Print Buyer - Death of reports is greatly exaggerated - Black Sun Global

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Print Buyer - Death of reports is greatly exaggerated

It has been a year since the new Companies Act came into force. Given that one of its provisions was that public limited firms would no longer be obliged to print hard copies of financial statements, there was predictable speculation about how hard it would hit print firms that relied heavily on report and accounts work (‘Accounting for Change’, PrintBuyer, June 2007).

Mountains and molehills

Perhaps surprisingly, the initial response from the print industry was that the doom-mongers were over-stating the case. True, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) provisions that were also in the Act mean that many company reports are now being printed on lighter stock with less in the way of lamination. But the fact that companies have to inform their shareholders about their CSR policies means that, ironically, pagination has tended to go up. Royle Corporate Print produced a hefty 284pp tome for a client last year, for example. So where does the truth lie? Should we prepare for the demise of the report and accounts sector of print? 

Take the move to electronic distribution. E-distri­bution is ideal for documents that consist mainly of data or text, for example, but while it offers obvious benefits for the company, recipients may be less keen.  Royle managing director Gary Mellish points out that shareholders have not yet made their feelings clear on whether  they prefer print or email, so  ‘some companies will underestimate quantities during the next reporting season.’ And if a recipient simply prints out a lengthy electronic report themselves, it under­mines the environmental argument for e-reporting. 

The result will probably be some kind of compromise, with shorter documents and reports moving to email distribution, while longer, weightier documents still roll off the presses. Companies may also distribute material in different ways to different audiences – smaller shareholders might welcome a PDF, while big institutional investors might prefer a physical booklet. 

But an annual report is not just a financial document. Many companies, particularly smaller ones, use their annual report as a marketing tool. ‘It’s a showpiece,’ notes Black Sun design director Jon Honeywill. ‘It should have high production values, and give some kudos to the company.’ 

Change of identity

As a result, there may be a shift in the way corporate reports are designed to coincide with the growth of electronic distribution. Butler & Tanner corporate sales manager Bill Davis predicts reports may move away from the A4 size favoured by many companies to ensure that the design remains consistent across both print and electronic versions. There may be an opportunity to exploit the characteristics of web-publishing to make reports more interactive and extend the reporting company’s brand. Davis argues that printers will have to start seeing themselves as a ‘media partner’ to clients, able to offer a full communi­ca­tions package, rather than simply a service provider. 

Printers are also divided on whether companies are trying to cut costs by reducing the number of reports they print. Butler & Tanner corporate sales manager Bill Davis says most of his report and accounts clients are keen to reduce print runs, but Royle’s Mellish insists it doesn’t make much difference, particularly for smaller clients. ‘Smaller or medium-sized clients will not see significant benefits by reducing their print runs by a modest amount,’ he claims. 

But there has been a clear shift to more economic production in terms of design and specification. Some clients have already begun moving away from the traditional, glossy report, opting instead for more straightforward productions such as four process colours with one special colour, printed on uncoated paper. 

As well as environmental considerations, this trend addresses the need to be seen by shareholders to be controlling costs, and also reflects the current vogue for more minimalist, matt and monochrome design.

But it’s the environment that is the real driving force. Mellish recalls attending a recent seminar in the company of representatives of a number of FTSE 100 companies. ‘While much of the seminar was dedicated to new reporting standards and timetables, a session focused on how companies addressed their corporate and social responsibilities 
 in their annual report,’ he says. ‘This just wouldn’t have happened to anything like the same degree a couple of years ago.’

Cleaner materials

In practical terms, clients are moving more and more towards recycled and uncoated paper. The use of laminated paper report covers has become an issue, and many clients are opting for uncoated, unlaminated paper instead. New bio-degradable laminates are available, though they are still relatively difficult to work with. Vegetable-based inks have become almost standard – alcohol-free printing is on the increase, and more and more printers are paying particular care to the disposal of by-products of the printing process. 

A growing number of printers are now carbon-neutral – and this is surely one of the first industries to embrace carbon-neutral status to such a degree. Printers have recognised that having a good environmental record – even putting in the effort to gain ISO 14001, FSC and PEFC accreditation – can  be a very powerful sales tool. 

Clients are equally enthusiastic. Black Sun recommends an environmentally friendly option to all clients, and has seen 100% uptake so far. And clients are seeing the benefits of producing environmentally-friendly corporate reports – if they claim to be running their own business with an eye on the environment, it can only be a plus to be seen to be dealing with suppliers with similar standards. 

If the future for report and accounts print is not exactly rosy, then, it’s certainly not that bleak. Royle’s Mellish is convinced that even those of us wedded to our computers will not want to read lengthy documents online or go to the trouble and expense of printing them for ourselves. ‘No company is obliged to produce a good quality report,’ he adds. ‘They do so because they recognise how it can improve their communication with shareholders.’
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