WHEN THE PRINTER SCREWS UP - How do you cope when the ad you sold seems to have mutated en route to your magazine? Paul Simpson outlines some options

There’s a ritual to the arrival of a new issue of a magazine in a publishing office. A hefty bloke with a builder’s bum dumps a load of bundles by the partition. There’s a frantic hunt for something sharp to cut through the polythene wrapping. Copies are handed around as if they’re perishable contraband and then, after about 20 seconds, somebody emits a noise somewhere between a shriek and a groan.

There’s a ritual to the arrival of a new issue of a magazine in a

publishing office. A hefty bloke with a builder’s bum dumps a load of

bundles by the partition. There’s a frantic hunt for something sharp to

cut through the polythene wrapping. Copies are handed around as if

they’re perishable contraband and then, after about 20 seconds, somebody

emits a noise somewhere between a shriek and a groan.

This means one of two things. Either the editor still doesn’t think the

picture above the leader column does him justice, or the printer has

screwed up that DPS from a new client whose verbal commitment to a

massive campaign had promised to guarantee your commission for the next

three months.

’Screwing up’ could mean any number of things, such as getting the

client’s phone number wrong; missing off a corner flash that told

readers to look out for the client at an exhibition; printing the second

ad in a series before the first; or trimming the page so that the copy

makes even less sense than usual.

Perhaps the strangest cock-up occurred at an unnamed business magazine,

when a recruitment agency wanted a mono semi-display ad with a picture

of the company’s chairman. The chairman’s mugshot was duly sent to the

printer, and a proof was faxed back and approved - only for the final

printed copy to show a strange growth on the chairman’s left cheek.

Unsurprisingly, the recruiter took exception to the implication that he

was a walking tumour, and rang the publisher to utter dire threats.

Subsequent investigations led to an off-the-record conversation with the

printer, who confessed all. The operator manning the repro camera was

eating a mid-morning snack while reshooting the photo. The offending

growth was actually a gobbet of luncheon meat that had slipped out of

his sandwich and landed inconveniently on the client’s photo.

The obvious reaction to such foul-ups is to seek revenge and hit the

printer where it hurts. Sadly, few people in sales have the means or the

opportunity to kidnap a printer’s golf clubs and bend them so badly that

they look like a collection of abused pipe-cleaners. All you can really

do is have a word with your publisher who will, in turn, have a word

with the production department who will, in turn, have a word with the


If you’re not careful, this procedure turn into a negotiation process of

a complexity seldom seen since the Good Friday Agreement. Publishing

consultant Peter Howell explains why. ’Most printers, in their terms of

business, will have clauses enabling them to get out of practically

anything which isn’t directly to do with print and paper. Before talking

to the printer, the publisher needs to be sure that what his client says

is accurate and that the film or data was supplied correctly. Even then,

the printer may try to bullshit you - but the vast majority of printers

will be reasonable and come to an agreement.’

Deciding what constitutes a ’reasonable agreement’ is another grey


Howell, who was formerly production director of the Haymarket Publishing

group, says the real guide is lost revenue. ’It’s not ratecard - because

publishers don’t often sell at ratecard - it’s revenue. But just because

you’ve lost pounds 5,000 to pounds 6,000 for a DPS that went wrong, it

doesn’t mean you’ll get all those thousands back from the printer. It

comes down to your relationship with the supplier and, sometimes, the

importance of the client.’

Howell also raises the possibility that an agency or client may have an

agenda that goes beyond simply correcting a mistake. ’I tracked this a

few years ago and there was a definite rise in the number of complaints

from advertisers as the market got tougher.’ And, presumably, as

agencies and clients felt they could throw their weight around.

Whoever sold the ad need not worry about the detail of negotiations

between publisher and printer. As a sales person, your responsibility is

to convince the client that you are on top of the problem. ’It’s a good

rule to say you’ll reply in writing to any complaint within 48 hours,

even if it’s still not clear what went wrong and you’re just writing to

say you’re investigating it further,’ says Howell.

Often the simplest solution is to give the client payment in kind, like

a free ad. But in more grievous cases, someone with a job title that

includes the word ’director’ may have to lead a delegation of grovellers

to the agency or the client’s office. This might apply if, for example,

your title covers a specialist field in which one agency holds several

major accounts and your blunder has resulted in threats across the


The worst thing you can do is to allow the same mistake to happen


’Most clients will, after a lot of grumbling, accept one error,’ says

Howell, ’but it must never happen again.’

