If the words contract publishing merely summon up images of printed publications, then you're out of date. The technological revolution, whose repercussions have been felt across the media spectrum, has also impacted upon the world of customer magazines.
According to a recent report on the contract publishing industry, published by Mintel at the end of last year, in the past two years the industry has been virtually reinvented.
'In a fiercely competitive market, the majority of contract agencies have extended their remit from publishing contract magazines and newsletters to take advantage of a far broader media spectrum,' the report says.
As a result the contract publishing industry is flourishing and, according to Mintel, industry turnover rose to pounds 227 million in 2000, an increase of 15 per cent on the previous year.
This followed a five-year period in which the industry had already seen turnover double due to increased demand for print publications.
To date, new media still contributes a relatively small percentage of total industry turnover - Mintel puts the figure from online content at pounds 16 million in 2000. Yet it is increasing daily, with few new-business clients not incorporating some new-media element into their brief. And the evolution is not necessarily at the expense of the printed word. The consensus is that print titles and online magazines can work together.
'Magazines are still the biggest element of our business and they're going to be for a while yet because this is where our core skills lie,' Ian Sewell, the commercial director of Redwood, says. 'Yet clients are increasingly looking for integrated solutions.'
This has led many of the companies within the customer magazines sector to rethink their own branding. Redwood was formerly known as Redwood Publishing but opted to change its name a year ago in recognition of its evolution into an integrated agency. This change has also seen the launch of a specialist new-media division, Redwood New Media, as well as its separate catalogue division, Red Cat.
It is not alone. Across the industry there is a recognition that the changing demands of clients have afforded customer publishing agencies the opportunity to reposition themselves at the centre of their clients customer communication programme.
'We changed our name 18 months ago,' says Craig Waller, the chief executive of Premier Media Partners, formerly known as Premier Magazines. 'It is a reflection of the changes within the industry. If we're smart we're going to be at the centre of our customers' communication channels to clients. If not, then web-based digital agencies will step into this gap.'
The contract publishing industry believes that it has much to offer its client in terms of the internet.
Magazines are designed principally to engage consumers and there seems to be plenty of opportunities to transfer these skill online, where content quality has often suffered at the expense of technological invention.
'In the last few years, the real emphasis has been on technical solutions online,' Sewell says. 'But now people are realising that, having made that investment, they have to provide real value in the form of entertainment and innovation. We offer technical solutions, but our big raison d'etre is to provide an environment to engage customers.'
His view is backed up by Waller at Premier Media Partners. 'It is not that difficult to compete on content with any of the digital agencies because they all have tended to regard it as an afterthought,' he says.
Online content provision is not the only new avenue to be opening up to contract publishers. As the Mintel report notes, e-mail marketing and content for digital and interactive TV are further areas of development. This, in turn, requires contract publishers to boost their investment in database marketing skills.
'As client companies increasingly recognise the importance of database segmentation and targeting, contract publishers are repositioning themselves as agencies able to offer the full remit of customer management services,' the report says.
In some areas the growth in demand for such services is more evolution than revolution. Advances in printing technology have already made it possible to segment print publications, although the number of different segments tends to be limited by cost concerns. Once this is transferred to the web, however, greater segmentation becomes possible.
Other contract shops are experimenting with e-mail marketing. Premier Media Relations works with airline clients such as Go and British Airways and is testing e-mail marketing as part of the communications mix. A recent example for Go mimicked the style of the airline's One-Line Guide, a destination guide which limits itself to one line on each hotel or restaurant, to promote places to visit in destinations where special offers were available.
As contract publishers embrace new methods of communication, they are inevitably being drawn into more direct competition with rival communications specialities. 'When you get into new media you're competing with practically everyone,' Thaddeus Hickman, general manager of Redwood New Media, says.
Despite this, others suggest that although the disciplines involved might be the same, the strategy is often different. 'This is getting into the realm of a DM company,' Waller admits. 'But our remit is to try and inspire rather than simply communicate an offer.'
As competition becomes more intense, there is a growing rivalry between those agencies, such as AMD Brass Tacks, Redwood, Premier Media Partners and Specialist Publications, which are divisions of larger communications networks, publisher-owned titles and the independents.
