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Swinging the Pendulum of Cost and Quality with Mark Stocker of The Very Group

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:

Mark Stocker is senior creative manager for The Very Group, a collection of high volume retail brands based in Liverpool, England. Mark was a speaker at the Henry Stewart Photo Studio Ops Forum back in October of 2021, and we invited him on this episode to discuss how the industry seems to be peeling away from the lowest cost per shot possible and shifting to a true strategic business unit, capable of driving revenue in a more direct way. After all, it is the creative teams and the solutions they develop that will change the way we buy and sell digitally.

Mark Stocker:
We really need to focus on quality now, not cost saving. We can do cost saving with our eyes shut, and we know that to get better quality, that's where people come in, that's where the problem solving comes in, and I think that's why this whole culture is flattened out a little bit. I think what we need to now do is inspire.

Daniel Jester:
Let's get into it. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast, and I'm very happy and excited to introduce my guest for this episode, Mark Stocker, who is senior creative manager at The Very Group. Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark Stocker:
Hi Dan, thanks for the introduction. Nice to meet you all.

Daniel Jester:
Mark, you popped up at the Henry Stewart Photo Studio Ops Forum on a panel that I found really interesting. And we reached out to you to bring you onto the show, to have a conversation based on some of the things that you had mentioned in that panel. But first, tell me a little bit about your role at The Very Group, just a little bit about you and what you do there as senior creative manager.

Mark Stocker:
Over at The Very Group, I think the important thing to realize is we're a big e-commerce retailer and the kind of areas I look after are creative and studio based. I've got a couple of teams of graphic designers, my background is graphic design, and we've evolved as we've gone on, but my passion is the studio, the environment, and whole operational side of the workings of the studio. So, the kind of main area of focus is planning all the resource, the samples in and the quality of the content out. So with all the digital reproduction teams to make sure their images best represent the products that we sell.

Mark Stocker:
I've got over 20 years experience in the trade. I suppose another really important factor is we used to be a paper based business and we've rode the trail of this digital revolution and all the challenges that's brought as well, going from film to digital and how the studios have evolved through that too.

Daniel Jester:
So we had a great conversation, we met with you following up the Henry Stewart conference event. I mean, we talked about a ton of stuff and we kind of whittled it down to something that we wanted to talk about on the podcast. I'm going to frame it this way, we've talked a lot on this show about the evolution of the modern day e-comm studio and these sort of watershed moments that have informed and influenced to the way that we build these teams and budget for our creative teams and all of that stuff. One of the things that we've pinpointed is that after the 2008 recession, studios were obviously necessary to embrace e-comm. A lot of brands and companies and retailers started standing up in-house studios, but it became about how can we do this as fast as possible and as cheap as possible.

Daniel Jester:
And we got really good at it. Like as an industry, we got really good, costs per shot came way down. And now, we are several years into this, a decade and a half into this sort of modern day of eCommerce content creation. And we feel like if there isn't already, we feel like there needs to be kind of a pendulum swing. We know how to do it fast and cheap, but we also know that creative is going to be what changes the future of how we shop in e-commerce and how we shop digitally. And we need to see that pendulum swing from the studio being thought of as an expense, as a cost center for a business into this strategic part of a way to be competitive in everybody's respective industries, whatever it is that they sell.

Daniel Jester:
We had an incredible conversation about that. And that's kind of where I want to start the conversation is. We see this happening in some places, we've talked a lot about it on the show, this movement into strategic part of the business unit. Where is your team at The Very Group today? Where is the rest of the industry? How can we usher this into the future? Where we have really happy teams that feel like they're a strategic part of the business and how we think that's going to impact the creative?

Mark Stocker:
We're probably back into the middle. If you're thinking of that virtual pendulum, we're probably back into the middle, but with a very different mindset. What was really interesting about the Ops Forum and what really shone light on it for me is how similar are the studios are. I was being a little bit naive thinking, we're a little bit different, we're a little bit unique, but we're not. I think you cast your mind back to 2008 and later when we had massive teams of people traveling the world to shoot, we didn't do anything in house, everything was external, and there was almost a level of acceptance that, that's how much things cost and companies were okay with that. But as we started to see this online boom, particularly over in the UK, there was less and less catalog retailers, traditional catalog retailers, and more and more companies going online, things started to heat up and competition started to heat up.

