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Opening Up Your Studio to External Stakeholders with Tracey Smith of Zumiez

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 Tracey Smith of Zumiez. We talk about how to prepare for the shift of creative production teams from task-oriented to a strategic part of the company's future and this really starts with culture, communication and finding ways to help your colleagues understand how your studio operates.

Tracey Smith:
We've also hosted a studio open house, which was really great. When we first moved into this building not very many people were familiar with even where the studio was in here, so we just had a big open house. It was kind of like a happy hour kind of thing. We just invited everybody and their dogs.

Daniel Jester:
Tracey's experience at Zumiez is a good indicator of the power of cross-department networking and collaboration and how giving your coworkers a peek into the studio can really help the department feel connected and improve communication.

Daniel Jester:
This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I'm your host Daniel Jester coming to you from my studio in Southern California. My guest on the show today, Tracey Smith of Zumiez. Tracey, welcome to the show and how are you?

Tracey Smith:
Great. Thank you. It's great to be here today.

Daniel Jester:
It's great to have you. I've been looking forward to having this conversation. We had a pre-production meeting a few weeks ago and then I had a bunch of travel that I'm just kind of coming back to real life from, but we talked a lot about ways to raise the visibility of your e-commerce studio within your organization. We see content creation for an e-commerce business becoming a much more strategic part of the business going forward. Now that we are mostly post pandemic and e-commerce has taken such a significant part of the retail market share in sort of an accelerated way over the last year, content production, I think, it stands to reason is going to shift from being a task that needs to be completed to becoming a very strategic part of any business. So Tracey, just to kind of jump in right away with a question for you, an in-house studio can sometimes feel a little siloed within a company. What, in your experience, you've been with Zumiez for over 12 years, what in your experience are some of the negative impacts of a studio being too insular?

Tracey Smith:
Yeah. I think one of the main negative impacts could just be your team just feeling cut off from what's going on. You don't want to have a disconnect from the business, you want to have that understanding of why certain decisions are being made that might impact you and you're going to gain that knowledge from being a little more connected with other teams. Just really kind of understanding that impact that you and your team have on the business and on the company, that can also really affect things like your motivation, feeling like you're really contributing back to the business and things like that. Also, you can miss that opportunity to build cross-department relationships with others and that has a huge impact when you need support from other teams on some of the projects you're working on or things like that and it just helps build a stronger culture within the organization when you build those relationships.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. It really goes kind of both ways. Doesn't it? We understand in the studio what we do, but we want our coworkers to understand that as well. But you're absolutely right, the teams within the studio can sometimes be too insulated from what business decisions are being made that are affecting other departments and may impact the work that they're doing. Tracey, you mentioned culture and as an industry we often talk about the culture within our studio and what it's like to work in our studio, and a photo studio is a really unique place to work for a lot of different reasons, but how important is the studios as a whole relationship with other departments in the larger organization? That is as much of your studio culture as anything else, how your studio relates to some of these other departments, how important is that relationship?

Tracey Smith:
Yeah. Oh my gosh, so important. I work for a company where culture is a really big deal. We value it a lot, it's something that's very well-defined and it's practiced across our entire organization, including our stores, so it's utilized in our decision-making and we're all held accountable to it. We might have a micro culture in our studio, but our main goal is always to contribute to our larger company's culture. So with that said, yeah, our studio relationship to other teams in the organization, that's one of the ways that we strengthen that culture.

Tracey Smith:
For my team, one of the largest benefits that we've had from that exposure outside the studio has just been really opening lines of communication with other teams. Just doing that just helps in so many ways. We're able to build relationships with others and that in turn helps us problem solve issues and just get things done quicker and more efficiently. And my team members, they can work directly with those people. I don't have to stand in their way. If they have a question about something, they can go ask that person and figure it out and so it's very empowering to them as well.

Daniel Jester:
I see a lot on LinkedIn, and you've probably seen it too, there's a lot of discourse around culture at different companies. It's like company wants to be seen as a great place to work, they want some kind of culture to speak to and I think different companies achieve success in different ways in terms of having a culture that actually is identifiable and it influences the day-to-day. What do you think is the secret to Zumiez's success and having a culture that permeates and allows the studio to kind of carve out a niche of that culture? What is Zumiez doing to actually create a culture and live by it, as opposed to just talk about it?

Tracey Smith:
It is something that is very well-defined for us and it's just practiced at all levels of our company, even at the store level, and it's really we base it off how we operate. If we start a project, we use those cultural values to help guide the goals and actions for them and we make sure that we're hitting those as we're going through our project, so having those cultural values, like empowerment and teaching and learning and recognition, those are just some of them, we make sure that we're driving those and practicing those throughout everything we do every day. One of the things unique about Zumiez, we're not necessarily driving direction top down through our company, a lot of times we're making decisions and working together.

