Thursday, September 7, 2023
Rob DiCaterino delivered an insightful and invaluable presentation on the six essential strategies for positioning retouchers and retouching teams for success at this year's Henry Stewart Photo Studio Operations New York event. We've asked Rob to further discuss the key points from his presentation on the VeryBusy blog, beginning with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs for short- it’s a fancy way of saying numbers, data, or metrics. KPIs are crucial to the successful operation of a retouching team. But how?
Having KPIs allows managers to scope work, plan ahead, allocate resources accurately, and avoid being caught off guard. KPIs also allow managers to hold people accountable, and make objective, justified business cases for raises, promotions, and headcount.
So what KPIs need to be tracked for a retouching team?
Project type (e.g. ecomm, editorial, print, digital)
Number of photos retouched per day
Number of retouching rounds per photo
Full time retoucher salary
Vendor rate per photo
Freelancer hourly rate
I track all of this info within different columns in a spreadsheet. That way, I can filter or pivot data for specific types of work, allowing me to get the exact info I need quickly.
Establishing and Communicating Targets
Specific targets need to be established and communicated to the retouchers so they have an objective frame of reference to work within. What are the expectations in terms of performance? What volume and quality do I need them to achieve on a daily basis in order to support the business?
Without targets in place, there's no way for me to accurately scope work or gauge how long a project will take. Will my team be able to retouch five photos a day, or 500? I wouldn't have a reliable way of knowing without providing my team with specific expectations.
It would also be unfair to the team, since they wouldn't have a way to gauge their own performance. Come annual review time, a retoucher who delivers two photos a day might think they're doing great because they're spending hours zooming in making sure every pixel is absolute perfection, even though that’s overkill for ecomm work. Meanwhile, another retoucher could be racing through 100 photos a day thinking they're doing great, even though they’re lacking consistency from image to image.
Which of the two retouchers is actually performing well? If I never established volume and quality targets, there's no way of knowing. How can I, their manager, rate their performance and determine who gets a raise or who gets a promotion in such a vague, open ended environment? It would come down to arbitrary, subjective judgment calls, resulting in an HR nightmare.
I set my team and myself up for success by determining how many photos, on average, each retoucher needs to deliver on a daily basis, per client and/or photo type, and creating visual reference guides for quality standards...and then regularly communicating those targets and standards to the team.
Scoping and Resourcing
When KPIs are in place and upheld, scoping and resourcing becomes simple math. Because I’ve tracked KPIs across a variety of photo types (ecomm, editorial, print, social, etc.), I can quickly anticipate how much time- and therefore how much money- will be needed to retouch each photo by referencing my tracking spreadsheet.
I learned my lesson the hard way. I’ve worked in situations where people would pull numbers out of thin air, and it caused problems. That’s why I started keeping track of, and working from, real data years ago.
Whatever type of retouching a client needs, I can quickly reference the historical data in my sheet and make accurate estimates by doing some quick math:
Photo type (ecomm, editorial, print, social, etc.) = average retouching time anticipated per photo
Average retouching time anticipated per photo * # of photos to retouch = total retouching time needed to complete the project
Total retouching time needed to complete the project / days allocated to retouching = number of retouchers needed for the project
Let’s say an internal client needs 20 photos retouched for a marketing campaign. If I didn’t know any better, I could make a wild guess and throw a number out there. “I’m allocating five hours per photo for retouching.” Will it really take that long? I have no idea, but it sounds like it could be right.
This is the opposite of how I work, and the opposite of how I lead retouching teams.
Because I’ve tracked KPIs, I don’t need to make a wild guess. Within one minute, I open my spreadsheet, look at the average retouching time per photo for marketing campaigns over the last three years, and scope the project much more accurately and confidently at 48 minutes per photo.
Even if I add a small buffer and round up to one hour per photo to play it safe, that’s still a huge difference from the five hours per photo I might have pulled out of nowhere without having metrics to refer back to.
20 photos * 5 hours per photo = 100 hours of retouching
20 photos * 1 hour per photo = 20 hours of retouching
One number is an uninformed guess that has no basis in reality and won’t do me any favors. The other is an accurate, realistic estimate based on data and proves I’m a knowledgeable, trustworthy partner.
Another example: A client needs 2,000 ecomm photos retouched in two weeks. Got it. We determine the requirements together and I realize this work is similar to these other two clients I’ve delivered projects for the last two years. I pull up my spreadsheet and see it’s an average of 12 minutes per photo. Again, adding a small buffer to be safe, I round up to an average of 15 minutes per photo.
