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Commentary & Analysis

Big Points: A “This Point Forward” Approach to Wide-Format Printing

Creating a printing business that can cope with a changing market for print and that is “future-focused”—is imperative as we hurtle toward 2020. If you’re a wide-format printer, you may be halfway there—but that’s no excuse for complacency.

By Richard Romano
Published: August 20, 2014

Dr. Joe Webb and I have been sequestered in the Strategies for Management Underground Data Analysis Bunker (aka The Temple of Doom), beavering away on the follow-up to our previous books Disrupting the Future and Getting Business. (People often ask us how we collaborate. Easy: Joe handles the verbs and adverbs, I handle the nouns and adjectives. We split infinitives.)

Anyway, by gum, we have a manuscript!

This Point Forward: The New Start the Marketplace Demands, will see the light of print at Graph Expo this September.

Our starting point was some of themes that we introduced in Disrupting the Future and Getting Business, namely that the market for print has become smaller, yes, but also much more dynamic than we as an industry are used to. Printing companies are used to making hefty capital investments in equipment that will last, typically, for decades. What this means is that a company is locked into equipment—and people, production as well as sales—that only printed products that were in demand at the time the equipment was bought. But when happens when that demand ebbs?

We define two basic strategies for print business planning, a right one and a wrong one. The wrong one is what we call the “Rear-View Mirror Strategy,” where all business decisions regarding hiring and investment are made by looking at company history and “the way things have always been done,” typically during what could be considered the company’s heyday. Although being cognizant of history has its worthwhile aspects, it’s like driving on the highway and only looking in the rear-view mirror. Sure, you can get a final glimpse at all the great scenery you saw already, but unless you look forward, you’re likely to smash into the slow moving semi or texting driver you’re coming up on.

Instead, we detail what we are calling the “This Point Forward Approach.” With this approach, the idea is to jettison the past and focus on what the print marketplace is going to look like in 2018 and 2020, four and six years hence. Naturally, we have no way of knowing at this point exactly what the technological landscape is going to look like in 2020. After all, six years ago (2008), the iPhone had only been out for a year and it was only in June 2008 that the App Store went live. The iPad (and tablets in general) were two years away, while Facebook/Twitter were little known sites. And look how they have completely changed our culture, and the ways that we interact with media and content. So who knows what will happen in the next six years, let alone how print and print businesses can “play nice” with whatever emerges.

But knowing specifically what 2020 is going to specifically look like is beside the point, because the goal of the “this point forward” approach is to create a print business that is nimble enough to change as the market continues to change. If we build a business based on the market of 2020, we shouldn’t assume that we’re done. The market will change after that, of course. Creating a 2020-centric business is more of a metaphor; the idea is to create a business that can adapt to a rapidly changing market, as demand for certain types of print products ebb and flow as indeed does the demand for just about any kind of product.

We don’t focus on wide-format specifically in the book, but the This Point Forward approach can be applied to businesses in the wide-format and specialty printing markets. (At the same time, getting into wide-format and specialty printing can be part of a This Point Forward approach for general commercial printers.)

In some ways, it’s easier for wide-format shops than for, say, general offset shops. As any specialty printer can tell you, demand for certain types of products waxes and wanes. Soft signage and other types of textile printing, as well as specialty object digital printing, are ascendant at the moment, but may not always be. And at the very least, as the technology for producing these types of products matures and further lowers barriers to entry, margins become smaller on these items as they become more or less commoditized. Banners and even some kinds of garment printing are on their way in that direction already. So shops need to be on the lookout for new product areas, and have staff and equipment that can easily transition to these new product areas as they arise. Our friends at SGIA regularly survey the specialty graphics market, and Brother Dan offers highlights from the SGIA studies in this space.

And shops should not be afraid of or averse to looking at complementary non-print products and services. Dynamic digital signage (DDS), for example, is also growing, and businesses that have added DDS have found that it often boosted their print signage business, as customers that came in through the digital door saw that they could get their print needs assuaged under the same roof. Old and new media do not have to be adversaries. Remember, though, that even new media change.

This Point Forward delves into today’s marketing and media trends (metrics? marketing automation?) in far more detail, and offers sage advice (that is, advice you can rub on chicken) as to how these trends are impacting the demand for—and causing the general invisibility of—print. And what are the important building blocks of a new 2020-focused print business? If you’re a wide-format printer, you may have some of these building blocks already—or at least, the company culture and leadership mindset to be able to react to changes in the market.  

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.

 

Discussion

By James Daly on Aug 20, 2014

Transitioning into the future is about customers and markets as much as it is equipment. The larger issue is are printers prepared to think not as contract manufacturers, but more as marketers and business process outsource providers?

 

By Rick Sands on Sep 03, 2014

I love your 'rear-view mirror' vs 'point forward' approaches. Great insight as to how maintain vision and focus.

 

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Wide Format Editor

Richard Romano

Richard Romano, Section Editor/Senior Analyst
Richard has written about communication, graphics hardware and software trends for the past 15 years.

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