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Successful Outsourcing for Your Lean Creative Studio with Brian Guidry of Pixelz

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full transcript of the episode

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, my name is Daniel Jester, and this is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. On the show today we have Brian Guidry. Brian is a partner at Pixelz, which is a post-production firm founded by the same team that founded Creative Force, who produces this podcast. Brian is on the show to discuss some tips for success in building a relationship with an external service provider, and why you should care about the teams that do the work behind the scenes in post-production. Welcome to this episode of the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast, my guest today is Brian Guidry of pixelz.com. Brian how are you?

Brian Guidry:
I'm doing fantastic. Thanks for having me.

Daniel Jester:
Thanks for coming on the show. I want to talk with you a little bit today about the idea of outsourcing parts of your creative production process. You work for Pixelz. For listeners that may not know, Pixelz is an outsource service provider for post-production, all different levels of post-production. And as you and I, Brian, have talked in the past about the future of the e-commerce studio, and what outsourcing of some of these tasks might look like, so why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about you leading up to your time with Pixelz?

Brian Guidry:
A little bit about me. So I've been in retail now for about 20 years. I've had several different roles, everything from accounting to biz dev, to global sourcing, and I've actually jumped ship now over on the Pixelz side where I'm running global sales. So I've worn a lot of hats over the years, but I spent, I would say, the majority of my time actually outsourcing physical production in the fashion industry. My backstory really goes back to trying to work with vendors overseas, really understanding the best ways to produce garments at scale. And ironically, I brought that over on the digital side, and I will say that Pixelz is not your typical outsourcing company, we probably should've started with that. But definitely, we have a large footprint overseas, and obviously we're leveraging a lot of technology as well and we're trying to bring that to the table.

Daniel Jester:
So Brian, when we're talking about outsourcing, and based on the work history that you've given us there, you've got a lot of experience outsourcing physical goods, and now with Pixelz, it's digital goods really. But there are some common things I think, and you've shared with me in the past, I'd love for you to touch on the show around ways to think about outsourcing, whether it's physical or digital, some of the things that you want to look for when you're looking to develop a partnership or a relationship with another company to help support your own business. When you think of a successful program, outsourcing whatever it may be, what do you think are some of the top takeaways on ways to make sure that you're setting yourself up for success?

Brian Guidry:
Well, number one for me always, and this goes back, let's say 10, 15 years now working with outsourcing relationships, it does come down to, I think, a partner mindset of not just looking for the short-term or, "Hey, can I find a solution for this season?" Of course, that stuff does come up, "I've got a backlog, or a bottleneck, or I need to create some new collection," and you need to find a partner to do that, I get that. If you are going to go down the outsourcing route, I think really taking the right approach and really approaching vendors and evaluating them the right way, it makes all the difference.

Brian Guidry:
So looking for a vendor that you can grow with, that can essentially be an extension of your team, I think for me, that's fundamental. So there's a lot of pieces to that. There's communication, there's trust. I think those are the pillars of where the relationship is going to begin, and then of course you get into all the other details of quality, price, and speed, and things like that. But really at the beginning, it all comes down to me, it's about the communication and trust you're going to build with the vendor from day one.

Daniel Jester:
So saying you start to develop a relationship with some of these potential partners, you have meetings with them, and initially you want to learn structural things about this potential partnership, their ability to scale like you're talking about, but you also want to get to know who they are as a company, and what their values might be, and make sure that that aligns with your values. One interesting thing that you mentioned to me in a past conversation is there's a lot of focus put on supply chains of physical goods, a lot of focus put on outsource providers or raw material providers, or understanding where these materials came from, who produced them, and under what circumstances they were produced.

