July 15, 2017 -

Killer Ops: The Tech Stack

About the Killer Ops series:

How can creative teams increase their Value Proposition? How can they become better strategic partners in the organization? Following the entrepreneurial model of Product Development, creative teams – and organizations – can learn to think and act like a startup, to develop a framework for continuous innovation, improved operations, and greater success.

What This is About: Analyze your creative Tech Stack by studying your current needs and existing tools, and mapping your toolkit ecosystem.

Why it Matters: A Tech Stack Canvas is a powerful way to analyze your core needs and evaluate your digital toolkit, using four quadrants. This visualization will structure your thinking about the Tech Stack you need to thrive — helping with your decision-making and your business case when the time comes to fight for better tools.

Virtually everything that happens in today’s creative teams is built on or distributed through technology. I’m mostly interested in the production process and our whole stack is digital —  work is digitally generated, approved, and distributed.

Wouldn't it would make sense for us to have the best digital tools?

Reality is a little different — and the tech is often straggling and struggling.

At present, my digital designer teams have blown past all the digital tools that support the work. I’m scrambling to replace a cobbled-together collection of tools that don’t work well, and certainly don’t work together. This is a challenge many of us face.

In most businesses, even creative ones, technology solutions are chosen and built out by the business or IT branches of the organization. These guys are very protective of their turf, and they are likely to feel threatened by other parts of the org horning in and asking/telling them what to do.

But we must try — it’s the only way out of this rut. You’ve got to make a persuasive business case — and the Tech Stack Canvas will show you a different a way of thinking that can help.

We’ll have to study both sides of the coin — the business needs we’re facing, and the current state of our tech. (NOTE: This is not about the basic things provided by your IT team, such as servers, email, ftp, Microsoft Office, or the Adobe Creative Suite.)

On the front of the coin is your team: What tasks and processes are you currently doing that are assisted by, or performed via, technology? Identify themes for the type of work being done, or the types of media or information being managed, and your distribution and communication processes.

The back of the coin is the current tech that you use: Identify every piece of the tech stack, including any enterprise systems plus cobbled-together tools, and DIY tools that your users have brought on board.

To round things out, do some research and survey the marketplace. A great place to find potential solution providers all in one spot is at industry events such as the Creative Operations Exchange conference, or the Henry Stewart digital asset management conferences. This takes work. But you want to create a short list of potential systems and solutions to streamline your workflow, improve communications and job tracking, or eliminate multiple third-party tools by combining their functionality into one system.

Areas where good tech can really make a difference include managing:

  • content creation
  • project management
  • review and approval
  • digital asset management
  • information such as creative briefs, communication and task assignment
  • channels of distribution

Now’s also a good time to go back and review what you learned from talking to people outside your company. Find out what else you should be considering — what works in situations similar to yours?

I developed a Tech Stack Canvas, utilizing a quadrant-based visualization, to examine four core areas of creative operations where tech plays a crucial role.

Four Quadrants of the Tech Stack Canvas

Content & Production: How do we manage our collaborative server-based workflow so that projects and files can be located and passed off from one staffer to another as needed? How do we manage the approval of the creative content developed by multiple teams during the course of every campaign? How do we audit our work for brand and campaign consistency? Do we have a linear approval process, or a fluid one?

Digital Assets: What types of digital assets do we have in our business? How do we make our selected video clips, logos, photography, and finished graphics available for use across all three teams? Are our assets just for internal consumption, or for distribution? How much do we need to worry about metadata?

Projects & Tasks: How are creative briefs managed — are they in a central easily findable location? Do we assign jobs as one-offs, as staffers become available, or is a campaign/project assigned in toto to an individual or small team? How are the mandatories communicated? How is the campaign style established and enforced? How do project managers and designers know when the umpteenth version of a thing is finally approved?

Distribution Channels: How does each bit of our content reach its proper destination? Where does it go, exactly? How is it delivered?

I know that this Tech Stack Canvas works.

The structured thinking that this canvas produced helped me twice — at both Comedy Central and AT&T — to provide a business justification for why we needed specific systems and tools. It explained clearly why I fought to develop internally our own digital content hub to manage our creative review and approval. By charting our business needs, and potential vendors, in the appropriate quadrant, it became clear what our needs were and the shortcomings of existing vendor solutions.

