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Has it Been A Year Already?

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. Has it been a year already? I've said before on this very podcast that between the pandemic and remote work, time has become a tricky thing to comprehend. The past year of hosting this podcast has somehow simultaneously felt like a blur, but a blur where we accomplished a lot. I've learned a lot about the creative production industry in the last year from some very brilliant people. And I'd thought I'd take the time in this episode to outline some of those lessons.

Daniel Jester:
As of the day that I'm recording this, I had an opportunity, earlier this week, actually, on Monday, to speak to the students at CBU, Cal Baptist University in the photography program, I spoke to the senior class, specifically taking a digital asset management class. And I wanted to use that time that I had with those students to talk a little bit about, for one thing, the importance of digital asset management, to the future of any kind of creative production for retail or e-commerce or anything like that. But I also wanted to give them some of the things that I learned about the industry from hosting this podcast.

Daniel Jester:
Because when I got my start in creative production, I consider it to be in 2013, when I first started working for Nordstrom through hautelook.com. I had been a commercial photographer for several years before that time, but really that's when I got my first taste of working in a high volume production studio of the type that we see very commonly today.

Daniel Jester:
And so I took the time to kind of put together a little bit of a history of the sort of post-2008 creative production for e-commerce. And I really think about it as being the modern age of e-commerce creative production, really being post-2008. It was the recession of 2008 that changed everything for businesses across the board. And one of the things that was very, very easy to target when all of these businesses were looking for ways to save money was to cut out these extremely expensive productions that they were using to produce imagery for either their website or physical print catalogs, at the time, anything like that.

Daniel Jester:
We were having six figure budgets, pre-2008 to shoot a handful of things for a website, for the few companies that had adopted e-commerce and were really taking it seriously. So brands and retailers really had to start to rethink how they were going to produce this content. They knew they needed the break into e-comm. They knew that they needed to... We saw what happened to brick and mortar stores through the 2008 recession. And there's a lot of big companies that weren't really dealing a lot in e-comm and decided to get into it.

Daniel Jester:
And so that's when we started to develop this idea of the high volume studio, and maybe it doesn't always just work off of season. There's plenty of brands and retailers out there that still work off of season, but maintaining an in-house studio for a brand or a retailer, employing photographers, maybe freelance, maybe full-time, employing stylists. And it got us to the point where somebody said, "Hey, we can save a ton of money getting product from our warehouses to the studios, by putting some of these studios in warehouses." Now, mind you, again, I am specifically talking about e-commerce for brands and retailers where they're producing product imagery in-house, in these types of studios.

Daniel Jester:
I understand that our audience, you guys have a lot of different ways that you produce content. Some of it mostly is on location, but when we talk about e-commerce created production, product photography, that kind of thing, this is what I'm describing.

Daniel Jester:
So at some point somebody figured out we can build these studios in fulfillment centers. We can make them inside of fulfillment centers or adjacent to them, so that it's very easy to move product back and forth. And then we started to build up from there, and this sort of modern age of e-commerce creative production became about like lean and Six Sigma philosophies got heavily into the studio, because, frankly, it was an opportunity that was ripe for improvement.

Daniel Jester:
A lot of lessons that were carried over from pre-2008 commercial photography days are just too expensive to implement in the in-house system. And you have a bunch of fits and starts of getting production through, and it's hard to manage. And you started to build in processes and looking for ways to leverage technology and automation and all of these things.

Daniel Jester:
And so this is really what I'm talking about, this modern age of e-commerce creative production is this post-2008 era that is mostly informed by the recession. And also the other side of that, it was reactionary to the recession. And this is really at the same time when technology really started to take off, and social media was seeing much more widespread adoption. I'm an older millennial, I'm on the older end of the millennial sort of scale, so I remember very clearly what life was like pre-internet. I remember when our phones couldn't do everything imaginable under the sun. And so the impact that social media has had, this direct line to your customer, on marketing for brands and retailers.

Daniel Jester:
Also, from the other side, if the reactionary side was the recession, the other side is this advent of technology and this creation of these new marketing channels in ways that you could more interactively connect with your audience. It's like imagine taking like a direct mail thing, but being able to make it a two-way conversation and see that the person actually looked at your thing and was responding to it, was coming to your website.