Daniel Jester:
And that's not really something that we tend to see on digital based partnerships with something like photography. And I was really intrigued when you mentioned that to me in a prior conversation about we should care about digital outsourcing in the same way that we care about outsourcing physical goods, knowing who's doing the work, knowing under what circumstances it's produced. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Brian Guidry:
I don't know if I would say that pertains only to digital outsourcing, I think it really comes down to any partnership. I think in the fashion industry dating back 30 years now with some of the big scandals that have really pushed the industry forward to make sure that there's certification programs in place and really in-depth audits that even happen... Even before, when I was working for one of the largest fashion brands in Spain, we couldn't even set foot into a factory floor unless it had been approved by our CSR team, and they had gone through a bunch of different checks and balances to just say, hey, we can actually even begin the conversations.

Brian Guidry:
I think with a lot of other vendor relationships, yes, digital outsourcing is part of that, but it goes, I think, much further. It's just that CSR really isn't brought into the conversation. That's in my experience, of course. We work with thousands of brands, and the reality is there's very few that bring CSR into the conversation when it comes to a digital relationship. So I think it doesn't really have the mindshare that a physical, let's say, supply chain manager or procurement manager is going to have when they're thinking about these services.

Brian Guidry:
And I guess that does make sense for things like software, but if you start peeling back layers, there are people and organizations, and oftentimes multiple tiers of organizations behind these companies. And there's a reason why things cost a certain price or things are so cheap. If you keep peeling back layers, you realize, hey, there's a reason why that things are like this. And I think it's super important that the same due diligence is done when you're choosing a digital vendor than if you're going to be working for an apparel manufacturer, right?

Daniel Jester:
Right.

Brian Guidry:
Obviously there's a lot of differences there, but I think it does come down to that transparency piece and really understanding who you're working with.

Daniel Jester:
Brian, my personal experience with some outsource post-production providers is that sometimes it can feel extraordinarily transactional and that there may or may not be even a human person behind these services. There's one service in particular that I've used in the past, and to give a little bit of background, I was shooting some very challenging product. I was shooting houseplants, air plants, succulents, things that are very, very complex silhouettes. And I needed to be able to drop those out onto a white background, and it was the kind of thing that I would load those images into a post-production service, and they would come back with a quote of like $10 an image to drop that out onto a white background, and it was just way out of my budget to do that.

Daniel Jester:
And I found a service, that's all they did, put it on a white background, they give you back a flat file. There was no way even to communicate what it was exactly that I wanted. I just uploaded the images, I paid, they came back and they were like 95% what I needed, there was a handful of hiccups here and there. And truth be told, because my budgets were so tight for this, that's the way that I had to go, but I never really felt comfortable with it because I just didn't know anything about the company. I didn't know if I was going to get the images back, period. There was zero communication.

Daniel Jester:
What differentiates Pixelz? I know from my experience with Pixelz and the kind of email transactions that I've had, and just the questions that I get from representatives around jobs that I might upload that really make me think that they're looking at and thinking about my project. But tell me a little bit from your end behind the scenes, what are you guys thinking about when you receive a batch of images from a client? Does it stem from around, "Do we just do the task?" or are you looking at it and you're thinking, "How do we make this the best it can be for our client?"

Brian Guidry:
First off, Daniel, you're not alone with feeling maybe a little frustrated with the process or maybe even getting into some black box communication with a vendor. I'll say 99% of our customers are coming to us pretty frustrated and they've experienced just that. Okay, you upload your images or you send them to whoever is going to be doing retouching for you, you cross your fingers, you wait 24 hours, probably 48 hours, you get them back and then the real work begins. That's when you need to review them, you're probably reviewing them in Bridge or Lightroom, mistakes you're marking those up on a PDF then trying to communicate aesthetics via email, or Skype, or something like that, and then it-

Daniel Jester:
If you're even able to.

Brian Guidry:
If you're even able to. And I think that's where, when you go down that path, of course you can go after the cheapest price. But when you think about the amount of time... Even in your case, you mentioned you're spending, let's say that you got 95% quality, but how much time were you spending on the 5% to perfect those images? I would probably bet it was much more than $10 that you were willing to pay per image, if you think about opportunity costs, and those are real costs that often just go unnoticed.

Daniel Jester:
True. That's a great point.

