ROYAL IMPRESSIONS -- Getting With The Program
BY MARK SMITH
If digital printing were an animal, it would have to be a cat because the concept/technology is on at least its fifth or sixth life. The perceived killer application for the process has swung from short runs to variable data printing and now, some argue, back to short runs. Direct-to-press, digital offset solutions initially grabbed attention, but have since been over-shadowed by all-digital machines.
|Christopher DeSantis, president and co-founder of Royal Impressions.|
Christopher DeSantis bought into the concept—both figuratively and literally—from the start. His steadfast belief in the potential of the technology has led to buying new digital equipment early and often. As a result, Royal Impressions is now well positioned in a market flush with opportunities, believes its president and co-founder.
The New York City-based company was started in 1989 as a print brokerage selling offset services primarily to financial institutions. DeSantis had previously worked for an office products company selling copiers in the Wall Street area. "I was attracted by the residual business that printing provides compared to selling machines," he says.
DeSantis leveraged his existing client relationships and established partnerships with print suppliers to build the business and gain offset printing expertise. "We never wanted to buy iron," he reveals.
The introduction of digital equipment meant Royal Impressions had to respond to a new set of business dynamics in the early 1990s. "We had started selling black-and-white copying and litigation support services, but the crazy deadlines made it difficult to outsource that work. Given the timeframes, we realized it would be best to bring the capability in-house. That was right around the advent of digital color printing, with the Canon CLC 1 doing amazing high-speed, five-copies-a-minute, output," he says, tongue firmly in cheek.
"Being a young owner, I've always stayed on the cutting edge of technology and taken some risks," DeSantis continues. "When I then started hearing and reading about variable data printing, I thought it had tremendous potential. The concept made a lot of sense."
Royal Impressions encountered a number of challenges in developing that market, the company president reveals. Its progress was slowed by technological issues and a need to build the required infrastructure, as well as educate and sell clients on the marketing approach.
"It was scary," DeSantis admits. "At first, the technology was not there yet. The state-of-the-art in processing files (RIPing) at the time meant a project could take hours or even days to run. Since we didn't have an internal IT department, we had to outsource all of that work. And, we had to educate our clients on the technology."
The turning point came with the introduction of the Xerox Docu-Color 2060 driven by Creo's Spire front end, the company president says. "It opened a lot of doors for us. The type of projects I had been evangelizing for years became practical and started to come in as clients began seeing real results."
The key to the system is the way it RIPs files, DeSantis explains. A caching function enables static parts of the document to be preprocessed and temporarily stored in a format ready for output. This means only the variable data components need to be RIPed on-the-fly and then matched up with cached page elements.
"Caching saves a ton of time in RIPing. It has enabled us to drive the 2060 at its rated speed, which is 60 pages per minute," he adds. "The system was the first one we found that could efficiently handle variable data and deliver on quality." Royal Impressions currently has two DocuColor 2060s, both driven by Creo Spire RIPs.
As variable data was becoming a reality, the company also made a move into static, short-run digital offset printing with the installation of a Heidelberg QuickMaster DI press. "That became a very profitable business for us," DeSantis reports. "It fit a nice niche. We were able to transfer some of the offset work we had been outsourcing over to it."
The printer now is looking to sell that press, though, in part because of its latest and greatest step forward. Royal Impressions served as an alpha test site for the Xerox DocuColor iGen3 digital color production press, DeSantis recounts, despite being an underdog during the selection process.
"Two things were against us—our location and size. We didn't fit the profile Xerox had in mind," the company president explains. "The reason they chose us was because of the complex solutions we'd been delivering for our clients. When it comes to customized, integrated marketing programs, there are not a lot of companies with the case studies we have to show.
"Also, we understand both sheetfed and digital printing," he continues. "That was of value to Xerox because its concept for this machine is to transfer work from offset to digital production, in addition to doing variable printing."
DeSantis says he has been impressed with the level of investment Xerox has made in the iGen3. Royal Impressions has made a pretty big commitment of its own, as well. Along with investing time and money, it had to allow technicians to all but live at the facility and built walls around the machine to provide privacy and a controlled production environment.
