As one of the biggest brand-side print spenders in the UK, Sky’s head of print management Mark Cruise in many ways bears a heavy responsibility on his shoulders.
With an annual print spend varying from £12m to £14m and upward, depending on the media and communications giant’s marketing goals that year, Sky is regarded by some in the industry as a bellwether brand on the effectiveness of the various marketing platforms.
Not that Cruise or his Sky colleagues have any doubts on the effectiveness of print as a marketing tool, the value of professional print buyers or the power of supplier partnerships. He just knows that nothing can be taken for granted in the rapidly changing media landscape, and if print is to remain a marcomms powerhouse, it needs to ensure it never stops evolving.
Darryl Danielli How did you get started in print?
Mark Cruise Well, I know for a handful of people – the Nick Dixons of this world – that print was what they always wanted to do; they went to print college and got straight into the industry. But most people were cajoled, coerced or sold into print – I on the other hand just fell into it.
After a misspent youth in construction, doing the typical Mick thing and coming to London to build roads for J Murphy & Sons, and then retail banking with Bank of Ireland, I got into classified sales at The Independent in 1997. It was a terrible job as I was basically cold calling. I was doing okay though, not great, but okay. I did that for three years.
But you got into production at some point?
I had a run-in with my line manager; I couldn’t understand why I should be chasing copy. I thought there should have been a department for that as telesales was hard enough without having to chase copy. I had a meeting with the sales director one day and I told him the same thing: moan, whinge, whine, bleat, bleat. The next day, after he had spoken to my line manager, he gave me a choice: either set up a department to copy chase for everybody or feck off. It wasn’t much of a choice to be fair.
So how did it work?
The Independent was being produced by the Mirror and we worked in the same Canary Wharf offices at the time [around 2000]. The Mirror production team were a couple of floors above us so I met with their head of production – who was hard as nails by the way – she asked me what I knew about print, which at the time was nothing. So she sent me up to the Watford print site and then Quebecor, which did the magazines, in disgust so I could see what was involved. It was certainly an eye opener and I ended up working in production from 2001 to 2005. In the end I wasn’t enjoying it. I knew my two bosses weren’t going anywhere, so there was nowhere for me to go. I lost interest, and if I’d have carried on as I was then I’m pretty sure I would have ended up on a disciplinary.
So you left?
I decided to have a look at the exciting new world of print management. Like most people did at the time, I looked at the back pages of PrintWeek and saw one for a job at TPF [The Print Factory] to look after media inserts and door drops for Sky.
When was this?
I think I joined in August 2005.
And by that time you were pretty experienced?
Well, you would have thought so. But even then as far as I was concerned a web was a giant reel and stuff came out of the other end. And sheetfed was like a giant toilet roll and you take all the sheets off the roll and print on that.
Well, perhaps a little, but I won’t lie, my understanding was still pretty basic back then and I had to learn a huge amount. Paul Price [TPF’s operations project manager at the time] took me under his wing and gave me my proper induction into print management. He made it a point that I had to learn about the production side and got me on site at Northampton [TPF’s production facility]. I met loads of people there who had nothing but time to give to impart their knowledge and understanding, and they all had the attitude that no question was too stupid – they really were fantastic. That was when I learned about the dark art of direct mail.
But you were based at Sky predominantly?
Yes. The demands were bonkers, the volumes were massive. At the time Sky had a target of 10m subscribers by 2010, which the City thought was lunacy – but every single month we were hitting the targets and the subscriber base was growing – and a lot of that was down to print marketing.
What sort of volumes were you producing in the heyday?
Back in 2006/2007 we were producing around 1bn media inserts and door drops. I can’t remember how many DM packs, but it was safe to say it was an obscene amount. Our edict at the time was always say ‘yes’ [to marketing]. Get it done, get it delivered. We worked with great people though, with a wide variety of backgrounds, so there were always people suggesting new ways to get things done and one of them would always work. So our job was to ask the question, find the solution, get it done, smile and crack on with the next project – irrespective of how stressed you were.
Sounds like there was no time to second-guess anything, you just had to get on with it.
