The only way we will grow to $50 Billion

You might not like it, but this is how ...

Now, before I start to receive hate mail and stink eyes, this has nothing to do with ASI.

In full disclosure, here's some background on me and some context for my comments. I started a distributorship (RIGHTSLEEVE) in the late 90s and I also co-founded an industry software application called commonsku in 2010. I don't work for ASI or PPAI, though my distributor business is a member of both organizations and commonsku integrates with ESP, SAGE, and DC. I tell you this so that you understand I am keenly aware of the threats faced by the changing nature of our industry as I work alongside you, my industry peers, each and every day.  Additionally, PromoKitchen (where I am a chef and where I chose to publish this article) is a 501c3 non profit that serves the promotional products industry in autonomy.

Let's get started with a simple formula.

The industry is better bigger than smaller. More distributors = more sales = more exposure to our medium = more innovation = bigger opportunity to take a slice out of other ad media = stronger & more sustainable future for every professional in this industry.

In contrast, a closed club of inward looking, navel gazing, product pushing, protectionist, catalog shilling people who need to be protected by trade associations = the kind of industry that will spiral into irrelevance before we know it.

Let me clarify with 4 key points:

1. I understand why many people get upset with ASI's recruiting efforts, though it's tiring to listen to. I am not endorsing ASI's marketing tactics (that could be the subject of a separate article), but ultimately they are shining a light on the industry and bringing fresh talent into a space that needs more, not less, innovation.

2. Note that ASI is not alone in their efforts to recruit people to the industry. PPAI does it. ProForma does it. Boundless does it. commonsku does it. AIA does it. Facilis does it. Geiger does it. SAGE does it. Distributor Central does it. Essent does it. Customer Focus does it. Heck, even independent distributors do it. Each group has its own set of tactics, but they are all united in a common objective: growth.

ASI is just the biggest of the lot so naturally they are going to get the most heat for it. They are a natural target.

3. Bringing new people into our industry doesn't mean that the distribution model has to change. I still believe that the best model is the supplier-distributor-end user model. When suppliers and distributors add value along the way, everyone wins. Of course, that doesn't happen all the time which is why you see this model break down on occasion (again, the subject of a different article).

4. Any successful industry or company is built on openness, connectedness and integration. This can also be called the platform model.

Let's look at 3 prominent examples outside the promotional products industry:

(i) The World Wide Web. The founder of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, created 3 technologies that we take for granted today: HTML, URL and HTTP. He once said “Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.” (source: Web Foundation)

(ii) Android. In an effort to expand its share in the mobile phone market, Google decided to make its Android software for mobile phones free to any hardware maker. This saw the rapid rise of the Android platform around the world, no doubt a big irritation to Apple.

(iii) Amazon Web Services (AWS). Amazon's technology infrastructure powers countless businesses, ranging from Netflix to tiny startups. This is all made possible through Amazon's hugely popular AWS which sells server space to companies looking to scale through Amazon's infrastructure.

In each of these cases, an open platform model has fostered innovation, growth and, yes, competition. Despite this competition, however, I don't think anyone would argue that these entities have not transformed the world in incredibly positive ways.

Here are 4 reasons why I believe that a bigger promotional products industry is better for everyone:

1. A bigger industry means more awareness for our medium at the end user level. This means more success stories and ROI for marketers. This means that we have a better shot at taking away spend from other advertising media.

2. A bigger industry makes it harder for the government to impose limitations on our industry. We become even more difficult to ignore.

3. A bigger industry means that there's even more budget to go around for everyone. Here's an important caveat - this only applies to those who are excellent at their craft. If you are a distributor or supplier expecting for the phone to ring, you're in trouble. Only those who invest in their businesses and create significant value for their clients will win here.

4. More respect. We have long been the red headed step child to sexier ad media like TV and print. It's time we take these media head on. We can do that with a bigger army.

In closing ...

The promotional products industry is dynamic, creative and full of opportunities for distributors and suppliers to make all sorts of money. However, heading into 2016, I also feel that we're an industry under siege.

We are not under siege from the traditional bogeymen industry people complain about: ASI, 4imprint, Discount Mugs, Bel Promo, Amazon Custom, Alibaba, suppliers selling direct, distributors buying direct, part-time promo distributors selling at 10% from their basements, etc.

Rather, we're under siege by the closed-minded thinking that wants to keep the industry moat wide and the castle gates fortified. That's the kind of thinking that led to Kodak's dismissal of digital photography, Blackberry's dismissal of the iPhone  and Microsoft's lost decade.

My appeal to industry colleagues is that we default to open. We default to opening the doors wide and letting this industry flourish, innovate and smash past our anemic growth rates so we can get to $50 Billion and beyond.

With this mindset, there's no stopping us.  So...Are you in?


Mark Graham is a founding chef of PromoKitchen. He is the founder of RIGHTSLEEVE and co-founder of commonsku.