Contract, custom and customer publishers

(page 1: Absolute to Just) (Kava to Zone) (page 3: tables)

by Tony Quinn

Content marketing is the use of editorial content for marketing purposes in the form of branded content or custom media. In essence, a content marketing agency is employed by a company (eg, a retailer, university or carmaker) to produce media (magazines, social media, websites, video, etc) that is designed to appeal to the company’s customers and so encourage loyalty and sell more products.

This page by Tony Quinn lists the leading content marketing agencies, most of which come from a customer magazine publishing background. These are also known as:

  • contract magazine publishers – the main term in the 1980s;
  • customer magazine publishers;
  • customer publishing agencies (1990s);
  • content marketing agencies; (2000s)
  • custom magazine publishers and custom media (US terms);
  • content marketing agencies;
  • content management agencies;
  • corporate publishing agencies;
  • client magazine publishers;
  • courtesy magazine publishers;
  • relationship communications agencies; or
  • magazine publishing agencies.

Redwood Publishing led the professionalisation of what was then called 'contract magazines' in the 1980s with the formation of the Association of Publishing Agencies. Redwood produced a brochure, 'Redwood Publishing Solutions', that explained the concept:

  • Magazines. People like them. They trust them. This is how they can work for you...
  • Customer magazines. Research shows that your best customers are the ones you already have. They will buy from you again – if you communicate with them effectively.
  • Corporate communications. For Redwood’s corportate clients, the editorial medium is the message, the most powerful way to win friends and influence investors.
  • Advertorials. Now companies have a powerful new medium to communicate. It’s more authoritative than advertising. And more controlled than public relations.
  • ‘Publishing is partnership’ is our guiding principle ... we provide a complete publishing package

In 2012, the customer publishing trade body the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) rebranded itself as the Content Marketing Association (CMA), which publishes reports about the industry. Related to this sector are the overlapping concepts of branded content (custom media) and advertorials. There is also the Branded Content Marketing Association industry body, and the Branded Content Research Hub at the University of the Arts, London. Branded content relates to articles, films or digital material being funded and distributed by a company and featuring its products. Soap operas in the 1950s can be seen as examples, as can the Meerkats websites by VCCP for An advertorial is advertising material designed to look like editorial. Many contract publishers do such work. There is a regular turnover of contracts among publishers and companies are continually being formed, taken over, relaunched or closing.

Magazines are often used as the basis for customer relationship management (CRM) programmes, both in print and online.

The customer publisher profiles are divided between three pages:

A customer publishing agency produces magazines, apps, social media, newsletters, brochures, catalogues and other marketing or communications materials in print and digital formats to be read by the customers, employees or clients of large companies. Many contract publishers are controlled by advertising or other marketing agencies; others are part of mainstream consumer or business publishers (magazine sectors explained). Just as likely though is that the company was set up by a couple of journalists or people with a background in advertising sales or design. The industry became professionalised from the mid-1980s, but such magazines existed in the Victorian era and Germany has long had free magazines for retail chains, 'Kundenzeitschriften'. The terms 'custom magazines', 'custom media' and 'custom publishers' are used in the US; the last term can also refer to book publishers who make up bespoke books.

Customer magazines are usually funded by the marketing departments of the agency's client – which will also vet the editorial and advertising. Some offset the costs through selling advertising but this is difficult in competitive markets and can raise problems for clients. For example, a computer maker may have distributors or dealers who also sell other kit – advertising in the magazine can give the advertiser access to the client's customers. Clients can restrict the risk by not allowing direct response advertising, but that limits the advertising base.

Agencies have expanded into the digital arena, producing websites, microsites, digital magazines and ezines, social networks, email campaigns, podcasts, mobile apps and video. In 2010, Mintel estimated that digital work accounted for 25% of agencies' income – up from just 10% a year earlier. Part of the job may be 'curating' user-generated content such as Facebook postings and responses to blogs. Customer publishing agencies see themselves as using editorial-style content to improve the link between brands and customers in a measurable way, often as part of loyalty programmes and relationship marketing. They claim a high ROI – return on investment.

Publishing agencies specialise

Custom publishers are becoming more specialised. They now produce magazines and catalogues – both in print and online (websites, digital magazines, e-mails, social networking) – for businesses, charities, education establishments, government departments and institutions. These may be aimed at consumers (business to consumer, B2C), other businesses (B2B), members of bodies, university alumni or supporters of organisations such as charities and political parties. Publishing agencies have become 'branded content experts' advising their clients on many facets of customer communications.

Companies are starting to break down their customer base and address them with more than one title. For example, Sky, the satellite publisher, has four titles for its subscribers: Sky Magazine, Sky Sports, Sky Movies and Sky Kids from four publishers; all of them are in the top 10 circulation list for contract titles.

