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Talent Retention and Growth with Josie Diamond of John Lewis

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:

It's not an uncommon idea that the tenure of a creative team member in an e-commerce studio tends to be short, typically two to three years. It's easy to understand how this idea persists because creative production for e-commerce can be quite repetitive, especially if you're a full-time employee shooting or styling day in day out. Changing teams, studios or brands can help keep things interesting for a career product photographer or other creative role. What if we in the studio challenged this idea? What if we create policies and culture that encourages retention and in fact rewards it? It's easier said than done, but Josie Diamond and I have a lot to say about it.

Josie Diamond:

We're also then opening up the floor for people to have progression. If more senior roles become available, nine times out of 10, I would've thought if someone's got the skills, you'd help them kind of build up towards the next step. There'd be a really prime candidate for that. So the longer you can keep people, the more avenues you open up for them, both in-house, but also for your own team longevity, I suppose. If you're trying to build a senior team, it's always perfect in some ways.

Daniel Jester:

On the day that we recorded this episode, it occurred to me that after the pandemic I've been out of the studio for going on almost three years. So I got to thinking, "Is this still true?" And certainly, I feel that we still have this perception. I've talked to people about this two to three year perception, but I started thinking, "Is this still true?" So today, I posted a poll on my LinkedIn and the responses have been pretty surprising to me. One of the answers was four or more years as the longest time spent in a single studio in creative production. Now, most of the respondents as you look through them are pretty senior level roles, in some cases, managing directors, directors, even VPs.

Daniel Jester:

And so that makes a little bit of sense to me, but I'm really curious to see how it's going to shake out as time passes, as more answers come in, what the reality of the average tenure in a studio is. So that's enough of me up top, too much probably. Let's get to Josie. This is The E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I'm your host, Daniel Jester. Joining me for this episode, Josie Diamond of John Lewis. Hi Josie. How are you?

Josie Diamond:

I'm good. Thank you. How are you?

Daniel Jester:

I'm very good. We just got done having a long talk about our shared experience in very hot weather. You and the UK, a little bit different from my experience. Still very hot weather on both sides, but the implications are a little different in the UK than in Southern California.

Josie Diamond:

Very slightly. Well, Matt, maybe a bit more than slightly, but we like to freak out about the weather, whether it's good or bad.

Daniel Jester:

It's a good thing that our topic on the episode today is HVAC and cooling systems for studios, which I know that you're an expert in now. No, I'm just kidding. That's not what [inaudible 00:03:06]

Josie Diamond:

I took a degree in that. Yeah. I could speak about it for hours. Might actually [inaudible 00:03:11]

Daniel Jester:

You took a good degree to try to knock things down a few degrees. Hey. All right.

Josie Diamond:

Well done. Yeah. Good stuff.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah. It's early over here. So this is all the best you're going to get out of me.

Josie Diamond:

I like it. It was good.

Daniel Jester:

Josie, we had a really great conversation a few weeks ago talking about... We met for the first time in New York. I believe that was the first time that we met. Great conversations. You're a friend of the Kevin Mason, who I'm going to happily name drop on this podcast as one of the industry celebrities that I think everybody should know who they are. I was thinking about titling this episode, but I didn't. I was worried, Josie, that it would be too strong of wording for you. In our little outline document that I shared with you before the episode, there's a place for a working title. And sometimes that ends up being the title of the episode, sometimes it doesn't. But at one point, the thought had crossed my mind to title the episode, Challenging The Status Quo of Retention. And I was like, "Maybe that's too strong of a language for Josie."

Josie Diamond:

I like it. No. I like it.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah. Let's set the tone a little bit. I've been talking about on LinkedIn, I've had a couple of posts that were fairly popular with some people kind of commenting their thoughts on the ideas of retention in the studio. And there's been a persistent idea in the industry. And I definitely am somebody who has both embraced this, second thought this, participated actively in it by never staying at one studio longer than two or three years. But this idea that a life cycle of a creative employee in a e-com studio, seemingly e-com studios in particular but I think that this persists across a lot of different, various types of studios that exist out there. It just don't last longer than two or three years. And I got to thinking a while ago, is this something that we can't control or are we perpetuating it by just accepting it, and then not trying to do anything to retain employees in any meaningful way?

