What’s Holding DAM Back: The Vendors
DAM vendors have been lambasted as of late about the lack of innovation in our industry, and no criticism has ever been more deserved. The knee-jerk response from a few vendors has been, “Hey, we innovate! Just look at our…” and then they provide examples that demonstrate their lack of innovation and apparent unawareness of the meaning of the term.
But companies don’t typically try to avoid innovating. It’s not like we DAM vendors meet in secret and collectively decide to do nothing to move our industry forward. DAM vendors have mastered the art of anti-innovation each on our own.
Killing Killer Ideas
I have worked for DAM vendors (two in total) since 1998. In that time, I have seen scores of interesting ideas brought to the table and, with only a few rare exceptions, I’ve seen those ideas die or idle long enough that they become moot points. I have also spoken with the employees of other vendors who say the same—a few have even quit their posts in frustration over what wasn’t going on.
About 10 years ago, I told my then supervisor that in order for DAM to become successful, I reckoned, it had to become invisible. I suggested that DAM shouldn’t be a place where users go to store and retrieve files; instead, DAM should be a service that comes to the users, no matter where they were or what they were doing at the time. “Take DAM to the point of consumption,” I said.
I was warned that undertaking such an endeavor would be extremely costly and that it would take a very long time to develop—perhaps two or maybe even three years.
Fast-forward a decade and that 2-3 year investment seems like it would have been quite a good idea.
I also pitched the idea of free file storage that would be accessible from anywhere. My theory was that instead of trying to sell companies on DAM, we could give the storage away and let chaos ensue. Once there was a big enough mess, we’d swoop in with a solution to manage it all.
In truth, it wasn’t an entirely original idea. Canto’s original product, Cirrus, was scanning software. As Canto founder Jennifer Neumann explained in her Meet the Mother of DAM webinar, Cumulus was developed in response to customers asking Canto to help them manage the mountains of digital images they’d created using Cirrus.
But the response I received was clear: there was no business model in giving away storage for free.
Visionary leader Neumann had long since left the company by that time. To this day I wonder how differently things might have turned out if it had been Jennifer to whom I presented the idea.
Dropbox should have come from a DAM vendor, just like Paypal should have come from Western Union. But when a company is mired in its own daily nonsense, it can become difficult to think about rethinking anything.
These were just a few of the countless DAM concepts I’ve seen wither on the vine. Meanwhile, DAM systems have become riddled with features that leave me scratching my head in confusion and disbelief. How many times have you used a DAM only to find yourself thinking, “Who on earth thought this feature was a good idea?” or “Does this process really make sense to anyone?”
The Customer is Always Wrong
Assuming there is no coordinated effort to fumble so tirelessly as an industry, there must be something else at play that’s holding DAM back.
One common theme I’ve heard while crinkling my forehead and pointing at inexplicable features is, “Customer A wanted it so we put it in.”
Unfortunately, Customer A is not in the business of software development. Nor are Customers B through Z. Yet DAM vendors pride themselves on “listening to our customers,” when in fact, the well intentioned guidance of customers can often be a very bad thing.
I’m not saying that when 50 customers complain about the way in which a given feature works that vendors should ignore them—this is user experience refinement, and customers are perfect for this. But DAM customers are not typically DAM software visionaries. Customers know what they need today, but what they need today should have been delivered to them yesterday.
When you ask DAM users “what comes next for DAM?” they answer within the confines of DAM’s current boundaries and limitations. They often have no tangible ideas about how to improve today’s DAM.
It’s the same as asking a car owner how to improve his or her car. You might hear about better gas mileage or a nicer interior. What you’re not likely to hear is a solution for transportation that doesn’t even involve the car. But that’s the kind of visionary thinking that leads to true innovation.
A lack of this level of customer input leaves smug DAM vendors believing that things are actually going pretty well. There is no DAM innovation taking place, they figure, because no DAM innovation is needed. The result is that we have an industry full of DAM software solutions that are proudly based on “the input from hundreds of customers over thousands of years,” or whatever.
And here we are.
Vision isn’t Dead
As my co-contributor, Jeff Lawrence wrote in a sister piece to this article that there has been no Steve Jobs of DAM. But there was no Steve Jobs of Search either, and that didn’t hold back Google. No Steve Jobs of social media either.
