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The Adaptable and Agile Studio with Colleen Devanie of REI

Daniel Jester
Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, my name is Daniel Jester and this is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. Colleen Devanie of REI joins me on the show today. And we discuss the challenging task of supporting multiple internal and external clients while trying to maintain an agile studio and team. When it comes to the importance of data and insights, Colleen put it this way.

Colleen Devanie:
You cannot be agile with guesses, propositions, ideas, you've got to use data and facts to influence the work that you're doing and make sure the decisions that you're making and choices that you're making are the right ones for the business. And they're performing how you expect them to.

Daniel Jester:
A quick reminder, before we begin, if you like this show, make sure you're subscribed to catch our latest episodes as they release. And with that, let's dig in with Coleen Devanie. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I am your host, Daniel Jester. My guest today on the show, colleen Devanie of REI. Colleen, thank you so much for being here today.

Colleen Devanie:
Thank you Daniel so much for having me. It's a true pleasure to be here and talk about all things e-commerce content related.

Daniel Jester:
Yes, content creation, things that we love. We didn't know we'd love them when we fell into these jobs that we have. We invited you on the show today. We've been recording a lot of episodes recently and a common word that has come up in the episodes that for a lot of our listeners, you will have yet to hear these episodes. But a common word that has come up is agility. And we've talked about assets that are agile and we've talked a little bit about teams that are agile and that's what we'd like to talk with you today about Coleen is agility and imaging and ways that we can try to infer things from the data that we have in our studios, both in team performance and asset performance and that kind of thing.

Daniel Jester:
And I get, it's going to be a little bit of an abstract topic to talk about but I think that you are uniquely positioned to give us some of your insight and maybe we can demystify some of this together. But first I'd love for our listeners to know a little bit about you, your background. Why don't you walk us through it.

Colleen Devanie:
Yeah. I started out in Chicago, cutting my teeth as a photo assistant in a large commercial photography shop. And my bread and butter was really just being able to and willing to do anything and everything as a photo assistant. So from lugging around mattresses from floor to floor, to digital teching on model shoots, to going out on location and supporting all the gear and equipment that comes along with that. Is a great foot into the business and seeing our business from that vantage point as an assistant and in a support role is really, I think what is the foundation of my whole career and I draw on that experience quite a bit. From there, I moved into shooting but still under an assistant title, moved into a producer role, fell into account management, which I felt was more of a translation role, translating photography and production to the client and making sure that the client's needs were met on the production side and the next step from there, for me, was into management of studios and programs.

Colleen Devanie:
And I worked for a great company called CreativeDrive for several years out in Baltimore, managing the Under Armour studio and then in the lovely city of San Diego managing the Petco studio. And that was all things, really all encompassing being inside of a client's house. So having an agency embedded inside of a client and now I have the opportunity to actually be embedded and a direct employee with REI. So I'm in house now inside of our media studio, which does a ton of e-commerce work. And we also do editorial and lifestyle location work.

Daniel Jester:
The valuable experience coming from a company like CreativeDrive. I wished that I had spent some time on the agency side before going into in-house because I feel like that translates a little bit better because I got to tell you going in-house and then to the agency side and realizing I have multiple clients to balance, can absolutely be a struggle. We are here today to talk about agility and agility in our teams really, in thinking about how can we use the insights that we can gain about our imagery, about our workflows, about the product needs? Because one unique thing about REI is you guys sell anything and everything that could be related to outdoor activities. That being said, I don't really know where we start.

Colleen Devanie:
I think that's where you do start is with the complexity of it all. And that's the unique position I find myself in being in-house and being part of a business that is fairly complex in terms of the inputs. We have our own private label brand. We are also a house of brands. So there's complexity there in terms of product where product comes from and the various places, the data around that product can come to us, which are a lot of places right there. I feel like all of the available inputs are ones that we work with on a day to day. And so that is like the beginning of the web of complexity. And then it just grows from there to your point around expertise, level, product variety, which he pointed out.

Colleen Devanie:
We have an extremely wide range of product type and each one of those products needs a different treatment in terms of the visual content that supports it in different places. And of course, we're talking about e-commerce here. So that's the shopping experience and really if that's the search results page. It's also the product display page when you get down to that level, it might be the banner ads and we could get really meta with this and go out to it's all of the channels where this content might live. If you're doing it right, your content supports your business in more than one channel.

