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With the stationery market contracting 50% in five years, what’s the future for the humble letterhead?

The Drum catches up with Jonathan Mitchell, the new MD of Arjowiggins’ Creative Papers, to talk letterheads and paper quality.

Stationery was once the mainstay of the design industry. That well-crafted business card, compliment slip or letterhead seemed to represent the heart of any self-respecting corporate identity.And it wasn’t that long ago that it would have been impossible to imagine that this could ever change. But a glance round the judging tables at any creative awards such as the Scottish Design Awards or the D&AD confirms that indeed it has. The quality still might be there, but the quantity certainly is not. The emphasis has moved elsewhere, leaving the traditional letterhead almost a historic curiosity. The fact is that, with email and the rise of digital, businesses simply do not use letterheads any more. But one man aiming to ensure it does not become an extinct craft is Jonathan Mitchell. Mitchell, formerly from Berkshire, has just been appointed managing director of Arjowiggins Creative Papers Division. Based in Paris, he was previously marketing director of the division, so can appreciate the challenges it faces redefining its role in an increasingly digital world. “The stationery market has contracted,” he said, “I would say it is now 50% of what it was five years ago.” But Mitchell points out that Arjowiggins is still a big business working in a market that extends far beyond the humble letterhead. Famed for its Conqueror brand, Arjowiggins still returns a profit of €25m on a turnover of €269m. That accounts for a lot of paper which is produced by its 1,500 staff across five mills; two of which are in the UK, one in Kent and the other in Aberdeen.Mitchell points out that paper actually says a lot about a business, no matter where it is used: “When companies do send letters, it is important that they are consistent with their brand values. Without doubt the visual impact of a brand is perhaps how people might engage with it. But the paper comes a very close second. And it is important that even the feel is consistent with its brand values.“You sometimes hear of large organisations reducing their paper quality to cut cost. But they still expect their staff to look presentable. They wouldn’t suggest they save money by buying cheaper suits, not cutting their hair and leaving their shoes unpolished.“We live in a digital world, where marketers have a range of tools at their disposal. It is fair to say that proportional spent on paper has reduced. “It is a more sophisticated market. But our job is to explain how paper can be part of a more sophisticated solution. It can provide a tangible link with a brand, and as a result how it looks and feels is very relevant.”One project which sums his ethos up is a book by Craig Oldham of Manchester agency Design By Music. Over the course of a few months Oldham wrote to top design companies and asked them to send back a handwritten note on their own letterhead. The book called ‘The Hand Written Letter Project’ publishes each letterhead, accurate down to the original stock. “I love this book and have a copy in the office” said Mitchell. “It is a real reminder of the power of a hand written letter.” The book is a good metaphor for Mitchell’s strategy. The various letterheads featured ooze quality. Paper volumes may be down, but there is no reason its value cannot be protected. Under the stewardship of Mitchell, the business has launched a series of ambitious marketing initiatives to get that message across. These include the Typographic Games – an international competition which challenges designers to create sports themed posters; the One Young World initiative – which seeks to identify and encourage future leaders; and, last but not least, the Blank Sheet Project, which perhaps gives the best insight of all into Mitchell’s thinking.He said: “The Blank Sheet Project is the initiative I am most proud of. It started off as an internal exercise where we challenged all our staff, to write the word sustainable on a blank sheet of paper, and then see what ideas they could come up with to move the business forward.” Mitchell says the response was overwhelming and spawned sessions where themes were written on around 2,000 Post It notes. The process has led to40 separate projects dealing in areas such as natural resources, energy and people.Said Mitchell: “Since creatives and designers tend to face similar issues, and very often start with a blank sheet of paper to address challenges, we wanted to challenge them on how they might leave their mark, but also be sustainable at the same time.”The complex approach demonstrates that not all of Arjowiggins’ messages are straightforward. “For example,” said Mitchell, “many people are not aware that you cannot recycle paper to infinity. At some stage you need to add virgin fibre into the cycle. So would you rather put that virgin fibre into the cycle via an Amazon box or a piece of packaging for Chanel?”

Staff Writer

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