Printers sometimes are advised that it’s not necessary—and may even be counterproductive—to post equipment lists at their Web sites. Print buyers really aren’t impressed, this curious argument goes, by a roll call of iron that doesn’t tell them anything about the creative “solutions” that the printer is prepared to provide.

Anyone espousing this point of view would have had a hard time selling it to four senior print buyers who took part in a panel discussion today (April 27) at the Web Offset Association’s “Offset and Beyond 2008” conference in Schaumburg, Il.

These procurement specialists agreed that nothing a printer can put online sways a sourcing decision more than a menu of machinery, which one of them called “your problem-solving list.” Another said that an equipment list is “pretty much all of the information I keep” about the vendors she turns to when it’s time to place printing jobs.

This advice and more straight talk like it did not appear to be lost on the printing and equipment manufacturing executives attending the session, part of a program that will be in progress at the Renaissance Schaumburg hotel and conference center through Tuesday (April 29). The moderator, Margie Dana of Print Buyers Inernational, noted that the print buying profession is in ferment because of technological change, cost-cutting pressure, the inexperience of newcomers, and even a lack of clarity about what the term “print buyer” actually means.

Founded by Dana, Print Buyers International is a source of information and networking opportunities for those who make a living doing what the job description implies. It implies a lot: at one Boston Print Buyers meeting, said Dana, the registrants signed in with 52 different titles—and not one of them was “print buyer.”

The panelists offered many insights into the scope and variety of print buying today. They included Melissa Clemente, vice president and print production director at DRAFTFCB, a marketing communications agency that procures printing on behalf of clients; Colleen Donahugh, vendor manager, print management solutions at Williams Lea, a buyer of print services for large corporations; Jeff Dickerson, a procurement specialist for State Farm Insurance; and Mark Montgomery, a print production/traffic supervisor for Armstrong Floor Products.

They all buy a great deal of print, with everyone but Armstrong saying that print accounted for at least 80% of his or her total spend. Armstrong said he directs about 60% of his budget to print, allocating the rest to e-mail blasts, cable TV spots, and other non-print alternatives. Clemente noted that as a full-service agency, DRAFTFCB will buy whatever media the client’s campaign requires.

But, she said, “the trick is that strategically, everything needs to be in lock step with a common tone and a common message.”

Donahugh believes that online marketing and other new “guerilla” tactics of the digital age result in the production of more print, not less. In the multi-channel mix, she said, “more often than not, print makes sense.”

But not necessarily to everyone, noted Montgomery, who said he faces continuous requests to justify investing in print. Complicating this, he said, is the fact that “the powers that be don’t understand the rationale between quality and price. All they care about is their budget.”

Asked to name his biggest operational challenge, Montgomery quickly answered, “time and resources.” Because of staffing and budget cuts, he said, “it’s getting worse, weekly”: even to the point where “vendor management is almost impossible.”

Dickerson, likewise, fights the good fight for print in home-office surroundings. In an organization as large and complex as State Farm, he said, “my biggest challenge is my internal clients.” It’s not they don’t like print: it’s that “people don’t understand timelines” that have to be adhered to if a print project is to be successful.

All of the panelists agreed that when print buyers are facing constraints like these, they find the help of supportive printers indispensable. Dickerson said that his printers do “an outstanding job” of helping him stay on track when the internal gremlins threaten to overwhelm.

All of the panelists made it clear that they expected their preferred providers to be informative, responsive, and as committed to quality as they themselves are. Clemente said the “the three dirtiest words” a printer can utter are “acceptable industry standards” because that phrase, in her mind, connotes quality compromises that her clients would never find acceptable, regardless of price.

“When we upload a file,” she told the audience, “it’s not just a disk”—it’s a project that could have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in R&D and creative associated with it. As such, it can’t be dealt with according to somebody else’s notion of “acceptable.”

Since so much print procurement is accomplished online nowadays, the quality of a printer’s Web site has a lot to do with whether the shop can inspire the right amount of confidence or not. Donahugh said that she wanted to see, in addition to an equipment list, interactive forms where job specs can be entered for a quick reply—not just a blank text box and a “send” button.

The equipment list, according to Montgomery, isn’t just a rundown of capital equipment—it can also be source of creative inspiration. He said he regularly scans equipment lists for machinery that best fits his production requirements and will design for specific pieces of equipment when he finds what he needs.

“I can’t work on anything smaller than a six-color,” he added, ideally a press with UV capability.

If the panelists are representative of the profession as a whole, “green” printing—the subject of several presentations at “Offset and Beyond 2008”—has emerged as another high-profile issue for print buyers.

“The greener, the better,” observed Clemente. “The advertising industry is really passionate on this topic.” Donahugh also said she wanted to evidence of “green” activism on the part of her printers, while Montgomery declared, “Everything we touch has to be extra, extra green.” State Farm has asked its printers to seek certification from the paper industry’s Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), added Dickerson.

Dana saved the most controversial topic for last: the technical knowledge base of those new to print buying. Donahugh noted that print buyers at the panelists’ level go to trade shows, attend technical conferences, and read trade magazines to stay abreast of technology and standards. But the same diligence is seldom seen in novices, who get usually get little in the way of employer-sponsored training.

According to Clemente, the situation to be avoided at all costs occurs when “the person who is buying the pencils is buying the high-end printing.” The thought of undertrained people making million-dollar decisions “is kind of horrifying,” she said.

Once again, though, printers can ride to the rescue with training resources of their own. Clemente spoke with gratitude about print suppliers who make time in their plants for half-day “mini-expos” designed to introduce fledgling buyers to the services they will be buying.

Seeing the equipment and the workflows always comes as a “revelation” to novices, Clemente said, making them more effective and enthusiastic in what they do.

About 600 people are attending “Offset and Beyond 2008” in an event sponsored annually by the Web Offset Association (WOA), part of Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation. It will conclude on Tuesday with a pre-drupa panel in which the writer of this post, representing WhatTheyThink, will preview announcements in web- and sheetfed offset.