Does being bought help or hinder publishing agencies' new-business performance? A year after WPP and Interpublic Group bought independent publishing agencies, Helen Jones investigates how far acquisition has affected the agencies' business.

"We've had about six offers recently and, while it's flattering to be courted, we've resisted, Nicola Murphy, the managing director and founder of River Publishing, says. River publishes, among other titles, Spirit of Superdrug and Healthy for Holland & Barrett.

River, like other independent contract publishers, is being pursued by ad agency groups keen to provide clients with a broader range of services.

"Ad agencies have realised that if they can't offer clients contract publishing, then they have a gap in their portfolios. They know that they have to bring in specialists because they don't have the skills in house.

That is why we have seen a number of acquisitions in the market," Grahame Lake, the chairman of the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) and the managing director of Just Customer Communications (formerly TPD), says. Just Customer Communications was bought by the Interpublic network McCann-Erickson last year.

Customer magazines, long perceived as inferior to newsstand publications, are enjoying a boom. The contract publishing market is worth £227 million in 2002 and is expected to reach £320 million by 2004, according to market research group Mintel.

Fortunately for a business that is all about building closer relationships with the target audience, consumers actually like customer magazines.

Research carried out by the Henley Centre on behalf of Redwood suggests that the average reading time is 29 minutes.

And Mintel discovered that a third of consumers think magazines are an appealing way for a company to inform them of products and services. Meanwhile, a fifth claim to have bought a product or service as a direct result of reading a customer magazine.

As competition intensifies, the market is being shaken up. WPP has bought Forward Publishing. AMD Group, a subsidiary of Chime Communications, has bought Brass Tacks. John Brown has merged with Citrus, and Omnicom has pooled its contract publishers Premier Media Partners - now renamed Cedar - with Redwood to share production and research facilities.

Publicis, meanwhile, has forged its own path. Rather than acquiring an established contract publisher, it launched its own startup, Publicis Blueprint to service its client, Asda. Publicis Blueprint is now free to pitch for any business that doesn't conflict with the main agency's own accounts.

The chief executive of Publicis Blueprint, John Wisbey, says: "One of the benefits of setting up our own publishing company is that we don't have earn-outs getting in the way of us giving clients dispassionate advice and coming up with the best solutions."

So why are the independents selling? One of the obvious benefits of joining an ad agency group is cross referral and the generation of new-business leads.

Sarah Wyse, the managing director of Forward Publishing, whose clients include Tesco, BT and Egg, says: "It's been a year since we joined WPP and we have had lots of introductions to clients from WPP companies and we are waiting to hear about a number of pitches."

At the time of the deal, Wyse said that being part of WPP would give Forward opportunities to handle US-based business. "It hasn't worked out quite as I expected, she says. "The downturn in the US economy has meant that we haven't got US business, however, we are talking to companies in Europe."

She adds that existing clients have also benefited. "It has made a tremendous difference to our clients. It's fantastic to be able to offer extra services and resources such as WPP's specialist retail research to Tesco."

"We've got no regrets, she says. "There is no WPP rule book given to you when you join. WPP is just there to help and being part of it has helped us grow up as a company."

Lake believes that Just Customer Communications, which also produces publications for Microsoft, Lexus and Goldfish, has certainly benefited from its association with McCann-Erickson. "We've done three pitches in the past four weeks with a sister company for clients who are looking at the larger picture, he says.

But despite the co-operation between agencies and their contract publishing arms, Lake admits that many people in ad agencies don't understand customer magazines or their role in building brand awareness and retaining customer loyalty. "We've got a lot of evangelising to do," he says. "Customer magazines are still a mystery to some people in above-the-line agencies but they are always pleasantly surprised at how cheap magazines are to produce."

Jim Addison, the managing director of the Omnicom-owned publishers, Specialist, which works with Peugeot, NatWest and Specsavers, says all the companies within Omnicom are standalone.

"There is cross referral but it's not compulsory. If a client comes to us and wants to go a particular route but we don't think an Omnicom sister company is the right solution we will say so. It's not just altruism - if it goes pear shaped then it could reverberate on us, he says.

When independents join a larger group, they inevitably have to deal with greater levels of bureaucracy. Lake says: "What's the biggest difference? The figures get scrutinised much more avidly than before."

And it is this tendency to bureaucracy that keeps John Brown Citrus Publishing independent, the chief executive, Andrew Hirsch, says. "I've worked for a big group and half the day is spent on internal politics and dealing with bean counters rather than devoted to clients."

As for cross referrals, Hirsch is sceptical. "That may be the model but it doesn't necessarily work like that. If you look at companies like Forward, how many clients have come via WPP? Not that many, he says.

He adds: "If a client has some spare money, then the agency might say 'talk to our contract-publishing arm' but the ad agency account director will still want to run it because everyone protects their own relationship with the client."

Mintel's research points to further mergers and acquisitions in the market with a greater emphasis on top-quality, accurately-targeted magazines, but will the remaining independents sell?

No. Well at least not yet, River's Murphy says. "I started this company seven- and-a-half years ago and have a duty of care to our staff and clients.

I'm still only in my thirties and not sure I'm ready to sit on a beach all day. I still have a lot to do."


GROUP                AGENCY                CLIENTS
WPP                  Forward               Tesco, BT, Egg
Omnicom              Redwood               Safeway, Boots, M&S
Omnicom              Specialist            Peugeot, Natwest, Specsavers
Omnicom              Cedar                 Debenhams, Nikon, BA
Interpublic Group    JCC                   Microsoft, Lexus, Goldfish
Publicis             Publicis Blueprint    Asda
Chime                AMD Brass Tacks       Somerfield, Royal Mail, COI


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