Publishing Agencies: Publishing Agencies Enter New Worlds - Contract publishers are proving to be a formidable force in the dotcom arena, giving the web design agencies a run for their money. Jim Curtis investigates

Here’s a question. You want an all-singing, all-dancing website which is a slick and impressive customer communication tool. Two companies bang on your door - one is a web design agency that can make it look really cool but you’re not so sure about the words; the other’s a contract publisher, whose wordsmithing skills are exemplary but has less experience on the technical front. Which one do you choose?

Here’s a question. You want an all-singing, all-dancing website

which is a slick and impressive customer communication tool. Two

companies bang on your door - one is a web design agency that can make

it look really cool but you’re not so sure about the words; the other’s

a contract publisher, whose wordsmithing skills are exemplary but has

less experience on the technical front. Which one do you choose?

Contract publishers are winning more of these showdowns as clients take

a more serious view of the customer communication role played by their

websites. Great-looking sites are ten a penny nowadays, but what about

the content? This, contract publishers say, is their speciality and they

are chasing new-media business like there’s no tomorrow.

Jane Wynn, editorial director of River Publishing, says: ’At least half

of the conversations we have with prospects now include web-related

tasks. New media is generating such interest that it looks as if there’s

a market there for the taking.’ River plans to launch a new-media

subsidiary this spring and will soon reveal its first internet-only work

for a retail client.

As a cunning ruse to make their claims to web business more convincing,

some publishers are doing away with their inky-sounding brand names.

Premier Magazines is now Premier Media Partners (its internet-only

division is called Wildfire), BLA became Citrus Publishing last June and

The Publishing Team is now The Communications Team.

The amount of new-media work undertaken by erstwhile magazine

specialists is impressive: web work accounts for 40 per cent of TPD’s

turnover, while The Communications Team’s new-media income has gone from

15 per cent of turnover to 40 per cent in a year. In 1998, Mintel said

that 11 per cent of UK customer titles had an online presence, and that

figure will have risen. Publishers want to see if they can perform

internet-only communication tasks as well as get a share of this


Linklaters, the world’s largest law company, recently awarded just such

a contract to The Communications Team, entrusting it not only with the

design of its site, but also the internal and external content


The managing director, Neil O’Brien, says: ’We pitched against two web

design agencies but won it because we approached design as just a

component of the job. Our pitch was much more content driven.’

O’Brien says his company’s long track record of devising communication

strategies for clients stands up well against web specialists who often

have less experience. ’Our portfolio gives us real credibility compared

with smaller, younger new-media agencies, and clients are comforted by

that,’ he says.

Publishers won’t admit it, but many of them are getting into new media

because they are aware that customer websites could, eventually, replace

customer magazines. Microsoft, a TPD client, has gone from a magazine

and interactive strategy to internet-only. Another, Goldfish Guides, is

replacing its paper consumer guides with an internet-only strategy.

The chairman of TPD, Julian Treasure, acknowledges that some clients

will want to do this, but believes ’magazines will never die’. He argues

that magazines working together with interactive media are hard to beat,

especially when each drives traffic to the other. An example is TPD’s

work for ONdigital, for which it publishes its monthly magazine and

built its website. ’If you want immediate information about programmes,

you need the magazine in your living room, but then if you need in-depth

detail, you can go to the website. The internet is also good for linking

with the TV, as we did when we had a backstage webcam for an All Saints

concert. When you get all three working together, it’s very


Mediamark has devised a similar integrated solution for British Midland,

for which it has launched an online version of its customer magazine,

Voyager. Peter Moore, publishing director of Mediamark, says the website

is perfect for tactical work, such as providing detailed guides to all

22 of BM’s destinations and the latest hotel and car hire deals. ’It’s

great for keeping customers up to date in a way that the magazine

can’t,’ Moore says. Mediamark has also created an online version of

Vauxhall’s VM magazine.

Paul Hallas, managing director of Goldfish Guides, doesn’t expect the

internet to kill demand for magazines, but he argues that publishers

have to rethink the role of paper in the online environment. ’Once

customers have seen what the internet can do, customers expect different

things from magazines,’ Hallas says. He says that magazine content

personalised to different customer segments is one way of making

magazines ’less static’.

Mediamark does this for Vauxhall, both in the magazine and on the


Content is tailored for prospects, customers and disabled drivers.

Hallas says the future looks bright. ’If they can change, contract

publishers will do well as they understand brands and how to manage

customer relationships. They have a broad range of capabilities, which

is unusual for suppliers.’

