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Unlearning Fear in the Face of Changing Technology with Conrad Sanderson of Hugo Boss

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.

This is episode 64 of the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast, and I'm unpacking my terrible, terrible fear of changing technology with Conrad Sanderson. That's maybe overstating it a little bit, but if there's anyone who understands the relationship between change and fear, it's probably Conrad. While he's not a licensed therapist or anything, his career has spanned many changes in the technology that drives our industry and his job has taken him halfway around the world, moving back and forth across the US and now across the Atlantic to Germany. We unpack the fears that creep up when we start to talk about what the future holds for creative production teams and how we can meet them rationally and see them for what they are, an opportunity.


Conrad Sanderson:

Whenever there is change, there's opportunity and you should look at it that way.


Daniel Jester:

That's the pull quote. Done. Got it. Without further ado, let's get into this conversation with Conrad Sanderson. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I am your host, Daniel Jester, and joining me for this episode coming to us from Germany, Conrad Sanderson. Conrad, welcome to the show.


Conrad Sanderson:

Hey, thanks for having me.


Daniel Jester:

We have a lot of listeners around the world and that's one of the things I like about doing this podcast. I like to point out when people are not in the US, it makes me feel, I don't know, worldly.


Conrad Sanderson:

International.


Daniel Jester:

International, yeah. We get downloads in something like 70 countries. Obviously, some there's a lot and some there's not very many, but some of them are surprising. And Germany is one of the countries where they're like one of our top five countries for downloads.


Conrad Sanderson:

Okay.


Daniel Jester:

You might get a lot of people listening to this over there, but we're not here to talk about geography. Although could we? No, we couldn't. That's too boring for our audience. You and I had a conversation last week and we talked about a lot of things in preparation for what should we talk about for this podcast episode and what kind of resonates with both of us, and the thing that we settled on was a familiar topic to listeners of this podcast, thinking a little bit about the future state of technology for the studio.


And we have definitely touched on this on the podcast. There are a million and one, probably more than a million and one perspectives on this kind of thing. But we kind of honed in on a part of this that for me personally, I've shared a little bit of this on the podcast, but it makes me feel a little bit vulnerable to talk about in some ways. And that is the sort of fear that comes with technological changes and shifts. And I know now having perspective from doing this podcast and talking to a lot of people about this, that it is sort of foolish to fear a major technological change, but that did drive a lot of my decision making in my early career as I recognized that tabletop product photographers were not long for this world as CAD was getting more advanced as the ability to render and make things look more convincing.


And again, my background was in tabletop photography. I didn't shoot on model very often when I was working. And I will be honest with you, Conrad, and with the audience that it scared me a little bit and I wanted to stay in the studio. I liked this industry and I was worried that product photographers were going to disappear overnight. And so I realized that I needed to shift more into managing people and teams. And my thought was I could either manage a team of photographers or I could manage a team of people who are digitally rendering spark plugs on the computer, either way, it's the same sort of skillset, that manager skillset. But my perspective has shifted a lot. This is not something to fear.


Conrad Sanderson: No.


Daniel Jester: Technological changes have happened. All the time, in all industries, technology brings us tools that make our jobs easier, or in some cases, it does fundamentally change the nature of those jobs, but it does not mean that those people, those individuals doing those jobs disappear overnight or even disappear at all. There's an opportunity here to learn and adapt. That was a very long-winded preface for this. I apologize, Conrad, but go ahead, jump in and let's set the stage a little bit. It's not really something we need to fear as much as we think we do.


Conrad Sanderson: No, we don't. And the funny thing is change has been in our lives forever. I mean, everything that we talked about in preparation for this was like the movies. Silent movies going to talking movies. We went through black and white film to color film. We went through photographers taking over from illustrators. We went through the whole thing and change is just part of all of this. And it's kind of funny because in my career I went to school, I learned analog photography and I got to apply it a little bit. And then right after, digital took over. So it was like the entire thing I learned kind of went out the window.


So you have to sort of adapt and see what happens. And it was a great opportunity because digital was a new entity. So you had a lot of skilled artisans, crafts people kind of working on it. And they took something that in the very beginning was very mechanical and they started to use it in a more artistic way. And that kind of led to where we are now. And if we think back, I was having a conversation with the art director today, this entity that we live in really only started in, what, 2002, 2003 in earnest. I mean, 20 years, that's it.