Daniel Jester:

And when you look at it through that lens, and I think you agree with me on this, Josie, when you look at it through the lens of, are we not doing anything? Are we accepting this and then not doing anything? You realize that there might be some things that you could do to affect this in a way that you retain employees a little bit longer. It's an interesting concept to talk about because there's a benefit to the studio and the team and the processes to have employees stay in one place longer, but it really is incumbent on the studio to make the employee want to stay, because what benefit is there to the creative, other than some stability, if you're not giving them career progression, if you're not giving them professional development? It's incumbent on the studio to make people want to stay. So let's open it up. Let's open up the conversation with that bold statement.

Josie Diamond:

I totally agree. And I think it's one of those things that you could actually argue both ways. Retention, to me, is obviously more of a benefit. I think in an ideal situation, you probably want about 50-50, because I think we've all probably worked with teams where you have people who get stuck in their ways, and that can be a hindrance. But I think for the most part, retention is a key thing, probably a metric that needs to be recorded a bit more. But yeah, for me, being able to keep people in a company for as long as possible, help them, support them, even try and get them ready for their next career even if it's not in your own company, only actually has a benefit for the company that you are working with. And that all to me primarily starts with your budgets, but also how can you think a bit more outside the box that people sort of thrive in your environment, I suppose. I don't know if that kind of resonates with what you're saying, but yeah, I think people like variety, people like to be expanding.

Daniel Jester:

It does make sense and it does resonate. And you threw a little bit of a gauntlet down there in one way, which is you're going to turn it into a metric. You're going to turn retention into a studio KPI. And all of a sudden, everybody's face gets pretty serious, right?

Josie Diamond:

Yeah.

Daniel Jester:

These are the things that arguably studio leadership care the most about, but the idea of it wouldn't be that hard to stretch a overall company goal and make the determination that at the studio level, that retention is critical to meeting the needs of that overall goal. If your organization, as a whole, has some, we talk about all the time, sort of like not fluid, what's the term I'm looking for? Semi-ambiguous, buzzworthy type goals, like become a leader of content in our space. One way to interpret that at the studio level is that how do we become a leader of content in our space, maybe one of the metrics and maybe one of the KPIs you want to start measuring in your studio is average retention of your studio team.

Josie Diamond:

Yeah. For sure.

Daniel Jester:

Maybe if you can bump it from three years to four, you get people who are there long enough building skills to help you drive towards becoming a content leader in your space.

Josie Diamond:

You're also then opening up the floor for people to have progression. If more senior roles become available, nine times out of 10, I would've thought if someone's got the skills, you'd help them kind of build up towards the next step. There'd be a really prime candidate for that. So the longer you can keep people, the more avenues you open up for them, both in-house, but also for your own team longevity, I suppose. If you're trying to build a senior team that it's almost perfect in some ways to be able to keep people in-house for longer because they have that background knowledge. And then I guess in terms of going back to the KPI point, if you've got an in-house recruitment team, there's a cost to having to recruit all of the time, or even if you use agency, there's a cost to that. It's probably quite quantifiable.

Daniel Jester:

First, let's just acknowledge that there are a couple of different ways to think about career development. To me, meaningful career growth in a space that could lead to increased retention in the studio is title and money, right?

Josie Diamond:

Mm-hmm.

Daniel Jester:

I know that there's a little bit of a difference between different regions, different sort of work cultures, but here in the United States, people put a lot of value on title and it can be important to them. And in some cases, even just something as simple as moving from a photographer to a senior photographer can mean a lot to somebody.

Josie Diamond:

For sure. Yeah.

Daniel Jester:

And then the other side of career development is the skills that you pick up along the way. And in some ways, they should be related. I think if you're going to go from a photographer to a senior photographer, stylist to a senior stylist, to me, that implies you've achieved some level of skill above and beyond somebody who was onboarded a month ago.

Daniel Jester:

And so sometimes that comes with skills, but another type of career development is opportunity, opportunity to work on projects a little bit outside of what you do in your day today and that kind of thing. Those two things, I think are, they're both sort of professional development, but those are the things that can be really powerful to impact retention in studio, but also really difficult because a lot of studios are pretty small. Even for some huge companies. The studios are pretty small. There isn't a lot of headcount, which means that to some extent, sometimes title becomes superfluous to your day to day because you still might be the only photographer in the studio.

