It seems every couple of years a medium tries to force itself into
the advertising spotlight. It all started with commercial radio, of
course, which took advantage of its 21st birthday to begin a slow and
successful campaign to claw more than its tiny 2 per cent share of ad
budgets away from other media. The latest small fish trying to leap into
a big pond is contract publishing and it’s taking its cue from its tenth
birthday - give or take a year or two.
The tenth birthday claim is based on the birth of contract publishing as
a function of technology. With the introduction of affordable desktop
publishing in the mid-80s, it became possible for small operators to
produce newsletters or magazines for themselves but also, and more
lucratively, for paying clients. Although one or two companies such as
British Airways had titles like High Life, produced by Premier, way
before the mid-80s, it was really with the birth of the M&S Magazine in
1987 that the customer magazine as a sales tool took off.
In the UK, the model was, and remains very much, something of a cottage
industry. In the US, conversely, it was the large publishing groups that
took up the challenge. The industry is younger than the UK’s and Time
Warner, the New York Times and Hachette run the most successful
In part, this is about data. British companies had pretty impressive
consumer databases, so could provide contract publishers with the
relevant names and addresses. In the US, only media companies with
subscription-related magazines have the kind of data needed to run a
customer magazine business.
Over the decade, contract publishing in the UK has grown to a pounds 1/4
billion industry, according to a Mintel report published four months
ago. Ten years ago, it was almost vanity publishing - publishers had to
track down the one individual at a prospective client who had the
ambition to launch a magazine. Now it can be found in many marketing
plans - of the top 50 UK companies, 28 have customer magazines.
But within this cheerful view of a growing industry poised to leap into
the big time, there is some dissension. Neil Mendoza, the chief
executive of Forward Publishing, does not believe the market offers
sufficient money for contract publishing even to be called an industry.
He despairs of the quality of some titles and is particularly annoyed by
the smaller outfits producing low-quality work for small-scale
’We make it a point of principle not to work for any company smaller
than pounds 1 billion in market value,’ he says. ’We believe it is only
companies of that size that can afford to pay for good quality work.
What the last few years have shown me is that other people will move
into this sector.
I fully expect the large publishing companies and the ad agency groups
to start running things. In fact, in the future, I think contract
publishing will simply be part of the advertising mix.’
Mendoza is prepared to put his money where his mouth is. Forward
recently tied up a deal with Conde Nast to produce fashion and beauty
These include the Patek Philippe title and the Burton group’s Encore,
which has a circulation of some 300,000. According to Mendoza, there is
the possibility of Encore transferring on to TV once the masthead
programming rules have been lifted. He also speaks, with experience, of
ad agency interest. Maurice Saatchi’s Megalomedia group took a 50 per
cent stake in Forward two years ago.
Mike Potter, managing director of Redwood, which is owned by the Abbott
Mead Vickers group, disagrees. ’I think it would be to our advantage if
more advertising agencies were involved,’ he says, ’but I keep hearing
them say that the industry is getting too big for their involvement. The
advantages for both agencies and publishers are clear. When we were
first bought by AMV, there was hardly any synergy between the two of us.
We both handled Volvo and Yellow Pages but that was coincidence. These
days, however, there is more business that we have in common and that’s
as a result of us working together. It’s a pattern I hope to
Potter is evangelical about the business. He thinks Redwood was the
starter’s gun for contract publishing in the UK when it started working
on Expressions for American Express members in 1984. Redwood has begun
producing a book that compares the NRS figures for its titles with those
for consumer magazines and it makes for impressive reading. For
instance, only five magazines reach more than 10 per cent of the UK’s
ABC1 readership and three of those are Redwood magazines.
Top of the list is the M&S Magazine with 14.52 per cent of ABC1s, then
it’s the Radio Times with 14.28 per cent, the AA Magazine with 13.58 per
cent, Reader’s Digest with 13.30 per cent and the Sky TV Guide with
12.65 per cent. The Sky TV Guide is also the UK’s best read magazine.
