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Advocating for Your Creative Team in Difficult Environments with Jen Bakija

Daniel Jester
Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, my name is Daniel Jester, and this is The E-commerce Content Creation Podcast.

Daniel Jester:
I first met Jen Bakija in 2019. When we attended the same creative operations conference. Her stories about building and launching a production studio in a warehouse and working with product that was difficult to prep and sometimes just hard to move really resonated with me. What struck me was Jen's dedication to her team and producing great images, despite the challenging environment and the barriers that created.

Jen Bakija:
We had job descriptions, open roles. We would have people come in. You tell them in the phone interview, "Hey, this is in a distribution center. It's going to be loud. It's going to be dirty. It is production work. It is product photography. We have standards," and people would still come in and you could actually see the look on their face change.

Daniel Jester:
Jen managed through cold winters and hot summers to build a team and process that elevated her brand's imagery while keeping turnover in her team shockingly low. No small feat, so let's hear how she did it.

Daniel Jester:
Welcome to this episode of The E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. On the show today, I have Jen Bakija, and I've invited her on the show to talk a little bit about how to be an effective advocate for your studio teams in spite of whatever adversity might be out there for you.

Daniel Jester:
Jen, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jen Bakija:
Thank you so much for having me, Daniel.

Daniel Jester:
I know why I invited you on the show based on conversations that we've had in the past and your background, but our audience does not know some of those things, so why don't you give us the job interview version of your background so we can get that out of the way and jump into how to be an effective advocate for your team?

Jen Bakija:
Sure. I have about 25, actually a little over 25 years experience dealing with creative production teams. The last 10 years has really been with photography-based production teams. For the last 10 years, I've worked with two industrial supply companies, really major players in the business. And the first organization was dealing with a broad graphics department, photography retouching, CAD design, layout. And for the last six years, the majority of that time, I helped build a studio from the ground up in a distribution center. Since then, I'm onto another role now where I still have that team under me, but I have two other teams that report to me in as well.

Daniel Jester:
Jen, I got to meet you a few years ago at a creative operations conference and one of the things that I feel like I really connected with you on was the nature of a lot of the work that you've done in the industrial space. When I was with Amazon and moved from Kentucky to southern California to open a studio, we were a hard goods studio, and there are really unique things to consider when you're shooting content production for hard goods because hard goods could be anything that's not fashion, right, anything that's not apparel or accessories.

Daniel Jester:
And some of the things in your sessions that you mentioned really stood out to me as challenges, not only in the nature of the product that you're shooting, but also, we both come from a background of working in studios that are inside other buildings that are there for other purposes. We both come from studios that were in fulfillment centers. And a lot of times when you open a studio in a fulfillment center, it doesn't start off a nice polished studio with a building within a building where you're insulated from everything going on in the fulfillment center. A lot of times you're literally inside of a chain link fence that's there just to keep out people who shouldn't have access to that space. And that environment can be quite difficult to work in, to say the least, and in particular, for people who maybe are more photography background, creative-minded, it could be quite a shock.

Daniel Jester:
And just one of the things that really struck me about you and your leadership at your studio is an important part of managing a team in adverse conditions like that is being an advocate for your team and making sure that they have the tools that you're able to give them while balancing the business needs of the studio. That's what I wanted to chat with you about today is there's a lot of things that go into advocating for your team. To be honest with you, I'm not really sure exactly where we start, but maybe the physical space can be a big one. When you're working in a tough environment, what were some of the things that you learned, some of the techniques and tools that you have in your toolbox to help facilitate the creation of great images in an environment that is maybe less than ideal?

Jen Bakija:
Yeah. It was definitely very less than ideal in a lot of places. When I think about when we started, and this was back in 2015, I was brought to the distribution center and we went around this huge machine. It was called GTP, goods to person. And that's where the majority of our small products live. And it's the size of a football field almost.

Daniel Jester:
Wow.

Jen Bakija:
And we went around it and then they're like, "Your studio is going to go here," and it was just this blank space. And in the meantime, there's forklifts and buzzers going off and everyone driving past us. And I was like, "Okay, this is interesting." It was like something I'd never seen or experienced before. I mean, I've been in warehouses before, but never one in this scope and size.

Jen Bakija:
And so I had to actually get the studio, build the chain link fence and that stuff before I even had staff there. And so I just knew from myself in these first couple of weeks, just coming home and the grit and the dust and being exhausted from being on your feet for 8 to 10 hours on concrete floors but still having to wear safety shoes, that really took your toll, and I wasn't even doing any photography at that time. It was just making sure that we had the right components of the studio there because it was literally nothing that was there.