Josie Diamond:

Yeah. Yeah. It's very similar in the UK. The progression in your title, as you said as well, the avenues open up, right, for your next move. But yeah, the head count thing's an interesting thing. It's something that I've experienced before just in teams that I've managed that yeah, you've only got a certain amount of roles that you can have. So if you land in one of them where there's no progression until someone else leaves, then you need to look at what your day to day looks like, right, to be able to then make it interesting. But also, your manager should really be doing this as well to make sure again, back to retention, that there's variety, there's opportunity and this person, whoever it is, or your whole team, feels like they're getting something back from the work that they're doing.

Josie Diamond:

I kind of think it probably goes down to your most basic human needs in terms of happiness, right? Is that you want to have opportunity, you want to have variety, you want to be trusted, you want to know that you kind of have a bit of bandwidth to experiment as well. And I think if you kind of take those needs and think about the studio or you think about the role itself that you maybe have in mind, if you can create the space for all of those to thrive, then I think you may have nailed retention as a KPI.

Daniel Jester:

Let's take a step back really quick. We got deep into some meaty parts of this tie with promotions and titles. I want to roll back to kind of what are some of the reasons that a studio should consider making an effort to retain? Let's say that some studio manager listener of this podcast is going to listen to this episode on their falling asleep tonight and they're going to wake up tomorrow a changed person and decide, "I'm going to go into my studio and I'm going to find out from my team what if we challenge this idea of retention?" There are definitely pros to this. If you're making a pros and cons list, there are a lot of good reasons why you should make some effort to retain people a little bit more. In your mind, Josie, and in your experience, what are some of those benefits that you see when you have a retention number that's higher than average for a studio?

Josie Diamond:

I think for me, just to start off anyway, the pros way outweigh the cons here, because I think you get so much more from keeping people your business for longer. I think number one that's probably a more obvious one is that in the event that you do come round to hiring next time around, the higher retention is so desirable for a new candidate. And again, with today's world, this is the most competitive market there is in terms of hiring at the moment. So if you've got solid evidence that you can retain a team, it's very attractive for whatever talent you're trying to bring in and we know how competitive this industry can get. So being able to bring in a great photographer or a great stylist, make up artist, or whoever that is, is going to be so key. So yeah, definitely retention being number one as a kind of attraction.

Josie Diamond:

But also, I was thinking about this the other day and I think social media's now playing a part in this too. I've for sure seen it on Instagram. You get these generic accounts that are like the art direction ones just for art directions around the globe, or I've even seen the buying accounts that they like to name and shame companies, but they also like to do the opposite and they like to say, "Where are the great places to work?" So if that is the new world that we are working in, then having your good or bad practices shared online will help or detract you from getting great talent, but it will also help you keep the talent you've got if people can see that where you're working is a great place. Yeah. I don't know. Have you ever experienced anything like that?

Daniel Jester:

I personally have put a lot of value in what my perception of an organization was. A great example of this is Amazon. At the time that I accepted the job with Amazon was around the time that I think the New York Times put out a report about working conditions at Amazon. And it was not a great report. And for one thing, Amazon is a huge company and within Amazon, many different parts of the company are sort of operated like independent businesses and product imaging is one of them. Product imaging was its own independent business. And I remember being questioned about this by people because they had read that story and then found out that I was moving across country to work for Amazon.

Daniel Jester:

And they said, "Are you worried about this?" And I said, "I'm not because I've been in the studio. I've met the team. I know who they are. I am very confident that this is a group of people that I will work well with and under and for." But the impression of what it's like to work for a company is a big one for me. And that's one of the questions. If I have an opportunity to ask other employees, and I remember very specifically, I'm going to name drop Joe Polifrone on this podcast. He was the guy that I shadowed for a moment on one of my interview days at Amazon. And I just asked him point blank, like, "Do you like it here? Do you like working here?" And surprisingly, I don't think I've ever had anybody ask me this question who was in the process of interviewing. And I've always wondered like, "Am I going to get an honest answer? Are they going to hedge? Or am I going to get this person's very honest opinion?"

Daniel Jester:

And I think in Joe's case, I think he did give me a very honest rundown of how he felt, because everybody feels differently in different days. You can have a bad day at a job you really like and not feel like you want to work there anymore.

