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Sep 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Banta Direct Marketing Group is one of North America's largest producers of direct marketing materials. Typical products include brochures, direct mail components, direct mail packages, publication and package inserts, coupons, reply cards, return envelopes and specialty booklets. Increasingly, these clients are exploring the benefits of one-to-one marketing--targeting each piece to an individual customer. The challenge facing Banta was to identify a fast, yet flexible, solution for handling vast amounts of variable data. Bob Kennedy, the group's director of data services, describes one client's complex booklet project. "They're tailoring a document with a specific message. It outlines what the recipient has previously purchased and how certain new products can enhance that."

The variable data, however, isn't restricted to text. "What they're doing is building a series of modules," Kennedy explains. "A module could be a bullet point or it could be a full paragraph with various typefaces and type sizes, it could include icons, graphics or check boxes. The combination and the permutation of all these various modules add up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 different possibilities for personalization."

Banta tried other approaches, but ultimately determined VariScript was the right tool for the job. "In the past, we used a software product that forced us to create Quark pages for every combination of these modules," relates Kennedy. "We were producing hundreds of Quark pages. With VariScript, we are able to just create one Quark file or a series of Quark files of just the modules themselves and save them as PostScript files. VariScript then allows us to dynamically build these pages on-the-fly as we're producing the product. It significantly cuts down the time that's required to produce these files. This job had been taking close to two weeks to completely program, put together and proof. Now we're doing it in about four days."

Kennedy adds that the platform independence of VariScript is another major advantage. "We're not limited to Quark for Windows or Quark for Mac--we can utilize any application that can save its output as PostScript files. More importantly, we can use the files exactly the way our customers design them. Previously, we had to import the designer's Quark file and make a lot of changes. Sometimes text would reflow--line lengths could change, creating a problem with the fit of the personalization area. We had to make it very vanilla and we couldn't use a lot of the tricks the designers were using, such as modifying the type's horizontal scaling. We were stuck with a rigid format."

VariScript also facilitates last-minute changes. "That's an important consideration," acknowledges Kennedy. "Before, we had to create large files that would sit on our server. If a customer wanted to make a change while we were on press--as happens from time-to-time--we would have to recreate that whole file or set of files. Whereas using VariScript, there are no intermediate files. We just go into Quark and make the change, save it as a PostScript file and then we're ready to run. It rasterizes the bitmap on-the-fly, eliminating press downtime."

Proofing posed another set of challenges. "Everything that will be variably printed has to be proofed and approved by the client before we start," notes Kennedy. "We had used a Hewlett-Packard inkjet plotter that emulated the 240 dpi of the inkjet but it was very slow. Now, we're able to use a Toray laser printer, a high-speed continuous feed printer that will take the PostScript files and RIP them exactly to the specification we want. Since we're no longer in a proprietary format, we can use any PostScript printer to produce our proofs. Also, we can view the PostScript onscreen so that our programmers and the people who are setting up the job can see what they're going to get on press."

Someday, Kennedy hopes to be able to offer remote proofing via the Internet. Customers would use a browser for on-line proofing of their variable data projects. But he's content for now. "It used to be that you had a limited set of tools for personalization," he reflects. "There always seemed to be compromises. We could closely match your font or try to get a graphic to work. Now we can handle virtually anything--exactly the way it was designed."