Printers, a.k.a Marketing Services Providers, Beware

It used to be that the topic of print brokers vs. printers generated the most heated discussion in an audience of print buyers.

Hold onto your loupes; I think I’ve found the newest debate trigger for this crowd: “Printers as MSPs (Marketing Services Providers).”

At our PBI Midwest Conference in Chicago on May 19, I led an hour-long brainstorming session. Turns out, one hour wasn’t nearly enough time to cover my slides—or the additional issues generated in the room filled with print buyers and service providers. (Note to self: extend this session by at least another hour next time.)

Most of the time, audience comments in these sessions don’t surprise me. But at this time, the reaction to printers as MSPs generated a point of view I’d not thought of before. In the interest of making printers aware of a sentiment among design and other creative agencies, I want to share what I learned.

Printers as MSPs mostly got a thumbs down from this audience, comprised of about 70 senior-level print buyers, production managers, creatives and marcom specialists. A few buyers at agencies spoke up to share that they view such printers as competitors—and, therefore, won’t deal with them. Others said that they prefer “printers as printers.”

In my May 23 “Print Tip” column, I listed a few highlights from the show’s sessions, including this particular point from a reader:

“I missed the conference, but can imagine why this was a hot topic. Two printers.. that we used to work with are not only permanently off our bid list, but have been discussed with others at creative club meetings. Both tried to reinvent themselves as ‘full service’ printers, offering ‘design’ work. They both made the mistake of approaching clients of ours (knowing full well they were our clients), and in one case actually won business that we also were bidding on.

Long regarded as a print buyer expert and trade writer, Margie Dana launched her new business in 2013 as a marketing communications strategist with a specialty in printing and print buying. Now she’s on a mission to help clients build customer communities through carefully crafted content.

You may know Margie as the producer of the annual Print & Media Conference. Although she’s exited the event production business, she’s still publishing her Print Tips newsletter. She looks forward to helping companies create and style all of their content so their potential customers sit up and take notice. For details and to sign up for her Print Tips and new marketing blog, visit or e-mail Margie at
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  • Tyler Ashcraft

    This is an interesting conundrum and I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts. Industry experts have been saying that printers need to diversify in order to remain relevant (and in business). Staying out of subjective work (design, messaging) seems like a no-brainer to me, but some services just make sense. Despite significant investments in VDP technology (digital presses, XMPie) we were recently told by our agency to avoid using the term "cross-channel marketing" in our own lit. Personally, when I’m discussing this technology with customers, I indicate that we primarily provide the platform to deliver multi-channel campaigns and the resulting data.

    Frankly, it feels like we’re mincing words. From the first business card or handbill, printers have been providing "marketing services" or rather, services to marketers. Individual shops need to determine what is going to keep their presses running and market accordingly.

  • Trish @ OI

    I don’t feel we have to be in competition. I want to be their partner. I’m in no means looking to start designing or stepping into the creative realm, but to expand into VDP, QR Codes, PURLS and other digital technologies that DO NOT REPLACE but continue to enhance ink on paper is how I think we will continue to thrive. We’ve been in business 35 years I’d like to think our reputation would outlive the hype, but I guess we will see.

  • Scott Cappel

    Somehow, I find none of this surprising. Maybe printers SHOULD evolve from just being on someone’s "Bid List"

  • Carrie Grove

    Interesting feedback Margie and great to know. Thanks for sharing!
    At our shop we have in house graphic design services BUT we are NOT marketers. I’m not quite sure how that fits into the scenario.

    As Tyler mentioned, it is quite the conundrum, as the printing industry pros are stressing the need for printers to branch out to stay in business. This is really useful information for printers to have as they think to the future of their businesses. I also make it clear to our clients that we are not a marketing firm but we can provide the print solution that they are looking for.

  • James Borst

    Cannibalizing work from agencies or any other ‘customers’ is not an acceptable behavior by a ‘vendor’. I think the issue lies more in this, rather than offering ‘additonal’ services that can benefit customers trying to communicate their message in a more ‘relevant way’ to their customers/prospects.

