The culture of print procurement is evolving at such a pace that comprehensive training struggles to keep up. Hopes of lower print costs or more efficient purchasing drive brand owners toward print management and away from highly skilled in-house print procurement departments. Automated and online procurement tools further contribute to this de-skilling. So, when a marketer can get the cheapest quote with a few clicks in his or her browser window, what need is there for experienced print buying personnel? And, if an organisation is looking to cut its overheads, any department that can be outsourced or replaced by technology is vulnerable.
Former head of print purchasing at Future Publishing Matthew Parker, now director of training consultancy Print & Procurement, says: If you start putting in very efficient print buying software tools, that can be a threat to a print buyer’s job.
If you’re a relatively senior-level print buyer, you shouldn’t take it as a threat, he adds. But, if there’s a large team of print buyers and someone’s looking to put in a software solution that engages the user directly with the manufacturer, that’As a fair concern to have. Unfortunately, these days, head count is an issue. So will software send print buyers to the same fate as the call centre?
Alleviating the mundane
Not completely, says Mike Coveney, who lectures on print buying at the Institute of Direct Marketing. I see a great opportunity to automate some of the mundane jobs people have to do as a buyer.
You can’t automate intelligence; systems aren’t that clever yet, he adds. For a high-end direct marketing project, say, it’s going to be very difficult to put data into a system to tell you which supplier to use. It’s worth pointing out that Coveney is also solutions director at AccessPlus, a print management company that claims to take procurement training very seriously.
According to Coveney, even brand owners that rely on teams of human buyers rather than online procurement systems go down the cost-is-king commodity buying route. For example, he claims one UK retail giant rewards its buyers on how much they can save on its print bill. This is a dangerous game, he says, as it looks solely at price, not how well a job serves its purpose.
Equally, buyers can be guilty of missing the big picture in pursuit of a cheap price, adds Parker. Even at a senior level, a print buyer may be promoting a cost-efficient production method without understanding the impact that might have on the commercial business model.
One senior buyer who stresses the importance of a holistic perspective is Elaine Pooke, production manager at English Heritage. The buyer has got to understand what their organisation requires and be able to service that. If there’s a market for, say, print-on-demand, the buyer has got to know all about it and what it can do for their organisation. She says English Heritage has only had a print-on-demand contract for the last year and yet the number of titles has doubled. This is why training is good, because if the buyer knows what’s out there, they can suggest things that will benefit the organisation. That’s what print buying is, it’s about knowing your organisation and supplying it with the best possible means.
However, the answer to your individual organisation’s specific needs won’t be found at a local college. Print buyers need to be proactive about training. A smart print buyer should know how to use people around them, says Coveney. In the new world of the knowledge economy, people who can’t be bothered to get off their backsides and learn and keep up to date are going to fall behind. Those that do keep up their skills will be highly sought after. Individuals have to take ownership of professional development.
This development could extend beyond the typical procurement remit, to areas such as marketing and sales. A bit of marketing know-how will allow buyers to offer better advice on how certain products and services can best serve a campaign’s aims. Coveney also suggests buyers learn a few sales skills, which will help when it comes to convincing the powers that be of the relevance of any
new procurement strategies.
Pooke says it is very important buyers look at new technologies. In the modern media mix, those new strategies could easily comprise variable-data work or cross-media applications.
Thus, a ‘communications buyer’ could procure print, but also purchase the database information required for personalised campaigns and web services for online offerings.
But before devoting too much time to re-interpreting the print procurement role, buyers must ensure that their print buying approach translates into real results. Parker says: My experience is that a lot of print buyers are very focused on technical specification and not on procurement and the cost of procurement. They don’t always know why they should go to one printer and not another.