Crisis, What DAM Crisis?

We briefly covered Ian Matzen’s article The Coming DAM Crisis on the DAM round-up earlier this week.  I thought Ian’s post was probably the most insightful thing I’ve read about DAM for some time and I was inspired to write some more about this subject.

For those who have not seen it yet, the thesis of Ian’s piece is that the declining number of Digital Asset Management practitioners (or ‘Digital Asset Managers’) is likely to lead to a crisis in DAM because there will not be enough skilled personnel to do the work of managing digital asset libraries.  Ian cites the departure of many DAM pros to vendor firms or to work as consultants as evidence:

So why is it so hard to find any DAM pros? I see DAM positions sit unfilled for months or, worse, searches are abandoned because the right candidate could not be found. Sure, some folks have transitioned to different careers, gone back to school, or decided to retire. But most have gone to work for vendors or become DAM consultants. In the past month alone I know of at least three DAM superstars who’ve left careers at growing companies to work for DAM vendors. Though I can see the attraction of helping guide vendors towards more user-focused features, I think the underlying reason is more worrying.” [Read More]

I am in the somewhat unusual position of having worked on the vendor side, managed digital asset libraries on-behalf of clients and provide DAM consulting services, so I have a perspective which has enabled me to see how senior managers view each of these different stakeholders.

Operational roles in DAM initiatives are generally inadequately remunerated posts when compared with technology-related jobs.  As Ian alludes to in his article, the work tends to be regarded as low value by senior level executives who view Digital Asset Managers as highly expendable when ‘restructuring’ exercises are contemplated (i.e. when people have to get sacked).  As such, where the free market for labour should intercede to increase pay, it does not because the activity is not perceived as worthwhile by senior management.

Last year I wrote an article about why operational DAM personnel are usually better placed to become DAM consultants than technologists, so it doesn’t surprise me that many of them have switched to something more lucrative (or perhaps just to pay the bills for anyone who resides in a more expensive city like London, New York, San Francisco etc).

That this is happening and that the consequences will be quite bad if there aren’t enough people to manage digital asset repositories are indisputable facts.  The more interesting question is why?  I believe there are several reasons, ranging from over-exuberance about the technology through to some socio-economic and arguably gender-related factors.  The latter is dangerous territory to get into, yet I would contest that it needs to be confronted and discussed a bit more openly, which I intend to do here.

Dealing with the technology side first; without fail, when any discussion comes up about DAM, I routinely hear lots of people reiterate that the technology is less significant than the people aspect of DAM.  Everyone knows this and repeats the ‘People Process Technology’ mantra which has now become this clichéd phrase that we have all simultaneously both memorised the words to and forgotten the meaning of.  In numerous DAM initiatives I encounter, however, the technology element still ends up monopolising the narrative.

The reason why this is the case fundamentally relates to money.  As I have discussed in previous articles on DAM News, the unspoken secret in DAM is that the end users (and the digital asset managers especially) are the ones who create the tangible value in digital assets.  The software’s contribution has improved, but not at the pace it should have done to justify the fees charged by vendors.  For an enterprise DAM implementation, the software typically costs more than the annual salary of its principal end users, but it delivers a lot less.

Despite the constrained value and relatively expensive prices, DAM software has still become an essential purchase for most organisations  of a significant size because the alternatives (spreadsheets, file sharing tools etc) are even worse .  As such, by no other virtue than costing more than everything else in a typical DAM initiative, the technology considerations get moved to the top of the agenda.

As anyone who has been involved in a DAM purchasing exercise on the end-user side will be well aware, big ticket tech items garner attention from a selection of protagonists and antagonists who position themselves in favour or against going ahead with a DAM implementation.  Their priorities may or may not be aligned with an organisation’s digital asset strategy and so there is a political dimension that few bargain for when they first decide they need a new or updated DAM.  The question of how best can the DAM be utilised to save the business some money receives far less attention both because it is assumed that someone else will deal with this issue and it is deemed less important, because the staff cost is typically less than the software.

