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Could changing a job description save the role of a print buyer?

Print buyers are an endangered species, with many publishers deciding they no longer need them. This is bad for the individuals concerned, clearly, but says Matthew Parker, not great for the publishers either, as key and still needed skills are lost.

By Matthew Parker

I bumped into Bob the other day. I have a lot of time for Bob. What Bob can’t tell you about print isn’t worth knowing. Bob is a great print buyer.

Or rather, Bob was a great print buyer.

Bob was made redundant recently. His company said that there was no need for his role any more. They pointed out how the main print contracts were all in place. Other print was on the decline. E-marketing was more important now. They really couldn’t justify Bob’s overhead any more.

Bob’s experience is all too common these days. A recent US survey showed that 60% of print buyers feared for the future of their roles. A full-time print buyer is becoming an endangered species.

So, how do companies manage without a traditional print buyer? Some rely on printers to educate them. Some outsource to print management companies. And some rely on external print suppliers to help them at key times. And some of these strategies can work. Print management companies can help publishers make significant savings.

Time for the print buyer to fight back?

Publishers are at particular risk of losing important knowledge that does have an effect on their core spend. The print buyer should be an important role for them. However, the print buyer now has to justify their existence. The print buyer will have to change their role to remain relevant for their employer.

A print buyer can no longer rely on technical print knowledge. For a print buyer, evolving their role creates new opportunities. These opportunities include:

* Creating new relationships within their company and amongst suppliers

* Having more control over their future

* Being able to showcase new achievements

Failing to adapt to change will result in:

* A sense of powerlessness as the scope of the print buying role diminishes

* Less scope to create achievements within their role

* A weakening of relationships both inside and outside their company

What strategies should the print buyer adopt? I will focus on three strategies for the buyer within this article:

1. Creating a profit centre

Can becoming a profit centre create a long term future for a print buyer? Traditionally, the role of print and production has been viewed as a cost centre to a company. This resource has been an overhead that is necessary for the production of magazines. However, most companies see overheads as opportunities for efficiency savings and cost-cutting exercises.

Companies prefer to invest in areas that make money. Sales teams, subscription departments and new income channels are all seen as candidates for investment. But not print and production teams.

Is there a different way to look at this?

A print buyer has an opportunity to use their print knowledge to create new products for a publisher. These new products will create extra revenues. Presenting successful extra profit streams to management will result in a change of the print buying role.

To achieve this, a print buyer needs to understand a company’s business. They need to take time to understand the areas that have opportunities for expansion. They need to pick a target. They need to connect with management who are prepared to listen to new ideas. To do this requires good networking and internal marketing skills and the willingness to undertake some research outside normal job time.

This is outside the normal role of the print buyer. It therefore requires the mentality of the print buyer to change. It also requires a company culture to accept that a print buyer should be seen differently. However, it is only by changing potentially out-dated views that a print buyer will make their role more relevant.

At a previous company, I introduced the idea of print on demand to senior management. I also suggested new product streams. This allowed them to:

* Have an endless supply of back issues

* Send hard copies of articles on demand

* Test new book products with minimum investment

* Create “best of” compilations with minimum investment

Suddenly, I was seen as an innovator who could create opportunities for the company. I could become involved in more strategy discussions. I was no longer an overhead: I was a revenue stream. Attitudes towards me changed.

So here are three immediate tasks that can be undertaken to get this strategy underway:

* Target a team to help with a project

* Understand their needs

* Create a product

2. Adopting multi-channel responsibilities

Most publishers are now adopting a multi-channel approach to marketing. Print, websites, turning page technologies, apps, email and SMS are all important distribution channels for many publishers in today’s changing world.

This is a great opportunity for the print buyer! As publishers adopt so many different channels of distribution, an efficient way of managing content becomes vital. Companies that adopt separate process flows for each channel will have bloated overheads and fail to deliver content efficiently.

Publishers need a procurement strategy to deliver across different formats. Should they be adopting a central workflow? What supply base will they need to deliver new content streams?

The same skills that are used in print, still the most important distribution channel, need to be used in other channels. The print buyer also has an opportunity to champion the flatplanning, scheduling and copy chasing skills that exist in the production personnel that they work with.

However, the print buyer is not a position that is often considered for this work. The print buyer will need to take the initiative and create proposals for their management teams. The print buyer needs to educate a company that they are the person best suited to take on these new challenges.

But isn’t the print buyer undermining their key skills by going multi-channel?

Many print buyers that I have spoken to are afraid to enter into new channels because they see them as a threat to print. However, a champion of print is needed in this debate to make sure that a publisher makes the right decisions about the balance of channels for content delivery. The percentage of print delivery will reduce whether the print buyer is involved or not. It is the print buyer’s responsibility to ensure that a company still realises their key skills.

When I introduced the concept of print on demand to my publisher, I also suggested ways that this new content could be delivered through other channels. I began to introduce my management team to the practicality of multi-channel delivery. Suddenly there were new opportunities and new doors that were open to me.

Here are the next steps that a print buyer needs to undertake to start becoming involved in the new media:

* Educate yourself on multi-channel

* Educate your company on multi-channel

* Start suggesting new solutions and processes

3. Becoming a procurement expert

As well as learning a new set of technical skills, the print buyer will also need to develop procurement skills. Traditionally, many print buyers have relied upon technical knowledge and knowledge of the print market in order to achieve their goals. This is no longer enough.

Business today must be able to:

* Have a purchasing strategy

* Understand why it is using the suppliers it has chosen

* Justify that choice

* Ensure that the choice has not been influenced by personal issues

Increasingly, larger companies are creating procurement teams. Print buying needs to step up to the challenge or be adopted by procurement. Print buyers need to understand concepts such as:

* Total cost of acquisition

* Supply chain management

* Supplier management

* Decision auditing

Adopting these new skill sets also allows print buyers to take on purchasing responsibilities in new areas.

Part of the role of procurement is to make operational purchasing swifter and more efficient. Increasingly, order raising should be able to be automated or delegated further down the line. Procurement skills should allow print buyers to spend more time on strategic print buying. Importantly, it should also allow print buyers to justify their strategies.

As I took on more procurement skills in my previous roles, I found that I was able to fulfil my duties more efficiently. This allowed me to take on purchasing duties in new areas. As I learnt about new sectors, this also gave me inspiration to address my print buying projects in new ways.

As a result, I started working together in greater partnership with suppliers. We reviewed processes and created new ways to save costs and improve efficiency and profitability at both publisher and supplier.

Here are three action points for a print buyer to start developing a procurement role:

* Educate yourself on procurement

* Create a strategic procurement plan for print

* Target other purchasing areas

I consider that print still has a very strong future. Recently, a client actually decided to change their e-newsletter into a printed publication because of reader demand. Recent surveys in the advertising market show that there is still a strong demand for print from younger consumers.

However, to make the most of print, companies will need to ensure that they have access to good print buying skills. This means that print buyers should be considering how to evolve to ensure that their skills can remain with their employers.

They should:

* Invest in procurement skills

* Invest in multi-channel knowledge

* Target new business opportunities within their companies for print

Above all, staff need investment. Both individuals and management teams should be pushing for upskilling. Apart from technical skills, print buyers should be considering improving their skills in negotiation, purchasing and supplier management.

After all, no print buyer wants to end up like Bob.