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A Project Management Mindset for the Studio with David Hice of Aritzia

Daniel Jester
Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester. And this is the eCommerce Content Creation podcast. Project management as a discipline isn't exactly second nature for many studio teams around the world. But employing a bit of project management thinking can help inform studio stakeholder relationships and set your studio up for success. David Hice of Aritzia joins me for this episode to talk about exactly this.

David Hice:
We take that and apply it to all facets of creative. When I really think having a project management mindset probably applies to not just creative, but other areas in the business as well. But specifically within the studio, if you can take a step back work, with your cross-functional partners to get that upfront clarity on whatever it is they you need. So when the requests come in, you can hit the ground running, whether that's within the eCom studio, whether that's with producing an editorial, whether that's producing campaign or internal coms in corporate requests. That's what I think we're getting at when we talk about having this foundation of project management.

Daniel Jester:
Before we get started, I got to get one last plugin for the upcoming industry events. At the time that you hear this, this episode, the Photo Studio Ops Forum by Henry Stewart is tomorrow. And the day after that is the Pixels Flow Event, both in New York City. I have no idea if it's too late to register for the Henry Stewart event, but if it isn't, if you can still register for it, you should give it a shot and try our discount code content pod 100 to save a little bit of money on your registration fee.

Daniel Jester:
On May 5th is Flow New York hosted by Pixels. That is free to attend highly recommend attending. I will be at both events recording a live episode of the podcast at the Henry Stewart event and moderating a round table for the Pixels Flow Event. So I'm going to be there. I would love to see you there. If you're going to be there, I'll see you tomorrow. Now let's get into it with David Hice. This is the eCommerce Content Creation podcast. I'm your host, Daniel Jester and joining me today, my guest David Hice of Aritzia. Hi David, how are you?

David Hice:
Hey, Daniel, thanks so much for having me.

Daniel Jester:
It is my pleasure. It's under unfortunately kind of sad circumstances that we have you on the episode today, because we just discovered that we did not make Dua Lipa's list of influential Spotify podcast episodes. We had our fingers crossed, but we didn't make the cut this time.

David Hice:
That's all right. We'll keep trying.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. Yeah. We'll keep trying. Yeah. I'm afraid now that people are going to think I'm obsessed with Dua Lipa because I also made a Dua Lipa reference in an academy video that I recorded yesterday, but you know what? I won't apologize for it. Her music-

David Hice:
Yeah. It's nothing to be ashamed of.
Daniel Jester:
[crosstalk 00:02:53]

David Hice:
It's nothing to be ashamed of.

Daniel Jester:
Not at all. David, we had you on today, not to talk about today's hottest pop stars, but to talk about the, I guess the idea is sort of like a project management mindset for the modern studio.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
It's easy to trace the evolution of the photo studio from the pre-recession days of big budgets, more traditional type of photo shoots, where it was an isolated event that was planned semi-chaotic. That's how you knew you were having a good shoot, if half the people were running around with their hair on fire.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
That's not how we do it in e-commerce content creation. And one of the shifts that we talked about last week when we got together was using some of the language and ideas from more traditional project management to not only organize things within the studio, but also help your external studio stakeholders have a better understanding of the impacts that their input has and how that can impact the output of the studio and that kind of thing. So what do you say, should we dig into this?

David Hice:
Absolutely. Yep. I'm ready to go.

Daniel Jester:
The studio, any in-house studio is still sometimes mistaken for a bit of a magic box.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
Samples come in. Whoever's responsible at your organization for that, the merch team or whoever it is, brings those samples in, something happens, and then images come out. And because of that, it can turn into kind of a thing where people don't think about the impact of their delays on the upstream part of the process, what that might have an impact. So I think like just looking at it from a linear perspective, let's start there and talk there.

David Hice:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
We know that there's always samples, challenges, things come late. Sometimes the expectation is the studio can still meet their own deadlines. What are your thoughts on this idea, David?