    If printers offered their ‘cross media’ services in such a way which included creative agencies input, there can certainly be a very beneficial relationship established – one that not only benefits that printers by providing them ‘higher end design’ but also the agencies who can now offer ‘personalized channeled messaging’ through email, text, direct mail and websites.

    Perspective is what this is about: are you going to be a competitor with creative agencies or a partner?

  • ohbrother

    It is called, protecting your turf. Obviously the designers are threatened and want to keep the crumbs for themselves.

  • my2cents

    It’s no surprise that the audience didn’t like it as it threatens their jobs and margins. After years of brokers/agencies squeezing every penny out of the printers, now printers are taking back their margins by making the countless design firms bid on creative work. It’s amazing how a sales meeting w/ a fortune 500 goes when you don’t bother mentioning paper and ink and hit them w/ demographics, analytics and messaging … oh and by the way we can get that printed for you too.

  • Bill Gibson

    Once a printer always a printer in my book…we have added new technology to provide our clients the very best results in offset and digital print and surrounded that core service with added value. That value is driven by our clients demands to target their market and provide results that boil down to sales. That value add provides better ways of communicating through print with special effects on the sheet which allows the piece to stay in the home or office for a lifetime, if desired.
    Some printers have successfully accomplished the role of an MSP, but they did not wake up the next day and decide to fit into that model…it was a concise business plan reviewing cause and effect…
    If you are a good printer become a better printer and provide the solutions to the marketers and agencies that they demand become a partner with them providing the benefits of your value as a communications provider with benefits!

  • Stan Roberts

    When a printer embarks on a sales survival/growth plan, which can include all of the technology advances previously discussed, they must take into account their existing relationships with ad/creative agencies, many with contractual arrangements with their clients. Most agencies have multiple clientele, allowing for a larger base of income opportunity for the printer. As an MSP, I would argue that most printers have a one-sided viewpoint and do not fully understand the end clients total needs, as they mainly come from a production/technical background, not marketing. Therefore they can do more harm than good on a long term basis by trying to circumvent directly to the client, both from a relational/ethical standpoint, but also from a total sales volume aspect which their agency "client" controls. There is a serious risk/reward scenario which plays out in these situations many times over.

    I experienced this as a contracted marketing firm, handling all print, signage & promotional items for a client for over 9 years. Fortunately, my client would always redirect any inquiries back to us, as we had the expertise to decipher whether a printer had the capability to provide the pricing, service and quality necessary for our client with either a phone conversation or possible site visit. This helped reduce our client’s time unnecessarily having to deal with all the inquiries. We also had numerous other clients who we could run our additional business through to these end printers, so our "account" was much larger overall than our own one big account everyone seemed to be going after directly.

    Those who attempted to circumvent us are no longer in business, partly because of the economy, mostly because of their lack of integrity in honoring their business relationships and a few because of their lack of foresight in technology/strategic advances which could apply to new marketing platforms.

    We had several printers who attempted to circumvent us, with permanently damaging results for them, as they gained a reputation which we spread immediately to all other agencies as a printer not to be trusted. Although agencies are cutthroat competitors, they still communicate with one another regarding problematic vendors in most cases.

    Those printers we worked with who shared the technological advances with us, benefited because it allowed us to get very creative in utilizing the technologies in new ways in marketing campaigns, ways in which the printer would never have thought of, and in the long run, created more work and a new revenue stream for them. Those are true working partnerships which are the most profitable and beneficial for all concerned.

  • Jaythescorpion

    The key words are service provider. This should not be confused with competing on the creative aspect of a marketing strategy, but rather a partner or implementer of a course of action developed by ad agencies, marketing creatives, etc. For printers to believe they can become marketing experts overnight is a sore oversight. We are now a viable partner that has a broader range of tools to provide a service to creative strategists.

