Holly Boerner

Holly Boerner - Digital Asset Manager

With a deep understanding of digital asset management life-cycles, Boerner has worked for some of the largest names in the industry helping to improve DAM policies and procedures.

What companies/organizations have you worked for as a DAM professional? What was your role at each?

Well as of just a few months ago, I’ve started in a new asset management/knowledge management position at Grey New York.  In this role, I’ll be working to establish an information infrastructure for the company, and a key component of this will be implementing a system to centralize all internal documents/content/information that has business archival or sharable value.

Previous to this, I’ve worked at four other places doing asset management work.  I started off at the Museum of Modern Art as a more traditional (material) photo archivist, but ended up managing the admin work around a couple of digital photography initiatives that were kicking off there at the time, targeting different sections of the museum’s collection. From there I jumped to Martha Stewart where I worked for about five years, and I really credit those years as my true digital asset management education. My supervisor there came from a library science background, and it was the combination of working under him and with the company’s early DAM systems that I really cut my teeth and learned the ins and outs of the work.

It was a great experience partly in that as an “omnimedia” company their DAM system was scoped to manage print, broadcast and merchandising assets…so I really got broad exposure to the different types of issues and priorities triggered by dealing with different asset types and industry priorities.  I started that job thinking, okay, I know a little bit about keeping track of digital files, but by the time I left I really had developed a passion for the strategies that drive DAM work, and the possibilities of how digital asset management can be leveraged to provide huge value to a company or environment.

After Martha I spent a couple of years at J.Crew, where I like to joke I was their WIP DAM, shepherding creative assets through their print and web production processes and then ultimately archiving them.  And then most recently before Grey, I worked for three years at American Express Publishing where I was the DAM manager within a three person DAM team. While there my team implemented AmEx’s first DAM system, which performed as both a WIP system for magazine and web production, and also rights management/library system that facilitated asset distribution throughout the company.

How do you describe digital asset management to others?

My short, don’t-scare-them answer is to call it photo archiving, but dealing with digital instead of physical material.

How did you learn DAM? Any recommended sources?

I’m part of the generation who fell into DAM work via the emergence of digital photography and production, and the need that cropped up along with it to manage all the digital material. So I learned by doing and by being mentored in a corporate environment.  It was really a great experience coming up, where I got exposure to some of the more formal, academically-rooted concepts and practices that guide the work, but immediately was taught to balance and interpret them to meet the needs of a business environment. So I’m a big advocate of just getting out there and rolling up your sleeves and learning by doing, learning through a mentor.

Nowadays it’s great to see a growing network of resources and information crop up for DAM workers—LinkedIn groups, industry blogs, Meet-Up groups, white papers, industry conferences, all of that.  I think if there are individuals looking to tackle a specific problem or issue there’s a lot out there to draw from.  And I think for anyone who’s at the stage of committing to a particular vendor or system, the smartest thing they can do is seek out and talk to other individuals/organizations who have already implemented and are using the system, to hear their on-the-ground experiences and advice.

But overall, for anyone who is looking to get a more holistic sense of the industry and practices, I think the best thing a person could do is get some experience working in a few different environments. DAM can get incredibly idiosyncratic very quickly, and even out-of-the-box implementations can take on bespoke qualities when put to task meeting specific project goals.  So whatever anyone can do to get exposure & experience with different types of implementations in different environments, the clearer the picture becomes in seeing the larger themes and concepts that are the cornerstones of DAM work.

What’s the most important thing for someone new to DAM to understand about DAM?

I don’t know if it’s the most important, but I think one thing to keep in mind is the importance of the “soft” skills or activities DAM work involves, that may not be obvious from outset.  A huge component of DAM work is all the customer service, the relationship building, personality managing, evangelizing and cheerleading and PR.  It goes part and parcel with doing DAM in an enterprise environment. The best DAM practitioners I know are the people who are good listeners, that approach their end user audience with an open and collaborative attitude, who are patient dealing with different personality types, who have the ability to assimilate a lot of different information and be critical but not dismissive about what they hear, and who have the ability read and know their audience and adjust their message to insure it’s received, no matter who you’re dealing with.

I feel like in a lot of ways, the things that are the typical skills and tasks emphasized in relation to DAM (metadata strategy; rights management; system admin) are the easy parts to anticipate and plan for.  But typically the success around a digital asset management project is going to be tied to how well the initiative is integrated with its user base.  How the DAM leadership handles change management, how they get people on board (or not), and the ongoing tight rope walk that can be…the audience/people factor is not to be underestimated.

I know from experience that the implementation of a horrible, barely functional system can be seen as successful if you keep your users on board…whereas a beautiful, flawlessly performing system can be seen in disastrous terms if users don’t know what to do with it or how to use it. As a DAM worker, it’s not enough to be a data nerd and obsessive about metadata structure and accuracy around organizing and categorizing…you need some serious people skills as well.

