The latest ABC figures, released in August 2003, show that nine of the top ten ABC-audited magazines are customer titles, and National Readership Survey figures show that five of the ten most widely read magazines in the UK are customer titles.
Last year, some 79% of the UK population said they'd seen one of the 853 titles at some point.
"After a really tough 18 months, the market seems to have freed up a little," says Hilary Weaver, director of the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA). "Pitching activity has intensified during the course of the year, so the industry is more optimistic than at this time last year."
APA chairman Lisa Barnard agrees: "The majority of APA members experienced a very tough trading climate in the first quarter, a dire second quarter, but had a more upbeat third quarter and definite green shoots toward the end of this year. Most feel optimistic about 2004."
It seems there is good reason for such optimism. Having lost the AA, one of the UK's biggest customer publishing accounts, to Forward in June, John Brown Citrus Publishing (JBCP) bounced back by winning UK and US clients including JD Sports, Nickelodeon, Selfridges, VisitBritain, Bloomingdales, Nestle and the US Army. It grew its turnover by 22% to £42.4m in 2003, and forecasts a turnover of £51.8m for the year ending 2004.
JBCP also won critical acclaim for Carlos, the innovatively designed quarterly title it launched earlier this year for Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class passengers. Toward the end of 2003, its success was underlined by four APA awards.
Public sector work has been lucrative, especially for Redwood, which produces titles for clients such as the Welsh Development Agency, the British Council and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Teachers, the DfES title for 360,000 state-school teachers, was one of three APA award winners for the agency, carrying off Most Effective Internal Title.
Redwood won seven new clients, and former customers, including Dulux and Dollond & Aitchison have returned to the fold. However, it was dealt a blow by the exit of founder, chairman and chief executive Mike Potter in July to start Seven Publishing.
Haymarket Customer Publishing (HCP) has won new business from brands including Olympus, Halfords and Orange, while extending work for established clients Manchester United, the army and Rough Guides. The highlight of its year was winning UEFA as a client, for which it now publishes Champions in three languages.
Although it had a storming night at the APA awards, carrying off three plaques, the agency says 2003 has been a year of consolidation.
HCP this year announced a collaborative venture with the BBC's customer publishing division, which has become more commercial, having won the Tesco Personal Finance title from Forward.
Cedar finished the year on a high, taking the main Tesco business away from Forward. In spring 2004, Cedar will publish a single Tesco title - available to the supermarket's 13 million Clubcard holders.
Just Customer Communication had an eventful year. It suffered the departure of founder and chairman Julian Treasure, won business from shopping centre Bluewater, Miller Homes and Toyota, and increased work for Microsoft with a major title for the software giant's staff.
Potter, who has a unique perspective on the industry, having set up Redwood 20 years ago, believes measurement has become critical: "Those that invest as much in working out what they get from a customer magazine as they do in producing the magazine itself will be the ones that benefit."
One company that prides itself on being a marketing agency first and a publisher second is River. In its tenth anniversary year, it won ten pieces of business, including bonmarche, Virgin Trains and Travel for The Sunday Times.
Benefiting from the renewed interest in travel and solid performance of the luxury market is specialist Illustrated London News Group, which won Most Effective Travel and Leisure title for Orient-Express magazine at the APA awards after increasing circulation by 58%. The agency also won business from clients including VisitBritain and South West Trains.
The selection and pitch process for customer publishing agencies should become simpler from the new year, when marketers will be able to use agency search and selection specialist AAR, following a deal struck with the APA. "The decision to work with the AAR to handle pitches is a major step forward," says Barnard. "The industry has never felt as 'grown-up' as it does now."