PUBLISHING AGENCIES: Finding a perfect match

What can a contract publisher expect in a working relationship with a client? Pippa Considine interviews three leading figures from the customer publishing sector to find out the high and low points of the job.

Simon Kanter - Publishing director, Haymarket Customer Publications
Clients include: The Army, Manchester United, Citroen, Rough Guide

As a former editor with strong scruples about the integrity of what's on the page, Kanter relies heavily on client respect and trust. "Some companies we've pitched to have been extremely professional - they say 'we don't understand this business and we're open to ideas'. But, equally, there have been others, such as a major banking group, where it was quite clear that they had no real intention of making significant changes to the titles. Kanter's favoured strategy is to gauge a title's success by its effect on a client's performance.

Some clients need re-education, such as one who said: "You've got a number of editors working on this project: editor; art editor; production editor; sub-editor and so on. It sounds like they all do the same job to me, so why can't we just have one?"

When a publisher is caught on the back foot, Kanter believes you should sweat it out. There was a problem with the Liverpool FC programme, when it profiled a player who was found to be out of favour with the club's powers. "You have to take that on the chin, Kanter says. Haymarket's track record with Liverpool's match-day magazine stood the publisher in good stead when it won the contract for Manchester United's match-day programme, United Review.

And strong client-publisher bonds have been forged on the titles, even where the odds are stacked against it. "The two people who run the Army business have a fantastic relationship with it. It isn't an easy client, makes great demands and will make changes, but has never questioned the basis of the magazine."

Kanter can be obstinate with client-publisher relationships. If he thinks something is right for the client, he pushes it until he is forced to back down. "I'm the most ungracious giver-upper but, at the end of the day, the client is paying the bills."

Andrew Hirsch - Chief executive, John Brown Citrus Publishing
Clients include: Sky, Waitrose, WH Smith, Ikea, The Automobile

Hirsch has a vintage "chance meeting in an elevator story. It happened about a year ago when he was pitching at an early morning meeting to the bigwigs at a "very, very big American retailer". After a frantic rush to get design work together, Hirsch bowled up to the flagship store and headed for the executive floor, only to find he was in the wrong building.

With half an hour to spare, he headed for the lift which he shared with a man who had an official air about him. After watching the man head out on the ground floor, being greeted by various members of staff, Hirsch decided he might be heading for the same meeting. Not one to hang back, he asked him if he was the store manager. "No, I'm the president of the company, came the reply. Ten minutes and three blocks later, Hirsch had managed to charm him.

Then there was a memorable worst moment. This time it was another pitch - to Toyota, seven years ago. The in-house projector was acting up, so they hired one for the meeting. It arrived just an hour before. "This thing was in a box, three foot by two foot. It looked like a small coffin and weighed a ton, Hirsch says. Two of them lugged it to the meeting and, yes, it didn't work.

Other situations need to be worked at and require diplomacy. One recent problem area at John Brown Citrus has been a debate with Sky Customer Magazine. Hirsch and the team wanted to persuade the client to talk about highlights on other non-Sky channels for its pick of the day section.

"You've got to raise certain issues early and understand the sensitivities from the client point of view, he says.

But it is always a straight-talking approach that wins in the end. "One client had a publishing programme that was losing a lot of money and we weren't making much. It took us to say: 'let's stop what we're doing because this isn't working.'"

Keith Grainger - Managing director, Redwood Publishing
Clients include: Harvey Nichols, Volvo, Reuters, Boots

Grainger recalls one rock-bottom moment in his 15-year career with Redwood when he was a publisher. The story reveals just how little clients know about the publishing process. "The idea that a publisher was working on their business was something quite a lot of clients didn't understand or value. I remember being in a meeting with one new client and being asked 'what do you do then?' I thought that it was a given - doesn't everyone know? But the client was looking for value to be added and it was a tricky question to answer. I came back from the meeting and said: 'I think we need account directors.'"

He has a long-standing relationship with Marks & Spencer's M&S magazine, on which he worked when he joined the company. "There are people there who I would still regard as friends. You get to know each other incredibly well and develop an understanding."

A one-off client jaunt that cemented relationships in the face of adversity was a trip to a Euro 2000 football match in Belgium, which turned into a riot. "We were trying to provide enjoyable hospitality in what was a war zone where we needed to protect the client. But it created a great relationship, Grainger recalls.

He is committed to a way of working that means the publishing agency has the same relationship with the client as any other agency. "It's not just 'here's your magazine, it's Thursday'. We don't just deliver, we deliver a proactive service. The reality for a lot of clients is that if we're doing it right the process is invisible.

"The agency-client relationship has accelerated in the past eight years or so as the kind of work we do for clients has become more central to customer communication and marketing - it's no longer the whim of the chairman or the chairman's wife as there is now a better understanding of what the media does."


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