It’s safe to say that the Independent Print Industries Association is not exactly the best-known trade body in print. But that’s not a concern for chief executive Marian Stefani, nor part of her masterplan.
Her goal is to make the not-for-profit IPIA the best-known print trade body outside of the industry, as part of a strategy to win the hearts and minds of marketers and buyers of print everywhere by creating partnerships with organisations beyond the print industry.
Her plan is to shout from the rooftops about the power of print and, in the process, change buyers’ and marketers’ conversations. Moving them away from the all-too-frequent focus on price of print and instead get them to re-explore its value, innovation and, first and foremost, effectiveness.
And as a passionate advocate of print with a proven track record of winning over sceptical industries, having been an early pioneer of web-to-print as the founder of software developer RedTie, there are probably few people better placed to take on the challenge.
Darryl Danielli How did you get into print?
Marian Stefani By accident, really. I love horses, so when I left school I basically rode horses for a living; I was always entrepreneurial, so I started a little riding school. That was how I made a living until I was 30.
What made you change career then?
Life, really. I loved riding horses as a hobby, and still do, but when it came to be my job I suddenly thought ‘I don’t want to be 50 and wrinkled and hanging around in wellies all day’. Don’t get me wrong, I had the best twenties that anyone could have had, but I thought it was time for a change. I also realised I was never going to get rich with horses. I had a nice life, made a nice living – but I knew I would never be well off doing it. So, I thought, I can sell, I’ve run my own business, so I’ll get a sales job. But it wasn’t quite that simple because I was 30 and I didn’t have any proven sales experience – so I went and sold kitchens and windows, which taught me the basics, and did a marketing degree at the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the evenings.
And that got you into print?
In the end, I got my first proper job, if you like, at a little graphics studio, which I ended up running. But the business got into trouble, so I bought the assets and that was how my career in print really started.
How do you mean?
Around the time I bought the business I had just worked out that I could produce calendars on our photocopier. We had a Canon CLC-700 at the business and I produced my own calendar on it and started showing people; they loved it and they wanted their own.
When was this?
Probably 1994, way before the internet.
What was the company called?
Bartys Graphics – it specialised in cardboard engineering when I joined. We did lots of work for McDonalds and people like that. By the end though we had 40 colour copiers and 140 casual staff and we were making calendars, thousands of them. People would send me 12 or 13 photos; we would place them in some template frames, put them straight onto the glass and copy them onto litho pre-printed sheets with the months on them. At one point we were making 100,000-120,000 calendars straight from the glass.
So basically personalised calendars?
Exactly, we called the business Create a Calendar. I still have some examples of the calendars and by today’s standards they look pretty naff, but in their day they looked amazing. I had people phoning me crying saying they looked amazing. We did reader offers in The Telegraph and The Daily Mail and, yes, I thought I was really clever. In January we would close everything down, put the copiers away and we would go back to running a little copy shop and graphic design place and then in September it would start all over again. I started to look at how we could make production smoother, bought my first digital press [around 2001], but I won’t tell you whose it was.
Was it a bad experience then?
No, it was a great experience, it was an HP Indigo and it was the best thing I ever bought. In fact I bought a second one and then I nearly went bust because suddenly I had this big business that needed looking after all year round and I couldn’t just mothball it in January. I had presses, a building, trained operators... Thinking about it, my whole business life seems to have been about making horrific mistakes and then getting out of them [laughs]. So I went to HP and said ‘what do I do?’. So, I had to start a commercial print business, which was called CCS, which very cleverly stood for Creative Calendar Shop. That became a commercial print business and it was predominantly trade for printers that didn’t have Indigos.
So how did RedTie come about?
I couldn’t buy the type of software I needed for Create a Calendar, because we didn’t want to have 39,000 images as PDFs every day. So, we used personalisation on the digital press to write an instruction using data to drive the photo into the template – and that was the start of RedTie. By trying to solve our own problem we had created a program that was a SaaS (Software as a Service) that was very nimble and used personalisation. I grew CCS entirely on the internet using my own software I had written for the calendars, which I converted so that we could use it to get commercial files in.
So it was basically a piece of software that you developed for your own use and then you started selling it?
We built the software to handle all the photos we were processing, and then I grew the CCS commercial business off the back of it. During that time we had a lot of people telling us how good it was and that it was the first SaaS model they had seen – so we launched RedTie as a standalone product around 2006, I think.
What happened to Create a Calendar and CCS?
In the end I sold them [around 2008/2009]. Create a Calendar is now called Create a Gift and it’s still going.
When you say ‘we launched RedTie’, who was working with you?
I had an investor come in [for RedTie] and in the end he bought me out. But building that business was another amazing learning curve. I learned so much. I learned how to go about getting an investor onboard and creating a board of directors, because we had been a small business until then. Then we launched RedTie all around the world, so I had to learn about doing business in places like America and Australia – I had to learn an awful lot, awfully quickly.
But web-to-print was fairly new to everyone a decade ago, so I guess it was a learning curve for everyone?