Daniel Jester:
And so brands and retailers, obviously, they saw the value in building an in-house studio solution post-2008. And as a result of that, what we have now is something that looks pretty different than the way that content and creative production was handled prior to 2008. And we are just starting to get to the point where this industry is beginning to mature.

Daniel Jester:
And one of the things that I mentioned to the students at CBU is like, "We're just getting to the point where we have 10 plus year veterans of these specific types of processes." People who have worked in high volume e-commerce studios as photographers, stylists, samples coordinators, managers, leads, studio directors, just now getting to the point where we have people who have been doing this for 10 years.

Daniel Jester:
And one of the things that it got me thinking about, I don't know why I made this connection in my head, but it got me thinking about the idea of like supply chain. And I'm sure that there was college courses throughout history that sort of informed people who eventually would take jobs in supply chain. But as globalization kind of took hold and we were building things from components that are produced all over the world and supply chain really became front and center for a lot of companies, you started to see trade schools and technical schools, and even four year universities who were offering degrees or certifications specifically in supply chain.

Daniel Jester:
I haven't seen anything specific to creative production, but I'd be willing to bet that it's coming, because this industry, like I said, is just starting to reach sort of maturity. We've gotten to the point now where many studios know how to do this very, very well. They know how to produce a lot of images, produce them to a high bar of quality and to do it very cheap. And it's really just a matter of time before there's a technical school or a certification program where you can go take some courses, and get certified in creative production or producing for e-commerce or something like that. I don't know what it would look like, because there's so many different tasks and roles that you have in a studio, but it would not be a surprise to me if we saw this in the next two to five years.

Daniel Jester:
And in fact, like I mentioned, talking to the students at CBU, that's a traditional photography program at CBU, but my pal Christopher Kern, who runs the program over there. Is including things that will set his students up for success in the actual landscape that they might be working in. So not all of those students are going to go get jobs in e-commerce creative production, but some of them are., And at least one of them that I talk to is working in a commercial studio in an e-commerce studio right now, part-time here and there between classes.

Daniel Jester:
So these are the kinds of things that we're going to start to see, I think, because we have an industry, and again, thinking of the birth of it as being sort of out of the financial ruin of 2008, is just starting to like mature. And we have tenured and veteran leaders in the industry. And we have a lot of problems figured out and solved. We have a lot of problems to go, because technology hasn't stopped.

Daniel Jester:
But that brings us kind of to what's going on today. And one of the things that we've learned over the course of this podcast is that many brands and retailers are starting to view their in-house programs, their in-house studios, as a strategic advantage to the business, no longer a cost center, no longer a line item that the CFO, Rick, complains about having to spend all that money on. All that CapEx, for all the equipment, all the OpEx, for all of the FTE that work in that studio, they are now seeing the value of, we have talented photographers and stylists. We have everything we need to produce any content under the sun that we could possibly want in-house.

Daniel Jester:
We can use that for more than producing product imagery. We can use that to produce content for the multitude of marketing channels, because social is no longer one marketing channel. Social media is no longer a marketing channel. Every subset within social, every platform, is its own marketing channel. If you think back to the episode that we did with JR Curley, every social media platform has its own tone, its own audience. You don't run into Facebook and shout at people the way that you do on TikTok. It's not short form on Facebook. You have this tendency to have like an older generation of people still on Facebook, who advertising and marketing to them through that channel is still really working.

Daniel Jester:
But TikTok is here, and it's an entirely different method of communication. It's entirely different way of speaking. It's the difference between a low-key cafe on a quiet neighborhood street corner and a nightclub. You're talking about dramatically different ways of talking to those people.

Daniel Jester:
And so brands and retailers recognize this. They recognize that they have a multitude of places that they need to be active, both interacting with, sending their content out to their audience, to their customers, but then also listening back as well and responding to those things. And the studio genuinely represents a strategic advantage for every brand and retailer to entirely control the process, respond with hyper speed to things that are happening on social, and get relevant content out there quickly, so that they can take advantage of trends and things that like blink and you miss them. You can't keep up with anything anymore.

Daniel Jester:
And so in order to maintain some kind of a competitive edge in this place, you're going to turn to the team that's there every day. That's doing the work and knows how to do it quickly and knows how to do it efficiently, and can produce very high quality work. So that's where we are today, we are really genuinely seeing this. And we've heard it. You've heard it on this podcast from tons of our past guests that they believe, they wholeheartedly believe that their studio and their team represents a strategic edge over each one of their competitors.

