Adobe Summit 2021 - how Disney's Yellow Shoes team adapted to the pandemic economy - and emerged with a new way of working

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 29, 2021
At Adobe Summit, we heard plenty about building a better marketing platform - and delivering better experiences. But what happens when you put those aspirations to the pandemic test? During a customer session, Yellow Shoes, the internal ad agency for The Walt Disney Company, shared their story.

Nick Zappas of Disney at the Adobe Summit
(Disney's Nick Zappas, Adobe Summit 2021)

In my first Adobe Summit 2021 piece, I wrote about Adobe's emphasis on the marketing system of record, and what that meant for Adobe customers (Adobe Summit 2021 - the marketing system of record takes center stage, but what do customers think?).

But that leaves an open question: what happens when you establish such a system, but the pandemic economy hits - and thoroughly disrupts you?

During the Evolving Creative Project Management at Disney session, we got a firsthand look.

When we think of The Walt Disney Company's pandemic response, the first thing that comes to mind is: how Disney upped the ante considerably with their digital assets - to the point that Netflix is now out of its comfort zone.To be honest, I'm really watching Disney's leadership around their vaunted theme parks, as more re-open.

Disney Yellow Shoes - adapting to the pandemic economy

We need as much data as we can on how to re-open the physical economy safely, while serving the needs of a changed consumer. Though to be fair to Disney, they blurred the lines between physical and digital in their theme parks years ago.

Another question: how does a marketing team power those considerable efforts, while adapting to their own remote reality? At the center of this story is Disney Yellow Shoes, the in-house advertising agency for The Walt Disney Company. Yellow Shoes' use of Workfront dates back to 2017, so they were a pretty mature Workfront customer by the time the pandemic hit. Let's pick up the story there. As Nick Zappas, Sr. Manager, Project Management, The Walt Disney Company, told Adobe Summit attendees:

In March 2020, Disney parks were shut down to the Coronavirus pandemic, and our country faced the realities of the inequalities that people of color have been facing. In the following weeks and months. There were furloughs and layoffs. Our organization took a long pause. We needed to find a new way of working from home, and we needed to educate ourselves on the social and political landscape.

Teams developed new streamlined processes, where each cast member wore many hats. Additionally, we started to create plans and programs that would increase our social responsibility and diminish cultural inequalities.

When it came time for phased re-openings, those new processes were put to the test. As Megan Reilly, Sr. Manager, Project Management, Disney Yellow Shoes, The Walt Disney Company, told us:

As the rest of the world started, we also started our gradual return. With Walt Disney World re-opening in July, and Downtown Disney opening also around that same time, we went back to market with a couple of campaigns you may be familiar with. The Know Before You Go campaign introduced safety and health protocols not only to the parks, but also to the rest of the world.

In fact, some of our favorites from the incredible safety program are also displayed in Times Square, and the CDC had also borrowed to use them. We also introduced a campaign called "Magic is Here," because magic never left. Magic is always here at Disney World, and we wanted everyone to remember: this is where you come for happy.

Workfront lessons - "reshaping the way we work, permanently"

If the park re-openings marked a return to some semblance of business-as-usual, that didn't hold true for Yellow Shoes. Spurred by pandemic adaptations, they've made lasting changes in their processes. Zappas:

As work from home became a more long-term situation, we started to focus on how we could reshape the way we work permanently. We shifted to working as smaller teams that shared resources across both coasts. We moved to a more streamlined and collaborative process, and tapped into ROZ to help us get there, cross-training team members on more functions within the system.

What is ROZ, you ask? ROZ is Yellow Shoes' lingo for their Workfront setup. ROZ stands for "real-time organization zone." When the work picked up, so did their dependence on ROZ. Reilly added:

What we realized as we started getting back to work is that with ROZ, we had already laid a really strong groundwork for the way that we do work. We needed to utilize a lot of the previous work we had done, and get people back into the workflow. Through our routing workflows and asset delivery, it was very easy to get people back up to speed.

Dashboards and reporting provided much-needed visibility:

We had improved dashboards that provided better reporting, so that we have more visibility into the work as it started coming through the agency. And we reintroduced our t-shirt sizing and tiered approvals, which allowed our project managers an opportunity to see the scope and size, as well as understand the levels of approvals we needed within the agency - as well as in the organization. At this point, we also saw improved engagement, with the ability to use the system to work harder for us.

