The problem with inserts

If only advertisers would keep things simple and only order DPSs, publishers’ lives would be a lot easier! Inserts are anything but simple, and all-too-often lead to heightened stress levels, late mailings and increased costs. Ian Phillips lets off some steam and urges the industry to tighten up its procedures.

By Ian Phillips

We all know how publishers rely on advertising revenue. However, as a person responsible for ensuring that the booked inserts are placed into the correct copies, I hate them. There are a number of reasons why but to put it simply, I’m most frustrated with advertisers and their inability to follow instructions. In my experience, it’s publishers and our suppliers who ultimately pay for advertisers’ mistakes. What do we do when an advertiser fails to deliver their insert to the correct address, or delivers it late or the insert isn’t as it has been described? We live with it and bend over backwards to make alternative arrangements to accommodate it. Do we pass the additional costs back to the advertiser? In most cases, we wouldn’t dare, which ultimately reduces the profits we expected to realise. In extreme circumstances, we’ll even hold the mailing back if an insert fails to arrive on time. Sadly this situation doesn’t exactly make for a great working relationship with our suppliers as we are regularly asking them to pick up the pieces for something they haven’t generated. This in turn puts us in a bad light because we appear to be unable to manage our customers as well as we expect them to manage us. As a supply chain type person, I firmly believe that’s wrong and it’s about time we changed the way we manage and work with our advertising customers.

Sales teams’ responsibilities

When an insert is booked, it’s the responsibility of the advertiser to give a full and accurate description of the insert. It is the sales team’s responsibility to ensure they know how much it’s going to cost to fulfil the booking and that they have captured all the details the production and circulation teams will need to book the insert in with the mailing house. In my experience, this doesn’t always happen as it should because either the advertiser withholds, or fails to divulge, key information or sales don’t know what questions to ask, how to cost it up correctly, or a combination of all three. Once the insert is booked, the sales team’s responsibility is almost finished. Do they care if they’ve costed it up incorrectly? I don’t think so. Rarely do I, or any of my colleagues I know from other publishing companies, have anything to do with sales once the booking is made. They won’t even ask us to check their workings and assumptions. To their credit, the one thing they do do well, is tell us if the advertiser has told them that the format of the insert differs from what has been booked (although it’s usually with a hint of panic in their voice). Sadly the advertisers rarely tell sales of any changes but then, if there is no penalty for getting it wrong, why would they? Any of this sound familiar?

There are a few other issues to contend with apart from the problems we have to overcome when the advertisers’ failure to deliver on their promises. To start, let’s go back to the very beginning of the insert process – booking. Whenever an insert is booked, the sales team should have all the information and knowledge they need to be able to assess what costs are going to be incurred and what they should be charging. I don’t believe our sales teams really do understand the costs or possess the required knowledge of our supply chain to do this effectively.

Mechanical job or hand?

To prove this point, the next time you get a chance, ask any sales person what a Z fold insert is and if it can be inserted on a wrapping line. I’ll bet good money that they think they do and it can. Get them to describe it and how the inserting machines can handle it and you have them in your trap. I’ve lost count of the times when sales have sold something they believed could be mechanically inserted only for me to go back to them and tell them it can’t and it will cost them an extra £500 or whatever to get it inserted by hand. Oh and let’s not forget that because the insert has to be fulfilled by hand, the issue will most likely be mailed a day late as a direct result of the late notice and extra time required. No doubt you can imagine how well that news goes down with the publisher, especially on a weekly publication. The problem is this - if sales don’t know what can and can’t be mechanically inserted, how can they accurately work out how much it is going to cost without going running to the production or circulation departments?

Postage costs

We then have the issue of additional postage to contend with. Before Pricing in Proportion, the calculation was simple – Weight excluding insert = £x. Weight of finished copy including insert = £y. £y - £x = additional postage generated. If only things were that simple now. Under Pricing in Proportion, the old price per gram calculation has been replaced by a banded weight structure for each of the four formats. Consequently, many inserts don’t actually generate any additional postage whilst those that tip the finished item weight into the next weight band do. So what do we do? Continue charging for additional postage or operate a first come first serve basis and only charge postage on the inserts that really do take the weight into the next price bracket? This situation will be made all the worse if Royal Mail get their way and introduce zonal pricing.

