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Demystifying digital asset management

Nov 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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The concept of digital asset management (DAM) is often misunderstood. Options range from $200, single-user desktop systems to million-dollar enterprise wide systems. This article will review the basics and provide some guidelines for evaluating DAM options.

DAM can be defined as the organization and management of digital assets and the metadata that describes those assets. One of the most important factors when evaluating DAM options is establishing your company's requirements. What do you need the system to do? Key questions include the following:


What is the primary purpose of your system? Is it a standing library? Production and workflow support? Rights and permissions management? Editorial vs. production? Content vs. workflow?


Does the system need to interact with other applications or business systems? What about other production/workflow systems or initiatives? Some systems don't play well with others. A shortsighted approach could restrict future expansion.


Who are the primary system users? Who needs access? Are these internal or external users? Where are users located? Are they content authors, general users or production staff?


What level of access will users have? Should everyone see everything? Can everyone edit or make changes, and who decides? How easy is this to map out? Each system handles the control of users and groups differently, so identifying your requirements will help narrow your search for the right system.


Once you've answered these questions, buy a simple desktop application for $300 or so. Start with one customer/company and attempt to organize its files. This exercise will teach you how daunting image management is, as well as your company's approach to file organization.

It will also create a lot of valuable discussion about how files should be described. You'll uncover many new questions, including how to deal with metadata. Metadata is information used to describe other information — typically a digital asset or file. It's particularly important when executing searches. Metadata can be broken down into manageable, bitesize chunks of information. Your goal is to break your metadata down into simple, quantifiable terms.

There are three kinds of metadata: technical, production and marketing information.

Technical information describes the file's technical attributes. Examples include dpi, color-space file type, and application or creator type. Most commercial applications automatically gather this information.

Production information links the assets to a larger project or job. A job number is one example, but it also can include promotions or rights and permissions management.

Marketing information describes the product that the asset or files may represent. Examples include SKU, marketing benefits, cost and general description.

It's important to understand how this information works together. Some systems are designed to handle job- or marketing-related information as a standalone record. In some systems, these are called “metadata-only assets.” You'll have to explore one-to-one relationships. Debating these issues also leads to a better understanding of your customers' business, as well as how a DAM system will integrate with your current workflow systems.


A simple experiment illustrates how easily metadata can get out of hand. Take an image of a product used recently in a project. Ask 10 people what color it is and you'll probably get 10 different answers, particularly if you allow the respondent to say whatever comes to mind, rather than offering a range of choices. By restricting respondents to a range of predetermined choices, however, you can provide a structure that will make it easier to search for and retrieve the image.

Let's say the product is red. People might describe it as red, fire-engine red, brick red, dark red, salmon, maroon or reddish. In your image-management database, a field will describe the color of the product being shown. That field is simply called “product color.” If the product is available in red, green or blue, then you should have the ability to predefine those colors so that everyone can easily search them.

A simple search looks like this: “Find all pictures where ‘product color’ equals ‘red.’” Or, “Find all pictures where ‘product color’ equals ‘green.’” The results are exact.

Next we can add another adjective to describe the product style, such as “modern” or “traditional.” So our search can be further defined: “Find all pictures where ‘product color’ equals ‘red’ and ‘product style’ equals ‘modern.’”

This information describes the products themselves as they are shown in photographs. In a production environment, other information also could be useful, such as job number and revision number.

Many DAM vendors tout the features and benefits of their systems without really understanding the basic needs of an individual company or that company's customers. The rules of the road are simple: System cost rises in proportion to its features. The more features, the greater the cost. For a list of key considerations when evaluating your options, see “DAM good questions,” below.


Can you make money with DAM? Yes. Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all formula. Several things must be taken into account when pricing a system:

  • How much physical storage is required?

  • How much bandwidth will be used for searching, uploading and downloading files? (Think in terms of gigabytes transferred per month.)

  • How much does the software cost? How many users can be on the system simultaneously?

  • How much time and labor will be required to maintain the system, back it up and answer customer phone calls?

Here is a simple model: A customer has 1,000 images, 20 users and low overall usage. Ask the customer about standard image size, how many users will be on the system at any given time and the monthly percentage of images that will be downloaded or uploaded. The customer's responses might resemble the following:

  • 1,000 images at five megabytes each will require five gigabytes of storage

  • If 10 users will be on the system at any given time, there will be a charge for 10 concurrent licenses or software seats

  • If the client will be uploading or downloading 20 percent of the images, one gigabyte of data will be moving across your connection every month.

