Publishing agencies: conquering new territory

Contract publishing is now worth more than £300 million and much of this growth is from publishers finding new sectors that are ripe for a title, writes Lexie Williamson.

"There should be less cannibalisation of existing contacts and far more emphasis on approaching clients that don't already have a customer magazine, or finding sectors where business can be developed," the January 2003 Contract Publishing Mintel report warned.

It's sensible advice: the economic slowdown has forced clients to pare down their budgets. This, combined with the fact that more and more contract publishers are launching each year, means you've got a fiercely competitive marketplace where companies must expand to survive. The question is: are there any sectors left to explore?

It might not be the sexiest area but public sector contract publishing is proving one of the fastest growing, as Mike Lamand, the publishing director of The Communications Team, testifies. "Public sector work has snowballed," he says. "It's definitely a growth area - especially within the Cabinet. There are communications professionals who champion magazines largely because they enable you to present quite complex information clearly."

The Communications Team launched Special Beat, a magazine for the Special Constabulary, 18 months ago and has since taken on another Home Office magazine called Crime Reduction News, for people working in crime reduction and prevention.

The Communications Team also produces two Cabinet Office titles: Inclusion, which is sent out by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit, and Leading Edge, which is produced for civil servants involved in the Public Service Leaders Scheme.

The good news with pitching for public sector briefs is that most tenders are advertised on the Official Journal of the European Community website, which means, in theory, that everyone starts on an equal footing.

The downside is the bureaucracy that pitching for one of these titles involves you in. The pitch for the Teacher Training Agency's magazine Ruler began in January and was still ticking along by the end of the summer.

But at a time when private sector marketing budgets are being squeezed harder and harder, it is well worth spending the hours filling out the paperwork that a government magazine pitch requires, because, as the saying goes: "Once you're in, you're in."

Annual reports have always been Wardour Communication's bread-and-butter business but the contract publisher is beginning to see a steady increase in the number of companies requesting a separate, "slimline" version to hand out to their retail shareholders.

Because, while analysts are happy to wade through the traditional numbers-heavy reports, the lighter one is reserved for tales of corporate social responsibility and boasting about your environmental record.

It is internal communications, however, that is really blossoming as a sector. "Our internal communications client list doubled in one year," Wardour's joint managing director Nick Mayhew-Smith says. Wardour now oversees internal reports for Abbey National, Safeway and British Telecom. "Companies are realising that they should talk to staff in the same way they talk to their customers," he says.

Mayhew-Smith says that other publishers are cottoning on to the potential of internal communications, having spotted a few examples at shindigs held by his industry body, The British Association of Communicators in Business.

Grahame Lake, the managing director of Just Customer Communication, meanwhile, is betting on the charity sector as a future growth area.

His agency is about to publish the second issue of Inside Out for the Duke of Edinburgh Award body. The title was designed both to arrest the high dropout rate of 13- to 15-year-old participants and to give the image of the charity a "hip" makeover.

Just Customer Communication distributed 30,000 copies of the first issue of Inside Out in February and - in response to interest from its recipients - has just ramped up the print run for the second issue to 100,000.

"The charity sector is really under-represented within customer publishing," Lake says. "Instead of sending supporters a grim, 80s-style magazine that wants to make you slit your wrists, a charity could have a more 'up' title that creates a sense of community among supporters. Being worthy doesn't mean being dull."

However, as Lake points out, charities can be a tough pitch, since they are concerned about being accused of wasting precious funds on producing glossy publications. But, as he says, they will pay for TV ads or direct marketing.

"We've talked to a few charities," he says. "But, despite the fact that they might pay 41p postage for direct mail and we could give them a magazine for 81p, it always comes back to price."

But not everyone in the industry is convinced that there are any untapped sectors. "After 25 to 30 years, most market sectors have been looked at by now," Julian Downing, the director of contract publishing at The National Magazine Company, says. "What's happening is that some smaller, niche players are starting to specialise in areas such as public sector, financial or youth."

Downing doesn't pretend to be breaking new ground in terms of sectors.

He isn't even launching new titles - one of NatMags' most recent contract projects was the transformation of BAA's Worldpoints, a title for BAA's retail loyalty scheme, into BAA Emporium.

But he does claim to be expanding traditionally lucrative areas such as retail by reaching new audiences, especially women - something the publisher of Cosmopolitan and She knows a thing or two about.

"BAA Emporium appeals equally to both men and women," Downing says. "We also send 100,000 copies of Berkeley Homes' publication New Homes out with the newsstand title House Beautiful, so we're using magazines as a tool to acquire new customers."

Simon Kanter, the publishing director at Haymarket Customer Publishing, is similarly confident that there are plenty of opportunities left within existing sectors and the mere fact that a business might already have a magazine doesn't worry him.

"We tend to think from a client rather than a sector perspective and ask ourselves 'who are the big clients out there and what can we do for them?'," Kanter states. Haymarket's customer magazines include Army for the Army/COI Communications and United Review for Manchester United Football Club. "Sometimes a client might even already have a main customer title but we'll approach another strand of the business. It's another way into the company and has proved quite fruitful," he says.

"At the end of the day, it's more important that we provide high-quality editorial solutions that deliver a return on investment than get too hung up on this sector or that," he argues.

"There's no question that the past couple of years have been tough for customer publishers. Margins have been squeezed and clients have become more demanding but the good news is that there's no shortage of competitive tenders out there."