Brian Guidry:
I mean, just from day one, we're trying to set our customers and also our relationships up for success. So just extreme transparency when it comes to expectations. So we actually create a style guide in your system, you know exactly what we're going to be getting you, we don't have a lot of subjective retouching notes in there. It's like, "Hey, I know exactly what I'm going to get." That's actually built into our system, we have thousands of different retouching options that we can set up for you.

Brian Guidry:
And then throughout the whole retouching process, you can actually access your job at any time in real time and it will show you where things are, how many images have been processed. If you need to get something back quickly, click a button, we expedite it. When your job is done, you get an email automatically. You can go log in, do QA online. Everything is about speed, everything's about transparency and about making your life easier. So we're trying to bring the tech front and center and really just streamline that communication throughout the whole process, so it isn't that black box that a lot of our customers experience.

Daniel Jester:
And when you mentioned setting up for success, with Pixelz that means going both ways, right? The successful relationship with your customers, but also successful relationships with your internal stakeholders, the people who are doing the work and your teams that are spread out global, right?

Brian Guidry:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
I mean, Pixelz probably employs teams globally. And one of the things that I appreciate about Pixelz from that point of view is that that's something that I know and I can see that in the brand, is how you treat your employees and how you treat your clients, it's obviously a philosophy.

Brian Guidry:
It's baked into our culture. As you know, Pixelz was founded in Denmark, I think just how we treat our employees and the quality of life of all of our employees, whether that's in Vietnam, or in California, or in Copenhagen, it's been front and center for our company from day one. So if you go out to some of our production facilities in [inaudible 00:11:56] or in Hanoi in Vietnam, we have beautiful production facilities over there. We're working with best in class tech, best in class talent. It's not something that we're cutting quarters on at all.

Brian Guidry:
So we're extremely proud about the footprint that we have globally and everybody that's working for our organization. We do also invite our customers out to visit our production locations, if they can make it, obviously a little bit more difficult in 2020. But we've done that on a handful of occasions and now our customers are blown away with the setups that we have overseas.

Daniel Jester:
I'm looking forward to my invitation-

Brian Guidry:
Anytime.

Daniel Jester:
... when possible.

Brian Guidry:
Anytime, anytime.

Daniel Jester:
A natural place to take this conversation from there is that Pixelz is not off the charts expensive, and part of that is because of the technology that you're able to leverage to do some of the heavy lifting work on a lot of these images. So if I send you images for my client and I need you to do [inaudible 00:12:51] I need you to put it on a white background, I need you to do a drop shadow, and I want you to do some skin cleanup and things like that, how much of that is tech that you guys have developed and how much of that is handed off to one of your best in class skin retouchers, let's say?

Brian Guidry:
So everything is going to be custom, really depending on the style guide that you send us. So again, depending on the actual work that needs to be performed, we'll break that down into our system and then we're going to leverage, hey, can technology do this? That's always the first question. Is it our own AI? Is it a script? Is it actions? We're really trying to bring a whole different set of tools to the table when we're looking at the creative work that needs to be done and we're trying to find the most efficient way to do that.

Brian Guidry:
So let's say maybe Daniel you're sending me something that needs to be done 100% with a professional retoucher, that's fine, our system can handle it. But let's say you want to... We can go back to those mugs that you mentioned. If we want to just knock the background of the mugs, of course we have our own AI that's going to knock the background on that automatically as well. So it's about really being agile in that process and then really trying to leverage technology as far as it's going to take us. And that's really how we're able to deliver consistent results for our customers, it's that hybrid approach of let's push technology as far as possible, and then, hey, as a fallback, we can leverage a pretty large team of professional retouchers.

Daniel Jester:
Brian, in your experience, once you've established these relationships and you've built these programs and you've got a partner that you can trust, what are some of the ways that you can continue to foster that relationship and to grow communication and things like that? What in your experience is some of the ingredients to a great long lasting partnership with a vendor?

