Skip to content
Back to list

Efficiency with Phillip Kirst of Spice Media

Daniel Jester
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. My guest for this episode is Phillip Kirst, founder of Spice Media, a commercial studio providing creative production services for e-commerce brands. In researching Phillip, I noticed the word efficiency was used a lot. And while we've discussed all sorts of topics on the show that can be used as synonyms for efficiency, I really wanted to get Phillip's perspective on the idea. Our conversation ultimately led to some familiar topics, but with the benefits of Phillip's experience, providing imagery to his customers.

Phillip Kirst:
I think the best thing to really come up with this is measure it. And you have to make sure that your goal is right. Right. I mean, as I said, you even have to reach a certain goal with minimum effort or it's the other way around. And again, for our clients, we really try to squeeze out water off stones though, right? So it's really like always like a process of getting there. But without any numbers without measuring it, we would've been lost.

Daniel Jester:
There's plenty more where this came from so let's take a listen to Phillip Kirst talk about efficiency. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I am your host Daniel Jester and joining me for this episode of the show, Phillip Kirst, owner and founder of Spice Media. Phillip, welcome to the podcast.

Phillip Kirst:
Thank you very much for the invitation. I'm glad to be here.

Daniel Jester:
I am very happy to have you. We invited you specifically to talk about efficiency, which is an extremely broad topic it turns out. How this came up Phillip and for our listeners is you and I met, I think it was last week, and one of the things we were just chatting about studio production and some of the things that you guys do there at Spice Media and the term efficiency was coming up a lot. And I just kind of wanted to have a conversation with you about it. Take a step back and say efficiency is almost a cliche. We talk about it all the time. Business is all about getting more and more efficient, but it does actually mean real things.

Phillip Kirst:
True.

Daniel Jester:
So I'm just going to ask you right out of the gate, when we talk about efficiency for a production studio, what does that mean for you specifically in the context of content creation? What kind of things are you looking for?

Phillip Kirst:
I think that's like we evolved into this entire topic of efficiency though, right? So it's not like this, that you have a studio and you run perfectly from day one. So at the beginning, I think it's rather like, let's say heuristics, rules that you apply that you have gathered by experience or whatever. So eventually for example, we figured out how to shoot bus just with one employee, not with two that we needed beforehand because we had this in-clip that somebody must hold the fabric or whatever to make it nice and clean. So we figured that out without any efficiency loss, right? So these are like, let's say the heuristics that we have learned over the course of the time. And at the end of the day so when you have covered all this, you really need to drill pretty deep and go to the details. And that is where the work starts I would say.

Daniel Jester:
There's certainly low hanging fruit when it comes to looking for efficient ways of working. Anybody can walk into a studio and see the big problems but one of the things we tend to overlook sometimes are the small efficiencies that in the aggregate lead up to big savings when you're talking about productions over the course of months or years.

Phillip Kirst:
I think so too. So especially when you multiply, it's like with a number of pictures that you produce. Then if you just save seconds on like 700,000 pictures or whatever so it really adds up at the end of the year. Of course, I was like thinking before this podcast a little bit about efficiency, what it really means and I remembered my, let's say, economic studies that I did when I was way younger than I am right now and I think it's one of the first lessons that you learn on university, that there are something called an economic principle. And there are like two things. There's like a maximum principle and there's a minimum principle. So the maximum principle actually means, right, that you have a certain resources set, and out of these resources, you try to squeeze out the maximum of output that you can generate. Right. And the minimum principle is the other way around. So you have a goal set and you try to achieve this goal with the lowest amount of resources that is possible.

Phillip Kirst:
And actually, I think when I thought about this in the studio, especially for us being a service provider, not an in-house studio or something, we have to apply both because sometimes our clients come to us and say, "Listen, this is the budget. What can we get for this?" Or on the other hand, sometimes it's like this, that we, of course on a tender situation or something, they tell us what they want in terms of pictures, in terms of content and we have to think what is the most efficient way to get there? That was, for me, was interesting to think about this, that both kind of principles really apply here in the studio context.

