Why advertising is no longer a dirty word…in customer publishing

As the Professional Publishers Awards (PPA) shortlist was announced a few weeks ago, I noticed a free women's title nestling amongst the long established glossies in not one but three categories. Even better, one of them is the coveted top accolade: ‘consumer magazine of the year'. Quite a feat for Stylist magazine: a publication launched just 1 ½ years ago.

In fact, it's not just Stylist, but partly and wholly self-funded titles, in general, that have been causing a buzz in the consumer sector recently, providing a boost across the board. As Barry McIlheney, PPA chief executive, highlighted a few months ago, these magazines have played a "crucial role" in the whole market's fortunes.

Stylist could be a real inspiration for the world of customer magazines, too - top class editorial in a successful ad-funded publication. Taking learnings from Sport and Shortlist before it, the model has been well researched and professionally and efficiently run from the start. Obviously, there are clear differences between the customer and consumer sectors. But, I think the recent successes of our consumer cousins are a good illustration of how the world is changing - and that it could be time to re-evaluate some of our cost models.

In the world of customer publishing, advertising that sits comfortably in a magazine environment and resonates with its target audience, generates revenue. But, going further, it can also assist in off-setting creative and production costs and, in some cases, getting towards a cost-neutral model.

The first point is straightforward, and as the blog's title suggests, more and more advertisers and agency planner/buyers are recognising the value of placing their clients' campaign activity within customer magazines. ‘Free' magazines (and let's be honest, this is how our magazines were perceived until relatively recently) are not the waste of campaign spends they were once deemed to be. Put simply: targeted messages get results.

On the second point, I often hear customer publishing contemporaries balking at the very idea of the ad-funded model. I do understand that not so long ago there was a tendency for some companies (and their eager executives) to over-promise commercially to brands and, sadly, I know that this may sometimes still be the case.

Fee-based relationships have become the norm, and I recognise the appeal in a transparent, apparently stable model, at a time when the recent Bellwether report signified advertiser uncertainty. However, just as none of us would take a blanket approach to editorial strategy we shouldn't blindly follow a one-size-fits-all cost model for clients.

For me, the success of the ad-funded model is proved by with those companies that can deliver on their promises - particularly in the recent, economically tough years. These companies demonstrate that done properly, and with the right set of circumstances, the ad-funded model is worth investigating. In my experience, it can work incredibly well, provided you're mindful a some of the key factors:

1) There needs to be an especially honest, open client/agency working relationship as early as possible in the process; meaning a full understanding of how all the costs will come about and be covered, on both sides

2) Research is critical - there must be a willingness to re-invest on behalf of the clients to ensure that all-important measures - including ABCs and NRS, cause and effect, ROI, sales uplifts and brand building - are being tracked

3) The team you recruit, their experiences and abilities, are key. A great team really is the backbone to success - not everyone has the experience or the understanding required to make it work

4) Be realistic - don't offer the earth. It sounds obvious but a lot of ventures fall down because of initial over promises

5) Lastly, the client's supplier/partnership base and, crucially, how they see the value to their business is paramount. There needs a strategy buy-in on both sides. We're in the fortunate position of being a measureable medium - the more you can prove it works, the better all round

As we all know, people increasingly want more for less and, actually, at less risk. Customer publishing can be hugely successful in the UK - noting incremental product sales, increased footfall and changed perceptions amongst its achievements, to mention but a few. But it can suffer by not being seen as the most important channel - especially when budgets are squeezed and brands are looking to cut costs. If we can demonstrate a magazine can even begin to support itself, we could ensure not just the recognition that self-funded consumer publications enjoy, but also a place as a key part of a brand's marketing mix.

Geri Richards, CEO, Publicis Blueprint

Posted in CMA blog
6thMay 2011

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