Part 2: Make Informed Decisions
Asking the right questions and having the right answers can make decisions around how to choose a print supplier streamlined and easy. Buying print can be hard because you are not just buying a final product. You are buying an entire process. From layout to delivery, you must decide how you will manage each job. This means the challenge of deciding what type of print supplier you will use.
Weather you are looking for guidance on your first print job or reassessing your process after years of work, it’s a really good idea to make sure you know your options. In Buying Print: The Secret it Knowing How to Choose (part 1), I explained the basics of different supplier types—working directly with a printer, web-2-print platforms, brokers and agencies. I also offered a table to help you start making decisions around what supplier is right for your job.
Printing is a complex process, so the table in Part 1 got complicated right away. Even if you are clear on the constraints guiding your choices—things like budget or time—figuring out if a supplier is right for you can depend on more specific details. Never fear. You are not alone. Here is an explanation of some of those complexities. I’ve pulled the more convoluted questions that guide print supplier decisions and done a deeper dive into how your reality should impact your decisions.
So, here we go:
Is production time critical to the project?
If you are short on time and really need the job done quickly, caution is advised. No matter who produces it, unforeseen events often occur in print production, and choosing the option that has the most flexible solutions available can make a difference.
Working directly with a printer can be a safe option—if you have confidence in your pre-press work, the printer specializes in the type of product you need and you can work with their production lead time. If you are ok with all those ifs, the main problem with going direct to a printer has to do with solution restriction. If something serious goes wrong, print shops are usually stuck with internal solutions which can not always prevent delivery delays.
The option of buying online through web-2-print is, in my opinion, the most risky since you probably won’t find problems until the job is shipped and delivered. Minimal customer service availability means there may not be enough time to repeat the work if problems arise.
Both agencies and brokers should be able to deliver good production lead times and ensure compliance. Overseeing deadlines is one of their main functions in the process. Also, they usually have several printers to turn to and this can not only shorten initial delivery time estimates, but, also, increase the range of solutions for any last minute problems.
If you don’t have to keep to a tight schedule and there is time for unforeseen events, you can relax and worry about other factors. But if time is of the essence, making sure your print management option can deliver on time and respond to unforeseen problems is critical.
Does the job have a variety of product types?
If your needs are very diverse in terms of product type (for example, if you need business cards, flyers, rollups, catalogs and printed boxes) and you don’t have the knowledge or the in-house support of an expert, efficient management of graphic production may present some complex challenges. At minimum, getting everything done will require more follow-up. It will also be more difficult to secure competitive pricing and manage production.
Working directly with a single printer to make a variety of products will be an impossible or, at least, a less-advisable option because, when working outside their area of expertise, printers often cannot provide good service. You may end up with problems of timing, pricing or quality—or perhaps all three. If you want to go direct to a printer as your supplier, the solution is to look for at least one good printer for each type of product you need. Then work to build and maintain relationships with each of them.
Working directly with a single printer to make a variety of products will be an impossible or, at least, a less-advisable option because, when working outside their area of expertise, printers often cannot provide good service.
My opinion about web-2-print production in these situations varies a lot depending on the particular products you need. Often, if you try to produce product types or features that don’t align with a platform’s standard offerings, then using this option will be much more expensive or even impossible. However, if you can find platforms that specialize in what you need printed and have the time and ability to manage production through several different platforms, web-2-print can be an option.
Depending on your experience and contacts, a broker may be a good possibility. However, because, from what I have seen, they usually end up specializing in specific products you run the risk that they do not have an ideal solution for all situations. It will be important to ask about their specializations.
Production agencies are responsible for managing a diversity of graphic solutions and having the know-how to find printers, paper and other materials tailored to each situation. For this reason, it seems to me that working with a production agency tends to be the best choice for jobs with a variety of products.
Is price a critical factor?
Price may not be the most important element in all situations, but the truth is that no one likes to pay more than fair for a product or service. In printing, because of all the different options that might be available for products and all the different production solutions that printers might have—machines, workflows, paper suppliers, etc.—you can end up with a wide range of prices when you ask for quotes. If price is a major concern, the rule is obviously to have several bids to compare. However, it is important that these bids are from printers that are technically prepared and very competitive for your specific product needs. It’s also very important to make sure you’re comparing the same characteristics across all suppliers, which can be as challenging as comparing multiple brands on a supermarket shelf.