The sample Tech Stack Canvas below helped me explain the difference between digital media and information, and the internal production process vs publishing — and then I dropped in vendor names to show the ecosystem and bolster my argument for building a bespoke system.

Example Tech Stack Canvas

Link: Download my Tech Stack and Vendor Research worksheet

Deliverable:

Create three tech stack models: The first shows your areas of activity logically grouped into as few clusters as possible; the second identifies your current tech stack; the third model identifies potential solution providers for these business needs and activities. The finished models are something you can show to your technology and business teams — and you’ll wow them by talking their language.

June 2, 2017 -

Get Better Jira in 7 Steps

Take Control of JIRA

by Kevin Gepford

Quick question: If a task management tool was offered free for your creative group, yet it was anti-collaborative, punchlist-focused, provided no way to visually manage your work, and worst of all was profoundly ugly… if all these things were true, would you accept it?

Who am I kidding… of course not!

But haha this is a trick question — in the real world you might not have a choice. The tragic truth is that creative teams are often forced into using a massively inappropriate tool, chosen by the IT or business sides of the org without any thought to creative’s needs.

That tool has a name. And its name is Jira.

This has happened to me. Twice. The first time, at Comedy Central, I just shrugged and tried to make the best of it. Second time, at AT&T, was a different story — I decided to fight. The implementation of Jira was simply awful — a ticket configuration so wrong for our Digital Marketing Group that it increased friction, added a ton of noise to the process, and actually created silos where they shouldn’t exist. (Note: Jira was designed for reporting software bugs. Nature never intended this to be used by creatives.)

Since giving Jira the boot wasn’t really an option, I would have to hack the tool to make it work.

This became something of a Product Manager challenge. I worked through as much of a classic development process as made sense to establish a baseline, then…

  • Figure out what the problem is
  • Identify solution
  • Build the solution
  • Test and iterate
  • Launch!
1: Admitting the Problem

Here in my Digital Media Group, it’s the Producer who generally initiates a job by opening a ticket.

  • Noise and Busywork. Our existing creative job form was at least 65% irrelevant for our creative process. The form contained excess fields we had to skip over, as well as mandatory fields that served no purpose for us. This forced users to enter text like “N/A” in several places just to be able to save the form. Yes, terrible.
  • Inappropriate. The form was poorly structured, with generic fields that didn’t help… and over-specialized fields that bogged us down.
  • Fragmentation. A single job could get chopped up into as many as four separate “subtask” tickets. Because Jira hates collaboration and will not let you assign one ticket to multiple people. If you wanted a Designer and Copywriter (not to mention their managers) to be on the same job, you’d begin with a master “tracker” ticket. Then duplicate it as needed for each of the various participants. These tickets were sort of linked to each other, but conversation threads were not. So, chatter on one ticket was completely invisible to the others.
  • Isolation. Jira pretty much forced each person into their own rabbit hole, and managers had no easy way of seeing the bigger picture, or even knowing who all the stakeholders and participants were.
  • Spam. Jira was a spam machine. If you make a simple edit, such as changing a comma to a period, Jira will spam every single person on the ticket. Imagine multiplying this by 1,000 — on a daily basis — and soon any relevant or useful information gets drowned in a sea of noise. This was by far the biggest pain point for the team.
  • Scheduling. Dates and schedules were put into the “Job Description” text field because there was no where else for that info to go. The form had only one date field, titled “Due” — a term that meant something different to each participant. In other words, it was basically useless.
  • Mystery. Finding context or useful information was a treasure hunt, due to subtask

Jira is Sucky

2: Road Mapping

Whew — where to start? I plotted my roadmap around high-level issues and questions, knowing that improvisation would be my modus operandi for the actual journey.

  • Can Jira actually be adapted, in this company? If so, who do I contact, and how does the process work?
  • Who within my group was an expert on existing processes, and did they also have good opinions about what currently work… and how it could be better?
  • Within my group, who would benefit the most from any changes?
  • How can I conscript people into helping me with research, testing, etc.?
  • What were the biggest risks?
  • Who outside my group might be affected?
3: Researching

I started off with some personal observations and some hunches. Based on what I was hearing from my own creative teams, I had a clear idea of pain points and issues on the creative side. But what about the other side of the department — the folks who took in job requests from our business-unit partners and initiated projects within our group? That was where Jira first touched our workflow. It was the source of all our pain, and I needed to understand all this a little better.