Daniel Jester:

I think of the modern era of e-commerce creative production as really kicking off and around 2008. In 2008, we often think about in retrospect as the recession really starting in 2008, because that's when things got really bad, but in truth, you can go back to 2004, 2005 and already see the impacts of what was happening in various markets and budgets were already getting slim. People were already getting nervous and that's when a lot of companies pivoted and embraced e-com in some ways and started figuring out how can we set up studios and do this as fast and as cheap as possible?


Conrad Sanderson: The funny thing is, yeah, we go back to 2008 and it really was the birth of the modern day e-commerce, as we know it now. The companies were kind of surprised. They would throw some stuff up on the web and it would start to sell and then they would have to throw more stuff up. So it sorted the whole ball rolling. And there was a lot of technology that was happening behind the scenes too, to make that possible because the whole thing with bigger bandwidth for the website, so you actually house more stuff. Everybody was trying different things so it was kind of like the wild, wild west of different formats and different resolutions and everything before it started to get more streamlined. And in the very beginning, it was more of, "Let's do it and see where it goes." And then probably in 2010 at the kind of at the crash point of the bubble and stuff, it took on more of that, "Let's do it faster and cheaper kind of attitude."


Daniel Jester: Right.


Conrad Sanderson: But before that, it was just expanding, expanding, expanding,

Daniel Jester: Historically, it's really easy to fear new technology, but it isn't usually rational. And I think it's a lot of emotions that get wrapped up in this. And I've thought a lot about this. Maybe the little bit of it is pride. "I'm an expert at this tool that I'm holding right now and this new tool is really unfamiliar to me." And when you isolate this conversation to camera technology, I feel like the barrier to entry on a digital camera's a little bit lower. There are some things you need to learn, but functionally, our cameras still operate the way that cameras did for a hundred plus years with a shutter and an aperture and some amount of light sensitivity in the recording medium.


Those three things have really not changed in a lot of ways. Some of them you don't interact with on an iPhone camera and some of them you do on a higher end or more professional grade camera. But I want to talk about the rationale a little bit. I think it really is a lot of emotion and a lot of unknown, and it's just irrational in a lot of ways to start to begrudge. And I think that people's fear of technology comes off as having a grudge against the new thing and it's like, "The old way we did it was better."


Conrad Sanderson:

It is fear. All right. Fear of the unknown basically. A new technology comes out and you're fearful, because maybe you don't know how to work. Maybe you're not the expert anymore, but that's the weird emotional thing. Because on the flip side of that, it's a new technology, very few people know how to use it. So it is kind of like you have this opportunity to kind of jump in and master it and see where it goes. But I did notice in a couple of places of my past experience that everybody's all for change. They want to change things because they're stuck in a rut. And then when you start to talk to them, they're like, "Change everything except for what I do." There's comfort in what they know. And I think artists will try to use different mediums, they'll try to bring new things in, incorporate new ideas into everything. And I think that's what you have to do with technology too. I basically say, "Kick the tires, see what it does and then see how you can apply it." It's just a tool.


Daniel Jester:

Yeah. And there are some perspectives that obviously, especially in a studio and creative production environment, that would welcome that kind of changing technology. It was a past guest on this podcast who said this, I think off the record, I think we were like, "Say that in the episode," and we didn't get to it, but he characterized the digital workflow, or the photographer with a digital camera maybe is a better way of saying it, as the day rate that keeps on giving. He was also somebody who was an art director pre-digital and back then, you might be on location for several days just to shoot the cover of the catalog.


Just for that one shot, you may be at working for several days and with the advent of digital and this ability to shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and not have to worry about how much film you're shooting onto, how much it's going to cost to get that process, what the process is going to be like to review those images, he called the digital camera, the digital workflow, the day rate that keeps on giving, which is an absolute gift to art directors. From their perspective, "I don't care what the tool is. Look at all these images I get to pick from all in a day."


Conrad Sanderson:

And if it keeps giving like that, think about all the other work you're doing. So that one crew went on couple of days to do the cover of the magazine or the catalog. Because we need so many pictures, our culture is over... Well, not overly saturated, but we have this lust for imagery and content-


Daniel Jester:

Inundated, just everywhere.


