By Jon Robinson
The evolution and rebranding of ICON Digital Productions positions a large-format-imaging pioneer as one of North America’s most unique and powerful visual communications companies
On the top floor of ICON Digital Productions’ 90,000- square-foot manufacturing facility, tucked into a dimmed backroom, three technicians sit in front of a dozen screens grouped together on the wall like the Network Operations Centre of a cable news network. They are monitoring some of the highest profile static print and dynamic digital signs controlled by ICON’s newly minted Media division, including all the visuals hanging in Toronto’s Dundas Square and way-finding screens directing passengers at Pearson Airport.
Responsible for thousands of digital signs across Canada for Blue Chip clients like Shoppers Drug Mart, ICON Media illustrates the reach behind one of the country’s most unique visual communications companies. Designed to deploy national signage networks by procuring all of the necessary hardware, developing business plans and ultimately managing ever-changing content for clients, ICON Media is well-positioned to take advantage of an evolving wireless world. It provides the company with an irresistible vehicle for C-suite strategy discussions with clients. The bedrock of the parent company, however, is formed by ICON Visual with one of Canada’s most powerful technological infrastructures for large-format imaging.
ICON Visual dominates the company’s Markham, Ontario, facility, which any grizzled graphics pro would recognize by its curved-glass façade as the former home of Apple Canada. This division generates more than half of the parent company’s annual revenue, which in its most recent fiscal year amounted to just under $40 million, by pumping out static display graphics with print qualities demanded by the likes of Fortune 500 cosmetic and fragrance clients, Hudson’s Bay Company and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
ICON Print is the third pillar of the company’s All Things Visual strategy, developed through a divisional rebrand in December 2016. After years of outsourcing the production of offset-print jobs for its Blue Chip clients, ICON in January acquired Toronto Trade Printing, bringing decades of 40-inch-offset expertise in-house. The move creates a multifaceted communications manufacturing company powered by ICON Media, ICON Visual and ICON Print.
Last year alone, ICON oversaw the printing of more than 20-million direct-mail pieces in addition to a range of offset-produced marketing collateral. The company’s executive team has spent the past several months looking at both commercial and trade printing operations to purchase in the Greater Toronto Area. “We look at print not so much as old technology. We look at it as just another communications medium. In fact, our numbers tell us there is a lot of growth in print still,” says Juan Lau, President of ICON Digital, who co-founded the company in 1995 with Peter Evans and Peter Yeung. “The last three or four years we kept looking at our financial statements and, ironically, the fastest growing service sector was commercial printing – and we were not even trying.”
Without a direct need to acquire book of business from a commercial shop, which is the primary M&A driver in today’s printing market, ICON’s executive team was focused on finding the best lithographic-manufacturing fit for its existing AAA client base. Lau explains his priority was to purchase a well-established printer to immediately provide the offset knowledge ICON lacks after two decades of building a roll-fed digital printing operation.
Approximately 80 percent of what ICON Visual now prints is produced with Durst roll-fed machines. Lau describes this as a key differentiator for ICON because its production has been built around a square-metre pricing model, driven as much by finishing and fabrication as by print production. “From a pricing model we are able to get more yield [using] rolls – just a pricing thing. We can get that buttoned down pretty quick. Printers getting into our space still go off the rate-card mentality,” says Lau, describing what he sees as traditional offset pricing based on number of sheets produced.
“We know a lot of commercial printers are trying to get into our space now,” says Lau. “To get into our line of work, they are going to blow their minds out on the finishing end… anyone can print, but it is the finishing that really makes or breaks a project.” Most commercial printers getting into large-format imaging also turn to flatbed machines, continuing to focus on cost-per-sheet pricing models.
Lau explains he never set out to build ICON as a traditional printing operation when the partners founded the company. In 1995, the Internet had not yet penetrated the minds of most people, fax machines and phones were the dominate business tools of the day, and modems were limited to speeds of under 20k. Still, Lau wanted the company name to hold the word digital, as well as production, because he initially wanted to start a video-production company. The key word ICON came to him one day when a radio host referred to Madonna or Michael Jackson, he cannot recall which, as the Icon of Pop.
Prior to opening ICON, Lau was running a photo-enlargement company producing monochrome engineering drawings and architectural blueprints, generating slim margins, pennies per sheet. Lau describes his large-format eureka moment arriving in the early 1990s after seeing new colour imaging technologies at a tradeshow: “The idea of taking a file and outputting larger-than-life graphics on just about any surface, whether it is vinyl or textiles, or what have you, nobody was really doing it.”
ICON’s first large-format machine was a Xerox electrostatic printer and, Lau explains, he and Evans decided to put a stake in the ground as a new type of printing operation. “We printed on sheets alright, but we printed it to transfer media and that allowed us to, with lamination, transfer it directly onto any substrate.”
The technology was slow, outputting two or three posters per hour, and not a realistic investment choice for offset-based commercial printers. Lau explains he was driven to own the market that ICON would serve, akin to McDonalds being synonymous with burgers, Coke with soda, and Rolex with watches. Advertising agencies were immediately drawn to the new output possibilities ICON could provide with one-off large-format printing, even if they would often turn to offset or screen technologies for longer runs. “We started to establish a name in the business to do mockups, ideas, innovative stuff,” says Lau, noting ICON initially produced a lot of tradeshow graphics ideal for one-offs.
