6 Ways to Unlock Value Within Your Marketing Supply Chain
This blog was contributed by Stephen Marshman, business development director, SGK.
As part of the Business Development function at SGK, I am increasingly fortunate to be working alongside our Client Solutions team. This talented group is SGK’s consultancy division; a dispersed global community with diverse backgrounds united by the common goal of helping our clients unlock value within their marketing supply chain.
Tasked with delivering growth, I find partnering with the Client Solutions team often provides a productive starting point for a conversation with a prospective client, rather than simply navigating them through a range of traditional graphics service offerings.
It’s not really a surprise.
The rewards for our clients and prospective clients are significant, with projects usually delivering savings far in excess of what a company would spend on artwork or pre-press, for example. So I’ve been on a steep learning curve to better understand where we might start looking to explain why a marketing supply chain isn’t working as well as it should.
Of course, the reasons will be many and varied and differ from company to company but I thought I’d share the top six I’ve encountered to get the ball rolling.
The organic process evolution effect.
One of the fundamental challenges a lot of businesses face is that parts of their marketing supply chain (and in some cases the majority of their supply chain) have been inherited. As anyone who works for an organisation where growth has come largely through merger and acquisition will know, despite the best efforts of programs that aim to harmonise and optimise processes and systems, where standardising such aspects of how we work is not deemed a top priority, old ways of working will remain in place.
In some companies this tendency can become a real impediment to efficiency; in the absence of a strategic approach, there will often be layer upon layer of process that has evolved organically. In a global organisation, even the same simple activity within a process, such as how a code is generated, for example, could be reliant on multiple different processes across the organisation.
In such an environment, making wide-reaching improvements can be tough. No one wants to give up their way of working; people are generally very protective of their method of doing things. In this context it is sometimes necessary to return to a blank sheet of paper and set about designing the optimum solution. To do this often requires facilitation by a neutral third party.
This is currently a very fashionable term but it took an unexpected example from a long time ago to help me understand it. I grew up in Britain in the 1970s, so I apologise in advance for using a cultural reference that reflects this and potentially alienates those who grew up in a different time and space.
One of my childhood TV favourites was a children’s show called Bagpuss. The titular character was a toy cat made of cloth who really didn’t do a lot (beyond yawning) but he shared the stage with a wooden woodpecker called Professor Yaffle and some seemingly industrious toy mice. And it’s these mice that are exposed by Yaffle as harbouring a “Hidden Factory”.
The mice have an impressive looking chocolate biscuit factory. Ingredients in large sacks are hoisted in at the front, there is a lot of feverish mouse activity and then a perfectly formed chocolate biscuit rolls out of a chute and is whisked away in a tiny truck.
Yaffle – a process engineer ahead of his time – is sceptical. Why can’t he see what happens to the ingredients? Why is the finished product taken away so quickly? It looks like a lot of activity is happening but it’s all taking place behind the scenes.
Soon enough our intrepid woodpecker exposes the mice as frauds. They are simply recycling the same sacks of ingredients into their factory and then wheeling out the same single chocolate biscuit every time. They’re not producing anything. As a four-year old I was probably bitterly disappointed that the factory wasn’t really making chocolate biscuits but forty years on I see how it's a great example of the hidden factory problem.
Of course, we’re not talking about fake production lines here but how many of us can honestly say that there aren’t processes and practices that exist within our marketing supply chain where no one is really sure what value they add?
Like the mice, it is not unusual to find organisations where people are often overwhelmed by the work they do but where it is not always clear that those activities are providing a clear business benefit, let alone being optimised. Sometimes we need a Professor Yaffle to take a closer look.
A lack of good data.
Nearly every time I’ve been involved in implementing a new process for a client, there are people on the Steering Committee who, quite rightly, want to make sure that the new way of working (and usually the new supplier) will be able to deliver all the efficiencies that were promised.
For me, this is standard best practice and should be part of any new engagement. What is quite revealing however, and frequently hampers this objective being achieved, is how difficult it is to arrive upon any reliable data that provides a true picture of the current state. I am often surprised at just how little good data exists within businesses so that they can actually make informed decisions about marketing supply chains in the first place.