The other postage issue we have to contend with is regional inserts. Every split included in an issue label run has an adverse affect on our postage costs in the form of less directs and more residues. In some cases, you may find the mailing house also wants to charge a small premium because they have to stop and reset the machine to accommodate the regionality.

This final issue is one that’s very close to my heart. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve had to defend our suppliers or justify the extra costs they have levied as a direct result of advertisers’ and / or sales teams’ lack of understanding and failures. I’ve actually been on site and seen a pallet of inserts collapse and crush a man’s foot because the pallet on which they arrived was damaged. Clearly this shouldn’t have happened and the supplying printer was at fault for using it in the first place. But sadly it’s not uncommon. Ask any printer or mailing house and I’d be surprised if any said that it hadn’t happened to somebody they know. It’s small wonder that the fellow involved didn’t get straight on the phone to his solicitor the minute he got out of hospital.

Lost in transit

Another issue our suppliers have to contend with is delivery. It’s no wonder that so many inserts ‘go missing’ because they haven’t been labelled correctly or have been delivered outside of their allocated slot, often with no accompanying paperwork. Such instances are usually blamed on our suppliers, but I’m not sure they are as culpable as it first appears. Given the number of publications handled by each supplier, it’s no surprise that things get lost when they’ve not been supplied as arranged. Suppliers have been tightening up for some time but, generally speaking, they can and do accept deliveries they ought not to, only for their good nature and helpful attitude to be thrown back in their faces when things go missing.

The other major issue our suppliers have to contend with are the briefs they receive. Often the information they are given is woolly, yet they have to decide how each insert is to be fulfilled based on that information. This is not possible if the information is incorrect from the off. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for printers and mailers to have to rethink their plans at late notice, which can and does create room for error.

Playing the system

I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers, because I haven’t. The fact is, our advertisers know how to work the system to their advantage. Not only have they been around a bit and know how to use our lack of knowledge against us, they know they are in the driving seat. Because the majority of publications operate in a competitive market, they will place their business anywhere that means they reach their target audience at an acceptable cost, whilst retaining as much flexibility as possible. With the onset of digital media, this is truer now than it ever was. Consequently, they give us minimal information at the time of booking and, unless our sales teams are equipped with the knowledge to eek out the information we need, they know it is unlikely there will be any comeback.

In my opinion, this situation has got to change. If we are to stand any chance of improving things, sales MUST get tougher and manage their customers as we expect our suppliers to manage us. As a general rule, if our suppliers mess up, they pay. If we mess up, we pay. So why should our advertisers be any different? Any business will react positively if they are given the right incentive and unnecessary additional costs are a great incentive if they are big enough and common enough. Unfortunately, there is no incentive for advertisers to change because they don’t even know there is a problem. The reason they don’t know there is a problem is because we or our suppliers absorb the impact. I’m sure they would soon change their ways if sales were to go back to them with an unexpected bill because the inserts arrived late or because the actual differs from the brief or because they missed the delivery deadline or weren’t labelled correctly.

I’ve thought long and hard about how this industry can change the current situation but, unfortunately, a few extra costs from the odd publisher are not going to change anything. To induce the change in our advertisers’ behaviour, it is going to take a concerted effort at an industry level from a significant number of publishing companies. Perhaps one answer lies in the terms and conditions on which we accept bookings. How hard would it be to include a simple statement which clearly says that any costs incurred by the publisher as a direct result of the advertiser’s failure to disclose information or follow detailed instructions would be passed back to them?

The question of how to get the costs right is even harder to identify because each and every publisher operates slightly differently, with different suppliers and rate structures. It is possible to build a spreadsheet to work out what postage costs are incurred for full run inserts, but it’s harder to do this if there are splits involved. Insertion costs are easy if all the relevant information is available and the person taking the booking knows how it is going to be fulfilled. Sadly it’s not so easy if it’s not and they don’t. Consequently, I think each publisher could identify a process which enables them to calculate all the costs involved and I am convinced that sales teams would benefit from a day spent shadowing the production and circulation departments and getting into the printers and / or mailing houses to see how inserts are fulfilled.

Finally, when I first started thinking about this article, I knew it was a contentious issue. I thought it was going to be a simple case of writing about the problems and giving potential solutions, but I was wrong. It was only after I started writing that I got to realise that the problems and solutions go a lot deeper and are more diverse than I originally thought. In short, there is no easy answer to the problems with inserts, but I do hope this article has made you think about the issues and potential solutions.