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
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
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