The DAM that can Cure Death

Are DAM vendors trying to construct software that can do anything?

Are DAM vendors trying to build software that can do anything?

It’s been more than 20 years since digital asset management software was known simply as an image database. In this time, DAM has evolved so far that we sometimes still call it an image database just to make it understandable to newbies.

There’s no question that DAMs have become much more than image databases. The question is why. The vast majority of DAM customers purchase their systems to manage images. And even those who do use DAM to manage Office documents, videos and more, usually have more images in their systems than anything else.

In straying from the focused, easy-to-understand (and easy-to-sell) image-database class of software, the DAM industry is now mired in a software discussion that is always too complicated. Worse, we have created an industry that virtually no one understands.

An Industry without a Market

If I tell you that I sell software that enables you to manage PowerPoint presentations, you’d understand the value of what I’m offering, even if you had no need for the software yourself. You could probably even explain it to others. If I tell you that I also sell software that automatically converts InDesign files into PDFs so people can preview them over the Web, you’d probably understand the point of that product too.

But if I told you that my software does both, you’d look at me like I’m selling an erectile dysfunction pill that’s also perfect for reducing all those bothersome symptoms of menstruation.

Who was today’s Digital Asset Management designed for?

Marketing has been traditionally been considered DAM’s low-hanging fruit, but Marketing is not the only tree in the forest. Museums and universities use DAM too. So do governments and countless other types of organizations.

But few DAM vendors are willing to carve themselves niches and then operate solely from within those niches. It’s not like MediaBeacon has raised its hand to be the DAM provider for Education, while Picturepark takes on museums and North Plains cozies up with governments. All DAM vendors think they’re perfect for all segments.

In fairness, the digital asset management use case for many of these segments is similar. But in trying to address the needs of all segments within a single software genre, we provide products that are too horizontal. The fact is, today’s DAMs offer virtually no segment-specific benefits unless, of course, you’re willing to pay for API-based development services. We have pardoned our unwillingness to focus on specific markets by saying that our DAM software has evolved into a panacea “platform” that’s perfect for everything. One size, color and style fits all—like it or not.

Make no mistake, there is an absolute need for the functionality we expect from digital asset management software. The question is whether this “everyone, everything” target market we’re collectively imagining is willing to put up with plain-wrapped DAM, when the makers of CMS and other adjacent technologies are offering DAM features that fit neatly into digestible conversations: Here is your website; here is software to create the content on your website; here is the menu item you’ll use to manage the images and movies you use on your website.

When presented in this context, digital asset management seems as obvious and necessary as electricity. But we DAM vendors don’t present DAM in contexts this simple. It’s not enough for us to design DAMs to cure a specific illness, we strive for DAMs that can cure death.

Targeting the Luxury-Camping Segment

What’s wrong with this picture?

Imagine a 1960s Jaguar E-type—cherry red, convertible, stunning. Now imagine adding a canopy roll bar and mud tires so big and thick that you could climb a mountain. Now that you have a sexy/safe vehicle that can take you anywhere you want to go, you realize it should also have a camper shell for those times when you’re just having too much fun to go home.

What you’re imagining right now is what DAM software has become.

When you have an “automotive solution” that’s as clearly defined as the Jaguar E-type, you ignore the feature requests of Ranger Rick and the Soccer Moms. Successful car makers understand this but DAM vendors just can’t say no. Whatever we’re asked to do, we do. Then we do whatever some other vendor was asked to do, too, just so we can say we offer it all.

We have collectively delivered the Terrafugia of enterprise software and we wonder why our industry doesn’t grow at the pace we expect.

A Creative Burst of Limitation

The DAM industry has fallen victim to our medium—software. We aren’t bound by the physical restraints that challenge automakers. We are free to do anything, and that’s exactly what we have done.

But when it comes to the design of anything, limitations can be an effective seed for creative inspiration. Without them, we can lose focus. Limits keep UPS branding brown and they keep Joni Mitchell from releasing her Death Metal debut.

When limits are not imposed upon us, we must define them for ourselves. It is the mature thing to do. And in doing so, we might even find ourselves redefining Digital Asset Management into something people actually understand.

Images via



  1. Spot on David! This article articulates the “jack of all trades, master of none” problem permeating the DAM industry.
    My company has specifically taken a more vertical approach to DAM, integrating it with other software modules to address a specific market segment: the in-house creative teams at brands and retailers. We recognize each market segment has unique requirements and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is destined to fail.
    The dirty little secret of the DAM industry is the large number of unhappy clients that were sold on the ‘dream of DAM’ and find themselves with a platform that gives each stakeholder group in the Enterprise a handful of their ‘wish list’ but no group gets everything they want… And the Ceative Team is the most unhappy of all, since their workflow is rarely addressed by the DAM architecture. The DAM industry (if we can even call it that) will change rapidly in the next few years, and I believe to grow it must go ‘vertical.’

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