The hardest part was the change in mindset.” Two years ago, Simon Tabelin was managing director of a five-staff print business operating out of a basement in West Hampstead. Today he is managing director of a business that is unrecognisable in all but name: Brilliant Media.
Employing 23 staff, the business has bloomed and now occupies two (above-ground) offices in Kentish Town, where it offers a wide range of cross-media production services to its blue-chip corporate client base, including video, mobile and apps, augmented reality, custom packaging and 3D print.
For a business that had “one large-format press, one digital print machine, some Macs and a lot of hand finishing devices” that’s quite a transformation. Especially given the familiar situation the company was in prior to October 2013. “Being driven by ensuring that our machines and people were fully occupied was debilitating. We were always chasing volumes, often at the detriment of our margins,” says Tabelin.
“But now, we’re no longer constrained by these concerns and make sure we are free to explore how we can produce more profitable revenue by supplying whatever media, or range of media is best for our customers. And we’ve gone from supplying just one or two items, such as print, to a campaign that usually includes six or more touch points across different media.”
But how did a change of mindset manage to break the familiar cycle of volume chasing and prompt a break-out from that West Hampstead basement towards a brighter future?
The impetus behind Brilliant’s, well, brilliant transformation has been strategy and marketing director Tony Kenton. Kenton, a print industry consultant who had known Tabelin for 20-odd years, was invited to consult on Brilliant Media’s merger with London-based signage company Kaleido in October 2013.
Kenton, by his own admission, is a lucky man. “I was really, really fortunate,” he says. “I came into print in the heyday of traditional print, so I had several places of my own – I had two commercial print companies, a digital printing company, offices in New York and Denmark – and I managed to sell the whole lot a month before the shit hit the fan in 2008.
“I could tell you that it was my wonderful premonition but it was just dumb luck.”
By the time he joined Brilliant – on a sort of ‘perma-lance’ basis – Kenton had been consulting for 20 years, mainly advising companies on things like personalised marketing, VDP and branding and strategy.
“People just weren’t familiar with things like branding and strategy because the print industry was always a blue-collar industry – most of the people running print businesses came from a production background, made good and then went into business,” he says.
“There weren’t a lot of people who had been business people who had gone into print, which is why people like Vistaprint succeeded – because they came at it from a business proposition: return on investment, rather than their ambition was to buy a six-colour press sometime.”
While he was initially brought in to help integrate Kaleido with Brilliant Media, Kenton immediately spotted the bigger play. “I said: you do know there’s a heck of a lot of opportunities here and if you just bring in one company to the other it’s not really going to make much of a difference. Why don’t we change tack and help produce the business models for what customers need rather than just doing the production?”
Kenton’s plan was met with some initial scepticism. “They didn’t believe me at all until I went out and got the business!” That business was a two-year facilities management contract for a large corporate. “We ended up doing printing and design and copywriting for them, as well as brand management on their behalf,” says Kenton. “They had a whole department and now they just have us, so it’s cut their costs by about 50%. It’s everything from large-format, which we’re doing every day, all the way through to internal marketing pieces like data sheets, to external things like brochures. In the past we’d always outsourced copywriting but because of this contract we had to bring it in-house.”
This set the pattern for the firms’ expansion into other media channels. “This is where we started getting into cross-media,” says Kenton. “I come from a background of things like websites and design and creative and Simon was already doing a little bit of HTML. I had done personalised marketing for 20 years, so between the two of us we probably had experience in about a dozen media, but then we expanded it further into things like augmented reality, 3D printing, mobile and apps.
“We did as much as we could ourselves, but when it came to the very specialist programming and development, we used some outside people we both had known. Then once we had enough work we hired our own people. Bit-by-bit we learned and within seven months we were doing it all in-house – so we got into apps, the development on websites, interactive PDFs and video.”
This is where the change of mindset comes in, the key being to develop a value proposition rather than simply offering an outsourced print production facility. “As long as we can understand the quantifiables – in other words how will you measure us and what benefit we’re actually bringing – then we’re being measured on a different level. They’re not looking at us and saying ‘how much does it cost to produce this impression?’ they’re going ‘if we spend £12,000 what are we going to get back for that?’” says Kenton.