Brian Guidry:
I think going back to one of the original points that we touched on, it's just the transparency piece, and I think transparency both for good and bad. One of the things that we do at Pixelz, we actually have a dashboard right when you log into your accounts called Pixelz Pulse, and you are seeing your service level agreement in real time. So number of images that have been delivered on time, what is your first time approval rate, what is your average delivery time. It's holding ourselves accountable for the service that we're delivering up against, and it's also giving you the peace of mind that you're going to get the work that you need.

Brian Guidry:
But I will say, it's not often, but there can be days where you're going to get a reject, maybe there's a late image, but I think just really having data and transparency front and center at a relationship is key. We're not trying to hide that. Actually, it's something that we're trying to leverage that data every single day to improve. So yes, maybe there's a couple of bad days during the year, but that's actually something that's empowering our team to try to get better. So it's something we put front and center to our customers and I think it is a big reason why we have very long standing relationships with a lot of brands these days.

Daniel Jester:
I don't think that that goes unnoticed by companies with certain management philosophies, which is that we want to empower our teams to crave feedback and data because they know it's going to be used to make their jobs better and make their lives better at work. Understanding that when you're talking about SLA or any of these metrics that we use to measure our teams, it's not about trying to figure out who's falling behind so they can get cut loose, it's really about what can we do to improve this process, which will thereby improve the metrics and hopefully make people's jobs easier to perform.

Brian Guidry:
Exactly.

Daniel Jester:
I think that that's a really important way to look at it. As you and I both know, Brian, there have been these watershed moments in creative production and then, I mean, production across the board, these moments impact all of retail and all of commerce in a lot of ways, but in my world in creative production, there's very specific impacts one being the 2008 recession and the way that that changed the way that we think about budgets, the way that we operate studios, the focus that we put on certain metrics over others, and then now the pandemic in 2020, and I think we're going to see similar shifts in a lot of the ways that we do things in response to this.

Daniel Jester:
In your opinion, Brian, what do you think we're going to see on the other side of the pandemic? Are we going to see a shift more towards leaner studios that are outsourcing more, whereas leading up to 2020, I think there was a shift to do more in-house, at least that was my experience. In some of the companies that I worked for we were building big in-house programs. From your insight with Pixelz and just the trends of Pixelz business, where do you think we go in a post pandemic e-commerce world?

Brian Guidry:
I'm smiling right now with your reference to 2008 budget. I remember those glory days back in 2005, 2006, the entourage, traveling around the world.

Daniel Jester:
Traveling around the world, five shots a day, and that was it. And then you were three days in Greece, you had five shots to do, and that was it.

Brian Guidry:
I mean, obviously since the industry is flipped upside down a lot has changed. I think we have seen a general trend over the last several years, like you mentioned, of really a shift towards building up in-house studios, if that means every processes is in-house or not. I mean, I think we talked to literally hundreds of studio managers, so we've seen it all. I definitely think that we're seeing definitely a focus on speed, probably time to market, studio manager's ability to beat deadlines is front and center.

Brian Guidry:
And so there's complexity as supply chains are in flux and we don't know if things are going to be delivered on time. Like we have seen the studio manager's role be appended and really they're at the whim of a lot of other departments and if samples don't come in right and things are delayed, it's like, okay, now we're just basically wreak havoc on the studio.

Brian Guidry:
So we have seen a big shift towards, okay, we need to figure out agile ways to get through backlogs, we need to be extremely fast when it comes to both shooting product and also getting it through post. And then the question of whether you're going to staff up an in-house team or outsource, I think it comes down to each brand and then also the aesthetic that you're trying to achieve in the studio. For us, we still consider a lot of brands, they'll maintain, they'll say decent size retouching teams in-house, and it's really a competitive advantage for them. It's not something we're trying to replace or even offset, we're doing a lot of subjective, a lot of more value-added retouching in-house. And we're essentially just complimenting that we're going to be doing a lot of, let's say, the heavy lifting when it comes to basic retouching work.

Brian Guidry:
So I can't give you a one size fits all answer, but I'd definitely say that the general trend is definitely around speed and around agility, hands down. People are looking for ways to speed things up and of course a lot are also looking at the cost side of the equation as well.

