A 600-year-old industry that stays ahead of its time

Although today’s print entrepreneurs trace their origins back to the 1430s with German inventor Johannes Gutenburg, they are just the latest participants in a trade that keeps surprising the outside world by reinventing itself – and they are fuelling its growth towards a trillion-dollar industry.

Most readers will remember the early 2000s when digital speculators were convinced that print would be dead within a generation. But every day you see evidence of a buoyant industry. Printed newspapers across the public transport system. A physical book industry that is enjoying growth, regaining ground from e-readers. An increasing number of catalogues popping through letterboxes. Plenty of value in printing vinyl LP jackets. E-commerce relying on paper-based advertising to drive customers on-line. An enormous demand for branded packaging. Smart food packaging that is starting to talk to the consumer in unexpected ways. Printed branding appearing in new places such as building wraps, stairways, huge vehicle wraps.

The print industry will not accept that it is in decline. But its role must keep changing, as it has since the beginning.

Around 1800, the Morning Post – with its circulation of four thousand copies – was the UK’s best-selling daily newspaper. After newspapers accelerated to their 1950s circulation peak, they slipped into what many commentators thought was a terminal decline during the 2000s. But the model was turned upside down and free papers were created, keeping many printing presses running today. It’s a similar story for magazines. Although the overall market value may be lower than previous decades, there are more titles in print today than ever before. Many of those that publish content by blending print with digital are sustainably enjoying the best of both worlds. Their readers trust print, especially for in-depth analysis, but look to the digital channel for instant news. Certainly, there are many iterations of the industry to come and maybe small print runs of high quality, personalised journalism is where it is heading. Perhaps the Morning Star had the right idea all along, just some 220 years ahead of its time.

The hipsters may well realise that vinyl – every single piece of which comes inside a printed jacket – will only ever be a shade of its 1970s glory. But the smart investors who now serve the record labels with just-in-time LP jacket production are seeing a return. There are not as many businesses in operation as during the 1970s, but each one today is profitable. With supply outstripping demand, these investors have enjoyed over eight years of double-digit growth.

The suppliers that put on-demand printing machines at the point of distribution within book publishers’ warehouses around the world can make money from printing one copy at a time, something that was inconceivable a decade ago. Stock is abolished meaning titles are never “out of print” but available on demand. It’s fair to say that those organisations have had to restructure, refinance and think differently to make a viable business. The glow of e-reading is fading fast with sales are plunging – while physical book sales steadily grow. With a growing global market that is easier to reach than ever, and a growing catalogue of books, this is now a fully sustainable business model.

Yet for every success story in book printing there are new stories yet to be told – and some of those are very topical.

This is an industry known to respond to the social issues of the day. There are now supply chains that are free of plastic. Paper and pulp manufacturers are planting more trees than they cut down (despite it not yet being really incentivised by governments as one of the most obvious sinks for greenhouse gases). Before the financial crisis, social responsibility was on the agenda of the print industry – and there is a dormant legacy of environmental management, chains of custody and energy efficient initiatives. It’s back on the agenda now, and the print industry is reacting as customers start to make those demands again. The ones that embrace efficiency will not only save money, but even charge a premium.

As the industry remains buoyant, it remains convinced that there are better things to come. No wonder the latest predictions of growth take it ever closer to becoming a trillion-dollar industry.

In the UK alone there are some 8,200 printing organisations to choose from. Of course, there are some scruffy factories, examples of poor customer service, badly maintained machines and some demoralised people – but they don’t tend to last these days. But more interesting are the inspiring entrepreneurs who take the latest concepts to get print to the masses in ways that have not been thought of before. By focussing efforts on performance improvement and turnaround, business owners are making the most of customer loyalty (which tends to be strong in this industry) and giving them something new.

At the far end of this conceptualisation are printed electronics that are embedded in printed packaging. That means the package can simultaneously talk to its contents, to the supply chain and to the consumer. We’d love to know what to do with this just yet, but it’s safe to assume that imaginative buyers and sellers will find a way to collaborate in ways that benefit both parties.