Daniel Jester:
Let's break it down really quick, looking just at product imagery on one side because these could in theory be different workflows. So you have REI stuff that presumably you're shooting everything. And then you have other brands that REI sells that you may be shooting and you may be accepting vendor imagery if it meets quality standards. And so that's essentially three different workflows and so we're talking about a ton of inputs and a ton of outputs, all flowing through one studio and listeners it's Coleen's job to make sense of it all. So one of the powerful tools that we have is data. We can get some insights into, let's start at the studio level, we can get some insights as to maybe where some of the hangups are. You may have some reports that you can run that you start to see that REI stuff takes longer to shoot for whatever reason can you share with me anything that you've learned in that regard?

Colleen Devanie:
I think data is the key to your point. And our brand is co-op brands, really great product. Feel free to check out the Trailsmith's collection. Just want to make a plug there for me.

Daniel Jester:
Now plug whatever you want. We are REI fans over here and we will absolutely, we'll collect our payment on the back end but we will absolutely plug whatever you want.

Colleen Devanie:
Yeah. So to your point, our own brand is co-op brands. We have a wide spectrum of product there. We also carry boats, roof racks for cars, stoves, such a wide range. So it is complex in both how we decide to your point, does this set of imagery come in to support this product from the vendor or does our studio produce that? If it's co-op brands we've produced that, that's our own brand so we do produce that. We absolutely have reporting and data as well around efficiency there but quality and quantity are incredibly high bars for us, particularly around our own brand. And so we have a unique opportunity to wrap our style guides around the product categories within our own brands and build those style guides out. I like to call them the VIP style guides. So, how do we apply the VIP treatment to the products that are our own products?

Colleen Devanie:
Backpacks are a great example. There they range in complexity from a really simple backpack that maybe only has a couple bells and whistles, to something that's really complex. And there are details and things you need to see, honestly, in the imagery of that product to know whether it's going to suit your needs for whatever those needs might be. Are you going on a month long backpacking trip or do you just need something to grab and take to the gym? Are obviously two very different use cases.

Colleen Devanie:
So those use cases, even though that's the same product category, backpacks require a different set of imagery to support those products. So that to me is where a lot of the complexity comes in. And then there's a complexity as well in terms of like coordinating back and forth between the team that is working with the vendors to get their imagery supplied to us and the studio who's executing the in studio production shots. And of course the goal, everybody's goal in this business is to get the photography executed before that product is sitting in your DC is unavailable to ship out. So sometimes it's both things for us.

Daniel Jester:
Backpacks are a fantastic thing to look at in this regard. Backpacks are a real pain for all of the reasons that you listed out. They can be wildly different. They're not particularly easy to style. But here's why I think this is a great reason why data becomes so important and a really great understanding of your business and your style guides become so important. If all you know is that you're getting a hundred backpacks into your studio to shoot. That's not enough information for you to know how to staff up that studio.

Daniel Jester:
We need to know, okay, first of all, in your case, are they co-op backpacks or are they another brand's backpacks? Because the style guide requirements could be dramatically different. Let's say it is co-op backpacks, okay, is it a technical backpack? Is it a backpacking piece of equipment? And so this is where key insights into your studio performance operations and not only that but being able to tie that potentially back to a style guide because the style guide, REI probably has, I don't know, Colleen, how many style guides does REI have to cover all of the various things that you guys could shoot? Just like ballpark it for me here.

Colleen Devanie:
I have lost count. Yes. If I were to just make a total stab in the dark guess, I'd have to say close to a hundred, if not over a hundred style guides. And I think the topic today of agility is particularly interesting related to this topic of, how prescriptive do you get, where you can still allow agility at every moment within the studio? To your point, you're a photographer, you're sitting on set. If you also happen to be someone who's interested in backpacks and knows the details about the backpacks or your stylist does or your merch coordinator does or anyone that really is touching that product along the way and can notice and point out some of those details that you might not be able to prescribe into every style guide then that is in my mind, a great way to build agility into the process.

Colleen Devanie:
So our style guides are the baseline. The style guides are what the minimum requirements are of content around this particular item. But that doesn't mean that we can't capture additional shots. I think that's a little bit of a different approach than probably most e-comm studios out there take. But our gear is, to your point, it's complex, there's a wide variety and some of that can come in through the data but there are other nuances or technical details that you can only get by seeing, touching and feeling the product. So the agility piece there is a layer. I feel like that just adds to the cake of complexity but that's where the process that we put together, we hope allows for more agility and allows us for the team members to really give the product the treatment that it deserves, despite all the complexity to get there.