David Hice:
You're exactly right. I think, and not even just the studio, but creative in general. A lot of times, I put a request in and then magic comes out and there's not a lot of consideration about what happens in between. So, as we're relating it to the studio and as we're talking about this project management mindset, we take that and apply it to all facets of creative. And I really think having a project management mindset probably applies to not just creative, but other areas in the business as well. But specifically within the studio, if you can take a step back, work with your cross functional partners to get that upfront clarity on whatever it is that you need. So when the requests come in, you can hit the ground running, whether that's within the eCom studio, whether that's with producing an editorial, whether that's producing campaign or internal coms in corporate requests.

David Hice:
That's what I think we're getting at when we talk about having this foundation of project management throughout the eCom studio, throughout our creative process. I think it ladders up to something that I say a lot is creative operations. There's this world of creative operations that I talk about a lot that consists of a lot of different parts of traditional creative process and environment. So it'll include pre-production. It includes project management includes production, post production, asset management, asset delivery.

David Hice:
So, as we're building our creative process, that project management underlying foundation is very much a part of it. But you want to think about the holistic approach of all those pieces and how do you ultimately get it into a scalable environment that can help your business grow or go the other way when times are down? How can you scale back efficiently? So I know that was a little bit long-winded and I said a few other things in there, but that's kind of where my mindset is at the moment. You know, how do you take all of these aspects of the creative process, project management being a big part of it, probably starting with that, and then building on top of that.

Daniel Jester:
One of the things that popped into my head as you were walking through your thoughts on this is I try to think a lot about why the studio, especially creative operations broadly, but especially in the studio, why it feels like there's just so much more to it when it comes to getting the work done. And yeah, part of it is I've said this before and at the risk of sounding sort of full of myself as a member of this community a little bit, within the studio department, you have so many different roles, tasks, tools-

David Hice:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
Equipment that you need. The physical space is different from like other creative disciplines that sometimes fall under operations-

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
Availability of equipment, availability of staff, availability of models. Your production can come down to whether or not you had enough steamers available that day in the studio to get that work done.

David Hice:
Yeah. For sure.

Daniel Jester:
And I think part of helping build a process around helping our stakeholders understand the complexity of that is having valuable insights into your internal studio production.

David Hice:
Exactly.

Daniel Jester:
Knowing what your throughput is at each stage, like how many steamers do I have? How many garments can I get per steamer? That's a super mundane example, but it's an extremely important one because if you're shooting apparel, all of that stuff needs to look good and it starts with the steamer.

David Hice:
Yeah. And I think that's what we mean by when we think about this project management approach to production a lot. There's so much overlap there, right? So we want to have a clear understanding of what our KPIs are for each type of bay, video bay, stills bay, on-off model bay, different categories. Can we shoot 50 of this category on model? Maybe we can only shoot 30 of this category on another model and really boiling it down so we know exactly what we can and can't do. And then communicate that back to our cross functional partners, our upper management.

David Hice:
So there's this, like we were saying earlier, it's this magic box. A lot of times studios aren't even the headquarters, right? They're in another city. They're out further out and not in the metropolitan area. So it does become this place of mystery. So, that's kind of what we want to put to rest, right? We want to give that clarity back to our stakeholders. So when they're requesting something they know, okay, yep. You guys can do this much. And it roughly takes you about this long to do it. And so there's less of that. When can I have it conversation that can constantly take time, right? You can have that same conversation over and over again, unless you communicate it back clearly, Hey, you're asking for this. Here's what we can do.

Daniel Jester:
And this is kind of what I mean when I've said on the podcast recently about this modern age of creative production for e-commerce really becoming a mature industry in and of itself is because we have enough years under our belts of doing the work this way to have these insights. You've been in the industry for a long time, David. You probably remember as well as I do the early days when you'd get the question like, well, why can't we do this? And it's kind of like, we just can't, but nowadays you can sit there and you can say we can't because of XYZ resources, because of these processes, because of various things that we have to do. It really is a sign in industry, a subset of creative operations that is very mature now. And, we figured out how to do this part of it. And now it's about figuring out what the next part looks like.

