DAM Champ: Kevin Gepford
DAM champ Kevin Gepford is a creative operations professional with two decades of experience at some of the top names in television entertainment. He’s interested in the intersection of creativity, tech, and business, and the tools that bring creative teams together and enable them to thrive. His expertise includes digital asset management (DAM) and producing bespoke systems for managing digital workflows.
DAM champ: Someone who supports finding, setting up, or maintaining a DAM system. There are a wide variety in DAM champions who come from positions in production, creative, management, IT, and marketing.
This interview was originally intended to be a traditional DAM champ interview, but it took a turn toward workflow management and Kevin’s point of view on the importance of managing work in progress, and his thoughts about the future of DAM.
What is your role at AT&T?
I run a design group that creates much of the daily marketing content that you’ll see on att.com. My dozen or so production designers are divided between New York and Los Angeles. There are some great benefits to being bicoastal, but it also presents challenges when you’re trying to work collaboratively. So, one of the first things I faced was to bring these teams closer together.
I quickly zeroed in on the big, gaping hole that was our review and approval process. It involved email, files on a server, and design feedback that was typed in Photoshop. None of this was trackable, of course. We had no way of seeing how a design got from concept to approved version. And if you wanted to audit a campaign and look back at everything that had been produced? Forget about it. So that was the biggest challenge for the past year — focusing on workflow and process. I’ve made some proud progress in this area that kind of reflects my point of view about the type of digital systems that creative teams need.
That’s really cool. Interestingly enough, that’s where the DAM industry is going, for sure.
I believe that, 100 percent.
Yeah, the nucleus is the DAM and workflow, and other ways of utilizing your team in collaboration is the little parts off of that. I’m very curious about your experience and what you found with the workflow aspect.
I come from the point of view that controlled chaos is a realistic goal.
Love it. You must be a creative.
Well, yes and no. I inhabit more of the production side of things. I’ve always envied the “true creatives” who seem to thrive on pandemonium. Not me. Chaos drives me nuts.
But having spent 20-plus years in the creative world, I totally see that any tool or process I might want to use to restore order, well, at the minimum the benefits have to obviously far outweigh whatever they perceive as making their job harder, such as little rules about where to put things, how to name stuff, or anything involving metadata. No matter how much they need it, they’ll outright reject it, or sabotage it.
“If I’m going to introduce a system to take care of our review and approval and help us manage the arc of a campaign, it should work naturally and organically like creative teams work and provide just enough structure to contain the chaos.”
Don’t overdo it. This would not be where I’d want to enforce naming conventions, for example.
Also, approvals do not happen in a straight line. A lot of the systems you see are based on the opposite assumption, however. Maybe that’s necessary for regulated industries like pharma or when legal needs to bless something. But creative review happens randomly and not as a linear process. Any system that assumed that would not be a good for us.
Are you using a technology to help you with this or is this a manual system that you put in place?
Now you’re getting to my favorite topic. I’ve produced systems that managed this in the past, and this was part of the value proposition when I came on board here — that we’d look at the challenges and figure out a better solution to address some short-term problems and also be part of a longer-term roadmap. I did some market research specifically to challenge my existing assumptions, and I came up with the same answer, which was that I felt I could build a digital tool as good as or better than what we might purchase.
That’s really interesting. Why did you decide to build a system rather than purchasing one?
A couple of reasons. Investing in a system involves RFPs, approvals from one end of the company to the other, significant investment, et cetera. I had only a modest budget, but I knew I could build a prototype and then grow it. Starting small could work for me.
The other thing was, we’ve got a very specific culture, being a creative group within a company with deep roots in engineering. Unless their tool anticipates our needs fairly closely — and this is unlikely — then there will be work to bring it in line with what we’d need. That’s a solvable problem. Most tools can be configured, and with more work, customized. The peril for vendors is that extensive customization for a single, not-so-large customer is a difficult business model.
It’s a challenge for vendors and also an opportunity for someone like me to look around and say, I know enough, and I can build something that I believe is a sustainable, long-term solution that will ultimately meet our needs better. I should note that this is hard work and comes with risks of its own.
One-size-fits-all is not really satisfying for organizations that have, let’s say, a higher level of self-awareness or more specialized needs or workflows. This is as true of AT&T as it is of Comedy Central.
Do you think in the future that vendors need to work harder to provide an opportunity for a higher degree of customization for their clients?
Totally — and it’s going to be interesting. Customers are growing in maturity and sophistication, and vendors will have to keep up. They’ll have to work harder, for sure. If a potential customer comes along and a solution doesn’t look right for their needs, they’ll keep moving. We buy wine like that. Creatives look over design or photography portfolios the same way. They want to see a solution that looks a lot like themselves. They definitely aren’t cool with risking substantial amounts of money on a system that has no guarantees of success.
“But anyway, survival is a huge motivator. Vendors will find innovative ways to deliver higher degrees of configuration or customization to satisfy their clients and to grow.”
As a side note, because of the diversity across the potential customer base, I also believe that the field is ripe with opportunity for the foreseeable future and will be open to startups and challengers that can deliver a value proposition that is unique. Incumbents need to watch out. There will also be lots of work for consultants.
How about your system. Is it in place?
