Last Friday's article by Frank Romano at WhatTheyThink discussed the impending release of an ISO standard for variable data exchange - PDF/VT.  Frank sees this as a boon for variable data printing.  He writes, "The use of variable data (or document) printing has been retarded over the last decade by short-sighted suppliers, specifications, and associations.  Now perhaps we are on the cusp of opening VDP to all users, big and small."

The implementation of the PDF/VT standard may very well cause the market for variable data printing to expand by simplifying the workflows that VDP projects require.  But this growth may come at a high price - lower profit margins for some digital printers that offer VDP production services.

I'm not suggesting that standards are all bad.  In fact, standards are always intended to produce beneficial results, and most probably succeed, at least on some level.

But a standard can also be a modern-day version of a siren song - something that on the surface appears to be attractive and benign, but that often produces unforeseen negative consequences.

One problem with standards is that they can undermine competitive differentiation.  As companies implement more and more standards and other "best practices," they begin to look more and more alike.  And when customers have difficulty distinguishing between potential suppliers using other criteria, they turn to price.  Therefore, the widespread use of standards can actually contribute to lower prices and profit margins in an industry by causing industry participants to compete primarily on price.

The PDF/VT standard may also make it easier to separate the development of a VDP project from the "output" of the project.  Frank Romano alluded to this possibility when he wrote, "Since 1994, we have been able to take almost any designed job and save it as a PDF and give to almost any printer to be printed on almost any printer or press.  But that has never been possible with VDP . . . There has never been an efficient method for saving a VDP job and sending it to any digital printer.  Now there is."

My question is:  Who will capture the lion's share of the profits produced by a VDP project?  The company that helps the client decide who to target, what the marketing message should be and how it should be customized for each recipient, what the offer or call to action should be, and what the results mean?  Or the company that receives a "standard" file and outputs the finished product?

My bet is on the company that uses creativity and innovative thinking to help clients achieve their marketing objectives.  Of course, it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition.