'It’s a transformation not a turnaround’

Darryl Danielli
Tuesday, May 8, 2018

At PrintWeekLive! in March, we were fortunate enough to welcome the newly appointed Williams Lea Tag (WLT) global chief executive David Kassler as our opening keynote speaker.

In his industry speaking debut, which came less than 100 days after he took charge at the £1bn-plus BPO group, following its sale to private equity group Advent International, completed last December, Kassler used his session to offer a fresh perspective on the industry, picking up on what he saw as some of the key trends and also offering his view on the “vital role print will continue to play on customer journeys”.

He kicked off the session by highlighting that, while his career began in marketing, he had spent the previous two decades in “various technology-led transformations”, which was one his key attractions to taking the role at WLT.

While confessing that his previous knowledge of the print industry was minimal, Kassler said that, since joining WLT, he had immersed himself in his new role – and had been amazed by the scale of the printing sector, as well as by its agility and focus on innovation.

“Despite some headwinds, print is an incredibly important channel for marketing communications and a vital part of the mix,” he said.

Expanding on the subject of headwinds, he highlighted the “incredible resilience of print, in the face of amazing digital and mobile growth” pointing out that in the US consumers only spend 4% of their time consuming print media, but it still received 16% of marketing spend.

He felt that reflected the value and trust of print: “When you look at people that espouse a digital only marketing strategy, there have been so many scandals in the past few months that show that’s probably not a very good idea. Your digital advert may be being viewed by a robot, or underpaid worker somewhere in the world or sitting below the pagebreak on a digital screen.”

He said the fact that marketers still held faith in print and in some instances were coming back to it showed the “enduring strength of printed communications, when it’s done right.”

“Because [with print] you have both control of the media, control of the message and, most importantly, you have the trust of the consumer. Which you certainly don’t always have in the digital world.”

Not that his session was simply a rallying call for the power of print, which now represents less than half of WLT’s business, ultimately, he said, any form of communication was about knowing your audience and what the right communication method is for them, and that most often it was not a case of either or print or digital, but how they are used, along with other marketing platforms in complement, to map a customer journey and create effective touchpoints.

The key challenge facing the sector, he went on to say, was the need to constantly evolve – going on to cite his experience at record label EMI, where he was chief executive of Europe and Rest of World for six years. He used the music industry as an example of a sector continually reinventing itself in the face of seemingly unsurmountable digital threats, detailing how the industry had turned those threats into opportunities – to the point that the music industry now at its most profitable level and is back in growth for the first time in 20 years.

“I think that’s a story that if you do reinvent yourself digitally, you can have a pretty impressive future” he said, highlighting that even vinyl was having a renaissance.

“Not that I’m making a direct comparison between print and vinyl here, because I’m not sure I would get out alive if I did. But this is a great example of if you have a really strong product and continually reinvent yourself you can maintain a very positive and thriving industry in a so-called legacy world.”

He then used a number of case studies to illustrate how his company had helped a number of major brands to seamlessly merge the online and offline worlds through an omni-channel approach.

Summing up, he said: “I really believe the future is bright for the printing industry, but I do believe it has to work as part of a fully integrated marketing mix and cannot live in a silo. It also needs innovation.”

After his session Kassler spent a few hours on the show floor, leaving just enough time for PrintWeek to ask a few further questions.

Darryl Danielli What were your impressions of PrintWeekLive!?

David Kassler I’ve been really impressed with the quality and range of the suppliers here, and also the visitors, it’s a great thing that you guys are doing.

That’s the right answer. And how does that translate to your first impressions of the industry?

Look, I’ve been incredibly impressed by how much has been invested in the UK, I think it was around £775m according to some BPIF research I read, and I think that shows that it’s not a legacy industry. It’s very much a thriving, forward looking industry. The other thing I’ve noticed is that the balance of payments in terms of exports is positive at over £700m a year – that shows it’s a thriving sector.

Before you started in your role though, did you have any preconceived ideas about the industry?

I guess everyone talks about the digital revolution and then you almost infer from that everything else [print] must be in decline, but when you scratch beneath the surface it’s clear that, actually, both forms of communication can exist together and print clearly still has a thriving future.

Do you think WLT will play in integral role in the that future?

We would very much like to. We have a very major business involved in print, both on the procurement and sourcing side in things like direct mail, transactional, POS, packaging, etc, but also in the creative production area we create print advertising for a lot of the big FMCG and retail companies around the world. So, while print is now a little less than half our revenues, it’s still very important to us.

And I suppose, even though print now only equates to 40%-45% of your business, you’re still the UK print PLC’s largest single customer?

I think we’re the largest print sourcer globally and certainly here in the UK.

So, it’s important that you guys still see a strong future for the industry?

Very much so.

You mentioned in your session some of the growth areas for WLT – is print one of those areas?

I think it very much depends on the [geographic] markets you’re dealing with. The markets around the world are at a different stage of their evolution and most of our customers are global, and we basically have to service in all those markets and they choose different channels according to the market they’re in. There are still some, I suppose you could say, traditional markets out there, which are heavily print focused. Even if you looked at the US, then it has probably 15 times the print output of the UK, but only five times the population – so it’s still very heavily print oriented.

So, do you think the growth opportunities in the UK are limited?

The UK is one of the most advanced online shopping markets in the world and it’s one of the most advanced, from a customer point of view, digitally. Print has taken something of a backseat here as a result – but it’s still important.

When you first looked at getting involved with WLT then, what did you see as the key opportunities or challenges?

