The glossy world of contract publishing

Magazines have changed. They now aim straight for the customer, and are all the better for it
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The Independent Online
If it's true that the rich really are different from the rest of us, as F Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked, then nowadays it's because of the sort of magazines they read.

They may still pick up their copies of Vogue and Harper's, but they can also increasingly enjoy glossies the rest of us can only aspire to. Magazines, that is, like the perfectly bound biennial Patek Philippe, which somehow contrives to make all other glossies look just that little bit less glossy. Contributors include Nobel laureates such as Octavio Paz, and the photography and layouts are dripping with lavish production values.

The most startling thing is that this consummately produced magazine is not a conventional newsstand title at all. It's a contract magazine, produced for a select mailing list in six different languages on behalf of the luxury Swiss watch maker. It's in fact produced in London by a specialist publishing agency, as a joint venture between Forward Publishing and Conde Nast, the Vanity Fair to Vogue publishing house. Contract magazines, it seems, are now emphatically where it's happening, and not just for the very rich, but for all of us.

"Contract magazines have become increasingly important because they offer advertisers a much more tightly targeted and often more affluent readership than many conventional magazines, and similar or even better standards of editorial excellence," says Stewart Paton, managing director of Columbus Press Advertising.

According to the Association of Publishing Agencies, whose members represent more than 85 per cent of the customer magazine industry, 15 of the top 20 consumer magazine titles are now contract magazines. Just one of these, AA Magazine, is sent out to nearly 4 million AA members, making it the country's single biggest title. The UK's largest contract publisher, Redwood Publishing, part of the Abbott Mead Vickers advertising group, produces a staggering 110 million magazines a year, including the top two circulating titles in the UK, AA Magazine and Sky TV Guide, and represents half of the total number of all contract titles now published.

"The UK is clearly the most advanced market in Europe in terms of contract publishing at the moment," points out Redwood's new business manager, Matt Prior, "primarily because of advances in editorial quality. We have all invested in quality, good-looking magazines that people really want to read."

The result is an industry that, according to the research company Mintel, is worth pounds 250m and continues to grow at the rate of about 11 per cent a year. Global brands, including Microsoft and Mercedes, are now publishing their own magazines in ever-increasing numbers in the hope of establishing a more personal communication with customers.

It seems to be working. One indication of just how popular these intimate exchanges have become, is the sort of company now trying to gatecrash the contract publishing party. Major publishing companies - Conde Nast, National Magazine Company and Dennis Publishing - have all rushed for the contract market-place; new entrants tend to be well-financed blue chip companies such as the Columbus Group, with its charismatic chairman Nigel Wray.

What companies such as these and Forward, Redwood, Premier and John Brown Publishing have been able to do, is to make advertising agencies reach for their lexicons and invent a new dialect of advertising speak. They have helped blur the distinction between entertaining customers and selling to them, and transform the erstwhile sleepy world of contract publishing.

It's hard to remember, now that standards have risen so dramatically, that 10 years ago there was broad agreement that this part of the industry was at best an optional addition to the marketing mix, at worst a vehicle for corporate vanity on a extravagant scale. Good contract magazines, such as Virgin Airlines' in-flight title Hot Air, were rare. Now the growth of the industry means that it offers ever better jobs. Rising standards make it a competitive, and more than averagely lucrative, part of the media market-place.

"Employment opportunities, especially for sales staff, in the contract publishing industry are enormous," says Kevin Harrington, chief executive of Boston Hannah, publisher of luxury titles for clients that include Forte and the German department store Kadewe. "Good people can earn an enormous amount of money here, because we don't cap people's earnings as they do in most other magazine publishing houses. There is literally no limit to what they can earn on commission."

The increasingly international scope of titles means that language skills are now useful for applicants, as is previous media experience, but training and career development programmes are now an increasingly important part of a fast-maturing industry.

Redwood, for example, is now looking at reinstating a full graduate recruitment programme to provide the sales managers and publishers of the future, and Columbus is typical of the better contract publishing companies in its attitude to training and career growth.

"People are the most important part of any contract publisher, and we'd be mad not to spend time training them," says Columbus's Paton. "We offer on-the-job courses and a dedicated one-to-one tuition programme to help people succeed. The rewards are definitely there for people prepared to work hard. I entered this industry 10 years ago and I was living in an extremely grotty one-bedroom flat in west London. I now have a five- bedroom house, and a new car every year."

It's a similar story at the other top publishers, where talented sales executives can expect to progress through the ranks with comparable speed. "We don't recruit people from outside for senior positions," says Harrington, for example, "because its our goal to recruit the very best people and look to grow our own talent. We think that's how you best motivate and keep staff, by allowing their career to develop as the company grows."