Daniel Jester:
One of the things, Jen, about building out a studio in that space is this weird balance of the rules that you have to follow, because I know with Amazon, we were corporate Amazon employees and so we didn't report into anybody involved in the fulfillment center at all. However, we were in the building and that meant that there were rules that we had to follow. It was things like wearing a safety vest when you were in the studio. Depending on which fulfillment center representative came to check up on the studio that day when we were in the studio, we were sometimes allowed to not have the vests on or we had to have them on, but definitely when you were outside of the studio.

Daniel Jester:
And then also, just some of the loss prevention rules, because we were entering and exiting the building through the main entrance with the rest of the fulfillment center employees, and so one of the things that we had a really hard time with with our creative staff was you're not allowed to bring a backpack or a purse or a tote bag. It has to be this clear bag and there's certain things that you can and cannot bring in, and I know that that was really challenging for the teams. And obviously, I want to be sensitive to the people that work in the fulfillment centers. This is the environment that they work on, definitely.

Daniel Jester:
I think a key difference is you're dealing in a studio with people who might be further along in their career who are used to certain levels of comfort and in some ways draw some of their creative energy from some of those comforts that they have access to, and when you strip those away, it can be kind of jarring. But I know for us, balancing the rules of being in a fulfillment center, being in a warehouse and trying to operate a creative studio that facilitated a specific kind of vibe that we were wanting to create in order to attract talent was really difficult sometimes.

Daniel Jester:
What was your experience in that regard? Because I know, especially as I was in someone in a management role, you often found yourself sitting in meetings with fulfillment center people who just had no understanding of the needs of your team and just frankly didn't care.

Jen Bakija:
Yeah, and I think we had another even additional level of complexity. I was located in our downtown Chicago office, and the studio is about 60 miles away. And so I was in these corporate meetings downtown, and then I would be going once, maybe twice a week down to visit the team and to help with understanding orientation and what are we trying to get out of these products.

Jen Bakija:
I think one of the biggest challenges the team had was they're in this limbo, right? They work in the distribution center. However, they're part of a totally different part of the company's organization, right? And so there was once some type of fire alarm test or something. It was not anything real, but we realized that since they were part of a different email distribution group, whole different part of the organization, that everyone was leaving to go on this fire drill and they were lost and not knowing where to go.

Jen Bakija:
It's because this is a huge building with 700 people and then there's this one area that there's five or six other people, and that was really the challenge. I'm really happy to see that over the years, the woman who's now the supervisor of the studio, she's taken it on herself to make sure, "Hey, we're here." Don't forget about us. And there are times, there are changes in organizations and people move around and new people come in, and she's been doing a great job being very persistent to say, "Hey, we're here to help you guys. Let us show you what we can do. How can we work together?" And it's really helped the morale of the team as well.

Daniel Jester:
We discovered a really similar thing, Jen, where we said, "We need to invite the senior leadership of the fulfillment center back to the studio and buy them lunch and have it delivered into the studio and see what it is that we do here." And one of the challenges definitely in an environment like that is turnover in the team because you can build all this goodwill with, for us, the big bads, so to speak. And I'm not casting aspersions on any role. They're all important roles and they all have their own functions and place, but the individual that we had the most challenges with was usually the head of loss prevention for the building. And I can understand that. It makes them uncomfortable. Number one, there's a lot of expensive equipment back there. Number two, from an outsider's perspective, it seems like we would play fast and loose with the rules because we're not part of their daily scrums in the fulfillment center.

Daniel Jester:
But at any rate, we would build all this goodwill with the LP manager and that person would get transferred or promoted and then a new person would come in and then it was like we're starting from ground zero. We were not the hottest iron in the fire in the transfer of power there to say, "Oh, by the way, there's the studio back there and here's their deal." But opening up those lines of communication, I think is a really, I mean, honestly, probably step one on advocating for a team in an environment like that is if you find yourself in a situation, whether you're in a studio that's in an FC or in a studio that's in a building that has a landlord, sometimes just opening that line of communication and facilitating some level of mutual understanding can go a long way towards advocating for that.

Daniel Jester:
Jen, one of the things I know that was a challenge at my studio that I'm curious to know if you experienced the same challenge and if you found ways to overcome that was attracting talent. It would take more than both of my hands to count how many times we managed to get somebody to come into the studio for an interview that we never saw again. And this was just for freelancers. This wasn't even for full-time employees who would have to do it every day, but for people who might come in a couple of times a week. Obviously money is one way to do it, but you're constrained by budgets. What were your experiences in that regard and what did you learn to help overcome some of those things?

