A decade is a long time in the world of media. And in the case of customer magazines, comparing an issue from 1993 to one in 2003 is like comparing the primitive workings of a pager to today's multimedia mobile phones. The tacky covers that once left you in no doubt that a customer magazine had hit your doormat have been replaced by ones easily mistaken for upmarket glossies.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Association of Publishing Agencies, which was originally set up to try to legitimise a business whose reputation was threatened by unorthodox players. Initially, seven founding members were pulled together to try to help regulate the industry and promote it in its own right. Today the ranks have swelled to 30 full-time members and 13 affiliate members and the APA's role has evolved from sending out generic information to acting as a consultancy to advertisers.
Mark Flaunders, the chairman of the Communications Team and a founding member of the APA along with his business partner, Tony Craddock, who was also the first APA chairman, describes the trade body's origins: "People were doing customer magazines, but they were all over the place. Tony felt it was phenomenally difficult to get new business because he had to convince people of its efficacy to start with. There were people whose whole raison d'etre was to say to clients: 'We'll do a magazine for you, it will cost you nothing, just sign on the dotted line.' So you'd end up in a strange twilight zone, working in the interests of publishers, not clients."
Andrew Hirsch, the chief executive of John Brown Citrus Publishing, reflects: "People like me were spending most of our time convincing marketing directors that it would be a good use of their spend. Now, it's much more: 'we know it's part of the marketing mix, but how do we integrate it with what we are doing, and are you the right company for me to do it with?'" Advertising in these magazines was a similar story.
"We felt like we were hitting our head against a brick wall," Hirsch recalls.
"It wasn't something that people readily wanted to advertise in. Now, take Sky magazine with an ABC of more than six million. We get a fantastic amount of advertising and advertisers get a great response from it."
Growth in circulation is a good indication of the health of the industry, and the latest ABC figures reveal that nine of the top ten circulating titles are customer magazines. But size isn't everything, and today many more titles are split into specific focus groups so that they deliver relevant information to the right audiences. Sarah Morris, the marketing director of Forward, which recently won the AA Magazine contract, says: "AA Magazine is sent to its five million members. It will now be segmented and is a good example of how we continue to pioneer how customer publishing and direct marketing are inextricably linked." The takeover of companies such as Just and Forward by ad agency groups sends out clear signals that customer magazines are seen as a crucial marketing tool in the advertising mix.
Vanity publishing was a symptom of the industry a decade ago, but now marketing directors have to qualify every penny they spend, and customer publishing is becoming an exact science which has to prove its worth.
Lisa Barnard, the chairman of the APA and the managing director of The Illustrated London News Group, explains: "Ten years ago, there would be brand leaders in various sectors and others would pop up without necessarily having any objectives. In the past 18 months, clients have been far more disciplined in fine-tuning their objectives. Magazines have to work harder. There's emphasis on product usage, cross-selling and cross-marketing. You have to be seen in the context of paid-for magazines, which have also improved."
If you were an editor or art director on a customer magazine a decade ago, it wasn't something you would necessarily boast about, but times have changed. Jules Rastelli, the managing director of Cedar Communications, which publishes BA's magazine, High Life, notes: "The quality of magazines has significantly moved on. The talent pool is better than ever before, and with that has come better quality of output." Clare Bradley, a board account director at Redwood, adds: "The people we employ come from the mainstream consumer press. The editor of M&S Magazine came from Good Housekeeping and the editor of Boots Health & Beauty came from She."
With stronger production values comes less editorial puff and features that could be found in any good glossy, while the advertisers are mainstream brands keen to tap into a focused, trusting readership.
With the exception of titles such as M&S Magazine, which has always been a key part of the brand's advertising tool-kit, customer magazines were seen as an additional part of the advertising budget, rather than an integral part. Rastelli comments: "For some clients, customer magazines today are their number-one communication. I wouldn't suggest this was the case for the majority, but ten years ago that wasn't the situation at all."
As the coffers of the customer magazine market began to grow, so did the number of publishers. Mainstream consumer publishers, such as Conde Nast and The National Magazine Company, decided to get in on the act.
Established customer publishers have mixed views on their impact. Morris declares: "They obviously understand how to put magazines together but they don't understand about marketing and customer service. Where they've been detrimental is that they've come in and undercut, which I think they've done through the ad-selling scenario." Rastelli believes their presence has been more beneficial: "It has helped to raise the status of the business.
Conde Nast and NatMags' names are easily recognisable for some clients whereas some customer publishers are not."
Winning new business is certainly not as easy as it was. With a maturing industry comes the entry of fewer new clients into the market. And with a more media- savvy client, the APA's days of compiling lists of customer publishers is a dim memory. Barnard explains: "We are considering going one step further so that if a client wants more help with a shortlist of customer publishers, we would work with a third party, such as the AAR or Haystack. The fact that we are looking at this shows how customer publishers as a group are helping to grow the market, rather than fight over it."
TOP TEN CUSTOMER TITLES BY CIRCULATION
TITLE PUBLISHER Total Period on Year on
ABC period year
% change % change
Sky Magazine JBCP 6,124,572 6.00 15.00
AA Magazine Forward 4,679,950 -6.00 -7.00
O Magazine (Orange) JBCP 2,500,025 0.00 0.00
Asda Magazine Publicis
Blueprint 2,012,733 16.00 32.00
Boots Health &
Beauty Redwood 1,870,390 -1.00 -15.00
Safeway Magazine Redwood 1,505,064 -14.00 -14.00
Magazine AMD 1,345,789 -2.00 -1.00
Saga Magazine Saga Publishing 1,237,947 3.00 4.00
Homebase Ideas Publicis
Blueprint 497,090 1.00 -
VM The Vauxhall Mediamark
Magazine Publishing 478,018 20.00 20.00