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Commentary & Analysis

The Final Column: The Security Guard Will Take Your Badge and Escort You to the Lobby

Back in 2002, Dr. Joe agreed to do a regular column for WhatTheyThink for “only one year and no more”...for 15 years. This farewell column explains how it started, behind-the-scenes intrigue, the problems, and why it turned out the way it did. And then…he explains the exciting adventures ahead.

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: June 18, 2018

That title is a joke, of course, because this final column is an event of my choosing, and WhatTheyThink has always been a virtual business, with no lobby. This assignment was a great experience…and I walk through the virtual lobby with great gratitude for it.

I have been greatly blessed to have stumbled through my career with wonderful opportunities, one of the best being this 15-year gig at WhatTheyThink. For over 30 of my 40 industry years, I have worked in enterprises of my own making, with half of those 30 here, unexpectedly. The dinner meeting in December 2002 that brought me to WhatTheyThink ended with “I’ll do this only one year, and no more.” So here we are, June 2018, many years later.

The idea of bringing me on board as a columnist started when the WhatTheyThink folks saw some emails that I sent to a modest mailing list in promotion of my consulting work. They thought the mix of industry observation and economic context made for some interesting reading. They believed WhatTheyThink could use some economics commentary, especially by a businessperson. Though many in the industry considered me an economist, I was not. I piled up credits in the topic in college, and even got into an economics honor society, but I was mainly a business planner and loved doing research. My eclectic academic background made me ill-suited for academic positions where concentration in one area was preferred. My love was marketing, and to be a good marketer, you have to understand marketplaces. My interest in economics was practical, not academic.

That pragmatism struck a chord with printing executives, as it connected the daily grind with grander trends. At events I would sometimes be introduced as an industry economist, which I would dutifully correct. “I was not trained as an economist,” I would explain, “and our industry trade association economists wholeheartedly agree.” The rekindling of my interest in the topic was one of the best benefits of this job. I was told by many readers that their theirs was, too.

Among the most important tasks of entrepreneurs is to understand the future use of their resources. Times of intense change make that more difficult. But I saw a bigger problem, even in my earlier TrendWatch days, when my consulting was for the industry vendor audience. Assessing present conditions is just as hard. It was hindered by a corruption of forecasting processes where budgets, sales goals, insular experiences, industry common wisdom, and executive compensation methods, creating a myopic view of the future. That is deadly for any entrepreneurial endeavor that is by definition forward-looking. If you misinterpret the present, you won’t have the right resources and strategy for the future.

We were in a period of great change, not just from an economics perspective, but in our tools and processes and client relationships, and the very nature of communications. That meant there was a constant need for explanation, context, and perspective, which I was often told we did in a unique way. I would get nervous chuckles from audiences in the mid-2000s when I started presentations with “I’m Dr. Joe…I write about the printing industry…on the Internet…think about it...” Today’s reaction would be more like “So? That’s the way we read everything.” Things have changed a lot.

The original schedule was demanding: 40 original columns a year. Any concerns about having enough to write about were quickly set aside. We took aim at the common wisdom of that time and often provided content that was not always what people wanted to hear. When you write about uncomfortable things, such as the erosion of entrenched perceptions of a business and an industry, you are bound to get some pushback. Complaints about my commentary usually had ironic results. The best one was at Graph Expo 2008 when a paper merchant CMO pulled one of the WhatTheyThink leaders aside and said “Joe’s talking down the industry. You have to have him back off.” A few months later, the industry tanked, in a traumatic manner. We did a webinar as that process was unfolding where I apologized to the audience for being too optimistic in my original downward forecast. The shock of that 2008 downturn, the late pronouncement by NBER of a recession that was already 11 months old (their latest recession call in history, as best as I can tell), led to one of our economic webinar with 1,000+ listeners. The unease about the economy of that time stimulated more interest in what was going on here since it seemed more relevant than many originally considered.

From Emails to Columns to Books, Oh My! 