What made the endeavor worth the investments was how integral the capability is to the printer's strategic plan. "We did a lot of research into where we should go as a company. Royal Impressions no longer is a printer; it has become a graphic communications firm," he explains.
Documents Get Smart
"We want to help clients communicate better by managing their data and enabling them to disseminate messages to a printed page and electronically, via e-mail and Websites. We're looking to produce smart documents," DeSantis says.
The iGen3 filled a hole that had been developing in the shop's capabilities. "We had programs emerging with volumes that the 2060s no longer could handle from two perspectives—speed and cost," the company exec explains. "If you're doing volume work, the cost to produce each piece is much lower on the iGen3. Also, it offers offset-like quality. I'm not going to claim it matches offset, but it comes much closer."
Royal Impressions added a second iGen3 about a year ago and is now in negotiations for a third machine, DeSantis reports. These digital presses also are being driven by Creo Spire RIPs. "The speed of the Creo Spire is unprecedented. We had other solutions in here and their speed didn't compare," observes the company president.
Even though the system is sold through Xerox, Royal Impressions has been working directly with Creo, he adds. "We have a great relationship with the company. Creo is very solutions oriented," DeSantis says.
According to its president, adding the iGen3s hasn't cannibalized work from the shop's DC 2060s, which are used heavily for smaller runs and different kinds of digital projects. The shop also has a Canon CLC 5000 copier/printer that is primarily used for fashion industry clients. "The (mid-level) market is still growing. In fact, we've also been looking at the DocuColor 6060," he notes.
To accommodate growth in its pressroom—along with the addition of more people in its IT, desktop and sales departments—the company is looking to expand from its current 25,000 square feet to 35,000 or 40,000 square feet. The existing facility also houses a desktop publishing and creative department, black-and-white reproduction center, large-format printing department and a well-equipped bindery and finishing center. All of the services are sold under the Royal Impressions brand.
The black-and-white department includes a mix of Xerox DocuTechs (6180 and two 135NPs) and duplicators (5090, 5100 and two 5800s) centrally controlled by a DigiPath workflow system. Yet, DeSantis says the company doesn't produce a lot of jobs that mix black-and-white and color production, also known as hybrid printing.
"One of the great things about the iGen3 is that the black-and-white impression cost is very low. Xerox really listened to us on that issue," he explains. "If we get a job with black-and-white and color pages, we've been keeping it on the iGen3 so the piece comes out already put together."
That's a nice added benefit because document integrity is a critical issue when dealing with personalized communications. This requirement puts increased pressure on the back end of the process—from binding and finishing to mailing and fulfillment—in particular.
Royal Impressions' bindery and finishing department currently houses three perfect binders (two Standard Finishing Horizons and a Rosback), two Heidelberg Polar computerized cutters, GBC binding systems, folders, a scorer/perforator, wafer sealer and more. DeSantis sees opportunities to enhance the department's quality control, including through the addition of new equipment like an inserter with barcode recognition to ensure document integrity for more complex variable applications.
With clients demanding 100 percent accuracy in personalized programs, especially those containing sensitive data, outsourcing isn't an option. "For our variable applications, nothing is sent outside at this point. The work is too complex and there are too many chances for error," DeSantis says.
"The sensitivity of the data we are receiving from clients means that production, fulfillment and other functions need to be done in-house," agrees Bob Estrada, director of CRM marketing solutions. "The contracts require it."
While much of the company's story has evolved around equipment, the need for IT expertise definitely shouldn't be overlooked or underestimated, Estrada and DeSantis agree.
"Building an internal infrastructure—of both IT people and technology—to support our types of programs was essential. We tried outsourcing at first, but ran into a problem with finger pointing when things didn't work," Estrada says. "There likely are other applications where you don't need an internal IT department, though."
"At a minimum, you'd need someone internally who knows how to use such outside resources effectively," DeSantis adds. "The integrity of the data is absolutely critical. You need a staff person who understands this business, knows what the presses can do, how the software works and who can figure out how to integrate it all."
One of the keys to Royal Impressions' success in variable printing was its development of the MCOM (Marketing Collateral Order Management) system, Estrada notes. MCOM can be used to place an order for personalized and customized jobs, including actually building a variable data document online. It also can be used to procure static documents on-demand.