I do the math:
2,000 photos x 0.25 hours per photo = 500 hours
500 hours of retouching / 80 hours of work = 6.25 retouchers
Boom. I know exactly how many retouchers I need for this project.
I also track the cost associated with retouching each photo. Is there a vendor involved? If so, what’s the average price the vendor charges for this type of work? Do I need freelancers? What’s the average rate I’ve paid for similar work?
Two minutes later, I have the numbers and do the math:
500 hours x hourly rate = total cost
So, for 2,000 ecomm photos over two weeks , in less than 5 minutes I know how many retouchers I need and my estimated cost
And if I need to factor in profit margin on top of that, that’s another quick math equation.
I didn’t waste time playing guessing games. I didn’t need to schedule multiple meetings to talk through different hypothetical scenarios and make unreliable attempts at figuring out the calculations. I have all the real, historical data ready to go, because I know how important and valuable it is to track it.
I scope work and send estimates with confidence, knowing I’m providing competitive, cost effective, yet realistic numbers based on facts.
Of course, sometimes potential clients respond with numbers that are way off from my estimate. We’ve all been there. “Are you able to do the job for half that price?” Sometimes that’s just the nature of what we do. But because I’ve tracked all the retouching metrics, I have the facts to back up my decisions and know better than to agree to impossible terms.
In those cases, if there’s definitely no room for small, realistic compromises on either end, it’s ok to let them go and try to make life miserable for some other retouching team.
I’ve been stuck in that trap before. It’s horrible. I learned my lesson.
Spot the traps and avoid getting you and your team sucked in. Establish, track, and adhere to KPIs so you’ll know when the calculations make sense vs. when they don’t.
Supporting the Team
Having all the data allows me to support and advocate for my team. I can give fair, accurate, objective performance reviews by using the information I’ve tracked. “Great job, you’ve consistently met expectations this past year and here’s the data to back up my assessment.”
I can also quickly make a strong business case to promote a high performing retoucher or get additional headcount by presenting the relevant metrics from my spreadsheet. “There’s been a 9% increase in volume this quarter, and it’s projected to increase another 3% next quarter. My team has consistently gone above and beyond to accommodate the increase, but it’s not sustainable long term. I’ll need two additional heads to continue at this workload.”
That doesn’t guarantee I’ll get approval, but I’ll know I made the clearest, strongest argument possible by citing specific facts (this quarter, next quarter, 9%, 3%, and two additional heads) vs. the vague “My team has worked really hard for a while. I need more people.”
Establish expectations and targets
You have to set clear expectations and targets with the team so you can quickly and reliably plan ahead, scope and resource work, and properly support the team.
On average, as long as your retouchers achieve the targets you’ve communicated to them, it takes much of the guesswork out of planning and evaluating. What was once complicated, mysterious, and stressful becomes clear and straightforward.
Communicate those expectations and targets clearly with the team
You need to communicate clear expectations and targets with the team. It’s unfair to keep expectations vague. Let everyone know exactly what needs to be achieved, otherwise you won’t have reliable metrics and won’t be able to hold people accountable in an objective manner.
The operation will fall apart, and you’ll spend too much time and energy putting out fires instead of planning ahead and delivering quality work in a smooth, reliable manner.
Track and monitor performance and costs
You need a system or tool like a spreadsheet to track and monitor performance and costs. That way, you’ll have quantified data to back up annual reviews, raises, and bonuses, and make strong business cases for promotions and headcount. The more you’re able to advocate for and support your team, the more they’ll trust you. Everybody wins.
Life isn’t perfect. There will always be curveballs like last minute changes to creative. I’ve been around the block enough times to expect that. But without KPIs, *everything* on my end would be a stressful, chaotic guessing game- a game that I would lose most of the time. Why set myself up for that?
I could have the most amazing retouching team in the world, but having KPIs proves to everyone just how buttoned up and valuable we really are. It also reveals deficiencies I need to address.
Rob DiCaterino is an expert photo retoucher and retouching manager. He's built successful, high performing retouching teams and has delivered elevated work at scale for Net-A-Porter, David Yurman, Aldo, Victoria's Secret, Under Armour, Eileen Fisher, Scholastic, Lord & Taylor, Macy's, Martha Stewart, and Square.