How do printers need to talk to marketers and creatives to build better business opportunities? That's the question I put to Charlotte Graham-Cumming, director of Ice Blue Sky, a fast-growing B2B marketing communications agency. In her own words, the company “acts as a conduit between the printer and their customers”, so she’s well placed to share some valuable insights.
Charlotte, first up, can you elaborate on the relationship between Ice Blue Sky and the print community?
Since we started the business in 2007 we’ve worked with printers fairly consistently, and in a number of different areas – packaging, wide-format print, small-format digital and litho – but it was always a supplier/customer type relationship. We then started working with Konica Minolta, and through that I learned a huge amount about just what’s out there [in terms of print possibilities], and I’ve actually started to use that knowledge in our business. One of the things I’ve picked upon over this last 18 months is that there’s a huge amount of potential in the print sector that the creative sector can take advantage of.
When it comes to maximising print’s potential, the need for the industry to better engage with creatives is key. It’s why Image Reports launched the Think Bigger campaign this year. You have spoken on the topic at various print trade events in 2014. Is the timing of your talks particularly significant?
Definitely. There’ve been huge steps in print in terms of managing things like variable data, Web-to-print, self- service, all of those things which as an agency make our lives so much easier. Data is a big frustration to us, and the fact that we can hand that over to somebody else and they not only handle it but actually add value to the process – that’s a massive plus for us. And also, digital printing has really come on in terms of quality, has a lot more options in terms of how you can use it, especially in terms of personalisation – things that we’ve previously done but very manually. Being able to automate a lot of that in conjunction with your print partner just makes life so much easier.
So - the crucial question - what do printers need to do to better engage with creatives, especially those they don’t perhaps already know?
I think they’ve just got to be brave! They’ve got to get out there and be proactive. Not every agency is going to be open to your approach, but then you just move on and go to the ones that are. But the more innovative you can appear, and the more value-add the better - and especially if you take a collaborative approach rather than ‘this is my latest gadget...’.
Ask creatives and agencies about the campaigns they are working on, if there’s anywhere they are lacking ideas. Take the approach of ‘did you know that printers can now... handle data, Web-to-print, versioning, set up self-service for clients if they are needing a lot of printed collateral on a repetitive basis, etc.’
And talk their language. One of the big things I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that the language used is very different. For example, cross-media is an incredibly popular term in the print sector. I didn’t even know what that meant. We call it integrated marketing. It’s about taking the time to learn how creative agencies talk and behave as businesses, and where their challenges are. I’m passionate about this because printers can fill in gaps for the agencies if they make them aware they can add value in all sorts of ways.
I assume the style of engagement needs to change with the type of creative?
Exactly: it’s just like good marketing – know your audience. So, for instance, I’ve had printers come to me and all they want to talk about is my client base. If you’re going to talk to an agency you need to ask not just about their clients, but find out about where the agency’s own gaps are; are they struggling with data; struggling with creative ideas when it comes to print; do they even handle print? Then it’s about being able to show them the value of what you can do as a printer to fill those gaps.
If you're talking to a smaller business directly, budget may be more of a constraint for them, but so is resource. So perhaps the company does want to do more marketing, but they don’t feel they can afford it. If a printer can go in and offer some solution that’s a bonus for them.
And for big brands, I think that as well as the creative ideas printers can bring to the table, some of the self- serve automated services they can deliver are key options.
How do printers make sure they’re having the right levels of conversation with the right people?
I think they have to understand who they are talking to, and what the drivers are of that person. And they don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole themselves into production because then it does become a cost conversation. Obviously what they need to do is steer it towards a value conversation. So they need to tap into various things. Speaking with an agency our size that would be getting to talk to myself or one of the other directors, to say they’ve perhaps got some good ideas on how they can drive response rates for campaigns, have some really creative ways in which to engage customers – those are the sorts of things I’m interested in and want to hear about.
You produce some great blogs and in one you said ‘thought leadership’ is a term much bandied about but incorrectly used. How do you define it – and how can that be applied to this engagement conundrum?
I hate using the term thought leadership because it is so overused and misused. It’s about adding value for your audience. IBM do this brilliantly. Every year they go out and interview 1,500-2,000 ‘C’ level executives in a particular function – so a couple of years ago it was the CMO. They talk to them about what they do, gather that insight into a report and publish it. For them that doesn’t have an immediate financial return, but its thought leadership, giving people access to the minds of those people wouldn’t normally have access to. I think that the print community needs to expand it’s thinking beyond technology and focus more on its customer base and added value.
So does the print company need to change its ‘sales’ strategy in terms of the type of person it sends out to have these conversations?
Definitely. Many print companies now have designers in-house so why not bring them to talk to the creative at an agency for instance? The managing director, or someone with strategic vision, really needs to be engaging with the senior people at the creative agency/organisation. I know quite a few printers that do that and it works very well for them.
Having undertaken research for our own Think Bigger Report, it’s clear that at design student level, the creative possibilities offered via wide-format print in particular are a great unknown. Do you think the engagement process needs to start with the educational/training establishments?
I’ve always been a firm believer that if you want to make a change you start at the source, and for a print sector wanting to educate the design community about what can be achieved, that means those design students coming up through the ranks. The colleges do have a big focus on digital. They may know wide-format print exists but they don’t understand its potential, particularly in relation to the number of surfaces that can be printed onto, or the flexibility it has and that’s a big issue for the print industry. We’ve hired designers not too long out of college who really don’t understand print on a fundamental level, let alone the possibilities of wide- format. Because of the big drive towards digital there is a lack of knowledge and awareness of the strides that print is making.
What should be the key takeaway from this conversation?
I think printers should look at their marketing and their selling in a different way. I think there’s a massive untapped opportunity for printers, and for agencies. Printers could take the initiative and get agencies to understand the added value that is sitting there in the print industry. The printer should start by looking at it from the outside in. Think about what they can give to the client rather than what the client can give them.
An edited version of this interview can be seen as a video.