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A Studio Origin Story with Rob Cohen of Vizio Imaging

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:

From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester, and this is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. Joining me for this episode of the show is Rob Cohen of Vizio Imaging. Rob comes from a background in consumer products where he experienced firsthand the challenges of inconsistent or low quality product photography and the impact it could have on marketing and sales. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 in response to his customer's needs and his own business feeling the impacts of the pandemic, he started Vizio Imaging with an Orbitvu automated imaging device that he had brought to Israel a few years earlier.

Rob Cohen:

In early 2020, most of my clients pulled back their marketing budgets as the COVID pandemic was exploding. They pretty much stopped most of the marketing work that we were doing, and I looked around my design studio and I saw this machine in this corner and I said, "Well, e-commerce is probably going to take off, maybe I can do something with this." And that's how it all started.

Daniel Jester:

After this episode, our friends at Orbitvu are really going to owe us one. Let's find out how it got started for Rob and what's in store for Vizio Imaging. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I am your host, Daniel Jester. Joining me for this episode of the podcast, Rob Cohen of Vizio Imaging. Is that the name of your business, Rob? Vizio Imaging, should I take that again.

Rob Cohen:

That is, Vizio Imaging.

Daniel Jester:

No, absolutely nailed it. We're not going to do it again. First of all, I know that you've been a listener for a long time to the podcast because you have the distinct honor of being one of our earliest, if not the first Apple podcast written reviews for our show. We were very excited to see that one pop through. So thank you for that.

Rob Cohen:

Thank you. I loved the content. Really appreciate it.

Daniel Jester:

And it turns out that's a quick way to buy you a guest spot on the podcast is to just leave us a written review and then we'll just be like, "Hey, you want to be on the show"?

Rob Cohen:

Well, it worked. I had a feeling that that might happen. And here I am. So thank you for the invitation. I'm delighted to talk to you today.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah. Thank you for being here. It's not exactly true. Rob has an interesting story to tell. We're not just going to invite any Yahoo onto this podcast. Rob, you have an interesting background. You were in consumer products, maybe you said product development, maybe you just said consumer products, but your background was in retail consumer products. And over the course of your career, you realized product photography in some cases can be lacking. Maybe I can bring some skills, some knowledge to this. You started Vizio Imaging during COVID. Is that correct?

Rob Cohen:

Yes, that's correct. In fact, going back about four and a half years ago, I had found it and was running a design agency that was servicing consumer products, companies. I'd come from a consumer products and retail background in the sales and marketing side. And the customers that I was working with were producers of products being sold into large retail chains. We were building digital marketing assets for them, websites, landing pages, selling presentations, et cetera. And we could do most of it in house. We could code, we could design, I could write copy. What we couldn't do was shoot product.

And we always ran into issues of either not being able to get good photography or it was expensive or didn't suit our design style or just didn't work. And so at some point in time, I said, there's got to be a better way. It actually all started with background removal. Could I automate a process to remove the background of products that we could find? And I spent a bit of time researching and I found that this was then a relatively young industry, but it did exist, automating product photography, including background removal. And I did some research and I honed in on one particular company, which was Orbitvu in Poland, bought one machine, brought it back to Israel, and then I really didn't do much with it until COVID hit.

In early 2020, most of my clients pulled back their marketing budgets as the COVID pandemic was exploding. They pretty much stopped most of the marketing work that we were doing. And I looked around my studio, my design studio, and I saw this machine in this corner and I said, "Well, e-commerce is probably going to take off. Maybe I can do something with this". And that's how it all started.

Daniel Jester:

That's amazing. In my mind's eye, it's very cinematic, the way that you describe that. Sitting in your studio, it's a little dark and you turn and you see, it's partially obscured by a tarp and some old boxes of something. "Wait a minute. What is that thing back there? That's my old Orbitvu".

Rob Cohen:

It sounds like a good story, but it's a true story. I literally had no source of income at that point. And I looked at this machine and I thought, "Well, maybe I can do something with this because I got to make a living". And I was not a photographer.

Daniel Jester:

That right there is the crux of why we wanted to have this conversation with you on the podcast. It is an interesting story. Your whole background leading up to that moment is also really interesting because you were in similar ways to some other things that we've talked about on this podcast, you saw this need for a part of the process that you didn't have any control over. You didn't have the product sitting in front of you. But take us through. You ripped the tarp off of the thing. Light bulb pings.

