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Print Buyer Profiles Are Trending

Soothsayers aside, normal people cannot accurately predict the future. We can speculate, however, and even hypothesize about the direction it will go. So here, with input from four seasoned industry veterans on both sides of the buying-selling desk, is MPR’s educated guess about the future of buying print, harbingers of what likely is to come within the next decade:

Classifying generations is sort of like Hallmark creating card-sending holidays. Consumer tracking firm Nielsen has coined yet another one: the new Generation C, where the “C” stands for always digitally “Connected,” describing people born between 1979 and 1995. Members of Generation C are between 18 and 34 years old. The most recent US Census finds that 18- to 24-year-olds comprise 23 percent of the population, yet they watch 27 percent of online videos, constitute 27 percent of visitors to social networking sites, own 33 percent of tablet devices, and use 39 percent of smartphones, according to a recent Mashable report.

In the print version of “Back to the Future,” the year is 2020 and a Generation C twenty-something is shopping for 4D printing. So-called four-dimensional print is an actual research initiative into programmable materials, such as self-folding proteins. Introduced by MIT in late February at the 2013 edition of the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference, Skylar Tibbits, a lecturer in the architecture department and founder of the research university’s new Self-Assembly lab, said his “4D print” projects are designed to respond to energy and change over time. At TED, Tibbits showed off a collaboration with Stratasys and Autodesk to create strands made of multiple types of materials that, when dipped in water, fold themselves into pre-designed shapes. (Curious readers can view a video of what this looks like here.)

The pressing question for 4D and other print sellers is this, said Margie Dana, founder of Boston-based Print Buyers International (PBI) and a former buyer herself: How will the futuristic procurer shop her or his print jobs? Other questions loom as well, and the crystal ball is not so clear, but educated guesses prevail. How long will it be until Skype-like conferencing and Google+ video “hangout” meetings become the norm? Will business people in the not-too-distant future peer in from behind Google glasses and pay with Microsoft Wallets?

“How might members of Generation C prefer to do business with our industry?” she asked. “I’m hyper-sensitive to the next generation of workers in the job market” and how they communicate, added Dana, mother to an 18-year-old son who has shunned email as a passé form of communication. “And forget the phone!” she proclaimed. (My own college freshman daughter hasn’t checked her iPhone voicemail in two years, I think.)

“I wonder how customers will buy [print] seven years from now,” Dana pondered. “How will they buy anything? How will younger people vote and record their reviews in the near future? Will everything be online in 2020?”

They don’t know what they don’t know

The way in which printing services are bought has changed so much just in the past 36 months that many sellers wonder what it is that buyers want. Print reps are trying to come to terms with how their roles have changed and what printers/print service providers (PSPs) need to know to better serve this industry segment.

As the US printing industry has shrunk, print volumes have contracted as well, Dana pointed out. Whether peddling offset, digital, or both, print sales reps can no longer profile buyers because they can be so different. Pigeon-holing buyers used to be easy. “The profile of customers, especially corporate customers, is changing,” she agreed. “There certainly were not big, significant changes 10 years ago, and even five years ago it wasn’t as obvious [as it is now]. Technology is driving changes in business.” Likewise, print’s audience and customers are changing, added Dana. “The days of the print buying ‘specialist’ are numbered,” she proclaimed.

What buyers do, or don’t do anymore, has changed, too, Dana explained, “Some have been moved into procurement, where they now do X, Y, and Z, including non-print purchasing. Oh, and the printing projects still fall in their laps as well.” Joe Duncan, SVP and director of Strategic Vendor Management at advertising agency Leo Burnett USA concurred. “Very few people just buy print anymore,” said Duncan, a 2013 IDEAlliance board member who has had “ink under his fingernails” for more than three decades. His past print production and sales experience included stints at Madden Communications and Sells Printing in suburban Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively.

These days, “specializing in one particular vertical [market] or platform is a bottom-line pressure, a luxury,” Duncan noted, adding that the broader structure represents an opportunity for vendors. “The best suppliers work across verticals and/or enhance the value of print. They also take over [functions], such as online support and e-commerce.”

Wearing many hats sounds familiar to Chris Rocco, senior print producer at Omnicom-owned ad agency DDB Chicago. “Especially at smaller agencies, buyers have become more adaptable, getting involved in areas like art buying, broadcast, and digital banner ads,” said the 22-year industry veteran. “Working knowledge of design programs – Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign – often is required now, too,” added Rocco, who said she has seen a substantial amount of buying taken internally as well.

In the past three years or so, many corporate decision-makers filling purchasing positions no longer place a high value on sophisticated printing knowledge, Dana continued. More and more frequently, the newer buyers they are tapping have never before had responsibility for print. Some of these people did not actively choose their career paths; they just fell into them, she said, “some of them kicking and screaming.” DDB’s Rocco, now focused on the out-of-home (outdoor) category, is self-proclaimed “old school,” knowing the difference between RGB and CMYK and understanding to what the spec “right reading, emulsion side down” refers. “But if you ask a younger buyer to name a web printer, they wouldn’t know,” she insisted. (“They’d know sheetfed and HP.”)

Through no fault of their own, these buyers are nervous, anxious, and ignorant about the printing process, literally not knowing where to begin and relying heavily on their vendors to educate them. In these scenarios, “hand-holding and [providing] service has never been more important,” Dana emphasized. “PSPs and sales reps need to be aware of this [trend], accept it, and work with it.” Bill Farquharson, sales trainer and principal of Aspire For, Inc., added, “With education, the goal is to be brought in at the design stage instead of [at] the quote stage. You have to earn that right.”