Job intake was where Jira first touched the creative workflow, and it was the source of all our pain.

This called for focus groups — one for each of our three areas of business. With each group I took stock of the existing Jira form and we stripped out all the crap. Then I said: Let’s shoot for the stars — what do we wish Jira could do? This gave me some great insights into the various pain points, what was currently working OK, and actionable ideas for making it better. I showed my findings to the creative team for their feedback, and made one last loop back to my focus groups to get their final thoughts.

However, my research would not be complete until I waded into the murky waters of Jira itself. I needed an expert — a company insider — who could help me. I eventually found my Jira admin in an office located on the other side of the country. The two of us had several great conversations about how much the tool could be configured, options I could exploit, practical limits to what I wanted to accomplish, and the established process for getting there.

4: Discovering

My research findings boiled down fairly concisely to a few achievable points.

  • Eliminate spam. Let users “Opt In” or use “@” mentions to send comments to a specific person.
  • One ticket per job. Put all the information in a single ticket, including entire creative team, stakeholders, and deadlines.
  • Tighten up the form. The job form should guide creators to define the work in a clear linear fashion, and to think about what needs to happen (and by whom) downstream in order to get the job done. In other words, less prose and jargon, and more clearly defined actions and deliverables.
  • Dates and deadlines. I discovered nine different dates that mattered to various members of the team, during the course of a project. Instead of putting that in prose form within the Description field, we could set up calendar widgets that could power sophisticated searches and dashboards.
  • Clearer roles. Unlock the power of custom fields to gain better insight into each job’s participants. Create custom fields for various roles within the team, so a single job could be associated with multiple people.
5: Bettering Jira

Jira is designed to be very configurable. Corporations, not so much. My hack was more in the corporate sense — in that I needed to change a process, and create a new technological solution, within an environment that was resistant to change. Every step forward required a workaround. But I had found my Jira ally. All I needed to do was write up my requirements in a format that adhered to the corporate process. Then, some waiting was involved. Once the new “issue type” was completed and tested, I asked my focus group members for their critique. Their reaction surprised me — almost total approval. Their minor comments and suggestions were easily accommodated.

6: Training

Within a week after launch I was conducting all-hands training via teleconference and screen sharing to our team across five states and three time zones. I invited the whole group to “Come See Jira Suck Less” — a provocative title that got the high turnout I needed. (FWIW, One of our copy writers also nominated it for “Best Meeting Title, Ever”!) 

My communication plan focused on two very different types of users:

  • People who created the job request tickets
  • People who receive the request and produced the work

Not only would these groups see the form from very different points of view, but also their risks, and necessary behavior changes, would be different.

In general, however, the new form allowed for a more nuanced state of our projects — making use of “workflows” rather than the binary Open/Closed. Also, with auto notifications turned off, users needed to “opt in” to receive updates, they would start using “@” mentions for comments with intended recipients, and dashboards would finally be useful.

With a VIP approach, I stood a greater chance of getting everyone on board.

7: Evangelism — The Personal Touch

I know how training sessions work — you can’t expect everyone to remember everything you say.

Personal attention gets much better results.

So I put on my concierge hat and followed up with all 75 or so team members across the country, checking them off a list as I made my rounds. I had my own reason for being so obsessive — risk avoidance. Success depended on total user buy-in, and adherence to the new ways of working. With a VIP approach I stood a greater chance of getting everyone on board.

Plus, I wanted to make sure everyone understood the benefits not just for them as individuals, but also for the entire team.

  • Less Noise — reduced duplicate tickets by 75%
  • No Spam — eliminated all the useless notifications
  • Collaborative — Copy Writers and Designers brought closer together
  • Visibility — See all the participants and stakeholders in one place
  • Tracking — Date fields allow user in any role see just the deadlines they care about

Postlog:

Adoption was immediate, and nearly universal. The new process was familiar enough that it wasn’t a shock, and the benefits were pretty obvious to everyone. Within a week and a half all but the most recalcitrant users were on board.

Those last holdouts remained a personal challenge — for me to see how much I could accomplish with persuasion and patience. We’re getting closer. But ultimately, the stragglers will get on board because I hold the trump card: I’m responsible for our traffic team. When the time is right, Traffic will start bouncing old-style tickets back for a do-over. This will bring compliance to 100% in short order.

