Are Printers Masquerading as MSPs?

Several months back, Margie Dana, founder of Print Buyers International, wrote a highly controversial piece that inflamed a lot of emotions. The title of the piece was, “You’re a Printer. Stop Denying It!” In the piece, she expressed frustration that printers seem to be obscuring the fact that they are printers. Dana was particularly frustrated by what she called “obfuscation” on Web sites, requiring visitors to drill down into the bowels of the site to figure out what these folks really do. She argued that companies talk about “solutions” and being “marketing service providers” (MSPs), while burying the fact that they are really commercial printers at heart.

She wrote: In this business, if you have a manufacturing facility, you’re a printer. If you have an equipment list on your site (well hidden, often), you’re a printer. If terms like “prepress,” “commercial printing,” “1-to-1 communications,” “packaging” and “warehousing” are used here and there to describe some of your offerings, you’re a printer. You can redo your Web site, hire a writer (sorry, “content creator”) to scrub your site of traditional print company lingo, and pepper it liberally with cool new snapshots, but anyone who knows better will peel back the pixilated pages and see that you are, indeed, a printer.

Comments came like a flood. On one side, there was a round of cheers. On the other side, there were shrieks of fury. This is more than an online spat. It’s a fundamental clash between print buyers and marketing staff and their print providers that is regularly occurring these days. The volume and intensity of these comments—which continue to pour in—show just how deep these feelings run.

In fairness to the printing industry, things have changed. A growing number of printers are offering integrated marketing services, social media marketing, 1:1 campaign development and other areas of marketing support. They are no longer printers in the traditional sense. But what do you call them? While Dana argued that “MSP” is often an empty label, many printers argued back just as strongly that the semantic change is deserved and, equally important, it is necessary.

“If you call a prospect and ask for a meeting it’s, “I’ve already got plenty of printers that do that work for me and so on,” writes one shop. “But if you can respond with, ‘Yes, but I’m not selling just print,’ now you’re saying something. Because in the end we’re not. We’re selling programs and ideas that produce print.”

Aaron Hale, industry marketing specialist at Canon Business Solutions, commented, “When I was out there selling VDP and cross-media services for a commercial printer [The Premium Color Group], I hit the wall several times in sales engagements because of the trust-perception of the buyer. They weren’t willing to risk a $50k cross media campaign expenditure with a company that had ‘printer’ in its branding. I overcame a few of those barriers with differed margin pilots, but in the end, re-branding was really the only thing to do.”

A study Hale conducted for his former employer, InfoTrends, about pricing strategies for multi-channel services yielded that overall, service providers that used the MSP moniker received 34 percent more revenue for the exact same service as those who were dubbed PSPs or printers.

No wonder passions are ignited. You’re taking about real money.

But I think you can take the passion out of it. The confusion boils down to something pretty simple. There are printers who really have become marketing services providers. They have overhauled their companies from top to bottom, from upper management to CSRs. They have done substantial retraining and retooling, bringing on new personnel and developing marketing as a core competency. They can call themselves MSPs because they are.

This is more than a semantic change. As pointed out by Scott Dubois, vice president, cross-media services and marketing of Reynolds DeWalt, MSPs “have fully staffed departments (not one person wearing multiple hats) which include market research, product development, performance analytics and trending and marketplace strategy.”

He emphasized that true MSPs don’t have presses, but I would add that certainly, presses don’t take away from this core competency if it really exists.

The problem has arisen, not because some printers have retooled and rebranded, but because too many printers have rebranded lightly. They have rebranded without changing their core competency which, if they are marketing services providers, now ought to be marketing. You cannot simply add a digital press and some 1:1 or personalized URL software and call yourself an MSP.

You might be a printer with integrated marketing capabilities. You might be a printer with expertise in cross-media marketing. But to earn the moniker “marketing services provider,” you have to overhaul, not just your branding, but your focus, your strategy and your core competency, too.

If you haven’t done that, you should re-brand to reflect your new capabilities in cross-media, personalization, or Web-to-print, but you probably shouldn’t be calling yourself an MSP.

Heidi Tolliver-Nigro is an industry writer, an analyst specializing in digital workflow and technologies. Her e-mail address is

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