CUSTOMER MAGAZINES: No more the poor relations - As customer magazines get bigger and better, they are attracting higher calibre journalists. Andy Fry surveys some of the talent making the leap into contract publishing

Since 1990, the customer magazine sector has doubled in value to be worth around pounds 127m a year. Around 20 contract publishers produce the top 200 titles in sectors such as retail, motor, finance and travel, 10% of which have circulations in excess of one million.

Since 1990, the customer magazine sector has doubled in value to be

worth around pounds 127m a year. Around 20 contract publishers produce

the top 200 titles in sectors such as retail, motor, finance and travel,

10% of which have circulations in excess of one million.

Perhaps a more significant measure of growth is the increasing number of

high-quality editors, writers, designers and photographers flocking to

the sector. No longer is it creative death for a hack to succumb to the

advertising shilling. Indeed, the pay and prospects are good enough to

offset the culture shock.

River Publishing is one of the UK’s leading customer magazine companies,

with clients that include Asda, Barclays and BMW. The company was

launched four years ago, when the sector looked very different.

Editorial director and co-founder Jane Wynn says: ’Customer titles were

a dreadful, second-rate read posing as magazines. Mainstream journalists

wouldn’t choose it as a career path.

’Now, a lot of magazines are genuinely a good read which means we have

journalists knocking on our door.’

There is a growing awareness among clients that a shoddy magazine will

reflect badly on their core product. ’We want editors who understand

that part of their job is to have a good relationship with the client,’

says Wynn. ’They’ve got to be a gutsy read because the consumer isn’t


Of course, attracting the right calibre of journalist can depend on the

brand behind the title. Managing director of John Brown Publishing,

Andrew Hirsch, says: ’We’ve surrounded ourselves with strong brands such

as Virgin, Ikea, Debenhams and Guinness, where it is possible to make an

editorial statement. That is harder to do with bland brands.’

Glorified catalogues

Neale Whitaker, who is editor-in-chief of Ikea Magazine and has just

handed over the editorship of Debenhams Magazine to Jane Druker

(ex-Vogue Australia), says: ’When I came into the business, the industry

was dominated by catalogues dressed up as magazines. Now, editors are

free to promote the client in all sorts of ways. Clients know they can

promote their brand without having the product on every page.’

Hirsch even suggests that the contract publishing sector is

demonstrating a dynamism that is lacking in many areas of the newsstand


’We are lucky to work with strong brands which are not going to cut

corners on editorial budgets. And because clients are relatively new to

the game, they will try innovative things to grab the reader’s

attention,’ he says.

Jim Addison, managing director of Specialist Publications, agrees that

strong journalists are essential to bring customer titles alive,

especially when you are writing about ’bland’ sectors.

’We did a piece for Eagle Star about how to avoid getting your car

nicked,’ says Addison. ’It could have been the world’s most boring

article, but we found a convicted felon to write the story.

’If a magazine’s going to be well read, it’s got to be well written. You

need a mix between interesting messages and some lifestyle to act as a


Whatever the communications goal of a customer title, there is always a

need to balance the client’s objectives with the editorial content.

Creative independence

At The Publishing Team (TPT), where clients include Virgin, Boots,

Barclaycard and Bupa, there are two senior editorial positions. One

deals with the clients, while the other is a creative consultant.

Editorial director Kate Edwards has been with TPT for four years. Prior

to that she was publications editor at The Independent and before that

worked on Punch.

According to Edwards: ’Our full-time editors have got to be good

all-rounders, with journalistic flare and an ability to manage the

client’s expectations.’

While Edwards liaises with clients, TPT calls in an specialist from the

relevant field. In the case of Boots Summer Magazine, TPT linked up with

top beauty journalist Vicci Bentley (see box). For Virgin’s Vmag, the

services of former Vox and Blah, Blah, Blah journalist Mike Pattenden

have proved essential.

Getting the right tone for NatWest’s student give-away Free meant

calling in Nina Whitely from travel guide publisher Lonely Planet.

Richard Benson from The Face ’cast an eye’ over design, says Edwards.

’It satisfied the bank’s requirements without being cheesy


Edwards says the ability to attract the likes of Pattenden reflects the

fact that ’customer publishing is not a sausage machine. It is not a

loss of credibility for a journalist to work on these titles.’

Caroline Harris is a freelance journalist who has previously held senior

editorial positions on The Observer. Recently, she was launch editor of

two TPT titles for Midlands Electricity Board (MEB): Powertalk, with a

circulation of 150,000; and Homebright, which goes out to two million

domestic customers with their bills.

The client is king

Harris advises journalists: ’You have to be aware of how much the client

is involved and want to work with them. In the case of MEB, the client

was very open to our ideas and wanted editorial people who could

contribute a journalistic style.’

Journalistic experience is essential in setting a style that will appeal

to the target audience. ’You have to avoid being patronising or bland.

It’s easy to use empty expressions such as ’great’, ’wonderful’ or

’fab’, but readers are more sophisticated than that. Sometimes, you have

to hold your ground with the client, so it helps to have a strong

editorial background.’

Arguably, the question of whether customer journalism compromises a

writer’s integrity is most acute for business writers. In this arena,

there is a clear demand for writers to toe the corporate line, which

frightens many of them away.

However, there are respected figures plying a trade in this sector.

International Herald Tribune journalist Ian Jenkins edits the London

City Airport magazine for River, while renowned management journalist

Bob Heller writes for Axon Publishing’s Cable & Wireless vehicle,

Communicating Solutions.

