The state of DAM: digital asset management in 2015

If your marketing assets are in-house, easily found and readily searchable, with version control and any regulatory bells and whistles your vertical might require, it sounds like you have digital asset management well in hand.

Real life, for many businesses at least, is somewhat difference. Creating seamless, consistent customer experiences can be a confusing and costly project if assets are cluttered, irretrievable or lost, and need continually to be re-created from scratch.

Damned if You Don’t

One thing I continually come across is advocates, analysts and brands emphasizing very different slices of the customer experience pie. For some, it all starts with content creation–the substance of the experience to be delivered. For others, it’s about the multiple channels for content distribution, and especially social media. Hardheads look first at analytics, because if you can’t measure an effect it doesn’t exist.

Still others, of course, see digital asset management–DAM–as the most important component of modern marketing. After all, you have to know where the pie is in the first place. What I learnt at the Henry Stewart’s DAMNY conference, on the art and practice of managing digital media, is that some big brands are still figuring out how to implement a DAM program, and how to achieve compliance with it across silos and regions.

In fact, the bigger the corporation, the more challenging DAM can be. After all, a small business with half a dozen employees might be able to get by with some mix of Sharepoint and Dropbox, with images stored on a manager’s laptop, videos on an external hard drive, and original creative copy in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. The problem is that much larger companies have simply multiplied this model over the years, and across offices, leading to nightmare stories like the marketing executive who had the only copy of key digital assets on her laptop when she left the company.

Or, of course, the all-too-common problem of brands and agencies reinventing the creative wheel because it’s easier than tracking existing assets down; always assuming people know they exist in the first place.

Take Microsoft Corporation, for example.

Brand Stories

You might think a software giant like Microsoft might already have leveraged the power of Azure, the world’s largest cloud infrastructure, to build a global home for its digital assets. That’s not what Payal Tiwana, director of sales and marketing automation cloud, discovered when she started on her DAM journey a year ago. Instead, she found more than 100,000 employees using a “disjointed, disparate system,” leading to waste, duplicate effort, and also a series of damaging leaks about upcoming product launches.

After attending a Henry Stewart DAM event a year ago, she started from the ground up, without executive sponsorship, trying to fix the problem. The Azure cloud was the obvious place for the corporation’s global assets to sit, but Microsoft went to an outside vendor, Stylelabs, for the technology–Marketing Content Hub–to store, organize, find and share the content, using quick filters and a multi-lingual search engine. After all, said Tiwana, “it’s easy to store things, but it can be difficult to find them again.”

Building a content hub in the cloud generated the speed and hyperscaleability required by a large multi-national, and also encouraged the development of a DAM-as-a-service model, with marketing teams around the world customizing their own subscriptions to the service. Of course, one of the challenges Tiwana has faced over the past year has been persuading these business teams that they actually need to pay for the service, but she now has executive sponsors beginning to showcase the solution as a part of Microsoft’s own digital marketing capabilities.

Different challenges face businesses in different verticals. Baxter, the global healthcare company, faced the problem of pushing content from a centralized hub to marketing teams in countries with different regulatory environments. But switching from the chaos of content stored everywhere from USB drives to vendors’ folders, to “one source of truth,” as international digital marketing manager  Beth Goldstein described it, actually gives increased control, not least through mandatory ownership of assets. Someone takes responsibility for each piece of content in the system.

Different challenges face businesses in different verticals.

Johnson & Johnson, of course, also plays in the regulatory playground, and was also faced with a de facto decentralization of assets across pre-existing pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer silos. In this case, the development team, led by Merrill Eppedio and Pam Solimani, changed course from viewing DAM as the core of their solution to deploying it as a depository and distribution tool built on a Business Process Management system the complexity of the situation demanded. The result? A measurable reduction in time-to-market for content because shared access and improved workflows reduced review time. There were reductions too in workloads, numbers of system touch-points, and the need for full-time support.

A Direct Approach

Different stories, then, but are their commonalities of approach in selecting and developing a DAM system? A persuasive affirmative answer was offered by Jarrod Gingras, analyst and managing director at Real Story Group, a rigorously vendor-independent technology evaluation firm. Gingras drew a convincing contrast between the traditional approach to choosing technologies like DAM–from “blind love” to assembling stacks of informational binders, from believing in the “horse race” (one solution must be best) to ending up with a “family car” solution like Sharepoint, because it’s in the garage already. I asked Gingras how many companies still went the traditional route: “About fifty percent.”

In a perfect world, businesses searching for a DAM product which is right for them need to go through a series of detailed steps, including a needs analysis, the development of scenarios for testing purposes, demos and proof of concept. The most important part of the process, said Gingras, is testing realistic use cases. Proof of concept can be expensive, especially if the scenarios are convincingly complex, but at the end of the day, it’s cheaper than buying the wrong product.

He also mentioned that most businesses tend to over-buy. It’s important to start negotiating contract possibilities with a number of vendors at an early stage of the process, rather than leaving it until you’re all but committed to the final option.

All sound advice, and common sense when it’s laid out clearly. But, guess what?  Some advisors will add extra layers of complexity.

Layers of Complexity

Easy to store assets, hard to find them. Most of the companies I heard from at DAMNY were solving the retrieval challenge through a mix of tagging/filters and Google-style search. But according to Mark Davey, president of the DAM Foundation, and a contributing analyst to Real Story Group, there are reasons to go deeper. Davey had a neat checklist of what DAM has to be able to do for assets: ingest, secure, store, transform, enrich, relate (through metadata), regulate, find, preview and publish. And it needs to do that across all channels.

DAM is “the beating heart of the semantic web.”

Davey’s proffer is that DAM can only keep up with those responsibilities, in a digital environment of booming complexity, if it leverages the concept of semantic search–particularly as developed by Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 book, Being Digital. In simple terms–and this is by no means simple–that means embedding metadata in assets in conformity with formal ontologies and taxonomies. In other words, not by random tagging, but by using terms developed systematically by experts–digital librarians. 

DAM, for Davey, is “the beating heart of the semantic web.” A “highly controlled vocabulary” should power search, and without the expertise of a librarian to implement that, your DAM will fail.

I think it’s fair to say that most business managers directly engaged in replacing the anarchy of folders and versions with an organized, searchable content hub, aren’t yet fully immersed in Davey’s vision of what is necessary. Right now, a semantically saturated DAM system might be possible; might, indeed, be best in breed.

And maybe one day, thanks to the content explosion, it will be necessary.

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