Requesting a quote from multiple printers is a common practice when looking for a more economical way to print a job. Prices fluctuate widely between companies in a way that is not always logical, making it difficult to anticipate which printers will be the most inexpensive. There are several reasons for this, but the main ones are the differences in the manufacturing costs, the price of paper and other raw materials, and the commercial interest that suppliers have for this particular job or customer. Working directly with printers, the biggest difficulties you encounter may be in identifying the best fit for your product types. These days, to achieve this sometimes means looking far from your location. Also, if you are managing the process on your own, it is important to make sure you compare the same product features with different printers, as I previously mentioned, and that you have time to manage the process of soliciting and comparing quotes.
With online platforms, because they usually have real-time budgeting systems, you should be able to get instant quotes, which helps a lot in the selection process. As for the most competitive products to print using web-2-print, this tends to vary from platform to platform. Generally, each has a set of standard products with features optimized for economical pricing. For non-standard products and higher quantities, the web-2-print costs may be more expensive than other solutions.
When working with brokers or production agencies, I think it is safe to assume that their knowledge and experience can be a help in finding the most suitable suppliers based on client constraints. Part of their business strategy is to make good value propositions for clients. Thus, when the budget is tight, reaching out to a broker or production agency can be a good choice.
How important is the quality?
While quality standards of a graphic product are similar to any other product, there are many moments in the production of a job that can go wrong and create serious problems and unmet expectations. This is an industry focused on specifications, with all products differing from each other, (which greatly increases the possibility of production errors.) Print is an industry where explaining what you want achieved at the end of the production process is not exactly easy. The endless possibilities of finishing, printing and raw materials is challenging to manage. All this leads to frequent mistakes. For this reason, the best way to try to avoid problems is to get proofs and prototypes of the work you want to produce, though you cannot always do this without associated costs. Also, the support of someone with experience in the field may be crucial to avoiding unwanted surprises during or at the end of the production process.
By working directly with a printer, you will be better able to closely monitor the production process and detect any deviations from expected quality. Another major advantage of this option is that there will probably be some job approval before it goes into production mode. The only limitation of this option is the fact that the maximum quality level of the product will be directly related to the production possibilities of the printer. If you have a high standard for the quality of finish you want, depending on the equipment, production schedule and staff, the printer you choose to work with may not be able to achieve your desired results.
Working with web-2-print platforms usually means dealing with high-volume, production-ready services. These automated processes usually have very efficient systems to identify products with quality problems. However, I have seen deviations between customer expectations and the services the platforms offer. For example, the color that a client is expecting might be far from the result because the platforms’s fully standardized color management systems are blind to the specifics of an individual image. This also happens because, usually, there are a lot of different jobs bring printed on the same sheet and the color calibration will be set to best serve the group and not a single job. Some platforms provide (or sell) samples to try to alleviate such problems, but, generally, it is not possible to obtain proof of the work prior to production.
A major pillar of commitment from brokers and agencies is, of course, product quality. To be successful they must make sure that the customer receives a product with the quality they expect. To meet such expectations requires an understanding of both the customer’s needs and a printer’s capabilities and limitations.
It is the job of production agencies and brokers to manage projects with a focus on adding value to the service. This means aligning customer expectations and the technical skills of printers to ensure quality.
Questions of time, product types, budget and quality tend to be the most important for determining the best ways to manage a print job. However, you may have other questions come up as well. Take a look back at Buying Print: The Secret Is Knowing How to Choose (Part 1), for a chart to help you think about all the conditions and constraints that might impact your job, and what vendors will have the best outcomes for your specific needs.
Looking at these questions and information about suppliers can help you make a choice for your next job. Remember, thought, you don’t have to make a long-term decision. Instead, you can create a fast and efficient system for considering all vendor options every time you start a project and try to build relationships with more than one type of print supplier. Especially for new projects, you may also want to seek help from someone who specializes in the print industry and can help explain the advantages and disadvantages of different options in relation to your specific job. When you’re not sure you can invest the time to monitor the production process, and don’t have another way to do that work, opt for a graphic production agency.
I would be doing something else if I didn’t honestly believe that, most of the time, managing the print process is best done by an experienced print producer. Printing is a process where anticipating many of the problems that ocurre down the line is difficult. Selecting the best supplier for a product depends on so many factors—what you are printing, quantity, printing type, materials, etc. Even if you decide to manage everything directly with a printer, before you launch into your next print job, take a moment to assess your needs and constraints to make sure you get the best print management vendor from the start. When the boxes or rolls or crates of materials arrive perfect, on time and on budget you will thank yourself.