Daniel Jester:
Absolutely. And you bring up a good point that is important to highlight, that as a service provider, a commercial studio, you are a business that is expected to also turn a profit and then it becomes even more so, whereas an in-house studio oftentimes is viewed as being a cost center and they definitely want to reduce the costs as much as they can. But the incentives are different for finding those tools for efficiency when you are a commercial studio that is like, you're in business to provide a service and also make money.

Phillip Kirst:
That's it. And you have to add a margin onto that and that is of course something that people want to... Or like, if they want to pay for this, that's another story, but most of the time they have to pay for it, right? That's exactly what you say, Daniel. But I think we have applied a lot of techniques or something to ask ourself if we are on the right way or not.

Daniel Jester:
That's a great segue way that I wanted to kind of ask you. We mentioned earlier, it sometimes is relatively easy to walk into a process and see the big issues that are driving some inefficiencies. What do you think are some techniques that you can use to start to figure out some of the smaller improvements that you need to make? The big ones are dealt with. How do you teach yourself to dig deeper, or more importantly, I think teach a team to realize like, "Hey, I'm doing this in a way that maybe isn't the best way. How can we evaluate some of those small improvements so that we can try to drive some efficiency gains?"

Phillip Kirst:
I think now we talk, right? I mean, this is where we have to go. And I think as you can imagine, there's not only like one thing that you need to do. You need to do tons of things in order to squeeze out or get efficient. And I think the one thing it starts, as cheesy as it might sounds, but it is really like that you have to select the right team for this, people that have the mindset of do not want to blow your money or just have the curiosity in themselves to improve things or whatever. So that is like, for us, it's being not such a super old company. We were founded in 2013. That was the way we started.

Phillip Kirst:
However, then I think it comes to another super kind of pocket wisdom that is like, you can't manage what you do not measure. And there we are the topic of KPIs. And then the questions like how you measure and what you measure, and that is something I can tell you that we started with simple things like counting like how many pieces we have done, how many pictures we have taken, how long it took, how many people were involved. Then we came to cost per shot that is all nice. But at the end of the day, you figure out that even when it comes to KPIs, there's not this one KPIs, even not the cost per shot. I'm rather criticizing this kind of KPI because it can be heavily misleading to what it is. So even that, that means we have a reporting and all department heads have their own department reporting that drills deeper. But in our management meeting, for example, that we have like once a week.

Phillip Kirst:
So we have like an aggregated reporting that we look at. And only if we look at several things, we get a clear picture. That's one maybe good example. For example, let's say the productivity in terms of how many pictures can be done at a specific station. And then it really depends. We call this motive matrix. And the motive matrix for us is like, one article gets a certain set of pictures and the set of pictures we refer to as the motive matrix.

Phillip Kirst:
So for example, we did have productions that have like, not a good kind of average here, and that were the pictures mainly like bus productions, where we all need to do like a front bus picture. We can do several articles. When we count the articles that we can shoot in a day, this KPI was pretty good. But the amount of pictures that we can take was not as good as we take, let's say, 50 articles, but with like five or six pictures each, right? So because you have this set up cost, you have to change and whatever, that's the reason why you cannot rely on a single source. You have to really shoot in many directions in order to get a picture how you are flying.

Daniel Jester:
You really touched on something that has been on my mind a lot recently, around the idea of efficiency loss to context switching. And that is a very easy thing to illustrate on a photography set. There's virtues to both things, right? There's virtues to shooting all of one, like all back shots or a front shots first, and then going back and doing through all of the back shots. But then you're sort of batching and you can run into some bottleneck issues with that. But you know that when you have a photographer, it's going to take them, I'm going to drill bits as an example. And I have to give you some background on this because there's a specific reason this example works for this analogy.

Daniel Jester:
At Amazon, the style guide for us to shoot drill bits was, I would call it, abusive. I think all of the photographers felt like it was abusive. It was like a 45 degree angle with the camera, like a 45 coming down. And then the drill bits were so small that you had to get the camera really close so now you're having to focus stack. And then there was an overhead shot straight down of the drill bit that you needed to do. And then you had to actually, I think there was a third shot that also involved a camera movement.

