Feature

Editing the customer's guide to the Sky galaxy

Simon Geller, the editor of Sky the magazine, tells Matthew Cowen about running the UK's biggest-circulating title.

Writers on assignment for Campaign are important people, and Headliner is an agenda-setting column for our age, so you can't just let it lie when an editor doesn't answer his mobile when you're calling him for an interview.

"So exactly what kind of cover crisis do you have at Sky the magazine? Isn't it just a case of picking which movie still you're going to stick on the front this month?" This is a whole 12 hours after we were due to speak.

At this point, Simon Geller patiently explains that every title has its own "unique minefields". He's right, of course: film studios and stars tend to get equally touchy whether your title is bought at the newsstand or delivered free to seven million homes (which makes Sky, as John Brown Citrus is addicted to reminding us, the biggest-circulating magazine in the UK).

The point, though, is that it's difficult to imagine Sky covers giving lawyers too much to get worked up about: the movie choices adorning them seem predictable and the coverlines take stating the obvious to a whole new level. This studied blandness continues on the inside, where a few middle-of-the-road celebrity profiles (distinctly more Hello! than Heat) front a summary of the month's viewing: it's all symptomatic of the difficulties editors of customer magazines face.

Sky is one of the flagships of the customer publishing sector: a strong commercial proposition, with up to 30 per cent of its pages regularly filled by paid-for advertising.

The trouble, though, is that it's not a title readers have actively bought into (it's delivered free to every Sky customer in the UK) and, with an audience of seven million covering everyone from tweenies to geriatrics, the lowest common denominator and the path of least-possible offence rule.

Partly as a result, it's become increasingly difficult to define exactly what function Sky the magazine serves beyond being a strong commercial proposition. Since the advent of digital, it's become impossible to provide the complete channel listings that first helped it stand out; and it's tricky to evaluate its contribution to customer loyalty when Sky has the benefit of a strong product and weak, fragmented cable competition.

There's an interesting parallel with British Airways' High Life, the other customer magazine regularly compared to consumer titles. Once, these two magazines were the kings of their particular media spaces. These days though, there are on-demand in-flight movies on BA and electronic programming guides available to Sky customers, and the game's changing. Now people don't need to read these magazines, are they actually good enough to make people want to?

Before Geller responds to all this (and let's face it, he kept me waiting long enough), it's worth pointing out that High Life and Sky have both hired former lads' mag editors who have had a rough ride recently, but can presumably still bring humour and edge to high-profile customer titles.

Geller, after an award-winning turn at Men's Health, launched the ill-fated Cut, and describes the experience as "like banging your head against a wall: nice when it stops". Is this a future trend? Are we soon to see James Brown editing Waitrose Food Illustrated?

If things go bad for Nuts, will Phil Hilton turn up editing Direct Line magazine? The last thing Sky needs is a former consumer magazine editor casually revisiting past glories. Fortunately, though, Geller shows no signs of having planned a tasty paid retirement. "I sat down with the people at John Brown Citrus for coffee and we talked about customer publishing but I said I wasn't interested unless it was Sky because I'm just a really big fan," he says.

Fan? You're not kidding. Geller is one of those that got Sky at the start and now can't stop raving about the all-channel-recording Sky+ service.

You know this guy isn't making it up when he enthuses about "all the great buttons on the remote that people don't know how to use yet".

This passion for a brand is essential for successful customer publishing.

The best titles in this sector embody the qualities and strengths of the brands they represent and turn their successful relationships with customers into flourishing relationships with readers. Geller's vision for Sky is a subtle evolution, but should prove an exciting one."It's not just here to tell you what the highlights are each month," he says. "Its real role is to tell you about the hidden gems, the things you're missing. People can be loath to explore all this intimidating stuff and end up just using the same five channels."

And then they're dissatisfied and potentially disloyal. But a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Sky Galaxy, ensuring more satisfied customers, potentially more inclined to upgrade, can actually make a contribution to client and customer - that's the magic formula.

It's slightly worrying that Geller is not promising a bolder revolution (his plan is a redesign in April, and then a big idea by the end of the year). Multimillion circulations give magazines the turning circle of a tanker, and shining the light away from the mainstream isn't always going to be popular with the powers that be. It only works if you're prepared to stand your ground; so maybe that cover crisis the other night is a good sign after all.

- Customer magazines, p34

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 49

Lives: Muswell Hill

Family: Wife, two children and one cat

Favourite consumer magazine: The Week

Describe yourself in three words: Irascible, big-headed, vain

Favourite TV programme: Soccer Saturday

Interests outside work: Season ticket holder at Tottenham Hotspur

Biggest professional achievement: My editorship at Sky the magazine