DAM Innovation: Who Hit The Pause Button?

This is part 1 of a series of articles about DAM Innovation.

On CMSWire this week, Jeff Lawrence has given an overview of various DAM vendor roadmaps for 2015 via two articles.  There are some interesting aspects to this, but for those interested in critically analysing our sector with a view to enhancing it, the prognosis does not look good and there are signs that 2015 might be the year the bullish upward trend in demand begins to slow through a series of mostly self-inflicted problems the Digital Asset Management software industry has created for itself.

I will also make this absolutely clear from the start, this is not a critique of Jeff nor his article.  If there is a criticism to be made, it’s that he has given the vendors a bit too much of an opportunity to use him as their marketing mouthpiece without sufficient cross-examination of their statements.  They can all be assured, however, that I will endeavour to rectify that issue in my response.

Here is the opening line:

This post started with a simple question asked of more than a dozen vendors: What innovative new features and technologies will you offer in 2015? The response was overwhelming. Vendors walked me through their 2015 technology roadmaps and shared their visions of where the digital asset management (DAM) and Media Asset Management (MAM) industry is heading beyond 2015.” [Read More]

Unfortunately, I can’t say I was exactly overwhelmed (the opposite in fact) and this confirms a theme we have been observing on DAM News for a while now and one that I know others have noted as well. The pace of genuine innovation in DAM is slowing and rather than tackling many of the fundamental reasons behind that, many vendors are instead just applying window dressing or attempting to scale out DAM so it becomes part of some wider series of technologies to allow them to avoid the problem via that route.

The Groundhog Day That Is DAM Innovation

Taking some of the innovations (which will is a fairly loose definition of the word, as I will discuss) the key themes are listed as follows:

  • Reimagining user interface (UI)
  • Consumer video for web and social channels
  • Interoperability between systems
  • Business intelligence and analytics

The “reimagining of UI” isn’t at all new.  With most DAM solutions, this means presenting them in a more marketing communications-friendly fashion and ditching some of the complexity of the user interface.  This is laudable, but it is not innovative now and is has been going on for eight or more years – since DAM vendors realised that systems with the visual appeal of a Windows 95 desktop app were no longer a selling point (if they ever were).

The two drivers of this trend have been the increased interest in DAM from marketing departments and the fact that DAM UIs were historically more user-hostile than friendly.  That this point needed to be addressed is not in dispute, but it has been mentioned as a point of innovation for years now and it is rather stretching the point to keep referring back to it repeatedly, year after year.  The lack of innovation appears to not only be in the software offered, but the way in which the benefits of it are imparted also.

There is a lot of other discussion about responsive designs and UIs that auto-rotate on tablets etc – most of which is borrowed from general web design trends, it is not anything unique to DAM and does not really count as an innovation. There is a place for mobile in DAM, but it does not justify the attention being given by vendors – this is another point that suggests that the people responsible for the product still do not fully understand what users will want to do with them.

There is a reasonable argument advanced by some that mobile interfaces to DAM content would be better provided by other tools that are already built to deliver it, for example WCM.  This would allow DAM solutions to concentrate on a smaller range of functionality and deliver that more effectively, rather than spreading themselves across an ever wider range of functional bases.  A DAM vendor partnering up with a WCM vendor and deciding that they were going to dispense with the ‘me too’ product development strategy of just copying their industry peers and their fashion obsession with mobile would be a genuine innovation in DAM worth talking about.

Most of the interface innovations are in fact copies of what is going on in WCM and trends already in play in that market. Those vendors that aggressively pursue this strategy are likely to find themselves fighting wars on multiple fronts.  As WCM vendors start to step up their game and make siren calls to their clients that they can do without a separate DAM solution, many DAM vendors are making it quite easy for them currently by homogenising their offer with what WCM solutions already offer.  It is convergence, after a fashion, but where one technology has the upper hand (to the extent it seems more like a takeover or capitulation).

My impression is that some DAM vendors would prefer to not be in the Digital Asset Management software business any longer, instead, they secretly envy a select slice of the WCM market instead.  In a few cases, they give the impression of being of wanting to go further and become more like digital marketing agencies who happen to offer a DAM solution also (this is particularly ironic given the number of real digital agencies who often attempt to claim that DAM is a part of their offer).  This might explain the fascination with the presentation aspect while many of the more serious issues with DAM systems that users consistently complain about go untouched.

Consumer Video For Web And Social Channels
This is another example of fudging of the definitions to try to construct an illusion of innovation. Video in DAM is not new now, it has been possible in many systems for about eight years now. Features to transcode video for around seven, editing tools for roughly four or five. Social media distribution essentially means automated and tracked transfer to YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook etc and is not new either, I have seen this in systems from 2009 onwards. Being able to open video files (or any other type of media) in Adobe desktop products directly from a DAM solution is a 2007/2008 innovation. I could go on, but there isn’t much that wasn’t done before 2010, let alone 2015.