Josie Diamond:

Yeah.

Daniel Jester:

Those impressions, I think, are really important to me, but then the other thing and just being like honest about it in how I thought about taking on roles, at least at a certain point in my career, it was also partially about sort of collecting trophies, if that makes sense. Having Amazon on your resume, I felt like was something to be proud of. Same with Farfetch, even though my tenure there was pretty short lived. This is a company that people know and want to work for. There's a little bit of trophy collecting element to it. So I think in that way you get sort of warped decision making. Maybe I feel a little weird about this studio, but I'm going to join the team anyway, because I want that name recognition on my CV at the end of the two years when I've served my time.

Josie Diamond:

Sure. I can understand that totally. And I think yeah, if perception becomes reality, great, but if your perception of a place is kind of skewed before you go there through whatever is happening in that environment, then I think that's a real key area that managers should be looking at because nowadays more and more goes online, in my opinion is a good thing, but it just opens it up to people to be able to see you as a prospective employer. And I think you can get a real sense of an organization by the people who are working there. And yeah, I agree. Probably a weird question to ask in an interview, but I have heard it before, where people would either ask me, "How long's your longest employee been there?"

Daniel Jester:

Oh yeah. So in that way, I have asked it like that. Yeah. When you put it that, I didn't think about that, but I have asked that question in that exact phrasing, like "Who's your most tenured employee here?"

Josie Diamond:

Yeah. If someone comes back to you and they're like 10, 15 years, you kind of have to think, "Okay. This should be a good environment. Right?"

Daniel Jester:

Yeah. The next question is I want to meet this person and make sure they're not crazy.

Josie Diamond:

Exactly. What area of the business do they work?

Daniel Jester:

Yeah. [inaudible 00:18:13] It's the equipment manager who never leaves the equipment closet and nobody knows exactly what he does in there.

Josie Diamond:

For sure. But yeah, I find that to be an interesting kind of figure, even from a personal perspective, if I'm going to speak to a prospective employer, I would quite like to know that. But yeah. And then I guess kind of going back to your question, why should we make an effort to retain people? Again, we said it before, but it's the knowledge, isn't it? You keep it within the team, within the business, a lot of projects, everyone underestimates that, I believe. But I think if you start a six month project, realistically, you're going to still be trying to figure things out and tinker things maybe 18 months into it. If you want to kind of keep knowledge, you want to keep developing, you want to keep progressing, whatever it is you're trying to work on, whether it's a process or project, anything, then having that person retained and in your team is going to allow you to progress further in my opinion. But yeah. And inform on business strategy as well. So yeah.

Daniel Jester:

Yeah. That's a great segue to what I think is one of the pretty effective policies. It's hard for me to say how much of an effective policy, how much it impacts retention. But one of the things, one of the bullet points for us to talk about, Josie, was programs or policies that helped increase retention for studio employees and creatives. At Amazon, we called it cost creative offset time. And the idea of cost I think was a great idea. There was some issues in the way that it was implemented because it was basically up to the studio managers at the individual Amazon studios and some managers, I'll be really frank about this, some managers took, I think an antagonistic attitude towards cost. You had a lot of concern. I should lay out what cost is. So the way that it worked at Amazon was that you got six days. I think it was six full days every year, every calendar year that we're paid by Amazon, that you could take cost time.

Daniel Jester:

And depending on the studio that you worked in, you could do whatever you wanted, but it was sort of like honor system that you were going to be doing something that creatively fulfilled you in some way. And then some studios were it was like, you could take creative offset time, but you still have to come into the studio. You have to have produced some image. If you're basically going into a studio using an empty set to test, do some test shoots, do some of this, some of that. And part of this was to support twice yearly portfolio review that Amazon did. And that's another thing that I really appreciated and was big in my decision making to join Amazon as a photographer is that they were interested in seeing a portfolio of your work, both work that you shot for Amazon. So in my case, it was tabletop products photography, but then also there's a whole section of the portfolio, what they called bar raising imagery that was expecting you to go out there and really push the limits of what you're able to do photographically.

