Over the past five years, customer magazines have moved from being above-the-line advertising's poor relation to becoming a central cog in the marketing mix. But with accusations that they are nothing more than vanity publishing, can the marketers behind these titles see the real benefits?
Christian Cull, director of communications at Sky, who oversees the publication of four magazines including SkyMag, is a fierce advocate of customer titles.
'There is a really specific appeal in having something tangible and physical you can hold and engage with,' he says. 'If you have something to say, it gives readers the space in which to breathe - time to kick back in their own time and their own context.'
Cull believes that brands have had to raise their game in the past few years. 'There used to be some pretty shonky, unsubtle corporate propaganda in the guise of a magazine but I'm seeing less of that these days,' he adds.
Keith Grainger, chief executive of Redwood, has witnessed considerable change during his 20 years at the company, but he is convinced that the marketing community is split into those who have tried the medium and love it and those who have simply not tried it. 'Those who don't use customer magazines and have a sense that it's not for them have just not really exposed themselves to (the industry) in enough depth,' he says.
Yet with today's multiple advertising platforms, are these costly magazines really essential, especially during a recession? The customer magazines that constantly top the ABC tables are those produced by supermarkets. Andy Taylor, associate press director at media agency Carat, argues that of all the UK's brands, these are the ones that have the easiest job reaching their customers through other means.
'Supermarkets have done a good job of delivering value through huge spend in national press and TV, so is there any more value to be delivered through customer magazines? I don't think so,' he says. 'There might be an exclusive offer in there but people know they can get the same offer through other means. The numbers are still there, but I fear for the pick-up value, readership and dwell time.'
With less incentive to read the magazine, Taylor believes some customer titles are walking on thin ice, threatened by the rise in paper, printing and postage costs.
Agencies are predicting closures this year, partly due to shrinking marketing budgets and rising costs - but many believe this will strengthen existing titles. Nik Vyas, group press director at ZenithOptimedia, says: 'Closures are inevitable, but that's not necessarily such a bad thing, because there are currently a sizeable number of poor products and the market has become oversupplied.'
After the turmoil at Publicis Blueprint, which failed to break even on its ad-funded titles last year, Vyas fears for the future of other such titles. 'Magazine revenues will contract this year and we'll be focusing our investment on our key partners', he adds.
While marketers seem to be embracing the concept of customer magazines, media agencies offer a less glowing opinion. Vyas, for example, is unimpressed with the number of magazines that, he says, 'overprice their advertising inventory'.
'Just because they send a magazine out to all, or a large proportion, of their customer base, there's no guarantee that anyone is reading them or that they have a relationship which is anything more than a cursory flick through, especially if the product is of poor quality,' he adds. 'In such circumstances, to ask us for the amount they do is insane, and they end up filling their pages with direct response ads which makes the product look worse and puts branded advertisers off.'
A concentration on content is vital to the success of customer magazines, according to Julia Hutchison, chief operating officer at the Association of Publishing Agencies.
'Quality has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years and some (customer titles) are better than their consumer counterparts,' she says. 'More journalists are moving into customer publishing, so the magazines are not written by copywriters any more.'
Marketers are rapidly appreciating that to stand out and earn dwell time, they have to do something special with the content. Chris Bibby, head of customer marketing at Virgin Media, works closely with Redwood in the production of his company's title Electric! and does not underestimate the relationship between publisher and client.
'Consumers aren't stupid - they can tell if you're just selling to them and not entertaining them. I think a lot of magazines fall down the route of being too overt and not engaging at all,' he says.
Bibby is aware that a publisher that hires a raft of copywriters could end up giving you 'something more down the direct marketing route' and stresses that by working closely with publishers, 'you can start with more of a blank canvas and get interesting results'.
In addition to hiring a publisher who understands your brand, Bibby argues that it is vital to get a clear idea of their objectives. 'Having that balanced set of measures of what you want the magazine to deliver can prove from a financial perspective that the magazine generates money for the business,' he says. 'You might produce a fantastic brand vehicle, but it needs to generate return, and if you get those measures in place at the beginning it really helps.'
Digital customer publishing is also becoming a more viable route for brands. In an effort to deter marketers dropping print titles altogether, publishers are offering a comprehensive mix of platforms appropriate to the budget and the brand says, Dean Fitzgerald, managing director of John Brown. 'We need to be looking at different platforms all the time, and as such we call ourselves a creative communications agency. The boundaries are being broken down and it's all about creative content that works.'
By becoming more open to new and different concepts, Fitzgerald and his fellow publishers are confident they will ride out the recession relatively unscathed, and both he and Redwood's Grainger are overseeing several big pitches in the first quarter of the year.
In a recession it is, arguably, less important to attract new customers than it is to retain existing ones. According to Mintel, customer magazines increase brand loyalty by 32%. However, attracting new brands to the market remains vital.
Sean King, chief executive at Seven Squared, says that clients will be scrutinising every penny of spend, effectiveness will be under the spotlight and the shift to digital will gather pace. 'Only those agencies that are able to deliver on all three will stay in business,' he warns.
While other advertising platforms struggle, there seems a confidence among marketers and publishers that, given the right approach, attitude and format, customer magazines will continue to grow in numbers and revenue. Thanks to a few innovative marketers, the bar has been raised, and although this may lead to the collapse of lesser rivals, it will also create strong competitors, allowing the sector not only to survive this recession but to emerge stronger on the other side.