DAM Champ: Mark Leslie
DAM champ Mark Leslie was most recently the senior manager of digital asset management (DAM) at adidas. He has over 20 years of experience in graphic design, both as a designer and leader of design and production art teams.
DAM champ: Someone who supports finding, setting up, or maintaining a digital asset management system (DAM). There is a wide variety in DAM champions, who come from positions in production, creative, management, IT, and marketing.
What is your role in supporting or organizing a DAM project?
My title with adidas was senior manager of digital asset management. This meant overseeing the business and usage strategy of DAM. I also led governance efforts to make sure that everyone was on the same page, prioritizing what we wanted to be able to do next, changes to put in place, and assuring continuity.
adidas modernized the DAM for the division where I worked about two years ago. Prior to that, I had been involved more directly with art team operations rather than overseeing DAM. But when it came to the modernization project, I had been doing a lot of business and process analysis. I’m not a business analyst by trade; I’ve actually got over 20 years of experience in graphic design and creative operations, both as a designer and leading teams of creatives.
Can you talk more about the modernization project?
I’ll address that by giving you the backstory of evaluating the ways creative operations were being done, and eventually how we looked for a platform that would be a good fit for what we thought we wanted for our future selves. At the time we started this, there had been no decision made to change DAM platforms. There was not even a strong awareness of the value and absolute business necessity of DAM outside of the art teams. So the assessment was an attempt to create the awareness. For leadership [it looked like], “The art teams have some powerful ideas about how to leapfrog their productivity,” and within the art teams themselves, “Hey, what if we were to change what we do? What would that look like?”
I led this assessment project, which we on the core team referred to as “Project DeLorean.” That was our code name, but the public-facing name of the project was “End Game.” Actually it was an acronym, “N-GAM,” which stood for “Next-Generation Art Management.”
So you did this whole exercise prior to selecting a new system?
Absolutely. Before investigating in any new platforms or even prior to knowing that we were going to be leaving our old DAM. It was absolutely unprompted by anything in the business other than asking the question, “If someday we could do things better or differently, what would that look like?” And this question came about while I was discussing some of the issues in the way work moved through various art departments with a former colleague of mine.
One day I blurted out the statement “we’re using people as glue.” It was this very succinct way of boiling down the fact that we had so many places where we were relying on the memory of the individuals involved.
“Remember what you did on that project? Remember where you saved that. Remember what that file was called? Can you remember two seasons ago when we were working on this product, whatever happened to that? That’s not an ideal way to approach things, and it’s definitely not searchable.”
If that person isn’t here today, I can’t ask them. If they’ve left the company, I can’t ask them. If they don’t remember, that doesn’t help either.
The more you rely on that memory and manual interaction, you’re opening the door for errors to creep into a process, filename, or storage structure. When you do things this way, sometimes things can be up to the interpretation of the person sitting there doing the job. Well, this looks like such and so to me, so I’m going to do this to it. And all of this can lead to a bigger cloud of uncertainty. You’re never really sure about anything. Where is this file? Do I have the most current version? Where is this in its lifecycle? Did we ever approve this?
Describing the situation this way makes it sound like we weren’t structured, which wouldn’t be accurate. There was a lot that was well organized and effective, but there were also abundant opportunities to take things to the next level — and not just incremental changes either. [There were] some real gains to be had. It’s also worth making the distinction between project/work/task management and DAM. DAM isn’t a silver bullet for solving every need in a creative operation, but where it shines must be applied to full advantage!
Who was involved with the modernization project?
We brought in key super users from every art team that was using our DAM at the time or would be using a new system in the future. We did this because they know what their group does. They know their function and the functions of other people in their department, what they do and how they do it. So we asked them: What do you like? What do you need to continue to be able to do? What do you not like? What feels icky or ugly or manual to you? And then we asked: How would you like to do that differently? How would you do it better?
We also excluded anyone that was in a management or supervisor role. We did that intentionally because, again, we wanted this exercise to be as removed from existing structures as possible. We didn’t want anybody to come in and go, “Well, but this is what we do.” We wanted to identify ripe opportunities for change, starting from the bottom up.
Immediately people got tense, because they thought, “Oh no. You’re talking about changing what I do.” We had prepared for that. For the first conversation around change, we created a PowerPoint deck and the first slide we showed them was a picture of the DeLorean from “Back to the Future.” The doors were open and the flame trails were behind it, it had just screamed to a stop coming back from the future. We told our assembled group:
“Ok, we’re here. We have just come back from what our new world looks like. We’re not going to tell you how many years out in the future we just were, but we know what that looks like. And we have some things that we want to share with you, things that we saw, and we want to see if this sounds right to you.”
“It was fun, so it immediately opened people up and they started imagining. All we were asking was for them to imagine the future and not worry about anything else.”
Another thing we did was take these people out of their jobs for a week during the exercise. We took them off site, so there were no telephone calls and no email. They didn’t have anyone asking them “where’s this project that was due this afternoon?” We took everybody offline and said, “Now, forget all that stuff. Use your imagination. How would you work?”