Daniel Jester:
And we generally encouraged the photographers to work in a one piece workflow, meaning that they shot everything they needed to shoot for one product and then moved on so that that product could move on down the line. But now every shot the photographer is moving the camera and it's like, you're losing so much time by moving the camera every time. So then it's like, well, what makes sense here is set up the camera for the angle shot, shoot all the angle shots and now you've done it significantly faster. But the trade off is that none of those products can move on in the process until they're all done and it's a little bit of a conundrum.

Daniel Jester:
And then you start to get into all of these ideas of like, "Okay, well, what if we had a different set for every angle and it was a different photographer?" And now we used to get to the point where the conclusion that you come to here is we have to measure this. We have to measure this, we have to test this, we have to time ourselves and we have to learn about what is fastest and also balance that with what can result in... What is fastest that results in the fewest errors and maintains a level of quality that we're happy with.

Phillip Kirst:
And of course you have... Do not forget the people as well, right? I mean, then at the end you can maybe come up as a working on a conveyor belt or whatever, yeah, where you do photo shootings. But if you still have to work with creative people, or let's say, people that are half creative or whatever, so that is something that they cannot do that they have the intention span, so to say, will be not as good and not as long or whatever.

Daniel Jester:
I feel like we've just kind of very clearly illustrated a problem and offered no solutions because it's too hard.

Phillip Kirst:
No, but-

Daniel Jester:
That's not true but it's balancing all of these things, right? It's like everything. It's just like the triangle of quality, speed and price. It's always a balancing act when it comes to your team internally. It's a balancing act of efficiency, productivity and employee satisfaction and happiness.

Phillip Kirst:
Absolutely. I mean, it's exactly like this. So there is this one efficiency thing and I think the best thing to really come up with this is measure it and you have to make sure that your goal is right. Right? I mean, as I said, you even have to reach a certain goal with minimum effort or it's the other way around. And again, for our clients, we really try to squeeze out water off stones though, right? So it's really like always like a process of getting there, but without any numbers without, measuring it, we would've been lost. And I can tell you, and I think that that's like something that everyone goes through too, that it's a sets up like a KPI system. The way how you measure is highly effecting the thing.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah, absolutely.

Phillip Kirst:
For example, like time per shot or time for motive or whatever, do you count in the setup cost? When the stylist puts on something on a model or whatever, do you not count it in? Is it separately and so on and so forth? And then you can see like super nice differences between... For us for example, we of course have different clients. And even though sometimes clients have exactly kind of the same motive matrix and kind of similar kind of clothes, let's say like an outdoor client or something, but some of them have very good quality clothes and other one not. So with some clients you just like have to take ages for creating a nice style for the stylist. And with others it's just easy and sort this kind of things or efficiency, losses, you see them and then you can talk, then you can approach the client with this.

Daniel Jester:
I want to pivot a little bit and talk about... As we're talking about our teams and it's important to make sure that they're feeling like they're contributing and that they aren't feeling like they're part of a robotic process, for any studio, in-house or commercial service provider, I think that it's really important to invest some time and money into your team to grow themselves. And growing themselves... We've talked about it on this podcast a lot about more creative projects using the resources of the studio to shoot things that maybe aren't for a customer but to help them kind of grow their skill.

Daniel Jester:
Another important thing that can actually have a real tangible benefit for a studio is giving your teams time and space to test their own process ideas. And the example that I'll give you really quick is again at Amazon, we had a very well documented process for improvements to set. As we've been talking about this, I was thinking about those little styling tricks that you come up with to try to do things faster. And it's been documented on this podcast that in my days as a photographer, my least favorite thing to shoot was backpacks. They're so hard to style. They can be so dramatically different. Every style guide for backpacks usually involves stringing up the straps so that they appear as they should.

Phillip Kirst:
Nicer.

