The Direct Mail Workflow: Getting It Right for Print
Computer-to-plate (CTP) promised to revolutionize the way most things are printed. It promised to streamline the process, enhance quality and, ultimately, cut costs. Ask most printing companies, and they'll likely sing the praises of CTP, for it has, in fact, lived up to many of these declarations. And yet, there remains a place in the digital workflow that requires greater attention to reap the full benefits of CTP: the way digital files are created and exchanged.
Think of the printing costs you could save if the workflow always went smoothly, if the digital files created for the printer would process seamlessly through the printer's own workflow, without a hitch. Prepress costs could be eliminated almost entirely. That's the ideal, but it's far from the reality for most printing companies and their customers today.
Many printers suggest that as many as 85 percent of the digital files they
receive from customers are problematic, requiring some form of intervention before the job can proceed. Many of the digital file errors they see are merely innocent mistakes that easily could have been fixed at the art director's desk-top, such as a missing font, an errant RGB image or a resolution conflict.
No matter how simple a problem with a file may be, fixing it requires time and expense. Either the printer takes on the responsibility for making the alteration and reproofing the file, or it puts the onus back on the customer to make the fix and resubmit the job. Either way, the project's schedule and the bottom line are compromised.
Attention on the Front-end Processes
The ideal scenario--the most efficient and cost-effective way for printers and customers to work together--is to have content correctly prepared by the content creator, according to specific prepress para-meters established by the printer.
Charles Eldred is creative director for Direct Marketing Network, a Houston-based direct marketing agency. It's the company's mission to help its Fortune 1000 customers "retain their current customers or acquire new customers," according to Eldred.
The agency offers a blend of services, including print, online, e-mail and database marketing for such renowned corporations as JP Morgan Chase, Verizon Wireless, Microsoft and Reliant Energy, to name a few. "All [of these] marketing tactics ... are important [in] acquiring and retaining customers," Eldred explains. "The objective and market determine the mix of tactics we use for each client. No two programs are the same."
Print continues to be strong for Direct Marketing Network and its clients. "Direct mail makes up the largest percentage of our business," Eldred notes.
And producing a successful direct mail effort requires much more than great copy and good design. "Our services focus on creative, data processing, quality control and flawless execution. All of these elements are important for an effective campaign," Eldred explains. As creative director, he feels it's his
responsibility not only to provide effective aesthetics, but to make certain that the marketing messages reproduce accurately--whether they're in print, online, in an e-mail or otherwise.
"[We] establish and maintain high creative and production standards," Eldred notes. "I have to make sure that everything we deliver meets our clients' expectations."
Controlling the digital content--particularly when it can be repurposed in so many forms--is a new challenge for creative professionals like Eldred. "When a typical direct mail package can involve several matching pieces, customized with unique messages, going into multiple markets, personalized for every customer with variable data, a tremendous amount of attention to detail and quality control is required. When the press is running a million copies, a small mistake can be very expensive."
And so, Eldred has built a creative workflow that utilizes cutting-edge
design technologies, as well as quality-control measures. "A typical creative project will start with concepts on pencil and paper," Eldred explains. "Everything ends up on the computer, using QuarkXPress and the Adobe Creative Suite of applications. We use fully loaded Macintosh OS/X systems with 21-inch monitors calibrated to a Xerox Phaser 7750 printer."
With these tools, the design team is able to create--and supply to a printervirtually any type of file format the job requires, including PDF, but Eldred prefers to send printers native application files, such as a Quark document. "Because of the complexity of most of our print jobs, we supply files in their full format of original creation," he remarks. "We prefer to send editable files to our printers, in case the client calls with a last-minute change. The clients' needs come first. We've had to say, 'Hold the press!' many times."
Leverage Technology to Root Out File Errors
Before Direct Marketing Network releases a digital file to any printer, it's run through the desktop application FlightCheck Professional, a solution from Markzware that looks inside the file to adjudicate its validity and make certain that all the components are present and accounted for.
"Complex files that require versioning are composed using QuarkXPress," Eldred continues. "More artistic endeavors are created using Adobe InDesign CS. We use Adobe Acrobat PDFs extensively for internal and external proofing and client approvals. And we use FlightCheck for preflighting and preparing files for release.
"Among the many quality controls in place, we created an internal release form to be completed and signed by the production artist. It's a matter of policy to run FlightCheck before releasing art to print. Running the files through FlightCheck helps us meet our internal quality-control requirements. ... It's crucial that we set up the files appropriately. Good news? There are programs to help you do that," Eldred notes.
The New Creative/Print Relationship
Eldred, like most seasoned creative professionals, has seen the scope of his job change with the introduction of new technologies. While designers and art directors could once sit back and concentrate on aesthetics, allowing the printer to care for digital file problems, times have changed. With greater focus on the bottom line--and the demand for "better, faster, cheaper" print--
creative professionals now see the opportunity to accept greater responsibility for digital file creation and for shaving unnecessary prepress expense from their clients' print invoices.
"Technology has brought a tremendous evolution to the print industry," Eldred attests. "The constant introduction of new and affordable technologies is amazing.
"As an artist, I want to say, 'The design is most important.' However,
I must admit, my most crucial general responsibility is to make sure the art files are error-free when we release them. ... A big idea is only a small portion of what it takes to produce a successful [direct mail campaign]. It demands extensive planning, communication, attention to detail and the right tools."