Print and be damned

By The Drum | Administrator

January 14, 2009 | 7 min read

Scottish print industry

Just before Christmas, Edinburgh-based print firm Summerhall Press had the final nail driven firmly into its coffin as the deal to be bought over by rival printers Stewarts fell through, sending the company in the same direction as Pillans and Waddies, Nimmos, Beith Printing and Nevis Print before it – oblivion. It’s happening all across the UK, printers disappearing from the CMYK coloured map and nowhere is feeling it more than Scotland.

“I’d say this is no way to celebrate half a millennium of Scottish printing,” says Matt Whipp, editor of PrintWeek.com, summing up the turmoil across the printing industry.Whipp continues: “We’ve seen many companies, often with venerable histories, disappear from across the industry. We’re probably not through the worst of it either: printers live off the fat of a strong fourth quarter to see them through a lean first quarter to some extent, but we’ve already seen high street names fall victim to the recession, taking their print contracts with them. Add to that the rising cost of finance, if you can get it at all, and dropping marketing spends and it looks pretty bleak.

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“Having said that, I’ve spoken to more than one printer that has been able to raise prices and become a bit more choosy about which customers they work with as capacity is taken out of the market.”

Struggle

While the print industry in the UK continues to toil, its struggles are being felt by those who rely so heavily on its services. Design, advertising and DM agencies all work closely with print firms to secure a quality service – at an appropriate price. However, with the choice being driven down, it is now becoming more difficult to source the appropriate print quote from the locale – no matter how much you value a local service.

Julie Allen, head of Edinburgh-based DM specialists Tangible had worked with Summerhall Press for over 15 years before its closure on Christmas Eve. She says that the agency is now having to look for a new printer which is able to meet the agency’s needs, but promises to keep her business in Scotland, if at all possible.

Says Allen: “We will continue to fully support the Scottish print industry and believe costs here are as competitive as they ever have been – they have to be – for this industry, like other Scottish industries, in the current climate need to retain their valuable client relationships.”

Allen continues, saying that they are already seeing the knowledge held by former employees of the now defunct printing firms being spread across surviving printers.

Gus Chalmers, MD of Union Direct, says that the problems have stemmed from ‘margins being squeezed’ over the years with the larger jobs always gravitating towards areas where there are economies of scale.

“As a result, from a direct mail perspective, there are no longer any high volume web-based printers in Scotland – the last was Waddies – and all that business now goes down south automatically. There literally is no other option,” continues Chalmers.

Chalmers adds that there are still good suppliers for ‘smaller jobs’ but that there are fewer than ever before... and the English print firms come calling just as often.

Campbell Laird from Three Brand is optimistic that the industry will come good again as the cost in print services begins to rise towards “fair prices”, but believes the impact suffered by Scottish printers may be too late to “save what was once a great and proud industry.”

Says Laird: “It’s sad but entirely predictable as to the demise of the print industry not only in Scotland, but in the UK and across the world. Over 10 years ago we saw clients question print costs from agencies, partially down to the extortionate mark ups that agencies put on print and partially down to the very high profits that printers used to make. It couldn’t continue. It wasn’t sustainable.”

He continues: “As a result we saw the introduction of print brokers on behalf of the bigger clients who negotiated quite aggressively to bring costs down, often sourcing print from the Far East where labour costs were, and still are, lower than the UK. Whoever was lowest won.”

In the end, Laird says, price ended up winning out over quality, which meant that while profits were reasonable they would have to invest in expensive equipment in order to stay competitive – but that the “competitive” fees were not enough to ultimately reclaim that investment.

Fragmentation

After this, specialist printers and ‘jobbing printers’ appeared on the scene creating a fragmentation of service, leading the industry to its current state.

Stuart Gilmour, creative director at Stand, laments the loss of services and knowledge available as a result of the closures but says that, clearly, printers did not find such services profitable or in high demand.

He continues to say that with the drop in budgets, printers are not being challenged in the same way as they were, as the projects become all the more about the design and not the materials.

“We’ve changed our tack now quite a bit in terms of paper specification and we’re now looking at real, cheap, bog-standard, uncoated, sustainable materials and printing four colour process, no specials, no finish, just relying on good design on paper.

“We’re still doing some really good work, but it relies on the most straight forward print specifications. That’s just the reality of things at the moment, as some clients don’t recognise the benefit in paying for a higher specification.”

Meanwhile, Graham Walker, creative director at Size, believes that trust must be maintained between clients, designers and printers, despite the current state of the industry.

“Good printers have the experience to anticipate potential problems and collaborate with designers to get the best results on challenging projects,” says Walker.

“It’s also really important how they react when things don’t go exactly to plan. We look for a printer who will work proactively with us as part of a team.

“This scenario is much less likely when a bargain basement, undercutting mentality is applied and this approach, in our experience, is a false economy. It is the designers responsibility to communicate this to clients and this is an ongoing process, although many of our clients now trust us to get the best price for a good job.”

While news from the printing industry seems continually bleak, those that remain will be heartened to hear the cost of print in the Far East and Eastern Europe has begun to increase, which may yet mean that the scene in Scotland and the UK still has a fighting chance. Agencies may well have more reason to stick with what they know and help the industry at home while getting the best for their buck – and perhaps now, a service that they can trust.

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