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Economics & Research Blog

A Philosopher Once Said

With my numerous plane flights this year,

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: July 30, 2009

With my numerous plane flights this year, I'm finally catching up on reading. It doesn't take much; just keep using that time when electronics are prohibited, taxiing and reaching 10,000 feet, until that point where the comfort of technology can be returned, and then lost again as the landing process begins. At those times of electronic cold turkey, you have to use a real honest to goodness book of paper and cardboard and ink.

In this case, it was a book about G.K. Chesterton, and I ran across this line that I used as the title of this very posting, and I thought: gosh, Chesterton seems to have foretold the plight of the 21st Century printing business.

Such is the result of creative destruction: the old guard travels around a marketplace which it knew well, and then realizes it can't find its way home. All of the comforts of home (the habits of its tried and true business practices) can no longer be found, so in essence, it has lost its address.

What's at our address? All of the assumptions we make about the marketplace, our customers, employees, technologies; everything that makes up a business.

It's rattled even me, of late. Two companies, viewed as "getting it" in industry conferences, notably Lavigne and HammerIQ, were always identified as knowing the right way to thrive in the digital upheaval. One is bankrupt and reorganizing and the other is closed. Now what? Are there any print businesses left to emulate? We know from our surveys that there seems to be no place to hide, no matter the size of shop, or the business strategy, the economic undertow has made previously successful strategies impotent.

Then there came this news: direct mail is expected to fall by nearly 40% over the next five years. Borrell Associates forecast that in a report back in May, it turns out, and I'm only getting to it now. Sorry about that. (And they call me Dr. Doom).

Way back at Print '01 I said that the cost of print needed to decline in light of the costs of alternative media. This did not go over well, but is what continues to play out. Access to these new media grew with the rising penetration of broadband, as did consumer acceptance and now consumer expectation. We could see the accident happening, the discontinuity evolving, the lack of congruence between what the market needs and what we do. We were never powerless to do anything, but somehow did not adjust well.

So we are at our "Now what?" moment. Back at that same Print '01 speech, I said we needed a revolution of investment in our industry to change our capabilities, and our costs, to be more reflective of how the communications marketplace was changing.

We need this now more than ever, but what to invest in? Print '09 is coming up, and some of the answers will be found there. We get together every year as a Graph Expo and every fourth of those years it's the more broadly targeted Print show. Some people wonder why industries have trade shows anymore. We need them; they just may be a bit different than they used to be. There is still great value in meeting in person and seeing things first hand. We just do less of it, but we don't eliminate it.

This year, WhatTheyThink is hosting a Print CEO Forum which will address the challenges of today's industry, and the opportunities ahead. Bob Rosen, who calls himself a "reformed" print business owner, and has been an advisor to more than 600 printing businesses, along with an active merger and acquisition consultancy, will be headlining the event and joining many of us in the WhatTheyThink family for this special event. We will have speakers from the print buyers side, the media allocation side, and of course discussions by printers and among printers. Set aside the two days of September 11 and 12 and take in Print '09 in the process.

It turns out that Chesterton had a terrible memory, once having a telegram sent to his wife asking where he was to go next, though he was on a regular day at the office, and she was across town.

The telegram was the era's Internet. Chesterton found his way then. We can find our way now, if we choose.

Take, for example, that Borrell report. The fear of a decline in direct mail is in direct proportion to the investment made in what will be replacing it. The report states "We're expecting local e-mail advertising to grow from $848 million in 2008, to $2 billion in 2013, as more small businesses abandon direct mail couponing and promotional offers and turn to a more measurable and less costly medium, e-mail."

That kind of strategy is hard to implement for small business: they don't have the staff to do it consistently, and most of all, they don't have the time. As the report says "Managing large e-mail marketing campaigns require database marketing expertise, a savvy sales force, adequate e-mail management software, familiarity with the rules and regulations and a lot of patience." Hmmmm... just like a printed direct mail campaign.

There's an old business saying: invest in what can put you out of business. Peter Drucker would say "feed tomorrow, starve yesterday." They mean the same thing. Perhaps we should take the advice and rather than cower from market changes, we should lead them.

Small business will be under lots of pressure the next few years, and we have a great opportunity to take over many of their communications and marketing functions in all media formats. There are still 60,000 net new businesses being formed per month. Wonder why Vistaprint is still making money in this environment? This is why. (Which reminds me: why is it that less than a quarter [and that's generous... it's sometimes less] of my print owner and executive audiences say they have heard of Vistaprint?)

The end of summer is fast approaching, and the pace of business picks up after Labor Day. While everyone else is basking in the sun, entrepreneurs are supposed to be thinking and planning. The biggest investment hurdle is not always money, but the investment in time. Use it well.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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