The Missing Receptionist And The Race To The Bottom

This week our UK correspondent, will pick over the carcass of the British Web Offset Industry. Whilst reminiscing on a time when you would have needed to hire the Royal Albert Hall to house a meeting of the industries CEO’s and their egos, today they could share a cosy packed lunch in a Smart car and still have room for a picnic table and napkins.

Before exploring and understanding the world of UK web offset in 2016 it is important to revisit the past twenty years and look for reasons as to where it all went so horribly wrong and why we are where we are today.

In the nineties, the UK offered a choice of web offset printers, those that could print and those that couldn’t. Much like sausage rolls the price point varied wildly. The artisan crafted roll, filled with sausage meat from the finest cuts of hand reared Gloucester Old Spot pigs and encased in flaky pastry proffered by the likes of St Ives and Whatmough’s cost a fortune. This was balanced by the inept offering from the likes of lesser quality printers that would even make Gregg’s the bakers blush to sell them as a savoury comestible.

So, the buying decision was easy, pay the going rate and your job generally looks good and is delivered on time. Go budget and discover an unintended new world of 3D printing, with the cover on back to front with delivery two months after the publication date.

Into the noughties, everything changed. As Big Ben ushered in the new Millennium and teenage girls all over Britain wept along to Westlife as they caterwauled a cover version of Terry Jacks ‘Seasons in the Sun’, under the cover of darkness and to no great fanfare, Technology arrived in the print sector.

CTP and closed loop colour management systems meant that even the most ham fisted minder could rustle up something presentable. Instead of buying on quality and service, the dreaded word ‘Price’ entered the purchasing lexicon as the single most important factor in most buyers’ decision making. Unbeknown to all of us, the race to the bottom had begun, we just hadn’t heard the starter’s pistol.

Commander Grand Moff Tarkin is not a name readily known to many. As scoundrels go he was a right out of the top drawer, in charge of the Death Star that caused Luke Skywalker and his chums so much angst and forced Ewok’s everywhere to cover their eyes and ears and squeal. What has this to do with printing you may very well ask?

Well around the late nineties, printings very own ‘Death Star’ appeared over the horizon in the form of Europe’s largest Independent Printer and it began to absorb other businesses. Its plan was to place volume before price, and its leaderships’ favoured maxim was ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’.   These seven little words would leave an industry on life support for a generation.

Since the year 2000 in excess of thirty web offset factories have closed, some because they were truly awful, some because they hadn’t invested wisely, some who had no margin to invest, some due to terrible management. Others got out of the business altogether, ditched their suits and now ply their wares profitably in something known as Marketing Services.

However, there were a number of good, high quality, independent suppliers who suffered fatal collateral damage when print became just a commodity to be sold at the lowest price.  Whilst this was going on all of the largest groups, with debts that made their bank manager lose sleep, at some stage they were ‘refinanced’ or ‘Pre-Packed’.  The largest of all has just clocked up yet another pre pack, it’s enough to make you wonder if PWC and Ernst and Young hand out Nectar Points?

One of the first notable signs that things were going amiss in the industry was when people at the various sites started going missing. On arrival at a site you used to be greeted by the receptionist. She was the face of the company for visitors, almost the most important member of the sales team, she knew everything and everyone. She soothed angst ridden customers with tea and butties when their press pass had gone back by five hundred hours or sorted a cab, traced a recalcitrant production manager and generally acted like your favourite aunt. Somehow a card saying ‘Sorry our reception is unattended at this time, please ring Ext 111 for assistance’ doesn’t really cut the mustard.

One printer in the Midlands has stood firm against this unfortunate trend. Despite having a sales force comprised of the bland, the insipid and the grey, led by a man bearing all the more eccentric traits of Messrs Brent and Partridge, housed in an office that bears a striking resemblance to a branch of Ladbrokes, the company is doing well. How so you ask? Could it be the ‘employee of the month’ badges the staff wear or the TV screens that automatically monitor how many trips to the toilet each poor rep takes? Or could it be that they have the best receptionist/Sales person in the business them makes them palatable to deal with. No need to call Inspector Morse to solve this particular riddle.

Whilst the words ‘Customer and Service’ are a total anathema to prints gnomic bean counters and will have them pulling a face like they had been sucking lemons, they are words that are not forgotten on the continent and with the advent of a European web offset market they would be foolish to ignore.

So here we are today with an industry that boasts at most only three leading lights and a supporting cast of half a dozen or so.  Sadly, whilst not all are Sir Michael Gambon it is also pleasing to note that there aren’t that many Keith Lemons either. So off to the Batmobile we go to look at life on the road for the weary press passer on the highways and byways of Great Britain.


Bearing in mind that virtually all of the plants you are likely to visit are situated on an Industrial Estate/Park the most likely form of cuisine available will be of the ‘Camionette Blanche’ rather than the ‘Nouvelle’ variety.

The aforementioned ‘Camionette Blanche’ or ‘White Van’ to use the colloquial form will be manned by members of the same family, regardless of the location within the UK.

For the more experienced traveller, I would highly recommend that you travel into the hinterland of the chosen supplier where treats can be found. Particular mention should be given to ‘Winking Willies’ Fish and Chip emporia in Scarborough, so good it can be mentioned in the same breath as the Wetherby Whaler and Bryans in Headingly.

Should you be particularly unfortunate and have to stay in any of these venues for longer than one meal, please contact Jamie Oliver via the link on the BPIF website (#takepityonthetraveller) and he will send a food parcel containing mung beans, alfalfa, tofu, pea shoots, guava and some lightly caramelised pigs cheeks to help you towards your ‘five a day’.

Printing Culture

The first thing to say is that in general the quality of the printers manning British presses are pretty much as good as you will find anywhere across Europe. Provided you explain your objectives clearly, they will work with you to achieve the desired goal.

The second thing to say is that, largely due to the unsustainable pricing levels on offer in the UK, there has been a chronic lack of investment in QUALITY equipment across the board over the past ten to fifteen years that has left the British industry trailing behind their continental cousins.

Sadly this situation is not likely to change in the near future. ‘Price’, whether we like it or not, is still at the heart of most buying decisions made in the UK. If asked to place a high quality, colour critical product at a UK web house today I would struggle to come up with three names that were up to the task.

Final Thoughts

As the magazine market, which still drives the larger format web offset sector, continues on its painful and protracted death spiral as it heads to a digital only age, the need for printers to be more enterprising in their choice of press configuration and target audience has never been more pressing. The oft mooted idea that the ‘Last man standing’ in the industry will in the end make a ‘killing’ is frankly ridiculous. By the time we are left with only one magazine printer and ‘The race to the bottom is run’, there will be no high volume magazines left to print. All in all, a bit sad.


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