There has been much grumbling about London 2012 from the print sector, but companies that saw the opportunties are reaping the benefits
For a time, it looked like London 2012 was going to pass by UK print without even a glimmer of recognition. Be it ticket contracts to the US or sticker book contracts going as far afield as China, UK printers were seemingly deemed not up to the competition and were running a distant last in every race.
However, a recent BPIF poll suggests this image of a UK-print-shunning games is a little off-target. A survey of 504 members revealed that 109 printers had applied for Olympics work and 86 had been successful. This poll tells us two things: one, that the number of printers applying for Olympics work was disappointingly low; and two, that those that did apply had a very good chance of success. Some have suggested that the number of applications was so low because the tender process was always going to be too complicated and time-consuming for the baulk of the UK print industry – made up mainly of SMEs – to be able to compete, so many opted out leaving it to a few big players. However, others have argued that ambition (or lack thereof), and not the tender process, is to blame for the perceived lack of UK print at the games.
It is a difficult business to ascertain exactly what went on in the run-up to the Olympics in terms of the giving of contracts, as anyone who was chosen for the coveted work is banned by LOCOG from talking about it until after the games. Any attempt at gauging the amount of UK-based Olympics work, then, is restricted to sponsors letting on who printed their marketing collateral (see page 18) and anonymous phone calls from proud printers.
Anecdotal evidence tell us this: the bulk of SMEs that make up a large proportion of the industry assumed that the extensive work involved in the tender process for Olympics work would be wasted, as the contracts would always go to the bigger companies. Indeed, back in 2007, when the work was first tendered out, PrintLondon raised concerns that SMEs were finding the pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) “overly burdensome”.
Aquatint BSC managing director Roger Severn can certainly see why. He has recently tendered for a high-profile university contract and reveals that, even for smaller public sector work, tender documents can be prohibitively time consuming for SMEs.
“Just doing the paperwork side of things was four or five solid days of work,” he says, explaining that this is why the company is cautious about committing to similarly lengthy tender processes, such as the one required of prospective Olympics printers.
The crux comes in the expense that arises from the time spent on a tender. SMEs cannot afford to have a staff member working on a tender rather than earning money working a machine or – as is mostly the case – running the company. Large-scale tenders may be lucrative to those that win, but for the rest trailing in behind there is no reward for the costs already built up in order to apply. While larger companies can soak up the loss, SMEs generally cannot.
Tenders are, therefore, a financial gamble not many can afford to make. And the stakes are much higher, says British Association of Print And Communication (BAPC) chairman Sidney Bobb, when you haven’t got the skills to produce the type of tender document that the organisation – such as LOCOG – is after.
“If you haven’t had the experience of tendering before, which many SMEs haven’t, then the process can be very daunting,” says Bobb. “They are sent out by people that work in an administrative way and they expected replies that were expert in that type of administration, clerk-like detail and presentation. Many smaller UK companies simply did not have the infrastructure – the tenders expertise – to apply for the Olympic tenders.”
Original Group business consultant Mike Berkowski agrees. He says that tenders have to be presented in quite specific ways, with readability and layout as important elements – those reading them may have thousands to get through and so presenting a tender in the right way is crucial to success. He says that all too often smaller printers are too busy to achieve this.
“Realistically, when a hundred-page document lands on your desk, some printers will struggle,” he says. “Unless you can give it your full attention, it will get shunted around the office and end up being produced by five different people who will all have an input. Then, when you put the jigsaw back together, it doesn’t quite fit.”
Berkowski’s solution to this would be, unsurprisingly, to get a professional consultant like himself involved, and this was Severn’s strategy when tendering for the university contract. But this kind of expert help doesn’t come cheap.
“It cost over £2,000 to get a guy in for five days,” says Severn. “So you’ve got to be pretty confident that you stand a chance.”
Berkowski counters that payment plans can be flexible in their terms and payment can also be tied to the success of the bid. He adds that firms can also view it as a training exercise, with subsequent tenders not in need of services like those he provides as he has trained the company in his skills.