The biggest opportunity is most definitely globalisation. Although we’re present in 44 countries, the services that we offer in those markets vary quite widely, so we might be working with one customer across the entire Asia-Pacific region, but not working with them in Europe or the US and vice-versa. So being properly global is probably our single biggest opportunity, and that’s also what clients are asking for. The second opportunity is that we have an enormous amount of technology across the group, so, again, I want to make sure we make that available on a global basis. That’s incredibly important. It’s very challenging, because we’re made up of different businesses that have come together to create Williams Lea Tag, but we’re on a very fast journey to make that work.

Do you see M&A as part of the future then, or is it more about consolidating or harmonising what you have?

M&A is very much part of the plan. We have an active pipeline of some 200 mergers and acquisitions, and that’s all inbound so far – so people approaching us.

All in your core areas?

In our three core areas. Our private equity backers, Advent International have left us with a very strong balance sheet, so we’re able to undertake acquisitions by ourselves, and they’re also willing to increase the investment available if we identify good opportunities. So, we’re looking in the areas of all our core service lines, creative production, digital document workflows, and procurement sourcing – but we’re looking to add capabilities adjacent to where we’re currently offering services. Data and analytics is a particularly strong area we’re looking at, as well as other areas around digital marketing that we don’t deal with today.

One of the questions in your session was about the entrepreneurial culture within the business, and whether that had perhaps been lost. And you just mentioned about the business’s make-up and the challenges that creates; is the culture right within the business or is that something you’re looking to change?

Williams Lea Tag has an amazing culture of delivering for customers and you would never want to change anything in that. We have a fantastic roster of customers and if you looked at the customer feedback scores, then you would see we do incredibly well. I think one of the things that private equity backing can bring to a business is a speed of change, intensity of progress and a willingness to invest in people, process and technology. So, I do see an acceleration of what we’re doing, and I have to say I think we’re already a pretty entrepreneurial environment to work in, with some very incredible and entrepreneurial people. So, I don’t see that as a challenge. As part of Deutsche Post DHL inevitably it was a little bit of an orphan child and got easily lost in such a big company, we were less than 1% of their turnover, but now as an independent company we have a huge opportunity to grow, and grow very quickly.

I didn’t necessarily mean that fixing the culture was a challenge, perhaps it’s more of an opportunity to have a more cohesive culture? I just meant that the way the business was created, how it’s grown…

It’s true, but I think it’s old news to be honest. We bought Tag a long time ago, so I think the two sides are fully integrated, but perhaps the outside world, looking in, still sees Tag as a separate piece, but it’s very much an integrated part of the business and a lot of the projects we do are integrated across both the old Williams Lea and Tag sides. 

What do you see as your personal challenges in the role, in the years ahead?

Ultimately, I think its leading the team into a new era. Williams Lea Tag has got an incredible heritage and I’m very privileged to be doing this job, but I think it’s very much about how I can lead the business forward amidst all the changes in the market and staying just ahead of where the customers want us to be at any given moment.

What attracted you to the role?

I think it’s just a fascinating industry. I love digital disruption, so I love it when industries are changing really fast. My background particularly in the music and other creative industries really sets me up to do this job well. Our customers face real challenges in the transition from print to digital, to mobile and moving image and I’m really excited to be part of making the company part of that solution.

Listening to some of your management team, they talk about the fact that there’s very much the feeling of a new broom sweeping across the business, which they think will make it a much more open business?

I think it’s true we’ve been a little bit invisible, certainly from a PR perspective, but that probably stemmed from the corporate philosophy, but also, maybe, a little bit because of the many changes the business has been through and the fact that the business didn’t have a figurehead willing to shout about the company’s successes. But if you look at the successes we’ve had in just the past few months, new clients, new technologies, I’m really proud of them and I’m really proud of the team and more than happy to shout about our successes.

Do you think that will trickle down through the rest of the business and make it more approachable, if you like? Even the biggest brands want to work with suppliers in partnership.

I think if you look at some of the case studies I presented earlier, ultimately we are really integrated into both our customers and our suppliers, so in reality we’re deeply integrated. I think we’re very much part of the ecosystem of not just the print world, but also digital and moving image – perhaps the industry saw us that way [unapproachable], but I don’t think our customers ever have.

You’re often described as a turnaround expert, so is it fair to describe your job at WLT as a turnaround project in essence?

I don’t use the term turnaround for Williams Lea Tag, it’s very much about transformation. Because the pace of technological change is so rapid that actually businesses like ours can never just rest on their laurels, they need to be continually transforming and the digital agenda is very important. That’s why I bought in very capable technology people from outside to complement what we’re doing.

And in terms of your personal plan with the business – is it a three- year plan, a five-year plan? I guess what I’m asking is: what is your exit strategy?

Ultimately, it’s up to shareholders. But Advent International, typically, has very long hold periods, usually six or seven years. What’s consistent with all of their case studies is that they grow businesses that they own, they’re not here just to cut costs and strip assets – they’re very much about growth. Look at companies they owned like Worldpay, it grew again and again and again, though investment and acquistions over the years. And when they exited the business they left it in a very healthy state.

Fast-track six or seven years then and Advent has decided to sell the business and you leave as part of that; on your last day at the business what will success look like?

What you want to leave is a healthier business than the one you joined. Happy customers, and a sustainable ecosystem around the business so that suppliers feel they are well rewarded for doing business with us and customers feel that they’re getting a great level of service with us and, of course, that my team are happy in their roles. 


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