Michael Wells, Founder and MD of "Third Light" explains the ins and outs of what DAM (Digital Asset Management)
actually is. We'll find out how it works, how it can benefit an
organisation, how AI helps to classify digital assets, why digital assets are far more than just photographs, and what a company can do if they can't afford a "full
blown" system (at 25 mins).
Michael also talks about how he has grown his technology business over nearly 20 years and the challenges that brings.
Kiran Kapur (00:13):
My guest this week is Michael Wells, who is the Founder of Third Light, which is a Cambridge-based software company and they do digital asset management. Now, if your idea of digital assets is having a whole load of things piled onto the computer with no real structure to them, Michael will have the answers. So, Michael, welcome. Can we start with what digital assets actually are?
Michael Wells (00:36):
Hi, Kiran. It's nice to talk to you again as well. Thanks for inviting me. Digital assets, well, let's just look at what we all know about, which is files that we need for our projects, particularly in marketing. So things like photography, or videos, logos, brochures, promotional, art, everything that you do in marketing creates that kind of content. And so you've got lots of files, but what you don't have in a single store, most of the time is information about the files and we call that metadata. So when you add information, metadata to the files and you organise them in a particular way, maybe using that, then you create digital assets. And the reason we call them digital assets is partly just to recognise that they're usually digital visual content, but also that they are assets. In other words, they do have some value, and that value is from having organised them so that they can be reused.
Kiran Kapur (01:33):
Okay. So as soon as anyone uses the word meta, I start to panic. So what is metadata? Can you give me an example?
Michael Wells (01:40):
I can. Yeah, sure. So let me describe to you. Now, we're on a radio-style interview, so I can't show you the photo I have in front of me, but I've got a beautiful picture of a scene not far from here in the West Suffolk alps. And I need to put it into text for you, so I'll describe it as rolling fields with hedge rows. And as I continue to do that, you can see that really I'm describing it to you. So the file might be the JPEG of this photograph and the metadata in this case is me captioning it for you. So I'm storing that text with the image and that's the metadata about the image.
Kiran Kapur (02:22):
And how detailed would that be? Because you've just done a lovely description of it being a green area with a path that goes through it, et cetera. Would I capture all of that in my metadata?
Michael Wells (02:28):
Actually I would say you can capture even more than that. That particular caption will be great for a photograph, but if you're working in a project environment around marketing assets, then your metadata could be something much more to do with the project. It could be who took the photograph, who owns the project, the dates when it goes live, maybe website addresses where the content will be stored. So metadata, you can think of as a really broad concept. It's actually any information at all that you'd like to store that relates to something that you've put into a library that's your digital asset.
Kiran Kapur (03:04):
Okay. So there's various things I want to unpick there, but let's carry on with the data. And then I'll come back to the concept of a library, which is also slightly scary. So I can put in lots and lots and lots of data. Doesn't that just get confusing?
Michael Wells (03:17):
Well, good point. I mean, yes, you could argue aren't we just storing lots of stuff in a big heap? And of course that's the whole point of software to prevent that from happening and to make it feel organised and useful. So if I log into our system and I've got lots of photographs of scenery, then maybe I want to find things which are actually in a particular county in the UK. So I might click on a keyword for Cambridgeshire. And when I click it, all of the non-Cambridgeshire content is filtered out automatically. And I would go further and say, actually, I shouldn't have to type in the word Cambridgeshire. It should be presented to me as one of the possible ways of filtering the data. So putting a useful and friendly user interface on front of metadata is a great thing to do. And without it, yes, you can run the risk of producing a glorified spreadsheet.
Michael Wells (04:12):
The other thing I would say, something that lots of people would find a bit daunting is that there seems like lots of things to type in, and that's true, but lots of content these days can be set by artificial intelligence, particularly photographs. We can scan them and automatically tag them with what they are with pretty good accuracy.
Kiran Kapur (04:35):
Whoa, hang on. So I can literally sit it in front of some form of computer, the computer scans it and it tells me what's in the photo.
Michael Wells (04:42):
That's right. And there's a huge market for that of course. It's a massive labor-saving tool. But yeah, if we upload a thousand new photos in less than a minute, we can have them all described in a rich way with particularly keywords. That's a very useful feature of AI tagging these days.
Kiran Kapur (05:04):
So does the user set the keywords or does the AI work out what those are?