Sometimes the problem can seem hopelessly technical. ’When some of our

reproduction houses updated their software, all the ads re-ran by

mistake,’ says Mike Harrington, production director of Gruner & Jahr,

although he adds this is a rare occurrence.

Howell says every publisher should have a specification that is sent to

each client. ’OK, everybody accepts ads without doing that but, as

standard procedure, you must have something that tells people what

you’ll accept, especially when it comes to different types of data.’

The increasing numbers of ads being delivered to publishers or printers

in electronic form has, on the one hand, made the client/agency more

responsible for what is output and, on the other, made it more difficult

to find out what went wrong. Printers, repro houses, agencies and

publishers can spend days arguing about whose data was faulty, but

ultimately get no further than pointing fingers at each other vengefully

and shouting, ’It was you!’

Sometimes, however, it is genuinely hard for the printer to determine

whether or not he has made a mistake, especially now that last-minute ad

selling has led to ’just in time’ delivery of film, artwork and


The client’s failure to deliver artwork on time is a problem experienced

by many publishers, according to Harrison. Even if they do, the printer

may not be able to make sense of it. After all, we live in age when

advertising creatives, in their relentless pursuit of cleverness, design

an ad for a pair of jeans that shows a young woman in an eye-catching

jumper, but doesn’t show the jeans. Alternatively, an airline thinks it

a good idea to run a campaign based on a recent hijacking, while an ad

promoting the Co-operative Bank and The Guardian is designed to look as

if it’s been trodden on and kicked around the office floor.

Even product names can leave a person of average intelligence suspecting

that they are being wound up. How else can you explain Cock Soup, the

Big Boy moist towel, or the Wee Wee water squirter (which comes complete

with the announcement: ’Warning! Choking hazard! Small parts!’)?

Of course, if a printer is in any doubt, he or she ought to ask the


But most printers are men - a species that prefers to drive for hours

around a strange city rather than face the shame of winding the window

down and asking for directions.

Good housekeeping policies may reduce the number of screw-ups but they

will never totally eliminate them. Earlier this year, the Department of

Education was forced to reprint a school literacy poster (at a cost to

the taxpayer of pounds 7,000) because a proofreader had failed to spot

that the DoE had spelt the word ’vocabulary’ wrong.


’One of my films is missing’

This still happens occasionally. Often it’s the black that gets

overlooked, which can result in your client’s ad not having any text. If

the client is small and stupid, you can try pretending it is

intentional - a cool branding device that is all the better for the

absence of a slogan.

Bluffers’ guide ’It’s early copies - they realised after the first

thousand or so and remade the plates.’

’The ad doesn’t match the Chromalin’

There’s a very good reason for this. Chromalins are designed to make the

art director’s work look good. They are often produced on a heavy, shiny

stock that gives the colours more punch, and by a powder-driven process

that has little in common with the ink-driven process used to print the

ad. However, short of sending the client on a one-day print and

production course at your expense, this may not be an easy message to

get across.

Bluffers’ guide ’It’s early copies - they always hold back on the ink

until the press is really in its stride. On my copy, the apple looks so

vibrant one of my colleagues tried to eat it.’

’I can’t accept this level of quality’

Most advertisers think there are only two types of paper: the smudgy

stuff newspapers are printed on, and the white stuff that comes from

forests in Finland. In fact, the vast array of differing grades will

affect the appearance of an ad, as will the process by which it is


Gravure, which is used on supplements and long-run magazines like Prima,

is a good way of getting vibrant colours on cheap stock.

Web offset, used for magazines with runs of 50,000 or more, is the

process advertisers are most used to. But some still hark back to the

quality and precision of the old sheet-fed method.

Of course, if the colours are mixed up or the ad looks blurred, there’s

nowt you can do but beg for mercy.

Bluffers’ guide ’It’s early copies - that sometimes happens when the

press is starting up but on the copy I have here, that fifth colour you

specified is flawless.’

’My insert for the Granada region fell out of a magazine in Truro’

This is statistically quite likely: most publishers say that 1 or 2 per

cent of zoned inserts go to the wrong zone. Murphy’s Law says that when

that happens, the chances of a stray insert finding its way into the

client’s father-in-law’s personal copy are around 100 per cent.

Bluffers’ guide ’It’s early copies - the printer realised he had made a

mistake and printed an extra 5,000 copies for the Granada region at no

expense to you.’