Mastering the Art of Improvisation

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By Rick Sands

For those of you lucky enough to have seen a Grateful Dead concert, especially several times, you know that no two nights were ever the same. This was in part because the band’s song catalog was extensive, but more so because they never performed any one song the same way twice. They explored and improvised.

What does this have to do with print? For Fenway Group, ink and paper are the songs, and our presses, the instruments. How we bring them together is our virtuosity. Every day it seems, we take those basic ingredients and create new, innovative work, applying our skills and understanding of our customers’ needs to make each project we produce fresh and different. Every strategy we execute is different from the one before. I’ve been doing this for nearly 25 years now, and the approach has been working for us. We’ve been growing organically by eight to 20 percent per year since 2008 (yes, even through the recession).

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a “Deadhead.” Since my late teens, I’ve embraced this music and been to my share of live shows. Although I’ve traded my tie-dye T-Shirt for a more buttoned-down look, I’m able to look back and derive lessons from my experience. I know that every entrepreneur has a unique story, and I would never have predicted my own. I’m a printer who never envisioned himself to be a printer. I’m also a printer who for over 10 years hasn’t really sold printing services. My philosophy has always been, “The less we sell print, the more print we sell.”

connectivity wasn’t a thing yet. In this early digital age, the speediest way to get the client’s file was via modem. So we bought and installed modems. That was our X factor, finding a solution to a client’s communications problem. And that was the breakthrough moment in my thinking. We aren’t a printer that does design, nor a design firm that does print. We are a marketing communications services provider. Print is only a means, not an end. Only one spoke in our wheel.

Play Your Hand

As you know too well, 2008 brought a recession. Doom and gloom were the headlines of the day. Was this economic climate combined with evolving digital technologies the demise of print? What I saw was that print had become a commodity. And as a commodity, it was not a viable business model on its own. If we could add extra value to our print services, I believed we could turn challenges into success and not chase the downward spiral of becoming a low-cost provider.

Our reality through the recession was quite different than the headlines. Acquiring new customers was difficult, but by looking carefully at a select group of business verticals among our existing clients, we added services and solutions that fit their new realities. We saw opportunity among education, healthcare, and nonprofit organizations. We doubled down on learning how to provide solutions for these clients. Once again, we looked to technology solutions to help our clients communicate better with their audiences — now, by using multiple channels.

This meant teaching the Fenway band a few new songs. Our designers started learning html, designing for web and email, and tying that design back to printed pieces. Our print team learned how to take data and integrate it into different platforms for personalized, cross-media communications. Both groups worked together to provide email marketing with variable data, tracking, and follow-up campaigns. This led us to multi-channel, integrated communications generated from mastering database technology. Our first such project was to design 
and produce marketing materials for the first Printing Industries of America Converge Conference in 
2010. The theme of the conference was cross-media marketing, and our products and services reflected those strategies: personalized print, QR codes, direct and email marketing, and integration with website landing pages. This crystalized my business philosophy: We would not sell print; we would sell cross-platform solutions.

This meant teaching the Fenway band a few new songs. Our designers started learning html, designing for web and email, and tying that design back to printed pieces.


Instead of talking to our clients about “print,” we started talking with them about “direct mail.” And when we talked to them about direct mail, we started printing more. The more we talked, the more we printed. We were in the middle of a recession, and the demand for our printing services grew so much we needed to buy an additional offset press to keep up.

We talked to our clients about QR codes and landing pages, personalization and data management. We found that we were bringing them new ideas and strategies to deliver their content. This helped evolve our X factor.

Take the example of our work with a local medical school. In 2011, we had been servicing their continuing education department, primarily by printing and binding their black and white syllabi. One day our client was dropping off files, and she shared with me that getting good data via their direct mail efforts was a significant challenge. The print course brochures had a registration form that the doctors historically mailed back. Each form had a reference to a list number. Returned forms proved the efficacy of various purchased mail lists. The problem now was that 80 percent of the doctors were registering online, not mailing in forms, and the online process did not accommodate the list code. This was another X-factor moment.


