Forum 2018 Session to Examine How to Avoid Argument & Come to Agreement
Here’s something printers and brand owners can agree on, 100 percent of the time: Dreading the press approval process. The moments leading up to a first pull can be rife with anxiety, says Transcontinental Robbie’s Scott McLeod, and finding middle ground over comments like, “When we said, ‘natural looking,’ we meant, you know, ‘natural looking,’” or, “I thought this would be more bluish-green than greenish-blue” can border on an exercise in futility.
How best to navigate those tricky conversations (or avoid them entirely)? How to prepare for the most common pitfalls? How to spot problems along the way and solve them before approval time? Forum 2018’s “Press Approval Match Game” session will cover these questions and more, in pursuit of making the first pull an uneventful and stress-free experience. Here, Scott talks to FLEXO Magazine and previews his presentation, where he will cover the importance of communication, typical obstacles and how Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances (FIRST) helps the whole process.
FLEXO Magazine: Why is the press approval process such a delicate dance between printer and brand owner?
Scott McLeod: Everyone is heavily invested at this point. We have picked our path, made our commitments and it is generally too late to introduce change. Nobody wants to be disappointed or surprised and are likely concerned that this is exactly what is going to happen. Often, the people who are tasked with handling the approval are expecting a negative experience—particularly if the pairing between printer and approver is a new one and the expected outcome is unknown.
Typically, when the printer and approver see the first pull, it is the first time either of them has seen the results of their work up to that point. If confidence is not high, it can create a fair amount of anxiety. Both parties involved often see it as a laborious process of negotiating expectations and results that could be avoided if we’d just done something differently.
FLEXO: What are some of the most common pitfalls a printer can run into when trying to get a customer to sign off on a proof?
McLeod: Starting from the beginning of the process, not having a clear understanding of what the customer’s expectations are and what we need to do to meet them. Additionally, not taking the up-front ownership to make sure those things are understood and can be executed on in a way that they can be met, and finally, potentially allowing ourselves to get to approval time with a proof that doesn’t meet those expectations which we then intend to match. We, as printers, cannot take the passenger role in the graphics development process. We have a responsibility to make sure we are informed.
Another pitfall I have seen is that, while we go to great lengths to make sure we know what the customer expects, we often make little effort to communicate what we, as the printer, expect. For example—the proof is the target. We can agree on that much. But it has to be the only target, and we need to make that clear. We also need to have a protocol up front that covers how we will proceed under conditions that vary from what we have agreed upon.
Finally, we need to make sure the right people will be present during the process. From the printer’s perspective, we need to make sure we have people involved who can act on behalf of our organization and have some authority to make decisions. We shouldn’t leave this process to folks who are unprepared to keep the ball moving forward in the event of a deviation. This should be the case for the brand owner as well. The person doing the approval should be someone involved from the beginning, who has a clear understanding of what is to be accomplished and is able to make decisions.
From an execution perspective—not delivering a print that matches the proof. This is what we have committed to doing. The way we get to this point is through rigorous characterization to develop an understanding of what we are capable of delivering. We have to spend the time to understand our process variables and capability at a level that allows us to be confident in what the final output will be. There should be no surprises at this point in the process. In some cases, a printer can view this as added cost and work to minimize the economic footprint of this part of the process—only to then pay the price later in poor execution at the time of approval. This isn’t only problematic with customers present—it can invade our organization on a day-to-day basis.
FLEXO: Communication is a huge part in the approval process. How can a brand owner best express its wants and needs? And when a printer doesn’t fully deliver on those wants and needs, whose fault is it?
McLeod: The best thing to do here is get the printer involved right up front and make sure, from the beginning, the communications involve a representative of the company who is tasked with the execution piece and who can then be the voice of the customer in the printer’s environment. It would be helpful to provide a design briefing to bring clarity to what they intend to communicate with the packaging. Often, this happens without the printer’s awareness, and we end up with graphics to reproduce with no idea what the brand hopes to accomplish.
When a printer doesn’t deliver there can be a number of reasons why, and that really should be the subject of some investigation to understand the shortcomings of the process that took place. There is no cut-and-dried answer to this. In many cases, there could be shared responsibility on why the end result fell short. We, as printers, need to own our part in that, but that doesn’t mean we need to fall on the sword.
Regardless, the press approval is not the place to decide whose fault it is. The focus should be on how to resolve the issue. This is a very good reason to have folks involved in the press approval process who can handle an issue with the respect it deserves. This often needs to involve a sales representative, as they are typically the best at navigating this type of issue.
FLEXO: What role does characterization play, and is it something in which the brand owner should be included?
McLeod: Characterization plays a huge role and is equally as important as process control. Done poorly or with little detail, we can end up with results that are lukewarm and/or less predictable than what they should be. It is almost impossible to characterize for every possible situation without knowledge of what you will be asked to do, however, when you see a situation coming that doesn’t necessarily fit what your characterization work has been designed to accomplish—it is a judicious step to address it as early as possible.
This is where a brand owner should be brought into the loop. If the graphics they are asking to be executed bring an element to the table that requires additional work, they should at least be aware of it. Done early enough, that gives them the chance to plan around the need from a timing perspective, and potentially evaluate the need for whatever it is that is going to be outside the norm. A quick example might be a brand manager or design firm asking for a pictorial image to be built using a non-standard process color to minimize the total number required for the job.
FLEXO: Talk about the importance of guidelines like Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances (FIRST) in delivering to a customer the vision it has (and agrees to) at the design stage.
McLeod: This is really a great question for Byron Pendleton of The ALC Group (who is also speaking in this session), as they handle the lion’s share of our prepress where many of the benefits of doing this are important, but I am aware of many of them as they start to bleed into the execution side of this.
FIRST gives us a set of guidelines, specifications and methodologies that will result in a design printable under flexo conditions and graphics that meet our expectations and can be executed—clearly this is the objective. Following FIRST in the design stage gets everyone on the same page right up front. It calls for an understanding of the print process capabilities and substrates being used to execute the package as part of the design process. It allows us to avoid much of the rework that is required when a design is constructed in a way that doesn’t take these things into account up front and then has to be modified to be printable.
Often, we get a design that is assembled without this knowledge or potentially adapted to use elements from other applications like digital media, advertising materials, etc. and the flexo process simply isn’t capable of delivering an equivalent end result. If the brand owner gets happy with a design developed without following these guidelines and without this information taken into account, that then has to be modified in order to be printed, then the first disappointment has likely been realized very early on.
One of the reasons I suggested that the printer cannot take a passenger role in the development process is that there can be a disconnect with the initial FIRST recommendation that the brand owner drive the collaboration process—Oftentimes, they don’t. With what seems to be an increasing frequency, we see the brand owner contracting much of this to a third party to manage, and quite often this additional variable results in a communication breakdown at some point in the process. As printers, we cannot let that be a roadblock to being successful.