SPOTLIGHT ON: CONTRACT PUBLISHING - Publishers and agencies are brought closer by Asda move/Does Publicis’s publishing role mark a turning point? Alasdair Reid investigates

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.

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

argument.



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

Mead?



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

common.



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

words.



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

them.’



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