Mark Stocker:
That's where cost started to become an issue. And to your point, I think retailers like ourselves realized that with the volume of throughput into a studio, why would you go external? Why would you not recreate that monster internally? And that's what we then did. And I suppose what comes with that is a little bit of ownership from a commercial point of view. If you own that studio, you can drive the cost down and that's what was deemed the important thing then.

Mark Stocker:
So, part one was bring it all in house, regain control, why pay someone else when you can pay yourself? Part two is then can we get excited and do that as cheaply as possible without losing quality? That was the journey we then went on year after year after year. And what that meant was massive investment in top tech and workflow systems and DAM systems. And it saddens me to say, but less focus on people. And I think up until pre-pandemic, I think that was the general culture in e-commerce studios. It was about the pound and it was how much could you churn through in a day and quality standards dipped.

Mark Stocker:
What the pandemic has done, it's really worked in our favor. I mean, it's been a traumatic couple of years, but what it's done is it's accelerated everything. If you'd have asked me three years ago, give us your strategy for the next three years, where you going to be in 2021? I would not say I would be sat in a home office managing a studio of 70 plus people, delivering best parts of a 100,000 products a year in this way.

Daniel Jester:
Right.

Mark Stocker:
But the pandemics forced that, and that would've been a strategy that may have lasted 10 years and there would've been a lot of pain through that strategy and a lot more cost saving.

Mark Stocker:
What the pandemic has done is accelerated and gave us that realization of, we really need to focus on quality now, not cost saving. We can do cost saving with our eyes shut. And we know that to get better quality, that's where people come in, that's where the problem solving comes in, and that's where the value of the resource, of the people and the commitment of the teams come in. So you've got to really kind of swing that pendulum back into the creative, I suppose, mind.

Mark Stocker:
At this moment, I think everyone's embraced change, everyone's recovered from that victim culture of everyone wants every ounce, you know, every penny's counted. I think that is slowly lifting and that refocus on what we're here to do, why are we actually taking the shots, who are we trying to please? We're not trying to save money. We're not, as I've just said and I repeat myself, we can save money now with our eyes closed. We've got to focus on the customer. What problems do we now have to solve for that customer? So we reference the size and fit. We have to take a great shot, that great shot has to sell a product. It has to do one or two things.

Mark Stocker:
First of all, it has to inspire. So you've got to really kind of make connection with a customer and make it relatable. But the second thing is they need to know what they're buying. They need to know the size, the fit, the color, how it's going to look, how it's going to make them feel. That is where the focus now comes in. So we've got a team of creative minds now sat in a studio, churning through, no disrespect, but with their eyes close to some respect.

Daniel Jester:
Right, yeah.

Mark Stocker:
Because they know what they're doing. We spoke about this, their well within the comfort zone because they've been doing this job fast paced through high volumes for many, many, many years. So they don't even have to think about what they do. And I think that's why this whole culture is flattened out a little bit. I think what we need to now do is inspire.

Daniel Jester:
What you're pointing out, I think it was our conversation that sort of gave me this realization and I feel like I've mentioned, I was on the path in an episode before when I talked to somebody, but we really have this incredible untapped pool of talent in this whole generation of creatives who grew up in this fast paced post 2008 studio environment who can produce high quality imagery with, like you said, with their eyes closed. Inside and out with whatever the cheapest equipment that they can find. They're so good at doing it. And we can now tap into that talent and say, what if we gave you more time? What if we gave you better equipment? What if we gave you twice as much time to do this? How much better could that quality be? How much more engaging could that image become?

Daniel Jester:
And the other thing that that leads into is looking to the future now. So we don't know yet. There's been a lot of speculation, a lot of speculation in this podcast. We don't know yet how the emerging technologies are going to impact e-commerce, but we do know that they're going to. We're going to find a way to use AR/VR, virtual try-on. We'll be shopping in malls in the metaverse I guess at some point in the future. But the bottom line is that what's going to drive, what's going to enable that is the creative content that our teams that we employ today in five years will be producing that content. So how do we invest in them today? That's a great question for you, Mark. Where do we me start?

