WhatTheyThink Economic Outlook Webinar

Be sure to sign up for next week's webinar, where we'll be sorting through the cross-currents of conflicting data and trends that make things so challenging in today’s complex world. This time of year is usually the end of business planning cycles for companies that have calendar fiscal years, and the timing of the webinar is good for those purposes. The subprime crisis, uncertain Fed activity, an upbeat GraphExpo, stock market plummeting (and rebounding and plummeting and rebounding), and other happenings, only serve to fog decisions about the outlook.

We'll clear the air and skate through the skittishness with data, weighty comments and observations. Be sure to join us on Wednesday, September 26, at 2PM Eastern time (-4 GMT).

Visit our registration page to sign up. And if you can't join us at that specific time, register anyway. You'll be the first to receive the post-event download information so that you can listen at a later time.

Graph Expo

It was refreshing to be at a GraphExpo this year, with such a positive tone. The kind of mood I saw there is one that I have only experienced at non-print shows like Siggraph in recent years. In my opinion, there has not been such an optimistic GraphExpo in this century (the last was 1998 - just making sure you were paying attention). My chats with vendors and sales people indicated that attendees had specific products and needs in mind, and were having substantial discussions, not just wandering to see what was new. We are a different industry than we were in 2000; technologies, communication markets, financial constraints, and operational practices are in a different balance, trying to find a new equilibrium. Whether this week represented a solid floor, a resting spot for some future decline (please, we've had enough of that!), or a springboard for new growth (that would be nice) will only be decided in historical retrospect. But there certainly was a sense of a refreshed industry, a feeling that the weakest print businesses were gone, or that the various hardships were behind them, and that the rest of the industry had a better collective understanding of what's needed to forge ahead than in recent years.

That being said, we must remember that there are printing business owners who did not attend GraphExpo. There is nothing wrong with that; but the attendees stand to be stronger competitors by making that investment. Over the years, though, it has become very clear to me that the show has significant meaning for non-attendees. They attend the show vicariously through this site, and through the various magazine coverage that precedes and follows the show. The show is a focal point for new product introductions, as it should be. It also becomes a source of industry buzz for other matters extending weeks after the show.

Who Should Go to Shows?

Many vendors are wary of bringing too much staff to trade shows. I'm referring mainly to non-sales and non-marketing staff. Early in my career in marketing, I was often excluded from attendance at some large shows for budgetary reasons, as were other workers. It was less costly to keep us ignorant or uninvolved than to send us - or so our companies thought.

Excluding “non-essential” personnel from trade show attendance may save money in the short term, but it deprives those workers, and their companies, of the opportunity to grasp the size, scope, diversity and interconnectedness of our industry. Show attendance and interaction with decision makers by these employees educates them that print business owners and executives do not buy anything unless they have confidence in creating an economic return from it, and that there is much competition for those limited dollars. It helps ameliorate the natural inward focus that many employees have and reduces overall organizational arrogance. A competitive marketplace requires organizational alignment that supports sales and marketing efforts. Attendance by these personnel at a show like Graph Expo can build that alignment and encourage more internal support for sales efforts.

Internally-focused companies will not survive in this marketplace. Suppliers need to be more in tune with their customers’ needs, and better understand who and what they are competing with.  In some capital expenditure research I did some time ago, I learned that investment in a delivery truck was more important to respondents that a new press or a new piece of bindery equipment, making Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, and Toyota key competitors for those investment dollars.

Even within the industry, workflow systems, a folder, a press, a digital printer, are all competing for the economic attention of a shop owner or manager. That knowledge must permeate the organization, and a well-coordinated trade event visit can help start that process. Executives should consider larger participation by employees at trade shows like Graph Expo as a critical part of their training budget.

Dr. Joe's InBox

VistaPrint's 10K has been released is loaded with interesting data. In an industry that spends very little on marketing, this company spends about 33% of its revenues in that area. Most printers would say that VistaPrint uses the wrong equipment for the application, overspends on marketing, and sells commodity products that are a real pain to produce. Ah, to be so unsuccessful with a more than 10% bottom line, and significantly higher upside for future revenues.

I read with great amusement the comment by a research analyst that “broader commercial printing shipments seem less connected to the general economic environment than perceived.” The analyst follows several publicly traded printing companies. What does this mean? When the economy tanks, printing won't go with it. Is there any better statement that says print is no longer connected to GDP? Despite evidence otherwise, the idea that print and GDP move in lockstep still persists. It's the topic for this week's audio chart of the week. Perhaps this issue will finally be settled?

Chicago has scrapped its public Wi-Fi project - not surprising. Ownership of cell phones and other devices has now crossed economic barriers, and by the time many municipal Wi-Fi systems are built, there will be better approaches.

A study about newspapers and the Internet, conducted at Harvard, is now available online.  It's called “Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet.”

Spammers seem to have given up using PDF files for digitally spewing their wares. The reason may be simple: most people know who is sending them PDFs and why they are being sent. There may actually be more common sense in cyberspace than we think.

At GraphExpo there was the usual chatter about personalization and 1:1 marketing. It reminded me that one of the best articles ever written about data bases and privacy appeared in Reason magazine more than three years ago. It's called “Database Nation” and is still available on their site.

The ad:tech show is in New York from November 5 through 8, with a very interesting schedule of events in America's - and possibly the world's - advertising center. As usual, not a single printer or printing association is exhibiting there. I had hoped that some might actually attend as a result of my constant prodding.

No, not every country consumes print in the same way as the U.S. In a story, “USPS to Improve Mexican Mail,” it was reported that the average Mexican citizen receives seven pieces of mail per year, while the U.S. average is 714, or seven pieces every three days!

Non-traditional imaging opportunities are always of interest. The NYTimes had this interesting piece on “car wraps.”

Graphic Arts 2017

More than 250 of this column's and WhatTheyThink's readers attended our event on Tuesday morning at Graph Expo, graciously sponsored by MAN Roland for the last five years. I personally appreciate MAN Roland's trust and confidence, especially as the company has no control over the event's content, and to its credit, does not seek it (nor does Presstek, this year's sponsor of the economic webinars). Data and trends are what they are, and as managers, our jobs are be cognizant of them to enable us to strategically act in the long-term best interests of our clients and businesses. There's no use in sugar coating things; they have to be dealt with eventually.

Even though the forecast I presented projected a smaller number of print firms by 2017, content creation jobs will remain fairly robust. The printing industry will need to respond with constant re-investment and implementation of new technology to prosper in this dynamic environment. On the show floor, I heard yet more reports of one press replacing multiples, with the biggest swap I heard about being one new press replacing four. That's the kind of productivity change needed - print prices will not be going up in a world swimming in digital alternatives. (Remember, you're reading this on the Internet).

I'll be talking more about the forecasts I presented at the show in coming columns and events. Stay tuned.

The event's slides and audio are available for download