Daniel Jester:
And so I sat down one day with one of the stylists at Amazon and I said, "You know what, we're going to take today and we're going to time ourselves shooting backpacks. And then we're going to figure out a way to solve for having to shoot the main shot with the straps tied up then pull it down, turn it around, tie them up again. We're going to figure out a way to solve that." So we timed ourselves all day. We shot X number of backpacks in the day it took X number of minutes per backpack. And then we designed this thing that you could connect your lines to string up the straps to, but that thing could rotate freely along with the backpack. So you'd shoot the front shot, string up your straps and then rotate the whole assembly around so you didn't have to unstring anything. It cut our time in half for each backpack, easily. From not having to untie everything and then retie it up. I was blown away by this result.

Daniel Jester:
But the problem is, from a purely productivity standpoint, if you want to talk about, we have an [inaudible 00:15:36] or a sort of a character for this chief money bags if your studio only cares about the money and the concern is that that was two days it took us to test this and learn this efficiency. We have to be willing to invest, I think, in our teams, some time to explore these ideas. They're not going to be productive maybe, they're maybe not going to be working on customer facing things, but they're going to learn things that will impact and will get more efficient.

Phillip Kirst:
I cannot agree more to this. So we are doing this quite heavily. And especially since we have so many new requirements, because we get new clients, right? So every clients come up with, of course, their little own idea about how to shoot, let's say, backpacks or t-shirts or whatever and we need to figure this out. And so that's the reason why always at the beginning of something, we do not have any kind of quantitivity expectations to the team. And we communicate this very clearly to the client that we will not be able or not go for an SLA straight right away or whatever, or they have to pay it. That's a different story.

Phillip Kirst:
But anyway, so creativity workshops where they can let their mind flown that is always a very good tool to improve. We have something that we actually invented, not invented, set in place last year, we called it Spice lab. So we're always, like a specific time in a month, we do exactly what you just described, we just play around with things, being creative. So it goes on both sides, right? It's not only drill more out of a certain process but it's about being more creative and, "Hey, how can we show this and this better? How could a light look like even cooler?" And stuff like that.

Daniel Jester:
I'm not distracted, but I'm booking my plane ticket to Budapest right now so that I can come work in the Spice lab because this is literally a dream of mine, Phillip. The idea of having a studio that's like a test kitchen where my whole job is just to say... One of my favorite things to watch are the videos from Bon Appetit where they just cook four different turkeys and figure out which one is the best. My dream is to work in a studio like this, where it's like any off the wall idea that you might have, let's test it out, see what we could do. I love that idea and-

Phillip Kirst:
And you will be heavily invited and you're more than welcome to come up. And I can tell you the people love to share their knowledge and there are like super careers. And that's again, then it comes back to getting the right people that have this curiosity in them.

Daniel Jester:
I love the idea of sort of the ramp up period for a new client for a commercial studio. I think that's super important. And especially, you get clients who come to you when you're a service provider and they just know... A lot of times, especially if it's a newer brand or somebody who's coming to market, they know that they need images but they don't understand that it's really a relationship that they're developing. It's not really transactional. We need to learn about you, we need to learn about your brand and we need to spend some time with your product. I guess the question that I want to ask is, the efficiency isn't the switch that you can flip on and off, you have to relearn it for every client. So how important is that sort of onboarding period for you for a new client?

Phillip Kirst:
It is the absolute most important period that we have anyways with each client. And it's true for an entirely new client, but it's true as well when a client would like to change certain things, but we have like workshops and stuff like that. So for this one for example, we have invented or put in place something that we called the CISR Process. It sounds a little bit like sketchy but it's about the client initiation stature reporting. We figured out that so much information is needed at different parts of time at different departments and all must come together. So it's too much, like the production department needs to know specific things, data management must be assured, we need to know about this styling. Are there certain rules? Can we mix certain things? Are there color windows or color frames that we have to consider? And so on and so forth.

Phillip Kirst:
So it's so much. And unless you would like to meet to death with tons of people, that is highly unefficient again. We came up with a process where we kind of have a pretty big comprehensive Excel list where it shows what kind of information is needed when and it must be delivered by whom in the process. And like this, you are highly depending on your clients that they are understanding that this is necessary and don't think, "Damn, I just want to have pictures. Why don't you just deliver them?" Right. So which happens, unfortunately, sometimes.