Daniel Jester:
That's a great point. And I'm glad that you said that because I think we often, especially when you get to a certain level of leadership in the studio, we think of agility almost synonymous with cost savings. When in reality, what we're talking about is sometimes agility means, like you just mentioned, doing right by the product and having the ability to say... Because you're not wrong at all that adding an additional shot in some studios would grind the process to a halt because your retouch teams, your QA people, your digitechs, your whatever software platform you may be using to run production may only expect a certain number of images. And so I've worked in studios where we've had to give that feedback and say, "It's not up to you to just shoot whatever you think is important. You have to shoot what this process prescribes." But REI has identified and I think rightfully so, that may not always cover the things that the customer needs to know about what this product is. And so an agile studio absolutely means sometimes creating more work. If it's the right thing to do on behalf of the customer.

Colleen Devanie:
You really hit the nail on the head with the customer comment there and it's a unique thing that we are encouraged to and constantly keeping our members in mind and their experience in mind. And we are obviously all members too and outdoor advocates and enthusiasts and gear heads as well. So there is a lot of expertise inside of the studio in different areas that able to tap into. Myself, I love running, I love running gear, give me a hydration pack and I will just fidget with it to find out all the things about it and where all the pockets are and how they work and how the hose works. I immediately want to go and take it for a test spin. And I may notice something that someone that doesn't use a hydration pack wouldn't notice about that. That's a cool thing that I would need to know if I were shopping our product page, making my decision around whether I wanted to purchase this item or not.

Daniel Jester:
This is a key point that we probably want to put a pin in for a future podcast episode but a big part of agile teams and studios, if you're able to do it, is finding talent that is passionate about the thing that you sell. Obviously it's harder for some than others. In Amazon I shot plenty of things when I worked for Amazon that I felt pretty passionately about and I shot plenty of things that I have no idea what it was to this day. Therein lies one of the challenges and one of the complexities, is I have no idea if I put it on the table in the right orientation and probably the QA person and the digitech didn't know either because it was some industrial supply component. And we interviewed Jen Bakija of Granger for this podcast. That's a big thing with them is just having a baseline understanding of what the thing is that they're shooting. And if you can find people who are passionate about it, you can really do right by your customers or in your case, your members.

Colleen Devanie:
It's a unique thing. I think that's a little more simple for someone like me and my business to find people that are passionate about our product and interested in it. I'm sure some other companies or products or product offerings. And then of course, these individuals still have to be a stellar photographers, stylists or directors, merchandise handlers, et cetera and bring that skillset. So marrying those two things together I'm sure is not always the easiest of things but it's a unique opportunity that we have and we can lean into that expertise and really leverage it to make our work better.

Daniel Jester:
Let's talk a little bit about vendor imagery and that little bit of complexity and some of the things that you can do to help your studio be agile with vendor imagery. We had a conversation, it was a little while ago at this point, that you mentioned that in response to the pandemic, one of the levers that you're able to pull to make your studio more agile is say, we're going to open up the possibility of vendor imagery for more categories now. Can you speak a little bit about how you can balance the inputs to help make your studio agile and responsive to extreme business interruption? I hope we don't have another pandemic in the near future but there will be business interruptions again, there are, they're small scale, large scale, it happens. You put it so eloquently with the idea of the lever pulling of saying, I can sit here and I can do things to help us scale up, scale down, whatever we need. So can you talk a little bit that?

Colleen Devanie:
That's the crux, the idea around agility and how that really I've learned over this last year is more important to studios then it ever was before, to be able to respond to those business needs quickly. It's saying we have one of our producers says often, "I'm wearing tennis shoes because I am ready to pivot at any moment." And so building that agility in the process is a huge win for the business as a whole. So yes, I too hope we never ever have a pandemic again at that scale or that disrupts our business like that. But when we did, we needed to find a way to cut our budgets, like many other production houses. And one way to do that was to really lean on the content that our vendors are already creating around their products, whether that fit into our style guides or not.

Colleen Devanie:
And our ultimate goal is to provide a consistent, cohesive experience on our site. And so we may not have been achieving that goal by opening up that pipeline for vendor content, even wider. And I think that's the sacrifice that you make when you're being more agile but we were able to meet the businesses needs exactly where they were at when they were at. And then, yeah, it's interesting, I thought of it like a lever but now I think maybe it's a bit more of a dial, that we can dial up and down based on the business needs and or how that vendor works fits cohesively with our own style.