The guys in production excelled at it, whether it be in-house or outsourced, we always got it done and the service levels were exceptional. It was hard work, but it was a really enjoyable time. The people I worked with, the stakeholders, it was fantastic and I learned so much.
And then Sky decided to bring print buying in-house.
I’m not going to lie; at the time I thought it was lunacy.
How did it come about? I seem to remember there were various rumours flying around at the time.
Basically the procurement team looked at how much Sky was spending on print with TPF and what we were doing with it. My director Keith Martin [director of marketing operations at Sky] and Scot Matthews [former senior procurement manager] called in a consultancy called Blue Buffalo – Neil Smith and Alice Elder – to look at what we were doing, where and how we were doing it. They did a huge amount of research and it all indicated that Sky could bring buying in-house and there could be large savings.
So they brought it in-house and you were all TUPE’d across to Sky?
Not everyone, some people decided to stay at TPF – but I had a very frank and open discussion with Keith and after that I shook his hand and decided to move.
When did all that happen?
29 September 2008 was when we went live in-house. So I walked in the door and of the eight or nine people who worked on Sky at TPF, three of us came across. But one was off on maternity leave from day one, so there were only two of us doing the work of all those people.
So there was no big hand-over period?
None of that, but the suppliers were absolutely brilliant.
Including TPF, or were you not using them anymore?
Nope, they weren’t on the supplier roster. Blue Buffalo had created a whole new supplier list of eight companies as part of the review process. It was an absolute rollercoaster at the time, but a great ride, looking back.
And it worked obviously?
Well, in the last year at TPF, Sky spent around £30m on print. We brought it in-house, did exactly the same volume, exactly the same format, but different suppliers with different production efficiencies and we saved more than 30%. There’s your justification right there.
Any other advantages?
One big advantage of being a colleague rather than a supplier is that we can now say no to marketing now and again when they ask for the impossible – in theory at least [laughs]. I don’t think any of our suppliers have said no to us [the print buying team] though, and hats off to them, because we still say yes to the impossible an awful lot.
But there was a lot of speculation at the time that TPF had been a little bit too, ahem, creative at times perhaps?
As far as Sky was concerned and believe me they did all their checks, it was a commercial decision at the end of the day – pure and simple.
And I guess the fact that it all seemed to happen so quickly was probably what sparked all the rumours at the time.
One of the things I love about this industry is that it’s full of old ladies in suits. There’s nothing like going to the PrintWeek Awards in October and listening to the rumours and gossip. You may as well be sitting down knitting ‘Oh he didn’t did he?’ ‘He’s not?! Is he really?! Oh my God!’ – we’re never going to get away from that as an industry, but it’s great.
Are we sometimes our own worst enemy though?
Sometimes you get people who prefer to knock others rather than talk themselves up, but on the whole it’s a fantastic industry and I’ve come across some great individuals too. Look at what people like Simon [Biltcliffe] has achieved at Webmart; Pat and Robin [Headley and Welch] at GI, Nick Dixon at Lateral and all the guys that are now running DST Output in the UK. All of these guys, and the suppliers who absolutely stepped up to the mark when we brought print in-house, represent the best qualities in the industry.
Are you still working with the same companies you came across with?
Yes. Although on the original roster was also Aldersons – obviously they went under over a weekend, if we believe what we were told at the time. We also had Bezier, but we stopped working with them when they stopped in-house production because there was no point a print manager, me, outsourcing to a print manager. We’ve added a number of other suppliers over the years too.
Have you lost any others?
Well we took on one company later that committed the cardinal sin: they lied. We agreed pricing and then two-months in they came back and said that they couldn’t hold to it – so we’ll never work with them again. I’ve always said to people give me an honest quote that you can work and live with, because I’m going to hold you to it – I don’t have a choice. When we add a new supplier we go through months of work with procurement, finance and legal – so that by the time we start work with them it works like an active partnership rather than just buyer and supplier, so you need trust.
I know you like to spread the love to your suppliers, so go on, name them.
