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Process vs Product with Scott Willson of Patagonia

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.

Daniel Jester:
Welcome to this episode of the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast and I'll be honest with you guys. I had a hard time naming this one. I ultimately settled on Process vs Product with Scott Wilson of Patagonia, who joins me to talk about the unique nature of an E-comm studio, contrasted with the sometimes chaotic atmosphere of a traditional editorial shoot. It boils down to this, in an E-comm studio the process drives the product, the product being the images or videos that are produced. With editorial, you're responding to all the unexpected variables at play and do whatever it takes to get the desired product. To some extent you're embracing the unknown and putting out fires where they arise. Back in the E-comm studio, you strive for no fires at all, reflecting on, iterating and improving the process so as many variables are controlled as possible.

Scott Willson:
Because you ideally, you want to build a process and get your projects going on those rails. They just stick to the process and your job is making sure that it just stays on the rails. You look for those, the little rocks and pennies on a trail to see if you're going to derail it. You take care of that before it happens.

Daniel Jester:
This is of course not to say which method is better or more creative, but acknowledging that while closely related, these two are very distinct parts of content creation with their own challenges and needs. Now let's get into it with Scott Wilson of Patagonia. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I am your host, Daniel Jester. My guest on the show today is Scott Wilson, Director of Photo Studio for Patagonia. Scott, welcome to the show. How are you?

Scott Willson:
Good, Daniel. Thanks. How are you?

Daniel Jester:
Good. How are things in Santa Barbara? We're relatively close to each other. So I imagine we're both experiencing a little bit of a heat wave right now.

Scott Willson:
I actually just got out five minutes ago, went outside and was surprised at how warm it is, yeah.

Daniel Jester:
So Scott, we had a meeting last week where we kind of chatted about E-comm, photo production and the unique nature of E-comm photo production and what that means for the way that our companies and our senior leaders sort of perceive the E-commerce studio and why it differs from editorial and campaign and one of the things that you mentioned to me about it that I think is a good way to kind of kick off the conversation is that you mentioned that effective studio teams can make the process look really easy, and this can lead to certain perceptions from people outside of our department or outside of creative production. Would you mind kind of like sharing with me again, your kind of thoughts on that?

Scott Willson:
For me, the measure of success of a studio is that I have nothing to report when people ask me what's going on in the studio. Because you ideally, you want to build a process and get your projects going on those rails. They just stick to the process and your job is making sure that it just stays on the rails. You look for those the little rocks and pennies on a trail to see if you're going to derail it. You take care of that before it happens. And in doing that, you don't have the flare ups. You don't have the fires, you don't have the chaos that I think a lot of creative leaders, creative leaders meaning people who don't necessarily know a lot about the ins and outs of production, VPs of creative or creative directors or whatever.

Scott Willson:
I think they tend to see production and progress as lots of fires, that's creativity. It's just, things are flaming out, everyone's running around and that's the creative process. And that doesn't work for studios. Studios have to be, there's no ripple. There's no wave because it does, it's just the doppler of that just might take a studio down. So that makes it hard because when you try to explain needing resources, whether it's people or money, or if you have to talk about cutting projects because you don't have the bandwidth, it's difficult to quantify that.

Daniel Jester:
It affects the perceived value of the studio, because it looks easy, contrasting that with, like you mentioned sometimes an editorial shoot that maybe has been planned for months and it's going to take a week to execute and there's a bunch of unknowns and E-commerce production in the studios all about, like you mentioned, controlling variables and spotting those pennies on the rails before you get to them. And that's actually a really apt analogy I think for the way we think about like flow production, because something as simple as a misnamed image, which is definitely a penny, it's not a huge problem, but it's a penny, but hitting it at the wrong time can really derail a project or a process or the flow for that day or for several days and can cause the incorrect images to end up on the website potentially and those are big problems. Those are small pennies that lead to big problems.

Scott Willson:
Right.

Daniel Jester:
Whereas like you mentioned an editorial shoot is about delivering on what you need at all costs, like there's so many variables that can't be controlled. So you don't try, you just start to react to problems as they come up.

Scott Willson:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
Talk to me a little bit about maybe your process in the studio for anticipating problems and trying to identify these things before they come up. What sort of things are you looking for?

