integration.
8) Start where you are now.
If your organization gives a you free tool, such as Jira, use it to gain insight into your work, and begin to understand which tool might be right for you. This insight came from Nvidia’s Sheryl Huynh, and it was one of the great moments of the conference event for me. I wanted to jump up and shout Amen! This has been an area of great struggle for me, as I’ve been working to adapt Jira to better fit the creative process within my digital team at AT&T. After much internal research, focus groups, and testing, this week I’m finally taking the wraps off a new Jira ticket type designed to serve our unique creative needs. This is a big milestone for me. It’s also a discovery project. I’m clearing the fog from our task management process so I can study it further in order to improve and possibly replace it with either a house-built or off-the-shelf system.
Lastly, a special shout-out to the sponsors who helped make the conference possible.