Looking at how the DAM market has changed over the last few decades, what stands out the most?
I would say that a shift away from monolithic or ‘silo’ libraries is a significant development. Unlike in the past, today very few DAM solutions are focused on bringing content solely and exclusively under their management. Most have major integrations with other workflows and business needs. For Third Light, that evolution came with our hybrid model of supporting desktop file/folder synchronisation alongside DAM. Creatives can carry on their work in progress projects without leaving their graphics software, while marketing and other teams use the more expressive, configurable environment of the DAM web application (One of our guys said this was like what would happen if Flickr and Dropbox had kids. I think that’s an amusing shortcut to what we were trying to do!). DAM solutions have accelerated away from being silos and, as you can imagine, innovation has flourished in this new space, especially in the mid-tier pricing range.
Do you think that “digital asset management” is a good moniker for the industry?
I do not. I have always felt this is an unnecessarily complicated and jargonistic way to say it. If you spend any time with people who are in the key roles that tend to use DAM, they’ll rarely describe their needs in this kind of language. I think in the end, decrying this terminology is not helpful though as there is no obviously-right alternative to it that would actually sum up what DAM is. The fact that we have such a huge range of solutions under one umbrella is the real challenge. Over the years, various efforts to segment and divide the industry (often driven by a wish by a particular vendor to get control of that new empty space!) have nose-dived, and at the time of writing I think the extra energy needed to describe solutions and match them to problems is still in the hands of vendors’ marketing and communications teams. It drives advertising spend to stratospheric levels, which is a net waste as pricing might otherwise be lower.
What was your biggest success with regard to DAM?
It is tempting to think of a great feature or technical advancement, but I think my answer must start with the fact that we have some very major brands as clients, such as Sony, NASCAR, ITV (a national broadcaster in the UK), AS Roma, NATO and the United Nations. Basically, Third Light works with organisations that are household names whose products and services you use every day. This is a consequence of being a mature vendor in a specialist industry, selling a tool that is precisely what they needed. We experience a strong ‘halo’ effect from our association with these brands. While I expect most of the vendors in the DAM industry have some exposure to this positive effect, I think our biggest success is to double-down and get reviews and case studies that underscore the strength of these connections – it really powers-up our messaging.
What is the most difficult thing about being a vendor in the DAM market?
I think that as well as the enduring problem of explaining what DAM is, we have the challenge of being clear about specialisms and strengths in our particular software that distinguish us from other vendors. Even though it seems like there are a lot of overlapping vendors in the DAM market, in actual fact they are in clusters that compete with each other and many of the solutions are completely distinct. I doubt this is immediately obvious to people who begin the task of researching the various offerings. In most other software industries, buyers are attracted to vendors who have targeted their vertical (which makes messaging very easy for the customer). In DAM, we see such a spread across so many sectors that the ‘horizontal’ description of DAM can be hard to grasp, and relating software to personas is essential to help bring some much-needed clarity. When you combine these positioning and messaging issues with the technical nature of some of the most powerful concepts (especially metadata) you might be tempted to conclude that the most difficult thing about being a vendor in the DAM market is communicating in clear, precise ways what your particular DAM is for.
Have you made any mistakes you regret?
I think DAM, as a sector, provides a vast canvas for potential business models. We have a problem space with almost unlimited potential for innovation and improvements, and it’s unlikely anyone will fully tackle the true scope of the opportunities – let alone solve them all. Even the larger, venture-backed players cannot do it. That means you have to pick your battles, and focus on specialisms. When I look at our product today, I see something really fine-tuned and focused on key areas (such as work in progress, team workflows, and metadata as an engine for processes). It has not been the work of a moment but is the result of staying focused on design goals. With the benefit of hindsight I would have steered Third Light away from e-commerce activities in the first half of the company’s history. We provided a well-known file-to-print solution which was attractive to customers running traditional businesses, instead of exploring new ones where prints wouldn’t be relevant or needed. As mistakes go, it was at least profitable!
If you could go back, what changes would you make?
I try to remember first and foremost that business owners never knowingly set out to make bad choices. On the contrary, we always try to do the right thing for our situation, and build our businesses to become stronger over time. If you make rational choices and use your resources wisely then you cannot really harbour serious regrets if the future turned out to be more surprising than you expected. Realising this, I think we have to make time to invest in our personal skills and ability to manage technical change. We need a sense of strategy that is stronger, more methodical and hence more likely to make good predictions. I found going on professional business training with Goldman Sachs was a great opportunity to expand my skills in that sort of way, and I’d definitely recommend other business leaders and innovators do the same. If I could go back, I would have taken up professional business training sooner.
If you were not doing DAM as a career, what would you be doing?
My academic training was in engineering at Cambridge, which is a great starting point for many careers. I nearly got drawn into consulting work in the internet space, but my interest in the fundamental principles of information systems engineering was what brought me to working in DAM. Problem-solving is a personality trait that I share with most engineering professionals, and it provides the drive to overcome challenges to make things work better. The technology is a tool, nothing more. Although there are a lot of different industries and professions where problem-solving is important, DAM is a particularly great example. If I couldn’t stay in DAM, I’m sure I would be bringing systems and information together in another way. Perhaps it would something to do with smart grids and balancing energy demands as EVs start to get used to smooth over cyclical under- and over-supply of electricity. I could turn this question around and say that I would not be anything that might waste our precious resources or amplify inequality. We all have a choice about the kind of work we do – and the difference we can make can be significant – so it’s important to be constructive about the future.
You can read more about Michael’s company, Third Light on their website: https://www.thirdlight.com/ and connect with him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-wells-44326a/ Michael is also a contributor to the DAM News Open Specification.
This interview was published in DAM News on 10th May 2021. For more DAM News interviews, see the interviews index page.
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