Scott Willson:
Some might say I'm a little micro managerial. I don't think I am. For the most part know how to do just about everything in the studio. And I think that's important. So, although I don't do it on a daily basis, I keep in contact with all the sub-teams, the photography team, the art direction team, sample management, all of those teams within the studio on regular basis talking to them about how things are going. And at some point you just get, it's not really a sense, I mean, but you just see it's like, this is going a little bit differently than it's gone in the past. And then you just based on that, you run it out a week, two weeks, three months, whatever it is and say, if we don't get this back on track, this is where it could potentially end up.

Scott Willson:
Maybe it's a little catastrophic. I mean, I always sort of look at things as what's the worst thing that could possibly happen. And then I base my decisions on that and if it doesn't happen, great, we deliver early or there's no problems, but I think I realized that a lot and that actually that it does benefit me during the COVID lockdowns because when we left, they were telling us, "Yeah just walk away. You're going to be back in two weeks." We're in the middle of a major season, probably halfway through a major season. And we were away for, I don't know, five months or something, there's no way you can lose five months of shooting in a season and get back onto it. And so when we came back, my thought when we were talking to the team was like, let's just, everything that we do.

Scott Willson:
Let's assume we're going to get shut down again in two or three days. So shoot as much as we can, shoot the most critical product, work with sales, work with the product developers to have them prioritize what's the most important once it hits the website. Were we really going to take a hit financially if we don't have shots? And that's how we prioritized. And it was all really based on this assumption that, yeah, we're going to get shut down and again, and it could happen at any time. So, and we change it, like every day you would revise the plan. But in the back of my mind, I'm thinking what's the worst thing that could happen and build a plan for that.

Daniel Jester:
That makes sense. And like having a concrete process in place that gives you those rails makes it really easy to start to kind of address these things and fend off these outside influences as they come up. One of the things that you said to me when we had the conversation last week is that the E-comm studio is inherently self reflective. And that really resonated with me because we are, like we said, we are constantly wanting to look at that process and things that we can do to improve that. It's not enough to bandaid over a problem because then we're adding complexity. So what are some of the things that you think about like root cause analysis or really getting down to the root problem so that you can solve of it at its core, as opposed to adding bandaids that later lead to potential complexity or throw a bunch of rocks on the tracks that you didn't foresee?

Scott Willson:
I actually started years ago on the other side of the fence, like I was a photo editor at Patagonia. I ran all the different photo and video departments at The North Face for 10 years. So most of my experience really was dealing with a more chaotic side of the process. It was taking 10, 12 people to a foreign country where I'd never been, didn't speak the language, all of our scouting and pre-production was done at home. And then you land on the ground and you have two weeks to shoot an entire season's worth of content and you build your plan and it's super dialed. And then you know that when you land, it's all going to fall apart and that level of chaos, I liked it. It was fun and that's more the traditional creative method. You build a plan, but then you assume that it's all just going to go to crap and you're going to start over again when you're on the ground.

Scott Willson:
Which it said, there's no way you can do that in a studio. It's just, you can't sustain a studio that way, because my mind kind of thinks that way. I actually like that chaos. I do apply that a bit in the studio, because I tend to think that way anyway, I tend to think a bit more chaotically. I do apply it. And in working with the other creatives that we have, the art directors and photographers who I think are equally open to that level of chaos, but also know that it's not appropriate for a studio. It's a lot of communication.

Scott Willson:
And I think that's probably the core of running a studio is being able to communicate on a daily basis with all the different teams, because they're really the ones that are there doing it. They're sort of the eyes for me in all the different corners of the studio and also always being open to discuss new ways of doing things, which can be tough in the studio with, especially if you've got people who've been there for years. And it's only recently where there's been a lot of systems that help automate studios. So you don't have to have been in a studio for 20 years to be wedded to a process based on an Excel spreadsheet.

Daniel Jester:
Right.

Scott Willson:
It hasn't been that long really that we've had good systems. And so once you get that, it's really hard to break away from it. So I think having that constant communication, identify the problems before they start. That's just no magic bullet to that. I mean, that's just experience. That's having gone through things falling apart and finding yourself five months behind schedule and have this looming deadline and you got to figure out how to pull it together and you do, ultimately you do.