Michael Wells (05:09):
So the AI will probably do the keywords. It finds the dominant colours and it may even recognise things like if it's an animal, that could tell you the species, the genus, all sorts of really domain-specific knowledge. It's ever so good at this stuff. They'd been trained with a huge amount of knowledge about a huge amount of content types. So they can really do a great job. And if it is too specific and the AI doesn't get it, you can actually train them as well so that they know about something really unique about your business or maybe the actual people who work at your company. You can train them by looking at their faces.
Kiran Kapur (05:48):
I love the way you're sounding very calm about this. I have to say my head's just exploded that the machines can do this to that extent. Okay. I can understand it on photos because it's an image and it's static. Does that also work on other things?
Michael Wells (06:03):
Yeah. I mean, there are tools that can do speech to text and they're getting quite good. Actually, stepping out of the world of DAM for a moment. Before we really understood artificial intelligence and machine learning, there were quite sophisticated tools that could do dictation, but you had to be very, very careful about how you speak to them. And they wouldn't be able to keep up with a conversation like we're having.but in the advent of AI, all of that suddenly became incredibly smart and really much more adaptable. And we benefit from that in lots of ways. I mean, if you have a smart speaker and you mumble, "Hey Siri," this, that, and the other, even in an echo-y room, across the room, they understand you now, and the reason they're good at this is because of AI.
Michael Wells (06:52):
So yep, we can extract dialogue from videos, from television broadcast, for example. Lots of captioning is now possible using software instead of people. And yes, you can extract transcripts from audio files as well,
Kiran Kapur (07:08):
So having looked at the metadata and possibly using AI to organise that, what then happens with it? So you use the phrase library.
Michael Wells (07:17):
So the product that we are suggesting is useful here is actually a web-based application, which is important because it means everybody can access it from anywhere. So you're obtaining an application that you can reach through your web browser. And when you log into it, obviously with your own credentials, you get a personalized space inside it where you can store and manage, organise things. And it may be part of it is also access to shared areas of content, which we call spaces. And so you might have a team for marketing, a team for sales, a team for R&D, and they all have their own management ideas about what they'll store and how they'll organise it, but they can share things across between each other.
Michael Wells (08:05):
And things like the metadata, of course, might reflect their particular needs to do with what they're trying to store. So whether or not something is top secret could be relevant to the R&D team, but whether or not something actually has model rights could be more relevant to the marketing team. So metadata is the supporting structure that makes it valuable as content, because it tells you about the files that you've got. And then the digital asset management system also provides this nice and convenient way of getting in and using the files in a shared place.
Kiran Kapur (08:40):
And digital assets, we've talked about it being photos and logos of videos, but I noticed one of the case studies you have on your website actually was somebody that was dealing with... It was a university talking about approval forms that they'd had to get and they had to hold all the GDPR forms. So it can be literally anything.
Michael Wells (08:58):
It can. Yeah. In fact, a kind of metadata is when you relate files to each other. So if you've got a photograph, and it might be the universities and schools is a very good example, you've got pictures of say a sports day, but there are children in the photo and you need to have consent from the parents. So you obviously have some content, the photo, but you also have metadata about that photo, which in this case might be some forms that have been signed and stored alongside them. So it's important to be able to connect content together in that way as well. And these are great examples actually, Kiran. I'm sort of pleased that we can see that in the real world, it's not really quite enough just to store files. And there are easy examples that come up in every corner, but that particular one about consent forms is one of the most common ones we see.
Kiran Kapur (09:50):
Yes, I must admit, it really surprised me because I always think of anything to do with digital assets is just photographs. And then you finally think or perhaps videos. And then you suddenly realise just how broad it is.
Michael Wells (10:02):
Kiran Kapur (10:02):
When I actually last interviewed you in 2017 on the previous version of the podcast, and at that stage, you were just launching a new product, which was called Chorus. And a lot of our discussion was about how you are going to introduce a new product without upsetting your current customers. So I'm very intrigued because as a technology company, you must be continually innovating. How did that go?
