How to Scale Creative Operations: 4 Recommendations for Producing Incredible Content at Scale
Let's start with a vision, one of optimized operations in a studio at scale, because we believe that you can be soon if you're not already there in your studio!
With your studio's people, process, tools, and value well-established, the eCommerce side of your operations runs smoothly due to the standards and pre-defined creative for those assets. The entire customer experience across your site maintains a consistent look and feel. Your studio provides direct value to the business because you boost the quantity and quality of product launches, so the brand has more assortment and increased sales. In the case of commercial studios, this efficiency helps you attract more clients.
That's a pleasant picture of e-commerce operations going well. But what does it look like to experience similar success with editorial photography?
Imagine your studio executing nuanced creative campaigns and always reflecting the aesthetic and message of your brand or your client's brands. Your studio's value, both direct and indirect, is clear because you create everything from direct-response ads to awareness campaigns and everything in between.
Quick-turn requests come up? That's no problem because your operations provide the flexibility to deliver those assets while coming through on long-term projects too. Whether it's a single-channel project with a few deliverables or a cross-functional campaign with higher counts, you know how to keep the process streamlined and the costs low. You've also secured all the samples you'll need for each shot because you'd been tracking them and knew they'd arrive prior to shooting (and if not, you've planned for and mitigated that risk ahead of time!). You save production costs by repurposing creative assets from other channels, and wow, you really sound organized and know when to use in-house resources and when to turn elsewhere.
The work you create resonates with your audience, bringing in new customers, and existing customers feel even more loyal to your group. Basically, everyone loves working with you and your studio!
Now you may be thinking, "That's a lovely portrait you've painted, but sorry, that's not quite where my studio is today."
Maybe you're still using the same tools and processes from your early days, and now that you've grown, the same approach doesn't bring the same results. Maybe because of this, your operations look and feel far less efficient. We hear you and we want to help you move closer to a reality like the one we've described here!
→ Did you read our grand post about the definition of Creative Operations?
Turn to Technology That Grows With You
Now that you're working at higher volumes, you may already be reviewing your technology. Is it what you need to scale creative operations, or is it a set of tools you've outgrown? It's a common risk when your company grows: you're using legacy technology too simple for high-volume, big-league workflows!
For example, are your photographers and digitechs going through a spreadsheet to update progress and on-set sample information for every editorial shot? That may have passed in the early days, but now that leads to inefficiencies, longer time spent on-set, and an opening for human error.
Or, how about this: are you still using a slide deck to keep track of eCommerce production? It seemed like a simple, uncomplicated approach in your early days, but now you have thousands of SKUs across countless categories to shoot, that you can hardly keep straight!
In instances like these, you may want to use tools more appropriate for your current scale, like a production management system. When you can go from manual to automated processes, and from standalone tools to ones that integrate with your other technology (see: PIMs, DAMs, and more), you free your creatives to focus on creating impactful work. This change also makes on-the-go pivots easier to update in real time, for the good of your entire production pipeline (and your producer's sanity!).
When you can go from manual to automated processes, and from standalone tools to ones that integrate with your other technology (see: PIMs, DAMs, and more), you free your creatives to focus on creating impactful work. This is how you can scale creative operations fast.
So if you feel like you're using caveman tools to build spaceships, we recommend you take steps to reduce human error, alleviate time invested into data entry, and streamline the number of product owners and IT managers across all those disparate systems by way of a single solution. Go with a studio production management platform. This upgrade will greatly simplify your at-scale operations, whether you're shooting e-commerce, editorial, or both.
Foster Relationships to Demonstrate Value and Justify Investment in Your Studio
You know your studio is valuable, but sometimes it may seem difficult to prove just how valuable it is, because the studio's involvement in larger business goals is crucial, but can be indirect (especially when it comes to marketing photography!). When looking to operate at an even greater scale, you're going to need more investment to support the ambition-additional headcount, bigger space, more gear, and updated technology-and in turn, you'll almost certainly need to justify the resources required as well.
To ensure you get what you need we recommend forging proactive relationships with leaders of other departments across your organization who stand to benefit from the additional value you'll be providing.
For instance, when you connect with IT or the buying team, instead of leading with your needs, learn about theirs-what goals or KPIs do they have? What tricky challenges (from resources to technology to process) may be keeping them from meeting their goals? Start to draw parallels and identify the overlaps in the KPIs and goals of your partners with your own. Initiate a dialogue that you frame around how your studio can help them succeed.
As you're establishing yourself as a listener, you're able to collaborate on your own pain points as well, especially with other departments' pain points in mind too. ("You know, with industry-standard technology for the studio, we'll finally be able to do X and Y for you, and together we can accomplish Z for the business.") Now, instead of your needs coming across as complaints or as disconnected from anyone else's success, they're directly tied to other people's interests and provide a win for the business. It's a classic "help me help you" dynamic that comes out of a listening-first approach.