Daniel Jester:
You mentioned communication and staying in communication with your teams as a way to surface issues that maybe you didn't have visibility to, that you can then kind of look for root causes on. I want to talk a little bit about communication going the other way and loop us back to what we were talking about around the perceived value of the studio and how you communicate with external studio stakeholders or up the chain. The people who have the money, I recorded the podcast episode, where I was pretending to be what I called the chief money bags, the person who can make the money decisions for studio technology but doesn't actually know that much about how the studio operates. And this is one of the things we talked about earlier in this episode, around the perceived value of the studio and so what do you see are some of the challenges the studio has today to communicate effectively with sea level stakeholders and what are some of the things that you've learned about how to have those conversations in ways that can help them understand the value of the studio?

Scott Willson:
I think the biggest challenge is the lack of metrics and analytics numbers because it's really difficult for a number of reasons, but it's difficult to say that a certain type of shot generates a certain conversion in sales. It's really tough. There are ways to do it on a real surface level, but for the most part, there's so many variables. It's like, well, yeah you shoot it on model as opposed to on a forum and the on model shot does well in the styles that you surveyed. But does that mean that, was the model the same? Was the color the same? Did people get pushed to that PDP from an outside source?

Daniel Jester:
Right. Did you have a very effective paper click campaign for that product?

Scott Willson:
Yeah. It gets to the point where it's like, yeah, it's interesting. And it might inform to a degree, but no one's going to invest seven or eight figures in production based on that. And that's really hard and especially gets hard when you get into things like doing more on model. Everybody wants it because anecdotally they think, well, it looks great. It just, people want to see things on a person rather than on a form or flat, but it's expensive, it's really expensive and so-

Daniel Jester:
Exponentially more expensive.

Scott Willson:
Right. Yeah. And to ask for that money, the people you're asking are people who are used to seeing things in a spreadsheet. It's just really difficult to do that. And the same now with video is, everybody wants more product video, but there's so many different kinds. So you just want to spin. You want someone talking about features, there's an infinite number of different types of product related videos. And no one can really say which one does the best. People can say which ones they like the most, that's another internal battle, internal meaning within the company that you're constantly having to make and then you just hope... I rely on two things.

Scott Willson:
One, I rely on the fact that the people I'm trying to influence positively in these different areas, they just understand that it's valuable, even beyond a sales perspective. It's valuable from a branding perspective, it's valuable from a marketing. It's the site visually looks different and that's valuable in itself. And then you also hope that anyone in that position has the respect of those people to basically say like, "Okay, I get, you don't have any numbers to back this up, but I trust you." And that's kind of what it comes down to as well, if you have a good track record.

Daniel Jester:
One of the things that you touched on that has come up in past episodes of this show is that to some degree, it becomes a little bit about fluency. You mentioned like having the data and metrics, you're absolutely right. Getting to conversion data for an image level can be difficult. And even one of the best ways to do that is to A/B test, but you still have to get the trust and engagement from E-comm teams and marketing teams to get an A/B test off the ground. A studio can't initiate an A/B test for imagery on its own. It's a huge project to do that, but it really does come back to, like you said, the fluency and having someone in a leadership position at the studio level that knows how to talk to their creative team and also knows how to speak that spreadsheet, data metrics language that the C level really only exclusively speaks if we're saying that.

Scott Willson:
Yeah. And also too, for us, most of my background has been working for in-house very similar companies, Patagonia in The North Face, I don't know, five years or so working for an agency and I was no longer the client, I was working with different studios. What interesting thing about when you're looking at websites, if you're with a wholesale company, if you manufacture the products yourself. You have your own website. That doesn't mean that if a consumer goes onto your website, they're always going to buy from your website. So they might go onto your website to get the most in-depth technical information or fabric or fit because they know it's your product. You're going to have the most information about that product, but they might want to buy from a local mom-and-pop, a brick and mortar, or they might want to go to a website that they trust that they can as more of a consolidator. So again, they might see content on your PDP and that influences their purchase, but they just don't make it from you, but we're still selling the product.

