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Tue, Aug

IR talks to... Neil Richardson, business development director, Blink

Blink’s website says its “aim from day one was to grow with the ever-changing landscape of print.” In line with that thinking the Lutterworth-based PSP - which offers digital large-format alongside litho and screen print and finishing services - has brought on board Neil Richardson as business development director. His background is not in print – so what is he expected to bring to the party?

By Lesley Simpson

Neil, first up, can you just provide a potted overview of the Blink operation, and what you were brought in to achieve?

Blink is a full-service print agency - litho and screen as well as digital print, finishing, installation etc. I was brought in, because if you look at the developments in retail at the moment, it is all about the store ‘experience’ and how that has to fight with what’s going on online and everything. Brands are looking at POS and displays and putting it in context of the whole shopper experience. Coming from a corporate and agency background I have certain insights when it comes to what both of those are looking for from a PSP now – and they’re not necessarily the same things! If I can help Blink react to both of those it should really help move the company forward in those areas.

We often talk about PSPs being too myopic, and that they could benefit from bringing in people from outside the print industry. Your background isn’t in print as you’ve said. Can you explain more about that, and be a bit more specific about how you’ll use your experience at Blink?

So I’ve had almost 20 years working with blue chips, and with marketing agencies. I was at Boots for 10 years looking after Number 7 cosmetics from a marketing perspective, the latter years of which were quite interesting because it was all about new store formats. I then spent some time in promotional, branding and creative agencies and more latterly in marketing/advertising agencies. My last corporate job was a head of retail communications for British American Tobacco - looking at 27 international markets. Of course that was a very changeable landscape because of peoples’ views on tobacco, so I’m used to attitudes changing.

The thinking is that if I understand what the end market wants from a print supplier Blink can respond. Agencies have a very different need of a PSP in some respects to corporates - which are probably already attached to an agency anyway. Corporates are more about the service and trust aspects while agencies expect advice and support these days from a PSP - they might have an idea and want to ask ‘can we do it?’ I see that there’s a real role there for PSPs - they can almost become an extension of the agency team - they take it to one level then we take it over for them.

We can talk to them about print within the wider marketing mix, and also about how print can be used more creatively. Do they know the advancements there have been in cardboard engineering for instance? Do they understand what materials can now be printed and finished in various ways?

Coming to it from the other side I can understand the agency focus, but I can also see the value to them of understanding the wealth of application capability.

How far ahead are you looking with your business development plan?

At the moment the focus is short to medium term. It’s about getting out to new audiences and engaging with people in a new way.

To get new business in today’s market you’ve got to come up with new ways to engage with your customers. The majority of my role at Blink initially is to find ways to make them turn their heads, and to get them to understand that we know what we’re talking about and can help them. It’s not easy, because most agencies already have a plethora of print suppliers! That’s why it’s so important to find novel ways to engage with them and to get them to realise that we are different to other suppliers. We have projects underway that we think will create a buzz and do that, but of course I don’t want to give too much away about that! How well they are received will be an indicator of where we go longer term.

How much of a focus for Blink is large-format, and what’s your focus there in terms of business development?

It is absolutely a focus. I think that when you are a large retailer and you’re charged with creating a new look and feel across 500 stores, there’s a budget impact on doing that, and whereas before store fitters would come out and do things with wood etc., now it’s about ‘how can we change things up more cost effectively but still create impact with the consumer’. Large-format print can deliver that.

Looking at retail again, it’s about catching customers’ attention so they’re asking things like ‘how can we create a department with cardboard?’ etc. And there’s much more onus now on making substrates work harder to deliver something different. That tied with various different finishing options opens up new avenues to explore.

Going back to my history, I can see how we can pull together solutions for those in the retail sector before they know they need it - so we’re going in with the answer to a question as yet unasked and that puts us further up the value chain. If you just say ‘can we help you?’ they have another hundred companies asking that.

To what degree do you feel the need to keep your eye on other visual technologies that clients might be looking to include in their marketing strategies?

You have to always have one eye on that or you’ll be left behind. Being aware of emerging technologies, understanding how it works and where it can be marketed as part of a differentiating solution to a customer is very important. That’s how you win hearts and minds these days. At Blink for instance we have projects that incorporate video screens into POS. It’s about taking something different and getting it in front of the right people.

PSPs often have problems attracting the right calibre people from outside the print sphere. What attracted you, and what lessons can you teach them about attracting the right talent?

I knew Esther and husband Craig already so there was a chemistry there anyway. And for me there’s a bit of a box ticking mentality in that I bring insights to Blink, but it also gives me insights as a supplier that I’ve never had in the corporate or agencies worlds. Working in this side of the business is brand new and gives me new challenges.

A wider pool of people will certainly help enervate the print industry, but to get the right level people from outside industry print businesses you’ve got to think about what you can do to help progress the individual - and sex up the industry a little bit, because from outside it looks so unattractive and people will just dismiss it.