Who Should Create Your Catalog? (1,113 words)
by Jack Schmid
One of the classic questions that catalog creative managers face is how to manage their creative dollars and resources most effectively and productively.
Small and medium-sized catalogs tend to outsource much of their creative effort and concentrate on the merchandising and marketing aspects of their business. Larger catalog companies typically develop their creative team inside because they know that they will produce six or eight or 10 books during the year and it's more productive and less expensive to own their staff and facilities. Even large catalogers, however, find occasions when they outsource certain projects or tasks to creative agencies or free-lancers.
Here are several examples of how large companies use outsourced creative resources:
• Re-designing an existing catalog.
• Creative concepting of new covers, page templates or a new masthead logotype.
• Relieving page overload. There are often times when there is more work than an internal creative staff can handle, but not enough to hire a new art director, desktop production person or copywriter.
• Critiquing catalog creative efforts.
• Developing new projects (see box at left).
Almost every cataloger will have the occasion to use outside creative talent. This article will identify outsourcing options and quantify how much one can expect to pay for quality creative talent.
The Catalog Creative Process
The Catalog Production chart on page 184 summarizes the creative execution and page production phases in the overall creative process. The overall five phases are:
I. Creative concepting and planning.
II. Creative execution.
III. Page production.
IV. Color separations and film.
V. Printing, binding and mailing.
This article will concentrate on the first three phases as defined above. There are lots of talented color separators and printers out there. Building a strong team concept with these two skill areas is critical to long-term fiscal health. We strongly recommend that every cataloger get a minimum of three bids for color separation and printing.
Creative Options in Outsourcing
There are three primary options when it comes to finding and using outside creative catalog people. Let's explore what those talents are and see if we can define what is reasonable to expect to pay for them. One question to keep in mind while looking at the options below is: "What value-added service(s) does the individual or company provide in helping me improve or grow my catalog business?"
Option #1: Free-lancers
There is a wealth of creative talent that prefers to work as free-lancers. These people might be mothers with small children at home. They might be early retirees who want to keep working part time. They usually are people who prefer to be independent and not part of a formal corporation. The type of catalog talent being described here includes people who can help the catalog in one of several roles:
Art director—laying out pages, spreads and order forms—from pencil roughs to tight page comprehensives.
Desktop page producer—physically combining copy and photography on the computer.
Photo art director.
The most important criteria in selecting talented free-lancers is not necessarily what they charge, but whether they know cataloging, and more specifically, do they know your type of product category and positioning. There are major differences between business and consumer catalogs. There are also big differences between food catalogs and catalogs of apparel or computer supplies. Whether the free-lancer has relevant experience in cataloging in general and your merchandise area, specifically is the starting question to ask a free-lancer. In other words, the statement that "an art director is an art director is an art director" is not true. The same goes for photographers, stylists and photo shoot managers. On the other hand, desktop page production is less product specific and more skill-level driven.
Option #2: Small Creative Studios Who Specialize in Catalog Work
There are not an infinite number of such companies, especially those who really understand the creative subtleties of cataloging. Much like hiring a free-lancer, you must scrutinize the creative portfolio of a "boutique" agency to ensure that its catalog experience is relevant to your product, positioning and brand. A significant advantage of having all the creative skill sets under one roof is that the project can truly be "turnkey" and the cataloger can spend less time managing each free-lance person. One budget! One group managing the project! One team accountable for the results! Prices are usually moderate and quite competitive with using free-lance talent.
Option #3: Large Catalog Agency
There are a half dozen large agencies that more or less call themselves catalog specialists. They are usually narrowly focused on page production and are often the out-growth of specific skills like photography, color separations, or even printing. Often they have organized their companies around product-specific creative teams that concentrate on areas like apparel, business-to-business or retail. These companies are the most expensive, but often are worth it because they provide everything under one roof, including photography and color separation.
What Will You Pay?
The chart on page 186 looks at the three outsource options and provides a rough estimate of cost. The major caveat is that the complexity of catalog design, copywriting and photography will vary widely from catalog to catalog. My advice in building a creative budget estimate is to follow these five simple rules:
Rule 1: Get several bids from individuals or companies that know cataloging and your product category.
Rule 2: Interview the creative talent and look at their portfolio of catalogs produced.
Rule 3: Understand what the budget covers and what it doesn't. For example, how many proofs or copy drafts will you see? How are alterations charged and when? What is an alteration? How will the project be billed? Is the budget a "not-to-exceed" figure?
Rule 4: Have a clear understanding of who will be managing the project from the creative company.
Rule 5: Develop a detailed time schedule that everyone agrees to and signs-off on.
My Fingerhut Days
While heading the creative staff for Fingerhut in the early '80s, I was responsible for the launch of a new catalog which was very upscale. . .dramatically different from Fingerhut's more downscale positioning. The internal creative team begged to have the opportunity to produce the catalog. My great concern was that Fingerhut's creative concept was so very well-honed and formula-driven that any new catalog would look too much like it. (We kiddingly referred to the formula as "creating by the numbers.")
I opted to outsource the job to a creative agency that had a great deal of upscale experience and was justifiably satisfied with their creative product. The unique positioning of an upscale gift catalog would not have happened, in my judgement, with the internal staff.