Spec Rep Secrets: Learn by Making Mistakes

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I guess it’s true what they say, you learn by making mistakes. While I’ve certainly learned a lot throughout my career, I’ve also made my share of mistakes – and a few of them were doozies. I remember one mistake I made early on as a spec rep. I was working with a young agency, they were small but doing some pretty amazing work. I got involved with the paper for an identity system for a sizable law firm. Let’s just say when things go south on a project, the last client you’d want to have an issue with is a law firm.

The thing I enjoyed the most about working with this agency is that they always made paper specification an important part of the process. They would actually reference the swatchbooks I had set up for them in their library. They always made time to see me, whether I was solo or working with a mill rep, and they LOVED seeing print samples. Not only did they love the print samples but they regularly used them to draw inspiration from. As a paper rep, it really was so much fun to be a part of the process. Their enthusiasm for paper was infectious and made me want to go out of my way to help them, whether it was paper related or not.

On one particular job, they had ended up specifying Strathmore Script Pinstripe for the project – a perfect selection for a law firm, classically refined. The job went to press and everything ran smoothly. The identity elements shipped to the client and everyone was thrilled with how they looked. Then about a week later I got a call from the agency – the client was having an issue with the letterhead.

Fast forward a few days later and I was sitting in the conference room of that law firm along the attorney who was the project manager, the principal of the agency and the mill rep. Yeah, you could say I was nervous. I had no idea what was about to happen but I knew one thing – I needed to get to the bottom of whatever went wrong and fix it. I came to find out that the toner was flaking off the letterhead. The agency specified 80# Text for the letterhead. At the time, early 00’s, the grade was made by International Paper – one of the largest paper manufacturers in the world (IP later sold this grade along with their other text and cover grades to Mohawk). The swatchbook indicated the writing weight was guaranteed for digital applications but said nothing about text weights, and the mill’s website stated the text weights were digitally compatible. The agency even had samples sent to the firm for them to test, so what gives?

Well what was overlooked was the fact that there were about 50 different printers that would be used to print on the letterhead, but the client had just tested it on one printer. What made it even more sticky for my customer, was that the paper wasn’t “bad,” so technically my company or the mill was not obligated to replace it. But there was this gray area about guaranteed vs. compatible. There was a bit of back and forth regarding the semantics of these terms between the law firm and the paper mill, in the end it came down relationships. As a paper rep this agency was my best customer, they were extremely loyal and always supported my efforts and specified my company for the paper on every job they printed. In turn, the mill had a very strong relationship with my company and ultimately was willing to replace the paper with the 24# writing weight – which was guaranteed to perform on this application.

My customer later went on to become one of the top agencies in the city, experiencing substantial growth and numerous awards. I was fortunate enough to be a part of it, even celebrating with them at the Addy awards where we reminisced about this project and how we managed to avoid disaster. I learned a couple very important things from this situation: always read the swatchbook carefully and if opting for a basis weight/finish that is not “guaranteed” make sure all parties understand that before signing off on the project. Secondly, don’t leave anything to chance, request samples and test the papers on all equipment being used for that application. Finally at a time when many of us are working independently, relationships matter probably more now than ever. Make sure to take time to cultivate relationships with customer and suppliers – you never know when or how they can help.

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