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Marketing Services Providers: Separating the Contenders from the Pretenders

May 2014 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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"This can be done by anybody, but you must have the creative ability to perform these tasks," Schnoll adds.

The options for an MSP wanna-be are ample. A printer can open its own marketing department and hire/develop the core marketing competencies. It can merge with or purchase an existing agency, or it can strike up a business agreement to work together while maintaining the status as independent concerns.

MSPs Must Walk the Talk

John Foley, CEO of interlinkONE and Grow Socially, plus the author of "Business Transformation: A New Path to Profit for the Printing Industry," has witnessed the avalanche of traditional printers that now characterize themselves as MSPs, yet do little or nothing to justify this distinction. True justification involves a plan; it entails new products and services; and it involves a sales staff that understands how to sell solutions and is adept at consultative sales.

"The most successful folks I see have identified that they need a plan, can execute the plan, and that they require the right staff," he says. "With that, they've changed messaging, are doing a better job in inbound and outbound marketing, and they're wrapping their hands around their Website and content marketing. Those are early adopters.

"The people who failed (as MSPs) added it the same way that they add equipment," he notes. "Take personalized URLs. They bought software because they thought it would be a magic bullet to produce revenue. It's a value-added service, it's relevant…so how come it never took off? Because they just took people, sometimes prepress staff members, and said 'OK, you're going to make the landing pages.' But you need different skill sets."

Foley sees pros and cons in aligning with existing marketing firms, and he feels there can be opportunities for printers that aren't afraid to have people work remotely. From a capex standpoint, adopting marketing capabilities, depending on a company's current level of marketing engagement, could run between $20,000 and $150,000, according to Foley. A strategic road map to a successful conversion could take as long as two years.

Foley takes issue with a print shop that acquires a digital press and instantly declares itself a marketing services provider. Do they know data, and can they operate within the discipline of variable data printing? A digital press is a good start, he says, but not a means to an end.

In general, it's not only important to extend the messaging regarding your capabilities to your customer and prospect base, it's also vital to ensure that everyone in-house is attuned to what your organization is trying to accomplish. Keeping employees in the loop and part of the change that's permeating your organization can help to avoid the "this isn't the way things are done" internal protests.

One organization that took the "home grown" approach is The YGS Group, a firm which breaks down its offerings into three buckets: marketing services, publishing solutions and printing. Jim Kell, CEO of the York, PA-based operation, notes that his marketing department started out as one person roughly 10 years ago. Today, the marketing arm of YGS consists of more than 40 employees.

An important distinction, Kell says, is that conversations with clients are never led by "what is your printing need?" Rather, echoing Foley's sentiment, it concentrates on consultative selling and drilling down to discover what message the client is ultimately looking to deliver. "We talk only about their goals to sell more products, services, memberships, and increasing attendance or responses."

During the 10-year process that has brought The YGS Group to this juncture, the company experienced a number of challenges. They include:

  • Training traditional salespeople to sell entirely differently and to become proficient in areas other than printing. Kell says this took many years.
  • Hiring the right people for the job. Kell points out that qualified marketing professionals are more expensive and harder to find than production plant personnel. "An MSP should be prepared for higher payroll costs and should not try to take the cheap way out," he adds. Marketing professionals routinely earn in excess of $50,000 per year.
  • The marketing culture is a different animal, quite different than that of a printing atmosphere. "Everything—from personalities, dress styles, office requirements and environment, headphones, cell phones and work hours—is different. But it's very important they work together and that the cultures blend."
  • It takes time, according to Kell. MSPs will spend time and money for years before they are likely to see a return on investment.

While The YGS Group was still in its growth phase, the company would outsource marketing work in areas where he felt his company lacked sufficient expertise. It was a practice that diminished over time as The YGS Group built its marketing core. He also points out that an MSP will have to outsource some editorial and content writing in order to find experts within a customer's field.

Kell's advice to newcomers is to not take the marketing endeavor lightly. "You need to have the expertise for a complicated multi-channel marketing project," he stresses. "Your customers need to see that you're serious or you'll never get a shot at their lucrative campaigns and programs. Otherwise, you might find yourself stuck designing postcards and competing on price against the designer working out of a garage."

One Midwestern printer found marketing to be the key to extending its relationships with current clientele. GLS Cos., the pride of Brooklyn Park, MN, relishes its ability to problem solve for customers, but Jayme Wisely—president and COO of the firm—admits GLS was a little shy when it came to shaping strategy at a higher level.

Now, more than a year after acquiring marketing specialist Next Communications (now called Next), GLS Cos. has shifted its value proposition to the ideas-through-implementation mantra, where it can help global clients coordinate and execute campaigns through any channel necessary.

The timing was critical, Wisely says, as many existing clients and prospects emerged from the 2008-2010 super slump much smaller in manpower, particularly within their marketing departments. But, they still craved the ability to drive their brands and messaging. GLS Cos. can provide that guidance, help deliver results by leveraging the power of social media or search engine optimization (SEO) and the many newer channels that are being exploited to help embolden message delivery.

"The communication channels are more fragmented today," Wisely notes. "There are a lot more ways of communicating, but how do you know if they are effective? So, out of that greater need for brand messaging and improved ROI, we launched into becoming an MSP/global solutions provider."

Next brought a wealth of capabilities to the fold, including strategy, creative, content, publicity, digital media, social media, SEO, media placement, metrics and reporting—all as it relates to execution of the strategies. It also boasted 20 years of experience in helping well-known brands in the marketplace achieve their goals.

For Wisely, it made more sense to bring aboard an existing marketing expert as opposed to spending the time necessary to get a greenfield operation thriving. "If you find the right person to lead that organization, it's 24 to 36 months before you get any real traction. Then, the sales cycle is a 12 to 18 month proposition. Basically, you're now out there five years and the marketplace might blow right past you."

In the final analysis, Wisely says, it's not just about having a set of capabilities; it takes a company that can strategically weave these capabilities together in the name of a marketing plan. Early in the process, GLS realized it didn't have the mindset to think like a marketer or an agency. It needed to bring that capability in-house.

"I've seen too many company Websites where they claim to be an MSP, but it's not authentic," he says. "It's just a facade they're putting out there to say they can do creative, Websites or whatever. The integration of the marketing strategy, from beginning to end, is very fragmented and, over time, customers will sniff that out. They'll figure out you don't really have your act together." PI



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