Jen Bakija:
Where we started was going the contractor to permanent route. We had job descriptions, open roles. We would have people come in. You tell them in the phone interview, "Hey, this is in a distribution center. It's going to be loud. It's going to be dirty. It is production work. It is product photography. We have standards," and people would still come in and you could actually see the look on their face change.

Daniel Jester:
Just the color drain right out. Man, I've seen that face so many times, Jen, just drained. They see those conveyor belts and it just drains out of them.

Jen Bakija:
Yes. You come in through security, there's temperature controlled air conditioning, and then you open up the door and then it's either the heat is hitting you or it's the cold air and then that's just the temperature.

Daniel Jester:
And then you hit them with this. The temperature shock, the color drains out of their face, they hear the sound, they see the sights and then you hand them the orange vest out of the vending machine, "By the way, you have to put this on."

Jen Bakija:
Full disclosure, we don't have orange vests [crosstalk 00:13:01]-

Daniel Jester:
Oh, okay. Yeah.

Jen Bakija:
But our big thing was everyone had to wear safety shoes.

Daniel Jester:
Got it, yeah.

Jen Bakija:
And then also a big thing was the safety box cutters-

Daniel Jester:
Sure.

Jen Bakija:
... which are not always the easiest box cutters to work with, but there are those safety protocols that you have to follow.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. And I always appreciated those because I felt like safety was one of the ways that you could stand out from a studio. I know why I got the feedback quite often, and some of those things were mandated by the FC, but how much people appreciated that we were focused on safety. That's a whole other conversation. I don't want to go down that digression, but yes, it's frustrating, but safety is pretty easy to spin into a net positive for your team when you are sincerely standing in front of your studio and you're saying, "We just want you to have a good day and nobody gets hurt."

Jen Bakija:
We have taken multiple approaches. We've said, "Hey, can we get some newer people that are looking to get their feet wet in photography and they're okay with maybe the environment that we are in?" because we found a lot of the pushback was coming from people that come from traditional-

Daniel Jester:
Sure.

Jen Bakija:
... commercial photography studios in Chicago that are in really cool neighborhoods and there's the dog there and all these things and this was the complete opposite of that. We first went the route of people that are new, we can mold them, we can have them grow within the group. And then we found that there was ... And I think we can all say this. My degree in photography, I learned a lot of stuff there, but I didn't learn anything about commercial photography while in school, which is why I became a graphic designer for the first part of my career-

Daniel Jester:
Sure.

Jen Bakija:
... because I had a really hard time grasping commercial photography in the real world. We also found a lot of the people with product photography experience, so they've been doing it for a while-

Daniel Jester:
Sure.

Jen Bakija:
... they would come down here and, "Oh, this is easy. It's just product shots," but I think it was the sheer amount of products that had to be done. Maybe they could get through X amount of images a day, but it wasn't the end of the world, but we had rates that people had to follow. We didn't have retouching capabilities, so we really had to make sure our photos-

Daniel Jester:
Oh wow.

Jen Bakija:
... really just had to be cropped, and maybe just a little bit of stuff in there.

Daniel Jester:
You're talking about shooting into it also a white background, which is a whole other set of challenges.

Jen Bakija:
Yes.

Daniel Jester:
I am not unfamiliar with this. Some of the places that I worked early on in order to save on post-production, they wanted an in-camera white background, and you learn a lot about photography trying to achieve that over and over again.

Jen Bakija:
You do, and it's tough, right? And so a lot of these people that came in that were very capable photographers, the limitations that we had, "Hey, you have to make sure that it's 255 white and we don't have post-production people here," or, "You need to follow these styles," it was maybe a little too many guardrails for a lot of people. But honestly, where a lot of it came down to was the environment. If I was in a controlled environment and I wasn't sweating or I wasn't freezing, I could get through this, but it was one of those things where it was a tough environment. Honestly, any contractor that came and left, nobody ever said, "I'm done and I'm out of here," but it was finding that right mix of how can we get the end result that we need, and that was actually the biggest challenge for us.

Jen Bakija:
Going back to the staffing part of this, we actually ended up having people from both ends of the spectrum, one person where this was maybe their first professional photography job, the other person who had been doing this for many years. The more junior photographer actually started as our stylist, and so they started learning about how it's important to prep the products, make sure it's following the orientation, removing distractions, cleaning the products. There's so many products we would get because you're on that floor of the distribution center and you unpack it and you clean it and then the next day, unless you cover it up with plastic at night, it's going to be covered with dust.

Daniel Jester:
I learned, and now our listeners will have learned, something that I'm sure you know, Jen, cardboard boxes in a distribution center create their own climate basically. You wonder how a building that was built not that long ago can be so dusty and it's the cardboard boxes rubbing against each other literally create their own extraordinarily fine dust. We did once a week cleanings with once a month extremely deep cleanings that involved actually moving physical sets to get at the dust that had accumulated, just as an aside from the larger conversation.