Daniel Jester:
And you touched on an important thing that I think sometimes an overlooked way to approach post-production for your e-commerce studio is that it doesn't have to be all or nothing, you can employ a service like Pixelz, and I would recommend Pixelz over some of the other services out there for sure to do some of those heavy liftings, if you need the product path doubt, and you need to throw it on a white background and you want to maybe add a drop shadow to it, do some light cleanup and then bring it back in-house to do some of the more subjective things. That's a totally valid and possible workflow that you have people in-house sitting in Los Angeles, spending their entire day pathing outlines of coffee mugs, or do you want to let them do the part of the job that is more subjective, requires more decision-making and that you can have tighter control over because the path is the path, it's going to be what it is, and you can employ a service like Pixelz to do that work.

Daniel Jester:
And basically, my experience in a boutique service provider studio was that's exactly what we did. We employed a service to do the recurring things, and it was basically pathing out the product and delivering back to us a file with a specific layer structure that just got the work ready to have our in-house retoucher sit down and think, "Okay, what do I need to do to get this across the finish line?" Because that question is almost never the same, image to image it's almost never the same.

Daniel Jester:
So I'm glad that you touched on that because that's something I want our listeners who may be considering this move, studio managers who may be considering something like this, that it doesn't have to be all or nothing, you can figure out a blend of workflows that really works for you. And if you've got great production software that can support a workflow that requires both in-house and outsource post-production, then there really isn't very many good reasons not to do it that way.

Brian Guidry:
I think ironically, we actually do the exact same thing at Pixelz. So our digital production platform, it's called SAW, it stands for specialist assisted workflow. So when we receive a job, let's say it's an on-model retouching, we're going to look at the style guide that's given to us and we'll break that down into, let's say 15 or 20 different retouching steps. When we know exactly the work that needs to be done, we're going to leverage technology as far as it will go.

Brian Guidry:
So we will actually automate, let's say close to 60% of the entire retouching process from the start. That could be the masking, it could be the cropping, it could be the resizing, it could be the shadow of the things that you mentioned. And then our specialists are going to come in and they're going to do the things that technology can't. Like we're going to be working on, let's say skin on wrinkles, maybe on shaping silhouettes, and that's really going to then take those images to the next level.

Brian Guidry:
It's a hybrid approach, but like you're saying that studio managers are... It doesn't have to be a binary decision, hey, it's all or nothing, we're actually leveraging that ourselves so we can get you extremely far. Oftentimes we found that the best relationships it's like, if there's really subjective, if let's say e-com art director wants to come in and make subjective call-outs, that's totally fine, the brand can do that, they embrace it. Maybe that's actually going to take those images last mile to really make them stand out. We can get you 95% of the way there, and then if you want to make those subjective edits, hey, it's on you to do that. That's probably one of the real differences between outsourcing and Pixelz, we definitely consider ourselves doing a very different way. But I think there's a lot of power in that too, like you said, both at the studio level and then also how we're thinking about it when it comes to digital production.

Daniel Jester:
I definitely appreciate that sentiment because we're using the term outsourcing a lot, but really what we're talking about and in a situation like Pixelz is we're talking about essentially a strategic partnership and understanding that there can be a conversation and there should be a conversation about what are your needs. And I feel like I had to remind our clients of this a lot when I was with the service provider studio, which is that, "We're not here to be transactional, tell us what you need, tell us how we can support you. We know that we're taking your products and we're making photographs of it and then you're putting those on your website."

Daniel Jester:
"But you don't throw them into a magic box and out pop the images, let's have the conversation, what do you need, what can we do? Is there more that we can do? Can we do some of the legwork on our end when it's easier to do it, to set you up for success as those images hit your damn system or what have you?" Brian, thank you so much for your insight and sharing with us today, and hopefully we'll have you back as the podcast rolls on, we'll have you back and see where things are.

Brian Guidry:
Great. Thanks for having me.

Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode of the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. Many thanks to Brian for taking the time to talk to us today. You can learn more about Pixelz at pixelz.com. This show is produced by Creative Force. My name is Daniel Jester. Until next time my 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.