My expectation is that many vendors will be reading the CMSWire article and making remarks to each other along the lines of “that isn’t innovative, we’ve had x feature in our system for n years”. Unfortunately, they will probably also be making detailed records of the items they don’t have yet so they can pass on even more work to their already over-stretched development teams and give Jeff a quote about how ‘innovative’ they are for his 2016 article.

Jeff doesn’t define the frame of reference for the term innovation in his article and by some measures (ones I would favour) it might have been a lot shorter due to a lack of source material.  Is it innovation when over 50% of the market has finally got round to adding it to their product’s features, or when it is has not been seen in a DAM system before?  I would tend to go with the latter option.  It must be stressed, ‘innovation’ does not mean ‘first time we’ve done it’, it refers to offering something that no one else provides yet.

In this section, there are some occasional spots of what might be more innovative developments, but they are relatively obscure use cases or they depend on technology which is of questionable reliability.  For example, the automated indexing of spoken narrative to text.  Ancillary vendors of pattern matching and OCR tools that claim to fully automate metadata cataloguing have been circulating around the various DAM LinkedIn groups fishing for DAM vendor customers to act as channel partners and VARs for a few years now, so it’s not a total surprise that they have acquired some.  The results of the technologies employed are generally mixed and still depend on real human digital asset managers having done a lot of the preparatory work and established solid metadata cataloguing processes and models beforehand (in addition to training them).  A point I find particularly worrying about this is the way that some of vendors have bought wholesale into the capabilities of these tools, with descriptions like ‘fully automated’ being liberally used in this article.  If were the client of any of those involved, I might want to carry out some metadata auditing to ensure the results were credible and that latent findability problems were not being silently introduced with consequences for ROI and metadata quality at a later date.

Interoperability Between Systems

The interoperability section reveals similar issues to the UI part.  There are some references to SDKs and APIs etc but these are not innovations for DAM in general now, just a few products that are still behind the pace.  There are some more hints that a few people are understanding DAM interoperability and why it is becoming more important, such as this from Chris Williams of Evolphin:

There is a need for vertical and horizontal integration of disparate systems and the ability to provide federation with multiple asset management systems. This will allow companies to be more efficient with the systems they have in place” [Read More]

I can’t comment further on whether Evolphin can offer more than fine words about interoperability as I have no prior experience of working with them, but at least they appear to grasp the key point of the subject and understand its importance.

Merely having an API or an SDK doesn’t count as having achieved interoperability (innovative or otherwise).  It remains to be seen whether this will be another tricky issue that the DAM industry decides to leave for someone else in 2015 (and with what consequences if they continue to do so).

This quote from Chris Hall of Bynder illustrates how some vendors appear to be confused about what DAM is, where they are going with it and what interoperability means for them:

Chris Hall, founder and CEO of Bynder, said, ‘DAM is dead. It’s all about having an integrated solution.’ To Hall, the term DAM is a siloed technology term for a type of database, not an end user solution. DAM is quickly evolving into something that should be invisible to users. There will always be a need for DAM and DAM may be more important now than ever.” [Read More]

So, to paraphrase Chris Hall, DAM is dead, but it’s now more important than ever? If the former is the case, should we delete their entry from our DAM vendor directory now, since it would appear to be superfluous to Bynder’s requirements?

I can make jokes and digs at Chris’ expense, but I’ll put the unorthodox semantics down to him either being quoted out of context (or perhaps without having the benefit of an opportunity to make some judicious amends to the text of the quote) and to be fair, Jeff offers this clarification which sounds like a reasonable summary of what he meant to say:

My understanding of what Hall means by all this is that traditional DAM was an archive, but today DAM is an important component of a larger ecosystem of connected tools that must have the ability to work together. Without an integrated solution, a siloed DAM is essentially a lost opportunity for the business.” [Read More]

With that being said, there are still aspects of this which need to be taken to task. An alternative interpretation on what Chris really means, given that Bynder’s DAM ‘Asset Bank’ (not to be confused with UK vendor, Bright Interactive’s product of the same name) is part of a suite of products they offer is that Bynder think they have solved the DAM problem and done everything they can with it. Since they now regard it as a done deal they have elected to horizontally integrate into a range of other solutions which are related, but still essentially different.

When Chris says “DAM is dead”, he means that as far as his firm is concerned, they are out of new ideas for innovating with it and want to move on to other markets.  The interoperability and ecosystem aspect is a land-grab for more of a client’s budget at the expense of the competition (specialist or otherwise).  So it’s not a silo in the sense that the DAM aspect is contained within a wider suite solely offered by them, but if you’re not using Bynder for everything then you’re just stuck in a bigger silo that has been converted into an apartment with separate rooms.

This isn’t interoperability, but actually the opposite. It is building large, bloated monolithic suites which seek to do everything rather than focussing on a specific problem domain and investigating solutions for it more deeply.