Rob Cohen:

Exactly right. I had one particular client who had some need for some photography. They're a personal care company, sent me the products, managed to shoot them and then began really trying to drum up demand, which while it wasn't easy, it was easier than I expected. The eCommerce environment that just exploded in the most positive way. People were looking for ways to get products shot efficiently. And so over the course of the next few months, I managed to raise a little bit of money. I bought three more machines. Each one has different purpose. So we could now shoot everything from jewelry up through to live models and mannequins and everything in between, from a size point of view. I hired a couple of photographers and we went to work and I wish I did it 15 years ago because as I said before, that I'd never picked up a camera, but I've just fallen in love with the industry.

I've always been fascinated with how visual marketing can affect sales. And I think we found our niche. We try to stay away from very high end premium photography where traditional photographers probably have an edge on us. And we try to stick to shoots where customers need a very large number of products shot at a high number of different angles very quickly and very efficiently. And that's what we've been doing. And we've been expanding into different categories. As I said, everything from jewelry and micro electronics through to consumer electronics, through to shoes, personal care, eyewear, fashion, all different types of fashion shoots. And we just loving the process and keep on going through it.

Daniel Jester:

I am so curious to know. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, but just a couple of minutes on elaborating a little bit more on what you love about it so much because, and the reason that I'm asking is this, it's a recurring theme on this podcast. It's a recurring theme with people that we talk to. It seems like very few and to be clear, the creative production for e-commerce is becoming very mature. We've talked about it on the show. I've been talking about it on LinkedIn here and there quite a bit. And so now there are college students who are going through photography programs with an eye on getting into creative production. But when you and I were younger, Rob, most people fell into this. Most people fell into photography for e-commerce created production, whatever you want to call it.

We walked through the wrong door at orientation day and ended up as photographer stylist, producers, studio managers. That's a recurring thing is we love it. My colleague, Sean OMeara, who produces this podcast, happened into the industry in a different way where he found himself working for an events company who was organizing events. They drew straws on who was going to do what, and Sean got creative production and creative operations and that sort of thing. And he loves it. And I'm like, "Is this true of other industries? Are there supply chain coordinators who just love what they do? And this is where they belong in the world"? Or is there something unique about what... Because I host a podcast about this industry. If that doesn't feel super self important, I don't know what does. Is there something about it that is unique or are we all just brainwashed into loving what we do because that's how you get through it?

Rob Cohen:

Well, I do have a theory on it. I think it relates to, I don't want to be poetic, but I think it relates to visual beauty or visual aesthetics in my mind. I love things that look good and look beautiful. And if I go back to my career path in retail, the first jobs I did at retail were merchandising physical products on a shelf and they had to make sure the product looked good. It was lit well. It was facing correctly. And that's really what we are doing now in a digital sense. We had digitally merchandising products so that they look good.

And when we end a shoot or we end the post-production and we send it to a client and I can see that the products look good, I get a kick out of it. And when my clients come back to me and say, "Wow, Rob, that just looks great. Thank you for that". For me all I need, even if they never pay the bills, if they said to me, "Thank you. The products look great", I just love it because I just feel like we've done something actually good. We've made something visually look good. And hopefully it does make the product sell more as well, which is what it's all about. But I think it's about the visual aesthetic for me.

Daniel Jester:

We're definitely going to cut that out so that your customers still continue to pay their bills. But I love that you said that, Rob. I'll be honest with you. I wasn't going to ask that question. I thought it's not on topic for us and it's a little bit emotionally charged. I couldn't resist because it's been a common theme from people that we know and people that I've worked with over the years that were like, "I took a wrong turn and I ended up here and I really like it here". But coming back to Vizio, in the last couple of years, really getting the ball rolling. You got some new devices in the door. Customers are starting to stack up. Everybody needs to get their sites up and running or needs to expand their operations in e-commerce. What were some of your biggest challenges in those first couple of years?

Rob Cohen:

I think the biggest challenge is helping potential customers overcome their existing mindset. So the existing mindset is, we've got an incumbent photographer. We've got an incumbent process that works. We've been doing it forever and there's no risk. And the biggest challenge for us was to say, "Hey, look, we are not photographers, but we've got this amazing technology. We are very good at processes. And if you try it, you might see some benefit, particularly in efficiency. In the amount of good quality images we can get shot in a short period of time".

