DAM Champ: Phil Ellerton

DAM Champ Phil Ellerton is the Global Digital Asset Manager at Save the Children, a leading international, non-profit organization. Phil, a librarian, speaker, and DAM advocate, has over 20 years of experience developing and looking after visual collections at companies such as Amnesty International, Al Jazeera, Sky News, and the BBC. Phil is no stranger to wrangling chaos and getting new DAM systems up and running, and has found her place in the world of DAM.

DAM Champ: Someone who supports finding, setting up, or maintaining a DAM system. There’s a wide variety of DAM champions who come from a variety of positions in production, creative, management, IT, and marketing.


DAM Champ Phil Ellerton

Can you tell me about your background?

I think you typically fall somewhere in between IT or library with DAM. My background is in library, I’m a fully qualified librarian specializing in visual archives. For the last 20-25 years, I’ve worked at the BBC, Al Jazeera and recently Amnesty International, exclusively looking after visual assets – photographs, video, and film.

I spent six years at the BBC across lots of different areas of output, including entertainment and features and radio, but mainly in news. I worked across all of the different news channels; World and News 24 and some of the flagship current affairs shows that we have in the UK.

Working in broadcasting, you also look after film cans and one-inch and two-inch tapes, and every format in between. We can get confused by MP4s and H264s, but it was always this way – it was just that the formats were physical rather than digital, but you still needed to manage and organize them.

What department do you work in at Save the Children?

I’m in a fairly new team called the Global Creative Content Unit. We’ve been created specifically to sit across Creative Content Production within the organization. We’re a huge organization, there are nearly 25,000 people working at Save the Children. Our fundraising functions, mainly in the global north, all create marketing and fundraising assets. So, my team’s been brought in to sit across these production areas to produce, collate and then re-version, repurpose, and make use of assets that are being produced by Save the Children all over the world.

Are all of those 25,000 people in your DAM system?

They are not, no, Save the Children is doing a lot of frontline work, so there’s a lot of people employed locally at the real coalface, who may be working in clinics or around emergency response. I would say that there are about 1,500 people who are exclusively creating content or using it in marketing or fundraising.

Fundraising and Marketing people are using the DAM system, but what I find increasingly, is that the DAM system is being used by everybody from finance departments to support to liaison departments. We’re illustrating everything these days and using pictures and films on every platform and in every circumstance.

That’s still a lot of people for you to manage in the DAM, I can imagine. So you’re a librarian, correct?

That’s right, and I did have a look at the DAM Champs so far – it’s funny, isn’t it, a lot of librarians there, and yet when I arrive at some networking and vendor events, there are never any librarians. I found that quite interesting.

I consider the library aspect vital to the success of a DAM system. You’re applying the principles of organizing information and making it available to people. For me, a well-organized DAM system is no different than having the books organized on the shelf in the library. You want your users to find what they need without having to come to you to do it. And that’s what librarianship is all about.

I definitely agree. Were you involved in the selection process of your DAM system?

I wasn’t, no, Save the Children procured their DAM system, and then they procured me. They got the DAM system in place and my first job was to get it up and running, configure it, and migrate assets over. So, I wasn’t involved in the selection part of it.

I think that’s pretty common across organizations. A lot of times there’s one group of people that decide what system they’re going to use and then somebody else manages it.

Yes, but the list of requirements is obviously the starting point with this sort of project, and they’d really done their homework. We ended up with a really cool DAM.

Nice. So why do you think digital asset management is important?

I think the clue is in the word “assets,” isn’t it? Photographs, videos, artwork, design files – they’re valuable assets for an organization, and a lot of money is spent producing them. Creative teams always want to create new stuff, but here at Save the Children, we’re hungry for imagery, and not everyone within our organization that uses these types of assets is in a position to produce them from scratch.

So, I really like to get value for money. I ensure that we are able to share our assets within the organization. I love to see quality content that’s produced, for example, by Save The Children UK, being found on the DAM and re-versioned and used by Save the Children in Korea. We go to great lengths to create these assets. And, we send – we have a phrase for it here – “content gatherers” all over the world to gather up these sorts of assets to support marketing and fundraising.  I want these assets to continue working for us, so the DAM system ensures we keep getting a return on those investments.