In many enterprises, there is an implicit assumption that the ‘someone else’ is going to be an introverted bookish librarian type who is most likely to be female (for which you can read ‘passive and unlikely to cause trouble’).  This is discussed in Lisa Grimm’s article Will the ‘Librarification’ of DAM Demographics Affect Salaries? Her observation that the role of Digital Asset Manager has become a ‘feminised’ profession (and badly paid as a result) reflects what I have witnessed in many organisations also:

…historically, the ‘feminization’ of a profession (think teaching, or, going back much further, textile production) has never had a positive impact on salaries; quite the reverse. It would be nice to think that we can ignore historical precedent and that we’ve moved beyond that – and I’ve written elsewhere about what it’s like to be a mid-career woman in technology facing those issues – but given the existing salary gender gap in DAM, it’s something we should continue to be vigilant about – let’s make sure that gap is truly reflective of a historical blip, and that it doesn’t become wider.” [Read More]

The key point here is that ‘feminisation’ doesn’t necessarily refer to the gender of the person responsible for keeping DAMs running and delivering positive ROI.  Instead, it is a template (or more accurately, a stereotype) and can get equally applied to male digital asset managers as well as female ones.

The implication is that technology decisions trump all other considerations when it comes to DAM, therefore, they are the exclusive preserve of ‘alpha’ types (whether male or female) and attract remuneration to match – even though they are worst placed to make a decision about whether a proposed solution is satisfactory or not.

Needless to say, this is complete and utter nonsense.  The people who manage the operational side of DAM initiatives and deal with all the complex and fiddly subjects like metadata schemas, user adoption strategies, governance, workflow and so on are the ones who generate the real value in DAM.  This is why their expertise is sought and the reason many become DAM consultants; they understand what is required far better than those who have never managed collections of digital assets do.

Nearly every single technological innovation in DAM has promised to either obviate the need for digital asset managers or significantly reduce the need for them.  From the sales and marketing pitches of DAM vendors in the early 2000s that claimed archivists could be replaced by software through to AI-based image cataloguing (the DAM software industry’s latest techno-porn fetish du jour).  None of these claims have proven to come anywhere near close to yielding the kind of ROI that has been promised of them.  The need for digital asset managers increases exponentially  – a trend which mirrors the growth in the volume of digital assets themselves.

There is a fundamental schism at the heart of DAM operations which Ian has succinctly identified.  This is a failure of free market economics to solve a specific labour supply and demand problem (whether you agree with that method of resource allocation or not). Unless those with senior-level executive responsibility in enterprises begin to grasp this and do something about it, the resolution will, indeed, look and feel a lot like a DAM crisis.

Copies of the latest DAM Federation salary survey can be downloaded here:

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  • Elizabeth F Keathley

    All of this. I’m glad you and Ian are shining a light on the biggest issue in DAM right now.

  • It is beyond frustrating to see so much money and effort and resources being pointed at a (potential) DAM project yet the one coming up w schema, vocabularies, tags, names, etc, is viewed as an electrician who’s here to turn on the power for a new home. And here’s the door, thanks for stopping by. Biggest Untruth in a DAM World. “The Staff will take over metadata and ingestion duties…” I stay in touch with people at companies that I built a DAM and if they never hired someone FT, the DAM is *always* in disarray. If they wised up and hired a FT DAM? See: Happy with their tricked out repository.

  • Sherwood Botsford

    A consumer level product increases the general knowledge level in the population as a whole:

    * PCs + cheap compilers = lot of interest in programming => computer related careers.
    * Home Depot + Youtube => lots of DIY people who do professional level work, although not as fast.
    * Sketch Up => increased autocad sales.

    In DAM the tools to learn are essentially non-existent. There is no good DAM product at a price point that individuals and SOHOs can afford.

    The people who write DAM software *really* need to take some courses on user interface design. Most of the interfaces are incredibly awkward to use and are inconsistent.

    Almost all of the present DAM products are software as a service. That only works until you get a notice that {your product} will be shutting down next Tuesday. Or the servers have been compromised, and now anyone has access to my metadata. DAM is a long term investment. I want to have it:

    * In house.
    * open standards with no locking to a particular format.

  • Thanks for touching on the issues surrounding the devaluing of work when it’s “feminized.” This is a rampant issue in cultural heritage world, it’s frustrating to see how common it is in overlapping fields.

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