“And the money on the table tends to be tens of thousands as opposed to ‘how much for business cards, how much for letterheads, how much for posters?’ Nobody who’s in that game is going to succeed – unless you happen to be Vistaprint – because quite frankly who wants to compete with £2.50 for a set of business cards. So you need to come up with a business model that is going to make the client a profit.”
Another prime factor in Brilliant’s evolution has been its willingness to form partnerships.
“In our industry you can no longer work in isolation,” says Kenton. “A lot of what we now do started with strategic partnerships – that’s how we got going with things like the video, augmented reality, even higher volume digital print – but as our business has grown, we’ve had to bring it in-house in order to be able to do it in the time frame that we have to.”
In addition to accelerating the expansion of Brilliant’s in-house offering, partnerships have helped the company diversify and thereby insulate itself from competition. “If you stick to one media there’s going to be other video companies, other print companies, other mobile companies and web developers, other large-format, signage companies, but if you go across a range of media there’re very few companies that we’re going to compete with,” says Kenton.
“One of our clients sends out invitations to private auctions and those are die-stamped – all hand-engraved stuff and really beautiful – and we’re one of the few companies that can turn that around quickly. Now, the actual engraving we get done at one place and the die- stamping we get another and the artwork, mounting, packaging and specialised envelopes we do ourselves – so they couldn’t go somewhere else and get it all together, they’d have to go to several places, which they don’t want to.
“A lot of the strategic partners we use we pay quickly, we don’t give them any hassle, and if there’s a little bit more money on the table we will say to them ‘you know what, you can charge a couple of hundred pounds extra on this one’ because we’ve managed to charge the client extra and they say ‘Wow! Okay. Thank you’ and because we treat them in that fashion when our work comes through they’ll want to do it faster and better than they do their other clients because their other clients are usually just trying to screw them down on price.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else that I’m aware of that have this mentality of working together in strategic partnerships. When we say ‘it has to be brilliant’ we don’t just mean for our clients; we mean for the people that work with us – our team, and our suppliers and the industry, which is why we’re happy to share because we want to build up this community of successful friends around us.”
Location Kentish Town, London
Inspection host Strategy and marketing director Tony Kenton
Size Turnover: £2m; Staff: 23
Products Marketing campaigns, direct mail, video, augmented reality, apps and mobile, photography, creative and design, copywriting, large format displays, printed marketing, corporate stationery, posters and hoardings, banners, flags, pop-ups, vehicle wraps, 3D print and modelling, email marketing, customised packaging, promotional gifts, corporate clothing, web development, social media
Kit Ricoh Pro C7100x, Konica Minolta, Roland DG wide-format, Esko Kongsberg V24 cutting table, 3D printing and assorted finishing equipment
Becoming a cross-media production company
Be prepared to change Brilliant’s success is based on its ability to adapt and respond faster than rivals, customers and the market generally.
Sell on value, not price Take time to understand your customers then communicate to them exactly what you can do for their business and the benefit. Look to add value to every single touch point, making sure they all reinforce your brand, the job’s value and the benefit you provide.
Invest in customer deliverables Constantly look for ways to say ‘yes’ by saying what you can do, not what you can’t. Deliver business solutions, not just products or services. Make sure the value of these can be measured, so you can clearly identify the value you bring to your customers.
Set achievable targets Having targets that you meet is key to gaining new business. After all, if you don’t know where you going, how will you know when you get there?
Have a structured sales process Create a process that you know works and then learn to understand its components and nuances so it can be constantly improved and honed. Once you know it’s successful you can replicate it.
Network The single most efficient way to grow business is to build a relationship that builds trust. You do this by talking to people, asking questions, sharing insights, not just trying to sell to them.
Ask for the business Don’t beat around the bush, once your client has gone through your proposal (not quote) ask for the business. If you don’t get it, make sure you understand the reasons, then learn from it and move on.
Don’t compromise on sensible margins You will end up letting your client down because you are unable to provide the service they need.