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 :)