David Hice:
Yes. I mean, you're exactly right. Unfortunately, I still get that why question all the time, but that's up to myself and my team to continue to battle that question, right? Not just in a combative way, but in a constructive way.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah.

David Hice:
Giving them that insight into why it's happening. And then once you're able to do that, you're able to form that relationship and it becomes much stronger, not only for that specific instance, but going forward. It's better for yourself. It's better for the team and ultimately better for the final creative output.

Daniel Jester:
Fluency has been a recurring theme and topic on this podcast. And that's one of the things that I mentioned in our, for the listeners behind the scenes, I'm giving away all the things, but we have a little document for talking points that we fill out for David and I. We, we're not just super smart. We actually are reading off of a sheet of paper. No, I'm just kidding. But fluency has been a recurring topic on this podcast.

David Hice:
Yeah, exactly.

Daniel Jester:
Project like being fluent in the way that people use language around project management can really become a unifying thing in this regard. You can sit in those status update meetings or whatever these meetings are that you need to have this information using that language, being fluent in that language puts your stakeholders at ease that, okay, this isn't just a big group of creative people who are just like lackadaisical, which still persists. That still persists today in 2022. You got a studio full of a bunch of artsy fartsy types who don't care about KPIs or production or moving things through. And that's not true. Do you have the occasional artsy fartsy photographer?

David Hice:
Sure. That's who you want, to be honest. You want to hire these highly specified individuals to do great work for you. And I think that's where the project management creative operations really comes into play. I mean, I define it. I define it as you know, it's the integration of creativity and technology where efficiencies in the process are gained. And then you do that by structure, process metrics, so you can optimize timelines, optimize capacity, optimize costs. And these are all things that you're doing prior or behind the scenes. So those that you hire, those extremely creative people can just produce cool stuff for you. If you can take away all that extra stuff that comes along with working in a corporate environment, or just working in general with other people and have them do 90% of what you hire them for or more, you'll get the creative that you desire. It's just about freeing people up, hiring the right people, and just letting them go to work.

Daniel Jester:
We can go down a whole rabbit hole on that topic of identifying the right tools, that build processes that make it more streamlined, that prevent people from getting bogged down in some of those things.

David Hice:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
Let's talk about the idea of a little bit of fluency in project management within the studio though.

David Hice:
Sure.

Daniel Jester:
Yes. I agree with you. You want the right types of photographer, stylist, samples, people, digitech, retouchers working in the studio, but also, and just to avoid the whole devil's advocate thing, I've certainly hired photographers in studios before who just want to shoot, but I've also hired photographers who have an eye on moving into management, a lead role. And that's where fluency becomes such an important part of team development as well in learning some of these things.

Daniel Jester:
Okay. I know nobody. I don't think anybody likes Excel really. Maybe some accountants do, but the bottom line is that the reality is when you're moving from just shooting or just styling into some of the more leadership roles, there is a little bit of fluency that needs to be built up a bit. And you can kind of-

David Hice:
For sure.

Daniel Jester:
in some ways you can kind of, sort of like put the medicine in the peanut butter a little bit with your creative teams in the way that you talk to them about this kind of thing. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you feel about that, developing a team to have this sort of mindset while still sort of respecting the creative side of their brains?

David Hice:
Us as producers, us as project managers, us as having a creative operations mindset, that's what we're trying to create prior to each season or prior to going to work. Let's create this process that we know is scalable, sustainable, and then educate our individuals on it, but not just force feeding it to them, right? We need to have their feedback. We need to make sure that they're the experts in their field and we're taking that part of, okay, let's talk to the photographer. Let's truly understand their part of the process. Let's talk to the retoucher. Let's truly understand their part of the process. Let's talk to who ultimately gets that asset. Let's truly understand that part of the process. So we can then take that and then put it into like we keep saying this environment that we can grow in.