Michael Wells (10:28):
Yes. I mean, it seems like a long time ago, certainly a very different time. So it's gone very well actually. So changing really, to sort of the story of the technical platform, I think of Third Light. We had a product which we'd been very successful with called IMS, which was short for Intelligent Media Server. And obviously, there was a date when all of our customers were on that product. And from about 2017 onwards, Chorus became available and we started to migrate people to the new products. And perhaps we should take it for granted that the new product is better, but actually the differences are worth exploring a little bit. Yes, it does do more things, but I would have to argue that that's not the most important thing about it. It's more about the design of it, the way that it works, the way that it is geared towards users and their real work practices. So the way that you use software is a critical part of your satisfaction or your success when you're using it. And Chorus was really all about that.
Michael Wells (11:34):
So when it comes to migrating people to it, the persuasion that we can offer is that, look, if we show you this product doing the same things that you're currently doing, we think you'll prefer it. And we have a team, the customer success team who are all about that. Their daily work really is to ensure that customers have understood and can use the software in such a way that they're going to be happy with it. And the context for that can be a new customer, onboarding someone new. Or as in this case, it can be someone who's migrating from a system that they know very, very well, but which we need to show them could be even better. And we need to persuade them that Chorus is the answer.
Michael Wells (12:15):
And as time goes by, obviously we've had quite a number of years here, it's clear really that the attraction of the new product becomes greater and greater because it's receiving all the attention in the marketing. It's getting lots and lots of new features and upgrades and enhancements. And so it becomes... Really, it's just all carrots. There's no stick. We don't tell people that they can't use the old software. We just say, "If you would like to try it, it won't cost you anymore. We'll do all the migration." And this is the way that you have to do it. You have to be really on the customer's side and you have to work with them to ensure that they're totally satisfied that this is the way to go. Of course, it takes time, but it's a hugely rewarding process because you get to hear about all of their requirements as you go. And that's a vital part of improving all of our development for the future. So everybody's a winner.
Kiran Kapur (13:10):
That's quite an overhead, isn't it, for a company, that you've got people still on the old product who presume you therefore need supporting, and then you're stepping with them every step of the way to move them onto a new product. That's a lot of commitment from Third Light.
Michael Wells (13:24):
It is a big investment. I would say though, that if we try to do less, I think we would be underselling the potential of the software. We have to remember that software as a subscription, SaaS, as a subscription business, we do have an obligation to provide value on an ongoing basis. So it's not the same as buying a piece of expensive enterprise software and all the capital expense in the first year. So, that ongoing commitment is a responsibility on us. And I think you're right, but we're also willing to make an investment in the longterm future of our company, by keeping our customers happy. I don't think there are many subscription software companies that would argue that you can grow without customer satisfaction being absolutely your number one priority.
Kiran Kapur (14:20):
I've looked at your website and you've got some big case studies on there. You've got universities, you've got the Royal Albert Hall, you've got some big media companies. How big does a company have to be in order to have a digital asset management system, or I suppose the other way is how long can a company keep going with something like just a sort of standard storage or Dropbox?
Michael Wells (14:42):
Yeah, thank you for that because that's actually, it's an intriguing problem to try and sort of understand. I mean, some of our customers for example, are huge. And they are organisations like Sony or Virgin or the United Nations. The number of employees that these organisations have is mind-blowing and we're a small business. So obviously the investment that they've made in the software can be sort of rather surprising if you see what I mean and the size of the brand and the recognition that those brands have, can be a little bit distracting if you're trying to understand the value of DAm. Is it fundamental, for example, to those organisations? What tends to be the case is it's actually fundamental to a part of those organisations. It's really critical that the marketing team for a particular part of say, Sony need our software in order to be effective.
Michael Wells (15:44):
So when we say, what's the threshold for owning a DAM? Well, I mean, they only should cost us about £10,000 a year. So you've got to be a certain size. And that will obviously filter out some very small organisations. But equally, if you've got three or four people who are absolutely flat out with digital content and they're getting into a fluster with storing it in cloud folders, then digital asset management might save you the expense of hiring a fifth person. You don't need another person just to move things around and try and keep them organised if you've got good software.
Michael Wells (16:24):
If I could just expand on it one more different way. We're dealing with a horizontal problem rather than a vertical problem. And by that I mean that digital asset management isn't just about solving an education sector problem, or maybe a banking sector problem. It works for all kinds of businesses in every part of the economy. And so generalising how it will be used really turns out to be about the role that the main users have. And typically it's in marketing and it's in communications across all sectors. So hopefully that sort of positions it a bit more clearly.