Those changes, and the muttering unease of the industry’s old guard about these columns, led to writing some books, most all of them with the help of Richard Romano. Richard went from behind-the-scenes editor to true collaborator as we completed each one. The longer format made it possible to state a better case for urgency to change than this column’s 1,500 word limit. We enjoyed shaking up the old guard, whom we sometimes called “The Lords of Printing.” If you engage only those people who agree with you, or write only to seek the approval of others, then the process of writing is worthless, and so is the time investment of the reader. We developed a curious following, especially among younger owners, mid-level management, and students.

The books benefited from the advice and wise counsel of Cary Sherburne who edited my columns in those early years. Her work meant that many of the column ideas were practical, better-developed and clarified and could make the transition to book format easier. The illusion of competence in my columns and books was possible because I worked with people more skilled at writing than I am. They told me when I was wrong or sloppy and challenged my thinking. They supplied great examples to support what I was saying when my own examples were weak or missing. Renewing the Printing Industry was the first book and remains relevant, but Disrupting the Future was more comprehensive and probably the most influential.

We felt that Disrupting’s ideas were urgently needed, but they would go nowhere unless we used a non-traditional distribution channel to create a groundswell. We undermined the status quo by making it a free download, and ended up with a worldwide audience with translations in Japanese and Portuguese. Industry vendors started producing the book on trade show floors, spotlighting their cutting-edge equipment in the process. Some graphic arts academic programs adopted it as a supporting text in their management classes. Disrupting may have realized the largest combined circulation of downloads and printed copies of any book about this industry, ever. We’ll never really know. One US print executive told me he learned about the book because the CEO of their China subsidiary told him about it. Printers stopped me on trade show floors to tell me what it meant to they way they thought about their business and the changes they made…many give me copies produced on their own equipment from the free PDF; they were using the book in their company planning sessions and retreats.

This Point Forward carried on from there, urging executives that our history and the marketplace were not in sync. The latest, The Third Wave is not as well-known yet, because it is so new. It deserves as big an audience as Disrupting earned, especially the enhanced augmented reality version that HP makes available at some trade shows. If you haven’t seen it, this WhatTheyThink video explains it all, especially the question “Have you heard the cover?”

Now What? After You Drive Out of the WhatTheyThink Parking Lot, You Must be Going Somewhere...

There are still some WhatTheyThink events for me on the 2018 schedule. We have a webinar this week (Wednesday, June 20) and others scheduled for the Wednesdays of September 12 and December 12. 

Despite my original (feigned) protests, I will be at PRINT 18. There will be another entertaining half hour at the Printerverse booth (10:30 a.m. on Sunday), and a workshop on cloud computing with two experts in the field (12 noon, Sunday). On the Monday of the show, I will present an overview of the soon-to-be-released second edition of the demographic resource PrintStats, as provided by the Association of Printing Technologies (11a.m., Monday). There are other possible Print 18 “Dr. Joe Sightings” in the works.

I have a continuing industry commitment to education through UnSquaring, a non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization committed to executive development in our industry. It is based on the book, co-authored with Wayne Peterson and RIT’s Prof. Chris Bondy and available from RITPress and Amazon. The UnSquaring business transformation process begins with an assessment that is completed online, and proceeds from there. It provides a framework for strategic and tactical prioritization, and helps break the traditional reliance of job shop structures and the idea that print businesses have two main parts, sales and production. Instead, there are nine interacting aspects of the organization. The most recent presentation of a portion of the content was at January’s EFI Connect. Wayne and I conducted programs focused on sales management and business development. It got strongly positive reviews. For more information, visit unsquaring.org.

There are other personal projects, notably my study of Okinawan karate, something I found by accident in my mid-40s and have enjoyed and benefited from greatly. Being the oldest person in the dojo is great fun. I have had an interest since high school in radio broadcasts of the “golden age” from the late 1930s to the early 1960s, gathering a collection of more than 100,000 recordings. My latest work is researching one particular series, Suspense, and some books will follow from this pursuit. The shift from radio to television provided great parallels for understanding the shift from print to digital media. On the very personal side, there are many projects related to our parish and various matters of faith that I have always said I would get to when “I retired.” Now is that time. Retirement will be quite busy and I hope to be blessed with numerous travel adventures with Mrs. W over many years to come.