Mark Stocker:
You know what? At first, when I heard that, I thought you've stitched me up with that question, Dan, but no, I think-

Daniel Jester:
I doubt it.

Mark Stocker:
No, honestly, because I think it's quite an easy one and I think it's going back to, I suppose you take any one of the individuals that we have and any other studio has, take them back to the college days and why they fell in love with the job they did. It wasn't to press a button on a camera, it wasn't to set some lighting up. It was to solve a problem.

Daniel Jester:
Absolutely.

Mark Stocker:
It was to create something beautiful. And whether that's on film, on digital, or in some kind of augmented space in the future, it doesn't matter. And I think what we now need to do, and this is why it's at the tipping point, we need to refocus on what they came here to do, rather than what they're doing now and to use that creative mind.

Mark Stocker:
Great example, we invested a lot of money three years ago into a huge distribution center and we put a team of creatives into the IT team to help them think, to help them solve the problems because the technically minded guys, they were brilliant at what they did, but they couldn't think outside of that box. And I think it's getting people out of the comfort zone, into that creative space, and using their creative minds. Again, it doesn't matter what the end result is, as I say, whether it's a photograph, whether it's augmented, whether it's tech, it doesn't matter. It's the thought that goes into it and the problem that it's solving for the consumer. And I think where we need to now start to refocus on is why we do what we do.

Mark Stocker:
We've got a session tomorrow, which I'm really excited about to reignite that spark within our studio space. We're down in tools for the day, we're coming off this hamster wheel, and we're going to do a reset, because we're going to talk about that and we're going to start to think about that big, why, why are we taking photographs for a customer? What does the customer need from them? How can we do things, not how can we take better shots, how can we do things better to solve that for the customer? And then how do we take ownership to drive something new forward and drive an effect to change? Because I think this is an industry that for many, many years has been a victim of change because of that pounds and pence, because of that cost saving. We've always been on the tail end of chops of your life and reduction in head count reduction in size of teams, workloads staying the same and everyone becoming very, very busy on this churn of a hamster wheel. And I think it's about taking that step back now and owning that change and taking that change forward with the power of the creative mind.

Mark Stocker:
We had a great session with Adobe a couple years back, which was entitled, The Robots Are Coming, and it was all around that one day all the buttons will be clicked for you, everything will be done for you, so what is our purpose? What is the purpose of a creative across the board? Didn't matter whether it was photography, design, product, what is the power of that creative mind? Now the pandemic shone a light on the importance of our outputs. We need to refocus on what is our core talent and skill and how can we put that in the right position in an e-commerce environment.

Daniel Jester:
For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about this recently and the idea of the creative and creativity. And you mentioned that it really is about problem solving, and I think that is the crux of it. I think when we think colloquially about creatives, we think about imagery associated with that. But in reality, I think anybody is creative who solves a problem and we happen to be in the unique position to say, here's the result of that problem solving is this image you get to look at or this video that you look at. I think the same thing about people who do sometimes like database management, if they've drawn themselves out a flow chart of where all of the data is going and where it's connecting, it's like that becomes now an aesthetic representation of that problem solving.

Daniel Jester:
Creativity, like you mentioned, it really is about problem solving and it does, I think the logical conclusion of any kind of automation and technology is going to be that there's things that you have to do that are repetitive and manual. And we talk about this in studios all the time, repetitive manual tasks should be automated. That's going to include pushing a button on a camera. That's absolutely going to include ... That's a repetitive manual task that truthfully doesn't have a value add other than the moment of capture, but that's not where that creativity lies. The creativity lies in everything leading up to that, leading up to that moment of capture and it becomes about the environment and it becomes about the slice of the environment that you see.

