Hillside, Ill.’s Darwill, Inc., is a 57-year-old direct mail and multi-channel marketing agency. From humble beginnings, the company has grown to be at the forefront of the industry—and one of the early adopters of production inkjet printing technology. We spoke with Mark DeBoer, Director of Customer Experience, about Darwill’s inkjet journey.

WhatTheyThink: Talk a little bit about Darwill’s history. 

Mark DeBoer: We are a third-generation, family-owned business. We were founded in 1951 and initially started doing imprints for store signage. We would get shells and we would print different sale offers for Florsheim Shoes. 

WTT: How has Darwill evolved over the years? 

MD: Our business philosophy has always been understanding what our customers’ needs are and then figuring out what we would have to do to solve our customers’ problem for them. That’s how we started evolving our different services. We started doing imprints, then we said, “Why can’t we do the whole job?” and all of a sudden now we had offset presses. That was our inkjet journey as well.

WTT: When did inkjet first hit your radar?

MD: About 20 years ago, we were getting more and more into delivering personalized content. Most of it at that time was just black laser printing onto a shell, maybe versioned. Then six or seven years ago, we had opportunities for work that was larger in quantity. With the equipment mix that we had, we weren’t able to go after those applications efficiently or turn them around in the time they needed. We looked into a rollfed laser press or something similar, but that's when we really looked into inkjet because we knew that companies were migrating from their laser equipment to black or four-color inkjet. 

WTT: Was it a complete transition or a more gradual process? 

MD: We decided to make the leap and go right for color inkjet. We were one of the first installs in the country of the ColorStream 3500 from Canon Solutions America. Having one of anything is the death of any manufacturing facility, so a year later we added a 3900 to handle the volume. They worked great for some applications, but for others just fell short on what we were able to achieve. We just recently installed the first ProStream 1000, and we’ve been seeing more chances to deliver on what the customer’s looking for: printing on coated sheets with offset-like quality and variable printing at faster speeds than you would be able to achieve on a cut-sheet digital device.

WTT: Do you foresee a day when it'll be mostly, if not all, inkjet-based? 

MD: I don’t know that offset will ever go away. We still have our offset presses, and we still have cut-sheet digital. We bifurcate the work based on quantity. There are still some stock limitations, but that gap got a little bit smaller when the ProStream came out. We have a lot of tools in our toolbox and it’s just a matter of pulling out the right tool for the right job. We just keep on adding tools. For some projects, it’s more efficient to run on offset, but we definitely see more pieces going to inkjet as some of the bigger-volume mailings have gone down. Because marketing has become much more niche-based, it leads to smaller runs with higher variability to end up with a more customized piece at maybe a little higher price but better ROI. 

WTT: Were there are any challenges once you added inkjet—aside from the stock limitations, which was a common sticking point early on? 

MD: The stock issue was obviously the biggest one. There were some quality issues that we encountered because of the stock and ink issue, but now with the ProStream the quality issue isn’t a discussion anymore. The cost of the ink is somewhat prohibitive for some projects, and you try to control the amount of ink on a piece. It’s not a normal conversation you have with a customer; nobody ever told you on an offset print job not to put so much ink down because it’s going to be expensive. So we’re trying to advise our customers and make sure that whatever imagery they’re adding, that it’s adding value. Don't just put a big red box to put a red box. We’re teaching designers to be more mindful of how they use color. I usually joke and say, “You know, white space is your friend.” 

WTT: Do you have any marketing challenges, either selling personalization or customization, or getting your customers to accept the new technology? 

MD: The conversations used to be a lot more difficult than they are now because there used to be objections about stock weight and stock finishes and things like that. With the ProStream, now we’re able to offer customers a pretty wide gamut of stocks and the print quality is not something I have to make an excuse for anymore. Our customers are also becoming more sophisticated about data and how to achieve the full value of digital. We used to coach them on how to use data, and now there’s already a strategy in place or they have an idea of what they’re trying to do and we just help take them the final 10 yards. 

WTT: Any final thoughts or advice about inkjet adoption?  

MD: The challenges are always there for how to use the data well and convey what can be done. With inkjet, you can just do so much more of it. You’re trying to feed the beast—and the beast is hungry. You have more capacity to try to fill. So having many of those kinds of conversations with customers, to try to partner with them and figure out how to best use their data and their assets to deliver ROI, is something that we’ve gotten good at. We’re able to have more forward-thinking discussions, and we don’t have to handle objections about substrate and quality issues.