Daniel Jester:
So we went from 2008, how do we do it cheap? How do we do it fast? I wouldn't exactly call it a race to the bottom, but it's like, we just need to do a lot of this. We need to do it quickly. We need to do it cheaply. And now we've gotten extremely good at that. And we have a lot of really talented people and we're recognizing that there are opportunities for more.

Daniel Jester:
So what does the future of e-commerce look like given these things that we believe to be true? I'm going to talk about that a little bit. We're going to dip into that. But first something new for this podcast and this episode, and it may only be this episode, or at least the next few episodes, but we are actually going to break for a commercial. So cue the commercial break music.

Daniel Jester:
One of the reasons we launched this podcast was because we've all been to industry events. Pre-pandemic, we'd been out to various creative operations conferences back in the days of IEN. And we truly recognize the value of those events for sharing ideas, feeling supported, finding ways to move past the barriers that have plagued our studios. And of course over the last two years of the pandemic, this podcast has been one of the only ways that we can kind of get those ideas out and share them as a big group, because we haven't been able to do very many in-person events.

Daniel Jester:
I'm very excited to talk about the upcoming Henry Stewart Photo Studio Operations Forum on May 4th in New York City. And I'm actually going to be there. We're going to be there. The podcast is going to be there represented. We're going to be doing a live episode of the podcast in our speaking slot. So please bring your questions. We're going to do a little bit of talking, and we're going to do a little bit of Q&A, and we're going to actually record an episode of the podcast live.

Daniel Jester:
If you are interested in attending this event, you can get a $100 discount off of the registration fee by using the discount code, content pod 100, C-O-N-T-E-N-T P-O-D 100. Content pod 100, for a $100 discount on your registration fee for the Henry Stewart event. You can check out the agenda for the event by going to henrystewartconferences.com and navigating your way to Photo Studio Ops New York 2022. And you can't miss it. There's a huge register now button. You've got the agenda there. You can see all who the speakers are.

Daniel Jester:
If you attended the Pixelz FLOW event in Los Angeles earlier this year, some of the speakers are the same. My pal Ryan Roberts from Pixelz will be there speaking at the Henry Stewart event. It's going to be an excellent event. Henry Stewart, the last Photo Studio Operations was a virtual event and it was phenomenal. And we all know that virtual events just don't, in general, hold a candle to an in-person event. So I'm personally very excited about this. I hope to see you all there.

Daniel Jester:
Again, if you would like to register for this event, you can use the discount code, content pod 100 to receive a $100 off of your registration fee. I truly and genuinely hope to see you there on May 4th of this year in New York at the Hilton Midtown Hotel.

Daniel Jester:
Okay. We're back, and it seems weird to have a commercial break, where it's just me talking more, but this is podcast. This is show business, baby. We got to do what we got to do. I'm excited to have a discount code to give you guys. But anyway, we were talking about the past of e-commerce content production, where things stand today. And I want to spend a few minutes talking about what the future might look like. And these are things that we've kind of derived from the last year of doing this podcast and talking to people. We've spent a fair amount of time talking to people who represent sort of emerging technologies that could have big impact on the space.

Daniel Jester:
But I want to preface this part of the conversation by saying, I truly believe this. I can't remember if this is an idea that I came up with it, I doubt it, because I'm not that smart. But we probably heard it on the show from a guest. My memory's just bad after talking to so many people, but we probably heard it on the show, I wholeheartedly believe this, and I've really internalized it. The future of e-commerce will be ushered in by the creative teams. It is going to be the teams that are producing the creative, who are adopting some of these emerging technologies, because they represent visual technologies. All of the things that we're most excited about in technology almost, period, is visual.

Daniel Jester:
The idea of computer generated imagery. The idea of AI generated models who are fully licensable without having to sign model releases, and all of that stuff. The idea of searchable video content, about using the content of the video to create all sorts of tags and make that content for you searchable. It's the media, it's the visual media, that's going to really punctuate the next phase of e-commerce. And going to be the creative teams that usher that in.

Daniel Jester:
So a few things that we've learned about from the past year of this show that we're super excited about. Obviously, we spent some time talking about CG rendering of products, of environments, of things like that. This represents a huge possibility, a huge set of possibilities for e-commerce creative production, because it can mean a lot of things. It can mean producing imagery without having the product available. It can mean making changes to product imagery as designs change over time. It can mean shooting models in locations that don't exist or exist, but you didn't have to go visit them. And you didn't have to spend the money and the fuel to bring your people there.

