Use an MIS to keep an eye on your digital workflow

Jenny Roper
Wednesday, August 22, 2012

There is, as yet, no MIS purely dedicated to cross-media but even existing print-based suites can produce worthwhile benefits, monitoring productivity and deadlines, and helping calculate costs

Casually ask any printer how they keep track of orders, tot up material costs and calculate what to charge for each job, and you could be there for a while. Lovingly revealed to you, whether you wanted to it to be or not, will be the intricate estimating engines, job screens and automated invoicing of the company’s MIS, the lifeblood of any printing outfit, and as such the print boss’s pride and joy.

Ask that same printer how he keeps abreast of the burgeoning cross-media element of his business however, and what’s demonstrated, perhaps consisting of a couple of jotted down figures and Excel spreadsheets, will look a lot less comprehensive.

If the example of the majority of those printers who have branched into cross-media is to be followed, then, it would seem that email, SMS, social media and personalised website campaigns perhaps don’t require the same level of comprehensive management as a print operation. Indeed, printers-cum-cross-media providers could claim to be taking their cue from MIS vendors, none of whom have yet launched any kind of specially designed ‘MIS for cross-media’ packages.

But there are those who would point out that something about the great chasm between how digital and print are currently monitored doesn’t seem quite right. They would suggest a need to question more thoroughly the reasons why many printers haven’t yet considered tracking digital activities with their MIS, and what sort of MIS might actually be of value.

Lack of digital management
The consensus from the handful of printers-cum-cross-media-houses who have in fact begun to consider and implement MIS for cross-media, is that it is the newness of the digital world that means most haven’t yet gotten round to managing digital campaigns as formally and comprehensively as print, rather than a lack of need for such a system.

Printers on the whole, they say, are still readjusting their mentality from one used to dealing with physical processes with fixed costs, to work with less immediately tangible production processes and overheads. They are still getting to grips with the fact that just because a campaign involves someone sitting at a screen designing an email format or programming when a campaign should be sent, rather than scheduling in machine time and materials to be used, doesn’t mean less production planning needs to be done or that such tracking could never be used as a science to generate pricing.

"Cross-media is so new for printers that the majority will be doing some sort of project management and cost analysis offline, with quite a few using excel spreadsheets and calculating things manually," says Paul Deane, director at MIS vendor Shuttleworth.

"But in essence managing digital is no different from managing any other project or campaign that you might be doing," he says, explaining that it’s just a different set of production stages that will need to be tracked, and the overheads of studio time and any click charges involved with software-as-service execution platforms that will need to be factored into pricing. "It doesn’t matter what the product or service is, it still needs to be managed."

Mark Gray, director at Real Print Management, agrees that the fact that only a few people are using an MIS to track their cross-media offering is by no means evidence to suggest there’s no need to do this. And in fact, says Gray, the less tangible execution of a digital campaign makes this kind of offering even more important to keep tabs on.

He explains that, while it will quickly become apparent when a machine has taken longer to process a job than has been allowed for in production schedules and pricing, or when a raw material cost doesn’t tally to make a decent profit, it might be less obvious, but perhaps just as detrimental to turnarounds and profit margins, when a member of staff is taking too long to design and execute a cross-media campaign.

Gray tracks cross-media production using the existing capability of his Shuttleworth MIS. "If we’re in the middle of the creative process and it looks as if we’re starting to go over budget then we can see that, and that might mean we chivvy someone along a bit and say we’ve only budgeted for three hours longer so we need to get this finished," he says.

Quantifying the less obviously fixed outgoing costs involved with a digital campaign through some kind of business management software is also helpful for client-printer relations, says James Parker, chief technical officer at Pureprint.

He explains that whereas a list of raw material costs is easily understood by a client, they may not realise – only ever using digital communications themselves to perform quick and simple tasks like firing off an email – how time-consuming a large-scale digital campaign can be. So a breakdown of how much expertise, creativity, staff time and perhaps of any click charges incurred, will help customers understand why a campaign costs the amount it does.

"An MIS gives you an open book that you can show customers to justify the cost of a campaign," says Parker. "And you don’t want to be reinventing the wheel- if a client comes to you to do the same campaign again you don’t want to be plucking a figure out of the air each time – a thorough cost-calculating system keeps things consistent."

Where Gray and Parker part company, however, is on the suitability of current MIS packages to do the cross-media MIS job.

For Gray, the lack of MIS products specially designed for cross-media is down to the fact that some are already flexible enough to incorporate tracking of digital campaigns.Gray and his software vendor Shuttleworth argue that, though the resources involved in pulling off a cross-media campaign can be harder to assign a value to, once the conceptual leap of quantifying someone’s software expertise, for example, has been made, there are actually fewer production stages and overheads to keep track of. A Shuttleworth MIS is, therefore, more than flexible enough to incorporate tracking of this in-some-ways-simpler process, they say.

"With cross-media you haven’t got to consider all of the quite complex areas involved with print such as production, production planning, data capture off the shop floor, raw materials and stock control," says Shuttleworth’s Deane. "And the system has enough flexibility and configurability to manage the less complex workflow of digital work."

Parker by contrast, says that it’s important for printers to realise the importance of processing their cross-media operations through an MIS system, because then they can start to put pressure on MIS vendors to develop the kind of cross-media product that the market is, in his view, currently sadly lacking.

"It’s a square-peg-round-hole scenario, in that you can achieve tracking of digital with current print MIS products but it’s a bit cumbersome," he says, explaining that in his opinion Shuttleworth does offer the most flexible and cross-media-ready package around at the moment, but that he was hired by Pureprint specifically to develop this into a bespoke system that could cater much more effectively for a cross-media environment.

Very different workflows
"With cross-media there are very different workflows," he explains. "There are different schedules and deliveries and they don’t necessarily overlap. From a campaign perspective you don’t want to have to force people into the mindset of a printer where they estimate something and then expect conformation and that time scale is over a number of days –that could really set a digital campaign back."

Steve Richardson, sales director at Optimus, agrees that printers need to come round to the idea of a cross-media MIS because this will encourage vendors to get their skates on in developing one. Indeed, to point to an absence of a cross-media MIS currently on the market as a reason why one is probably not needed is illogical, he points out, in its reversal of the supply meeting demand status quo.

"I think other vendors, like Optimus, have probably got something like this in the planning stages but they’re probably dragging their heels a bit and saying ‘is this really us?’" he says. "The issue all software vendors face is people saying, year in year out, ‘it would be great if you could just do this,’ but when we ask if they want to pay for it they say ‘no’."

The jury is out, then, on whether the more flexible MISs currently on the market are already more than up to the job of cross-media campaign tracking, or whether printers should be pushing for something more precisely designed for a 21st-century print environment. What both schools of thought can agree on, however, is the importance of setting up some kind of MIS monitoring of digital offerings as soon as possible –whether that be an expensive bespoke system, a tweaked yet more-than-sufficient print MIS, or an in-the-meantime cross-media MIS workaround.

To go with the crowd and assume cross-media is a completely different animal to print when it comes to business monitoring could be a dangerous move. Knowledge is, when it comes to a cross-media campaign, apparently still most definitely powe

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