Daniel Jester:
And so in past episodes of this show, when we've talked about CG rendering of environments and at what point are we going to flip the switch as an industry from mostly captured imagery to mostly rendered imagery, the roles don't actually really change and the individuals and the creatives at play don't actually really change. It's just the moment of capture looks different. You're still creating an environment and creating a reality that is intended to resonate with your customer. It's just the way that we capture that image, looks a little bit different.

Mark Stocker:
It's the process, isn't it? You know, the outputs are the same, it's the solution for the customer. The problem is, what are we trying to do? How are we trying to do it, and what skills do we need to enable that? Then where does tech come in? But yeah, you're absolutely right. I mean, we're keeping a close eye on tech out there at the minute. It's really exciting. You've got this great big boom in AR CGIs. It's absolutely there. The quality of CGI is fantastic. Without sounding a hypocrite, the cost of it isn't and we still have to, you know ...

Mark Stocker:
To my previous point, we do cost with our eyes shut. It's ingrained into us now. So it's one thing that we are absolutely really close to, but why would you change that? And when the time is right, you look at the skills that we have today in a studio, whether it be styling, photography, retouching, you can absolutely align that to CGI, to AR. It's all translatable, it's all transferable, but you've got to own an effect.

Daniel Jester:
As of the time that we're recording this, it's Tuesday and we just released a new episode of this podcast and the one that we happened to release today was our episode with Rick Allen of Hogarth Australia. And in that episode, we touch a little bit on the LED backdrop, like the way that they used to film the TV show, The Mandalorian, where you have these like unreal engine-rendered environments that are displayed on an LED screen behind your talent. As opposed to going on location and shooting in a location, you can render these environments in real time.

Daniel Jester:
I'm curious to know if you, Mark, have given any thought to this. Like, I think we see that technology maybe in a studio before we see wholesale rendered environments, but that's also like huge equipment investments. So what is your kind of thought on that, or have you given it any thought? Are we going to see ... I mean, rendered products on their own is a given, that's going to be one of the first things that comes. We're almost there. It's just a little bit too expensive. But when we're talking about campaign imagery that looks like it's on this beautiful, impossible location, and it was shot in our studio on an LED background with a rendered backdrop that was moving and changing in real time.

Mark Stocker:
We've been on a bit of a journey through this over the years. I'll start with the easy one, and I think it's relatability. I referenced earlier, we used to shoot all over the world. We go to fantastic locations, our passports would have stamps from all corners of the world. It was brilliant. But you take it back to why we do that. It's not relatable to a consumer, to a customer, it's almost alien to them. And if there's one thing we've learned through the pandemic is how relatable content works. We're a UK based retailer. I mean, believe it or not, we used to be ashamed of where we're from. So we're from the Northwest of England, from Liverpool. And it was always seen as a bit of a stigma, but I think the pandemic has shone a light, and I reference a pandemic a lot in this because as I say, it's accelerated everything, but what it's done is it's shown a spotlight on our hometowns and our homes themselves. And people got so akin to seeing models in their home environment, celebrities in their home environment. It's acceptable to go on national TV on as a Zoom call now.

Mark Stocker:
So everything's more relatable and more real. So we've kind of, we've tested and trialed, and we've almost jumped on the back of that with the content that we now produce. So we don't go on fancy locations. We will send stuff to models' homes. We'll actually cast families instead of models, so it's even more relatable. Because they've got that dynamic, they've got that chemistry. And we take that across both our inspirational content, our big marketing activity, as well as our, in some respects, our gallery photography as well, but that's for fashion. And right now, I appreciate it's a bit of a trend, it's right for the moment. And after the pandemic, these trends, these moments may well be different. I'm sure we're about to see a holiday boom in the next 12 to 18 months when people are going back on beaches and to these far off destinations, but I still think that we need to bring it back home and we need to stay loyal to our own surroundings and celebrate our own locations and environment.

Mark Stocker:
But contradiction to that is what we do with our, I suppose, our home products. Because being a department store retailer, we've got a big focus on fashion, but we've also got a big focus on home. And I think that's where the real opportunity comes. I think we've got a studio now, which we can build up to 16 room sets in at any one moment. So we've got a massive set build operation. We're quite agile in the way we work. We're shooting for Christmas where we built a house indoors, we got snow scenes and with all our wizardry, it looked real. I believe that over time we can come away from that and we can use green screen, we can use LED screen and we can re-skill that current resource to be looking at what does rendering look like? What does LED screens look like, particularly with home product?

