John Brown Citrus Publishing (JBCP) has had a ground-breaking year. In October managing director Andrew Hirsch led a management buyout, clinched with an estimated £33m in funds from private equity firm Bridgepoint, whose other investments should provide the firm with a rich seam of new business.
The deal saw John Brown exit the company 17 years after he founded it, and just two years after he merged it with Citrus to create the biggest contract publisher in the UK.
JBCP now has a net turnover of about £51m and more than 200 staff. In a market growing at 8% a year according to Mintel, its turnover jumped 25% during the past financial year, the second-fastest increase among the UK's major publishing agencies. It added about £10m to its balance sheet, with nine account wins including the Department for Education and Skills, Mothercare, Procter & Gamble, a UK department store and a multinational jewellery manufacturer.
Of course, size is not necessarily a guide to quality - the biggest companies often turn into plodding institutions that lose their edge. But in the case of JBCP, innovation has not been sidelined. In late-2003 it set up children's publishing arm John Brown Junior, a decision that bore fruit in early 2004 with the launch of Nickelodeon and Sky Kids magazines. The former - available on the newsstand for £1.75 - sells about 100,000 copies a month, while the latter is distributed with the satellite firm's Sky - The Magazine to all Sky Digital homes with children aged six to 12. As a result, it has a circulation of 500,000, more than any other children's title.
John Brown Junior is also producing children's titles for brands such as Powergen and the British Heart Foundation.
In a second spin-off, JBCP formed 51 in early-2004. The business, led by senior editor and designer team Michael Jacovides and Warren Jackson, offers a specialist service to luxury brands such as Selfridges and Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, whose acclaimed title Carlos reaches 90,000 readers a quarter among an elite customer group.
JBCP is also looking across the Atlantic. The agency won the account for the quarterly B magazine of New York's Bloomingdales in late-2003. The magazine, which has a print run of 30,000, has delivered a $5 spend uplift per recipient cardholder and came away with more than 20 prizes at the inaugural Magnum Opus Awards for corporate and custom publishing.
In March JBCP extended its US advance by forging a partnership with Rodale, the publisher of consumer titles including Men's Health and Runner's World, to gain newsstand distribution capabilities and direct marketing skills.
Back at home, arguably the biggest customer publishing story of 2004 was Procter & Gamble's decision to test a title aimed at mothers. January saw agencies rush to pitch for the honour of producing the first multi-brand FMCG title, promoting brands from Flash to Tampax. JBCP emerged victorious and 1m copies of the pilot magazine, Mustard, were distributed with the Daily Express on the May Bank Holiday weekend. A further 60,000 copies were mailed to homes on P&G's database of female customers with children.
Over the past six months, rigorous independent research has been undertaken to determine whether the magazine can meet P&G's goals of increasing loyalty, spend, awareness and trial to deliver solid return on investment. With coupon redemption and sales hikes for key brands reportedly running into double figures, JBCP is discussing the 2005 publishing programme with P&G and is hopeful that Mustard will become a permanent fixture.
Despite JBCP's focus on developing its business both domestically and internationally in 2004, existing clients - from AA Hotels to Yellow Pages - have not been neglected, as is clear from the clutch of awards the agency has won.
At the Association of Publishing Agencies Awards in November, Works, a magazine published for Orange, carried off the prize for Most Effective Business Title, while William Sitwell was named Editor of the Year for Waitrose Food Illustrated, which generates annual sales increases of £2.5m-£4m a year, according to EPOS data. It was a fitting end to a very successful year.
2003: Publicis Blueprint
2002: John Brown Citrus Publishing
2001: Haymarket Customer Publishing