Conrad Sanderson:

Yeah.


Daniel Jester:

It's just imagery.


Conrad Sanderson:

So we have multiple people shooting multiple things all the time. So it didn't really put those people out of business. It kind of gave them and other people more business in a weird way. So it has changed and change is scary.


Daniel Jester:

We change our perspective and we recognize that photographers have a very special relationship with their camera. Yes, it is a tool, but for some, there's something, some intangible quality about it that you grow attached to it. I mean, even me, Conrad, every time I've upgraded a camera, even within the same brand that I like and move on to their newest model, things down to the sound the shutter makes, "Oh, I don't really like this as much as I like the way the old shutter sounded," and that kind of thing. It's a relationship that is unique in a lot of ways. My dad was a carpenter growing up and I liken it to his hammer. Like he had a hammer that he loved for a very long time. And when he couldn't use it anymore, he had to get a new one. And it was an emotional bond that was a part of that relationship with that old hammer.


But we do have to think of it as being, at the end of the day, it is a tool. It is a means to an end. The creative is making that image, making that asset. Everything between there, the laptop... We don't get as wrapped up in the laptops that we're using. We don't get so wrapped up in our 2015 MacBook Pro that finally crapped out that we have to get a new one. We don't think about that that way. And I think in some cases, we need to sometimes divorce ourself a little bit from our emotional connection to the tool and recognize that it is a tool.


Conrad Sanderson:

Yeah.


Daniel Jester:

And that's how we can start to see that there's opportunity in new ways of working in new tools. And especially if those tools are based almost entirely digitally. Who knows what we're going to be able to achieve in that way?


Conrad Sanderson:

No. True. And go back to your father's hammer, it might have been the perfect weight, the perfect balance. It might have just felt right for him and the camera, I know when the camera is just designed so well, it just feels right. I get that. So that tool becomes more personalized, but at the end of the day, it's a hammer or a camera, all right?


Daniel Jester:

Yep.


Conrad Sanderson:

It has a function. And the thing that makes it different is the person wielding it.


Daniel Jester:

Yep.


Conrad Sanderson:

We don't get wrapped up in that too much. So when we go through the technology stuff and all the things that are coming out, there's some scary stuff, but tabletop photography still exists. It still exists a lot. There's like three people at the studio now, so it didn't kill off that. It didn't change it that much. It's just they're using different tools now to do the same thing.


Daniel Jester:

Absolutely.


Conrad Sanderson:

I think that once you start looking at it from more of the artistic point of view or the craftsman point of view, it is like, "What can this tool do for me so I can have a nice life and go home to my family?"


Daniel Jester:

I want to pivot the conversation a little bit and talk about something that we touched on in our meeting last week, Conrad. It was really eyeopening for me the way that you put this and you kind of characterized this. When you think about now our workflow and in particular, the digital side of our workflow, and when I say our workflow, I'm referring to creative production for e-commerce, taking a product that was thought up in someone's head or was bought from whatever big fashion event in Las Vegas, where you go buy the things you're going to sell on your website, whatever it was, there was a product that you have that you need to sell. All of that exists in the digital realm, the conversations about how much of it you're going to buy and in what sizes or whatever the case is, if it's designing from the ground up, all of that happens digitally.


Push forward to the other end of this process, we have digital assets that are delivered from the studio to a digital asset manager that are pushed to our website. People log onto that website. They buy the thing, they receive a physical package in the mail and they have that. Now there's a middle part of that process where you can draw a line that's all digital. Let's use a designer, for example. From the time that they're designing that garment, it's digital to the time when they're filling out their PIM on how many of each size they want to produce. And all of that stuff is handled digitally. And then there's this weird tangent and it never was weird to me until I talked to you about it in this way, where a physical sample has to get produced and physically sent to a studio in order for us to shoot it and make the digital thing that our customers need to see to buy it.


And it almost sounds, Conrad, absurd when you characterize it that way, but it is this really bizarre detour that we take because we don't have the connective tissue between the digital idea of the thing we want to sell and the asset that needs to live on the website. And so it just stands to reason that this is going to be corrected in our industry, at least in some areas where it can be corrected easily.