David Hice:
I know we're talking about this in general, but just to bring up Creative Force for a second, that's been a missing piece for me for a long time, is this cloud-based, scalable, sustainable environment for the production, post-production piece. I have a good understanding of this pre-production piece. There's a lot of good project management collaboration software to leverage for that. There's a lot of good digital asset management for the post-production asset delivery. And then in the middle, we've kind of been over the years, I would say band dating it a little bit with Apple scripts and using multiple different tools and things like that. And, every studio is so different. I think a lot of upfront project management work is similar in a lot of places. And I think a lot of digital asset management work is similar in a lot of places, but within the photo studio, within that production, post production piece, there's a lot of variance, at least from the places that I've been.

David Hice:
So I think talking to the individuals, understanding exactly what they need and putting it into an environment like creative force, that's only going to continue to get better with the feedback we give them with the feedback other companies give them. That will, I think in my mind at least, give me that holistic, overarching, creative process from pre-production having it may potentially speak to those tools in the future to our final delivery DAM tools, and then having everything in this SAS tool, cloud-based environment. It's always been my goal.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah, absolutely. It becomes sort of that, there is that input piece, which might be a project management tool at some places, it might be a pin because you're just feeding products into the studio.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
And then on the other end, you have some kind of place to put those assets, some kind of an asset manager. And then in between it could be everything from Google sheets with some wild formulas.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
I've certainly been author of several of those File Maker Pro. There was a recent podcast episode where we talked a little bit about, I got really into using Apple's built-in automator tool to build like folder structures and stuff like that.

David Hice:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
There's an opportunity there. And at the risk of sounding like a Creative Force commercial, which by the way, again, for the listeners. Podcast is produced by Creative Force. We're not here to be a commercial for it, but-

David Hice:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
It does slot in quite nicely.

David Hice:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
And I'm pretty proud of the tool.

David Hice:
Yeah. And that was my plug on my own that wasn't [crosstalk 00:15:56].

Daniel Jester:
Let's just say, there's no exchange of money here to David for this.

David Hice:
You know, I just wanted to kind of get that part across and to circle back to your original question about like everybody's speaking the same language. I think that's how you do it, right?

Daniel Jester:
Yeah.

David Hice:
Here are our tools. Here's the process we've aligned on, based on your feedback. Let's go to work.

Daniel Jester:
Let's pivot and talk about a concept that I know you're familiar with. I'm absolutely familiar with the idea of everything's a priority.

David Hice:
Yes.

Daniel Jester:
You have people at the upstream side of the studio who are like, these samples are late, so this is a priority. Well, now we think this one's going to be a big hit for spring. So now this one's a priority and now you've ended up with maybe 80% or more of the things you need to shoot that is a priority. And we can use some of the tools and the language from like this sort of, again, this project management mindset, [crosstalk 00:16:44] a little bit to help our stakeholders understand that that's not sustainable for their process, and they know that. Why would it be sustainable for ours? So I don't know, let's dig into that idea that everything's a priority idea.

David Hice:
This is every day, right, for our lives within production, project management, creative operations, and I think the project management mindset that we keep referring to lends itself extremely well here. So we've talked about, okay, everything's a priority. So let's take everything, let's look at it. Let's put everything in a project basis. So, we have everything in front of us. We have a holistic view of everything that's coming in. And if we leverage this project management mindset, we can look at that and give everybody visibility into everything that we have going on by leveraging these tools, right? I think it's super important to have everything going into a single source of truth. Because if every project's coming in from everywhere, then it's constantly plugging holes with your fingers. You're constantly trying to keep everything under control. And you're like, okay, yeah, that was a priority this morning. Now this is a priority.

