When we talk about a post-pandemic era in e-commerce content studios, one of the biggest changes we see is in studio planning. Yes, there's always been a need for contingency planning in the industry. But the shutdown exacerbated our typical problems and challenged our studios to have proper measures in place.
The new, post-pandemic studio can handle the rises, dips, and delays in workload and process.
To help us ask the right questions toward that goal, Rob Regovich of Malouf Companies stops by The Creative Operations Podcast to chat with host Daniel Jester. For their full discussion, catch the pod on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website. But we'll brief you on the conversation in the notes below.
Sample-Tracking Remains a Central Concern of Studio Planning
If you have nothing to shoot, how much of a plan does your studio really have?
"I've joked for a long time, particularly to people outside our direct circle of the content creation, that the single-biggest thing that has always held up photography is literally getting the sample," Rob says. "I've been in this industry more than 30 years; that has always been the single-biggest planning problem. We can put together sets, we can put together teams, we can put together creative plans. And if we don't actually have the thing we're supposed to shoot, we have a pretty significant problem. So knowing where and when the sample is going to arrive has historically been the largest problem."
Daniel adds to this, asking, "Will it be what we expect it to be when it arrives? That was an issue that I ran into a lot at Amazon. I may think I'm getting a box full of garments, but if what shows up is a box full of auto parts, I've completely staffed the wrong way."
This concern over sample mishaps led Daniel to take a conservative, though not prescriptive, approach. "I learned my lesson the hard way that I wasn't going to book my team until I had actual eyes on the product," he says.
All of this is to say that, as your team has discussions about studio planning, your sample tracking has to be at the forefront of that chat. Orient your talent, communication, and technology around knowing what and where your sample is.
The Shipping Department Has Entered the Chat
How do we improve sample tracking so studio plans can flow? Well, in addition to utilizing technology that tracks our samples, we can improve our communication with the full team of people involved with sample ordering and receiving.
For many studios, this means expanding the list of people who are considered inner-circle members of studio conversations. Welcome to the club, shipping department.
"We have to accept responsibility for communicating and keeping those relationships with all of those stakeholders solid so they have an understanding of what the situation is," Rob says. "And those stakeholders to me are not just the people who require the content, it's not just the marketing directors and the people who are graphic designers, etc. Our relationships and our stakeholders need to be all the people who we touch. So those relationships need to include our shipping and receiving department. They need to include all of the people in the supply chain so we can reach out and ask questions."
And while the shipping and receiving department might usually have an “uh oh” reflex to being summoned by studio leadership, we're calling for questions, not accusations.
"We can have relationships that aren't blame-related but are question-asking relationships because we're the people who connect those dots," Rob says. "In my experience, very often the people who have asked for something to be photographed don't have a direct line of sight to when the product's going to get here. And if we're the people connecting those dots, we're only going to do that if we have solid relationships and solid lines of communication to all of the fingers of that."
So in an effort to improve sample-tracking—and surely there are other, less utilitarian benefits to doing this, too—loop in your shipping and receiving department to your studio's chain of communication.
No, Technically I Don't Work Here, Either
If sample-tracking is, in Rob's mind, the single-most pressing issue facing studio planning, what's the second biggest culprit?
"I think the second-largest problem, in regard to planning, relates to how big our studio should be," he says. "What's the right staff size for us to be? When are we going to be busy? Are we going to be busy from April to August? Are we going to be busy from September to November? And how should we staff the studio around the knowledge that we're going to be slower in certain periods and busier in other periods? What's the right level of staff? What's the right balance of staff? Is the work coming in going to require more stylists than photographers? That kind of thing."
Yeah, just those few questions!
As more post-pandemic studios turn to freelance talent in general but especially as support in peak periods, it's worth noting that studios aren't equally afforded that opportunity, Daniel points out. "Your ability to staff freelance is largely going to be predicated on the labor market in your area,” he says. “Is there a pool of freelancers that are qualified that you can reach into to bring some team on?"
Of course, it doesn't help if your company leadership is perplexed by the rampantly rising share of freelancers in the workforce.
"I've certainly been aware of organizations where the HR culture is that they don't understand what a freelancer is," Rob says. "They become so opposed to the idea of freelancers that they'd rather push the photo and video studios to be overstaffed 70 or 80% of the time than bring in a freelancer for a couple of weeks here and there."
And while that's a cultural problem that needs to be addressed if it's happening within your company, it's also true that flinging yourself too far in the direction of freelancers introduces a few manageable but real considerations.
"I've also seen the other end of it, where studios have managed themselves essentially as freelance places," Rob says. "There might be a manager, there might be one or two staff people, but the entire rest of the staff is freelance which allows them to match their staff to the workload on any given day, on any given week. But they're on the other end of it, losing some consistency and probably costing themselves money."
There's a balance to strike when it comes to employee versus freelance talent, and, to Daniel's point, that pie chart will look different from region to region. Having forethought and intention about your use of freelancers will help your studio manage project bottlenecks while remaining true to your values.
Be Set to Salvage Vendor Images as Your Insurance Plan
If post-pandemic studios are about anything, they're about agility. We had Plan A, sure, but it's time to enact Plans B, C, D, and so on. Whether our samples are missing or our staff is shorthanded, are we ready to receive and edit imagery outside of our normal workflow and still meet our objectives and deadlines?
For Daniel, one of the ways this can be done is by having processes and technologies in place to work with vendor-provided imagery.
"Even if it's not your preferred method of getting the imagery—that's sort of the definition, I guess, of agility—pivot and say, 'We don't normally want to have to do color switches, take one product and do color changes in post to get the other things that we need, but we have that tool,'" Daniel says. "'We have the tool to accept vendor imagery.'"
It doesn't even need to be a permanent solution, Rob says.
"If the vendor images are what is required to get us up and running, and that buys us two or three weeks, that's great," he says. "We will do a better job, we will do a job that is more in line with our brand, etc. But in the meantime, we won't have lost the opportunity of having the listing up."
So if your studio isn't accustomed to working with vendor-provided images, get your technology, communication, and roles in place to work with it if, or when, you need an agile workaround.
That's plenty to reflect on and put into practice in your studio. But for even more of this chat on planning, stream this episode of The Creative Operations Podcast on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website.