Conrad Sanderson:

Yes. And I-


Daniel Jester:

Corrected is a rough way of saying that, by the way. I recognize that, listener, I don't mean to scare you, but when you think about it like this, it does feel like it's a correction more than an advancement of technology.


Conrad Sanderson:

There is room for opportunity because as you did put it, there is this detour. So I don't know who's going to do it. I don't know how they're going to do it, but it struck me that way too, because everything is designed in the computer. Everything is electronically submitted through the computer. Yes. And then the physical samples come and then we digitize them and put them back into the computer. So I think ultimately if things keep going the way they are and people want to do this faster and get it to market sooner, that's where they're going to find the reward at that point. I don't want everybody to get scared of this because this is just hypothetical at this point. There's nothing real about it. And then once that sort of shifts, it's going to open up new avenues or new places for people to work and do things.


And I will liken it back to another technology where items were put on a mannequin, then transferred onto a model. And people were thinking that that was going to change everything and their jobs were going to go become obsolete. And it hasn't, it's just changed certain things for certain companies. I think that in order to do what we're talking about really well, I think it's going to take a little bit more technology to happen, but yeah. And I think that will lead straight into a smoother, straighter pipeline from idea to completion to product. And then it leads into that whole thing we were talking about too, the virtual world, because it's all electronic.


Daniel Jester:

It does also sort of help us to identify the places, I think, where today's photographers, the people who are creating the assets for the studio or the company that they're working for, it starts to point to where we can upskill those roles, right? Because part of what we wanted to talk about for this episode, Conrad, was that you can learn a new thing and you can apply some of the things that you know. The things that photographers know how to do really well is how to interact light with a product and how to compose that product in a way that looks interesting and how to place the customer's perspective in the right spot so that they know what they're looking at and it's engaging and its beautiful. None of those skills involve a camera, by the way.


All of those skills are things that are almost mental exercises that you develop, whether you're physically moving that product around or that model around on a set or digitally moving it in something like an, forgive me, I don't know the industry standard for this, but something like SketchUp where it occurred to me where photographers can learn to upskill their own talents is to start to learn some of those things. Like what are the rendering softwares that are out there today? And how can I take what is effectively a CAD line drawing of this thing and give it some dimension and start to apply some texture to it and then hit it with some light and put it in an environment and compose it in a way?


And relatively recently, I started on Instagram following digital artists who do exactly this. They create these really interesting 3D. The one that I'm thinking of in particular and for the listener, if I remember I'll put the user's account in the show notes, that reminds me of one of my favorite photographers is Irving Penn. He was mostly a portrait photographer, but he did do some still life stuff. And his still life stuff is some of my favorite stuff that he has. This digital artist, his compositions remind me of Irving Penn's still life and they evoke that same emotion in me, but these are just completely rendered in the computer and then he lights them and he adds textures to them and really pushes the limits of what even light can do to when it interacts with a product, in a lot of ways, enabling creativity in a way that a photographer would never be able to dream of.


Conrad Sanderson:

No. And what you're saying too is like it's the artistic eye, it's composition, it's light, it's shadow, it's form. That's what you're talking about. And all of a sudden, it just reminded me of that's what illustration was before photography.


Daniel Jester:

Yeah.


Conrad Sanderson:

So it's kind of like now it could be computer illustration, but to have the photographer or artist eye is the crucial thing, because it's what gives it the emotional quality that we subconsciously gravitate towards. The medium is just the medium. It's the tool. So you're bringing life to inanimate objects is basically what you're doing.


Daniel Jester:

Also, I should say, we've mentioned on this show before, there's a place for stylists in this future as well, because it's not just light and composition. It is those things. But also I think it was with maybe Jason Hamilton early on in this podcast that we talked about this idea that stylists will be able to come in and if you're rendering a room environment, the stylist can start to make decisions about what library of digital lamps that you have that you want to put in. I mean, all of these things, these functions and these roles and the need for skilled people to execute them doesn't go away. We're just moving into a virtual environment. In some ways, that's really exciting, because I'll tell you what, Conrad, pre-COVID, maybe 2019, I was thinking a lot about my career and my family and wanting to put myself on a career path that enabled more time at home with my kids.


