Thursday, April 27, 2006


The Hidden Industry?

I've been at more than one industry event where the audience is filled with people who nod in agreement that the printing industry has “a bad image” or is not known to the public at large. This assumes of course, that people know other industries quite well. They don't. Public knowledge of economics and news in general is disappointingly low, so how can one expect the public to know much about any industry and its companies, including ours?

When a person buys a car, for example, they see brochures, signage, postage, and they eventually sign forms, and see an owner's manual (I say “see” because I wonder how many people actually read owners manuals, but that's another matter). Is there any reason for them to say to themselves “those were made by a commercial printer, one of our country's leading industries, the 500-year old industry that changed the world and helped make Ben Franklin a wealthy man?”

All printing is assumed to be produced by the entity who hands it to the customer. Packaging? General Mills, Post, or Kellogg's makes that, in their minds. Printing is part of the product, isn't it? Yet we know that consumer packaging is created by a complex of specialists, from the trees cut down using heavy capital equipment, milled and processed in factories, transported though a logistics chain, and eventually printed, filled, and ending up on a store shelf. The images are envisioned and created by a different set of people from marketing executives, researchers, designers, printing companies, and others. This is the world of branding and image creation, and it's not a single task of individual effort. Each function of this web of creativity and implementation could lay claim to being "hidden" or underappreciated.

In the end, printers are just one component of a grand economic process, and claiming that our industry is not known is much like a New Year's Eve partier in Times Square demanding that everyone look at him instead of the ball of lights in its midnight descent. One voice can't be heard over the others at that moment; there are just too many people in the streets for it to be reasonably expected. As far as being a well-known industry, consider of the public perceptions of oil, pharmaceutical, telephone, utility, and other industries that have far greater visibility accompanied by significant and vocal consumer distrust. Being well-known is not necessarily a good thing.

What attracts workers and others to an industry? Good wages, good rates of return, and a sense of dynamism. The fact that most printing businesses are small means that they are not in position to hire workers with the same techniques that other industries do. Individual banks, retailers, and manufacturers will always be at the top of college recruiter lists. Our business has always been comprised of entrepreneurs and small business owners. We could benefit more from a booster shot of entrepreneurship right now than the recognition and awe of others.

What we say about ourselves and what others say about us is of minor importance. It's how we perform that matters more. Individual companies are responsible for that; it's not an industry thing at all. It's important that those who seek information about our industry have a convenient and reliable place to find it. There are already good organizations that assist the industry in the creation and sharing of information about itself and its markets. These tasks are necessary and good in and of themselves. In the long run, however, it is essential that we go about our business in a creative and innovative manner that helps clients improve the performance of their own businesses. This will earn us a more valuable form of recognition, that of being an indispensible value- creating partner, known to loyal and delighted clients, even if hidden to others.

Required reading

We're not the only hidden industry. “I, Pencil” is a famous essay about the complexity of economic interrelationships and many anonymous workers and businesses behind the production of a mere pencil. This link also has commentary about the essay by Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman.

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