CUSTOMER MAGAZINES: Contracting out - Lexie Goddard asks why journalism’s elite are switching to customer titles

The pay is not always better, the hours are not guaranteed to be shorter and the publications are seen to be less prestigious. So why is it that a growing number of heavyweight journalists are ditching glamorous jobs on glossy magazines and top newspapers to edit customer titles?

The pay is not always better, the hours are not guaranteed to be

shorter and the publications are seen to be less prestigious. So why is

it that a growing number of heavyweight journalists are ditching

glamorous jobs on glossy magazines and top newspapers to edit customer


One answer is that the standard of customer publications has improved so

dramatically over the past ten years that it is no longer considered a

downward move. Far from being mere glorified brochures, many now deserve

serious comparison with news-stand titles and some, like John Brown

Publishing’s Classic FM, compete successfully on the newsagents’


A more surprising reason is that moving to customer publications has

given these journalists a chance to edit without the number crunching,

public relations activities and schmoozing of advertisers which are now

part of every top editing job.

The trick for clients is to give such editors the freedom to use their

experience to create credible titles, instead of treating the magazines

as just another promotional vehicle.

’We don’t lie down and let the client walk all over us,’ says Francine

Lawrence, editor of award-winning customer publication Dulux Colour. ’We

use our professional skills to show them how it can be done.’

To get a better idea of how the industry is tempting higher-calibre

journalists into the fold, we spoke to a few who have made the move.


Editor of Livewire magazine, Illustrated London News

Judith Parsons spent more than ten years at The Times editing its

special reports, overseeing features on specialist subjects ranging from

financial, business and management to consumer and travel.

Before joining The Times she was covering the energy sector for the

Financial Times’ Business Information Newsletters in Rome, New York and


Parsons has also worked for a range of publications in Africa and Asia,

including the South China Morning Post and Asian Finance.

Two years ago she took a drop in salary to become launch editor of

Livewire, an onboard customer magazine for the Great North Eastern

Railway (GNER).

It is published by The Illustrated London News Group and has a

readership of about two million.

’All newspapers have this pyramid structure and the number of jobs

available after you reach a management position diminish,’ says Parsons.

’You have a lot of good writers and editors but nowhere for them to go.

People might have thought what I was doing was a bit odd but I could see

the potential there.’

There were a few tough challenges to tackle. One was the public

perception of the average pre-privatisation rail journey as a ’badly

run, dirty, unpleasant experience to be endured’. She also missed the

clout of a big paper like The Times. ’Working on The Times did mean that

doors would open quicker,’ she says. ’People were queuing up to speak to

you. With customer magazines you have to work a bit harder to get where

you want to go.’

However, two years on Parsons feels she has helped GNER improve the

quality of rail travel by producing a magazine to rival any news-stand

title, thanks partly to a book full of old Fleet Street contacts. ’I

have used only top writers from The Times, The Observer, The Economist

and Telegraph, and the quality of the product speaks for itself,’ she


Instead of missing the freedom of newspaper journalism, Parsons feels

she has more space to be creative at Livewire. ’It is such an open and

unstructured industry,’ she explains. ’I have complete freedom to

generate my own ideas, the look, the feel and the whole life of the

magazine. It’s a chance to show what you can do.’


Editor of Dulux Colour magazine, Redwood Publishing

’The most irritating thing is trying to explain to people why I have

’crossed the line’,’ says Francine Lawrence, former editor of Country

Living. ’But then they can see I look ten years younger. I am much

happier, I am paid more and I have more free time.’

Lawrence became involved with customer magazines in 1995 after resigning

as the full-time editor of Country Living to dedicate more time to

freelance writing, travel and charities such as FOSCO, which raises

funds for Colombian street children.

She was employed by Redwood Publishing as an editorial consultant on the

Marks & Spencer and ICI Dulux accounts. A year later, Lawrence became

editor of the Dulux magazine Dulux Colour and editor in chief of the

title in the US, Canada and France. The magazine has won the PPA

Customer Magazine of the Year award two years running.

Lawrence believes there is a three-month ’transition period’ for editors

moving to customer magazines, while they adjust to the fact that the

client is king.

’I found it really hard that the client would ring up and say, ’Can you

get the latest products in the first paragraph?’,’ recalls Lawrence. ’I

would moan and groan, but then I thought, ’Why can’t I? I’m a journalist

and a professional’. Once you make that mind-shift and stop fighting

against the client you realise you can actually work together and

produce a really exciting, readable magazine.’

Readers know, says Lawrence, that Dulux Colour is an advertising tool

just like a 30-second TV ad or poster campaign and believes that, in

this sense, it is a more honest medium than a news-stand magazine


She likens the role of her editorial staff to that of an advertising

agency team: they can be as exciting and imaginative with the client

brief as they want.