According to Potter, this is the kind of business that does not deserve
its 2 per cent label.
’Not so long ago people were talking about radio as a 2 per cent
medium,’ he says. ’We’ve reached that stage and we’re finding attitudes
have changed enormously. What we need to do is change them further,
particularly at advertising agencies.’
These days, any vague gathering of like-minded individuals from an
industry is almost instantly compared with the Radio Advertising Bureau,
following the success of that body. In the case of contract publishing,
however, the Association of Publishing Agencies welcomes the mantle. Set
up three years ago to boost the industry, it faces challenges this year
as contract publishing tries to move beyond the 2 per cent tag.
Kim Conchie, the managing director of Brass Tacks and the man who will
take over as chairman of the association in May, says the body will
continue its generic ad campaign (in which the likes of Richard Branson
give testimonials on the use of customer magazines) and plans a new PR
push. To that end, it has recruited Natalie Wilkie as marketing
executive with a PR brief across the industry. Julian Treasure, the
existing chairman, says the association is planning a one-day conference
at Marketing ’97 on relationship marketing with the Incorporated Society
of British Advertisers and the Direct Marketing Association. It will
embark on an extensive survey of marketing directors to see where the
gaps in the market are.
’We also found recently that the UK contract publishing industry is one
of the world leaders,’ Conchie says, ’so we’ve contacted the DTI to
discuss the export potential of the sector. The APA is 17 members strong
and we’ve just added our first overseas member - Pacific Publishing from
Australia - so the international side of things will occupy some of our
time in 1997.’
The one thing the entire industry is agreed on is the need to raise
contract publishing’s profile in media departments and independents.
Most managing directors agree that space buyers still have the 1987 view
of contract publishing - a bit of corporate propaganda and a couple of
press releases stitched together by a tired old hack. The industry plans
to get behind the APA in a bid to shed this image once and for all.
’Part of the push will be about us getting the right circulation
measurement for our titles,’ Conchie says. ’Brass Tacks produces the
Somerfield monthly magazine which recently went on to the National
Readership Survey. We found it was the eighth best read women’s magazine
in the country. We’re also on ABC’s Verified Free Distribution which
gives us a circulation of 1.2 million.
Media buyers can’t afford to ignore that sort of information and
However, not everyone believes NRS is the panacea for an industry’s
Jim Addison, managing director of Specialist Publishers, which produces
Eagle Star’s 225,000-circulation magazine, says some titles have better
and more accurate readership figures than ABC or NRS can provide. ’With
the Eagle Star magazine I have the names and addresses of every single
reader,’ he explains. ’I would imagine that space buyers would find that
level of customer information a lot more useful than a vague readership
number. It depends on the magazine and the publisher, and a number of
titles could indeed benefit from ABC or NRS data.’
What Addison, Potter and Conchie agree upon is where to target growth in
prospective clients - 1997 is all about fmcg brands. Heinz has its own
magazine and Unilever experimented with a title at the end of last year
but, as a whole, the fmcg sector has failed to get involved in the
magazine business. Addison believes the Heinz and Unilever models hold
good as fmcg brands cannot justify spending 40p on a magazine when the
product itself only costs pounds 1, so they will be forced to band
The other area for contract publishers to tackle is new media. The
Internet and new media are today’s desktop publishing, and the industry
is aware it has to wise up. Treasure, also the chairman of the TPD
group, says his company is looking hard into new media. Through the TPD
subsidiary, Fusion Interactive, and its Seattle office, TPD has tied up
Microsoft’s online material with its consumer magazine. Interested
parties can explore how this works at www.microsoft.com/magazine.
Although other publishers are dubious about the use of online
publishing, they are all getting very excited about the next couple of
years. ’The contract magazine’s time has come,’ says Barry Bliss,
publishing director at BLA, which publishes Ford’s magazine. ’The 90s is
all about customer loyalty and retention and, as long as that remains
the case, customer titles will have huge potential.’ All the publishers
have to do now is convince ad agencies to put client money where the
publisher’s mouth is.