One way in which demand for paper-based communication could increase

alongside the growth of online is the trend for dotcom businesses to

give themselves ’a face’ with a magazine. Magazines can also help retain


Ian Sewell, commercial director of Redwood’s interactive division,

Redwood New Media, says: ’Many dotcoms suffer from higher than usual

customer churn rates. They are using offline advertising to acquire

customers successfully but need something to retain them and magazines

work well for that.’ Demon Internet, which lost a lot of customers when

Freeserve started the free net access revolution last year, is hoping

its new magazine - @demon, published by Haymarket - will do this


Contract publishers look well placed to thrive in the new-media age, but

to do so they need to be sure of their role. If customer magazines are

to stay in vogue, then publishers will have to ensure they are either

tightly integrated into a client’s web presence or, at least, performing

a function that cannot be achieved online. Publishers must ensure they

are able to offer clients online and offline expertise - opting out of

the wired world is no longer an option.


UK contract publishers are looking overseas for new-business


Wary that demand at home may soon hit a plateau, many see international

expansion as a necessity.

Craig Waller, chief executive of Premier Media Partners, says: ’The UK

market is still growing, but there aren’t as many of the big projects up

for grabs. But the US and Europe are experiencing the growth we had here

five years ago. Companies are looking beyond these shores.’

The most obvious target for expansion is the US, where mature marketing

and magazine industries are most receptive to the well-honed skills of

UK publishers. Customer publishing there has evolved from the newsstand

market - from groups such as Meredith Magazines - making the skills of

UK contract specialists particularly attractive.

Redwood, TPD, Haymarket and John Brown Publishing have offices in North

America, serving US clients, and others, including Premier Media

Partners, plan to follow suit. As more of these pick up business from

clients wanting to serve the US market - such as TPD with Microsoft and

John Brown with Ikea - the logic of opening an office becomes more


James McLeod, international publishing director for Redwood, says: ’It

gets harder to do it all from one place.’

Some UK publishers are looking at other markets. Brass Tacks, which won

a contract to publish Gulf Air’s in-flight magazine, Golden Falcon, says

it intends to target Middle Eastern business with a view to opening an

office there. The chief executive, Kim Conchie, says: ’We’re pleased to

have this competitive edge in the Middle East. Gulf Air is the biggest

publishing contract going in the Gulf states so we hope it will open up

new business.’

As the table (left) shows, the customer magazine market is growing

rapidly in mainland Europe, providing a rich seam of opportunity for UK


Germany is particularly buoyant, although Redwood recently terminated

its joint venture operation there - Redwood Brand Publishing. McLeod

says: ’Lead times can be very tight, so you need a business culture

where people make quick decisions and don’t get bogged down in

bureaucracy. In Germany we found that it was hard to get senior clients

to take responsibility. They have a much better understanding of the

processes in the US and Asia and so, in the short term, that’s where

we’ll concentrate our efforts.’ Redwood has an office in Hong Kong from

where it publishes magazines for HSBC and Mandarin Oriental hotels for

the Asian market.

Despite his competitor’s problems there, Waller says Germany is worth

persevering with. The company has been looking for an acquisition there

but couldn’t find a company from a similar background. ’Most contract

publishing has grown out of PR, from big traditional publishers such as

Gruner & Jahr, or from direct marketing agencies. It’s very regional and

fragmented,’ Waller says. Unable to find a partner, Premier plans to

open an office in Dusseldorf, handling a magazine launch for Deutsche

BA. The 68-page magazine will run bi-monthly with a 70,000 print


In France, where marketing agencies dominate, there is plenty of

opportunity for specialist publishers to move in. John Brown, which

opened up in Paris under the brand name, Magazine Factory, is publishing

its internationally successful Ikea magazine there, as well as the Spice

Girls magazine. Norwich-based Summerhouse Publishing is also keen to

open a French office to serve its two high-profile French clients,

Alsthom and Alcatel. The company beat off domestic competitors to win

both clients and hopes these contracts will help it secure more French


The Communications Team has used its contract with Britannia Airways to

open an office in Norway with Cox Kommunikasjon of Oslo. The magazine,

Skyscene, is published in all four Nordic languages, as well as in

English and German. The Communications Team managing director, Neil

O’Brien, says: ’UK publishers are seen as world leaders in this field.’

The publisher has also set up shop in South Africa, in a joint venture

with a printer, Creda Communications. Its clients there include Leisure

Link, SA’s largest multi-brand loyalty scheme.

Despite the overseas demand for UK expertise - and his own company’s

globetrotting - Andrew Hirsch, chief executive of John Brown, warns

against over-zealous expansion. ’Don’t let your overseas work diminish

your UK presence. There’s no point running around the world opening

offices if it undermines your client relationships.’

The customer magazine world market

                 Market size            Number   Year-on-year

                 (dollars m)         of titles     growth (%)

South Africa              52                50             30

United States          1,000           unknown             24

Australia                113               200             20

United Kingdom           453   422 (estimated)             17

France                   159               180             15

Germany*               1,993             2,112             15

Source: APA.

*German figures may include newsletters


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