My take - customer stories are better unvarnished

I have two gripes with online customer presentations. The first: they aren't interactive enough. Many are pre-recorded, and you can't always tell which ones are live, and which are not. This was a problem at Adobe Summit as well. But, one big win for Adobe was running the live chat next to the presentations, so even if some were pre-recorded, attendees could interact. Sometimes the presenters were in the chat, which was welcome. I saw plenty of questions answered effectively at these sessions, both by presenters and other attendees.

My other beef: too often, online use cases gloss over the hard parts. Here, I give the Disney Yellow Shoes team credit. They were open about how they want to improve. As Zappas told us, one big lesson is to identify and nurture super-users, or what he calls "key users." Zappas:

As we look towards the future, our experience has helped us focus on specific areas of improvement. We realized that we need to identify key users within the raw system. Instead of trying to onboard every cast member at the same time, we want to gain stronger Marketing Center of Excellence alignment, both within ROZ and on our overall work process. We are working on refining the project management process, and roles and responsibilities to drive further efficiency and effectiveness. Finally, we're optimizing the raw system workflows to aid all of our other efforts.

Reilly sees room for improvement as well - including greater synergies with Yellow Shoes, Adobe and Workfront post-acquisition.

We're looking forward to the Workload Balancer, and People Page enhancements are going to help us in forecasting and planning and overseeing the resources, and how well they're being utilized, and how we can better implement processes to help utilize them. The mobile enhancements are bringing a lot of ability and agility to people to work where they can, as they can, how they can, across different devices. We've learned from our work from home that's very important..

Reilly also cited Workfront Fusion as an emphasis, encouraging attendees to look at Workfront's built-in integrations, including Adobe Creative Cloud, G-Suite, OneDrive, and Slack - "there's so many out there."

The presenters acknowledged rough going early in their Workfront implementation. The issue? They rolled Workfront out with what they called a "very complex go to market plan, where we turned on everything at once." Roles and responsibilities within the Workfront system were not initially well-defined. As a result, adoption was difficult. But they worked through those growing pains - now The Walt Disney Company has more than 3,000 Adobe Workfront users. They have almost 700 planners in their Marketing Center of Excellence. I'd say that's getting over the hump.

I wish more customers would share this type of adversity. It makes the narrative more relatable - and the subsequent  achievements more accessible to other customers. As in, 'Our team has flaws also, but we can do this too.'

It's not easy to get a handle on how an acquisition is progressing during a virtual event. But so far, the numerous customer stories, not to mention Adobe's Workfront emphasis in its own keynotes, indicates that Adobe plans to make Workfront a central part of its plans. This brings me to an email from diginomica contributor Brian Sommer. After viewing a number of Adobe Summit videos, Sommer wrote:

  • Workfront's technology was great for managing marketing projects, and they had an especially strong following with ad agencies, creatives, and in-house marketing departments [like Disney Yellow Shoes]. Rather than a basic project management toolset, Workfront was good at handling the work of many different entities, contractors, freelancers, etc.
  • Many of the Workfront customers were prime Adobe customers or prospects. On that alone, I could see the deal becoming accretive, fast. At the time of the deal, the two firms had over 1000 mutual customers.
  • Workfront is all about speed. It made a number of aspects of marketing projects highly automated via workflow and other tools. That's especially important in Marketing circles as decisions re: ad buys now occur in as little as sub-second timeframes. Speed is a competitive differentiator for many marketing organizations today. 

Sommer thinks a huge takeaway here is the speed of work itself, and the problem of managing that:

How and where we work is changing. We need a different kind of toolset that connects people to the correct task at the right time. We also need tools that will do so at blazing fast speed, as companies no longer have the luxury of taking forever to fulfill orders, plan, deal with issues, etc.

We need tools that operate at the speed of business, come pre-integrated to major applications, allow dynamic changes to ever-evolving work processes, manage exceptions, eliminate errors, and reduce audit/controls costs. That's a tall order, but it's what businesses need today. 

How far beyond marketing these solutions will go is an open question. Alas, not every day in the pandemic economy is a good day. For those who are slogging through their work right now, we can derive motivation from Zappas and team. He closed with this:

Through our journey, we have learned a few key takeaways. First, it's important to fail forward. We're learning greatly from the initial efforts the agency put into ROZ, and the first PM process we put in place. Second, it is important to be brave in the face of great challenges and to be open to listening, learning and adjusting the way we think and work. Finally, we learned that it's important to venture forward into the unknown, making the best decisions you can to help your team.

End note: for more context, check my colleague Derek du Preez's June 2020 writeup, How Disney Yellow Shoes used Workfront to help bring Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to life.

Article updated, April 30, 5:00am US ET, with stats on Disney's Workfront adoption.

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