Daniel Jester:
You touched on a great point that I'd love to explore a little bit, the sheer amount of prep work involved in shooting something like hard goods, because you never know what you're going to get and you could be dealing with things that range from a half an inch in length up to you name it. The biggest thing that we shot was probably 10 foot tall by four or five feet wide, and the only reason that we had it was because it was inflatable so it wasn't that big it needed to be stored, but we did need to shoot it inflated. I imagine in a studio that solely is working with industrial products, you're running across the entire board, which is a whole other workflow to consider as the intense preparation from assembly to cleaning to physically getting it to set.

Jen Bakija:
I have been speaking so far about our studio being on the floor of the DC. I think it was in 2018 after a lot of testing and business cases, we were able to move to a box within the larger box that is our new ... Well, it's still new to me, even though it's been three years now, but this new utopia that we're in, which I will talk a little bit more about.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah, no, actually let's do that now instead.

Jen Bakija:
Okay.

Daniel Jester:
As podcast host, I'm going to call an audible because I'm interested to know about the challenges of prep of the products that you shoot, but we're here to talk about advocating for teams and so I'd love to know what led up to that. Was it that management saw the incredible value that the studio was bringing? I mean-

Jen Bakija:
This management saw it.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. That's good enough for me.

Jen Bakija:
Where it came down to ... This all started with temperature, right? And so the studio had started in October of 2015, and so it was the summer of 2016. It was hot. And I would come once a week in shorts and a t-shirt and my safety shoes and just be sweating and I would only be there for a handful of hours, where I have other people working 10 hours a day, four days a week and just trying to get through all of this work. And it's physical work under hot lights in a cramped, loud, dirty space.

Jen Bakija:
And so I started looking around the organization in the distribution center where everyone had people doing work in one location and all of those people had those big ass fans on top of them. And then I realized, "Okay." First it was, "Why doesn't the studio have the big ass fan?" And then I realized when the distribution was built out and they were putting these fans in, there was no studio. It wasn't like anyone was trying to do anything against the studio. I started talking to my leader and I just said, "How can we get a fan?" And the answer I got was, "We can't just give you a fan. You're going to have to have a heat study."

Daniel Jester:
In my god.

Jen Bakija:
In the meantime, we had about 15 box fans going in a space of maybe 50 feet wide and 20 feet at the most deep. We had things to cover the cords for trip hazards, but it was a very cramped space with a lot of things going on. The heat study came and they said it was hot, but it's not illegal. How would I try and have my team members feel comfortable with that? I would empathize with them all the time. I would do the things that were in my power. I would stop at the Jewel and pick up every type of cold beverage I could get, whether it's coffee or tea or Coke or whatever, and then we had a cooler and we were able to get ice in there for them to have cold beverages during the day.

Jen Bakija:
After finding out that there's nothing that they can do because of the environment, I also started putting together a list of all the repairs that we've had to get. Our cameras and our lights, and we use photo robots, they were breaking down at least once a month, and it's from the temperature extremes. It's from the dust. We did the deep cleaning, like you said. We covered everything in plastic or muslin and it still wasn't working for us.

Jen Bakija:
Then it was like, "Okay, but where does the studio go?" And so I had to build a business case. There was one area of the distribution center open at the other end of the building, and I'll just say it was a 15 or 20 minute walk just to get there and a 10 minute walk to the nearest restrooms. That was one of the things that negated it. We had an offsite distribution center, an overflow one where there was potentially space, but there was the risk of will we get product because the product would have to be moved from the main DC where we were in over there. We also looked at, what if we moved the studio to the corporate headquarters? Again, studios need to be where the products are.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. It certainly helps. In your case, it helps quite a bit when you're talking about potentially quite heavy products.

Jen Bakija:
Yeah. And then there was a space above the office that was always our wishlist area. And after my very convincing business case with all the data that I've gotten, we were able to move to that space, which is about 2,500 square feet. When we were back in the old area, we were very limited. We were very limited to what can fit on one of our photo robots. And so just like you said, Daniel, a lot of industrial supply items are very large. Even some casters that we have, they're so heavy, we can't even put them on a table, or just the sheer weight it would be to put it on there, so we ended up having a psych wall in there. That's where we handle our oversized or very heavy items. And we now have five stations where we had two stations and a 0.5 makeshift one, and there's space for everyone. People can be socially distant. They can prep literally for two to three weeks in advance and not have to worry about dust covering the products coming in.