Chris Baur, executive director of Scotland’s Insider Custom Publishing,

is a former editor of The Scotsman and has worked at the Financial Times

and the BBC. Among Insider’s wide portfolio of magazines, two are of

special interest: Scottish & Newcastle’s Agenda, and Scottish Power’s

The Magazine.

Both deal with companies that have expanded aggressively by


They use the customer magazine to discuss management questions in a

hard-headed way.

Baur describes this approach as ’managed journalism. At the end of the

day, the client is right to crawl over the copy to make sure that what

is said is in line with the corporate goals. But many companies are

looking for the feel of objectivity. In Agenda, we tackled the issue of

Scottish devolution in a completely journalistic way.’

He admits: ’Some journalists are nervous about doing this sort of work

because they feel compromised.’ But he stresses: ’It is terribly useful

for specialists seeking to build up a corpus of background


He also believes that customer publishing appeals to journalists who

crave a more direct involvement with the sectors they specialise in. ’I

was surprised at how stimulating and invigorating it can be to develop a

long-term relationship with a company and help it to express its

objectives more clearly,’ he says.

Ultimately, the journalists that succeed in customer magazines are those

who can handle the client involvement. Redwood Publishing’s co-founder

Christopher Ward, who used to work on The Express, says: ’Some editors

find it tiresome to be told what to do by a 25-year-old marketing

manager, but you show me an editor who claims to have absolute editorial

freedom and I’ll show you a pig flying past his shoulder.’


A year ago, Roger Wilshire became editor of BMW Magazine, which is

produced quarterly by River Publishing. In the early part of his career,

he spent six years on the Sunday Times as an investigative


Subsequently, he worked for a number of years on the Sunday Express

before going freelance. ’I felt that newspapers weren’t what they used

to be. Magazines turned me on, but making the leap directly into an

executive position from newspapers isn’t easy.’ After various

discussions, River offered Wilshire the BMW editorship. ’They wanted to

inject a lifestyle approach into a heavy technological magazine, which

was what I was interested in doing.’ Moving from nationals to the

contract publishing sector did not strike him as a comedown. ’In the

past year, contract publications have come on apace and I believe that

some of them compete seriously with paid-for titles. The whole structure

of journalism has changed too, with so many freelances working in new

areas, such as electronic and customer publishing.’ In a strange way, he

regards customer titles as possessing greater editorial integrity than

some paid-for counterparts. ’There is an emphasis on telling the truth

that is greater than in the press. Any magazine that misleads a customer

will backfire on the client. You can’t bend corners just because a news

editor wants you to.’ That point is important for the credibility of the

magazine. ’We’ve got to tell stories in an entertaining way, which means

we have to get good journalists.

It is important for us that the journalists realise this is not an

advertising vehicle first and foremost. The rates of pay are respectable



Vicci Bentley has been a health and beauty journalist for 25 years. She

’grew up’ at IPC on titles such as Woman’s Realm, Woman’s Journal and

Marie Claire, where she was beauty director at its launch. She still

works for Marie Claire on a regular basis.

Her main experience of customer publishing is as consultant editor of

Boots Summer Magazine, which is produced annually by The Publishing

Team. She was involved with the project from pitch stage.

Bentley regards the sector as ’still fairly new, but getting into its


It definitely opens up new areas for regular journalists.’ As a

freelance, she enjoys the teamwork and planning in building a new

customer title. ’It brings new skills into play. Dealing with the

clients is an exercise in diplomacy which requires lateral thinking.’

Working for clients is not a completely new experience for Bentley, who

produced a number of advertorials at IPC and now does commercial work,

including photo shoots, for Revlon.

’Contract publishing is an extension of the advertorial concept. It is

stimulating in its own right because it makes you come up with

contingency plans. The focusing is quite acute on a title like Summer,

which is also an epic of co-ordination,’ she says.

Bentley is confident that the content of the magazine stands up to


’From the cover, it looks like a perfect, bound women’s magazine.

Inside, it has nice pamper articles and valuable product information.

What we produce doesn’t shriek ’freebie hand-out’.’


Mark Jones joined Premier Magazines a year ago as editor of British

Airways’ inflight magazine High Life. Prior to that, he had been editor

of advertising trade title Campaign before joining the Evening Standard

as media editor.

He admits that he felt a degree of hesitancy about joining a free title

when he was first offered the job. ’It took some thinking about. But

High Life has been around for 25 years. It’s a substantial title with a

history, which is one of the things that attracted me away from Fleet

Street.’ Jones claims to have been given the editorial freedom to create

a ’provocative, cosmopolitan magazine using interesting writers and


He says: ’British Airways is genuinely in the market for

experimentation. It is as concerned as me about not toning down the

content. We don’t just think ’It’s November. Let’s do bonfire night’.’

Jones sees his role as offering ’the opportunity to take English virtues

in journalism to an international audience. Travel is so important

today, but a lot of travel journalism is very disappointing. When I

joined High Life there wasn’t another UK magazine around that was for

all travellers.’ Being a customer title means that you have to work hard

to grab people’s attention, he says. ’There could be a terrible

temptation to be lazy. But you have to compete with whatever passengers

are taking on board to read. We treat the seat pocket as a newsstand.

High Life is not competing with the sickbag.’

As a well-travelled journalist, Jones claims not to be overly concerned

with the potential pressures from the client. ’Most journalists at

executive level already have pressures on them from their own company

and advertisers which can be every bit as onerous as those in a customer

publisher. If you are a hard-bitten reporter who enjoys getting under

people’s defences, the sector won’t suit you. But if you are interested

in magazines and features journalism, it’s a respectable place to be.’


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