Whether they did it by use of a consultant or inhouse, it’s easy to forget that at the outset of the tender process, all the talk was of how many UK companies applied for the Olympics work. In 2007, the Olympic Delivery Authority – in charge of the tendering processes for London 2012 – reported a “phenomenal” response to the tender for print work, so much so that it had to delay announcing successful applicants while it waded through the unexpected deluge of interest.
What the BPIF survey and anecdotal evidence suggests, however, is that this deluge could have been more of a mass flood if more printers had seized the opportunity. It is useful, then, to see why some printers may have believed the Olympics opportunity more viable than others. OPG Graphics general manager Alan Watson suggests it could be that those that applied saw the tender process as no more a gamble than the day-to-day pitching for work many printers are engaged in.
“Taking the risk that the public sector tender might not be successful is no different from pitching for any other kind of work,” he says. “The small company could make exactly the same argument that they’re not going to pitch for it because the big company will just get it. You’ve got to make the decision: do you feel you can make a valuable proposition that’s attractive enough for you to enter into the fray? If so, then the size of the company should be irrelevant.”
Watson says not winning tenders should not be a reason to write off this type of work. He believes that if the gamble on a tender is a calculated one, by ensuring any tender is compliant with the business – if it is for £5m of wide-format work to be produced to tight timeframes and you are a litho printer with an old forgotten wide-format machine out back, success is unlikely to come your way – then you will get success eventually.
Berkowski adds that for many contracts, SMEs are sometimes discriminated for, rather than against, especially in terms of geography, which would have obviously featured heavily in LOCOG’s thinking.
“You’ve got to be realistic in knowing there are some contracts that you’re just never going to get,” he says. “But I’ve had some very positive experiences where certain councils have looked at sustainability guidance and interpreted that to mean keeping things local. And so there are lots of instances where a small supplier will be favoured over a big firm.”
Of course, some work for big events such as the Olympics or for big governmental projects might genuinely be beyond a small printers’ grasp. There are certain rigid criteria demanded by some tender documents, says Severn, that SMEs just can’t fulfil. The most obvious is turnover.
“To think that we were going to print Olympics programmes and tickets and that sort of thing, it was just absolutely never going to happen,” he says. “We’re just never going to be perceived as big enough. I think they do tend to look at your turnover as their first criteria, and if you’ve got a contract worth £4m-£5m, are you going to give it to a bloke who’s only turning over £2.7m? Probably not.”
That said, LOCOG set out right from the start, in its words, to “support efforts to target small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and minority-owned businesses proactively”. So while some work may not have been applicable to SMEs, this pledge meant providing work that was winnable by smaller companies – even if they are up against competition from larger rivals. And a number of calls to PrintWeek have indeed been evidence that small printers have won work. However, if the BPIF survey and the number of negative Olympics comments heard by PrintWeek from printers is anything to go by, that message did not get through effectively enough.
LOCOG refutes the suggestion that it is at fault for both a lack of communication and a lack of opportunity for SMEs. Any work of a value above £20,000 was put out to tender on the CompeteFor website and it reveals a high proportion of that work went to SMEs and that there was adequate support available for SMEs to apply.
“Over 70% of LOGOG business opportunities have been placed with SMEs. We sourced from a range of businesses – from one-person businesses to multinationals,” says a spokesperson. “Small businesses were given access to external support via the Regional Development Authorities. We have been very fair to SMEs through our procurement programme.”
It may well be that come the end of the Games, all the negative press around the Olympics opportunities for UK printers will look unfounded, as hundreds of SMEs open up about the millions of pounds’ worth of Olympics print. However, there is usually no smoke without fire and the BPIF survey, alongside comments made on the printweek.com forums and told anecdotally in the industry, shows there was something preventing more UK printers from seizing the Olympic opportunity. What that something is – some will always say tenders were out of reach for SMEs, while others will say that this was a false perception and that SMEs had all the help they needed, with only themselves to blame – is a debate that could keep on running for many years.