Controlling the Catalog Production Process

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As postal rates climb, competition for customers increases and the economy slows, many catalog executives will need to explore new ways of controlling marketing and promotional budgets.


Any marketing budget audit should examine all facets of the marketing process, including lists, postage, fulfillment, staffing, merchandising, warehousing and catalog production.


Catalog production is just one area to examine, but it should be one primary area because it typically involves a large budget. It is no longer enough, nor is it advised, simply to apply pressure to your valued suppliers and shave a few points from the bottom-line expenditures; this only hurts the partnership that both parties worked hard to develop. This frequently happens at budget time or when a boss demands some old-fashioned belt-tightening.


The knee-jerk reaction is to call the supplier and ask that it take a certain percentage off the pricing or jeopardize future business. This may be effective, but it can backfire by creating an adversarial relationship. A recommended approach is to partner with your suppliers and emphasize discovering and using more efficient production work flows and procedures, which can save time and money.


This involves reviewing the entire production work flow from a top-down perspective, incorporating all facets of the process and determining whether you are producing catalogs in the most efficient way possible. This includes looking at photography, creative, copywriting, desktop production, pre-press and printing. Is there room for improvement in any of these? What new technologies and systems should be considered? Perhaps most importantly, is the mix of suppliers and inhouse staff appropriate for the volume of work?


The production process has become confusing and complex over the past several years, brought about mostly by ever-changing digital technologies. The exciting part, though, is that when all the elements of the process work in conjunction, you can save time and money and get a superior product.


Even a few years ago, it was common to do one of two things when faced with a demanding catalog program. The first option for a catalog director was to farm everything out to a catalog agency, in many cases relinquishing control of areas such as paper purchasing that may, in fact, offer an opportunity to uncover inefficiencies and save money.


The second option was to do everything inhouse and face the overwhelming task of recruiting and managing a staff of creative and production personnel. With few exceptions, one of these options was usually taken. If everything was farmed out, aggravation levels went down, but control went down also; if everything was done inhouse, the aggravation went up, but so did control. Unfortunately, at times production costs went up in both cases.


There is a new hybrid solution, made possible by two factors. First, efficient communication networks and better (and cheaper) computer technology have lowered equipment costs, increased ease of use and allowed fast transferring of large files to anywhere in the world. Second, an integration of talents, skills and resources among creative, production and printing professionals has fostered a workforce that is multitalented and capable of producing work that traditionally was considered off limits to each particular discipline.


For instance, a photographer who installs a scanner or digital camera typically will start offering some level of image retouching and color proofing. This would have been unheard of in a nondigital age. In many cases, the level of expertise offered by the photographer is appropriate for the project, but at other times the image will need further attention from a color separator before going to press. This integration of talents has brought about "cross-pollination" that blurs the lines between who does what and who takes responsibility for what.


In the past, the art director, the photographer, the separator and the printer all had well-defined tasks, and no one crossed into the other's field. The role that suppliers are accustomed to is being redefined and, in many cases, entire companies either are going out of business or are re-evaluating their core competencies. This has given the cataloger a strategic advantage, because it is now possible to access the talent needed to produce a catalog without starting an inhouse operation or handing everything to an agency. The hybrid solution is to partner with resources that will give you the most flexibility while facilitating more control, reducing costs and saving valuable time and energy.


With all that said, some specific areas for consideration are digital photography, electronic pre-press and asset management. Digital photography can save time and money by creating a dynamic new workflow that eliminates film, Polaroids, processing and scanning. Most importantly, it allows the art director to approve an image immediately right on screen at the time of image capture, which eliminates costly reshoots. The reassurance of having an approved image stored on the hard drive allows the photographer to strike the set and move on to the next shot, creating further production efficiencies previously unheard of, because it typically takes several hours to see transparencies from the lab. Furthermore, the color fidelity of digital files will be consistent from image to image, making photography more predictable and helping to reduce retouching costs.


Another area is pre-press and printing. Taking advantage of the new electronic work flows is an absolute must for catalogers. Electronic files and digital contract proofs have become the norm and allow an unprecedented ability to make last-minute corrections and to better handle versioning of pages and images. There is an inherent time and production advantage to a digital work flow that can often open up a tight production schedule. Most catalogers that are printing at any of the larger Web printers will have made this transition already, but everyone should adopt it at this point.


The third area worth considering is image (asset) management. Many catalogers have hundreds, if not thousands, of images produced every year. In some cases, these images are used over and over again for catalog revisions and are frequently needed for other marketing efforts. These efforts may include advertisements, store displays, publicity requirements and the Internet. Each effort typically will have unique sizing, resolution and color gamut requirements. These requirements can all be met through a well-conceived asset management solution that takes into account not only present needs but future requirements as well.


In a typical asset management system, the cataloger can have all the scanned images stored on a centralized server and enjoy immediate access to all the images. Images can be located by keywords, dates, publications, sizes and other relevant fields. Furthermore, the images can be archived in a variety of formats, including RGB or CMYK or both, as well as in low resolution or high resolution. The high-resolution image can be downloaded for final use, or a low-resolution version can be accessed for layout purposes. In either case, many individuals at many locations can be given password-protected access to the images, allowing various departments and suppliers to locate the images required for the project at hand. When it comes time to update the archive, a merge/purge process can take place to take unused or outdated images offline. The use of an asset management program can aid in the production of marketing materials and give quick and easy access to many individuals with various needs. It can become a line item on the corporate balance sheet, because it is a quantifiable asset to the company.


All catalogers should consider evaluating the entire production workflow and determine whether there is room for improvement. By partnering with your suppliers, working together and exploiting the latest electronic technologies, you can create efficiencies, save money and prevent a lot of aggravation.


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