The difference now is that she is employed largely to generate ideas,

instead of performing the typical multifaceted ’actress-to-accountant’

role of today’s mainstream-magazine editor, dividing time between

meeting advertisers, attending financial projection meetings and making

TV appearances.

Now Lawrence travels for three months a year in South America and Asia,

taking photographs and researching freelance pieces on food, homes and

crafts and has a publisher interested in a style book she is writing on

travel and shopping.

’I used to work seven days a week for my clients, managers and readers,’

remembers Lawrence. ’Now I have got my life back. I even managed to get

married at the age of 45. I wouldn’t have had time before.’


Editorial director of Axon Publishing

Paul Keers, probably best-known as the UK launch editor of men’s glossy

GQ, has moved effortlessly between mainstream and customer magazine


In 1984 he was freelancing for Cosmopolitan and the Daily Mail when

Redwood Publishing invited him to executive-edit the American Express

magazine Expression!. In 1987 Keers returned to Fleet Street as features

editor on the Telegraph Magazine. He published a style guide called A

Gentleman’s Wardrobe and, in 1989, moved again to launch GQ in the


Another spell of freelancing followed, including stints editing the

Sunday Times’s Style section and freelance-editing customer magazines

for The Dorchester, Eurotunnel and Intercity.

In 1994 he formed contract publishing firm Axon with former Redwood

director Ellen Brush. Axon’s clients include Guinness, for which it

produces a global magazine for Irish pub owners called The Buzz, British

Airports Authority and Nestle.

Keers remembers the Daily Mail thought he was ’absolutely crazy’ to join

Redwood, because it was a small start-up and contract publishing was an

unknown entity. But he was interested in the whole yuppie phenomenon and

couldn’t resist the chance to create a stylish magazine for Amex which

fitted the aspirational mood of the late 80s.

By 1994 the industry had blossomed. There were more publications, more

freelance editors to work on them and higher editorial standards -

something Keers attributes to Christopher Ward, Redwood Publishing’s

editorial director and founding partner, who persuaded many high-calibre

journalists to cross over.

Keers admits there are things he misses about the old life. ’The

lifestyle on newsstand magazines is very nice,’ he says. ’You are

treated very well by your bosses, PRs and people who want to work for

you, and it is frustrating not to have that. But once you get a family,

the appeal of jetting off to New York to interview someone at the drop

of a hat goes away.’

Keers admits that the business is inherently unstable because clients

merge or change strategy and close their magazine. On the other hand,

regularly receiving briefs to create completely new magazines is

something that would never happen in conventional publishing. ’My job is

to create a magazine which is appropriate for whichever client walks

through the door,’ says Keers. ’It’s a wonderful opportunity for someone

with a creative mind. Would I move back? I can’t see why.’


Editor of Hot Air, John Brown Publishing

The desire to be ’a big fish in a small pond’ is one reason former

Telegraph Magazine editor Alex Finer entered contract publishing.

Another was ’to shine in a sector traditionally not staffed by top-rate


He has certainly shone as editor of Virgin Atlantic’s Hot Air, winning

two personal awards from the British Society of Magazine Editors and

helping the title walk off with the World Airline Entertainment

Association’s Best Inflight Magazine award in 1994, 1995, 1996 and


Finer learned his trade during seven years at the Sunday Times. Like

Mark Jones, his counterpart on British Airways’ magazine High Life, he

was features editor at the Evening Standard. Then came a stint as editor

of the Telegraph Magazine and spells at the Sunday Express before he

launched Esquire in the UK. In 1994, he became editorial director of

John Brown Publishing’s contract titles and editor of Hot Air.

He relinquished the directorship last year to turn freelance but

continues to edit the magazine. Finer credits the success of Hot Air

partly to Virgin Atlantic’s hands-off attitude. The company, he says,

wants the magazine to look like a news-stand title, not a vehicle for

promotion, so its name is scarcely mentioned within Hot Air’s pages.

’Given the range of Branson’s interests it would be easy to fill the

magazine with pieces on, say, personal finance. But we would lose

credibility,’ says Finer. ’I have never received an instruction to do

something. Virgin Atlantic takes a very mature approach; it has trust in


Finer admits having difficulty getting good journalists to write for an

in-flight magazine in the early days - a few even asked if it entitled

them to free flights - but now its counts top names Chrissey Iley,

Malcolm Macalister Hall and Eve Arnold among its contributors.

Hot Air has profiled Madonna, George Clooney and Ruud Gullit - a line-up

to rival any mainstream glossy title. ’While Hot Air is a customer

magazine, the fact that the publisher is Virgin Atlantic as opposed to

Rupert Murdoch is not that important,’ says Finer. ’Once it is

expressing journalistic values and integrity, it is a serious



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