And many customers will say, "Yeah, maybe we'll call you for the next season", but a handful have the courage to say, "Okay, we want to come and visit you". And I would typically actually offer them a free pilot. Why don't you come over and bring a few products and we'll shoot it for free and see if you like it. And once they come and see the studio and see the technology and see how efficient we can be, we're able to overcome that challenge. And then they tend to stick with us. But it's overcoming that momentum of this is how we've done things for years. That was probably the biggest challenge that we had to overcome.

Daniel Jester:

And a studio that's based on Orbitvu devices leans very heavily on automation, obviously. That's the whole selling point of an Orbitvu is that it's an automated device. That there's plenty of touch points. As far as I know, unless Rob, you've done something really brilliant with your studio. As far as I know, there's not a conveyor belt that delivers the product into the Orbitvu. You still have to get it in there. Do some styling, get it positioned, solve some problems.

Rob Cohen:

That's right.

Daniel Jester:

But automation is the name of the game for Vizio. And it's important to the process. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Rob Cohen:

Well, I'll give you an example. I think that one of the biggest benefits from an automation point of view is lighting. We ran a live shoot where we had two or three live models, stylists, hair, makeup, et cetera. Everyone came into the office at eight o'clock in the morning and they said to us, "Okay, how long will it take you to get set up to shoot"? And I said, "We ready"? They said, "What do you mean"? They said, "Don't you need to set up your lighting and check and test it". I said, "We are ready to go. We literally just turn on the machine. We had tested the lighting the previous night", and we have lighting templates. We can reuse those templates for the same client or for different clients. We were ready to go from literally the minute they walked into the studio.

And then simple things like how do we name the product as we shoot it? How do we name the sessions? Scanning the barcode. Tracking that product throughout our system. If we do any minor retouching within the Orbitvu software, it's all done very efficiently. We can select and crop images very efficiently within the system, export them very efficiently at whatever resolution size, the weight you need, whatever format you need, very efficiently. And I think it's that type of automation, including also the ability to shoot multiple angles in a preset template, literally at the click of a button. That's what allows us to shoot more good quality images in a shorter period of time for our clients. They were amazed at the amount of images we could shoot versus a traditional shoot without compromising quality.

Daniel Jester:

I don't know, Rob, if I want to ask this question, go down this path with you, but I'm going to give it a try because this is something that I've observed. Obviously my entire career in creative production has been spent in the United States. And I know studios here. I know teams here. I sound full of myself. I've seen it all at this point. I don't think that maybe that's not full of myself. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself over here, but anyway, but my observation has been that our European counterparts and other places around the world, the way that the client in the studio interacts, when you're talking about a commercial studio, can be a little bit different. And here in the United States, when I was running the commercial studio just before COVID, it was really difficult for us to try to develop a program where the customer would come in and we would just say, "This is how we shoot it. And this is what you're going to get. And you don't have a lot of input outside of that".

And I'm not saying that that's how it is with Vizio, Rob, but with an automated device, to some extent it is that because you're saying, "We could produce almost any angle that you want", but we can't sit here and say, "Oh, for this product, can we do this extra shot? Can we do this? Can we do this detail? Can we get that"? Whereas customers, I feel like here in the United States, that was constantly, our thing is we had such a hard time building a process that resembled an in-house studio where things would come in, there was three shots we needed, we'd shoot them. And that was it. It was much more hands on. We want more bespoke things. And I'm not saying that there isn't a place for that at all, but that's one of the drawbacks for the commercial studio of really fully adopting an automated workflow.

And there are studios in the US that do it. So please, I was going to say, don't email us listeners, but do email us. We like to hear from you. And correct me if I'm wrong, but my experience has been that adopting a very automated workflow can be really challenging because customers want, and sometimes expect on photo shoot day, to have a lot of input at every level of the process. And to some extent with automation, you can't do that. You have to build out the spec and then push everything through. So my very long winded question at the end of all of this Rob, Vizio is based in Israel. In your experience with your customers, has this been a challenge? Has this amount of automation been adopted in the studio, been a challenge for some of your customers, or have you found that you're able to explain to them what it is you do in a way that they understand this is what we're getting. We agree to it and we're going to move forward?