Other buyers have moved into marketing departments, Dana noted. Like Duncan on the agency side, she sees this corporate shift as an opportunity for print as a medium to make a great impression on marketers. “Marketing is where campaigns and budgets are decided. Pay attention to marketers and marketing associations,” Dana advised. “I don’t see enough [print] representation at local chapter meetings and events of AMA and DMA, but the smart printers are there.”

Consultative selling techniques are not new ideas, but you have to know who your customers are before you can get to know them (and their needs) better. So much has changed, yet many of the basic selling fundamentals remain the same. “The good … sales representative becomes an expert at learning and analyzing customer needs. [He or she] … seeks out the key people in the customer’s organization, asks penetrating questions … listens and probes for the facts,” wrote the late Gaylord Donnelley, former chairman of RR Donnelley & Sons Co. and an heir to the Chicago-based family printing fortune, in his 1977 book, To Be a Good Printer. His father, Thomas Elliott (T.E.) Donnelley was a Yale alumnus renowned for his salesmanship and the tireless concern he gave to customers during a career that spanned more than 50 years.

Selling Today to ‘Mr. Jones’

In the mid-1970s, when North America’s largest printer still was family-run, the story goes that a hard-driving, young salesman was pulling down more money in commissions than the CEO’s salary at the time. Kmart was one of his more lucrative accounts. The cash-rich rep, John Walter, would ascend to become a chief executive with a bulldog reputation. Walter, who played football under legendary coach Bo Schembechler at Miami of Ohio, followed a catchy sales mantra that he said was a key to his success: “To sell Jones what Jones buys, you have to see Jones through Jones’s eyes.”

There is printing to sell and buy now and in the near term. Many modern-day reps feel vulnerable, too, and with good reason. “I truly believe you are only as good as the last job you shipped,” said Farquharson, who has spent two-thirds of his 30 years in the industry as a sales coach. “The days of sitting around taking orders and milking huge accounts are long gone. Many veteran reps who lose major accounts have not been working to replace them all along,” he noted, adding that “diligence is one thing that hasn’t changed. It is the one [attribute] that can substitute for a lack of sales ability.” As a sheetfed sales manager once said, “We can hire monkeys to run around handing out equipment lists!”

Metrics is another big buzzword among marketers, “the holy grail of CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies,” Burnett’s Duncan said. “CMOs want dashboards at their fingertips.” Yet nobody has been able to truly measure the effectiveness of print, he noted. “There are bits and pieces, especially in publishing. We’ve seen some clever uses of QR [quick response] codes, too, but also some really bad ones that have backfired. A bad brand experience is the worst possible world because there is no data [generated] if people walk away.”

Skeptical reps wonder, does customer loyalty still exist? Of course it does, said our seasoned panel of experts. “Take away my pain,” a customer told me, “and I’ll be loyal.” Rocco of DDB said the good trinity of service, quality, and timing build loyalty in her world. “I’m looking for someone who has suggestions, who can bring something to the table, not just quote specifications,” she urged. “Give input on color, on paper, on formatting, on postpress finishing effects. It’s worth paying a premium for someone who adds value by acting almost like a project manager. The less I have to think about it, the better.”

Print sales guru Farquharson added a caveat, however: “If you do not consistently and continually work to earn a customer’s business, that loyalty will disappear. There’s an old sales adage that still applies: ‘Solve the problem; earn the order.’” But, he warned, “There are always going to be people who will undercut you for a nickel. Always.” Apparently, that hasn’t changed, either.

20 Questions from ‘30,000 Feet’

Last month, Print Buyers International (PBI) released the results of an online survey conducted in December 2012 of 162 print-buying professionals. Respondents were primarily senior-level print buyers with over 15 years of professional experience. The data collected reveals some top trends. Nearly 60 percent of print buyers believe color management is “extremely important” to them, yet 61 percent reported that they do not select printers based on certification in color management.

Entitled “View From 30,000 Feet: Key Trends & Sourcing Practices,” the survey asked 20 questions of those in charge of sourcing print for their companies. In addition to questions on color management, there were questions on job titles, dollar amounts of the printing budgets managed, whether buyers are sourcing more digital vs. offset printing, and what value-added services they prefer when choosing print partners. (Participants were not compensated for their participation; data was collected anonymously.)

In addition to including all data and charts, the final report includes commentary PBI founder Margie Dana. Long considered an expert in print buying, and a former print buyer herself, her conclusions and recommendations outline action steps for print firms and print customers. “Uncovering and identifying current trends among print buyers has always been a major goal of mine,” said Dana. “I think some of the results will surprise printers.”

Early feedback includes high marks from Tim Freeman, president of Printing Industries Alliance, who noted, “If you are trying to understand today’s print buyer, Margie Dana’s newest publication … is a must read. In addition to sharing a wealth of survey data, Margie adds her own expert analysis, drawing on years of experience as a print buyer, writer, blogger, speaker, and founder of Print Buyers International. There is no doubt that our industry continues to be challenged by enormous change – so, too, [are] our customers’ worlds,” Freeman continued, adding that PBI’s report provides “an unprecedented glimpse … along with concrete, actionable information that you can utilize in your sales and marketing efforts.”

Dana’s 40-page report is for sale as a PDF at