Daniel Jester:
Right. I think I may have actually done that. Now that you mentioned that the last time I bought a Patagonia jacket, I think I identified the one I wanted from Patagonia's website. For that reason that you described is that there was better images. There was more details that I wanted to know. I think I ended up going and buying it brick and mortar at REI because I either was going to get like some extra membership money back or I had a coupon or something. There was some reason I ended up going and buying the one I wanted from REI. But I made that decision from Patagonia, which, that's a phenomenon that has been like, E-comm has been trying to figure out.

Daniel Jester:
E-comm as a broad industry has been trying to figure out how do we capitalize on that or capture that information in some way where you're doing your research online and then going brick and mortar to make the purchase. And I think part of the reason for that, I don't know if this was the reason for me, but part of the reason for that is that instant gratification, because even with two day shipping, it still is like, we all now feel like three days of shipping is too long to wait for something because Amazon Prime has destroyed our patience.

Scott Willson:
Yeah. And we just, for us we look at stuff like that in terms of where do you put the content? Where do you put the information? It's usually either product that historically has done well. So it's already a prioritized product or something that is new or newer or something that we really want to put push that has a lot of information that needs to be told. It's not a t-shirt, there actually is something that would influence your purchase if you knew this additional information. And so those products for us are always prioritize. They get more content, they get more shots, they might get one or more videos.

Daniel Jester:
So I want to shift the conversation again a little bit as we're talking about sort of the unique nature of the E-comm studio and what that means internally and externally to our partners. One of the things about E-comm and about needing those rails and needing all those variables and decisions to be in control allows us to really easily implement some of the concepts of flow production. So something that resembles an assembly line, but for creativity. You have a person who unpacks the thing, maybe has someone else who preps it. And the product moves from stage to stage through the process until the assets are created. And one of the issues with this for attracting talent is that it doesn't feel creative. There's still creativity there.

Daniel Jester:
You have to work a little harder to find it. There's the execution of the image that still is a very creative and inherently creative process, but it lacks the collaboration of an editorial shoot and it lacks the external stimulus and the response to variables and it lacks... I think one of the things that lacks Scott is that moment of getting a shot that everybody loves that wasn't planned, that doesn't happen in the E-comm studio. So in your mind, understanding this is a challenge. What are some of the ways that we can kind of think about creativity in the E-comm studio to help encourage our creatives to embrace that a little bit more?

Scott Willson:
We're actually, it's pretty germane. I mean, we're working with that as well in the studio is trying to find additional outlets for those who want that. Not everyone who works in a studio really wants to expand their creative voice or anything like that. And so we identify those who do, we try to do some cross training. So someone within one department will go and help someone out a day, a week or a couple hours a week. And there have been a couple of instances where that cross training has led to someone actually moving into a different role, roles that are actually needed, but they actually were able to move into it. The growth, especially with a smaller studio and one where there's not a lot of turnover like ours, it is tough in order for someone to move up into an area with maybe more creative responsibility, either the company has to be growing at a rate that we're expanding the size of the studio so spots are opening naturally or someone else has to move up.

Scott Willson:
And so there's always that where someone has to be continuing to move, to create open spots. And that's a challenge. I think what we have done, and this is just kind of how I've laid out the studio was that we have the E-comm photography, which makes up, let's say 70% of the volume of our work. And that has to stay on a schedule. You can't have bombs dropping in every couple weeks with a new project stopping the E-comm train and then having everyone move over to this other kind of cool creative project. And then, so let's say 20 to 30% of the projects are more creative. We still get a direction from a designer, but it allows our creative directors and stylists a little bit more flexibility in what we do.

Scott Willson:
We do have guardrails, we don't reinvent the wheel creatively with photography in the studio because Patagonia just has a style and we stick within that, but there is freedom within there to do some pretty cool, fun, innovative things. And so, one way that we did that was actually to separate the two processes completely, basically now have two teams. We have one team that focuses on E-comm and one that focuses on everything else, that's catalog, type shots and things for retail stores. Sometimes those projects come in once or twice a month and the team that's dedicated to those creative projects that's enough bandwidth for it. But there are maybe two or three times a year when you have six to eight weeks, you maybe have 20, 25 projects that are creative like that based on different categories. So have a fishing team wants a bunch of shots and then you have sportswear, all the teams want more elevated creative content to promote.