Rob Cohen:

I think it's a combination. I don't have the luxury of the experience that you have in the US market. So I don't know how much of a bespoke solution your customers would've expected, but we have a fair amount of flexibility. So camera distances, heights, angles, lighting. We have a fair amount of flexibility on the fly, so that if a customer says to us, "We want to try something different", we typically are able to do that. I think there's been only a handful of situations that I can recall where customers said, "Can we try that"? And we said, "No, it's not possible". So I don't think that we are really hampered in that sense. It may also be due to the fact that we have set expectations up front, to an extent where customers, almost before they walk into the studio, know that there's a range of flexibility and that we can work with in that range. Outside of that range is a little bit tough.

Daniel Jester:

And I should also say that it varies depending on both the customer and the type of product that you're shooting, because a boutique fashion brand that sells apparel is going to probably have a hard time hiring a studio that just does straight e-comm, three shots per product and they're not willing to expand beyond that. And yeah, you're right. I have seen Orbitvu's latest offering their presence at most of the events that we attend. And usually it's one of the cool booths to visit because they usually have one of their devices there and can give you a quick demo and it is an impressive machine. And I got to tell you, I'm going to share my little story really quick about Orbitvu and we should probably should be charging them for this episode. I'll talk to Mark, our guy in the US here. We'll talk to Mark about that later.

But I remember as an earlier career photographer, I was like couple of years in, this was Nordstrom or HauteLook technically and I was maybe a year into that job. I had learned a lot. I had been a photographer previous to that, but this was my first time working in a high volume studio with other photographers. And so when you get in a room with other people, you start to learn through osmosis, all their tricks and things. And I really felt like I had a good handle on the job. And they came to me and they said, "We've got glassware with inlaid silver monograms that we need shot". So it's clear glass, clear round glass with silver inlay that needs to look incredible. And I'd never shot anything like that in my life. And it was a nightmare.

And it was high volume. It was supposed to be fast and needed to be done by the end of the day. And it was not a great moment for me in my career. The last time I saw an Orbitvu device in New York for the Pixels Flow New York event, or actually no, this one might have been in LA, low and behold, almost an identical wine glass, they throw it on the Orbitvu and 30 seconds later, that thing is like six shots, all beautiful, the best thing that you could ever imagine, shot from that thing. An automated device, shooting glass and clipping out the edge and doing it accurately, it's impressive. But again, that's too much buzz marketing for Orbitvu. They're going to owe us some money after this episode.

Rob Cohen:

You said it.

Daniel Jester:

Let's pivot for the last few minutes here again, Rob. And I'm curious to know what lessons and experiences and things that you know from your background, have helped you along in this journey with Vizio?

Rob Cohen:

I guess there's a couple of things that have come to mind. The first one is to set expectations with your client up front and try and align before you actually start the shoot. The way I like to look at it is about the brief and about planning the shoot. For every hour you spend on the brief, you're going to save 10 hours afterwards. That's my mantra in this whole thing. And customers don't always have the time and the energy and the inclination to actually spend the time, but you've got to force them to do it because otherwise you end up spending the 10 hours fixing it afterwards. But if I've had to give one piece of advice to myself and to others in my industry, it's spend time on the brief and on planning the shoot. And I think the second thing that I've learned and actually continue to learn is to just focus on what you're good at.

So we can't photograph every category very well, high premium cosmopolitan style shots. We just can't do that. We're not good enough at that. And so we are learning to focus on categories and customers who are in our sweet spot, which is really high volume, e-comm on social media shots. So I think focus is a very important skill that as I said, I've learned, but I still continue to learn it. Every now and then I get tempted to take a category that I know my stomach says I shouldn't take it, but I do. And I end up paying for it. So focus, I think, is a crucial one. Know what you're good at.

Daniel Jester:

That's a great one. And I think that that's one that a lot of smaller commercial studios, it's very hard. It can be very competitive. You've got a customer who comes in and wants to give you money, but there are definitely, I couldn't agree more with you Rob, that there are customers that come in and they should be told no.

Rob Cohen:

Yes.

