The Art of Business: Confessions of a Print Broker

Paul Dombrowski is the president of Chicago Color Graphics, Inc., where he provides print planning and production services to his customers that are producing magazine ad pages and inserts, collateral print materials, and certain packaging products. Clients include Jolly Rancher, Donruss Sports Cards, Whoppers, “Outside Magazine,” Wards, 3M FloorMinders, Motorola StarTac, Navigation Technologies, Dockers, Nike, Dannon, and the University of Notre Dame.
With 15 years of prepress and print manufacturing experience, Paul keeps his eye on the latest manufacturing and workflow trends. Dombrowski graduated from Loyola University of Chicago in 1984 with a Master of Arts Degree in Planning.
Creativepro: Paul, give us the quick definition of a print broker?
Paul Dombrowski: Printing companies employ a middleman to locate and serve the customer. Sales and service reps fill this role. The print broker is another brand of middleman between print manufacturers and customers. Print brokers are independent, as they’re not directly employed by the printing companies they represent. However, in some ways the broker is similar to the in-house sales rep. For example, you would expect your rep to add value to your print project through effective planning and management. You rely upon their knowledge of manufacturing materials and processes, workflow issues, and judgment on timing. If you have a custom project with lots of problems to solve, then you appreciate the value of a committed and capable rep that safely navigates your project through the production process. So in this way the function of a print broker and in-house sales rep is similar.
In any event you would expect your sales rep or print broker to help you define your problems and be open about their abilities to deliver the print solutions that you require. You’ll find a wide range of expertise levels and specialty areas within the ranks of both the in-house sales reps and print brokers.
CP: When should someone call in a print broker?
PD: If I had to give an arbitrary dollar figure, it would be for a job of above $10,000. But every customer is unique so it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Most print brokers are not in the business of commodity printing, and I see a red flag when a customer comes to me asking to find the best price. That’s not to say a print broker can’t help you save money, but if you know the three or four steps needed for your print job and you’re just looking for the best deal, I would advise to forego a print broker. On the other hand, if you’re having difficulty developing specifications and figuring out exactly what you need, that’s when you should call in a print broker.
CP: How is a broker different from an in-house sales rep?
PD: The in-house rep is committed to sell solely what their employer manufactures. The broker is independent and not directly employed by the graphic arts companies that they rep. Brokers work as free agents and have the flexibility to rep several companies for you. Moreover, the broker has an incentive to deliver the services of a wide range of companies. Therefore, if you are a print buyer swamped with a variety of projects and overwhelmed with demands to produce, then the right print broker would be a valuable addition to your production team.
CP: Why should I call a print broker when I can purchase direct from the manufacturer?
PD: The procurement professional’s responsibility is to find marketplace value. If you’re an experienced print buyer then you know the work it takes to identify your production problems, define specifications, and solve production issues. Someone must do this work to deliver your projects. If you possess the expertise, time, and resources needed to define specs, select manufacturers, and manage your projects day-to-day, then you should do so. In your case a print broker probably would not add value to your projects.
On the other hand, if you are short the resources needed to devote to the buying process, then enlisting the services of a print broker would be a good call to save you money, prevent waste, and insure timely delivery of projects.
If an automobile was manufactured the way a complex print job is produced it would take months instead of hours to build the car, and the consumer price would be astronomical. Automobile manufacturing is assembly-line efficient, with one company tightly coordinating resources to build the car. On the other hand, the print industry is made up of thousands of highly specialized companies, each with their unique tool and skill set to produce specific products. It is not unusual for a complex print project to run through four or more manufacturers for completion.
The key to generating efficiency in a fragmented manufacturing process is to plan so that each transition between specialized manufacturers is done with precision. You would expect your print broker to integrate this fragmented manufacturing process. They would coordinate all manufacturing services needed for the project. The print broker that delivers this service offers a huge value for your company. They’ll prevent costly waste and delay.
CP: I have a complex print project, but can handle it myself. Why should I use a print broker?
When you have the resources available to handle your work it usually wouldn’t make sense to request the services of a print broker.
CP: How exactly are print brokers compensated, and what’s the actual cost to the me?
PD: Selling at a price higher than their purchase cost compensates print brokers. For example, when the manufacturing company sells direct to the print broker, they have a lower cost of sale because it doesn’t compensate the print broker (no commission, salary, reimbursement, or benefits). In turn, the print broker can resell the job at the price you would pay if you purchased from the company’s in-house sales rep.
CP: Is there a print broker association that certifies brokers?
PD: There is no certification for print brokers. Neither is there a certification process for in-house sales reps.
CP: How should a print buyer find the right broker?
PD: Choose a print broker in the same way that you would select a printer rep. Keep in mind the scope and specifications of your project and workflow when asking questions about qualifications and discussing your specific production situation. Referrals from your colleagues and trade sources can be an excellent starting point to help you locate a qualified print broker.
CP: What questions should I ask?
PD: Good questions that probe and uncover your specific production needs are the key to establishing a profitable relationship with your printer, whether you use an in-house rep or print broker.
Once you think you found a broker, take the time to ask a few questions such as:

  • Can you tell me about a recent project that you handled similar to ours?
  • How long have you been in business and what is your expertise?
  • Can you give me both client and manufacturing referrals product samples?
  • How does this relationship work?
  • What responsibilities will you have in the printing process?
  • Can you give me a written proposal?