The company built its own Web-based system because there weren't any solutions on the market that met its clients' needs, Estrada says. "This wasn't a 'build it and they will come' exercise. It evolved completely out of a specific client's vision," he explains.
Initially the company built custom deployments of the system for each application. "We didn't want to build a box and tell clients to fit the way they do business into how we designed the system," Estrada says. "Over the years, we've learned that there are certain core features and capabilities that all clients want to have. We still need the flexibility to do custom development, but we can start with 85 percent of a system built already. That has become a competitive advantage for us."
As an example of the system's flexibility, the director of CRM programs points out that a recent deployment is designed to support up to 8,000 users. Each is going to be able to place orders for customized and personalized pieces on a monthly basis in quantities in the hundreds.
The nature of the marketing programs and client base mean that a need for design services can also figure into the package. Again responding to demand for tight turnarounds, 10 years ago Royal Impressions bought a three-person design firm it had been sending work to on an outsource basis. "We need to have that capability in-house," DeSantis says. "Today we have six quality designers on staff to go farther upstream with clients and to add value."
In partnering with its clients, the company looks to add value to the relationship wherever it can. "One of the things we do really well here is sit in front of our clients and learn from them about their businesses," the company president asserts. "We are looked upon as a marketing partner, and not so much as a printer. For variable printing programs, in some cases we can be in discussions for six months to a year before the concept fully evolves, especially with a more complex application."
Royal Impressions has established two levels of sales staff in response to the different dynamics in its markets. "Level one reps primarily sell digital and offset printing. They keep the presses running, the clicks coming in," DeSantis explains. "Level two people offer more targeted, one-to-one solutions."
Both categories earn similar compensation for an equivalent volume of sales, he adds. "However, we have to start level two reps out at a higher base because they're dealing with a longer sell cycle."
Estrada aids the sales effort by focusing on applications development. He works with reps to come up with the best-selling solution for an individual client.
"We are looking to expand our successes within certain industry verticals," Estrada says. "We have a long-standing history in the financial services sector and a lot of successful applications. Now it's about getting inside new accounts and leveraging our success. We want to do the same with other industries, such as travel and entertainment, casinos, pharmaceuticals and insurance."
According to DeSantis, this part of the company's business has been growing at double digit rates even while the industry at large has been in a slump for the past three years. "These are programs, not just one-off projects, and we see clients quickly launch a second or third campaign. One of my clients is up to nine applications and counting," he reports.
Brokering of offset printing services still accounts for about 30 percent of the business, the company president discloses. All of the work is sent out to partners in the trade. "I'm glad we never bought iron on the offset side of the business, since that business is not growing," he notes.
Once a printer—come graphic communications firm—gets into data and asset management services with clients, new opportunities can arise from that relationship, the industry exec contends. "A big part of our business is digital asset management," he says. "That puts us in a position to get involved in disseminating that material through other channels. There is tremendous potential for growth in repurposing."
As a case in point, DeSantis believes the explosion in use of wireless devices has created a big potential for targeted marketing applications. "There is real estate on those devices to which we want to target and send messages. That will be an application in the next year or two," he maintains.
PODi, the digital printing initiative, announced the 2004 winners of its "Best Practices" awards at the annual PODi Applications Forum in Las Vegas last moth. The recognition honors organizations in the U.S., Canada and South America whose digital print-on-demand strategies are best in class. Three categories of applications were considered: direct marketing, collateral management and transactional applications.
Of the 80 entries submitted for Best Practices consideration, only those that demonstrated measured results were considered, such as increased response rates or reduced waste. Entries also had to show relevant use of variable data and add value through automation to reduce costs, and use motivation to increase effectiveness. Projects using front-end automation to allow non-technical users to initiate a print run were preferred, since this type of automation would be a major driver of output volume.
The "Best of Show" winner of the PODi Best Practices awards was Prudential Retirement Services and Royal Impressions with personalized 401(k) enrollment books and statements designed to increase employee enrollment and encourage sound investment. A custom enrollment book for each employee helped raise enrollment and contribution levels. Each 40- to 90-page book contained highly relevant, personalized data driven by the prospect's age and income level.
This was not the first honor for the company. In 2003, DeSantis was named the winner of the fourth annual Print On Demand Pioneer award.