“What we were bringing on was really, by today’s standards, considered disruptive technology,” Lau says. “We didn’t know it at the time, but I think we were disruptors.” He explains it took about a decade after ICON’s founding for large-format imaging technologies, shifting from heavy solvents to UV, to evolve into a viable printing process for new entrants. “We went through a metamorphosis ourselves around 2005,” Lau says. “A key turning point in our company because it allowed me to do what I do best and that is go downstairs and take care of the operations, because our sales had never declined since 2005.”
Lau was trained as a programmer and holds great affinity for taking a process-minded approach to business. He felt ICON’s challenge was not about topline sales and he began to search for more efficiencies in the facility. “Once I got my hands on the operations side, the process and all of that – [we previously had the] same level of sales, $10 million, for a while – our bottom line increased tremendously.”
ICON brought on a new customized ERP system, internally branded as Cyrious, and a much-needed scheduling system for what had become a very busy large-format shop. ICON also brought in a new Chief Financial Officer, Alex Christopoulos, who Lau credits with greatly improving cash flow and the company’s overall financial health.
Lau describes the years from 2005 to 2008 as a “pivotal time” for ICON as he and Evans also decided to stop producing trade work for other printers and instead sell direct into the commercial market. “Part of the improvement on our bottom line was we made a conscious decision to shift and go after end-user markets,” explains Lau. “If we look back right now, we could have a few chuckles over that. It was one of the best decisions we could have made.”
Around the same time, ICON’s future would be influenced by the arrival of significant developments in large-format digital imaging technologies with a new wave of UV-based inkjet systems. ICON threw out all of its older-generation, heavy-solvent inefficiencies and made significant investments in UV technology, which Lau also credits with improving the company’s bottom line. ICON’s attention to the bottom line through the latter half of the decade would soon prove critical as The Great Recession of 2008 fast approached, all but strangling print sales for months.
A year before the printing industry plunged into the throes of frozen marketing budgets, Lau points to the significance of another technological marvel on ICON’s future. “2007 was a pivotal year from a technology standpoint, because when the iPhone came out [it] launched wireless technology in my opinion,” he says. “With all of the apps, [Apple] launched a whole slew of development in wireless technology.”
The economic ecosystem that quickly developed around wireless technologies would serve as a catalyst for the growth in screen-based digital signage. Lau explains wireless technologies broke down barriers that had been fortified for years by the need to run so much cable and obtrusive hardware. Less than two years after the arrival of Apple’s iPhone, ICON purchased a two-person AV company called Gridcast in 2009, when digital signage was still very much in its infancy. ICON had previously worked with Gridcast on a project for the Bank of Montreal, which wanted to integrate a digital projection within a large banner with a cutout. “It went really well and that was another eureka moment with Gridcast,” recalls Lau, describing ICON’s first project to integrate both print and digital mediums.
“Gridcast was very AV-oriented – hang-and-bang hardware. We saw very quickly in the first year that the model wasn’t really going to be a sustainable model,” says Lau. “Not only did we develop it by feeding it through ICON’s customer base, we actually changed [it] into a consulting model.”
The Gridcast division, rebranded in December 2016 as ICON Media, has been a significant driver for the company. “Our business in Media is an annuity. We will charge you a three-year management deal,” says Christopoulos, as an example of how the company can work with a client to finance a network of in-store screens, while ICON is truly interested in ongoing content management services.
Christopoulos explains the company, to a much lesser extent, hopes to take the same approach with some of ICON Visual’s work, where they might provide a client with a free banner stand with a commitment to print work to cover it – ideally, changing out the print regularly – over the next several months. With The Bay, ICON Visual is also starting to print on magnetic sheets that can be applied to painted walls, speaking to the division’s growing attention on developing repeatable visual systems with clients. The continuing innovation in both ICON Visual and Media have developed a strong reputation south of the border, where the company now produces around seven percent of its work.
“[It isn’t] so much because we are a better printer. They have local guys down there. It was actually our Media division because they are a lot more proactive when it comes to new innovations,” says Lau. “Because they want to do new things with digital, they are very open-minded to talk about the other print things we offer. So that is how we have been using digital media, more as a way to penetrate organizations from the top down, as opposed to starting with procurement and working our way up.” ICON Media has been using Virtual Reality for almost two years to show clients, like Sport Chek’s CMO for example, what their stores will look like with large-format print.
As ICON Print is developed, the company plans to leverage strong C-Suite relationships to drive work onto litho presses. In fact, Lau envisions an emerging media procurement approach that will benefit the rebranded position of ICON’s three divisions: “I am hoping as more Millennials get into positions of power and decision-making, they are going to say, ‘Why do we need a separate print budget. This is a media budget. We need to line up all of our marketing together.’ I think those budgets are going to change. We are kind of placing a little bit of a bet that way.”
Under ICON’s new multifaceted media vision, Lau explains it is important to hold a true offset-printing presence beyond outsourcing. “We have only touched the surface of the excitement the Media division is going bring,” says Lau. “It is huge. The ICON rebranding of All Things Visual is going to take us to the next level.”