That’s right. And we recognised very early on that printers find it hard to sell something new. Because of that, we realised that we shouldn’t sell it as a technical solution, which was largely how our competitors sold their software. We knew that printers understanding the technical aspect wasn’t a barrier to securing a sale, the driver for securing a sale was the printer’s end-customers adopting the software. So before a customer would even sign for the software, we would go out with them to help win a couple of customers for it.
That makes sense, there was no point a printer having a web-to-print platform if their customers weren’t using it.
It goes beyond that though, and it’s not restricted to web-to-print – it’s a theme that has been recurring all throughout my career in print – through CCS, RedTie, my consultancy work and now with the IPIA. The same issue is there: if you can’t get the end-user to adopt your technology or products, it doesn’t matter how clever they are – they will fail. It doesn’t matter how clever we are as an industry – we will never add value to our businesses and grow as we should do if we don’t engage properly with the end-user.
Is that because you think we talk about technology, when we should be talking about the applications or opportunities?
Partly, but it’s worse than that, because we’ve also taught our buyers to buy on price. But the RedTie business grew and grew and then in 2011 I sold my share to my partner.
Why did you sell?
Because I always knew that when it got to a certain size I would sell, so he bought me out. Then I did some consultancy and then around 18 months ago I was approached by the IPIA.
How did that come about?
I was doing consultancy work for a couple of the IPIA council members and they put me forward. I went to see them and it was clearly going nowhere. Great association, great bunch of people, really good at old boys networking, but despite its solid foundations it had a membership that was declining very quickly.
Which doesn’t sound massively appealing?
I initially thought I would go in for three months to work out if they should close it or not, as the membership was depleting so quickly.
What was the problem?
I think it was lacking direction and focus. In some ways it was trying to compete with other associations in terms of business support benefits, which I thought was a mistake as there are bigger associations out there better placed to offer those. So, I came up with the idea of doing something different, something that would better benefit members and the industry at large.
Before we get into that, what are the IPIA’s roots? Because it’s not massively well known in the industry.
Back in the day  it was the British Business Forms Association, because at the time every business in the world wanted to buy computer stationery, so a group of print managers got together with a bunch of business form production people so that they could service all of those small offices that needed computer stationery – and then that morphed into the organisation of today for any trade printing service provider or print manager [rebranding as the IPIA in 1997]. So, it’s always been about network and connections.
With a sales focus?
Exactly. Which is why it appealed to me.
Okay, so what is the masterplan?
The IPIA is predominantly for trade manufacturers, so the membership is made up of printers or service providers that offers a trade service to the industry. That could be a straightforward trade printer, finisher or service provider. Then the other side of the membership are print managers. These are professional print buyers or resellers, from traditional brokers right through to agencies – I’ve redefined that classification as anyone that professionally buys or resells print. Because of that association with print managers and buyers, I want to make the IPIA the voice of the industry out to the marketers and end-users of print. Because we, as an industry, don’t talk to them enough. Their typical conversation with a printer – and I know because I was one – is that they ring up and ask for a quote, they get the quote and then say that so-and-so can do it for less, the printer then agrees to go a little bit lower than that price – and that’s the end of the sales conversation. So, the interaction is just about price, and not about all the fantastic things that we can do for them, because it gets lost in a race to the lowest price. And that means everyone loses: the printers and industry lose, because it’s just about the lowest price, and the customer loses because they have just bought themselves out of any innovation for the sake of saving a couple of quid per thousand. So, I want the IPIA to represent the trade, but also, because of its relationship with print managers, I want it to be an association that talks very loudly outside the industry about the value of print.
And the benefit to the IPIA?
What that means is that print managers want to join us, and that in turn makes the trade manufacturers want to join us – because we try and make sure that the print managers that join genuinely want to use the memberships’ trade services – so again everyone wins and the whole thing is a very happy little circle.
So it’s a about creating value for the members by highlighting the value of print essentially?
It is. If you look at the current conferences and exhibitions in the industry – and there are some great events – but take Drupa, which I love by the way – I love the willy-waving by the manufacturers – but it’s all about how the latest technology increases productivity, and I get that we have to do that, but if that’s all it’s about then we’re still talking ourselves into commodity conversations.
But that’s not the manufacturers’ fault, is it?
Of course not, it’s everyone’s. The sales skills in the industry, generally speaking, are really poor. Most print businesses are run by incredibly clever, incredibly good, but production-focused management teams and managing directors. So, it’s incredibly hard for them to shift that mentality to become a sales- or marketing-led organisation.
So what are you planning to do to help?
We’re starting a lot of initiatives around educating the end-users to encourage them to rethink their relationship with print. There’s a lot of money in this industry and some of that has to be spent on educating our buyers. We ran our first proper conference called Everything is Possible in Print last year and we’ll be running another one this year. We didn’t promote it to the print industry – we just promoted it to the marketing, agencies and print management communities – and had Rory Sutherland [vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather] as our keynote.
And how did it go?
Well. It was the first time I had done an event on that scale. So, for the whole month before the event I was dreaming I was the only person in the audience, standing in front of Rory – naked [laughs]. But we pulled it off, and we pulled it off with bells on. We got around 190 people in the room and two thirds of them were from outside of print. And the whole day was about print: why it should be more expensive; why it’s an investment not just a purchase; and how buyers need to redefine their relationships with suppliers or they will miss out on innovation. Last year was a great start, and we’ll build on that year after year.