Tracey Smith:
You might have a great idea on something and it's totally valid and can happen, it doesn't have to be from upper management. All of our employees are empowered to drive their business and do what's best and be accountable for that, of course, but I think this ties back to this idea of the studio really being involved outside of the studio walls. We get to give our input and show off our work and help drive those initiatives for our company when we get out there and work with other teams.

Daniel Jester:
That's a great segue into the next thing that I wanted to ask you, is that what are some of the benefits to the individual studio team members that you've seen when you have an environment where you're able to raise their visibility of their role within the company? I imagine that that's a great way to help grow your team, it's putting them on cross-functional teams. What are some of the things that you've seen with your team, ways that this has benefited your team members?

Tracey Smith:
We have a lot of like cross-departmental projects and some of them are kind of more volunteer, sort of committee or task force kind of things, they're really important and when we get people involved in those, they're actually affecting company policy on things or decisions. These projects groups become a really great way for the team members to get involved and grow themselves and their careers and to meet other people in the office and just really adds value to them and to the company, just in a different way. It's really cool.

Daniel Jester:
Zumiez is constructed in a way where you sometimes have cross-functional projects and committees and I think that's great. I think that that's one of the really important things in order to, again, help elevate your team above and beyond the studio and raise their profile a little bit in the company is to get them on some of these kinds of things. Do you guys ever do anything like supporting creative needs that are within the company? Not just like external, like customer facing, but supporting creative needs internally as well because you've got all these people with these like photo and video skills?

Tracey Smith:
Yeah, we do that occasionally. We'll be asked to photograph these portraits. They're kind of like an employee of the month, only we do a big thing every year. It's like we have employees of the year and we'll do their portraits and headshots that get put in the cafe. We turned that into kind of a little mini party in the studio where we celebrate that person's accomplishments and we get to photograph them and it's really fun and that's a really great way to get the studio involved in that. We also do the holiday parties and company events, things like that. We've also hosted a studio open house, which was really great. When we first moved into this building not very many people were familiar with even where the studio was in here, so we just had a big open house. It was kind of like a happy hour kind of thing and we just invited everybody and their dogs to come back and we had like a green screen set up so people could come in do goofy photos in front of the green screen.

Tracey Smith:
They got to interact with the photographers, but then we had the editors over at the side just kind of editing on the fly with those green screenshots and putting funny backgrounds on them and so they got to interact with editors as well. Around the studio, we had posters kind of explaining what each section of that studio did, maybe some stats like, "Hey, here's where we photograph all of our shoes," and this is how many we shoot in a year. It was really amazing to have people, even from like the finance department or whatever, come up and be like, "Wow, I had no idea what you guys did in here. It's really cool."

Daniel Jester:
That's been a really common thing in my career is that question and it seems, now that you mention it, to come a lot from finance people where they kind of bump into you in the hall and they're like, "What do you do in there?" It's like, I don't think it's that hard to understand, but it's challenging sometimes. The creative that we consume in e-comm and in retail in general, it doesn't get a lot of thought from people on where that comes from, that somebody has to create that. I love the idea of the studio open house and I think that the structured way that you guys did it is really, I think, a great way to do it. Aside from just kind of illuminating for your coworkers what you guys do there in the studio, did you experience any other positives that came out of that, ways that other departments realize that they can help you or ways that you can help another department or a colleague?

Tracey Smith:
I say would yes indirectly. Maybe I think we were able to meet some people that maybe we haven't met face to face and just kind of start that rapport and that relationship with that person and then that in turn leads to, "Oh, I'm more comfortable going and talking to that person about a question I have about something," and then that can lead to, "Oh, Hey, I understand your business needs a little more. I can help you with that. Maybe we should shoot this thing to help support that," can lead to more projects and more creative that helps the business. I think indirectly over time it helps and that's kind of our goal is just... it's like a slow build of those relationships outside the studio that eventually come back and help the whole company because our studio is supporting those initiatives.

Daniel Jester:
I hadn't really thought about it in this way. I've been an advocate on this podcast for more cross-functional meetings, including more stakeholders in all parts of the production process, and getting to know the people that work in the studio and the people in the studio getting to know the team members in a more casual environment is probably the right place to start before you even throw them into a cross-team meeting where they're expected to just get along and get work done because you still don't have that base level of understanding. It seems to me that maybe this studio open house, like very casual, you're not there to solve a problem or have a meeting, you're just there to get to know the process and get to know your coworkers may be one way to kind of ease into these ideas of these like cross-functional meetings where you can get more stakeholders involved.

Daniel Jester:
I had not really thought of it like that, but I'm interested to know, have you been able to expand interdepartmental and cross-functional touch bases or meetings and what benefit have you seen for the studio and for the business as a whole?