Multiply these numbers by your cost; add a fudge factor to cover yourself, as well as a profit margin. This is the minimum you should charge for this service. When sold correctly, the cost is outweighed by the timesavings and other benefits customers will enjoy.

The issues we've outlined in this article are intended as a starting point. Once you have evaluated your needs, the biggest issue is deciding whether to bring DAM in-house. Many outsourcing options are available for those who prefer to let other professionals handle all of the headaches. The value of these services must be weighed carefully before any decision is made. On the positive side, DAM rewards disciplined efforts by saving more time than it demands and saving more money than it costs.

DAM good questions

When evaluating your DAM options, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Can you check images in and out of the system? Can this be done using a browser interface? This is important if more than one person needs to edit an image at the same time.
  • Can you manage revisions?
  • Can you manage variations such as low res, high res, EPS and JPEG?
  • Does the system permit on-the-fly file transformation?
  • Can you track user interactions, such as when a file was uploaded and by whom?
  • Is generating reports easy? Are reports customizable? Is this handled within the application or does it require third-party software?
  • Can the system manage multiple levels of access by a hierarchy of users, or users and groups? Can these be customized?
  • Is inputting assets easy? What about metadata?
  • Does the system support collaboration/external e-mail/other messaging, and if so, how well?
  • How well does it support search and retrieval? Check-in and check-out?
  • Does the system provide client access through standalone software or through a browser? Most applications have both. Client software is usually full-featured, but requires desktop support. Browser support is easy to administer, but usually isn't full featured.

Related articles

Looking for more information? Check out these articles at

  • “Is there money in digital asset management?” April 2001

  • “New technologies: Can you profit with DAM?” May 1999

  • “Building a DAM,” January 1999

DAM: Why we need it

My job keeps me on the road five days a week, spending time with customers and colleagues, ranging from corporate executives at large and small firms, to creatives at agencies or in-house departments, to IT technicians, to prepress and pressroom employees. Each person plays a role in the graphic-arts supply chain, from the germination of an idea, its creative refinement, to the actual file mastering on a computer through the replication and distribution of the information to print, and in some cases, Web and electronic media. While their titles and responsibilities are varied, these professionals have one thing in common: They must organize an ever-growing amount of information every day.

As an industry, we have created a mess. Ever since Apple introduced the Mac, we have converted the way we produce communication materials to an almost all-digital workflow. We've worked hard to keep current with the latest technologies, spending time and money on hardware, software and attendant upgrades. And we've worked long nights when new versions of software created files that could not be output. But while most of us have specific ideas about preflighting, workflow and file mastering, there are no best practices concerning the organization, archival and retrieval of files.

GATF (Sewickley, PA) reports that almost 50 percent of an average creative person's time is spent searching for images. The potential savings and productivity improvement are enormous. GisTICS (Larkspur, CA) research indicates that when five people use a DAM system, a company can save one-half of a man-year. The opportunity to cement a relationship with a customer through a DAM system has never been greater. The hand that holds the data is the hand that rules the world.
Mark Evans

Advice for digital-asset management first-timers

Can small shops succeed with DAM? One prepress manager put it bluntly: “No. They don't have the technical resources, they can't afford to put a person on payroll to manage the process, they can't afford to invest $500,000 in hardware and software, and they can't continue to invest with the systems as they evolve.”

Another executive suggested a way for small to midsize companies to enter the DAM market. “In the beginning, don't try to get involved in providing the actual services. Instead, work as a consultant to reduce your company's investment risk. You can be the advocate for the client and provide the expertise they need to work with outside vendors to set up the DAM system.”

Testing the waters

Others offered helpful advice to first-time DAM service providers. First, don't go into this because you think you should. Go into it because you have proven to yourself and your company that your clients and prospects need it and that you can make money at it.

If you don't have any experience in an area, then you must have a sacrificial lamb. Pick a customer who understands this is a new experience and an adventure for both of you. Make your charges nominal, so you won't harm the prospect if you fail. Then go through the process with them. You may not profit greatly or you may even lose money, but it's an inexpensive way to educate your staff and conduct a trial offer.

Document what you're doing and what it costs. This will be valuable in the measurement phase. You have to understand that a client with 10,000 images may require 40 hours to launder the images and prepare to populate a database. You must benchmark these efforts to create a system that will make profits.