There is one potentially visionary sentence in Chris’ comment, which is this:

“DAM is quickly evolving into something that should be invisible to users”

This has the basis of a more significant innovation in DAM and it is one I have discussed before. It seems to me that Bynder don’t really want to be involved in the Digital Asset Management market as it applies to human digital asset managers – the people who ingest and catalogue all the material that is essential to the rest of the operation. They currently have no option because without a DAM, there are no foundations for the rest of their suite. Instead, I gain the impression they would prefer to be offering some kind of marketing technology solution stack and leave the drier metadata management aspect with all the fiddly taxonomy management, migration mapping, data import/export etc to some other component that sits in the background and is used by a small range of asset librarians who are specialist in that role. If that is the case, they would be better advised to partner up with another DAM vendor who are more interested that subject area.

This is why core DAM solutions cannot be exclusively about supporting marketing activities, because to be most effective, they need to be service or infrastructure that other applications can plug into – and that means capability to support the rich media needs of the whole enterprise, not just one department’s needs. My guess is that Bynder (and numerous others of their industry peers) are conflicted: they don’t want to remain in the deep-level DAM solution business because it’s getting more complex now and requires a lot of effort which takes away from other marketing technology solution opportunities they want to pursue, but they are nervous about making alliances with anyone else.

This is the crux of why innovation in DAM has ground to a halt and why it won’t pick up pace again until this is resolved. The vendors have covered a lot of ground very quickly, but are now finding themselves spread too thinly to support all of it simultaneously at a level deep enough to be sustainable over the longer term. Few of them are willing to collaborate with each other because they secretly fear the market isn’t large enough to support it and they mistrust each other, so instead they substitute innovation for cosmetic modifications or moving into other markets because they cannot fully capitalise on DAM alone.

DAM Innovation: So Far, So Bad

The impression I gain from this article is that there is a lack of new ideas in DAM.  If you talk to users, from their perspective, there remains serious problems relating to:

  • Metadata management
  • Migration and legacy metadata
  • Asset cataloguing efficiency
  • Findability
  • Workflow

With a few notable exceptions, these topics are largely ignored and not considered worthwhile subjects for DAM innovation by vendors.  An element of this issue might also relate to what I referred to as the DAM doughnut problem in my article for DAM News last year, the people choosing systems with overall management responsibility for it are not the ones who make heavy use of them.  If you don’t deal with asset cataloguing and the sharp-end of a DAM system usage on a regular basis, it’s quite easy to get distracted by the ‘sexier’ features and you cannot entirely blame vendors for targeting their efforts at the responses offered by the purchasing authorities first and foremost since they are all commercial operations that need to close deals and develop their businesses.

In part two of this response article, I will review the other points about business intelligence and examine some wider implications for DAM and try to pick through some options for industry-wide incremental improvement.


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One comment

  • Hi Ralph!

    It was interesting reading your views on the state of DAM innovation. Thanks for including us in the article! Bynder is all about innovation, and in our January newsletter we detail how we are breaking the mold, and redefining DAM. I’ve pasted Chris’ article below for you to check out!

    Old school, locally installed, database-like legacy DAM software, is dead. I feel that DAM software should be developed with the needs of brand and marketing managers in mind. The philosophy behind them should be that they become the invisible binding force that connects DAM and other marketing software tools – i.e. perfectly integrated and designed around the end user.
    Bynder has gone from a simple, handy tool that solved our own development agency’s problems, to one of the fastest growing tech companies in Europe. We currently help over 250 global brands (more than 20 of them Fortune 500 companies) manage their marketing materials and branding more effectively, in less time, and with less headaches along the way.
    Our DAM (Digital Asset Management) features have become beloved by our clients in spite of (or thanks to?) the fact that neither I nor our developers even knew what a DAM was when we first came up with the idea for Bynder in 2009.
    For me personally it’s always been about the product, about the end user, and about making our entire proposition better and better. It’s never been a “features game”. This is why it’s difficult for us to place ourselves in the current vendor landscape where acronyms such as MRM and MAM are both too generic, and difficult to explain.
    I still feel that DAM is too confining a description for our features. Why? DAM to me is a very technical category, understood fully only by expert users and people in the know. Most of our end users, on the other hand, rarely even know what “DAM” stands for.
    The core function of a DAM solution is to be an archive or database for digital assets and I feel that, much like databases are becoming more of a commodity, so are DAM solutions. A good DAM is an invisible one, seamlessly integrated with other marketing tools. Ultimately, it should be a commodity. There’s simply not that much sex appeal in buying a database – there’s very little tangible ROI on databases – even Oracle focuses on solutions built on top of its databases. Our customers, however, are actively looking for solutions and return on investment.
    So, that’s the direction in which I think DAM should be heading. Solutions shouldn’t simply be about DAM any more – they should be about the features and functionalities built on top of a (preferably invisible) DAM. We’ve been focusing more and more on solutions and tools for branding and marketing, leveraging assets and making everyday tasks that much easier by using DAM as a solid foundation.

    DAM as an end-user category or a solution, I think, is dead. But not to worry – there’s plenty of new, exciting and useful branding tools coming to life every day!

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