Rick Sands

Even though we’d never done it before, I told the client we could track that information, but we’d have to do things a little differently. Instead of making one plate that would have list codes stoned off for the mail-in registration, we would make extra black plates with unique web URLs to match each list. We ran the job in sections by mailing list, hanging a fresh black plate with a unique URL. With each list tying back to one URL, we could track click-through rates (CTR) and gather data about which lists were driving traffic to online registration.

We gathered the data analytics and created a baseline from which our client could work more efficiently and improve performance. More importantly, we broke new ground with the school and secured a lasting and fruitful relationship. This quickly expanded into more courses, more brochures, and more direct mail, which expanded further into emails, website landing pages, and multi-channel marketing campaigns. Welcome to the new omnichannel world. Today, we have supported hundreds of courses with this client and continue to think critically and listen carefully nearly a decade later. This year we added social media campaigns, SEO, digital marketing, and video. For an account to which we didn’t sell print, we’ve printed and mailed more than 9 million pieces to date.

The Wheel is Turning

The wheel metaphor is one we’ve taken very seriously at Fenway Group. We think of our service offerings as a “hub and spoke” model. Initially, the hub was our print business. As we add more value-added spokes to the wheel, the more growth and profitability we’ve experienced. I now see print as just one of the spokes, not the central hub. The hub is content, big picture. Each spoke we add is a product or service that results from listening to our customers.

I am far more interested in the lifetime value of a client than any job or two that runs through the shop. This has often translated to finding ways to make our customers’ work and interaction with us easier. For example, we were early adopters of the web-to-print portal concept. It simply makes it easier for our clients to order work from us. We saw this clearly when a healthcare client went through an acquisition. The good news was that we would continue to be their primary print vendor. The bad news was the change came with a deluge order, in the way of 400+ new business card orders to be printed in a short window. All those orders were dumped into a high-touch silo because our web-to-print solution and MIS system weren’t integrated. The opportunity for error increased dramatically with each touch. This incident made me vow to never select another software solution that could not be fully integrated.

In fact, we took on a large-scale technology integration. In 2013, we migrated to a new MIS, an automated workflow solution, and a more sophisticated web-to-print software platform that enables our customers 
to create and order marketing collateral consistent with their branding needs. It was both painful and transformative. This automated path has led to increased capacity and a reduction in errors.

This healthcare client is a great example of the power of integration and workflow automation. In 2018, we processed nearly 6,000 orders for them. Of those, 4,000 orders were entered via our customer portal. This system automatically processes the orders with only four human touchpoints: Print, cut, box, and ship.

This impacted our business in a powerful way. By automating so many orders, our customer services team is able to focus on working with this client on their larger, more complicated, multi-channel projects. While 68 percent of these orders were automated and streamlined, the remaining 32 percent required more hand-holding. Here’s why that matters: The 32 percent of work that our team can help shape and shepherd accounts for 71.5 percent of the revenue from this customer. In effect, our team can be freed up from the less lucrative work, which can be automated, to focus on the more lucrative work, which needs more guidance and attention.

We have remained focused on our organic growth and each year have added revenue. From 2009 to 2017, we more than doubled our annual revenue and reinvested most of the profits in our people and new technology. We also recognized another opportunity for growth through acquisition. In 2018, we purchased a local, complimentary printing company. We are in the midst of assimilating their production and sales team. As they’re mastering 
our listening techniques, we’e experiencing even more success.

Like the Dead, we don’t play a song the same way for every customer. We keep our approach fresh and innovative and that keeps our customers engaged with us and successful.


The Grateful Dead’s fans, Deadheads, are infamously loyal followers. They stuck by the band because they loved the improvisational aspect of each concert and the interplay between band and audience. Like the Dead, we don’t play a song the same way for every customer. We keep our approach fresh and innovative and that keeps our customers engaged with us and successful in their marketing efforts. What a long, strange trip it’s been? Maybe so, but today I look back at that road with reverence and turn to the road ahead with fresh enthusiasm.

Rick Sands is president at Fenway Group, where he is responsible for identifying and developing new sources of growth. Although he doesn’t follow the band (today’s iteration) anymore, he still takes in a Dead & Company show when they come to the Boston area. Connect via