As always, one of the best ways to facilitate these types of conversations is with tangible metrics and data that help quantify success. Find ways to set KPIs, even simple ones, for your studio's work and utilize them to promote data-driven decision-making in your cross-department initiatives. Are you addressing one of those aforementioned challenges that plague another department? Collaborate with other department heads to set measurable goals for results that speak to a job well done. Once you cultivate objective results that establish effective cross-department problem-solving, you develop advocates for your studio and success stories to share across your organization.
Find ways to set KPIs, even simple ones, for your studio's work and utilize them to promote data-driven decision-making in your cross-department initiatives.
The next time you need a new retouching station or workflow solution, you'll have leaders across your business who will help you along the way to an approved whitepaper and successful procurement, because they see how your wins lead to theirs.
Once you cultivate objective results that establish effective cross-department problem-solving, you develop advocates for your studio and success stories to share across your organization.
Reevaluate Your Processes to Unlock Connection (and Efficiencies) with Fellow Creative Teams
We see a lot of studios struggle with disjointed relationships with other creative teams in their organizations. Furthermore, this is often exacerbated, in the context of editorial production, by similar teams managing their work within different tools. When your studio feels siloed away from marketing, design, and copy teams all working on the same campaign, it can lead to slowdowns as well as frustration-why didn't that one team come through on their end of the task at hand? When working at scale, the breakdowns become more consequential to project timelines, and the churn more palpable, so you'll want to address underlying problems and set a healthier tone.
Cross-department dialogue and integrated technology are again the focus of our recommendation in this area as well. When people leaders know one another's strengths, pain points, and KPIs-and understand how their interconnected processes affect each other through an integrated tech stack-you can begin to unlock some impactful efficiencies and stronger partnerships.
To make this a reality, invest the time to understand how long your fellow teams' most common processes take, how and why they sometimes extend beyond the ideal timeframe, and what effect those delays might have on downstream execution.
Another way to improve these relationships, if team members have a difficult time empathizing with the ways in which those downstream are impacted, is to plan an inter-team shadowing exercise so they can build their comprehension and appreciation of the skills used in other parts of your business.
In some cases, it might be constructive to review your cross-department collaboration. This could be quarter over quarter, client by client, or, depending on the need, post-mortem project by project. The goal here is to review common work streams, identify process pain points or bottlenecks, and streamline in a way that is constructive for all teams involved. Perhaps this involves integrating two systems to knock out manual effort happening in roles on both teams or maybe it's providing both a working file and an export from retouching to design to alleviate common rework requests. It's natural for leaders to be protective of their teams, so finding measurable success and taking a data-driven approach to the assessment will keep conversations focused on process improvement.
Finding measurable success and taking a data-driven approach to the assessment will keep conversations focused on process improvement.
Provide Team Members with Clear Roles and Growth Paths
Your team members want to feel engaged and energized at work, but when your studio operates at scale, you risk a high-volume studio atmosphere that feels stagnant-people creating the same types of content daily. When this happens, morale can deteriorate toward burnout, which, unfortunately, likely turns into lower output and higher turnover in your studio.
While this is a complex topic, your solution here begins with honesty. It's important to lead with transparency to ensure clarity and aligned expectations. This begins with your hiring manager being straightforward with potential employees about the nature of your projects today and the forecasted growth for tomorrow. That honesty right from the outset will retain creatives that resonate with your studio's content and culture.
The emphasis on honesty continues as you reexamine what roles your team should have, and what skills each role requires. (Just as your old technology may no longer serve your studio at scale, your previous job descriptions may not meet the needs of your studio now.) Be sure to review and update job descriptions to align with your studio's growth targets, and coach your team on how their performance successes and opportunities connect with the studio meeting its goals. In doing this, everyone has the opportunity to understand their purpose and potential for positive impact.
Remember, throughout all of this, we don't want anyone to end up 'alone on an island amidst a sea of change.' Your team members may have questions or simply want reassurance, so give them proper channels to be heard. To facilitate this, it's hugely beneficial and suggested to meet regularly with those who report to you so you can provide guidance and feedback, not only on day-to-day production but also on the larger view of their growth paths.
Ultimately, to get you started on your journey to editorial production at scale: update your tools, contribute and receive added value across departments, communicate your process, and coach your team members.
Of course, the path toward operating a studio at scale takes effort but it's a challenge worth overcoming and one we know you're well-equipped to handle. There's no doubt you can lead a team in a high-volume environment while also prioritizing business, studio, and individual needs.
And if you ever have questions about tactics that your industry peers use to succeed in hyper-productive studio environments, reach out!