May 4, 2017 -

8 Top Takeaways from Creative Ops Conference

Top 8

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.

Read more

April 1, 2017 -

Conferences: Creative Operations Exchange

Creative Operations Leadership is Essential

by Kevin Gepford

When I joined AT&T’s digital creative team in the fall of 2016, my job title included a couple of words that even four years ago you didn’t hear very much. Those words were “Creative Operations.”

Change has happened quickly. Creative Ops, as a management concept, is popping up on online jobs postings and LinkedIn. This is definitely a trend — more and more creative organizations are devoting strategic leadership resources to getting the work done smarter and better.

Read more

March 3, 2017 -

Killer Ops: Empathy Maps

Empathy Maps

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is Gleans the juicy parts from your interviews to show what challenges your team, and what they see, think, feel, and hear.

Why it Matters Brings home the pain and aspirations of the people you work with and shows you the things that your Future Creative Ops might be able to resolve.

You’ve done the same during your interviews and persona development — uncovering numerous pain points within your team. Product Managers put a lot of effort into learning more about their customers to glean insights about their pains, needs and problems. This brings focus to the development of their product or app.

Read more

January 18, 2017 -

Killer Ops: The Power of Personas

Power of Personas

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is: User personas are composite profiles that represent clusters of users.

Why it Matters: Personas humanize the key themes across our creative work group, while stripping out the distraction of real identities. Personas capture the needs and behaviors of the people in our team, and also help inform your department direction and strategy.

Our journey of applying the methods of Product Management to Creative Operations continues with personas. Every app developer on the planet does this. I’m using personas during my current development project to create a centralized workflow system for the digital marketing group at AT&T.

Read more

December 19, 2016 -

Killer Ops: External Interviews

Series - A Farther Look

by Kevin Gepford

What’s Special About External Interviews? We’re getting the expert views of people outside our business workplaces.

Why External Interviews Matter An outside perspective will help give us context, inspiration, and confidence.

Research conducted within your team and organization will reveal a lot of great insights about how the place is actually functioning, and what your team thinks about ways to make things better.

Now, you need to get out of the building!

Read more

October 4, 2016 -

Killer Ops: Internal Interviews

Series - A Closer Look

by Kevin Gepford

What’s Special About Internal Interviews? The focus is inward — a deep dive with your team and people from the groups you serve and support.

Why Internal Interviews Matter These help us get a clearer picture of our team’s workflow, environment and needs.

There’s a ton of reasons why start-ups and new products fail. But a big one is a poor understanding of the market and the needs of the potential users. Creative Operations teams needs the same level of attention, and research, rather than just running on autopilot.

Read more

September 18, 2016 -

Killer Ops: Minimum Viable Product?

Series - Minimum Viable Product

by Kevin Gepford

How does Creative Ops define MVP? Validating an idea by identifying the smallest things that could be done to get results.

Why it Matters By starting small you test your ideas, as well as gain momentum, experience and credibility in your quest to make a bigger difference.

Product Managers talk about Minimum Viable Product as a way of building a prototype with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.

Read more

August 12, 2016 -

Data and the Power of DAM at Comedy Central

DAM at Comedy Central

by Kevin Gepford

Digital Asset Management at Comedy Central got its start as a grassroots initiative, and over the years had steadily grown in size and usefulness while never quite achieving institutional legitimacy.

One day I realized I was tired of explaining to our creative and business managers – every year – why investing in our Digital Asset Management system was so important. I needed to figure out how to present my case for DAM in a way that made sense to them.

Read more

August 2, 2016 -

Comedy Central Uses DAM to Find the Funny

DAM at Comedy Central

by Kevin Gepford

Digital Asset Management was one of my early initiatives at Comedy Central, and it’s remained one of my all-time favorite projects there.

Comedy Central’s DAM system was originally created by — and for — the print design team. The initiative started small, but it grew to serve additional teams across the larger creative workgroup. Over the course of a decade its reach eventually expanded to serve a broad swath of users across Viacom’s corporate enterprise — users who have come to depend on it for ready access to a collection of more than 50,000 of Comedy Central’s branded digital assets.