Yeah, I really like that term, content gatherers.

We’re all content gatherers now, Nora.

That’s true.

If you’ve got a smartphone, anything like that, we can be taking photographs. We can be filming. We’re all at it now.

Definitely. So what’s your favorite part of DAM? Is metadata, analytics, permissions, or anything like that, a favorite aspect?

I suppose the librarian in me enjoys the metadata part of it. I can be just like all librarians; I can be pretty strict about metadata. I like a lot of detail. You’ve probably heard this before, an asset without metadata isn’t an asset. We still use words to find pictures, even though search engines like Bing and Google will pull the wool over our eyes and pretend that we’re looking for images in a much more sophisticated way.

We’re not really. We’re still using words to find them. So metadata and controlled vocabularies are extremely important – you need those in an organization like Save the Children where there’s a lot of acronyms and abbreviations. You can find huge discrepancies from team to team, so there’s a lot of work to mitigate the differences in not just languages, but also the words that we use to describe things.

Do you put different metadata for different languages in your system? How does that work?

Not at the moment. However, the DAM system will support any language. So if you’re typing something in Japanese to describe your photograph, it will support that. But, unfortunately, at the moment, there’s nothing around translations.

The DAM system is set up so that all of our offices have an area of the DAM which they keep private and can directly share assets from. So I’m very relaxed knowing that Save the Children Germany are cataloging a lot of their assets in German. We’d look at that in more detail if they want to share content globally and address that then. So, it will support other languages, but we’re not doing anything clever ‘under the hood’ around translation right now.

It’s always interesting to hear how someone deals with a global DAM system versus a localized one. There’s always other challenges and aspects to it.

You’re absolutely right – there always are. But, I think you can actually benefit from decisions such as deciding what your organizational language is. If you’re on global calls – are you we all speaking English? It’s not a problem exclusive to DAM, but even in a DAM system you have to go with what the organization has predetermined around language.

What does your system help you accomplish?  It can be you personally, your team or your business – or all three.

Personally, it helps me keep track of the good stuff that my colleagues are producing. Because I operate an open DAM, where anyone in the organization can upload, it helps me capture vital metadata from the originator, so that once we find an asset, we know what we’re looking at and what we can do with it. I do train content gatherers to upload and apply metadata themselves. For me, it means I don’t have to do this bit, just enhance what is there.

It also means I don’t waste my time looking for assets that are buried on local drives, in complicated folder structures across Dropbox and WeTransfer, and all the usual ways that we complicate organizational access to assets. If it takes me more than three minutes to find an asset I’m looking for and to discover what I can do with it, I do get a bit frustrated. The DAM system helps me with that.

For my global team, it provides them with a unique overview of the really good, quality content being produced by our colleagues all over the world. Then, we can highlight it and push it to other areas of our organization to support fundraising and marketing.

For the business, I talk about the DAM system more widely as meaning distribution and sharing. At Save the Children, we are always looking for return on investment and getting value for money. So with this in mind, distribution means getting assets that we spend a lot of money producing out there and working for us. And, sharing means that we can maybe save on resources here if we know somebody made something similar over there.

What’s your day-to-day involvement with the DAM system?

Well, the DAM is me. It’s mostly all I do. I’ve configured it. I’ve migrated the assets from legacy systems and rolled the DAM out across the organization myself. There was no IT support at all, so I’ve learned how to build APIs and get databases talking to one another.

So, my day-to-day involvement is troubleshooting, maintenance, and still configuring – the system is only four months old, so we are still responding to requirements. And, then a lot of support for our content gatherers.

There’s a funny anecdote that I’ll mention around content gathering. I joked that we’re all content gatherers now. There is a huge misconception around metadata and content gathering, as I’m sure you’re aware.

I asked somebody who provided photographs recently, where I could find information about what I’m looking at in the photograph. And the reply I got was; “It’s in the IPTC.” But when I looked, I saw that there was nothing entered in the IPTC, even the date was set incorrectly. So it seems there is this idea that if you click your camera, your camera is clever enough to include all the information automatically in the IPTC. This is a big challenge and I do a lot of hand-holding around metadata and what words to add to your pictures.