David Hice:
But if you can keep everything within a single source of truth within these tools that we keep talking about, you can easily visually communicate that back to your cross-functional partners or even your upper management if you need to go there to get help and say, Hey, everything's a priority. Can you help me prioritize? And then you can communicate that back out to your cross-functional partners within minutes or hours, instead of let me get on a call with you, let me do this, let me do this, and then you're constantly chasing your tail. So it's about getting ahead of that. It's about getting the projects into these environments that allow you to track all of this. And then once you do that, you can easily start to report on it. You can start to report on how many requests are coming in. How big are these requests? What types of requests are they and understand, okay, this could go here in this studio. This could go here for this person.

David Hice:
And again, that gives an extra element of visibility into how much is being requested and then using the analytical aspect of all of that creative, right? If you're able to put numbers to it, you're able to take that to your upper management. You're able to take that to your finance teams that only speak in numbers and say, Hey, we're consistently seeing over-requests month in and month out. Here's who we need to hire. Here's the space we need to get. Here's the equipment we need to buy. As long as it's laddering back up to those estimated work efforts, I like to call them or number of projects that are coming in, those conversations go very far, very quickly. Instead of what we normally hear in the creative world is I'm overwhelmed. I need more people. We just need to hire more people. And you know, you can hire more people until the business collapsed, till you run out of budget, till you run out of space, till there's too many cooks in the kitchen. Of course.

Daniel Jester:
Right.

David Hice:
You know, but what we want to do is, and that's something I'm constantly battling is, yes, I want to hire more people. My employees are always asking to hire more people, but we want to do that smartly. We want to do that based on analytics. We want to make scalable efficiencies and not just continue to hire and hire and hire. So it's thinking about all of that together.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. Using all of those tools to build a business case, which is in my opinion, and David, you can tell me if you'd agree or disagree with this, but historically building a meaningful business case for expanding the footprint of the studio has been not exactly a strong suit of the studio teams, depending on your leadership.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
You know, different organizations bring in studio leadership. I've mentioned this. I'm sure I've mentioned this on the podcast before, but Amazon was really big on bringing people in from logistics into senior leadership roles at the studio. They obviously know very well how to build a business case for more CapEx, more OPEX, bigger studio footprint. I told myself, I'd never say CapEx on this podcast. And here I am, I've become what I hate. No, I'm just kidding. This is a valuable tool for any studio leader anywhere is being able to make and use the data that they have, the information, the insights about their own studio to build solid business cases, to get money so that you can improve and reach that point where you've got the right amount of team. You've got the right amount of equipment, you've got the right amount of space and you can start to absorb a lot of these projects. And it doesn't feel like you're constantly overwhelmed.

David Hice:
I think you're exactly right. I think over the last 10 years, like you're talking about, let's put these super senior people that only know this operations and logistics piece of it at the top so they can figure it out, right? I think there's been a change over the last five years or maybe a little bit longer, but really over the last five years with how much, a lot of these SAS tools have come along, how user friendly they are now. It's really giving someone like myself, a middle management position, the ability to operate, like maybe when you had to bring in these senior people, bring in all these people to take a look at it and put all this together. So I'm not saying I'm a team of one. I have great direct reports and I lean on a lot of different people, but it's really giving our studio the ability to produce those insights and then communicate that back to the business in a much more efficient way.

David Hice:
There's been this fear of technology for a long time, from a lot of different disciplines. I think creative is one of them, even though we deal with a lot of technology. We don't necessarily deal with it in the way we're talking about it. So there's been this fear of, I know Photoshop, but I don't want to be in Excel, or I don't want to be in a project management tool. I know the tool that I went to school for. I know this in and out, but with some of these tools, how far they've come along, they're still user friendly. After a couple uses, you can completely change the way that you're working.

David Hice:
You don't necessarily need to be a super user, but if you're able to track all your team's work in one queue, instead of having to receive emails or Zoom chats or desk side favors or messenger pigeons. You can have all of that, your projects and insights for your team within a couple weeks now setting up a tool, depending on how complex you need it, but really anyone can learn a lot of these tools now.