Colleen Devanie:
So if a vendor is providing a fairly consistent suite of imagery to the suite of imagery that we're producing inside of our studio, so then our members get a consistent experience when they're shopping on the website, whether that was Patagonia that provided those images or REI, that's awesome. That should be the experience that we hope our members have. And we hope that they know what to expect when they're coming to our site. And I think that was a little bit of a sacrifice that we made by opening that pipeline up but it was for the greater good of our business. And that is a lever and I guess a dial now that I'll continue to look for us to turn based on the business needs, based on the category, based on the brand, based on-

Daniel Jester:
Based on your members' responses to the imagery. You probably have learned and I would venture a guess that bicycle components don't need the number of assets on the site that a complete bicycle for instance would need. Because a lot of times when people go to a website, I know this is true of me, I know the specs of what I'm looking for. The picture is secondary to that. The picture is more of confirmation, that it is what I'm looking for. Because I'm looking for a Shimano 9 speed chain to replace the chain on my bike. The picture is going to maybe confirm that for me but I don't need four angles of that. That's one of the things that we can look at and another idea of agility, I'll also throw out there the metaphor of the soundboard slider.

Daniel Jester:
Sometimes you're bringing up the base and bringing down the mid and bumping the trouble a little bit here and there. And you're absolutely right, it's a balancing act. And I'm very familiar with on a larger scale, on a smaller scale, sacrificing some metrics for others because there are times when at a smaller scale and not responding to a major business interruption. Sometimes we need to let our SLA be sacrificed from a studio standpoint in order to meet the productivity number. If I can sit on stuff for two extra days and be able to book a photographer and a stylist for a full day to knock all that out and save a little bit of money, those are the kinds of decisions that we're making all the time. Unfortunately, we had to make them at a much, much bigger scale in response to COVID. Is there anything else you want to say, we're getting close to time here. Anything else that you just want to mention for our listeners on the agile studio or things to think about or anything else you want to throw out there?

Colleen Devanie:
Yeah. I think you could think about the agile studio in every single piece of your business, no matter how big or how small and being agile means having a process that the team follows but that process allows you to adjust and pivot to the business, where the needs are, when they are and that you have really the data to support that to your point. So you cannot be agile with guesses, propositions, ideas, you got to use data and facts to influence the work that you're doing and make sure the decisions that you're making and choices that you're making are the right ones for the business. And they are performing how you expect them to. So it's on many different levels. You have to, we say plan, do, check, adjust and go straight through that wheel as many times as you can but make sure you have a plan in place that allows some of that flexibility because if you don't have the baseline of the process, then you're just winging it, reacting.

Daniel Jester:
Extremely well said, Colleen. One last thing before I let you off the hook, I've heard this from other people and I'm just going to throw it out there, that you occasionally will use members as on-camera talent for images. I'm just going to throw out there that I've been bicycling about a hundred miles a week. I'm getting pretty good at it and I am a co-op member. So next time you have your casting decisions in Southern California to make, you've got my email.

Colleen Devanie:
Thank you so much for that plug. And for anyone listening, I will pass a link over to you, Daniel, that is our casting portal. So yes, we love casting real people that really are members and really do the things, the activities that we're representing. And we encourage people to go and sign up into our casting portal and would love to work with you, wherever you are. I am quite jealous that you're in Southern California, although the Pacific Northwest is pretty cool. I do miss the palm trees and the sunshine that never stops.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah. We'll definitely include that link in our show notes. And if anybody wants to connect with you on LinkedIn, can we add your LinkedIn in the show notes as well?

Colleen Devanie:
Absolutely. I'd love that.

Daniel Jester:
Perfect. Well, Colleen, thank you so much. That was really just an absolutely lovely conversation. And I really appreciate your time and your insights on building the agile studio. We at Creative Force are big fans of REI, at least myself and my colleague Sean are definitely members. And we talk about you guys all the time. But thank you so much for your time for being on the show. And I'd love to have you back in the future. We can talk about some of the things that we mentioned that probably deserve their own episode.

Colleen Devanie:
It would be my pleasure to come back and dig into some of those other subjects. This stuff gets me really excited. I love this business. Like you said, I fell right into it but found a very happy home here and can never get enough of these subjects. So thanks to you. Thanks to Creative Force. I love the podcast. I am also an avid listener. So the fandom is right back at you.

Daniel Jester:
Thank you so much. I appreciate that. That's it for this episode. We are very grateful to Colleen for her time. If you have feedback for us or want to pitch a guest or topic for this show, email us at podcast@creativeforce.io. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn, I'm Daniel T Jester. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lands. A special thanks to Sean, Colleen and REI for generally being awesome. I'm your host Daniel Jester and I hope the next time you see me, it'll be on my bike in an REI ad. 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.