Thank you again to all who have been involved in WhatTheyThink, who stood by this effort when it was not always easy, and have made these 15 “one year only and no more” years such an interesting and rewarding enterprise. And a special thanks to the readers who encouraged me and the entire WhatTheyThink staff with their comments, criticisms, and support, that made it all worthwhile.

My first day in the industry in 1978 was discussed in a column from 2003. Yes, 1978 was just after the industry’s difficult acetate-polyester conversion :)

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.

 

Discussion

By Richard Romano on Jun 18, 2018

I first met Dr. Joe in 1999 at a Friendly’s Restaurant in Auburn, Mass. (he always knew how to woo potential collaborators!) as we discussed the possibility of my writing a few TrendWatch research reports. From so simple a beginning… As it happened, we ended up working pretty much continuously for the next 19 years, which led from TrendWatch reports to major industry association studies and other projects (the details of some of which are protected by doctor-patient privilege), to webinars, and, as Joe said, to books—and to in-person meetings in the more upscale environs of Ruby Tuesday. It also led to an off-and-on a gig back in 2005 with WhatTheyThink—which is now more on than ever.

In those 19 years, I learned from Joe a great deal about conducting surveys (back then we actually used to print and mail them!), about data analysis, and how to understand what the numbers are “really” saying. I learned that “Survivor Bias” doesn’t refer to being a fan of “Eye of the Tiger.” (I also learned not to be ashamed to make really bad, horribly outdated jokes.) Joe taught me a great deal about industry demographics, how to interpret economics data, how to be skeptical and contrarian, and what are the best medications to take before reading printing shipments reports.

In all of our collaborative endeavors, I not only learned a lot, but also had a lot of fun. To go on for nearly two decades, it would almost have had to have been!

I shall miss our collaborations, and while this industry will likely never let Joe go, regardless, I wish him all the best in his retirement. He’s deserved it!

 

By Eric Vessels on Jun 18, 2018

Dr. Joe was one of the critical early supporters of the WhatTheyThink business model and saw early on what we were trying to do and very quickly predicted our demise. Kidding, of course. One thing constant having worked with Joe Webb all these years is the constant funny. Everything seemed to be in bounds to get a laugh and we've had fun laughing at all of it!

The amount of counsel we've received over the years from Dr. Joe is too much to enumerate! We could call on him at any time and get very honest feedback that was backed by many years of industry experience along with insights informed by his insatiable desire to stay current with business trends and technology.

Joe not only bought in to the original concept of WhatTheyThink, but has informed it and helped us to improve and shape it into what it has become today. We did, indeed, grow together. WhatTheyThink will celebrate 20 years at the next drupa. As you can see, Dr. Joe Webb was around for the great majority of it and I can confidently say he impacted it in the most positive way.

Like most longstanding business relationships, I grew to see Joe Webb as a friend. Even though he's riding off into the sunset and winding down a content creating career that was impressively prolific, I know I can call on him for his advice and counsel.

Thanks for everything Joe! Your mark on WhatTheyThink will be an indelible one! Best wishes and much love!

 

By Gina Danner on Jun 18, 2018

Dr. Joe was, "that guy" in our industry that I had respect for. He talked about numbers and data in a way that made sense to me. From the early days of reading his writing on WTT I knew he was smart and forward thinking. I like that.

I had the chance over the last few years to get to know him a bit from events and sitting on a panel or two. I wish I had known him earlier in my career, but alas, time passes too fast.

As I watch Dr. Joe ride out of the parking lot, I know that I to will one day turn in my badge and do those "retirement things". We all go through life in the hopes of making a difference.

Dr. Joe, thanks for making a difference in an entire industry -- at least for those of us that listened to you.

Enjoy my friend.

 

By Alan Roberts on Jun 18, 2018

All the Best Dr Joe. Your columns have kept me a loyal subscriber to What they think.com and your industry insight and knowledge accompanied by your with and humor will be fondly missed by all. We are so fortunate to work in an industry that continues to reinvent itself and as you "hang up the skates" you are retiring when printed products are making a resurgence and our industry still has lots of life left in it. Keep watching from the sidelines

 

By Joe Lindfeldt on Jun 18, 2018

Thank you for bringing so much strategy and intellect to an industry that really struggled for such representation. I wonder who will take the baton and continue the mission? Industry life is getting harder...not easier. It's important to have the tools upon which to rely to take informed actions. So what's next WTT?