Source: “Profiting from New Revenue Streams,” IPA (Edina, MN). See for more information.

Developments in DAM technology

Archiving solution

Screen (USA)'s (Rolling Meadows, IL) DAM system, MediaGenius, stores and organizes digital files used in printing, publishing, communication, production and other workflows in any industry-standard SQL database. It links to InDesign, Quark and other software programs, enabling users to retrieve files from the database into the applications. Users access the database through a standalone client application or Web-based client module.

Content management

Banta Integrated Media (Cambridge, MA) has released Bmedia 3.0, an enterprise-class DAM system for catalogers, direct marketers and publishers. A whiteboarding feature allows users to electronically create and annotate page layouts so page designers can automatically transform the layouts into QuarkXPress pages. Localized and desktop caching for complex documents reduces file transfers. Automated indexing tracks each product and/or a product group on each page of a catalog.

Web-enabled DAM

MediaBin Inc.'s (Atlanta) MediaBin 2.3 has Web-enabled applications that can be added to the company's core Asset Manager product. A fulfillment application lets users place orders via the Web for assets in the MediaBin catalog and receive those assets in a variety of electronic and hard-copy formats. Using a project manager tool, marketers can collaborate with vendors over the Web in the design and production of marketing materials and track the status of all ongoing projects. Content Connector for Microsoft Content Management Server (CMS) 2002 is executed on the Microsoft.NET platform. It lets Microsoft CMS users add rich-media assets stored in the MediaBin directly to Web pages.

DAM Internet option

Canto (Berlin) announces Web Publisher Pro, a more robust version of the Web Publisher option for Cumulus, the company's DAM system. Web Publisher Pro reportedly offers better performance than the standard Web Publisher because it is based on Java rather than CGI; the multithreaded system is said to offer faster results and queries. A standard CD and e-mail ordering system are included, in addition to the previously available download feature.

Conversion features include conversion to different file formats, resolutions and color spaces. Web Publisher Pro includes a flexible user interface — custom interfaces can easily be developed.

DAM for Mac OS X

Extensis (Portland, OR) has released Portfolio Server for Mac OS X. Portfolio Server supports both Mac OS X and OS X Server, in addition to Mac OS 9 and Windows. Portfolio Server lets workgroups publish shared image catalogs over large networks using TCP/IP networking, and work seamlessly with Windows and Mac clients in either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X. Users can connect with existing SQL databases for larger catalogs.

Digital-image rights management

Celartem Technology (New York City) has developed a security package and Web-based management utility program for managing digital content, which combines its Protected Archives Distribution System (PADS) Controller and VFZ file server. With PADS Controller, users control, track, mark and secure each Protected Format for Zooming (PFZ) file. Users also can assign client-specific usage rights to password-protected, encrypted PFZ files. PADS regulates images by setting restrictions on printing, saving, zooming and changing files. (Celartem recently acquired Extensis from ImageX Inc. See p. 17 for details.)

DAM Internet option

The WAM!NET (Eagan, MN) WAM!BASE Archive Service provides global access to digital assets via the private WAM!NET network. The browser-based interface allows users to upload and retrieve digital assets, such as images, logos or page files. The service includes full text indexing and search features, more than 40 metadata fields and the capability to import existing data, as well as thumbnail, storyboard and preview capabilities. Assets are stored in secure, geographically redundant data centers.

Content management

Ancept Media Server (AMS) (Minneapolis) reportedly enables print and prepress organizations to streamline operations, repurpose content and provide better customer service. It provides robust DAM, database publishing and workflow. AMS is built on IBM Content Manager, a content-management middleware product that is robust and scaleable.

Simplified asset management

MediaBeacon (Minneapolis) uses folders, file servers and Web browsers rather than proprietary software. Features include printed PDF catalogs, image notes and file-server access. The system can be customized through XML, JSP, Java and HTML. Operator training requirements are said to be minimal.

Sharing assets on the Internet

Xinet's (Berkeley, CA) WebNative asset-management and distribution tool provides secure, remote access to its FullPress server package. WebNative Venture's SQL database has greater capacity for adding customized metadata to files and folders, and searching within online, near-line and archived jobs. Its enterprise-strength database increases searching speed and automatically tracks all asset activity, without relying on a check-in/check-out system.CIRCLE 10 OR VISIT FREEPRODUCTINFO.NET/AP