So, if other industries can thrive in the absence of legendary visionaries, what’s holding DAM back? Canto and MediaBeacon are older than Google. Picturepark, North Plains and ADAM are each older than Twitter and Facebook. Hell, Widen claims they’ve been in business longer than the software industry itself.
That should put things into perspective.
I know for a fact that “vision” hasn’t been entirely absent from the DAM industry. The problem has been that no DAM vendor has had the balls to act on any vision presented to it. Everything we have today looks like “DAM 1.0” and nothing feels truly unique or even different.
Sure, some DAM UIs are prettier than others; but pretty doesn’t leverage assets. Pretty also doesn’t run computers. Does anyone really think that today’s Windows, Linux or Mac UIs are pretty? If so, take another look at the clusterfuck of inconsistencies these OS UIs have become over the years. We see iOS and Android as breaths of fresh air simply because they aren’t the do-everything monstrosities that our desktop environments have become.
But they’re not pretty either; they’re just more function-specific, which makes them appear easier to use.
Schizophrenia and Self-denial
It’s getting to the point where too many DAM vendors are treating the phrase “digital asset management” like some embarrassing tattoo they attribute to adolescent indiscretion. It’s all about Brand Management now. Wait, that’s old now too. It’s now about Marketing Resource … nope, that one’s dead too. Wait, I know! It’s Customer Experience Management now. Yeah, that’s it.
In scrambling to hop aboard every trend train that comes chugging through Software Station, DAM vendors have all but murdered the one moniker that ever stuck for what we do. Granted, the term is horrible. It’s long and its meaning isn’t clear. But how many initially understand “customer relationship management” to mean digital rolodex?
As an industry of (too) many vendors each doing basically the same thing, we could have better defined what we do and why it matters. Instead, we splintered into market-niche ghettos and targeted our firearms at one another instead of the true enemy: ignorance of the problems we solve as an industry.
In the past few years, it seems as though market education has become an increasingly important consideration for many DAM vendors, which is a good start. But let me dare say that if Picturepark hadn’t gotten that ball rolling, no other vendor would be tossing it around today.
At the same time, we have vendors claiming publicly that DAM is dead. Really? Does that mean these vendors are asking to be removed from the DAM vendors directory and DAM analysts should stop covering them? I know it doesn’t mean they’ll stop using “digital asset management” as an advertising keyword.
Instead of any strategic marketing decision that might actually stick, I see these disassociations as panic. When you can’t differentiate yourself based on merit, you change the name of the game. If you build a DAM that isn’t as fully featured as other DAMs, you come up with a new term. If you build a DAM and find you can’t compete in Google SERP for the term “digital asset management,” you come up with a new term.
The problem is that no one knows these new terms. They confuse the market and they do nothing to drive demand for what we collectively do as an industry. And just for clarification and reminder, what is it that we collectively do?
We manage digital assets.
Inexperience and Lack of Commitment
Perhaps feeding the problem of schizophrenia and self-denial is the pandemic of inexperience at most DAM vendors today. How many DAM vendor employees have you met who have been in this industry more than a few years?
Check out those LinkedIn profiles to see who’s been around and who’s likely just passing through. (Seriously, do this for every DAM vendor employee with whom you interact—sales, marketing, support, CEOs—all of them.)
Call me biased (or just cranky), but the problem seems to be exacerbated when DAM newbies are in sales and marketing. These are the public-facing people who should know what they’re talking about. When they claim to be able to help you assess your needs, shouldn’t they have more than 15 minutes’ experience in the field?
It’s irritating when you’re speaking to a sales rep who clearly knows not what is going on. But it’s dangerous when pop-up marketing people start making claims in advertising and white papers. Granted, much of it is copied from works published earlier; but saying about DAM today what we said about DAM 10 years ago does nothing for the promotion of DAM.
DAM vendors: Send your employees through the DAM Foundation online certification course, preferably before they answer another sales email or build their next Google campaign. It’s worth the investment, and you’ll be helping out the entire industry—you know, in case that matters.
DAM ignorance hasn’t escaped the C-suites either. Newly appointed CEOs who bring with them experience in some random, unrelated industry, and smartly dressed CMOs who bring with them all the Marketing 101 knowledge they can fit onto their iWhatevers, are also stinking up the place.
Will they last? It’s doubtful. They’re here for the paychecks, likely because there was no better option, or they had exhausted their worth in another industry.