You said you learned how to work with APIs, is that the first time you’ve ever done that or had you done that in the past?

This isn’t the first time I’ve started an asset migration from scratch. I had a project about six years ago and the vendors did a lot of the work on the metadata migration for me. They did a lot of the metadata clean-up within CSV and Excel, and they actually ran the metadata mapping via API but I had an overview of the processes and an eye on quality.

The difference in my current role here at Save the Children is that we’re migrating from half a dozen different legacy DAM systems with different metadata fields, different quality of metadata, etc.

I think the other difference is that vendors no longer touch your data, or that seems to be the way things are going. Once upon a time they would sell you a DAM system and tell you it would solve all your problems, but now they’re starting to advise that if you purchase a DAM system, you do need someone like me to make it work and maintain it for you. So, for this particular process of migrating from other systems, I had a little training in building APIs, but then I was on my own with the asset and metadata migration.

I interviewed another DAM Champ, who was also at Henry Stewart Europe, and he mentioned that you are amazing because you did two complete system integrations with no team at all.

I think I’m actually quite unusual in that respect. I’ve been to DAM Europe quite a few times and I’m always extremely envious when brilliant colleagues at commercial organizations have support. I wasn’t kidding when I said that there’s no IT support for this at Save the Children. And, we launched ahead of schedule as well.

That’s impressive. Do you have a specific way of managing different types of assets, like video asset types or image asset types, in your DAM system?

Well, the DAM system becomes all things to all people, doesn’t it? Every type of asset you can imagine sits on the DAM system, from regular JPEGs to Quicktime files, big 4K pieces, documents, and everything from Excel sheets to PDFs. It’s a challenge how we deal with all of those different asset types because the information that you record about them varies.

Of course, any good DAM system will afford you the option of changing metadata fields per asset type, which is really great. But in my experience, document archive systems do documents very well; DAM systems do visuals really well. So there’s always a little bit of tension there between visuals and documents.

At the start of the project I decided we would have a picture-led DAM. So, you find your pictures and then you would find the supporting documents that might go with them. So, that’s the way that I’ve approached it, to really concentrate on the visuals, the things that by their own nature don’t have words attached for you to search through.

And we’ve got a really nice DAM system, which means that if I’ve got a set of 60 photographs and two films, and maybe a story that I want to go with that, then I can upload it, gather it all together, and package it up really nicely and neatly for people to find. So, if you find your picture, you’ll find anything that goes with it.

The videos, I do slightly differently – it’s a technique that I adapted from my time at the BBC. Because we re-version videos, we are probably going to produce text on screen or voice-overs in English. But we also need to provide our colleagues in the Netherlands or in Germany with clean versions, or versions where the audio is split, so that they can put their own voice-overs or text on screen.

The idea that I took from the BBC is, you find your film over here and everything else is associated with it, so you are never left scrubbing around the DAM system going, “I cannot find a clean version of this film.” If you find your film, whatever version, you will find every other iteration of it and also transcripts and scripts, footage sources, and even the split audio files.

How do you promote your DAM system throughout your company and all your different regions to increase adoption and awareness?

I’m actually really fortunate to sit in a larger content producing team. There are four of us. The rest of my team is charged with content creation – top quality films, photographs, audio recordings, podcasts – absolutely everything.

Now, a really nice by-product of the team producing this content, is that they distribute it using the DAM system. So we immediately have a ‘killer application’ around our DAM system. The best visuals are there. So, when our colleagues want quality content, they’re going to come to the DAM system. I was quite confident that just by producing good content within this team, our Users would be coming to the DAM system to get it.

In addition to that, we have an internal communications team who has been a real champion of the DAM system. And I say yes to everything, every invitation to train or lead webinars. I do a lot of online screen sharing with colleagues all over the world, especially content gatherers. We mentioned the funny story about IPTC. Well, you can teach people that, and you can teach people to take care of the photographs and to add metadata. I concentrate on our key people in the field and work very closely with them – whether they’re in Yemen and I’m in London, or recording a webinar with 20 attendees, posted to our intranet then be seen by another 400 people. We’ve got a lot of good internal conversations going – we love to talk to one another!

