How VDP enabled ‘the most successful direct mail campaign ever done’

How VDP enabled ‘the most successful direct mail campaign ever done’

Frank Romano published a video last year on the upcoming anniversary of digital printing. In it, he showed some impressive early examples of variable data printing (VDP): “I have saved almost all of the original materials done on the digital color machines.” He considers VDP  – “Wikipedia says I coined the term” – to be digital printing’s most innovative application, along with On-Demand Printing.


Looking back, Romano names ‘PostScript’ as the most import innovation in the industry of the last 30 years: “Desktop publishing in 1985 changed the printing industry, by moving much of the work that the printing company did to the originator. PostScript facilitated CTP, digital printing, and more by providing a standardized form of input.” In its turn, digital printing in color has caused – and facilitated – important changes. Romano: “Buyers buy shorter runs and they want them immediately. On-demand printing has changed publishing models and allowed short runs down to one at a time. As long as you have plates and make ready, analog processes cannot compete with short runs on digital devices. And digital is expanding run lengths faster than analog is handling shorter runs.”


Bigger than you think

He does not agree with the assumption that digital printing ‘hasn’t really happened yet’, being generally estimated at around 3 percent of total print volume globally: “I think 3 percent is too low. I think digital printing is over 20 percent of all printing right now. Offset litho continues to decline. Also, you must count all digital printing, including wide format. We used to print signage on the wide Xeikon version.” He also points out that there is actually a lot of VDP being done today: on bills and statements, of course, but also the volumes based on digital printing at the end of offset or flexo presses should be taken into account.


‘Talking about a revolution’

Which brings us back to the vintage VDP-samples he shows in his video (that we can quote with permission). The first one is an example done by Agfa. They sent out an invitation for a press breakfast meeting in New York City, to explain their Personalizer X software. It showed the recipient’s first name floating in a bowl of cereal and it said: “Stop playing with your food. We’re talking about a revolution.” “They sent it to 400 direct mail professional in Manhattan. And I think 500 people came – because no one could figure out how they did it: how could they get each persons name in the alphabet cereal? It was an amazing meeting.”


Blockbuster Video direct mail

One of the first Xeikon machines that came to the United States was installed at the Moore Research Center in Niagara Falls, recalls Romano: “I used to take my class up there by bus.” Holding up an early direct mail piece that was done there – “This had fallen on the floor and I stole it” – he explains this is one of the first personalized direct mail pieces done in conjunction with Blockbuster Video.” “Based upon your buying pattern, you got a mailing piece based on the ‘All time greatest Western Collection” or “Mystery Collection” or whatever it may be. You can tell by the length of the piece that it was printed on a Xeikon machine.”


Selling you a Buick

The most famous of all direct mail campaigns that was ever done, according to Romano, was the three pieces, done by McCann Erickson, selling you a Buick. “They sent you a promotion piece first, asking you if you are interested in buying a Buick, and what you’d be looking for. But then they sent you a more specific piece that dealt with the form you filled out in terms of what you wanted for interior color etcetera. And then you got a piece with an actual proposal, showing your car in your color, with your interior, with your wheels, with everything.”

“It was the most successful advertising campaign that was ever done in terms of direct mail. Unfortunately, it was never done again. And the reason is that the printing company in New Jersey that did this job, had an interesting problem. They didn’t now how to handle waste in the bindery. They didn’t know how to handle the fact that – because they were all personalized – if one piece went bad, they would have to go back and regenerate that piece and bring it back to the bindery. So what they did was: they printed every piece twice! They assumed 100 per cent waste in the bindery. As a result, when they revised the project for McCann Erickson, they included this new cost – and McCann Erickson wasn’t buying it, at that point.” Only later on, everyone figured out how to handle the bindery parts of all of this: “Because these were complicated pieces!”


Personalized books

Then there was the ‘Barney’ book. This was also done on a Xeikon. In this particular example, people would send in a picture of their child, explains Romano: “They incorporated the picture and the name in the book itself. So when you looked at a spread, there is the kid with Barney, and the name is built into the text. This did extremely well, and by the way: books like this still do very well!”


To succeed in a changing marketplace

At the end of his video, posted first at, Frank Romano congratulates digital print and its pioneers: “I wish to salute Xeikon for what they have done for the industry in terms of providing a productive machine that has allowed printing companies, publishing companies and others to succeed in a changing marketplace.”


The future is inkjet

Asked to look forward for this blog, 30 years into the future of print’s digital journey, Frank Romano answers: “I would be 107 years old but expect inkjet printing to dominate. All markets will be affected by digital printing, especially printing on non-paper substrates, like plastics and other materials.”

Watch Frank Romano’s video here:

A happy anniversary for print

A happy anniversary for print

Frank Romano revisits the early days of digital print

Frank Romano revisits the early days of digital print