Daniel Jester:

And cost time was intended to also support some of that bar raising imagery. So at some studios, they implemented it where if you want to take cost time, you have to put in your application. And then afterwards, you have to show what you did, show your work, but then you had some studios where the manager would say, "Look, this is your time to be creatively fulfilled. If that means going to a museum and spending time in the museum to get somebody, you can use it how you want to use it." I was personally in favor of putting fewer restrictions on it.

Daniel Jester:

When I made the decision to leave Amazon, I don't remember lamenting too much that I was going to lose that benefit, but it is something that I think that every studio should consider. Because if you think about it in the grand scheme of things, it's extraordinarily low cost to basically give somebody time back. It's very, very low cost for a studio to say, "You can have six days a year where you're still going to get your paycheck for that day, but you should be doing something that creatively fulfills you or expands your knowledge or expands your skillset."

Josie Diamond:

I agree. And I've heard from people who previously worked for Amazon. Kevin and me wanted talk about these cost days. And I always thought it's a really great initiative. It should be so easy to plan. And you know what also I think, and possibly, a reason why leaving the company, you didn't, or maybe not you, but anyone didn't feel that they were losing much was that if you were starting out in your career or maybe on the more junior side of things, then this is such a great initiative to be able to build your portfolio in a professional setting where you're going to get it taken seriously. So I think if you can offer anything like that, whether, like you say, it's a few days a year, or even give people a budget, give them an allowance where maybe you don't need to do it inside of your own company, but you could say, "Actually, here's a thousand pounds. We'll give you this for the year. You decide what you do with it, but make sure you shoot something with us and show us it."

Josie Diamond:

You've given them the opportunity to manage your budget, first of all, which, if anyone hasn't done it before, it's a bit daunting when you've never done it before. They can go shoot anything they like. It could be, they could try and hire a model for a day. Maybe not at that price, but you never know. And then yeah, maybe they get a team together or get some samples together. It could literally be anything but giving people the opportunity and again, the trust element to go and utilize that time for them but bring it back in to show us how you've benefited your own skills, but also, okay, how does that open up opportunities for us?

Josie Diamond:

If it's like tabletops that you said that you did, maybe you've just done some amazing shoot that we can now go to the creative or marketing department and say, "Oh, this person on the team's got an amazing portfolio. They just did this shoot for us kind of as a test. We could do this again for you." You open up opportunities for the rest of the business and you're still kind of keeping that person involved in mind to develop their portfolio further. So I think anything like that when it comes to development is always, always going to be far more beneficial than the initial cost of outlaying for it.

Daniel Jester:

For the studio that is thinking about retention and wants to get serious about retention, what is one thing really that you could think has a really powerful impact on their ability to retain talent long term?

Josie Diamond:

Starting with the interview process, for sure.

Daniel Jester:

I was hoping you'd say that one.

Josie Diamond:

I think you have to be so honest. This is a career move decisive. It's a big decision. It's not something that you can take lightly with people. So you cannot gear people up for a perfect, all rosy or singing and dancing workplace if it's not. You can be really honest and say, "We want you to help us build that." But you know what? You risk losing people very quickly if you're not honest. But then I think something that I know that you've posted on LinkedIn about, about onboarding, right? So if your onboarding plan is good and don't get me wrong, I think we've all been guilty, me actually, quite recently, of not putting enough time into an onboarding plan.

Josie Diamond:

It makes the biggest difference for someone because you bring someone into the organization and then they're like, "Okay. Well what do I do now?" So a really great onboarding plan. And the mistake I made was not just for your full-time people, but freelancers as well, super, super, super important. And if you work in a hybrid team, even more important that you treat them in the same way. Allowing that time for people to learn, build relationships, to see the organization without the pressure of having to perform is going to make the biggest difference for them feeling like they're properly set up in that job to be able to perform later down the line.

Daniel Jester:

Josie, thank you so much for your time and your expertise. This episode with you has been a long time coming. I'm glad to finally get you sat down and have the conversation. I think you're great. And I look forward to another future episode with another topic that we can touch on.

Josie Diamond:

Yeah. Sounds great. I've really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

Daniel Jester:

That's it for this episode. Many thanks to our guest Josie Diamond and thanks to you for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lanz. Special thanks to Sean O’Meara. I'm your host Daniel Jester. Until next time my friends. Oh, and by the way, hi, Ian.

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.