That’s good. Some companies might not be like that. It can be hard for them to get people to use the DAM.

If there’s reluctance – and there always is with some teams – to embrace a DAM system I explain it to them slightly differently. With Creative Teams I tell them, ‘you’re making great content and this is your route to market with that content,’ then they start to get it and to understand it a little bit more. But this isn’t my first rodeo! It takes a while for some people to come around to it and I’m definitely experiencing that here. Four months in, we’ve got our champions, and we’re getting a lot of traction, but I’m beginning to identify the teams I need to work on a bit harder.

What is your biggest challenge working with DAM?

I think I have to look at this from a charity’s point of view. Everyone knows we need to bring order to the chaos of taking care of assets. We need to be able to find what we need, when we need it. I mentioned that my previous life was in broadcasting. That’s an industry where visual content is absolutely essential, its central to the aims of the organization. If you’ve got nothing to put on screen, you’ve got no product. So organizations like the BBC and Al Jazeera, they resource these traditional library functions effectively, and so there are always professionals taking care of these assets.

For a charity, even a big one, like Amnesty or Save the Children, resourcing a function that’s not a frontline function in the same way our emergency response teams are, …it could be viewed as a bit of a luxury.

How do you know your DAM system is successful? Are you using any metrics or anything like that to track success or prove ROI?

I’m not having to report just yet, but I think in the next couple of months I’m going to have to report in detail. As I say, we’ve only been in business with this DAM for four months.

Since then, there’s been over 43,000 assets downloaded and about the same number uploaded. It’s not an exact science, but a download number that big tells me that people are finding what they need, because in all of that time, I’ve been asked exactly once to find a particular picture.

“So if there are 43,000 requests made to the system which have resulted in a download, that’s maybe 43,000 questions – ‘Can you find this picture for me?’ – that I’ve avoided.”

I did record a lot of information before the DAM system was launched to see how people were working ahead of using the new DAM system. I was recording information about how long it was taking people to process picture requests, to find what they needed, or whether they were having to take assets out of the previous DAM to put them into Photoshop to change the size or shape. There are a lot of factors that I will touch on when I’m reporting, but the nice thing about DAM systems is that they record the numbers.

And management loves numbers, so that’s the sort of thing that I’ll end up putting front and center.

That’s great. Do you have any advice you would give to other DAM professionals?

I want to say things like, build your taxonomy and then stick to it, but my experience tells me that that’s nonsense. You have to be flexible around taxonomy and language. Really understand that it’s an evolving beast. On the technical side, I’ve got a DAM that offers me half a million different configurations, so my advice would be to listen to user requirements and then see what you can do yourself to fix things to make them work for people.

The bit I really wouldn’t move on is adding metadata. I’m flexible on everything else, but if I see assets going into the system, and they’re good pictures or good films with no information, I’m on it straightaway.

“Without metadata, it’s like having all the books in the library on the floor in the dark. You’ve got them all, but you would never pick up the one that you needed when you needed it.”

I would advise a focus on metadata, make sure that someone is providing the words that describe the assets on the DAM but to be relaxed about everything else.

Yeah, that’s great advice. Do you have any resources, or conferences or new sources that you’d recommend for people trying to learn about digital asset management?

I’m friends with my peers at places like Oxfam, Greenpeace, Amnesty, and a couple other larger charities and NGOs worldwide. When you’re the only person in a role in an organization, and often DAM people are the only people, then networking across your industry is really helpful.

I was googly-eyed at the EU DAM conference this year. One of the chaps giving a presentation said there’s only one academic course around DAM in the UK, only one higher education qualification that you can get for digital asset management. I was really surprised that it hasn’t matured more because DAM has been around for a long time now. I’m surprised that the library schools aren’t doing much more on it.

And that’s what’s happening, a lot of places are just handing digital asset management over to IT and then wondering why they can’t find what they need on the DAM!

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