Okay, you did ask! And these are in no particular order: Gerald Judd, McAllister Litho, The Lettershop Group, GI Solutions, DST Output, Eclipse4DM, Howard Hunt, Polestar, Sterling, BCQ, Geoff Neal Litho, Augustus Martin, Linney Group, Great Northern Envelopes and Surrey Envelopes. I think that’s everyone.
Do you benchmark suppliers?
Regularly, it gives us a good insight to make sure that we’re not buying at the top or bottom ends of market, we usually like to hover around the middle of the market, which suits us because we want to make sure that we’re buying from suppliers that have something left to invest, because they’re a long-term partner. I’m incredibly lucky, I’ve got a great bunch of suppliers and, just as importantly, a fantastic team here at Sky – they’re all print buying professionals.
That’s interesting - you probably have one of the few professional print buying teams, outside say publishing and print management, why is that? Is it because of your volumes?
We’re very lucky, when we built the team here back in 2008 there were still a lot of print buying professionals out there – and when people join Sky and see some of the employee benefits we have here and the environment we work in, they rarely leave. But I would agree that if we went to look for those print buying professionals today, they’re few and far between. There are certainly no junior staff in their early 20s out there.
Is that a concern?
Sky obviously appreciates that expertise though?
We’re very much relied upon to get a job done for Sky, but we’re aware that we have to prove our worth. So, we run our financial reports on what we’ve spent, how we’ve spent it, what savings we’ve delivered or value that we’ve added – so that if a print management company thinks about approaching Sky with the old ‘we’ll do your print 30% cheaper’ then they won’t bother, because the savings aren’t there any more. Equally our position in the business is thanks to our suppliers because between us we don’t create any problems for marketing, what we do is solve them together.
But the challenges must be constantly changing?
Of course. We know that we have to compete against online, email, SMS, social media, TV and radio – but the size of the marketing operation here means that we utilise all routes to market. We just turn them up or down depending on the campaign requirement.
Do you have access to effectiveness metrics on the various platforms for campaigns?
Yes. All we have to do is ask.
And do you share that with your suppliers?
Yes, if it’s appropriate. For example, if a campaign achieved better than expected or worse than expected, so that we can both learn from it. But one thing is for sure; the results will never be impacted by the quality of the print not being good enough or the volume not getting to where it needed to go fast enough. In those first few months following us bringing buying in-house, it was a case of just getting the projects out of the door as quickly as we could – but very quickly we got the right procedures in place to build supplier partnerships and have been building on that ever since. A lot has changed since those first few weeks in September 2008 though.
Not least that you now know that sheets of paper don’t come off a giant loo roll...
[Laughs] I’m not going to tell you that I know the technical specification of every single piece of kit out there, but generally speaking I’ll know how fast something can run or how many square metres something else can produce. I’ll have a handle on the latest innovations from going to shows or talking to suppliers, I’ll let marketing know of something new or interesting that might have an impact on a campaign – and that’s not just me it’s the whole team. We’re always looking for better ways, better innovation, better results and we work hard with our suppliers to do that. We want to do more print, marketing wants to do more print, because it works, but it can always work better.
And the numbers have to stack up?
I saw you at Fespa last month – is attending shows important for you to stay on top of the technology?
Yes, the whole team is keen to understand what the opportunities are and where the innovations are coming from – we have to be careful sometimes though.
Because all that glisters might not be gold?
Well, I went to Drupa a few years ago when Mr Landa was there with his non-printing giant iPhone and Cirque du Soleil show. Everyone signed up to it and what have we seen so far? Absolutely nothing – when all the talk at the time was it would be producing 2013/2014. But a lot of what he was saying was that the single-pass digital kit would be the next game-changer and then at Fespa this year we saw a lot of small, single-pass machines. Digital technology moves so quickly, so it probably won’t be long before there are much wider single pass systems. Is it relevant to us now? No, but in five years’ time who knows – it could be a big opportunity.
What are the threats?
Well if postage costs keep going up, then DM volumes will fall there’s no question. Online and email production costs are fairly flat, same for print production and paper, generally speaking, but if postage keeps going up then DM will start to look less and less attractive for more and more projects.