Kiran Kapur (17:01):
Yes. Thank you. The other question I wanted to ask you was, I mean, you've described it to yourself as a small company though. Clearly you've got some whopping creator clients out there. And I think you're coming up to 20 years, aren't you? Isn't that right?
Michael Wells (17:16):
Yeah. Well, it won't be too long. So I started Third Light in April 2002. So you've got one more year to go and then we'll be able to have a fantastic party. Hopefully we're all together in one place as well.
Kiran Kapur (17:29):
That would be nice. So what's it been like growing a company? And I mean, obviously I'm going to ask specifically about the last year, but actually just generally growing a company over that period of time. Because this came out of an interest you have, because you have an interest in photography, don't you?
Michael Wells (17:47):
Yes, that's right. So, I mean, originally, I was a very early adopter of digital cameras and needed a solution for storing the photos, sharing them. But over that time, I mean, so many things have happened in that. It's a long time, obviously. I feel like we've gone through eras of growth, obviously, and eras where everybody's had a harder time, like in the financial crash. And clearly COVID has been an interesting time as well. So the occasional sort of historical punctuation mark has left its impression on me when I think back.
Michael Wells (18:23):
I suspect really, the thing that has made it good all that time and the reason that we're persistent, really care about this is that it's so rewarding. We get to work with some amazing people. I mean, employees too, but also the customers. And so you get access to so many different, interesting business cases that you have to sort of look at and try and solve. And that really appeals to a sense of puzzle solving and engineering efficiency, because obviously we're trying to generalise all of these problems and design something that everybody can benefit from.
Michael Wells (18:58):
So I found it to be quite an enduring challenge and one that keeps me really engaged. And yes, I think COVID has been a bit of a blow, but we've got our team together in a way that I never imagined we could. We were already a partly remote organisation by which I mean, some people never came to the office and maybe lived even in other countries. And by changing into a 100% remote company, we've gained quite a bit in terms of team process because it's made us all instant remote workers. We've all started to adopt those systems. So it was fairly easy for us to make the switch, but I do think we all miss the contact as well. And we're looking forward to being able to maybe return to the office on a few known days each week. I think that's what we'll do.
Kiran Kapur (19:48):
That's an interesting idea. So that everybody's in on these days, but the rest of the time you are separate. I love your idea of historical punctuation marks. I've got to explore that. What are they? What are the punctuation marks, have you thought about over the last 19 years?
Michael Wells (20:01):
Well, I think one of them was the early days of Third Light, we were quite into e-commerce. So we were helping with prints distribution. So if you're a photographer and needed to sell prints from an event, then you could use Third Light to do that. And it was like an era for us where we were dealing with a very different kind of customer. Photographers are typically one-person companies. But then we were drawn towards digital asset management and the metadata problems, which are really the next tier up. So I think of it is a sort of separate era, a different epoch for Third Light.
Michael Wells (20:37):
Also, I think it's, well, to remember the growth in our head counts and different moves from different offices, from small, almost industrial unit spaces, all the way up to quite nice offices. Those changes, those reflections of where do we work? We work in a custom-made office. It's success in a way that you sort of can reflect on and enjoy as part of the story that you look back on.
Kiran Kapur (21:05):
I've seen your offices. They are very swish. Obviously that was prior to COVID.
Michael Wells (21:10):
Yes, it was.
Kiran Kapur (21:12):
Where do you think digital asset management is going? You've already talked about the fact that you obviously integrating AI, which I'm guessing you weren't doing 19 years ago. What else is going to change?
Michael Wells (21:25):
Well, there's quite a lot of momentum that's built up in this market. It's really fast-moving and there's lots going on. I think the most important one remains that we need to encourage and continue to illustrate that it's possible to move away from what I would describe as obvious, but tired, time-intensive ways of storing and working with digital content. And a lot of that comes from integration with real workflows. Now, I don't mean that to be a technical thing. I mean that when people work within walled gardens in their offices, perhaps the design team does things their way, the marketing team does things, but different tools in a different way. If we can continue to reduce the impact of those disconnections by helping those teams actually work with the same system, then I think we'll make a lot more people happy and bring digital asset management to more users. So that's a really big thing for us, integrating with desktops like the Mac and Windows file finders, not just being in a web application is something that's revolutionised the way that we can reach those extra people that should be using, but can't use DAM.