 

By Eric Vessels on Jun 18, 2018

@Joe Lindfeldt: Stay tuned! We have lots planned. As always, we'd love to hear from any of our members about what we can continue doing, stop doing, or start doing!

 

By David L. Zwang on Jun 18, 2018

I first met ‘Dr. Joe’ in the early 90’s while we were sitting on the advisory board of Vue Point, an industry conference that is still missed today. Joe and I hit if off, perhaps as a result of our strange sense of humor, interest in the industry or an even stranger likiing of Panera. No Joe, I still don’t like Five Guys. :-)

Over the years we worked together on a variety of projects and shared the pages of WhatTheyThink with our collective thoughts and knowlege. I know Joe is not leaving the industry.. he can’t.. he has too much love and investment in it. But I am sure that this move is just him taking a different exit off the highway to continue his enjoyment of figuring out how things tick. And maybe to find another Five Guys he hasn’t already tried.

While our contributions may not share the same pares on WTT, I am sure that we (as an industry) will continue to enjoy his thoughts and ruminations.

All the best my friend....

 

By Jack Noonan on Jun 18, 2018

Dr. Joe - Thank you very much indeed for the excellent WTT research, analysis, commentary & contributions that you have made for the benefit of the entire print industry over the years. Best wishes in all future endeavors.

 

By Deborah Papineau on Jun 18, 2018

I met Joe through a playgroup at the YWCA our children attended when they where very young. He hired me to work in his office in RI and I started by stuffing envelopes for the TrendWatch surveys and later became his research assistant. When he sold the TrendWatch business to Reed Elsevier, he introduced me to the group and I continued to work on the TrendWatch surveys. Later he introduced me to the WTT team. Joe has taught me so much and introduced me to so many people I could never thank him enough. He is not only my mentor but a dear friend and I wish him nothing but health and happiness in his retirement. I will miss working with him on a daily basis but truly hopes he actually retires this time :). He deserves it!

 

By Frank Steenburgh on Jun 18, 2018

Dr. Joe, I wish you the best in retirement. Hope it follows the same path as mine!
You are an industry Guru. Very few have the knowledge you have of our industry......and thank you for sharing it with so many of us over your wonderful career.
I value your friendship immensely and wish you the best moving forward.
Frank

 

By Craig Kevghas on Jun 18, 2018

Say it ain't so, Joe! Dr. Joe and I will always share are devoted love of Baseball. Because he proudly roots for that Queens New York team called the Mets, it's been quite some time since he's known victory. I believe this absence of sports joy drove him to move to the deep south.

Joe has been a tremendous resource of statistical understanding and awareness since I first met him in the late 90's. And though some referred to him as "Dr. Doom", the funny thing was he was usually spot-on in his trend analysis and predictions. Go figure!

I only say these kind things because, well, Joe is also a multi-level black belt in some wicked mean martial arts discipline, where being 6-4 and cut is an advantage.

Joe, I don't think you'll ever truly retire so I anxiously await your next book, music video or full-length Hollywood movie. This is only one closed chapter in your Frank Romano-like life. Maybe you should team up for a worldwide Queen Mary-based promotional tour? There are still so many more you could influence, and think of the comedy memories you two could make.

 

By Frank Romano on Jun 18, 2018

To Dr Joe

You’re the top
You’re Dr Joe
You’re the top
You’re an oldtime radio show
You’re at a richness of years with very few peers
You and TrendWatch; both were top notch
You’re retired! Cheers!
You’re a vintage analyst
You’re a coveted panelist
I’m a worthless rhymer, a real oldtimer, a flop
But if I’m the bottom, you’re the top

You’re the top
You’re great by any measure
You’re the top
You’re our secret treasure
You’re an NYU grad
You’re first in class and Tiffany glass
For all of this we’re glad
You’re a laser ray and CMYK
I’m just in the way so I would say—I’ll stop
Cause if I’m the bottom, you’re the top

You’re the top
You’re Dan’s dad
You’re the top
You’re totally rad
You’re a really fine fellow and very mellow
You’re Annie’s best pal, you’re the Panama Canal
You’re Yo Yo Ma’s cello!
You’re a prince of print
You’re a sepia tint and the Royal Mint
I’m a worthless hack, I use a Mac—a flop
But if I’m the bottom, you’re the top

Frank Romano (with apologies to Cole Porter)?