DAM has been around long enough now for people to start here. Anyone who doesn’t, isn’t likely interested enough to stay for the duration.
Lack of Sexiness
Finally, we can point a finger at DAM’s lack of sexiness.
The world’s most brilliant minds tend to get to do what they want, and their interests usually start young. Do you know any 14-year old computer geniuses who have traded video game conquests for content management strategies? No matter how big a breast or bicep you put on a DAM, it doesn’t appeal to young minds. DAM is a solution that helps users clean up and avoid bad consequences that arise as a result of lack of policy or mismanagement. Explain that benefit to a kid.
What we have in DAM—with exceptions—are people who sort of fell into it, usually because something else didn’t work out. And while it’s possible that these people could become powerhouses of DAM innovation over time, few stick around long enough for that to happen.
I think this phenomenon affects DAM software quality. All software has bugs, but does it strike anyone as odd that DAM software seems to always have a lot of bugs? Granted, DAM is complex; there are many nooks and crannies in which bugs can breed. But we’ve had—what—25+ years to get a handle on this?
I’m not pointing fingers here, because all DAM products I’ve ever tried are guilty of this. And I’ve heard even worse things about some systems I haven’t used. But I do think it suggests that we, as an industry, have a quality problem.
Getting back to the lack of sexy, in this age of (finally) focusing on user experience, why has it been so tough for DAM vendors to deliver on the promise?
I think it’s because the people designing and coding the software are not the ones using it. Contrast this to game developers who are virtually always addicted (at the very least) to their software genre. In their day jobs, when they reach those forks in the road when development could go one way or another, they can rely on valuable intuition to make a better decision. DAM developers tend to rely on specifications, which are usually inadequate, if they’re available at all.
I mentioned exceptions to these criticisms, but I feel I must reiterate that point. I have met DAM software developers whom I admire, and whom I have no doubt are “lifers” in this industry.
Thomas Schleu, who has been Canto’s lead engineer since the beginning, is a dedicated, talented professional whose commitment to the industry is undeniable. Jason Bright, who started and continues to run MediaBeacon, is another programming powerhouse who’s not likely to defect any time soon. Both are wonderful guys who can be credited as being the ones who defined the DAM 1.0 standard that virtually all DAM vendors copy today.
At the younger range of the spectrum, I’ve met Urs Brogle, who is for Picturepark what Schleu is for Canto. Urs started developing Picturepark was he was just a young teenager. Now more than 30 years of age, this “old man” continues to lead the Picturepark development effort, and he continues to seek new and better ways to do things just because he figures there are new and better ways to do things.
And then we have Tim Strehle, one of the few DAM developers who actually speaks to the market, educating and inspiring it with his ideas. I’ve never worked with Tim, but it’s on my Bucket List.
There are others too; but there are not many.
Digging DAM Out
In another article, Ralph Windsor commented that DAM vendors don’t trust one another. This, he cited, was one reason that establishing a DAM standard would be so difficult.
This got me thinking about the people in this industry whom I do and do not trust. I realized that my trust lies along the lines of experience and commitment; in fact, it’s not influenced by brand at all.
I trust Thomas Schleu because I know him. I know that he develops the best code he can, and that he’s dedicated to his product and to this industry. But I don’t trust his company—Ralph is right in that regard. And when I think about why, it’s because I realize that the decisions being made there today are not being made by DAM “lifers” like Thomas or me.
I also trust Jason Bright. He makes me laugh and he inspires me. I compete with him in the market, but somehow when we speak, competition doesn’t seem to ever come up. We operate behind different logos, but we work for the same industry and common goal.
Tim Strehle is a person whom I’ve never met in person. He also works for a competing DAM vendor, but I also don’t feel that when we communicate. We speak in defense of DAM as if it were our common responsibility.
I don’t trust DAM vendors who cannot be trusted—and there are many. They are riddled with employees who are passers by in our industry. They don’t understand that a goal of unifying the industry is more important now than differentiating the brands within. They don’t help the central cause of the DAM industry, and they don’t even recognize why it’s important to do so.
But there are people in our industry who can be trusted—who should be trusted. And there are people in our industry who have true vision about what should happen next for DAM. Yet somehow, these people don’t seem to be steering the conversation. And they don’t all work for the same DAM vendor.
Imagine if they did.