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.
A Grass Roots Initiative
Before there was any Digital Asset Management system, the design and graphics team were frequently bombarded with requests that were highly disruptive to its workflow and sanity. Any person, from any department in the company, might develop a sudden and urgent need for logos or images from the network’s various shows. These were important requests. We’d have to drop everything to hunt down the needed asset — and our resources were scattered across individual workstations, local storage devices, optical media, and a couple of servers.
Other requests might be for printouts of something or other that we’d done in the past – and would always come in the middle of a critical deadline:
These requests always followed an established script: The urgent request comes in; recipient has to search the archives; identify the correct archive disc and pull it from the shelves; locate the file on that disc; copy the file and supporting graphics and fonts to their local workstation; open the file; load the fonts; re-link all the images; make a printout; take the printout to whoever requested it; delete all the files and return the disc to its drawer. Then, get back to work on the deadline.
It was easy to convince my manager that anything would be better than this!
The best selling-point was that these requests — which always required the hands-on attention of the graphics team — could be handled through a self-service portal that anybody could search and download from the system. I estimated that this would knock out about 95% of the requests, and we’d continue to manage the remaining 5% that required custom work to fulfill.
My boss created a budget for this, and told me to get to work.
Our criteria for a DAM system included:
- Attractive interface that designers could accept
- Ease of use for regular users — minimal training needed
- Access via a web browser
- Customizable so the interface looked like Comedy Central
- Straightforward administration
- Would run on a Macintosh server, so IT didn’t have to be involved
- Automated metadata and keyword tagging
- Priced to fit into our creative budget and not trigger CAPEX issues
- North America-based support
- Training and consultants available when needed
Ten years ago, not many systems met our criteria. We narrowed the list down to two finalists, and selected Extensis Portfolio.
Our task list was pretty short: Set up the server; install the software; two-day onsite training; start cataloging our assets.
Organized to Help Users Find Things Fast
In interviewing team members, I learned that they often hit a point in their work where they needed just one specific element to complete their design. It might be a logo, or an image for a show, but rarely more than one thing at any time. This understanding inspired the conceptual framework for the four catalogs we created – that users would generally want to search one catalog at a time for one type of asset.
In doing this, we reduced the amount of “junk” results for everyone. It also produced very focused search results.
For example, a marketing director might suddenly say: “I need to see all the finished work of everything we’ve ever done to advertise South Park.” He was not interested in anything else. DAM to the rescue! A collection of PDF’s existed there with this use-case in mind. The marketer would search, find, download, and print — without help — all the work created for South Park at its 10, 15, and 20-year marks.
But yeah, most of the time, most of our users didn’t care at all about those PDF’s… and by design these would never appear if they were searching for a logo or image.
Each of our four catalogs is dedicated to a specific type of asset:
- Logos (of current and past shows)
- Images (of ad art for current and past shows, plus gallery and studio shots of talent)
- PDF’s (of all past advertising and print work)
- Electronic Sell-Through (Graphics for on-demand platforms such as ComCast and TimeWarner, and Download-To-Own platforms such as XBox, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, etc.)
The Long and Winding Road to Acceptance
At some point through the years, there was department restructuring, and changes in management. Our group was absorbed into a larger team. The new managers did not have experience with DAM. They didn’t understand the benefits, and barely even knew what it was. I tried, of course — continually championing of the system, keeping the assets current and managing system updates. Basically, keeping it alive until it gained traction.
One of them waited for me to go away on vacation, and then asked for help to copy a bunch of the assets “onto the SAN server, so I can find them.”
Of course I heard about this when I returned! I didn’t know whether to scream, cry, or stick my head in a gas oven. It was a moment of realization — that without support from leadership, the system could never fulfill its potential.
Fast forward about a year. I overheard one of our managers suggesting that every workstation in the department should have a bookmark to the DAM. This was so WOW! It gave me a glimmer of hope that as more and more users rely on the system for their daily work, Digital Asset Management could become part of our shared culture.
Although buy-in from my immediate group was a challenge, teams outside our immediate circle absolutely loved it.
Comedy Central’s publicity team is a big user — constantly downloading elements to help their work with the press. There’s also a cluster of users in Viacom’s international division, who deliver our content as well as offering promotional support wherever in the world it’s needed. Europe. Asia. South Africa. Canada.
But the singlemost biggest users of our DAM system are the DTO and On-Demand groups. These teams orchestrate the delivery of Comedy Central’s content to digital platforms where comedy fans may view or download our shows. Examples of On-Demand platforms include cable companies ComCast and TimeWarner; examples of Download-To-Own platforms include XBox, iTunes, Amazon, HULU, etc.
Our Brand Creative group supports the work of these two teams by creating graphics that appear next to the show’s title and description on each platform or site. And the DAM system is how we deliver everything to them.
Each client gets a lightbox that shows only the assets we’ve created specifically for them. They can find anything they need in a snap. They download whatever they need and push it out to the platform, without needing to save a copy somewhere on their workstation. Our system is always there should they need anything again. They totally love this, and they’ve told me that of all the networks in the Viacom family, Comedy Central’s delivery system puts everyone else to shame. That’s something to be proud of.
Achieving Technological Legitimacy
After eight years in, I realized we had to address the issue of hardware. It had become clear that our lone Mac server living in the corporate datacenter – among a hive of Windows-based servers – was not sustainable. The IT people really didn't understand why the Mac was there, and they did not like it. However, Comedy Central needed the benefits that came from hosting our system with them. Migrating to a Windows server was the obvious next step. It was the only way to achieve legitimacy and position our DAM system for the future. Fortunately, Extensis also supported that platform — which meant our transition could be nearly seamless.
We coordinated our switchover with a major software upgrade release. I made a pact with my allies in IT: If they managed the Windows server, security patches, and backups, I would run the DAM software, manage the assets, and be responsible all client software upgrades. I promised I would call them ONLY in case of emergency. I may also have bribed one or two of them with alcohol.
Migrating the assets to the new server, and upgrading the software, took a couple of days of work. It was truly a team effort including the vendor’s tech team plus an on-site visit from their staff consultants, IT, and myself. After everything was running properly, we redirected the old URL to the new site and the only thing our users noticed was that the interface was cleaner and searches were faster.
The Road Ahead
I see a bright future for Digital Asset Management at Comedy Central. There are several things we can do to make the system even more useful.
- Increased adoption in numbers of users as well as more admins who add content to the DAM.
- Greater types of assets we manage — especially animated GIFs which are a relatively new priority for our team
- Opening the DAM system to be accessible outside the Viacom firewall by authorized users
Comedy Central’s Digital Asset Management system started life as a small grass-roots initiate, but with patience, advocacy, and determination, it achieved vital importance to the organization.
As proud as I am of this project, it’s benefits and future were put immediately at risk when I left the company for a new job at AT&T. There was no one to carry the torch, and there was no plan to transfer managing the DAM to another person. This highlights the risks of grassroots initiatives — risks that are very well described by DAM expert Elizabeth Keathley in her blog "Help! My Company Bought a DAM!" for Fotoware.