Beyond that, you should consider creative problem solving skill and the broker’s ability to think like a businessperson standing in your shoes.
CP: Like all professions, there are a few unscrupulous print brokers. How can I spot them?
PD: Reputation, reputation, reputation.
CP: What does the deal look like with a print broker and what is negotiable?
PD: Ideally it would begin with a thoughtful interview that carefully examines your situation to determine whether or not there is a match between your needs and the qualifications of the print broker. If there were a match and an agreement to work together, then you would collaborate to develop a written project proposal, which will include specifications, estimates, and schedules.
CP: How important is proximity?
PD: Depending upon your situation, proximity to your print broker might be less important than the broker’s proximity to the manufacturing facilities where your work is being produced. With remote proofing, e-mail, overnight and messenger services, proximity is less important than finding a knowledgeable print broker that can answer most of your questions and assess your project critically. A print broker that thinks like a businessperson standing in your shoes can be an invaluable member of your production force.
Though proximity to manufacturers remains a benefit. There’s no substitute for physically examining a machine or a work product.

  • Anonymous says:

    This would be of far more value if Paul named names. After 15 years, he does know who the good ones are, even if he doesn’t want to name the bad ones.

  • Anonymous says:

    I’m actually going to comment on this because of the fact that Print Buyers and Procurement decision makers need to know. Today as the digital age has helped streamline production, there is no exception in this area for printers. In fact, nowadays with the internet and alot of resources for companies, to go through a print broker who ends up finding just the lowest price and marking it up for profit for himself/herself.

    I can say that other than the actual catalog design there isn’t much else brokers do. The one area I will give credence to is this; If the company that wants to evaluate their marketing channels and ways to hit new markets (demographics ect), then the brokers can do research, and/or help formulate ways to make different printed marketing materials to give a competitive edge. If it is for a basic catalog that has no fancy bells and whistles, it would seem almost useless and in fact detrimental to companies to use a middle man, when nowadays finding a printer (Esp web offset) is the easiest thing, due to the excess capacity in the market.

    Most times customers dont realize how all brokers do is rip them off. The “print brokers” are the joke of our industry, due to the fact that it isn’t a job that really brings value to customers, other than taking a bit of work off their plate at a cost.

  • Anonymous says:

    The comment above is basically a Printer telling you to buy from him, not the broker. Brokers buy so much printed material that they can negotiate deals that a typical small business could never get. Plus they know all the ins and outs of the business and can help you from making mistakes. If nothing else, a broker can get you a discounted rate for printing you’re already buying.
    The comment above suggests you can do a simple google search and beat the broker’s pricing. is one of the most respected discount to the public printers in the country, and that is who one of my customers was using for their bi-monthly postcard printing. They were paying $580 for 10,000 4×6 postcards, 4 color on both sides (which is discounted from over $680 on their website), they were paying over $900 from the local basement printer before that. They now get this exact product from us for $410. This is printed in America by Americans and is the same paper, same coating as they got before. We’ve been doing this 1 project for them for 18 months now and not one complaint. We now print almost everything for this customer.
    I could give a hundred examples but they just re0ordered today so it’s fresh in my memory. On top of the savings and the expertise is the fact that most brokers offer a no questions asked satisfaction guarantee. If the local guy screws it up you’ll likely argue about everything little detail of the screw up and who’s fault it was and so on and so on. Most brokers I know simply redo the job correctly or refund the money.
    The chances though of a broker delivering a poor product are slim to none, they’ve spent years finding the best mix of price and quality from every printer within 300 miles. They know where to get the best printing at the best price, period.

  • Anonymous says:

    Good information however one thing to keep in mind, in some areas (I cant speak for everywhere), the very best printing companies often have policies that prevent working with Print Brokers. The reason most often given is, their reputation/brand… that they invest heavily in and work hard to get is far too important to entrust to an outside broker who has no investment on the table if something goes wrong. That said, if you are looking for cheaper costs / savings, often a broker will help.

    I would suggest however that maintaining a good business relationship with a top tier printer can be a life saver. Membership has its privileges as someone once said and in an emergency or for a large time sensitive or very complex projects, a good relationship with one of those top tier, one stop shops is a major benefit for any buyer.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have owned a print shop and I sold it and became a print broker. I was warned not to do business with print brokers but I did not see a downside. It worked out fine. I do not, however, go local (except in emergencies) with local printers in a print-broker to printer relationship. I don’t trust them. They steal customers. Our new business is setup to do larger jobs for a better cost PLUS we offer our knowledge of print products (and which vendors are best for what) and graphic design for print. Who wants to spend $10K going to Vista Print or printingforless and gamble that it may not turn out as expected. Print brokers guarantee an excellent product even though they don’t do it themselves.

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  • Neil Boccio says:

    I am looking for a list of Print Brokers based primarily on Long Island, either Nassau or Suffolk counties. I work for a small printing concern that is trying to expand their potential using my 45 years in the business and their machinery.

  • James Gray says:

    Is there any publications on how to set up a successful print broker business?

  • Tony Wilson says:

    As a print broker of 25 years, the one thing that most buyers don’t think about. Your “broker” covers your butt. Instead of working for the printer (w/ so many printers becoming “self-serve” or unavailable after 5:00 pm.) your broker ensures, once the proof is approved, your job is produced correct and on time. Most of my clients I have had for 5 or more years because I work to be an expert on whatever product they need or I have built resources that know. REMEMBER: Your broker works for you… to get you best price, the best quality, on time and on budget. Be well & Have Fun!

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