Daniel Jester:

And not because they're bad people or have a bad product, but you're not going to be able to service them in the way that they need.

Rob Cohen:

Correct.

Daniel Jester:

And that upfront. We've all had that gut feeling. And I'm sure you have, and I certainly have said yes to jobs that should have been a no. And I now very well understand why that's the case. What's next for Vizio? What do you think the next year looks like, the next five years looks like? We're facing some weird global economic times. It's unclear exactly what's going to happen, but e-comm's not going anywhere. I don't know what's going to happen with the metaverse, but I know we're going to try to sell people stuff in the metaverse. So there's that.

Rob Cohen:

So I think the two are going to merge and I think they're really two main trends that we are going to focus on the next couple of years. The first one is more video, especially for fashion, but not only for fashion. I think that video is going to become much more popular on product pages. Broadband can handle video and much better than couple of years ago. And it's now becoming easier to shoot video in an automated way. So I think that we are going to invest more money in Orbitvu or other studios that will help us shoot video efficiently.

And then I think the second part of that is 3D and CGI. We've already begun this process in jewelry. It's becoming, I would say almost easier and better for us to produce jewelry items in 3D than it is to shoot them. And we can do more with them once we have that 3D file developed. And I think the same is true. It happened a few years ago already in furniture. I think we're going to see it happen in personal care. It's beginning to happen in fashion. So I think that if you talk to me in 12 months time, we will have more capability to produce our own 3D assets where currently we are using outsource third parties to help us produce that. And that I think will link into the metaverse juncture that you spoke about.

Daniel Jester:

I got to say, Rob, I agree with you on the jewelry thing when it comes to rendering and it pains me a little bit to say this as somebody who has shot a lot of jewelry and I have some photographs of jewelry and watches that I'm very, very proud of that I spent a lot of time on. And the thing is that I'm going to tell you, even e-comm shots, I'm not even talking about campaign editorial, hero shots even, e-comm shots of watches that I have shot that were 12 or 15 images composited at that point, why are we not just rendering them?

Rob Cohen:

Absolutely.

Daniel Jester:

And again, as a photographer, a long time product photographer, and as somebody who actually really enjoys sitting down with a piece of jewelry or a watch and spending, I don't know, two days trying to make it look as good as it possibly can, it is not a practice that is conducive to the rate at which we need to produce content these days. Jewelry in my opinion... The industry really started renderings with home decor and furniture and that makes sense, because the logistics around that are tough.

The next best category is jewelry and watch because there aren't a lot of downsides. You can make a very convincing piece of jewelry fully rendered in with the computer. Even if it takes the same amount of time, it's going to be a lot less heartache and that's not taking into account even retouch time because we're talking about sometimes a day or more to shoot a watch before we even get into retouching it, which is mandatory part of that process. So I'm with you there as much as I hate to say it, because I have a lot of fond memories of just man, listening to the podcast serial and my headphones and just spending it all day on one watch. But then of course everybody was mad that I only shot one thing that day.

Rob Cohen:

There you go.

Daniel Jester:

That's about all of the time that we have for the episode. Do you have anything for our listeners that you want to share? Anything to plug or just want to... Why don't you throw your website out there if anybody wants to visit it and check it out.

Rob Cohen:

Thank you for saying that. The website is vizio.co.il. IL for those of you who don't know, is the domain for Israel and feel free to have a look, send me a LinkedIn request, love to catch up with other people in the industry. And I want to say thank you to you again for inviting me and for chatting. I love talking about this. I really do. I love this industry and I love learning about it and your podcast is one of my sources to learn. And so thanks again and really appreciate that.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah, it's been my pleasure, Rob. When we thought about launching this podcast, I hadn't considered the late career pivot studio team who just started a studio and had never done it before as a possible listener, but it seems pretty fortuitous that we started the show. And around the time you guys were getting really into your stride and I've been learning a ton and it's been, I think, one of the things I'm more proud of in my career is this body of work with this podcast. So I appreciate you as a listener.

Rob Cohen:

Thank you. Thanks again.

Daniel Jester:

That's it for this episode of the podcast. Many thanks to our guest, Rob Cohen, and thanks to you for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lanz. Special thanks to Sean O’Meara. I'm your host, Daniel Jester. Until next time my friends.

Hello, Ian

About the host

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.