Driving efficiency with limited resources: Shane Hegde on Creative Ops
We sat down with our CEO & Co-founder, Shane Hegde, to talk about Creative Operations. With a live audience contributing questions, we discussed what Creative Ops is; what Shane has learned about Creative Ops from talking with experts in the field every week; and what Air’s vision is as a Creative Ops platform.
Below is a transcript from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Why, as a business, is Air focused on Creative Ops?
Creative Ops isn’t new. In many ways, regardless of who you are or how you’re involved in the process, your job includes executing on Creative Ops functions. It’s the logistics surrounding creative work: collecting content, giving feedback, making sure we’re all in rhythm and working together to execute throughout the creative process.
What’s been fascinating over the course of the last ten years is how important that creative process has become to businesses. What’s driving that is that every company is now a media company. Regardless of industry, there are just so many stakeholders in a given business that need to work with content. Yes there’s marketing and social, but there’s also operations, product, sales and HR. They all need assets to do their job. This inevitably stretches the resources of the creative teams in these organizations.
With these increasing needs, and in our remote and recessionary work environment, the ability to drive efficiency with your creative team has become a major performance necessity.
Can you describe Creative Ops in non-technical terms?
I was just with some friends who were asking what I’ve been doing the last five years, and my answer was this: Air helps people organize, share, and collaborate on images and videos. It’s that simple. Part of the challenge for us — and for many who work in creative operations — is doing that simple thing has become so difficult because of how much content there is, how many people you need to collaborate on it with, and how many places you need to share it out to.
That’s why automation exists. The pace at which content is being created in your organization is growing exponentially. The amount of manual work to support that is becoming untenable. In every area where that’s happened before, when it no longer makes sense to do tasks manually, automation has been a key innovation. And that’s what we’re doing at Air.
You’re constantly meeting with people who do Creative Ops for a living to learn what they think about. Can you give an example of a quote that’s stuck with you?
One thing that’s clear, that I never let myself forget, is that I am not the customer of the business I am building.
To solve for that, every week I reach out to 100 creative directors, CMOs, and other people who deal with Creative Ops problems every day, and we get on the phone and talk for 15–30 minutes so I can build perspective on how they think about their work.
One of my favorite recent conversations was with the Creative Director at Jaguar. It’s such an iconic brand, and her perspective was that so much of the what their brand means is now being defined by their audience. And by audience she means everyone from salespeople selling the cars, to the people buying them, to fans who might not even own a Jaguar posting about the brand on social media.
The challenges she faces occur broadly across the whole business, away from just what she and her design team were creating. Content — the need for it and the pace at which it must be produced — has multiplied exponentially, and so has the value of brand and how far it must stretch.
I think for any Creative Director working today, their critical challenge is directing and shaping all that content they must produce into a synchronous rhythm across the organization. That is becoming increasingly more difficult.
What are some of the common threads you’re seeing in these conversations?
I spoke with the creative director at Lego, who is this amazing blend of left- and right-brain thinking; artistic, hyper-organized, and detail-oriented. What I found particularly fascinating was his level of obsession and iteration on tooling. I asked why he was so obsessive on tooling specifically. His answer was telling: ‘look, Shane, my role here is to increase throughput and quality, without increasing cost.’
For this creative director, the question was: how do I leverage our existing team to generate more, higher quality content at a faster pace? This is really the challenge people I’ve been talking to our facing; this is the challenge Creative Ops aims to solve.
When you’re strapped for resources, focusing on Creative Ops is the only way to drive efficiency. Where are we losing time? Where are we not spending enough time? It’s about finding the unlocks, which usually means specific tooling.
In terms of tooling, what’s the solve creative leaders are looking for?
Every single creative director I’ve talked to has said the problem is simply that the creative process moves so fast. Software struggles to operate at their pace. So I’ve asked everyone what dream piece of software they would invent to make a difference in their work.
They keep pointing to the same thing: a centralized solution where their creatives work and stakeholders can see project updates; where all involved parties can give feedback at the right moments; where everyone who needs the finished assets knows to find them.
An all-in-one solution for the creative process doesn’t exist today. But for the last five years, we at Air have been working to build it. It’s our ambition to be this really deep, all-in-one Creative Ops solution.
When I show off the product these folks are impressed with the progress, but I get pushback that we haven’t yet solved the entire end-to-end process. Our goal as a company is to solve that, to really bring teams that level of automation and acceleration.
Any learnings on how orgs can improve their Creative Ops at basic levels?
The most illuminating learning here is from the creative director at Zapier: create a system diagram.
If you’re building a piece of infrastructure — like a strong Creative Ops practice — you want to know how it’s all going to work together. It can be as simple as drawing rectangles to represent your resources, tools, and team members, then lines connecting them to illustrate the process.
How does your creative process actually happen? You can start literally with pen and paper. How does it start? Where do briefs come from? Who do they go to? List out the tools in each of those boxes. And connect the steps. Just drawing it out is a massive unlock.
I was talking to a creative ops manager last week, and they realized there were 15 different ways they were getting feedback on in-progress content. And that’s why their creatives are so frustrated. They don’t know if they should be expecting comments via Slack or in an email with a WeTransfer link.
This conversation is really weighted and complex. If you can’t simplify it into a simple boxes-and-lines drawing, you have a problem; you have an inefficient system.
Look at the history of enterprise software: in 2005, Box was invented. In 2007, Dropbox was created. The innovation was: move all of your data from your computers into the cloud.
Once everything was in the cloud, people wanted to start working in the cloud, getting feedback in the cloud, sharing in the cloud. We’ve only lived in that era for the past 5–7 years. Tools like Figma, Notion, AirTable, and Slack allow us to work in the cloud.
Creative Ops is simply another form of work that hasn’t fully translated to the cloud — yet. What used to happen back in the day, at an agency for example, was you would print everything out and put it on the glass of the conference room. That’s how you’d make selects. That was Creative Ops!
Someone had to collect all of that , print it out, get everyone’s feedback, write it out.
That’s still the world we’re transitioning out of. Until March 2020, you could still lean over someone’s shoulder and say “hey, could you edit this photo that way.” That world no longer exists at most businesses.
Here at Air, we’re building the Creative Ops solution for the new normal way of working.