Michael Wells (22:36):
Actually, another thing that I think is really important to grasp is that there are big changes coming in privacy laws. And we've been through this in Europe and in the UK with GDPR, but laws of that kind are also coming to other regions and they will affect the way that content and storage works generally. I'm expecting particularly, there may be some changes coming in the Consumer Privacy Act in the USA, which will mean that the locality of where data is put, won't just be nebulously somewhere in the cloud anymore, but maybe actually you have to know where it is exactly. So quite interesting from a digital assets point of view there.
Michael Wells (23:12):
Another thing that might be of interest of course, is the so-called non-physical tokens, which are almost like digital assets in a very real sense. They could be artwork for example, which don't actually exist in the real world, but are provably unique and can't exist more than once in the digital world. And those could be kind of content that has to be stored somewhere very safely that we could become interested in. Kiran, I'll be honest with you. The list is so, so long about what might be happening next. I don't want to keep going, unless you really want to hear more.
Kiran Kapur (23:46):
No, it's great. I do want to explore the digital tokens because what I thought you were going to tell me was the things like, I don't know, digital certificates or digital badges that say that you've achieved something, but I think that's me with my education head on. You're talking about something totally different. I mean, that exists only digitally.
Michael Wells (24:03):
That's true. Yes. If I've got a non-physical token, then it is actually something that can only exist once and can't be replicated. So the idea is that it might have some value because of its uniqueness. If we think about digital content in other contexts, it's often easy to copy. And so devalued by the fact that it's just a file, just make loads of copies and email them to everybody. So it's a very technical sort of thought, but there might be a market around storing these things in a way that you can prove is safe because you wouldn't want to lose something which is actually unique.
Kiran Kapur (24:45):
Okay. So I think for a lot of us, that would be that poor bloke that lost his Bitcoin because he couldn't find the hard drive-
Michael Wells (24:51):
Yep. I'm afraid so.
Kiran Kapur (24:51):
But I'm sure there are better examples. Okay.
Michael Wells (24:55):
No, it's a great example.
Kiran Kapur (24:57):
Before I let you go, if somebody is listening and going, "Well, actually, I'm a way off being able to afford a full digital asset management. £10,000 a year is just too much." What could people do to make their standard, what they currently do better?
Michael Wells (25:14):
I would say start by trying to organise things in a way that might be future-proof. I'll make an assumption maybe that you're going to use a tool like Google Drive or maybe OneDrive, possibly Dropbox. All of these tools are out there and they can be quite affordable. So if you start with those, you've already solved one of the big problems, which is that you've got content into one place. And that it's unlikely that, that content is going to be lost. It's not just on your computer anymore. So that's a big plus. That's a really good start.
Michael Wells (25:49):
These systems are also okay for when you need to maybe involve a few more people. So if there's one or two of you, you'll find that that works okay as well. Where it will start to break down and I suppose it's just something to look out for when it starts to happen is that you start to pull in different directions, or maybe there are copies of things in more than one place. And you're never quite sure who's got the latest. The fact that these systems are perhaps a bit more difficult to search because they tend to focus just on the files will all lead you towards digital asset management in the short term, as soon as those problems start to occur. But until then, keeping things organised in files and folders on a cloud storage system of any kind is a really good start.
Kiran Kapur (26:33):
And presumably you would still say that metadata really mattered, however you were storing it.
Michael Wells (26:37):
Yes, I do feel that's true. It will be important in the future because without those records, you are going to struggle to communicate with future users. It builds such a lasting value when you can actually keep a record of where a file is being used, who took it, all sorts of things can come up. Even if they're quite basic, like the location the photo was taken. It all has value. And so it'd be a shame not to keep it somehow.
Kiran Kapur (27:08):
And does somebody without a digital asset management system have access to these sort of AI that you were talking about?
Michael Wells (27:14):
Yes and no. You may notice that if you store photos in say an iPhone, that it can offer you groupings of these places and people. And if you use Google Photos, even as a home user, it will try and pick out thematic keywords for the photos as well. So you're getting access to some AI free of charge when you use those tools and it can be really fun. It can also be quite silly, because it sometimes goes a bit wrong. But those are great tools for organising your home photos and very, very effective for that use.
Kiran Kapur (27:49):
That was great. Michael Wells from Third Light, thank you very much, indeed, for all those hints and tips and insights into digital asset management and where the future may be going.
Michael Wells (27:58):
Thanks, Kiran. It's always a pleasure. I hope to talk to you again soon.