Tribute to printers: Stop being printers

Andy Tribute is, if anything, a realist. He is sorely conscious that, automation notwithstanding, the printing industry is on the brink of finding itself between a rock and a hard place. By Henry Mendelson.
Students of history and Colleen McCulloch tomes will recall that when an important Roman general returned from a victory, tradition demanded that the City accord him a "triumph", a tribute to his military achievements and a review of his authority (not to mention his plunder and his prisoners).

ProPrint last month was accorded a similar "Tribute", in the form of an exclusive interview with one Andrew of that name, arguably one of the graphic arts' most authoritative reviewers and consultants on three continents. Alas, beyond a cappuccino or two, your correspondent came away bereft of plunder or prisoners, but accoutred with some tributary scrutiny of what the entrails reveal it will take for the printing industry and its practitioners to survive.

During a far ranging peregrination through not merely today's but tomorrow's printing world, Andy Tribute took some heady swings at sections of the industry he has overviewed for over three decades.

"The writing's on the wall; today's printers must reinvent themselves or follow the road to failure, as have so many in the past ten years," he stated.

Foreshadowing a rationalisation of the industry to enable it to stabilise from an era of massive overcapacity to match capacity with demand, he focused on the generally accepted three segments of print suppliers - - the big boys, the small niche players and everybody else in between.

The first will survive on the basis of volume, and the third will benefit from whatever specialist area they service. As for those in the middle, Tribute said, "They will have to follow the path of the big guys or they're going to find themselves isolated".

Centralised management solutions
"Their high investment needs and low margins, punctured by price gouging, are merely recipes for going out of business. Merely depending on two Heidelberg Speedmasters, a CtP unit and turning out volume seven days a week is a formula for disaster."

"Merge, specialise or provide a total service" is the Tribute formula for survival. His application of such a formula is a complex mix based on the word "centralisation".

In the case of the digital storefront world, some preliminary examples are emerging of what he has been telling that segment of the industry it should be doing for some time - - what he calls a centralised management solution whereby buying and electronic storefront marketing are the pillars on which accessibility, recognition and profitability can be built.

Not that this trend should be confined to the digital world. He cited an example from the UK where a major offset player is taking advantage of the big opportunities offered by the web-to-print phenomenon by a franchise dealership agreement system for a network of smaller printers who want to be able to offer additional capability to their in-house facilities. With a network structure of secure servers backed up by high bandwidth communication they can take it all on.

On the wider horizon, Tribute claims medium size offset printers have surefire options to present themselves to their customer base as far more than ink-on-paper suppliers. The ability to become a full service supplier, he pointed out, requires the print shop proprietor actively to seek working agreements with a small web design service ("for goodness sake keep your website up-to-date to make your company look interesting, one with which people will want to do business"), a fulfilment house, a direct mail specialist, a marketing group and a design studio.

The more we know about your business, the more we can help you
With that infrastructure in place, the scene can be set for success, Tribute claims, citing the outcomes of current industry analysis data by the Printing Association of America (PIA) which shows declining printing revenues partnered by increasing "business" revenues involving printers taking on differing roles such as distribution, fulfilment, warehousing and data management, among others. (ProPrint understands similar analysis will be undertaken locally in the near future).
Instead of simply hoping to be asked to quote, now go to your customer offering to provide a more complete service with a "how can we help you to grow your business" approach. The Tribute manual decrees the need to seek regular meetings with others in a customer's organisation than merely the print buyer on the basis of "the more we know about your business, the more we can help you ... we can take things off your plate so you can get on with what you do best, making/selling a better widget".
"You are going to have to reinvent yourself to enable you to partner with your customer in the entire area of communication such as website and data management, email and direct mail programmes in the same way as the spectacularly successful print management companies in the UK," Tribute maintains.
"Big companies like insurance groups, utilities and the like don't want to become involved in print production - - if someone comes along and offers to take all that responsibility off their hands, they will jump at it."

Sex and the printer
Andy Tribute is, if anything, a realist. He is sorely conscious that, automation notwithstanding, the printing industry is on the brink of finding itself between a rock and a hard place given the lack of staffing continuity with which it has to contend. Attracting new entrants, he admits, is "staggeringly difficult", and the need to make the industry "sexier", ie. move the message out that this is a technologically switched-on business using advanced technologically driven manufacturing processes, is of the utmost importance.

While singling out industry bodies ("Tribute slams associations": ProPrint, March 2008) he goes further in our conversation by stressing that every graphic arts supplier proprietor should opportunistically go out of his or her way to point out all the modern aspects of his industry to all possible audiences, be they Rotary or Lions Clubs, Chambers of Commerce or other business groups.

"What's more, we have the situation today where 90 per cent of the creative community do not understand what you can do with a modern printing press in combination with the internet", Tribute opines.

He went on to make an unambiguous reference to Kodak chief marketing officer, Jeffrey Hayzlett, who set up www.printambassador.com on the basis that since no one else was doing it, he would take the opportunity of beating the drum on behalf of the industry.

"How many graphic arts industry associations have a full-time chief marketing officer who goes out to every conference, printing or otherwise, to point out how the industry can partner business to greater heights of efficiency?" he pondered.

How green is your printing?
Another aspect of the industry on which Tribute has set his sights is the environmental element. Here again, he grumbles that not enough is being done to articulate to the broader community the industry's initiatives.

"We're a lot better in this regard than many other industries but we need a much louder voice to promote the extent to which we are involved with managing sustainable forests, reducing emissions and the amount of power used by presses, recycling waste and other eco-system schemes," he asserts. "Why aren't the associations putting out this information, producing material to portray these developments?"

But the best is kept to last. All is not gloom, says Tribute.

"The future is rosy; printing is adapting to the digital age," is his summation, with a reminder that you continue to see it everywhere - - wide format, even triple wide format emerging for posters to be everywhere, point-of-sale material is everywhere, catalogues are everywhere, the interaction between internet and printing press is more efficient than ever, personalisation is here to stay and will develop in ever more sophisticated ways.

By the end of the third cappuccino, Browning comes to mind. "The lark's on the wing; God's in his heaven and all's well with the world".

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