Contract publishers have long argued that they, and the services
they offer, are too often misunderstood. The world thinks customer
magazines are no more than gratuitous, often whimsical, gestures. In
fact, customer titles are central to maintaining and developing loyalty
among a company’s existing and potential customers. They are essential
marketing devices to be slotted carefully into the totality of the
client’s brand communications package.
In the last couple of years, publishers have been winning the
Ironically, this may be to their cost - because it was perhaps taken to
its logical conclusion last week when Asda took its customer magazine
contract out of the specialist publisher, Premier, and handed it to its
advertising agency, Publicis. Where better to guarantee its role within
a brand communications strategy?
Of course, the relationship between contract publishing and the rest of
the marketing services sector has been growing in recent years. The
country’s top outfit, Redwood Publishing, is owned by Abbott Mead and
the BMP holding company, Omnicom. Other major agency groups have been
looking at similar acquisitions.
But Redwood is run as an autonomous operation - its senior executives
get rather prickly if you suggest it is destined to become merely a
resource for Omnicom’s ad agency clients. Asda’s move, however, brings
contract publishing closer than ever to the account handling function.
Is this a mistake? Where best should contract publishing sit? Will
Redwood, for instance, be forced to rethink its relationship with Abbott
Matthew Prior, Redwood’s new-business director, says there are no
specific conclusions to be drawn from this move: ’Competition is healthy
in a vibrant market - and contract publishing is clearly a vibrant
market. This move is going to attract further interest in the sector,
which is broadly good news. However, this is one magazine going to an
advertising agency for reasons unspecified. This will probably be a
learning curve for all concerned.’
Publicis might argue that publishing is no big deal. All you need is a
layout specialist and a couple of freelance journalists - all of whom
can be acquired for a pocketful of loose change these days.
Has a dangerous - dangerous, that is, for contract publishing -
precedent been set? Contract publishers are sceptical. The message is:
don’t read too much into this. Many sources point out that retail
clients are the nightmare clients from hell at the best of times - and
Asda is in a league of its own. It’s likely to pick fights with its
suppliers from time to time.
All except one particular supplier. In an interview with Campaign last
October, Asda’s chief executive, Allan Leighton, made it clear that he
believed Rick Bendel, Publicis’s chairman, to be the fount of all wisdom
and knowledge. Observers reckon Bendel pitched for the publishing
business - in other words, that this move was more his idea than Asda’s
- but that he was pushing against an open door. Now he’s only just
beginning to realise what he’s taken on.
Granted, advertising and publishing have many craft skills in
There are, however, vast gulfs in perception and understanding - not so
much in the skills required to produce something that looks plausible,
but in filling the spaces between the pictures with the right sorts of
John Brown, the chairman of John Brown Publishing, claims this is the
key. ’An advertising agency can offer nothing a publisher can’t. The
danger is all the other way - that a customer magazine ends up as a
crude promotional device rather than a magazine that people actually
want to read. Any publisher can make the magazine dovetail with the
client’s brand communications to the extent that it’s necessary.
’I don’t fear agencies taking contract publishing business any more than
they should fear publishers gearing up to take advertising accounts from