  • Jason Roberts

    The key words are service provider. This should not be confused with competing on the creative aspect of a marketing strategy, but rather a partner or implementer of a course of action developed by ad agencies, marketing creatives, etc. For printers to believe they can become marketing experts overnight is a sore oversight. We are now a viable partner that has a broader range of tools to provide a service to creative strategists.

  • Patrick Foster

    I am a sales manager for one of those printers who are often accused by ad agencies of treading on their territory. Few will get bids from us unless their customers require it. We’re in this position for a couple of reasons. We have a full-service design staff – but, I don’t consider full service to mean marketing experts. Our designers who have a corporate sense to their work and this often is all a customer is after – a great look! Our designers and sales reps know our market and through experience have a great deal to offer clients who ask for it. So, we, as all printers do to a degree, help many clients determine what to print, how to print it, what it should look like and the best way to distribute it.

    Our sales methods are solutions-based, meaning we try to help the client determine the most efficient way to make money using print for their business. And with all the cross media marketing at our fingertips, it’s important for us to at least offer the services.

    But what we don’t charge for – at least not very often – is consulting time. We’re printers and we just want the work. Printers make money putting ink on paper and if takes going to clients to show them how a cross-media campaign involving print and mail, PURLS, email blasts and so on can help their bottom line, then that’s what we do. This is in part what has agencies fuming.

    With money being tighter than ever, it doesn’t surprise me that companies that might ordinarily spend for an agency and all of the "lawyer-like fees" that go with it, will look for a full-service printer who can take a ball and run with it.

    I can tell you I would never try to get involved in a major branding – or re-branding- of a business that agencies are so good at. Too much time involved in that. But, the ability to generate campaign work for a business will be key for many full-service print shops to stay alive.

  • Ola Karlsson

    This all sounds like a healty sign. I say skip the agency and do business with the companies directly instead. In most cases you will find a nice way to co-operate with brand/marketing agencies. The ones screaming now are agencies that are production oriented and they are competitors to most of todays printers.

  • newage

    Interesting that a group that thrives on getting “competitive bids” is afraid of MSP companies as competitors. This is not a new issue, it is an issue and will always be an issue over “who owns the customer”. The opportunity is to find the right companies to partner with and use our strengths to help them. I would be willing to bet the agency that lost business to a printer/MSP was not a very good client or partner to that printer so the printer does not care they are not “quoting” for them any more.

  • Tom Harris


    I did attend the wonderful conference you put on in Chicago, and understand the viewpoint of the agencies. The key, I think, is dealing with your client, be it an agency or end user, and not attempt to circumvent anyone. We, as printers, do run across certain formats that we believe might be of interest to our clients. Or, we may develop a concept that we know is unique to the industry, fits equipment well, and is something new that the public will see, open, and hopefully respond to. We would never bypass our client to injure another, but feel that it is our job to continually present ideas of potential value to our customers instead of just someone who simply provides a printing price. I can’t tell you how often we are told by our clients to continue to provide them with format ideas.

  • IMHO

    For once, the industry is collectively marching towards truly adding value back to their offering and "buyers" and "agency folk" give the thumbs down? Shocker! (LOTS OF SARCASM THERE) This reaction is out of fear of people and agencies losing their value. In today’s selling environment, we (the sales rep) are the only differentiator and providing MARKETERS insights, ideas and solutions that MAY lead to a print byproduct is exactly what needs to happen in order to be a valued resource and truly help clients maximize marketing/communication efforts. Isn’t that the whole point of our business existence anyways? Selling/bidding on agency work or buyer specs for that matter is a dead end and printers that have relied on this type of work have been closing and continue to struggle to survive. It’s the entire reason the industry is in shakeout! The print industry as a whole needs to stay relentless in this evolution into "something beyond print" because its the only way to survive. Calling yourself MSP may not necessarily be the answer, but selling additional marketing services within your expertise will always be what will determine your success though. Marketers will know right away if you’re blowing smoke anyways.