 

By Ray Rafalowski on Jun 18, 2018

Dr. Joe, thanks for all the great info that you have shared with us over the years. It was very helpful to me in my career serving the print industry as an equipment and consumable rep for a couple major companies. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with you several times at various industry events.

As I have also retired, remember that there is life after the printing industry (not - you can't escape it and I'm sure, like me, that you will stay involved in many ways).

 

By Terry Tevis on Jun 18, 2018

Happy Trails Old Friend!

Seldom do I comment on people or events anymore yet with you migrating into a more leisurely life, I must take a few moments. I simply thank you for providing such grand insight into print and its place in the grand scheme of the past 40 years. Your views and rationale were always data rich and helped bring sanity to the reasons for the evolution in communications. You always made us think about next rather than shy away from how to evolve with new value added solutions with our supply chain and customers. I still have the first table on print shipments and tied it to the postal data when I needed to explain the shifts in our industry. People were always amazed at those charts and its source. I always gave you credit!

Enjoy the next phase of life with family, business associates and old friends like me. I will miss the column and will always welcome a note or call from you.

Terry

 

By Rossitza Sardjeva on Jun 19, 2018

Thank you, Dr. Joe Webb for the very interesting and helpful analyses and commentaries. All the very best in the future!

 

By Sean Smyth on Jun 19, 2018

We first met (you wont remember) at a Rexham Custom plant outside Boston back in the early days of inkjet (or spray and pray as it was then) when Dr Joe was consulting. I was a techie from the UK in awe of someone who knew what was going on who could forecast the future by explaining what was happening with proven statistics. A very valuable lesson for the forecasting world I have always thought, so thanks.

Good luck with the karate - the industry always needs more Doctors!

 

By Pete Basiliere on Jun 19, 2018

Well done, Joe, well done!

Many thanks for your time and insights,

Pete

 

By David Siegfried on Jun 19, 2018

40 years. It's been a pleasure to know you most of that time.

Thanks for all the insight.

Dave

 

By Chuck Surprise on Jun 19, 2018

You will be missed, Dr. Joe. We met in passing at a number of industry events, and I have enjoyed and passed along your spot-on columns in WTT. In general they helped guide and reinforce my perspective on communication, present and future.

 

By Wayne Lynn on Jun 19, 2018

For a long time your columns, books, etc. were things I eagerly awaited. I'll miss the columns but hope the books keep coming. I think we all feel the same way. Are you going to make it to Atlanta to watch your Mets and my Braves? Let me know. We should catch another game together. Good luck Joe!

 

By Joe Webb on Jun 19, 2018

Thanks very much everyone. There are also comments at LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6414456083653423104

Since the question was asked, there are no books in the future plans. But Richard is working on a good one that will debut at Print 18. Details soon!

Frank Romano wrote a note after I suggested he sing his lyrics Karaoke style -- he refused, claiming medical problems would occur with anyone who heard it :)

Steenburgh had a very successful business career. His retirement has been a very bad example for anyone who wants to put their feet up and snooze a lot of the day. Every time I see him he's enjoyed this failed retirement to no end.

Great to hear from Terry T. He's the only one I know who read a column and made a stock investment because of something he inferred from what I wrote. And cashed in well. Wish I knew how to do that.

Debbie was one of our great finds and now she knows more Excel shortcuts than I ever found. Pretty good for someone you meet when your toddler is in a YWCA class called "cooking with sports" (heat a hot dog in a microwave, and then run around in the gym while Moms and Dads catch a breath).

Dave Z has been great to know over the years. Nothing frazzles this guy. See what happens when you get a degree in biochem? You end up in the printing industry. If you ever want a factual dispassionate explanation of something complex related to print processes, DZ is probably the smartest in the business and is agenda-free, which is always refreshing.

And as far as Gina D goes, more people need to know about her approach to business and her success.

And thanks again to the others who posted and my fellow WTTers

 

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