Read more

July 13, 2016 -

Killer Ops: Your Business Model

Series - Business Model Design

by Kevin Gepford

What’s the Business Model Canvas? The Canvas is a one-page template that lays out both what you do, and how you go about doing it. It documents existing business models — or helps develop new ones — and provides a framework for you to design, challenge, invent, and change.

Why it Matters The canvas forces you to distill everything you do down to its essence — and create a document that visually explains it. The template works for businesses and start-ups, and also for teams and departments within larger organizations.

Read more

June 16, 2016 -

Killer Ops: SWOT Analysis

Series - SWOT

by Kevin Gepford

What’s SWOT?: SWOT analysis is a framework for doing research and formulating a business strategy. It analyzes strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and can be applied to existing businesses, teams and departments, and new business ideas.

Why it Matters: This is essential for developing your group’s Value Proposition. Insights from your internal research are synthesized to map ways to improve operations, use resources more efficiently, and anticipate risks to your group and its success.

Read more

May 7, 2016 -

Killer Ops: How to Make a Plan

Series - Make a Plan

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is: A results-oriented series of steps to flesh out an idea and carry it to the finish line.

Why It’s Important: Winging it is not a business plan.

Let’s take a look at each step from a Product Management perspective, and apply it to Creative Ops.

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April 30, 2016 -

Killer Ops: First Steps of Discovery

Series - First Steps

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is: Put on the thinking cap and come up with broad ideas about how to improve Creative Operations.

Why It’s Important: Without a plan, we won’t know where we’re going.

The opening act for Product Managers is The Big Idea — to conceive… to dream, to imagine, and to form a plan.

It’s also the first step for Creative Operations managers who embrace the challenge to improve the productivity of their creative staff through better tools, systems, and methods.

Read more

April 25, 2016 -

Killer Ops: What Can We Learn from Product Management?

Series - Creative Ops Can Learn from Product Management

(This Article is First in a Series)

by Kevin Gepford

As a Creative Operations leader you see your team struggling on a daily basis to get the work done, in an environment that sorely needs a makeover.

The creative workplace is largely reactive — lurching from crises to crisis, shooting at everything in sight, rushing to meet deadlines, and driven by creative visionaries with their mercurial ways.

We need to make some changes in our approach. As the Grail Knight said to Indiana Jones in “The Last Crusade”: It’s important to choose wisely.

Read more

March 31, 2016 -

How to drive creative work forward and build a 3.0 version of your creative ops ninja team

DAM NY 2016

by Kevin Gepford

In just a few weeks, the 2016 Henry Stewart DAM NY Conference will feature an all-new Creative Operations track. I’m thrilled to return as a speaker.

For the last two years at the conference, I’ve talked about Comedy Central’s digital content hub at — first as a case study focusing on the benefits our system offered to our creative team. Last fall, at the Los Angeles conference, I dove a little deeper into our strategy and development process, and the business benefits of the in-house product development of our solution to address several core creative operations needs.

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February 12, 2016 -

The Evolution of Comedy Central’s Creative Content Hub

CC Share - Evolution

by Kevin Gepford

This is a tale of two departments that tore Comedy Central’s digital creative content hub in half.

I jest! We’re comedy natives — no drama for us!

A core goal of CC Share (the name of our content hub), was that it should serve the needs of two separate business units that each needed a way to manage multimedia content. We started out thinking we could solve everything with a unified code base. But when that strategy hit a wall, we pivoted to a multi-tenant platform that gave us more flexibility to create a focused and unique interface for each group.

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February 3, 2016 -

Comedy Central Dumps its Obsolete Optical Media Archive

CC Dumps Optical Media

by Kevin Gepford

Comedy Central migrated its entire Brand Creative archive to a modern system, and tossed 18 years worth of optical media into the dumpster.

Here’s how.

We had amassed 800+ CD’s and DVD’s in a comprehensive archive of all source files — for every single print project generated by the Brand Creative group since the team… well, pretty much since the team’s very beginnings.

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January 22, 2016 -

Dragon Wranglers of Creative Ops

Dragon Wranglers

by Kevin Gepford

The New York City MTA recently rolled out an innovative awareness campaign involving thousands of subway posters to enlighten straphangers on how to comport themselves when riding public transportation. Oh, it’s also posted in five languages, just to make sure the message gets through.

Read more