    IMO, all this conference conversation proves is that print buyers and agencies are not interested in mutually beneficial business and that should be an awakening for the industry to quickly minimize these customers as part of your client base. Additionally, with companies like Innerworkings and other print management companies winning over clients by focusing on the consumable cost (which is a typical buyer’s task), the value of "print" is diminishing…this is probably the group that Margie’s group really need to be worried about.

  • Steve Visio

    Creative Services and Ad agencies are experiencing their own pressures lately. The loss of retainer business and more project based work, clients turning to new media and pulling mktng in-house has changed the marketing world. Printers who add marketing services as a semantic exercise will fail without the right people to actually "market", Printers with a strong ulterior motive of selling more print will only make it by being upfront about their expertise and setting customer expectations. That said I think their is tremendous opportunity in adopting the inbound marketing concept for printers to become relevant in a new media frontier. Web design, and a blend of traditional and new media with transparency about your pedigree and your services.

  • DigiSam

    There is competetion between agencies and a bonefide MSP. The quote you had explains it all. The printer is off their "bid" list. Which is the key to the issue. As long a printers continue to let others dictate the price of a project they’ll never be able to control their own destiny. I have gone to agencies and shown them how they would benefit from epro projects and they didn’t either understand the opportunity or just didn’t want to play. Either way they eventually were the losers. The agency lost customers and eventually went out of business. Their customers found ways to solve their maketing problems. The comment the agency director made was if I use this epro it will reduce the work we do for the customer. So, as long as agencies think they can do it by themselves and just get a printer to be a plug in there will be competition and winners and losers. My suggestion is to develop partnerships. An agency has tools and knowledge that definitey are needed, but the truly innovative MSP has options the agency needs to include. Therefore, the two working as an alliance can provide a maketing with accountablility that all customers are searching for.

  • Jay Platt

    I am finding that more and more of my customers do not want too higher an agency to implement their ideas. Also, in today’s world, how many agencies sub out their design work to independent design contractors and how many companies hire independent design contractors for internal work. How is that different than adding design as a element to a printers service A contractor is a contractor, no mater where they come from if it is just design to fulfill the needs of the customer. That is what companies and agencies are doing by hiring outside contractors to save a buck. I am constantly being asked if I know of good independent design people that I can recommend so maybe it is time to add this service to supply this need?

  • Manny Velazquez

    In my experience, the most important element in this situation is integrity. Integrity to not pursue customers who we know currently do business through creative agencies who are also our customers is a must. Building a trust base with agencies and their clients is a key to long-term relationships and should be the foundation of good business practices.
    I’ve been on both sides of the fence, as a creative working for an agency and as a producer for a creative agency. In my opinion, there is a differentiation between the customers creative agencies offer their services to and those customers who walk through our doors, looking for an MSP. There’s competition everywhere so it’s not like MSP’s are without it or it only comes from "printers". Most times I try to approach the situation as not competition but collaboration with the creatives and their clients. If I am marketing my company as a complement to the creatives services then their clients are off-limits, for me, as far as offering our services directly. It’s a hard line to walk but one that must be walked if we, "printers" are to co-exist in a harmonious way with creative agencies. Educating creatives as to the whole gamut of product and services we offer them and their clients, most times this perception of being "competitors" is overcome.
    Most times creative agencies value our expertise in the production and delivery end of projects and welcome input in the early creative stages of projects because we’ve built that level of trust needed to succeed. They understand that, though I am looking for my own clients, I will not betray the trust they have in us and their respective clients. When I am approached directly by a client currently working through an agency, I explain that the pricing structure for them is beneficial since the agency gets their commission through volume discounts not afforded otherwise. Most times the client understands and agrees to keep the relationships based on integrity. In the end, all we have is our word and how we conduct business. Just my thoughts…

  • Mark Henry

    I work for a direct-to-trade printer, a wholesale producer of variable data communication products. In times past you might have called us a service bureau. As a Channel Manager it’s my role to work with print distributors to develop solutions to a client’s pain points. When I can come up with pain relief we can (most of the time) land the job.