And I kept kind of kicking myself and thinking, "Why did I pick a career that I can't do from home? Why aren't I a computer programmer or something? Why do I have to show up at the studio every day and actually physically be in this room where this stuff is happening?" And for one thing, COVID totally upended that. There's tons of studios around the world. Everybody's got a story about how they started shooting things from home and emailing images or links to images to their retouchers. But now we're talking about the photographer can be in Tahiti, and they're not maybe a photographer anymore, but whatever their role is could be in Tahiti, the stylist could be anywhere else in the world and people could be collaborating in probably in real time in these environments to create these assets, doing them from wherever in the world they want to do them. And we haven't touched on the ecological impact of this, but it's a big thing that's on the table that could help dig us out of a little bit of environmental hole here that we're in.


Conrad Sanderson:

Yeah. And you think about it, pre-COVID, everybody had to show up at the office. For these companies to work, you had to be at the office. And then when the pandemic happened, everybody got to work from home and none of the companies went out... Well, I don't want to say none of the companies went out of business, but it really changed the way that people work and it became possible through technology. I mean, you couldn't do this before the internet and video conferencing and emails and stuff like that. So that tool helped save a lot of things and it can be applied to creative aspects too. Like you were saying, there's the video of the musicians all around the world in real time playing in an orchestra and stuff. It can happen.


So this is a possibility and I want to jump back too, because if photographers or whatever, as things evolve, gravitate over something else, the video and motion is also becoming really a lot bigger because of social media and because of the websites that can handle it on their backend side. So there's another thing that's going to happen too. So one's kind of digital and one's more tactile, actually working in the studio still. So I think there's another opportunity. So with all these advancements, I look at it and see it's opportunities for everybody.


Daniel Jester:

I agree wholeheartedly. And I think the other thing that you and I touched on is that there will be companies, brands, organizations that continue to choose to shoot things in what will become the traditional way. What we describe as the modern way of e-commerce created production will become sort of the traditional way. And there will be plenty of brands who will continue to. It's interesting to think about a future where a brand is saying, they're advertising like, "Oh, we shot this whole look book on Cannon 5D, Mark II vintage camera."


Conrad Sanderson:

Yeah.


Daniel Jester:

You have brands that do that today with like, "Oh, we shot this whole look book on medium format film." And I know it looks phenomenal. Obviously if anything, digital photography has enabled more people to become incredibly proficient at analog photography because they have so many opportunities to practice. I don't know if you ever did it this way, Conrad. But when I was shooting a lot of film for some film photography classes that I took, I had already been in photography for a while and took some film classes at a community college in order to get access to their dark room. But my Polaroids became digital. I had just shot everything digital to see how my lighting worked, check my settings, and do all that stuff, then I brought the film camera in and said, "Now we're going to create a few exposures this way," which is an interesting way of working, I think. It is funny to think about a future where the brand comes out and says, "Our whole spring collection was shot on a vintage Cannon 5D Mark II."


Conrad Sanderson:

Yeah. I think somebody did that with Polaroids not too long ago and stuff like that.


Daniel Jester:

Yeah.


Conrad Sanderson:

And once again, once you start having a lot of companies do it a certain way, there's always going to be the rebels who want to be different. So they're going to go and try to do different things. So that's always going to happen as well. So that's going to give opportunity, once again, for a lot of different people to do a lot of different things. One of the cool things that I heard about a while ago was basically a high end printer that I know of back in New York was doing digital contact negatives. So you give them a file, and then they make a contact neg and then they do platinum/palladium contact prints. And I was like, "That's the best of both worlds."


Daniel Jester:

That's about the time we have for this episode. Is there anything else that you'd like to add for our listeners before we sign off for this episode of the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast?


Conrad Sanderson:

I would like to add whenever there is change there's opportunity and you should look at it that way.


Daniel Jester:

That's the pull quote. Done. Got it. That's the tagline for this episode. Thank you so much for your time and your insight, Conrad. It was really great to meet you and get a chance to talk to you for the show.


Conrad Sanderson:

All right. Thank you. I enjoyed it immensely.


Daniel Jester:

That's it for this episode. Many thanks to our guest, Conrad Sanderson. And thanks to you for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lanz. Special thanks to my friend, Sean O'Meara. I'm your host, 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.