Are print’s brokers an endangered species?

Jon Severs
Monday, November 11, 2013

There is a perception in some quarters of the print industry that the battle with print management – that bogeyman of the printer – has now been won and those operators that once drove prices down to the cost of the innocent printer are now on the road to extinction.

Off the record, many printers will tell you they don’t accept work from print management companies. Which suggests that they are managing quite nicely without it. Print managers, then, seem to be struggling to stay at the heart of some print supply chains.

But the fact that so many printers are unwilling go on the record and admit that they won’t use print managers suggests they may be hedging their bets, holding that option in reserve as an insurance policy should other work dry up. So have reports of the demise of print managers been exaggerated?

Jon Lancaster, managing director at Falkland Press, is in the minority in going on the record to say he does not work with print managers, but hints it may not be a sustainable policy. “We have managed to avoid print managers so far, but who knows what the future holds,” he says.

It’s not quite true to say print management is in decline, then. It is accurate to say, however, that its impact on print is lessening. But rather than this being because print has won any battles, could it perhaps be that print is now losing more battles within the communications mix?

The print management companies certainly think so. “It’s not the old ‘print management’ of buying ink on paper anymore. Times have changed,” says Tim Fitzgerald, business development director at CPD. “We have more accounts, with sustainable business margins, but they’re spreading their marketing costs further across other communications areas. Print is still a dominant factor in all of this, but it has become more allied to the other routes to market that have emerged.”

“Print management is a different beast to what it was five years ago,” agrees Mark Gray, managing director at Real Print Management (RPM). “Print, as a communications medium, is not alone now and is in fact diminishing, perhaps with the exception of POS and packaging, which are enjoying something of a boom. Marketing portals, cross-media, social media and apps have emerged, allowing companies to broaden service offerings to clients.”

But this is not to say that while print still cares about print management – mostly in the negative – print management has moved on and no longer cares as much about print. While print managers have indeed evolved the abilities to profit from other channels, you only have to look at PrintWeek’s Top 500 to see how much business these companies are still doing in the print sector.

Mike Roberts, managing director at Clever Print Management (CPM), says that print is still a big part of the print management offering, despite the growth of other channels. “Good print management has an increasingly predominant role in print given the economic challenges and rate of change in technology. The profile of business has changed substantially over the past three years, as direct marketing has become more targeted, volumes have reduced. Clients want clever solutions to minimise spend and get a better return on their investment. This provides tremendous opportunity for good print management companies in print.”

 Market reality

And there are in fact plenty of printers still happy to work with print managers, realising that, as mentioned above, they are a reality of the print market. It seems admitting you work for print managers is just as problematic as not working with them, though: there is an element of not wanting to side with the enemy and so printers are reluctant to talk openly. Gareth Roberts, managing director at Bishops Printers, is one of few happy to speak about positive relationships. 

“Print management firms have a lot of advantages,” he says. “They have typically evaluated the requirements to a specific level and are good at prescribing what is needed for any particular project. In a good partnership, where the print manager or broker has a good understanding of the printer’s skill set or ‘fit’ and the printer is honest and not greedy about what they are looking for, you also find print managers are a good source of the right type or ‘timing’ of additional work. I think that there
is no reason to avoid or be suspicious of print management companies and,
properly embraced, they can be fantastic for business.”

“I am not embarrassed to say that I generally don’t think printers can do the print management job properly,” he adds. “Certain clients or key contracts can be done without the need for print management, but complex or demanding end-users often need a breadth and level of expertise and focus that print management firms can supply, and that most printers simply aren’t geared up to offer. There’s no shame in that, as far as I’m concerned.”

The print management companies, as would be expected, agree. “We bring knowledge and expertise in a number of media disciplines, knowing the right path to choose, single point of contact, ease of doing business, management reporting and much more,” says RPM’s Gray.

“I don’t buy into the model of ‘printer with a print management arm’ as I believe true print management needs to be completely independent of production. Otherwise, how can you deliver the best solutions for clients?” adds Roberts. “I understand why such models exist and clearly relationships exist on that basis, but at the end of the day, surely a good print manufacturer should stick to what they are really good at: production. Print management companies are best placed to adopt new technology or new methods to help clients save time, get better responses and get a better return on their spend, and in the current economic climate, show me a marketer that doesn’t want to do that!”

And proof of the logic of this argument, adds CDP’s Fitzgerald, is in the large number of print buyers still preferring to work with a print manager rather than talking direct to the printer. “Print management companies aren’t forcing printers to do business with them – the market is,” he says. “Print management has become a viable and acceptable supply chain for print buyers as it saves time and resources. To quote The Jam: ‘The public gets what the public wants’.”

Although there are those, such as CPM’s Roberts, who remain sceptical about printers’ ability to deliver the same level of service as a print management firm, the fact there are now a plethora of printers offering a print management service – Communisis and St Ives chief among them – confirms that the demand is there. So, the role of the print manager to deliver strong customer service, rather than rock bottom prices, seems now more clear-cut than ever.

Which in turn (and hearteningly for those who were holding out for print management to fall by the wayside) means the printer’s role also seems to be on more solid ground now. With print managers now covering a broader market, printers have the depth of expertise in their field that print managers can’t hope to match. Those printers currently offering print management services argue that their understanding of the products and processes is better, so they can offer more creative and cost-effective solutions than channel-agnostic print managers.

Unanswered questions

Of course, it’s likely to be a long time yet – if ever – before the print industry can agree on the role print management should play. Can printers do the job of print management? Can a printer get away with refusing to work with print managers? Is print management in fact great news for the industry, or even an essential component of it? No one can say unequivocally. 

Perhaps most telling, though, is that printers are still reluctant to go on the record to criticise print management companies. That suggests that while print managers may not be a dominant species in the print world, according to some, and are under threat from printers’ own management services, traditional print management companies are still big enough beasts to make public exclamations of their death as a print force less than conclusive. In an industry still suffering in tough economic times, you cannot burn a bridge with a potential source of income. And print management companies are apparently still very much seen as just that. 

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