As commercial printing has been on the wane since 2008, many printers are looking to reinvent themselves as advertising agencies or marketing consultants. Brian Burley of Graphic Source isn’t a guy who is following this trend. No, he was one of the guys who invented the trend, in a way that’s both novel and amazingly refreshing.
What’s unique about Graphic Source is that they’re in the printing business, yet they don’t own a single piece of printing equipment. They are a “unique, full-service marketing company…our products get your brands, logos, promotions and events noticed in a big way.” They are that marketing company, first and foremost, that many printers are aspiring to be.
Brian and his team are into big ideas, not big iron, and it’s allowed them to focus exclusively on what the customer needs. It’s an approach that’s so simple and so fundamental to what printers do, yet one that’s so commonly overlooked.
I spoke to Brian recently about his business, and the first thing that struck me is how unassuming he is about the approach.
Launched in 1994, Burley describes Graphic Source as an “independent sales and marketing company.” They got their start by providing signage and promotional printing to schools and professionals sports. Based in Minneapolis, their relationships with some prominent companies led to crossover into other verticals.
The company specializes in wide-format printing, although its capabilities are truly endless. That’s because the team sources their work to six or seven printers, and is always on the lookout for niche-oriented printers who can provide new solutions. “Our ‘presses’ are never full,” Burley said. “And we’re always recommending what’s best for the customer.”
Not being tied to big iron means that Burley and his staff can do what they do best: Ideate. When they call on customers, it’s not to pitch work for a machine that’s sitting idle; it’s to show them a new idea or approach to their current marketing.
Burley said that even though “our niche has become outdoor advertising,” it has led to a lot of crossover sales with indoor advertising, signage and labels. Whatever the customer needs, Graphic Source finds the solution.
A Simple Approach to Building Big Ideas
I’ve seen many ad agencies and promotional companies in my day. What’s interesting is that your first impression of Graphic Source is that they are printers. They have become experts at different presses and types of printing, yes, but that’s through the course of finding what works best for clients, and then excelling at it.
Finding what’s best for a client includes more than just finding a good price. “We’re not a broker,” Burley is quick to point out. Their relationship with a number of trusted clients is based on finding value and relevant solutions.
This style can be contrary to what happens in the industry. “There are a lot of buyers who are trying to save money, instead of trying to find the best way to get their job done,” Burley said.
The approach has proved to be successful for Graphic Source, as their flexibility and creativity has led to tremendous spillover with different advertisers. From the Minnesota Twins to Mall of America, they work with big clients, yet they keep their ideas remarkably simple.
“Nothing is crazy about our layouts,” Burley explained. “We drive home what we think works, and what we know works.” He sees many of the outdoor messaging techniques working with clients in varied vertical industries. They shoot to get basic messages to get people to notice.
“So many companies use messaging that’s trying to sell everything,” he said. “You just need to make something simple, with a noticeable product.”
Graphic Source’s process for developing ideas and concepts is not rocket science.
The company as a whole meets monthly and discusses their accounts and their challenges. “We talk about what’s working for one client, and what messages work for them. We also think about what types of clients we should go after. It’s a basic sales meeting.”
From that point, Burley keeps the flow relatively simple, working directly with Graphic Source’s creative artist to develop new concepts, and then collaborating further with the client.
Graphic Source’s approach is not a gimmick or a smoke-and-mirrors thing. He is doing what so many in the printing business fail to do, or even attempt: He’s focusing on what the customer needs, and then matching them up with the machine that can provide the solution.
It’s definitely an approach that mitigates his risk exposure, but more importantly, it allows him to always be in tune with new developments in the marketplace.
Brian Burley may not get overly excited about his approach, but to me, it’s a refreshing take on an industry that’s so heavily dominated by machines. Brian Burley and Graphic Source really get it. And before they’re done, they’re going to get even more.