Are you trying to develop partnerships with other trade associations too?
We are, but generally in vertical markets – working with other associations. So looking at education, events and hospitality, talking to their trade associations about how the IPIA can educate their members – so I’m talking at lots of their events about how they should talk to the print suppliers about innovation, not just price.
So practising what you preach to members about creating partnerships?
Correct. I suppose the whole reason for the IPIA’s existence is to create partnerships – first of all between trade manufacturers and professional print buyers. And then we want to create partnerships with us going out to agencies in the marketing world, so I’m talking to the CIM and The Drum and Marketing Week. We want to educate people who buy print and the best way to do that is by creating partnerships with as many people as possible.
Clearly education is a big topic for you, but is that focused purely on the buyers and marketers?
We will stick to sales and marketing training, because there are plenty of others providing the other forms of training – The Printing Charity and the BPIF have fantastic programmes so, there’s not much we can add to those. Sales and marketing though is one of our key strengths, and it’s generally missing. Good, proper, basic sales training – using external trainers. A lot of people who sell print may be passionate about print, or passionate about production, but they’re not passionate about sales because they might not have been taught the basics. We need to sell the effectiveness, not the price.
You make it sound easy.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s not rocket science. Don’t get me wrong –price is still important to people, but it mustn’t be the only thing we talk about. It’s not just about the buyers or the marketers though, we, as an industry, need to make sure that we ask the right questions, that we understand a client’s objectives so that we can better support them.
So that the buyers or marketers become advocates of print rather than just specifiers?
That’s the smart thing to do. It’s about creating partnerships, if we do that the buying experience changes. That’s why I took the IPIA job, it’s really important to me. The IPIA should be the place that the entire industry comes to for trade services, because our members sign up to a strong code of conduct that gives buyers the confidence that they’re dealing with a supporting partner.
And do you enforce that code of conduct?
We do, and what you’ll see soon an even stronger code of conduct coming out.
You’ve mentioned earlier how the membership split, but when you talk about the print-manager contingent, I’m guessing you’re not talking about the Williams Lea or Communisis types?
They’re not our members, because they’re very different animals – when we say print managers we mean buyers from marketing agencies, for example, we class them as professional print buyers. I have absolutely no problem with those companies wanting to become members, but I’m not sure what we do would fit with them. But we do have companies like Webmart and Mosaic as members, the medium-sized print managers who have redefined themselves.
And those medium-sized companies are probably better connected to the industry at an executive level, which perhaps makes them more passionate about print as businesses – with the greatest of respect to those massive print managers.
I think we can be as disrespectful as we like – the biggest players are generally a commodity sell. They’re, I believe, a symptom of our price-led industry. I wouldn’t exclude any of them, but I don’t know why they would want to join us. The small- to medium-sized guys who are passionate about buying, are growing and, let’s not forget, still have some significant clients on their books.
Back to the IPIA though – what are the challenges you face now? Is it profile?
It is. Our basic problem of falling membership was partly down to us having such a low profile. I want to make sure the industry understands what we’re trying to achieve. But also who we are, who our members are – get the message out there that print managers aren’t just about price, and also help people understand what we’re trying to achieve in the industry. We also need more sponsors; we have some great partners, but we need more. Promoting trade services, better connecting print managers and buyers to the industry, forging partnerships with other associations to benefit print, none of this is rocket science – it’s all pretty basic stuff. But we’re a very small association and to achieve what I want to achieve, I need the support of the industry. We’re clearly in such a different place to the other trade associations, I can’t understand why more people don’t get behind us.
Has membership stabilised now, or is that still a problem?
Not at all. We’re around 140 members now and it will be 200 by the end of the year. But we will cap it at around 200, because we want our membership to be the elite: the best trade suppliers and the best and most innovative print managers. I’m in the happy position now of being able to say no to as many people as I say yes to. But I want to have a waiting list of people to join us.
How does it work then, becoming a member?
People are invited or recommended by the IPIA council, because we want to have the best of the best. Not all of our printers are purely trade, they might have commercial arms too, but they have to be treated differently and the trade arm has to meet our standards.
What about print buyers for the brands though, it doesn’t sound like they fit your membership profile?
We’re creating a new category of membership for them, we’re just defining that now and will launch it at the conference in April.
So 18 months into the role, are you pleased with your progress?
We’re doing okay; we’re growing and it’s fun – and I think we’re making a difference. I don’t want to be here for ever, I’ll be around for a few years though. I’ve had such a great time in the print industry, so I would like to think that when I do leave, there will be some really great initiatives in place, something of real value – but we have to take it step-by-step.
It sounds like you might already be looking for your successor?
I suppose I am. But I want to work alongside someone for a while before I go.
So, what is the end game then, what’s the dream for the IPIA before you leave?
200 members, a successful annual conference that continues to grow, a very strong trade manufacturing service. And then I can retire, again, and go back to riding horses full-time and pretend I’m 20.