The wide-format digital print sector is not particularly well represented by print industry trade bodies. Is that because more from the sector need to join up and make their voices heard? Bettine Pellant, new CEO of Picon, argues the case for membership to trade associations.
Say what you like about trade associations, but the UK has a lot of them. A quick Google search led me to one list containing well over 300 organisations, from the Adhesive Tape Manufacturers Association to the Zinc Development Association. Such volume and variety point to the perennial need businesses of all sizes have to seek strength in numbers, to build a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
In the printing industry we are well catered for association-wise. Print providers have the BPIF, the BAPC and Fespa UK, to name but three, while Picon represents equipment manufacturers and suppliers. These organisations have been around for a while; more recently we have seen the emergence of ‘associations of associations’ such as the Graphics, Print and Media Alliance (GPMA).
Again, our existence shows we fulfil a need, yet so many companies that could be members aren't. There are a number of reasons for this, including a misconception - common among some smaller companies - that trade associations are only for the big boys. In Picon's case the opposite applies: the great majority of its members are SMEs, and most have been members for many years. I'm confident that the same is true of other associations.
An irony of the trade association ‘business model’ is that the collective benefits that come from joining forces ultimately derive from members getting the right answer to the very individual question “What’s in it for me?” So what is it that persuades these companies to renew their subscriptions year after year?
There is of course the opportunity to influence matters affecting the industry. Each association has well-established mechanisms to find out members’ views on a variety of important issues. Picon, for example, has specialist focus groups looking at subjects such as digital print, export, the environment and chemicals. These are more than talking shops, because over the years we have built the channels through which we can make our views heard by government. Sometimes we have our own direct line into government, and sometimes we add our voice to partner organisations such as the Engineering and Machinery Alliance.
Then there are the networking opportunities that association membership provides. It’s difficult to put a value on being able to share experiences and discuss problems with other members, but time and again it comes up as a major benefit.
In my experience, however, it’s the practical, tangible benefits that most persuade companies to join, and stay joined. Look at how trade associations describe the services they provide and you will find most highlight ‘business support’. This can take a number of forms, but staple components of membership include discounted access to professional expertise on financial matters (credit checks and debt recovery, for example) and general business issues (employment, tax, VAT, health and safety, and various legal questions).
Financial assistance with staff training has assumed greater importance in recent years as the government has reduced support for anything but academic qualifications. Trade associations have often stepped in to fill the gap. Picon, for example, has PASS (the Picon Apprenticeship Support Scheme) which provides additional support for soft skills training.
As I said earlier, SMEs dominate the printing industry. Our trade associations are there to provide support services that businesses cannot otherwise afford. Their mission is to help every member “be the best they can be”. For powerful testimony to what this means in practice, it’s hard to better the account given by Tim Webb, my predecessor at Picon, of the part association support played in the success of his company Russell-Webb. In 1986 Russell-Webb exhibited at its first Drupa as part of a British presence organised by Picon (then called the BFPMS).
Webb recalls that “without that support a fledging company from Hertford couldn’t for a moment consider attending the world’s leading print exhibition, let alone building a thriving export-led business. Yet Drupa 1986 signalled the start of a rise in our exports from less than 10% of our business to over 90%.”
Not surprisingly, that experience made Webb a firm supporter in the value of trade association membership. He also believed that any association should be judged on how well it supports its smallest members. I assure you this belief is shared by all our industry associations. So by all means ask us “What’s in it for me?” I think you will like the answer.