Daniel Jester:
Does this mean that sort of like, I'm not going to say analog, because it's all digital now, but does this mean that location shoots go away? No, I don't think so. It doesn't mean that in the way that it doesn't mean that, because we have Spotify that vinyl has gone away, there's always going to be space for these older ways of working. I don't want to say old, because they have value. But there's always going to be space for something that has a certain feel to it. And we all know that as every technological leap advances, the field can sometimes be different. This idea of sort of the uncanny valley the technology will get very good, but there's going to be brands that are going out there and shooting on location on film, because that's an artistic decision that they wanted to make. Technology will get us to the point where we can make artistic decisions like that, because we want to make them. And we're not trying to do everything as fast as possible.

Daniel Jester:
I want to take a minute to sort of confess something about CG rendering in particular. This is a topic for me that has always represented a little bit of existential dread, because in my mind, I saw the idea of rendering products as being a threat to my livelihood. I chose and have always felt really comfortable when I was shooting for the various companies that I've worked for, I have always gravitated more towards shooting still life product on a tabletop. I can and have shot on figure, but for me, there's just something about putting in my headphones, listening to music or listening to a podcast, and just working on a product and spending time with that product. And obviously, that's the type of photography that we can see real benefits of CG rendering and creating those products or those images in a wholly CG environment.

Daniel Jester:
And I felt really threatened by that. And it really informed a lot of decisions that I made. I recognized, during my time at Amazon, that the tabletop product photographer was not long for this world, and that it wouldn't take very long for CG to get, A, so good and, B, so cheap that even companies like Amazon would adopt it on a widespread scale.

Daniel Jester:
The lack of vision that I had was, who are the people who were doing that? And it was over the course of doing this podcast and having conversations with guys like Jason Hamilton and having conversations with guys like Sef McCullough at the Pixelz FLOW event, and various other guests that we've touched on this topic, that there's a room for photographers to play a part in this new era of technology. And at the end of the day, the camera represents a point in time of technology.

Daniel Jester:
But the things that aren't ingrained in the camera, that aren't part of the technology, are things like composition and things like the way that light behaves and all of the most creative parts of the process. And we really need to learn, especially as photographers, I think, we really need to learn how to separate the technology or the tech from what is creative, what is technical, and what is creative. Because the creative part is seeing those opportunities, seeing that light, the way that the light interacts with the product, the way that the light interacts with the environment.

Daniel Jester:
The other parts of creativity are solving problems, where am I going to place this product? How can I compose this scene for maximum impact? The camera just represents a way to record that information. And generating these images with a computer, all it does is afford us almost more capabilities, almost more opportunities to do more creative things, because we can build environments that don't exist in reality, or we would have to sit around and wait for in reality.

Daniel Jester:
So my attitude towards this has largely shifted, because I don't see a future anymore where every product photographer gets fired in favor of hiring somebody who knows how to do CG. I think it will be the photographers who sort of evolve into these roles. And they certainly will have the opportunity to still use a camera, still work on set and have that sort of physicality to it. But I think it will be a process that has a place for photographers. And it has a place for stylists as well. Stylists with an eye for composition. Imagine building imagery for a brand where the photographers sitting in Budapest and the stylist is in New York City, and they're collaborating together on imagery from across an ocean, and producing amazing work for their client.

Daniel Jester:
This is an interesting future that represents almost unlimited possibilities. And I don't think anymore, for me personally, that it's to fear that. Moving on to some of the other sort of emerging technologies that we've touched on the idea of AI or synthetic models, models that are used in your photography, that aren't real people that exists. They're sort of AI generated from a lot of various inputs and outputs, and all of those inputs have been licensed, and they're biometric data released. So these models, you're not negotiating usage rights anymore, and you're not worrying about the legality of where you can use those images and all of those things.

Daniel Jester:
And so this is another area where you're talking about, there's going to be a job that somebody has, which is to produce a specific type of model or a set of models, a family of models, or a family of environments, and producing that through technology, like we heard from Mark Milstein of vAisual, where they can produce these models with an algorithm. And all of it is licensable in a very straightforward way, because the biometric data behind those models has been released.

