Asset Management - The Digital Revolution (1,374 words)
It was December 1997 when Langhorne, PA-based Lenox Collections began talking about creating an internal database of product images. "We realized that to serve our many internal clients—including media and direct mail advertising, the catalog group, retail and U.K divisions and e-commerce—we needed access to our images through an inhouse archive," recalls Lisa Woodard, director of creative services for Lenox Collections, the direct marketing division of Lenox Inc. Until then, the company hadn't sat down and added up the value of this huge asset: It has over 2,000 solo product images valued at $800 a piece, totaling $1.6 million, plus another 1,200 catalog images. Woodard says, "This was a major asset that needed to be made available and managed effectively."
At about the same time, the company was getting set to create an e-commerce site. That, Woodard says, simply added fuel to the fire in terms of making the image database project a priority and helping to get funding for the necessary equipment. Woodard says, "The Internet arrived on our doorstep," and as a result, the company had to get moving on the project sooner rather than later.
"It was a heck of a process, but well worth it," Woodard says in hindsight, noting that the databasing process already has proven itself many times over.
Lenox Collections' product mix is largely made up of collectibles, ranging from sculptures and figurines to home decor items and jewelry. To sell its wares, the company uses a broad array of direct response media and relies on high-quality product images to convince its customers to buy.
The target audience for all these media is the typical Lenox buyer: females between the ages of 45 and 60 with some college education. "There is not much difference in the type of customers reached via different media," Woodard says. Since the current Web site is relatively new, its role in the overall media mix is a "developing one," she adds.
Each year, Lenox mails more than a thousand different direct mail packages and runs 900-plus on-page ads. Woodard, who has been with Lenox for 16 years, was there when the company mailed its first 32-page catalog in 1989. Today, catalogs account for 20 percent of the company's marketing mix. On the catalog side, Lenox mails three titles based on its core collectible products—Winter, Christmas and Summer—and another three books—Winter, Christmas and Spring—of both collectible and Lenox lifestyle products.
The company outsources all catalog design and copy, as well as prepress and photography. "We handle all design and copy for direct mail and media inhouse," Woodard notes.
Lenox spends a significant amount of time and money on high-quality product photography for its solo mailings. "We use this library of product photos in various iterations for the different ad versions and catalogs created throughout the year," Woodard explains.
Having a digital library of images to draw from has made it easier for Lenox Collections to handle production across its various internal clients, supplying staff and freelancers with low-resolution images to create layouts and then supplying high-resolution images with the final files sent to the printer. Woodard explains that as the number of mailings and catalog titles has grown, this demand for images would have presented a production nightmare if image files had to be recalled from vendors scattered across the country every time they were needed.
For a multimedia, multi-product marketer like Lenox, Woodard says she strongly believes digital makes it easier in all areas of prepress and printing. "Plus it saves money in terms of total production dollars spent," she adds.
Taking Control of An Asset
From the wide variety of media it uses to promote its wares, Lenox needed to track down the digital files of images used in current and prior campaigns—with the Web site driving the decision to move forward. "We needed to recall hundreds of high-resolution digital images from several separators." That meant an influx of image files ranging from 5MB to 200MB pouring into the Lenox office on various media.
Woodard adds, "With all these images being recalled, we were presented with the opportunity to take control of our digital images and end vendor recall costs. We explored storage systems for stability and easy retrieval, finally settling on a CD archive system."
Before it could start the project, Lenox had to invest in some new equipment. Its first step was to install a JVC CD Jukebox for storing the images and upgrade its server to an Apple Workgroup Server for greater daily file storage capacity. Lenox also increased its network line capacity from 10BaseT to 100BaseT for faster internal file transfer. It then installed Canto Cumulus 3.0 database software as the central system for accessing and storing images. Plus it added a single CD burn station consisting of a Power Mac with an external hard drive and CD writer.
Through a painstaking process that spanned two years, Woodard and her team—which included Lenox staff member Matthew DiBenedetti, associate advertising production manager, along with key vendor partners—compiled a database of high-resolution images of all Lenox's products and advertising graphics. "Our image database took a tremendous team effort to set up," says DiBenedetti. But, he adds, "It quickly developed into a very user-friendly system."
Lenox was able to start using the database even while it was under construction. As groups of image files slowly got converted to jpeg format, they were given to the Internet team. Woodard says, "By March 2, 1998, we turned over images of the top 100 products in jpeg format to the Internet team—two months before the site went live."
Working with groups of files and dealing with outside vendors to supply high-resolution images at a negotiated rate and on a timely basis, Lenox continued to add high-resolution files to the database. By December 1999, 2,000 images had been databased.
A Few Trouble Spots
Along the way, all did not go smoothly. Among the early problems encountered was learning how to physically transfer Mac files to the Internet team's PCs.
One of the tougher issues Woodard had to tackle was finally resolved in the summer of 1998. After many meetings with all of the potential Cumulus users, a very detailed naming convention for all types of images was finalized.
"This was the toughest part of the implementation process," Woodard says in reference to the naming of files begun in February 1998. "We had to satisfy everyone's need for creative retrieval."
The naming convention is the most important element of any archive system, says DiBenedetti, because this is what enables users to be able to locate the exact files they need when sorting through thousands of images.
Enjoying the Benefits
It didn't take long for Lenox to start reaping rewards of its new digital image library. Now, instead of wasting time tracking down images that could be anywhere, Woodard says, "The way we work is the designer creates a dummy layout using low-res scans and then requisitions from the production group the actual images wanted by catalog number. Then the images are called up from the CD jukebox."
Woodard notes there have been numerous other benefits. "We're seeing significant benefits including lower fixed costs, reduced image research time and quicker prepress vendor turn-arounds."
She goes on to say, " We spent a considerable amount of time populating the database." During early 1999 while the conversion was still taking place, the average number of image retrievals per month was 28. This year, the average is at 99 images per month. With an average estimated vendor recall cost of $50 per image, the initial investment of roughly $50,000 has already been returned—a total payout time of 21 months, Woodard says.
Enhancing digital workflow has also resulted in considerable soft savings, including a reduction in the time spent by both designers and production staff looking for images. Says Woodard, "We're experiencing faster turnaround at the prep shops because we have nearly eliminated the time vendors spend looking through their archives for images."
Woodard says the next logical step would be a fully integrated digital workflow management system. "It's not in the works just yet," she says, "but we're already looking at what's out there—and making our evaluations."