Of course this problem is not universal and you may be reading this from the fortunate position of having reliable data about how your business is performing but all too often accurate data isn't there. Benchmarking is impossible and if not addressed a lack of good data inevitably leads to sub-optimal decision-making and poor prioritisation.
It’s almost always about the input.
This one shouldn’t come as any surprise. What is surprising is how often an organisation doesn’t address the issue. It’s all too common to see a defect tolerant mentality in operations whereby stakeholders will find sometimes elaborate ways of accommodating poor inputs and develop workarounds to mitigate, rather than address the root cause.
This is not a fix and it certainly doesn’t help in the quest for efficiency.
The earlier defects enter the supply chain, the more destructive their effect. The cost of correcting something at the end of the process that was wrong at the input stage will almost always be greater than the effort required to develop a sustainable solution. In the graphics supply chain a defective input that can go undetected can have a disastrous impact, not just in terms of costs but also in terms of quality and reputation.
My popular cultural reference for this one comes from the classic rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. The film follows a rock band that wants to make a big impact with their live set and decide that having a full size replica of Stonehenge descend during the gig will do the job. Unfortunately, they mix up feet and inches when they specify the dimensions and the replica stones are barely knee-high.
Our end product might be an artwork file rather than a replica model of Stonehenge but we will also feel the pain of not having inputs correct upfront.
Technology has to fit.
Technology, when correctly specified and deployed, is of course one of the greatest ways of improving marketing supply chain efficiency. The difficulty here is that technology solutions are frequently implemented before the business case is properly developed and understood. In these instances, technology can often become a blocker rather than an enabler.
Over-engineered solutions can end up slowing down and suffocating the process they were designed to streamline. On the one hand, technology can become a limiter that inhibits potential but the equally dangerous ‘shiny new object’ syndrome that causes businesses to be deflected from core activities as users become too focused on the technology in its own right.
Another technology issue arises when multiple systems are part of the supply chain but have very little integration. I have seen people on packaging technology teams and artwork coordination roles crippled by processes that require them to collect, transfer and duplicate data across multiple systems to make the tiniest steps forward in a workflow. Technology should be our friend but when badly designed or deployed, it can also become a major barrier to optimising the marketing supply chain.
Decentralisation hinders efficiency.
When the ‘centre cannot hold’ things fall apart or so the WB Yeats poem tells us. We might not want to take this too literally, but it’s certainly the case that a heavily decentralised organisational structure can make supply chain efficiency much harder to achieve.
Closely related to the process evolution effect described above, where businesses are highly siloed and lack enterprise-wide focus, attempts to implement global efficiencies are often frustrated.
In the graphics world, fragmentation takes different forms: regions or markets wanting to work in their own way, individual brands developing bespoke processes and, in organisations where there is a manufacturing-led approach to the graphics supply chain, it is not uncommon for each production site to have its own completely unique set of processes, practices and systems.
I think it is an oversimplification to assume that a decentralised structure will always be inefficient and, by extension, that a highly centralized approach will always deliver optimized results. In fact, a failure to recognise the nuances of certain markets or brands can be equally damaging, but it is still undoubtedly the case that those organisations that can effectively identify aspects of their supply chain to centralise, standardise and harmonise have a distinct advantage in terms of delivering efficiency.
So there it is, a brief look at some of the reasons your graphics supply chain might not be fulfilling its potential. If the above challenges are currently evident in your organisation and you’d like some help in addressing them, please get in touch. Failing that, by way of cultural personal indulgence, why not treat yourself this weekend to Bagpuss, This is Spinal Tap and the poetry of W.B. Yeats.
About Stephen Marshman: Stephen has twenty years’ experience in the artwork and packaging sector having begun his career with graphics specialist SGK in 1997. Today he works as a Business Development Director, focused on helping companies implement best practice artwork processes.
Stephen played a pioneering role in the development of SGK’s unique approach to helping clients implement process improvements more than fifteen years ago and remains a key part of the global team today. Earlier in his career he enjoyed a range of client-facing roles, including working on-site at clients’ facilities, providing him with valuable first-hand insights into the specific supply chain challenges organisations face.