Daniel Jester:
We've talked about it quite a bit on this show postproduction is an important part of content creation. And a lot of those postproduction questions need to be asked up front before they get to the retoucher. That's just one small part of what you're describing, which is like, tell us a little bit about the aspect ratio or the pixel dimensions of what you need. And especially when you're dealing with, again, a brand that is maybe coming to market, they don't always know what they don't know about what they need in terms of imagery.

Phillip Kirst:
The best relationship we figured out is really always with really professional departments or where you have on the other end really professionals talking to you that understand that the picture these processes is nothing. I can tell you that before I founded the company, I was sitting on the other side of the table. So I was at a online fashion retailer and I was responsible for operations and that contained the picture production process. And I was always wondering why the heck is this so expensive? I mean, it's just pictures. I do pictures with my iPhone all the time and cost me nothing. Why do you want me to pay so much money for pictures? To be honest, only after I founded my own company with that, I understood why and I was feeling ashamed.

Daniel Jester:
I mean, that's literally why we have this podcast is because the process is infinitely more complicated with so many more variables than anybody really assumes. And none of us, I don't think, really set out to get into necessarily a career in creative production for e-commerce that scale, but we've fallen into it and it's an adventure for sure. It's so complicated. I don't mean that in a negative way, but there's so many variables and there's so many problems to solve and I find it all really interesting and fascinating. Last question I want to ask you Phillip as a closer for the episode, in your experience and in your mind, do efficiency and creativity work together or are they opposed to each other or somewhere in between? A loaded question.

Phillip Kirst:
Oh, how much time do we have? I think there are maybe two answers to this. I think on a one hand they are opposing. If you would like to stretch them to infinity and you would like to be infinite creative or whatever, so that means you're going to try out certain things, you're going to play around, you want to, yeah, check out what's possible, so to say. And that of course costs time and time is like one kind of pretty important part of efficiency. So that means, I think they are opposing. However, I think it does not mean that you cannot find the right balance between them. And I think then we are back to goal setting. So it really it's about what is the goal? For example, I mean, we have clients, and I think that's true for any in-house studio or something as well, you have clients or products that require high attention, high precision, so to say, and that is like a matter of how to get there you have to be creative and the picture has to look like in a very specific creative way as well. So for this, you need to apply more creativity, you have to reduce the expectation of throughput.

Phillip Kirst:
On the other hand, there are clients where it's just a decent standard, which is totally fine because it's just like an decent product and it must sell. And like this, you don't have to like 20 front views off a model shot of 20 outfit views. You can reduce that. So I think it's really like a matter of the goal, that is the one thing. I think when we talk about efficiency and creativity as an output kind of measurement, then there are kind of opposing. However, what we have to consider again, are the people. So as you just phrase it very well, people there don't want to feel that they work in any kind of robotic environment where they're like on a conveyor belt and just have to push buttons or whatever, so they want to live a certain kind of creativity. So even though you maybe have a very streamlined process, you have to provide certain kind of place and space for creativity so that people feel that they are more than only button pushers, so to say.

Daniel Jester:
Couldn't agree more Phillip. Thank you so much for coming on the show and having this conversation with me. At the time that this episode will be released, we're getting pretty close to Christmas time and I imagine that the holidays and Budapest are probably quite beautiful, so happy holidays to you and your team and thanks again for coming on the show.

Phillip Kirst:
Thank you so much, Daniel and thanks for the invitation. I could just give the same. You have a very Merry Christmas time. And yeah, maybe tonight I will even hit one of the Christmas markets here. So that's on my list for tonight maybe.

Daniel Jester:
Excellent. I'm looking forward to having you back too. I think we talked about that, but your insight and your experience is valuable to us. So we'll have you back on the show again for sure.

Phillip Kirst:
Thanks again.

Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode of the show. Many thanks to our guest, Phillip Kirst 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.

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.