Mark Stocker:
The big problem that it poses is our products are made in the Far East and shipped over and it's not great for the environment, it's not great for lead times, it doesn't work for anybody. So we've got to be savvy at what we do with that and the cost of a sample, once that sample is shipped over in shots, a lot of the time, it can just be destroyed. And again, it's not great for the environment, so we need to be clever with what we do there. So I think that for home interiors, for furniture, I think there's massive scope to do all kinds of wonderful stuff with technology.

Mark Stocker:
I think for fashion, right now, I think home is where the heart is. And I think having real environments with real people is absolutely resonating with the customer. And then I suppose that ends quite nicely with the why that was referencing earlier. We can be a brilliant bunch creatives, but we can also be a dangerous bunch because we've all got opinions and we all have subjective opinions. “I don't like this, I don't like that.” And we can go on all day. We've got to hone it back to why we do what we do and it's for the customer. The more data and the more information we know about the customer, the more we can stay ahead with trends, whether it be the way we shoot, what we shoot, or how we shoot it.

Daniel Jester:
You brought up supply chains and the impact of sustainability on that. As an interesting call out, because that was one of the things that we talked about with Rick around rendering your environments is that there's a sustainability argument to be made for that, that you can do these things. Totally hearing loud and clear what you're saying that point in time now, it's not really necessarily what's working for the customer, but in the future that likely will change. But it's an interesting way to think about supply chain. Unfortunately, it's the topic for another episode and probably an entirely different podcast, but I think we're probably going ... The way that supply chains are looking right now, I think we're probably going to see a reckoning in that part of our world as well. And we aren't the supply chain e-commerce podcast, we're the e-commerce content podcast.

Daniel Jester:
So I'll leave that for the others, but I think that was very insightful, Mark. I think you're right on. You mentioned green screen and it got me thinking a little bit about the difference between the green screen and the LED screen. I think the main difference is around how your talent feels and how they're engaging with their environment and that's sort of the benefit to the LED screen versus the green screen, because we've been making like movies. If we go back to The Mandalorian thing, movies for a long time have been largely filmed in front of just green blocky rooms. But there's a difference in the way that you respond to an environment that you can actually see. And it reminded me of a conversation that I had, as of yet this podcast episode hasn't been released, but I wanted to get your thoughts on it as well.

Daniel Jester:
Our environment matters when it comes to producing our best work. The episode that I'm referencing, my guest was talking about injecting some of your brand. If you're a brand that has a very strong brand presence, that that presence should be felt in the studio. What are your thoughts on investing in our environments in a way that gets the best out of our creative teams and our talent?

Mark Stocker:
It's a hot topic for us at the minute. I completely agree with that. You need to be able to walk into a studio, into any building of that brand and know you are within that brand and you've got to live and breathe the culture, and that needs to resonate with the people as well. I'll be blunt. I don't think we're close to it yet within our setup. However, we're being heard, by our own internal teams and we're seeing the potential for a huge investment to get that across the line. You're right, it's the talent, it's the resource.

Mark Stocker:
Over in the UK, we're seeing this massive resource boom at the minute. People are trying to recruit everywhere, people are fighting for talent. We can't secure models, we can't secure freelance resource. We've got to appeal to everybody and people need to know what we're about and live and breathe that brand. And when they walk into our light box studio, they want to feel that, they want to feel the energy, they want to feel a youthful presence of the brand that we represent and the customer we represent. And what that means then is they will feel part of that brand rather than just coming to do a job and going home.

Mark Stocker:
I think when they feel part of it, you'll see more commitment, you'll see more engagement, you'll see us able to secure all that talent. It is a big talking point for us at The Very Group at the minute. I don't want to kind of say too much in case any of my colleague listen to this, but we're on a really positive journey with it. And I think it's something everyone should to embrace. I spend a lot of time in London. Every time I visit London, I will go and see another creative studio, another brand team, and I will ask to look around their space. We need to see and keep up to date with what's going on in London and use that as a benchmark and bring that to the Northwest.