David Hice:
I mean, even a lot of them have apps. Everybody's on their phone every day now. So it's just like if you take an hour every week for a few weeks, you can set your team up for success and then continue to build on it.

Daniel Jester:
You put it so succinctly an idea that we talked a lot on the podcast, which is, it is interesting. There is sort of a fear of technology, even though our discipline uses so much technology to do the job.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
We get really attached to the technology, the legacy technology.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
And this conversation comes up a lot when we start to talk about the future of what e-commerce is even going to look like when we start to talk about how much longer are we going to be shooting product, how much longer are we going to be shooting models before it's computer generated and-

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
Before it's that kind of thing, and one thing that I've really, I won't say exactly changed my position, but I firmed up a position on this a little bit more where I definitely was one of those people who feared the shift from shooting products on the tabletop to rendering all of them, because I was a tabletop product guy.

Daniel Jester:
That was like where I liked to spend my time. And there was a fear around that for me, but then realizing and learning through a lot through this podcast especially, that that's not the part of the process that I liked. It's not that I get to use a camera or that I get to use Capture One. It's that I'm creating something visually and I'm solving problems on behalf of the customer. And whether I do that by pushing a button on a camera or pushing a button on a keyboard, the fundamental nature of that role doesn't really change a lot.

Daniel Jester:
And yet my little soliloquy on a different side of the technology thing, but you nailed it. You really nailed it. We do sometimes in our industry and in studios both embrace the technology that we're familiar with.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
And then fear anything else.

David Hice:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
David, that was an excellent conversation. That's about all of the time that we have for this episode. I wanted to ask you're based in New York, correct?

David Hice:
Correct.

Daniel Jester:
Are you planning on attending the Henry Stewart event on May 4th or the Pixels event on the following day? Are you aware of these?

David Hice:
I am now. I would love to learn more about them. I would love to attend those. I'm always looking to meet more people in industry, like-minded folks to have these conversations with, especially now things are opening back up. It was something that I did prior to the pandemic, and I would love to continue to explore that. So I look forward to being there.

Daniel Jester:
Sure. So I can get my commercial plug in here really quick. This podcast is a media partner for the Henry Stewart Photo Studio Ops Forum, 2022, in New York City on May 4th. And we will actually be recording a live episode of the podcast at that event during our speaking slot.

Daniel Jester:
And then the following day Pixels is hosting the Flow New York event on May 5th down the street. Off the top of my head, I don't have the details. They're always in the show notes, but couple of great events coming up in May. I'm looking forward to being there. If you can make it, David, I guess I'm just going to go one by one to all the people that I know and just personally invite them via the podcast. But yeah, I was just curious because you're local. You're already there. I think it sounds like it's shaping up to be a really nice event. Things are opening up. People are feeling ready, I think. And it's been when we did the flow event in LA with Pixels, it was great. It was really great to see people I hadn't seen in a long time.

David Hice:
Yeah. Cool. That sounds great. And I'm looking forward to being there.

Daniel Jester:
Well, thank you so much for your time, your expertise. You and I had not met before we got together for this podcast. It was so nice to meet you and get to chat a little bit.

David Hice:
Oh, thank you so much for inviting me. And I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing you in person at these events.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah, you got it. That's it for this episode. Many thanks to our guest, David Hice, and thanks to you for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force edited by Calvin Lands. Special thanks to Sean O'Meara. I'm your host, Daniel Jester. Until next time, my friends.

About the host

Daniel Jester
Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Daniel Jester is an experienced creative production professional who has managed production teams, built and launched new studios, and produced large-scale projects. He's currently the Chief Evangelist at Creative Force but has a breadth of experience in a variety of studio environments - working in-house at brands like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Farfetch as well as commercial studios like CONVYR. Creative-minded, while able to effectively plan for and manage a complex project, he bridges the gap between spreadsheets and creative talent.