    Every once in a while, however, we run into a potential client who is focused solely on price. As a wholesaler I have my price to the distributor, and he has his price to the customer. Some times this 2-level markup means that we end up priced out of the deal against competitors who sell direct.

    So what does this have to do with Marketing Service Providers vs Agencies? In those cases where a double-markup would price us out of the job I am often tempted to bid the project direct, effectively cutting out my distribution channel. If I were to do this it wouldn’t take long for my distributors to hear about it and stop referring work to me – much the same as the agency deciding not to send an RFP to a printer/MSP they now see as a direct competitor for their work.

    So, the question comes up, every now and then – do we continue as a wholesaler or do we field a sales team (with all the costs and overhead that implies)? Much the same as "are we a traditional ink on paper printer, or an MSP?"

    Please keep in mind that becoming a full service MSP goes far beyond just hiring a graphic designer and telling the sales team to push marketing. It means project managers, marketing specialists, copy writers, editors, multimedia specialists, programmers, the list goes on.

    Rather than try to reinvent yourself as an MSP, perhaps you would be better off forging alliances with agencies to become their sole provider of printed materials. That way the agency does what it does best, and you focus on being a printer/partner rather than a competitor.

  • ronnie

    I built a printing business from a three person operatin into a 200 person operation , the way I did this was listening to what the needs were for the clients that were the buyers, not all perint needs to be an agency design. One of my top client who spent several million dollars with my company , when I ask why he did not use agencies for design on his catalog covers , his answer was everything an agency design they the agency wants it to be an awrd winning piece and I do not want to pay for their award design except when i need an award winning piece. My company designed a lot of projects keeping four designers busy five days a week, but never ever did I or would I claim to be an agency. Agencies have a great place in the world, but they don’t need to be printer or spend clients money hanging around a pressroom all day , if they select the correct printer in first place.Could be a win win for everyone’s clients.

  • carl gerhardt

    Great topic Margie. Very interesting but not surprising at all to get these reactions from agencies and print buyers. As noted by others this is bringing competition for their services while at the same time they focus "primarily" on getting the lowest cost possible from printers. Not exactly an unexpected reaction. Most agencies have all but abandoned small business so that market is wide open for printers without competing directly with agencies. If a printer has a lot of business with agencies and then chooses to work in competition for that market they may very well shoot themselves in the foot…..Duh, pick your battles carefully.
    In like manner, when going direct to corporate marketing departments to sell marketing services and in effect bypassing the print buyer one can hardly expect them to jump for joy. This potentially takes the print buyer out of the mix for driving down the cost for the printing. There are some very obvious conflicts that can exist if a printer becomes a marketing services provider and one must take all that into account before attempting to enter that market. Also as noted there is at lot that must be accomplished to successfully make this transition. I recently wrote a PI blog for this site titled The Myth, The Reality and The Truth about marketing services…..for printers. It is becoming a very successful diversification for many who formerly called themselves printers and far short of a success for others. Taking into account all of the words in this thread would serve one well when considering this topic. I might consider writing a follow up blog on the same topic from a slightly different point of view. I would be glad to give you some fodder for your article in PI if you would would like. We have been working on this for over four years at Allegra Network……and I might ad with considerable success.

  • Thomas Miner

    It sounds like paranoia from the creative world. Printers have always been the fall guy even when we cover their(designers) backs and do the impossible. Especially the conversion from digital RGB files to press CMYK. Printers have been under siege for a long time through automated IT and digital Marketing and are coping to recoup what has been lost in hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment that is sitting idle. There is no excuse for undermining a business partnership but creating add on or new services is good business.

  • lee

    When you are a commercial printer and you invest in the technology that allows and calls for the medium to not only be creative but technical (ex: variable data) You cant let the press just sit there because ad agencies with young designers are not creating the correct pieces. The technology has changed …the printers have to change also and become more than just ink on paper. If you don’t believe in change throw your iPod in the trash and weep for record stores.