Tracey Smith:
Yeah, we have definitely seen a benefit from meeting cross-departmentally with other teams. In fact, a couple of years ago, we started a monthly touch base with all of the people who work on our product production process. A lot of people touch it and so there's just inevitably opportunities for improvement that come up with that process. It's pretty informal, it's just like a time for all of us to get together and just talk about the process, like what's going well, what can be improved, any questions somebody has and it's really cool. It's just the more brains we bring to the table to talk about these issues, the better we solve it and we can get it done a lot faster.

Daniel Jester:
In a recent podcast episode, we talked with Rob de Catarino around the post-production and some of the challenges specifically with post-production in content creation and a big part of that conversation was learning how to set the right expectations, having the right conversations at the right time. In your experience, has that been something that has become just sort of a normal part of the process for you guys is that the expectations are just correct upfront because you're having so many cross-functional meetings?

Tracey Smith:
I would say mostly yes. That is one of the great things about when you collaborate with other teams. You're aligning on those goals and expectations and timelines, but at the end of the day, we all realize we work for e-commerce and there's just a lot of priorities and a lot of things going on and things may shift, so it's great that we kind of all have similar outlined expectations for how those projects go. But for sure, there's realization that things can change and we are adaptable to those changes. Managing that change when there's bumps in the road and projects and timelines change, as leaders just staying positive and keeping the team focused on what we're driving and how that's going to affect the business in a positive way and it's okay if things don't go exactly according to plan and we just adjust and we move forward.

Daniel Jester:
As the future of the content studio becomes sort of less task-based and more strategic to the overall business, to kind of repackage everything that we've been talking about so far, Tracey, to me, it really starts with making sure that your studio culture supports the organizational culture.

Tracey Smith:
Oh yeah, for sure. I think when your organization understands what your team does and what they're capable of, in turn your team also understands the needs of the business, then your studio plays a huge strategic role in your company's success, so you're hopefully collaborating with others on decisions that affect the direction you take in the studio, instead of just working in a vacuum.

Daniel Jester:
You mentioned, Tracey, I love the idea of like the studio open house because that gets people in the studio, that gets studio team members meeting and learning who the merchandisers are, who the web team is, everybody that does upstream and downstream processes from them that they may not have an understanding of or a relationship with. Once we have that baseline relationship foundation, then what, Tracey, like we can start to build up from there?

Tracey Smith:
Yeah. I just totally opens up those lines of communication. And it allows us to have more productive touch base meetings with those teams because we know them already, we understand their business a little more because we've been talking to them and so we just get a little more out of those meetings and we're able to work together on common goals and really get stuff done and blow people's minds with our amazing photography that is supporting those objectives, business objectives.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. And not only supporting those business objectives, but then becoming an important strategic part of what those objectives are and how to achieve them. Tracey, in the last kind of moment here, I want to just touch on a little bit of a personal thing that you and I have in common. You're up in the the Pacific Northwest, I'm in Southern California, and it turns out that we learned that we are both Parks and Recreation Commissioners for our respective cities, so I thought this is a rare opportunity maybe for you to share a little bit, admittedly, this'll be hyper-local for an audience that's pretty global, but what's going on with the parks department and your city? Anything interesting this summer now that we're kind of reopening from COVID?

Tracey Smith:
Yeah, it's been great. I'm a very new on the commission, so I'm still learning a lot, but it's been really cool to get involved and found out the we're starting some of our summer park concerts again, just found out there's a new Urban Forestry Management System taking into effect, which is really cool, trying to preserve as many trees up there as we can. It's really neat to see the city, kind of seeing how it works and getting involved and being able to have some input on that. It's been really cool.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. I also am new to my role as Commissioner and it was exciting to learn that you're doing this in your city as well and I'm glad that we can maybe learn from each other as we share this journey. I've been thinking a lot about this, the difference between a community and just a bunch of people kind of living in close proximity to each other is our shared public spaces and I think it's important that we preserve them and we make them nice and we make them what people want them to be so that we can go from a bunch of people living next door to each other to a true community.

Tracey Smith:
Yeah. I mean, it all circles back, even to what we were talking about earlier with building relationships at work, it's going beyond that and building those relationships out in our community as well.

Daniel Jester:
I agree, I couldn't agree more. I've never been one to silo my personal feelings and my personal life away from my professional life. You kind of get what you get with me and I think that that's... I think that's maybe a nice way to be. We can be humans to each other at work too.

Tracey Smith:
I mean, life's short, right? You got to like the people you work with and you got to like the people you live around.

Daniel Jester:
Absolutely, couldn't have said it better myself. Tracey, thank you so much for your time and your insights. If people want to connect with you on LinkedIn, can we share your LinkedIn profile in our show notes?

Tracey Smith:
Oh yeah, for sure.

Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode. If you have feedback for us or want to pitch a guest or topic idea for the show, please email us at podcastatcreativeforce.io. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn. I'm Daniel T. Jester. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lands special thanks to Sean Amira and our guest, Tracey Smith. I'm your host, until next time friends.

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.