A lot of development has been going on at the Dartford River Crossing, that favourite of traffic announcers explaining why there are clockwise or anti-clockwise tailbacks on the M25.
The idea is that these will become a thing of the past as the analogue toll booths give way to digital technology, snapping the number plate of each vehicle using the tunnel or the bridge and docking the fee directly from bank accounts.
At the moment motorists must endure the pain of a contorted route through the construction until nirvana is reached and traffic jams are banished.
A few hundred metres south of the tunnel, at Howard Hunt a significant investment is also underway. The company has shifted a gear to enable it to grow beyond its current £75 million turnover.
The print business has taken delivery of a new MIS, there is a new reelfed sheetfed press and new joint managing directors in Lucy Edwards and Danny Clarke, previously marketing director and sales director respectively.
Luke Piggott remains CEO, but with the strategic task of steering a group which is rapidly becoming a data driven direct marketing enterprise able to help customers communicate through websites, through email or SMS or of course through direct mail.
Like the roadworks on the road outside the factory, this has involved disruption as the company comes to terms with the technology it now has. The end, however, is in sight and Luke Piggott is looking forwards to improvements in efficiency across the print business.
A lot is expected of the Imprint MIS in this regard. Lucy Edwards, whose duties as joint managing director cover operational and financial matters, says that the company now has a single business information system that straddles the entire business instead of pockets of data.
This is thanks to the direct machine interface that Imprint offers, linking to the machines to count good copies and to record the reasons why good copies are not being produced.
There is also the ability to drill down through the data, to measure by added value scores and to access the MIS through an iPad. “It is a completely new way of working for us,” she explains.
Equally the long perfecting KBA Rapida 106 that now dominates the production floor required getting used to. The speed of makeready as well as running speed have meant that plate flow to the press has needed speeding up and that the company has had to get used to a running speed almost twice that of its old sheetfed technology.
In production terms it is another web press to run alongside the company’s 16pp Mitsubishi. That can run reel to reel for offline finishing or reel to sheet. The KBA runs only reel to sheet, but with much faster makeready times, can be treated as a short run web press.
The installation of a new Scheffer web finishing line means that there is more capacity for the web presses to re-reel leaving the sheetfed finishing line to be kept busy by the new KBA.
The new Scheffer also opens additional possibilities for the business as it can deliver finished three-edge sealed products that earn a huge discount when processed by the Royal Mail, says Edwards.
It is one example of the sort of innovation that is at the heart of the Howard Hunt direct marketing business. Sometimes this emerges in campaign strategies that involve email and websites, at others it involves new takes on the standard mail packs that have been a staple of direct marketing for many years.
“We have to come up with ways to make a pack work harder,” she says. To this end a special innovations team has been created to have the conversations with clients that kick off with “Do you realise what we can do with the technology at our fingertips?”
At the moment this does not include high volume digital printing. The company has a range of Xerox cut sheet machines and Xeikon web presses, which are used in trigger marketing campaigns driven perhaps by a consumer interacting with a website and providing the details that can drive a personalised mail shot.
The company was the UK beta site for the Kodak Prosper 5000, but this was returned. “The market wasn’t ready for the Prosper at the time,” says Edwards. “We are direct mail specialists and are driven by our customers.”
Howard Hunt has no involvement in transactional print where the high speed inkjet presses have so far made their mark in this country, so has no base line demand to build on. “We continue to look at white paper solutions however,” she says. “It is where the market is very interesting at the moment.”
Currently there is a new appreciation for the impact that printed communications can have, marketers having found that email can easily be ignored or worse. But the return to print is not a return to pre-recession levels of consumption. Customers, and Howard Hunt works across the gamut of direct, agency and print management, want more.
At one end this means speed to compete with digital channels, “data in one day and stuff out the next,” she says. At another this means greater creativity to deliver the impact. And at all levels it means working alongside digital instead of in separate silos.
“We have to understand how each media works. If we can’t do that we will not survive because otherwise what we do is just a commodity service. We have to talk to customers about the value, how we can help them improve impact and deliver the customer experience they want.”
To this end under the group umbrella there is Celerity as a data handling business that is also the leading distributor and developer for Adobe Campaign. There is Graft as an outsourcing business to bring in items that are not produced in house, mostly promotional items that form part of a campaign. ORM is an acquisition which focuses on how consumers interact with websites.
The idea is that Howard Hunt is the enabler of communication between brand and the consumer. “Our job is to stop marketers worrying about communication and to make direct mail easier for clients to use,” she adds.
It means that Howard Hunt has an à la carte menu of services that clients can select from. Some will only want some aspects, print and mail for example, others will want the full monty because they have no internal data skills and want the microsites and emails that are part of a cross media campaign.
For what was a print business, this is evolutionary if not revolutionary. It has been driven by competition, says Edwards. “Competition drives us forwards, creates innovation and new products, makes us strive for innovation.”
It has been enabled by the company taking a keen interest in what lies on the other side of the bridge, understanding for example the services that the postal services around the world offer.
To that end she says Royal Mail has really upped its game. There has been recognition of the need to make it easier for marketers to choose direct mail, with a range of discounts and now Mailmark to track when the mail is delivered as well as producing further discounts.
This across the board confidence in direct mail justifies the timing of the investments being made now. “And there are plans to spend a similar amount in the next financial year,” she adds. “This will focus on slightly different areas. We are incredibly ambitious, looking at acquisitions as well as organic growth.”
This has so far taken Howard Hunt to 279 people spread around the UK and into Europe where there are operations in Madrid etc. Print production remains in Dartford.
There has been a rebranding exercise to underline these changes, the orange remains but logo and image have been smartened up. Internally there are new meeting rooms for client discussions.
It is a slicker more professional consultative operation that is looking forwards. Something that the changes at the Dartford Crossing might also bring.
A lot is expected of the Imprint MIS. Lucy Edwards, whose duties as joint managing director cover operational and financial matters, says that the company now has a single business information system that straddles the entire business instead of pockets of data.
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There is also the ability to drill down through the data, to measure by added value scores and to access the MIS through an iPad.
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