We obviously had in our back pockets some theories about things that could be optimized, so we laid those out on the table. But we laid them out alongside the things that they brought to us, and together we fine-tuned the best ideas out of everything available. The picture starting coming into focus and we had real opportunities.
We shared the N-GAM findings with the users and all of their managers, basically saying, “Hey, this looks like a good direction to drive in. What do you guys think about this?” And you know, the ultimate answer that we got was, “Well, that all sounds great if we’re able to do all of it.” Within several months, we learned that the DAM product we were on was being sunset and that, hey, if we’re going to change platforms after all, let’s look at what’s out there. Let’s look at what’s out there through the lens of all these great ideas that this team had just put together from the assessment. We went out and looked at a variety of platforms and asked ourselves, “Well, which one of these looks familiar from the future?” Having the N-GAM assessment was a big aid in helping us with our platform selection.
Whose idea was that? What a cool transition to a new product to take your users, remove them from everything, and learn about what they want, what they need, and what the future looks like to them.
It was my concept. One of the things that I tend to do is deconstruct things. I know that in business, continuity can be critical. You can’t discount that, but you also can’t let how you do things today get in the way of how you could be doing them tomorrow or six months or a year from now. If you’re under fire all day long and deadlines are all you can see, it gets very hard to see any farther out than the edge of your desk.
I’ve been fortunate to have roles over the last several years where I didn’t have that weight of today’s deadline. I’m a strategic thinker, and daily operations are more focused on tactical thinking. If you’re based on tactics and tasks, it can be a challenge to get a broader view than that. But if you can clearly see intent, or the reason why, or simply be very curious, then you start to ask questions. And I tend to ask a lot of questions because I’m very curious. I want to know why. I’ve found that if you know and understand the why, the how will be a lot more obvious.
What do you think is your biggest challenge from a DAM champ perspective?
I think the biggest challenge, at least in a high-volume environment, is making sure to get enough investment of every content contributor’s time in applying metadata where it has to be applied manually. If that doesn’t get done, then it causes all sorts of problems downstream. The easiest example is that if you’re relying on the existence of metadata for search results and it’s not there, nothing is going to show up in your search results because there’s a big blank in that field that you’re doing the search against. Same deal with automated processes. When automation relies on metadata values to drive a process, the process fails without it.
One of the things that really worked well in this DAM modernization — although the details varied by department — is that each department had their own well-established filenaming convention. It’s one of the things that new staff is trained on and gets very comfortable with early on. Additionally, many files are named as part of automated processes because there is a lot of client-side file manipulation and creation. All of those filenames can be leveraged to populate multiple metadata fields when the files are brought into the DAM.
What do you think is one of the most important aspects of DAM?
It’s very easy when you talk about DAM to immediately drop down into the nuts and bolts and talk about, well, it has this feature and it has this function, and, you know, we do this with our metadata, and I’ve got this much storage, and we’ve got it across this many servers, and all that kind of stuff.
But that literally is the logistics of software, and it can be a seductive trap.
“You need to go back to what the problem was that you’re trying to solve, or what the process is that you’re trying to enable. Ultimately, it’s all about getting work done.”
It’s about people doing something, and the system is just sitting there either alongside them or under them as a safety net and catching things as they’re moving through the process. It should be there as support. More importantly, DAM is there as a partner and an enabler. That’s the key important thing. Once you understand this really well, you’ll look for opportunities in the technology to accelerate and supercharge how the business delivers.
Anything else you’d like to share with the DAM community?
You have to start with the users. Users and adoption go hand-in-hand, but as soon as you use the word “users,” you’ve abstracted yourself from the person who’s going to be sitting there in that environment. So consider what DAM can do in order for them to have a partner in doing their job. What could make their job easier? If you can make somebody’s job easier, then you’ve got adoption.
Now this sounds easy, but it’s not always easy. However, use that as the touchstone. If you can make somebody’s job easier, you’re not going to have to ask them to use the system. You’re not going to have to beg people to please make sure they’re adding metadata. They’re going to ask you what they can do to get access to it. I’ve seen this over and over again.
And if you’re going to change things, really look at all you hope to gain on the backside of the change, and be bold. If you’re worried about preserving what works right now, you will lose out not only on all the benefits you can see, but also on all the potential follow-up opportunities, which will present themselves after you’re in that new landscape.
Is there any advice you would like to give to others that are working with a DAM system in their organization?
We all hire people for a specific skill set, so you assess and interview and try to really make the best decision to get the best fit in skills for the role that you have defined. As technology progresses, we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to extend the capabilities of everyone working in and around your DAM. Especially where it comes down to all these things that are repetitious, manual, and very defined. Please, have a system do that for someone!
And if your organization does not already utilize DAM, you have no idea what kind of positive transformation awaits you. Prepare to be amazed. With DAM, it can be possible to extend the capabilities of art and content creation teams without growing the size of the teams. All the hours they previously invested doing processes which the DAM can handle, you can repurpose that time to the team. Now they can make new stuff instead of making copies of the thing they just made. That’s a big deal. Your DAM should work for you. Your DAM needs to be working hard for you.