The way most printers operate tells us a lot about why the future of print is in doubt
I WAS WANDERING around the CPIA conference in Toronto last fall when a professor and a student from one of the local colleges stopped to chat. The professor wanted me to convince the student not to give up on the print industry. I made a few comments about how the big the industry is, that it’s going be around for many decades though it will change, and that there will be many opportunities for those who deliver fresh thinking. However, when I got home it struck me that printing had attracted so much bad news that even professors were struggling to come up with reasons why students should consider a career in the industry. How did we get here?
At BRS Jump, we visit several printers a week and talk to many others throughout North America. The way they operate tells us a lot about print’s outdated image, and why the future of the industry is in doubt. We put them into four basic categories. We’ll start with the worst.
THE D LIST
These printers are the doers. They typically have 30 or more years’ experience. They’re in a business that was started on the strength of one or two big clients who generated most of the revenue. The owner kept them happy and fielded calls from other potential customers. These D listers long for the old days of great margins when marketing meant long martini lunches. They know the world is changing and they recognize their new competition but they really don’t know what to make of all the new media spawned by the digital age. They see their customers taking dollars from print and going to electronic media. The doers are the salt of the earth; they do what they do really well but become stuck like deer in headlights when things change. Being a doer is not enough these days.
THE C LIST
These are customer-focused printers. They see that print will always have a place in the world, but don’t know how big it’ll be. The C listers see the advantages of print against all other media so they talk about targetting, customization, portability, visibility, and variable quantities. They realize some things don’t need to be printed and some printing just doesn’t work anymore. They understand the return-on-investment thinking customers use. They listen to customers, use consulting techniques to find out what the customer wants, and they deliver. The bad news is this is still not enough to produce returns like in the good old days.
THE B LIST
These are the people who understand the need to create new printing applications to help companies build revenues. They don’t have blinders on about the real position of print and they understand that it’s not the answer to everything and often needs to be combined with other media. Those who know me are tired of hearing the story about the first heatset web press installed in Edmonton, but it illustrates my point. The company had a telephone book to print (what a waste of a press), but this meant the press was only at 60% capacity. So, managers made a bold move. They found out which printed products that fit their capacity would deliver the best returns for retailers. The answer was catalogues. Next, they found a retailer—Beaver Lumber—that didn’t have a catalogue and pitched the business case. They did their homework, made the bold presentation and it worked. It filled the machine capacity. The bad news today is that even this is not enough.
THE A LIST
This is reserved for the really awesome companies. One of these is Madden Communications in Illinois. I am amazed how few in the industry have heard this story. Madden went from US$10 million in revenues to US$133 million in 14 years. One day, Jim Donahugh, then sales manager of the company that specializes in marketing and POP, visited a supermarket to see displays of materials he had printed. Only, they were nowhere to be seen. He visited other supermarkets and found the same thing. He discovered that supermarkets didn’t have the time or expertise to display promotional materials properly, and that customers in the packaged goods business over-ordered materials.
My B, C or D list would have kept quiet, since telling the customer he was over-ordering would have meant less revenue, and telling him that his product wasn’t properly displayed risked losing the account. But Madden used a different strategy. Managers took the view that they were business people first and printers second and decided to talk business person to business person with customers. But, as any business leader will tell you, “don’t bring me problems unless you have a solution!” So Madden figured out a solution before telling the customer about the problem. And it broke free from these restrictive, entrenched directives:
Stay in printing Madden crossed industries and today it prints promotional materials and manages the distribution and installation of those materials on site.
Get as many customers as you can don’t worry about margins Madden focuses on a few large customers willing to pay for this one-stop service. It realized that growth without margin was a waste of time. This is a lesson many on the B, C and D list are still struggling to grasp.
Send in the sales rep to get the order Strategic selling like this needs senior people like the CEO or business development specialists. Our A list are keen to hire business development specialists on a part- or full-time basis, while many on our B, C and D list have never heard of them.
TOOLS FOR THE FUTURE
So at this point you’re probably thinking that ensuring the viability of print means using all the tools of the A, B, C and D list companies. And, that’s true as far as running good companies goes. But that’s not enough to banish doubts about about the future of print. To do that, we need to promote print and even the A listers don’t do it. We need a fresh approach to keep students, academics and business people involved in and excited about this industry.
We need to promote print in ways that make sense in the new world of smart phones and social media. We need to understand where print works so can talk to customers in “business speak” not “print speak.” We need to know and communicate the return on investment for print, and pass on “feel good” efforts.
One option is to celebrate printers who actually embrace the business speak approach. When you look at who we celebrate, it’s often the owners of the largest shops or individuals who have been in business for decades, not the most innovative or the fast-growing printers who will dominate the industry in the future. We know little about the best people who are under 40.
It’s important to promote the A listers and have awards for them. It’s time to ignore the arrogant dinosaurs who give our industry a bad name. They aren’t suitable role models and will be gone in another decade.
Global companies like Sun, Agfa, EFI, Heidelberg, Kodak, Komori, Xerox must get on board and help our small giants and emerging leaders re-invent this industry. We are competing against giants from other media and in the end we need technology to win because without it we’d be still using a hot-metal process to produce annual reports.
I’m suggesting that keeping printing alive and well should be one of the top-three objectives of every company. Individual success depends on a robust industry.
So what would you have told a student wondering whether the print industry has any future? What are you prepared to say and do to build a better future for print? What do you think is enough?