Mark Stocker:
This is a podcast so no one can see me, but I'm 46 and a half, I'm not getting any younger, but myself and a colleague went to an agency in London only last week, Studio 180. It was a shared space used by TikTok and other massive global brands, and we felt like dinosaurs. We're always proud of where we come from, but we walked in there and we felt like dinosaurs. The energy, the vibrancy, the way people collaborated, worked together. And it was all fueled by the space. And it was really impressive to see.

Mark Stocker:
You've got to have the space. However, you've also got to have the right mindset as well. You can have the best space in the world, but if the people still aren't feeling it, it's got to be a harmony between the two. You got to have that culture of empowerment. You could have a fantastic space, but if someone comes in and all of a sudden, they get told to go and sit at that studio and produce 70 shots in a day, and you're not going home until it's done, they're not even going to see or use the space. So it's the balance of the two is what I'm saying. You've got to have a fantastic space, but you've got to have a culture that gets the best out of the people in that space. And then you'll retain talent and you will grow talent.

Daniel Jester:
You're really validating me, Mark, because I believe I said something almost exactly like that in our other episode with our other guest, which is that you're absolutely right. I have lived experience of running a studio in a very challenging space that was environmentally challenging. We were in a fulfillment center, we didn't have an enclosed studio within the fulfillment center. So we were at the mercy of all of the sounds and grime coming from ... For our listeners, cardboard boxes in fulfillment center create their own climate. They rub together, they create dust, it's crazy. I recognized that we really needed to do right by our creative team in order to convince them to keep coming back to this really challenging space. But by the same token, I've been in spaces like you're saying that are gorgeous, but the teams are dysfunctional and they're not being heard and they're not being supported.

Daniel Jester:
And so it really is a balancing act that you have to achieve. And once you achieve it, you're set. If you've got the right culture, the right support for your teams in terms of the way that you treat them and the way that you behave and the way that you develop them and a space that they can really feel in harmony with, sky's the limit at that point.

Mark Stocker:
Yeah.

Daniel Jester:
As we get ready to wrap up this episode, Mark, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions sort of in closing, and it's going to be same question but two different kind of perspectives for it. What are some things that you think studio leadership can do today immediately to invest in their teams and invest in the future and what do you think is an investment that they need to be thinking about making for the long term future of where we think technology and e-commerce is going to go?

Mark Stocker:
To answer your first question, I think my advice would be you got to get off this hamster wheel. We've got to get out of this churn of shots per day and how do we solve that. And I think that if there's one thing people could go away and do today is to try and solve that. And I think by solving that, you get that harmony of culture and environment and people and you get all the rewards that come with that. So I think that's the easier one.

Mark Stocker:
I think in terms of future, it's not to fear change. Let's not be a victim, go out there and talk to tech companies, understand and suppose embrace tech as an enabler. To you point, Dan, the buttons will be clicked for you one day. Let's celebrate that and okay, if the buttons are clicking, what am I doing? And go own that change. And I think everyone should just start to build strategies around that and not avoid it. I think if people bury their heads in the sand with it and don't look to the future and what tech's going to bring, I think they'll very quickly become a victim.

Daniel Jester:
Excellent insight, Mark, and I want to thank you so much for coming on the show and having this conversation with me. I know it's getting kind of late in the day over on your side of the ocean, but appreciate your time and your insight and it was really ... We had not met before we connected to do this podcast, so I really am thankful to have the opportunity to meet and speak with you.

Mark Stocker:
No, it's been an absolute pleasure, Dan, I've really enjoyed it. Again, I'll repeat what I said before, it humbles me to realize that we're on the other side of the world, but we're facing to the same problems, we've got the same mindset. It's great to hear you. So yeah, it's been an absolute pleasure.

Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode. Many thanks to our guest, Mark Stocker, and thanks to you for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lance. Special thanks to [Shawn Almira 00:30:22]. 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.