Daniel Jester:
And then to touch on video. Obviously, we know already that there's been fits and starts with video and e-commerce creative production. But part of, I think, the challenge of video has been the workflow is hard to nail down. That still is true today, but technology is definitely catching up. There are tools now that allow for more capable tracking of video through your creative production process. And obviously there's plenty of other things going on with video. And we saw widespread adoption from some retailers and brands early on with video.

Daniel Jester:
And then some of that has gone away. I've used ASOS in the past to sort of illustrate this. At one point, every product on ASOS' website had a product video. They seem to have scaled that back, but I would not be surprised at all to see that come back with ASOS, and any other brand and retailer. But then you have companies like Vyrill. You heard from our past guests, Ajay Bam, who talked about his company's and his product's ability to create a lot of different data points around a video.

Daniel Jester:
And you can capture sentiment analysis around a video. And you can capture the actual content of the video. You can use that both for your own in-house produced videos and use it to leverage user generated video, and point people to the features that they want to know about. You don't have to, any longer, try to figure out what your customer wants to see and how to pack that all into a 15 or 30 second video. You can produce your 15 second video to have some brand control over the introduction of the product via video, and then point customers to say, "What do you want to know about? Do you want to know about that particular interior pocket on this handbag? Well check out timestamp 2:53 of this YouTube video that this user reviewed, because that's where that information exists."

Daniel Jester:
And all of that is automated. All of that is handled with machine learning and AI. And they're crawling these videos, and not only making them more searchable by search engines, but making them more usable by your customers and by your own internal team.

Daniel Jester:
So I didn't even touch on, this like idea of the future of the metaverse, because I don't even have a clear idea of what it looks like, except I can say this, we will definitely, and already are trying to figure out ways to sell things to people in the metaverse. I think it remains to be seen, for me, what value that adds and what that actually looks like and what the teams involved are going to look like. But I can tell you that all of these things, the underlying thing is it is the creative teams who are going to be working with these emerging technologies, and ushering in the next era of e-commerce in whatever form that looks like.

Daniel Jester:
As we wrap up this episode, I want to get a little sentimental, not exactly sentimental, but I think I probably have a reputation of being a pretty sentimental person, who isn't afraid of being publicly vulnerable. And I have probably done this on this podcast before, but it's worth doing again on this one year anniversary of the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I have some thank yous that I would like to say publicly on the record for anybody who has listened up to this point.

Daniel Jester:
First and foremost, my sincerest, thanks to the team at Creative Force, in particular, Thomas and Tejs, the two co-founders of Creative Force, for putting their trust in me. And they really believe in me and believe in my ability to talk, which I think is probably fair. I've definitely gotten that piece of feedback in the past, but nobody ever offered to let me host a podcast, instead of just telling me to be quiet. So I think that's pretty cool. So my sincere thanks to Creative Force, Thomas and Tejs, in particular.

Daniel Jester:
Also, my good friend, Sean O'Meara, my friend and colleague here at Creative Force. He did not ask to play producer for this podcast, but his skill and his expertise and his demeanor is invaluable to the process. He's been a huge part of getting this off the ground. And I think it's been a success.

Daniel Jester:
Calvin Lanz of calvin lanz sound, who can take virtually any garbage that I send him and make it sound like an NPR show. Calvin is an incredible audio editor, and if you have a need for audio editing, please, I will not hesitate to share Calvin and his skill. He has been an integral part of this show just really makes it what it is.

Daniel Jester:
I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to every guest who has been on the show. I look back at past guests, and they're all very busy people who have a lot on their plates and they all took the time to talk to me. And some of them, in the early days of the podcast, before we even had anything to show for it. I can't express enough, my sincere gratitude to all of the past guests for taking the time to have a conversation with me and making the show what it is. Obviously, your expertise is really what the show is. It's about the guest.

Daniel Jester:
And last, but absolutely not least, everyone who downloads the show every week. We did not know what to expect when we launched this show, but I think it is safe to say that you, the audience, likes it. And I hope that it adds value. And we are just so excited and thankful that you take the time to listen every week.

Daniel Jester:
In the coming year, let's make this a conversation. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn. You can reach out to the podcast podcast@creativeforce.io. Tell us what you want to hear about. Tell us your thoughts on conversations that we've had in the past. Let's all learn and grow and make great content with each other's support. Cheers to one year in the books of this podcast, and to whatever the coming years hold for us.

Daniel Jester:
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.