On a more humorous level (because you need to have a sense of humor about these things), DAM newbies should expect that at some point, they’re going to trigger a truly massive f-up or two with the system or the assets.   A huge batch metadata edit that rewrites or erases a ton of data?  Crashing a system at a critical time?  Deleting files?  You’ll do it all.  You haven’t done DAM until you’ve had to place a desperate Friday night, 11th-hour call to your vendor.

What is your ongoing greatest challenge with DAM?

I think the lack of understanding of it across other industries remains the biggest challenge.  I think there are a lot of environments where there’s a vague sense of “there’s got to be a better way” in terms of information/workflow/asset management, and maybe a sense of “look what Google can do!” but there’s not a very developed understanding of the nuance around what steps should follow, past the moment identifying a need—what to go after, what to prioritize, what’s realistic to try and achieve.  There’s often a lack of understanding that successful asset management usually requires a collective awareness and investment by an entire organization; it’s not something that can be accomplished in a dusty dark closet that the larger organization gets to remain ignorant of; you can’t start talking about enterprise solutions without expecting that the whole enterprise will need to get engaged, at least a little.

Along those lines, I think a big challenge is getting corporate cultures to appreciate and understand that “digital asset management” is the work done in managing assets and info and workflow—the strategizing and system admining and all the rest, and that “digital asset management” is NOT just the technical solution put into place in an environment.  No one thinks that Adobe Creative Suite is graphic design or that a spreadsheet is accounting; yet it’s not unusual to run into the expectation that a DAM system is a tool capable of wielding itself.

I think that impression may in part be an unfortunate consequence of how the DAM industry advocated for itself in its early days—there was a lot of emphasis on system automations and moving away from human actions as a way to eliminate redundant activities, or files, or communications.  And as a whole yes, digital asset management can put an organization miles ahead on all of those fronts…but not at the level of zero human intervention.  A hundred people on a bus is unquestionably a more efficient means of transportation than a hundred people driving a hundred cars…but you still need a bus driver or two.

Anyway, all of that is to say I’ve seen powerful, beautiful, expensive systems mis-implemented or orphaned because a company’s not willing to investment in the humans, and human expertise required to make sure a system’s leveraged properly and evolved in sync with the environment it lives in.  I think the people working in digital asset management have done a phenomenal job in advocating for the industry, in defining it, in really being proactive about getting the word out and making resources available for anyone to access if/when going down the DAM road.  I just don’t think the potential audiences necessarily realize how much there is to penetrate, and that it requires some expertise if they want to get it right from the start.

What is your vision for DAM? What will it look like in 5 years?

I think there will be better unification and growing emphasis of recognizing “asset management” in terms of the expertise and practices performed around it, rather than being defined by the systems that facilitate the assets being managed.  I think this has been the trend over the last few years and I think it’s a great thing to see develop–people talking more about metadata, asset enrichment or people skills, instead of system-system-system.  That said, on the system/technology side, I think things will continue converging as they have been already — ECM, DAM, BPM, MAM, CMS etc.  I’d love to see different system types live in a more streamlined continuum in relation to each other, and developed in terms of the functionally they offer rather than being defined by the asset types they’re meant to manage.

I’m also curious to see the influence of consumer level awareness of asset management topics, and see to what degree that shapes asset management structures in enterprise environments–the fact that search performance is essentially defined by Google at this point; or that user-friendly websites have set the UI-bar, so that UX design has suddenly (finally!) been a hot topic at DAM conferences; the fact that the concept of “tagging” is all over the social space, and that thanks to Edward Snowden, metadata has become a household word…will these things breed a more native understanding for DAM practices to non-DAM experts in enterprise environments?  How will it influence vendors’ prioritizing as they develop the technology?

Lastly, I’d love to see more middle-of-the-road, small scale asset management solutions enter the market.  Something a bit more plug and play, that doesn’t take a massive investment by an organization to fund and admin.  I think there are a lot of smaller companies and non-profits out there that would love to get a solution in place, but for who existing systems would be overkill or budget breakers.

What was your biggest success with regard to DAM?

The implementation I was a part of at AmEx Publishing was ultimately very successful, which was hugely gratifying, though we had our fair share of blood, sweat and tears along the way.  I think the key driver of that success really boiled down to the strong relationships we built with our end users along the way. We started investing in and building those relationships even before we had our system in-house, and that really paid off.  Taking the time to establish ourselves as listeners, as collaborators who wanted to work WITH our end users, really earned us their grace, trust and patience to try and try again and actually work through the rough patches.

What more would you like to learn about DAM?

I love hearing the war stories & people’s on the ground experiences doing digital asset management; I love hearing the specifics about what worked or didn’t…all of that.

This interview originally appeared on DAM Guru on Mon, 13 Jan 2014. For more DAM News interviews, see the interviews index page.

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