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Are we enabled by babble?

Nov 1, 2010 12:00 AM

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Not too many years ago, the print community had a unique language with shared meanings. We knew the definition of “hickie,” “stripper,” “knurling,” “ghosting,” and “scumming.” The industry's definitions of those words haven't changed much. However, that isn't the case with other words and terms, many of which now mean different things to different people under different circumstances.

A consultant to print buyers recently observed that there is lack of clarity between a “print broker” and someone engaged in third-party print management. There might not be confusion about the meaning of those terms, but the actual duties and activities of people engaged in those disciplines vary from individual to individual. It's a reflection of a larger issue driving change in the graphic arts industry, a change that leads to imprecise, “fuzzy around the edges” terminology and, occasionally, communication difficulties. Technology is driving much of the imprecision.


Let's begin with the word “digital.” I confess to tuning out when I see or hear the word used without a definition. A decade ago, a well-known industry consultant proclaimed that about half of all imaging was digital. When questioned, he said that he considered all pigment-on-paper other than offset, flexo, gravure, letterpress and intaglio to be digital. All office copiers were included in his definition.

I dismiss articles, reports, and research that use the term “digital printing” without accompanying definition. Does it refer to digitally driven presses, including offset presses? Does it refer only to variable-data devices? Are office copiers included in the definition? Unfortunately, many industry trade association reports offer no explanation and, in the case of primary research, methodology and sampling size aren't mentioned.

The words “fulfillment,” “redemption” and “conversion” are best used in a theological discussion. In particular, “fulfillment” conjures up an image of a minimum wage worker dropping packages of printed material into a carton upon a customer's order. The term “distribution services” is much more descriptive. It encompasses a wide range of services, including (but not confined to) list procurement, mail list management, storage, inventory management, mailing, insertion, testing and other customized post-bindery services.

Perhaps the most misleading term in the printer's lexicon is “print buyer.” It had a specific meaning not too many years ago. Today, the proliferation and integration of media has made the traditional full-time print buyer endangered species. Without exception, surveys we conducted for printers' customers during the past five years have found that less than 15% of respondents spend more than 75% of their time engaged in purchasing and coordinating the manufacture and distribution of print. This development has consequences that go beyond nomenclature. Given responsibilities other than print buying, a primary buying motive has shifted from involvement with print to avoidance of details in the print-buying process. A premium has been placed on a supplier that is able to accept an electronic file and “awaken” the buyer when the hassle-free process has been completed.

Et tu, customer?

Alternative media is only the most conspicuous example of out-of-industry competition for traditional print companies. “Competition” includes manufacturers of imaging equipment such as office copiers and other electronic output devices, as well as their customers. There is no calculation of the extent to which printers' customers have purchased equipment and morphed into competitors.

Many in-plant print shops have joined the growing list of de facto competitors to traditional print companies. Some in-plant shops, including those in publicly supported not-for-profit organizations, are insourcing work from the private sector.

In truth, “competitor,” “customer” and “supplier” no longer have clear-cut shared definitions. In some cases, suppliers and customers have become competitors.

The fine line between an “agency” and a responsive print company also has blurred, particularly in cases in which the buying organization is a small or midsize organization that doesn't have a relationship with an agency. Except for media placement, an increasing number of print companies might be engaged in some activities traditionally executed or purchased by an agency.

A discussion of the evolution of the language of print could go on and on. The point is that the glossary of industry terms is becoming less distinct and less meaningful due to technology, changes in buying-seller relationships, and an industry that increasingly engages in customized, rather than off-the-shelf, products and services.

Dick Gorelick's marketing expertise graced the pages of print industry trade magazines for 25 years. See our tribute as well as Dick's past columns at


Dick Gorelick passed away on September 12, 2010. Dick was a prolific writer who always worked far ahead of his deadline. While Gorelick & Associates has formally suspended its operations, Dick's writing remains timeless.