Those printers that are today using the latest machinery to print high-quality personalised material – within hours of a marketing campaign being signed off – are in a very good place. Just ten years ago a marketer had to wait 1-2 weeks to send out a good quality print campaign to customers, with limited personalisation or regionalisation. Few marketers are interested in delivering the same message to every door in the UK anymore, because data has made sure that targeting is much more effective. Print may be a bit slower than e-mail marketing but the overwhelming evidence is of print being a more powerful advertising medium when used correctly. The revival in direct marketing – with a stream of home shopping catalogues and incentive vouchers dropping through letterboxes to take you back on line – was not really predicted by many in the early 2000s. A number of suppliers exited the industry while those that stayed simply adapted and took advantage of a new commercial model. A model that is rapidly delivering on operating and financial results.

Photobox is a great example of creating a new commercial model. Anyone can have a high-quality book filled with their favourite photos, posted directly to their door. It took a handful of people a bit of time to create this new sector, but they are delighting the consumer in a way that the high street never managed (just remember those 24 photos in a generic paper sleeve from Jessops).

We are edging closer to the point where the edges blur between print and digital and they finally converge as one. There is talk of travel guides that are embedded within electronic paper that can update in real time but be available off-line to drop into your rucksack before you go off-grid. Whether it catches on or not, the fact that individuals are prepared to give it a go means there is something new just waiting to be discovered.

For any print buyer schooled in the last one or two generations, competition has always been fierce. Advances in software in the last five years are bringing cost transparency like never before – we are near a tipping point where print is a commodity with predictable prices. A handful of smart people saw that in the 1990s and spearheaded outsourcing of print buying, arguably they were ahead of their time. Some of their successors are sadly now struggling with over-staffed, old-fashioned processes that a dozen or so nimble technology providers are threatening by enabling the end customer to deal directly with the producer. But the experienced print buyer can find a new niche. There are now more individual print jobs being placed than ever before and not everyone has the time, inclination or know-how to manage and navigate the print process – they need expert advice.

Implementing and overseeing these technology-enabled processes creates new opportunity.

How long before every toy is produced in two packages? A big version for the shop display to catch the attention, and one for e-commerce that is truly under-packaged. This will save money for the retailers as well as manufacturers and give printers an opportunity to expand their services. If, or when, 3D printing of everyday consumer products catches up with its promise, and in so doing creates a number of smaller local supply chains, the sellers will be looking for nimble and quick printers that are able to fulfil in small batches around the country. This will erode if not eliminate the incumbent model of gigantic central factories that rely on large runs and delivery to one central location.

It’s no surprise that billboard printing is in decline thanks to digital screens. But those printers shouldn’t be concerned because at the same time the idea of printing in smaller run lengths, down to one, is becoming very effective. Around every corner there is a building site that needs a printed hoarding with safety notices and imagery to sell its future. There are hotel foyers needing bespoke wallpaper to promote the latest local campaign. Therefore, a number of printers are starting to swap out clunky machinery that is fit for large runs, for state-of-the-art nimble presses that are profitable at any print run. And that’s a safe bet, because the construction and hospitality industry isn’t going anywhere for a while.

If ten minutes ago you had tried to think of an industry that has proven itself indestructible, that is filled with entrepreneurs, that is letting technology make it better, that is using data to reinforce its value, and that is so pervasive you don’t notice it, would you have said “print”? Whether you are a printer, a buyer, a marketer, a designer or an investor it pays to wonder how you can use print differently.


Case study: Delivering better document management and communication control

Our client is a leading global insurance organisation providing personal insurance solutions through direct and corporate partner relationships. Challenge: Our client had a problem with numerous insurance platforms producing a range of data formats with documents being created through a diverse range of internal document composition platforms and external service providers. Solution: Through a consultancy [...]