Having spent the formative years of my media career within direct marketing and, more recently, as the press director at three top media buying points, I've been rather well-placed to witness what was probably one of the most dramatic evolutions of any magazine sector: customer magazines.
I make no secret of being an evangelist for customer magazines. In fact, two or three years ago, I was quoted in the trade press as saying: "If it were up to me, customer magazines would appear on all my plans." Hasty words, I thought at the time, and I was right. My phone line was suddenly jammed with calls from eager customer magazine representatives waiting to claim their slice of the cake.
But recently, the pipe dream has become reality, with customer magazines taking their rightful place on media plans alongside their consumer, paid-for, newsstand cousins. The days of customer magazine revenue lines being dominated by advertisers selling anything from coins, plates and figurines through to gold-plated Monopoly sets in 2,400 easy payments have been firmly consigned to the past, giving way to brand-led advertisers. This turnaround brings with it a plethora of benefits, most notably higher rates.
How timely, then, that the Association of Publishing Agencies has commissioned a study, due to be published in the near future, examining among other things reader behaviour and attitudes towards customer and consumer magazines. The top-line findings are very positive and will no doubt prove to be yet another shot in the arm for the ever-increasing profile of this market.
Until recently, customer titles have been considered to be of lesser value than their newsstand rivals because their revenue is derived from advertising or subsidised from a membership fee, rather than a cover price. This is ludicrous, especially given their exceptionally high production values, enviable ABC audited circulations and respectable paginations.
This is now backed up by APA research indicating that average reading time in most cases is very much in line with the consumer sector.
Furthermore, "the direct to home, direct to bin" myth has been dispelled, with customer magazines scoring very highly with consumers on "good sources of information" and "believe what you read". We can therefore safely assume that customer magazines are being read and that the readership is being exposed to advertising messages.
The argument for advertising in customer titles is further strengthened by the high level of recommendations to friends or relatives made by the primary readers/recipients. These levels are virtually in line with those of consumer titles. This is exceptionally good return-on-investment news for advertisers.
And direct marketing advertisers have found customer magazines to be a fertile bed for return on investment, too. Women's customer magazines, in particular, score very well on "bought something as a result of reading".
Boots' Health and Beauty, M&S Magazine and Waitrose Food Illustrated perform well on this front.
With their captive audiences, customer magazines provide the kinds of highly targeted routes to market that are essential for advertiser cut-through. Indeed, it is now possible to replace a consumer title with a customer one and cost-effectively gain incremental cover points. It will come as no surprise, then, that over the past two years, contract publishers have been increasingly successful in persuading agencies to take their titles seriously when constructing schedules. M&S Magazine, Waitrose Food Illustrated, the Tesco portfolio and Ikea Room, to name but a few, are now core roster considerations.
But before the sector gets swept up by euphoria and wheels out the findings to agencies, a reality check is needed.
The consumer magazine market is experiencing unprecedented success and this is far from good news for customer titles. According to the Advertising Statistics Yearbook 2003, advertiser spending on consumer magazines increased by £79 million in 2002. Overall spend rose from £1,872 million in 2001 to £1,951 million in 2002. The total number of consumer magazines sold increased by ninemillion to 1,317 million, with cover prices rising above inflation.
This seemingly unrelenting demand for consumer titles is showing no sign of abating and serves only to pressurise the customer magazine market by competing with readers for share of their time.
On the other hand, if people are so willing to buy magazines, perhaps it is time more customer titles joined the cover-price gravy train. At the moment, 22 per cent of customer titles carry a cover price but only 9 per cent are actually paid for. If, as the APA found, 22 per cent of readers would pay for their customer magazine, there may be money to be made.
But one thing is sure: customer magazines are no longer the poor relation of the publishing industry. These days, they look more like the lottery winner.