Is postage the biggest challenge?
Well, it’s certainly the biggest cost. Also for a campaign we may have a call centre relying on volumes dropping on a certain day to manage the incoming calls, and a call centre is an expensive resource to keep waiting if there’s a delay in delivery. So things like accurate reporting on when things will drop – as Whistl was offering or as Royal Mail is trying with Mailmark – are very important. With digital you hit a button and a campaign is live, instantly. That’s what we need to compete against.
You mentioned Whistl, were you impacted by them closing their end-to-end service?
We didn’t use the final-mile part of the Whistl business.
What about the biggest challenge facing the sector?
I thought Paperlinx would be an issue; we buy our own paper and they were our sheet supplier. But everyone stepped up to the mark so quickly that there was no running around screaming with jazz hands saying they couldn’t get paper in. In some ways it’s a little scary that demand has fallen to the extent that if a company that supplies 25% of the market falls over there’s barely a ripple.
What about opportunities?
Bringing print to life through things like augmented reality. The thing is that there are lot of agencies out there that can do digital, but can’t do print. But there are a lot of printers out there that can do digital – so who’s really on the back foot? We probably hadn’t seen that three years ago, let alone five. Also the way that they’ve diversified into new markets, new applications, new technologies – I’m not saying that we as a brand will always be in a position to use all of those in a lot of circumstances, but things change and it’s great to see our partners, and others, constantly reinventing themselves.
Do you have to act as an advocate for print internally?
I do, but I don’t ‘have to’ because print works, everyone knows that – end of discussion.
Has Sky been loyal to print do you think?
It’s not a question of loyalty; we use it because it works. It does the job – that’s why we use it. The volumes just get turned up or down depending on the requirements of the business at any given time. There’s talk of brands returning to print, but we never walked away from it. But those that are coming back to print aren’t doing it out of the kindness of their great big corporate hearts, they’re doing it because it achieves results. However, it still needs to be cost-effective. For example, An Post in Ireland put its postal rates up by around 14% last year, as a result we can longer justify DM there – we still do lots of door drops and media inserts in Ireland, but the pack economics for DM just don’t stack up anymore.
Are we anywhere near reaching that point in the UK though, where DM becomes uneconomical as a marketing tool?
If there was a double figure percentage hike next year, then, yes, that might be enough to trigger someone in finance highlighting that our cost per acquisition has reached a tipping point for DM campaigns.
But then surely that might just mean that volumes are reduced because you have to make the data work harder so that the return on the pack is stronger and the cost per acquisition comes down again?
Of course, and we can look at formats, innovation, data there are lots of things we can do. But these can take time to implement, whereas a price increase can happen overnight.
Do you think the industry is in a better place than it was a couple of years ago generally?
From a buyer’s perspective, I do. More and more suppliers are investing in people and technology, and also taking time out to actually think about where the market is heading and where they should be investing to future proof their business and their customers’ businesses. That just proves that the market is healthier. That’s not to say it’s an easy market – it’s still tough out there, but there are opportunities and people are looking to the future with optimism, which is a much better place to be.
Who has had a big impact on your career?
Paul Price, when I first started at TPF, his help and support in those early days was invaluable. Keith Martin is another inspiration, he takes on a phenomenal amount here, but he’s passionate about what we do and staff development. You also know he has the backs of his team. There have been a few negative influencers over the years too, of course, but I won’t name them – but in some ways they were just as valuable.
In terms of showing you how not to do something or behave?
And most important thing you’ve learned?
Treat people well and be as honest as you possibly can.
Final question: what’s next for you?
We’ll, I’ve told my boss already, but I want to look at ways we, as a department, can take on more than just print, more marketing stuff, more delivery stuff. Print management is a delivery function on behalf of marketing, and digital marketing is a delivery function too – so are there other areas we can look at and take on and potentially bring the same benefits as we have with print? Who knows? But if you’re asking me if I’ll be doing the exact same thing in five years’ time as I’m now? Well if the past seven years has taught me anything then it’s that the answer is: absolutely not.