Andrew Hirsch, the chief executive of John Brown Publishing, the industry's largest independent contract publisher whose clients include Waitrose, Orange and Ikea, believes the company's status allows it to take a more measured approach to the changes afoot. 'I don't think new media has made a dramatic change to the industry,' he says. 'But some people have got very overexcited about it. We provide online content which at present makes up around 5 per cent of our business, but I see it as just an additional facility that we provide.'
Hirsch believes there will always be a market for great print publications.
'Our core aim is to produce the best magazines for our sector,' he says.
'If we do this and it brings in revenue, then I think that is sufficient.'
Yet the future undoubtedly holds more challenges for the contract agencies. Hirsch admits that the agency has recently been approached by a TV production company keen to produce a magazine programme for Ikea in the US. 'We're talking to both parties about it,' he says. 'If content turns up in print, online or on-screen, so be it.'
The majority of the industry seems to embrace the new opportunities with great enthusiasm. Some see interactive digital TV as being a potential growth area for contract publishers, but this may be some way off.
Meanwhile, Hickman reveals that the company is aiming to have two digital TV clients on its list by the end of the year.'Interactive TV is a big opportunity for our industry,' he says. 'It will be important to get experience of it in the next 12 to 18 months. It is not yet a serious revenue stream but it could be.'
As the industry evolves to incorporate new technology, one truism from the days when contract publishing only involved print is likely to continue to hold firm: the key to the success of any customer communication is its ability to stand out, and the way to ensure this is to make sure that quality standards are maintained.
'The future is difficult to predict,' Sewell says. 'But the essential qualities of what makes a magazine successful won't change - that means understanding the consumer, the right creative skills and engaging them successfully. That is the challenge for the new technology.'
BRAND BIBLES: THE DESIGNER'S PICK OF FOUR BY LAURIE JOHNSTON
For a start, the magazine's square format echoes the Orange logo and reflects the 'funkiness' of the brand. The square motif is carried through from the picture boxes on the contents page to page borders and footers.
The use of orange text highlighting headings and bullets is important. The Orange brand is so focused on the colour itself, and not diluted with puns about juice and so on, that it remains a powerful reminder. Also, the orange text is only used in editorial about your phone/network and not in the general features.
There is a simplicity to the design that makes it feel contemporary, accessible and non-techie. The typography is clean and legible, and layouts uncluttered.
Design and editorial work well together, achieving a tone of optimism. The magazine is also full of happy pictures (the future's bright ...).
Okay, it's probably cheating to call this a magazine. It's really a visual feast with page after page of beautiful, sumptuous full-bleed images, impeccably photographed and production values to delight any designer.
It's not a catalogue either, though: there are editorial ideas in the pages, just not many words. Basically it oozes quality, quirky flair and whimsical humour - all controlled with restraint and taste.
The horse motif which appears on the cover and intermittently throughout the magazine is used with wit and a light touch, taking it away from the narrow agenda of the county set.
You'll never want to throw this one away.
This is another that uses high-quality photography and production to communicate brand values.
It's clearly meant to appeal to the reader's sense of sophistication and culture.
The magazine from this superior watchmaker uses lots of white space and looks very elegant and discreet.
The typography is conservative, often centred and well spaced, and the layouts are well balanced, almost symmetrical.
Everything feels measured and controlled - like a perfectly precise timepiece perhaps. The magazine's design suggests a style and quality which will not date.
I must declare an interest here, as one of the designers on the team for Live it.
But the title successfully associates the Conran brand with every aspect of contemporary urban life.
The magazine's design is explicitly simple and functional, yet elegant.
The typography is clean and legible but shows a care to detail.
When it comes to expressing the Conran core brand values, photography is the star of the show with pictures imbued with warmth and intimacy to evoke well-being, conviviality and style. Images aim to capture moments of pleasure, where there is harmony between objects and where touch, sound, smell and light combine to strike an emotional chord.
The cover encapsulates the Conran lifestyle. It competes for attention on the newsstand in a way that is consistent with the Conran ethos of design simplicity, through the use of a warm but graphic image.
- Laurie Johnston is the assistant art director at the award-winning Live it, published by Axon Publishing.