Innovation Ennui: Hidebound by History. Is Print’s Prudence proof of Paralysis?

By on June 30th, 2014

Many years ago, when I was president of one of the first quick printing franchisor companies, a wise-man counseled me with this pearl — smart franchise companies know that almost allgood marketing ideas do not occur at franchise HQ, instead they happen on the front lines — in the franchised locations, as the result of franchisee and customer interactions.

Implementing the advice meant that I sought the counsel of some of our best and brightest franchised owners and one of them told me about “Ed.” Ed was the head of research and development for Lee Newspapers (now Lee Enterprises) a chain of community newspapers based in Davenport, Iowa. Ed’s job was to actuate the punch line in George Bernard Shaw quote made immortal by Teddy Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother Bobby. “…Others dream things that never were, and ask why not?”

Ed didn’t go to graphic arts industry trade shows; he went to the shows his newspaper ad space clients might attend. He wanted his skunk-works of innovation to be forward thinking, changing and ever willing to try things, even things that failed.

Dr. Joe Webb, renowned commentator on the printing industry has long cajoled us to do much as Ed once did — go to conferences of designers and ad buyers to learn what moves them, not what servo-drive moves the roller train in the Iron Horse press. I found this article posted by Dr. Joe in the Economics and Research section of WhatTheyThink to be amazing and worrisome in equal measure, because Dr. Joe’s research protocols are so stellar.

I administrator a Facebook Group page for people in the graphic arts around the world. Every day, I post items about new and exciting uses of print, oft-times centered on what I like to call smart, interactive print – print made more valuable to the customers of your customers, through response drivers like QR or NFC or AR or printed electronics and so forth. But there is another observation that makes one wonder — the articles that receive the most comments, and likes and shares and so on, are often about print’s past — XYZ Print Shoppe in Palooka-ville. No one values the 600 year-old patrimony of print more than me, but change happens. We change or we wither.

Seize the Day, or glissade gently into that long good night?

Back on February 2nd, 2012, John Newby of the Ottawa Times (Illinois) wrote a great blog about the potential of Augmented Reality and newspapers. His final line applies to every segment of the printing industry:

“It will be interesting to see how and if the print industry embraces such technology or if we squander yet another opportunity”.

If we look at Dr. Joe’s chart, it would seem that thus far, the amorous advances of AR have been largely rebuffed. Only 7.1% of the 209 surveyed participants offer AR.

In a very visual and interactive age, AR, QR, NFC and whatever comes next add value to print by making print more interactive and more visually dimensional. Yet we tarry – 93% seem to say, let’s hurry up, but then wait?

What’s past ain’t prologue Poindexter!

Exactly one day after Dr. Joe’s post went up on WhatTheyThink, Jennifer Matt wrote a fiercely disruptive piece on WhatTheyThink that should be taped to the bathroom mirror of every C-level print industry executive. Jen put this line in bold in her article:

The human resources in the print industry are predominately “experts” at yesterday

So accurate and so ‘hidebound by history.’

This week I happened to spot on someone’s LinkedIn profile a pic of Steve Jobs, the Apostle of Apple with one of his pithy epithets:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology, not the other way around.”

We print peeps are hard-wired to admire technology. In this change agent era, we might do well to re-consider.

Jim Daly, owner of Fine Arts Imagery, a giclée printing atelier in Asheville NC commented on the Jobs quote as follows:

“Isn’t it ironic that the most profitable companies speak in terms of customers, creating value and experience, while the others talk about efficiencies, share price, etc.? The former create the future while the latter seem satisfied to “optimize” that which has been successful in the past.”

Print has changed mightily over the centuries and yet, even now, there are aspects of everyday print production that could be easily intuited by Benjamin Franklin or even Johannes Gutenberg. Much of traditional print has moved to the evanescent stage of the Internet’s ether and it’s not coming back; ergo, print and perhaps especially smart, interactive print, presents ostensible opportunity to those who’s glass is slowly filling with optimism.

As the whirling dervish of change continues to upset the conventional and disrupt the traditional, some print segments wither while others flourish. There are massive people costs, (I wonder how many folks I know from print who are now in real estate, a dozen?) and the stresses on the owners and senior managers to try to get it right when embracing new strategies cannot be understated. But in the maelstrom we can be certain of the terrible beauty of this trifecta:

Innovation is crucial, Innovation is cruel, Innovation is cool.

Or, in a cornpone hat-tip to that certain beefcake TV commercial we posit:

“Print, it’s what’s for Winners.”

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    One Response to “Innovation Ennui: Hidebound by History. Is Print’s Prudence proof of Paralysis?”

    1. Dennis Mason Says:

      Well said, Kevin–and very insightful.

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