Yes. It’s deployed and working and has the core essential features to make it useful and understandable. We’re not quite at version 1.0 yet. We need additional UX/UI refinement and some additional functionality. Once that happens, we’ll be able to bring even additional groups from the organization on board.
One feature we are building is markup; users can leave notes on specific points on the digital media. My colleagues over on the print team tell me as soon as we roll that out, they’ll sign on. It’s a must-have for them.
Wouldn’t you consider it somewhat of a risk to build your own system?
Of course there’s risk. It’s also hard work. If it was easy and risk-free, everybody would be doing it. But I’ve got a couple of successful projects under my belt, which gives me some confidence. Also, I’m not alone. I’ve seen impressive presentations from Bloomberg and Pixar who built bespoke solutions because of particular business needs or the lack of an appropriate vendor solution.
What if we turn that question around? There are no guarantees when bringing in a vendor either. We’ve all heard the failure stories, and nobody wins when that happens.
So you did this with Comedy Central, too.
Wow, that’s impressive. Do you enjoy it?
It’s the most amazing part of my job.
What role does DAM play in your role now, and is that any different from your experience at Comedy Central?
At Comedy Central we had a traditional DAM, which was a commercial product that I managed. So, of course I thought it was great and essential to the 100-plus team it supported. But here, things are different here. We don’t have a local DAM, which might surprise you, but most of our work is boutique and not repurposing a lot of assets. There’s a DAM at the corporate level, and we visit it now and then if we need some logos or brand elements.
Your question is interesting, and I hadn’t thought of this before, but it seems to me that DAM is an assumed core functionality within a digital workflow system. The assets have to be in there, and you have to be able to find them. But because we’re using it for different reasons, and the system is livelier and more dynamic and helps manage our work in progress, people don’t think of it as DAM.
I think this reflects how we are moving beyond the current meaning of DAM. What we need now isn’t just managing assets, but also managing how we create them in the first place, as well as project and task management. We need systems that benefit not only our creative team and centralize all the versions and information, but also benefit our business partners within the company. And I’m not even talking about martech.
Where are you moving to in your next phase of your design and your project?
My long-term goal is to build out project management and task management capabilities. Our current task management tool is the hard-to-love JIRA. My north star is the concept of an integrated digital workspace or an efficiency toolkit to manage our creative process, up to the point where our assets are delivered to the implementation teams that put them live on the website. I’m trying to reduce the number of tools and focus the utility of those tools on our core needs.
What other technologies are you using that you’re hoping to replace?
JIRA is the biggie. We also have a job intake process that is very terrible and uses a consumer-grade webform they have to fill out. There’s no tracking or visibility. It’s a bad experience not only for the person who’s making the request, but also for us. For a server, we use a professional-grade, cloud-based solution.
I assume you’re working with a developer. How do your numbers stack up? Is it really cheaper for you to do this custom?
I do work with an outside developer, yes. From a spend perspective, so far it’s very effective. When speaking to management types, I like to ask them to guess the cost of our development. Their guesses are three or four times higher than our real numbers. And these are sophisticated people with software development backgrounds. They’re astonished at how efficient we’ve been with our resources.
There are a couple of reasons it’s working so well. My role is, to a large degree, the product manager. There’s no middle team translating client requests to the tech side. I’m also doing my own focus groups and research and testing. If needed, I can have changes up tomorrow. Another advantage is that my developer and I have worked together in the past. We have solved similar problems before and speak the same language. But even if we want to try something new, we can move pretty quickly.
What advice do you have for people trying to do what you’re doing?
At its most basic, it’s really about making a difference, right? It’s about getting that chance to make a difference.
“Opportunities don’t always announce themselves. But they can also be hidden in plain sight. I got started down this road because of a problem that was making me crazy.”
One day you wake up with the seed of an idea of how to fix something. And this is true whether you are developing something new or rolling out a commercial product. After that, you just have to put together a decent proposal, figure out how to talk to your boss’s boss’s boss, and get their buy-in and a budget. Then it’s a year of hard work on top of your regular job, and you’ll release a beta version so the test users can tell you every way that it sucks. It’s awesome!
For me, that first seed was DAM after I joined Comedy Central 10-plus years ago. Everything in those days was on optical media, stored in binders. Finding old files started with thumbing through printouts of what was on every disc. Somebody had to come along and say, “I can do this better. I’ve got a clear vision of putting all our archives in one place so we can easily search through them.” This was a project that started small and grew over the years.
It led to the second opportunity, involving how we managed review and approval of digital banner ads. It was so messy. We had no way to see art director feedback next to what you sent them. And you couldn’t compare your updated banner with the previous version, let alone see all the shapes and sizes being made for the greater campaign. That was sort of the beginning of my ideas about this messy approval space that could be fixed with a little bit of focus and some resources and the proper development support.
What’s your biggest challenge and why is this important?
It’s the people. Evolving the work culture is without a doubt the hardest challenge. People are resistant to new ideas because maybe they’re too harried or just stuck in their ways. You see it when you’re struggling to get user adoption of any new system. No amount of technology can change this.
One of the big reasons for building better technology and processes is to help our teams thrive and to benefit the business. They certainly have not been empowered to do it for themselves. It’s us who have the mandate and the ability to envision a better way. I truly view this as noble work.
It’s also very hard work, but I love it.