Daniel Jester:
Amazing. It's really important to note, Jen, you shared with me in the conversation we had a few days ago that a lot of the core team has been there from the beginning.

Jen Bakija:
Oh yeah.

Daniel Jester:
And I think that's incredible and I would love to know, and I think our listeners would love to know, how did you do that? I mean, was it communication? Was it just being an advocate for them in a really visible way? Because it's astonishing. The lifecycle of a creative in our industry is two years maybe, and certainly shorter if they're sweating their asses off every day in the studio. How did you manage it?

Jen Bakija:
I was actually visiting the team last week and I asked them this question. Five of the team members that were in the old downstairs area are still with us. One is in another team of mine outside of the photo studio, but I said, "What made you stay? Why did you like it?" There's a couple things. I think first and foremost was the excitement of being in what was a startup for a large company.

Daniel Jester:
Sure.

Jen Bakija:
We all have been in jobs where we could say, "Man, if we only did it this way, I'd love to see what it would be like if we did it this way," and this really gave us an opportunity to say, "All right, it's a clean slate. We think we know how we want to do it. Let's do it that way." And were we always right? No, but that's okay. We iterated, but we were able to try it. In some of my other experiences, I would love to have tried something new and I was told, "Actually, no, you can't. This is how we do it." And so that was very inspiring, not just for me, but for my team.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah.

Jen Bakija:
Another thing, too, one of my team members told me is that for her, it was a manager that really cared. She gave me the example of, "You bought us all heated jackets, hand warmers. You tried to get them to get the fan above us," and even though things didn't work, they knew I was always trying for them. I was always trying to advocate on what is best for these people because these people, they're people, right? They're humans.

Daniel Jester:
Right. Yeah.

Jen Bakija:
At the end of the day, you need these people to be passionate and want to do this work that is really impactful to customers.

Daniel Jester:
I love that. I really love that. And I think one of the things that I'm hearing is in a lot of ways, a very effective way to advocate for your team is to provide opportunity for them to have an impact, because I think all of us have been in a situation in our career where we don't want to feel like we're just doing the task because it's the task being handed to us, but we understand the impact of what we're doing and why it's important, and then having the ability to shape some of those things, it is really exciting.

Daniel Jester:
And one of the things, in another conversation on another episode, we were talking about how creative production for e-commerce is so young and there's a lot of us that we've been ... Most of my career has been in this field, and I didn't even have the perspective that I am an author of the evolution of this industry, and we all are because it is very young and we are still learning and there's plenty of studios out there who've got still images absolutely nailed and there's plenty of studios out there that are still working on figuring it out and now we've got a whole new world in front of us as e-commerce has taken unexpectedly and rather suddenly so much more of the market share. It's really exciting to see that.

Daniel Jester:
And I guess as a closing thought here, Jen, is I'd like our listeners to know that advocating for your team can be as simple as just solving their problems for them, and hopefully you're going above and beyond and you're creating opportunities for them to really have an impact on the work that they do day to day.

Daniel Jester:
Thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I always really enjoy when we have an opportunity to talk because our backgrounds are so similar. Do you have any last thoughts for our audience or anything else that you want to share or if anybody's interested in learning, I mean, do you have a SoundCloud that you want to plug? Are you working on a key with your band?

Jen Bakija:
No, I don't. But one thing I do want to make sure that everyone knows ... This was a huge game changer for me. I was so worried about cost per image when I started this costs and this and that. And we were going through a polar vortex. It's cold in a distribution center, but there would just randomly be dock doors open for literally hours. And I was stressing out about, "I don't know what to do." They have all these hand warmers in every pocket in their body and I was complaining to my boss and he just said, "Buy them jackets." And that's when I realized, you need to equip your team members with the right tools that they need that might not just be photography tools.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. Probably in a situation like that, probably don't need permission. It's going to be pretty easy to sell upwards.

Jen Bakija:
Absolutely.

Daniel Jester:
Excellent thoughts to leave us on. Thanks again for being a guest on our show. And I'd love to have you back sometime and check in with you and see how things are going in your space that you've got there, and yeah, just continue the conversation on effective leadership and advocation for your team. I think it's really important and I think people are going to really enjoy hearing from you on it.

Jen Bakija:
Thanks so much, Daniel. It was such an honor to be talking to you today.

Daniel Jester:
It was my honor, my honor, Jen.

Daniel Jester:
Our thanks to Jen for coming on the show and helping us understand what it truly means to be an advocate for your team. If your team needs jackets, buy them jackets. And jackets here is a metaphor. Substitute in whatever it is your team might need. This show is produced by Creative Force. I'm Daniel Jester. Until next time, 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.