Scott Willson:
We actually then have the opportunity to pull in some of the E-comm team to help. And so ideally we try to get as ramp up quickly and E-comm as quickly as possible. So we get a lot of shots in the can the first couple months. So when those other projects come in, we're caught up enough that a stylist can work under the project for a couple days just to keep them fresh. So that's one thing and that's really just structurally how we did it.

Scott Willson:
And then another is we allow the stylist to go in and take a day, a week, a day, a month, whatever they want to just spend time styling things that are not within the normal Patagonia framework. Just let them go. It's like take a product. Is there something that maybe you're not as skilled on, a styling technique that we do normally you're not as skilled? Well, take some time and just play with it as much as you want. We give them a set, give them a product, let them run with it. Or if there's something that they just have always wanted to try, that we don't do yet, let them try that. And it might be something that we actually do integrate into the broader portfolio of work.

Daniel Jester:
I love that. I think it's great to have those opportunities. It makes sense. The resources are already there. You've got space, you've got equipment, you've product. It's like, why not give them a little bit of an opportunity to play and to have some creative fun, understanding that we are there to do a job, everybody's there to do a job and get paid for that job.

Scott Willson:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
I love that you offer that opportunity. I want to ask you as we're getting ready to kind of wrap up the conversation here a little bit, you mentioned the Patagonia Studio has pretty low turnover, and I'm curious if you have any theories as to why that is because that's not super typical in the industry. We're looking at usually I think a lifespan for a photographer or stylist of two, maybe three years on the outside to stick with one company with one studio. Why do you think it is that Patagonia has good retention of talent?

Scott Willson:
Not to go too deeply into all selling Patagonia, but it's a great company, that the people are great. They really value everyone. And I think we all saw that above and beyond during the COVID and still today, what they've done to make life as normal as possible for all of us. The other thing too is that, there are a lot of people in that studio who've been there for 20 years.

Daniel Jester:
Wow.

Scott Willson:
Probably half a dozen that are close to that. So it's a great place, it really is. And that's all it comes down to is just, is allowing people the freedom. And it's not me. I'm like, I'm not taking any credit for it.

Daniel Jester:
Sure.

Scott Willson:
It's what the company has developed. And it goes across all departments.

Daniel Jester:
That's a whole other podcast episode unto itself.

Scott Willson:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
Because my experience has always been that the people who made great careers in photography for themselves, before for the 2008 recession had a pretty hard time, sometimes adapting to the new wave of E-commerce production studio. But it's powerful to say that working for a company like Patagonia that really takes care, this is, I think was true of Nordstrom as well. That if you work for a company that you really believe in and they take good care of you, that you can weather some pretty extreme changes to your job because you have that sense of faith that your company is going to look out for you.

Scott Willson:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
Scott, it's been a pleasure having this conversation with you. We're just about to bump up against time for this episode. Is there anything else that you want to add? Any final thoughts? Can people connect with you on LinkedIn if they want to learn a little bit more about you?

Scott Willson:
They can find me on LinkedIn. That's probably the best place. I'll big caveat, I don't live on LinkedIn. So, if you go in there and you send me email, give me some time.

Daniel Jester:
Sure.

Scott Willson:
Honestly, I don't check it regularly.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah.

Scott Willson:
But yeah, that's probably the best place. For me really the most important thing in diving into all of this is, it really does communication. I probably don't want to or am overstating this, but COVID, the lockdowns and everything really proved to me and to our team that you can do some pretty incredible things with really limited resources if you just kind of slow down, think about what you're doing, have a plan, communicate and trust each other.

Daniel Jester:
Beautiful. Scott, thank you so much for coming on the show today and for sharing your insight. We'll see you next time. We'll see you soon.

Scott Willson:
Sounds good. Thanks a lot.

Daniel Jester:
Here we are. On the other side of another episode of the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast, as always, we would love for you to let us know what you think of the show. You can leave us a star rating or review if your podcast app of choice supports that. And you can also email us at podcast@creativeforce.io. The show is produced by Creative Force edited by Calvin Lands. Special thanks to Sean O'meara and Scott Wilson. 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.