Some companies focus on sectors or have a special expertise. Alchemy Worx, for example, specialises in email marketing using digital magazines (ezines).

Seven launched a customer magazine for Sainsbury's in 2010 that was tailored for different types of customer as part of the supermarket's 'Try something new today' campaign fronted by TV chef Jamie Oliver. Fresh Ideas is a quarterly sent to 1.5m Nectar card holders. Customers are divided into three groups by card data: those with families, those without and baby-boomers. The cover and 16 of the 100 editorial pages are changed for each group.

Publicis Blueprint set up a customer magazine for Prudential three times a year in 2005 with a 3.8m circulation. Different versions were sent to customers at various 'life stages' – single, married, families, retired – depending on age. The agency also has a translation division.

An factor in Blueprint winning Customer Publishing Agency of the Year in 2005 was its focus on 'proof of effectiveness'. At the start of a project, performance indicators and measurement indicators were set. In the case of its Debenhams magazine Desire, one metric was to provide proof of its ability to change customer behaviour. Evidence suggested readers of the courtesy magazine spent more in Debenhams than the average store card holder, visited more departments and were more likely to buy.

Contract magazines globally

Internationalising titles is important. For example, August Media's Ikea Family Live was produced in 25 languages across 22 countries with a circulation of 30 million in 2010. Forward Publishing was a pioneer in this area in the late 1980s, with its work for IBM.

In the US, Redwood Custom Communications sells advertising for the relationship communications magazines, in-flight radio, television network and ambient media on airlines. Clients include Air France, British Airways, Sears, Canadian Automobile Association and Kraft.

In 2010, many UK groups sought to expand outside Europe, with John Brown working in South Africa, China and Japan.

Contract publishing information

For more sources, go to Links to magazine resources. Companies such as Mintel produce relevant reports. These cost £300-£900, but may be held by specialist public libraries, such as the City Business Library. Summaries are given on the websites. Contract publishing is often classified as direct marketing (Direct Marketing Association).

The Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) was founded in 1993 and rebranded itself as the Content Marketing Association (CMA) in 2012. The CMA has 40 members representing 90% of the UK market. Its website summarises the benefits of customer magazines and links to research. The Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) runs awards for in-house magazines and dates back to 1949 with the foundation of the British Association of Industrial Editors (BAIE). Germany has a Corporate Publishing Forum with 45 members and the US has the Content Council with 50 members.

Absolut Publishing (now APL)

Contract publisher founded in 1997 that specialises in travel, sport, consumer and B2B magazines. Magazine clients include ABTA, the travel association (Absolute's first client) and the American Society of Travel Agents. Also produces direct response publications for clients such as The Mail on Sunday and OK! and digital magazines.

Abstract Associates Ltd

Abstract appears to have closed down in 2010, having been rebranded from Aspect Media at the start of 2009. The address was Biscuit Factory J108, 100 Clements Road, London SE16 4DG. It was founded in October 2005, Astract produced consumer, B2B, membership and supporter publications – in print and online – for businesses, charities, education establishments and institutions. Clients included: Labrokes (Close Up was consumer magazine of the year in the 2008 Independent Publisher Awards and won two best launch awards in 2007); Cardiff and Sunderland universities; the Institute of Revenues, Ratings and Valuation; Fisher German Medical, Wiener Library, the Association of Geotechnical and Geo-environmental Specialists. The company used a web 'hub' to share files and proofs with clients and suppliers. Roger Wilsher was chief executive and Tim Lloyd managing director.

Alchemy Worx

Founded 1999. Alchemy Worx focuses on email marketing. It uses digital customer magazines (ezines) sent by email. Other services: feature planning; research; brief writing; copywriting; HTML production; campaign deployment; and strategy development. Dela Quist is the chief executive.


Founded in 1997 by Tony and Amanda Richardson (who had both worked at CNA, a marketing agency for duty free and luxury goods). The company focused on the same area but since 2000 has developed business in the property development sector. Titles include: Emirates Stadium for the construction of the new Arsenal stadium; A1 for retail tenants of Land Securities properties; The Ritz London for guests and club members of the hotel; and the quarterly Decision Makers in Travel Retail.

Aspect – see Abstract Associates

Atom Publishing

Founded in 1996. Clients include British Airways World Cargo, Norwich Union Healthcare, Open University, UCI Cinemas and Unilever.

August Media

In June 2012, August took over digital agency ID Media to expand as an integrated communications group. Founded in August 2005 with Sally O'Sullivan as chair (former IPC editor-in-chief who had founded Front publisher Cabal), Mark Lonergan, who had left Highbury House, as MD and Sarah Bravo as editorial director (former editor of Real Homes at Cabal). Within three months it won the contract to publish a 1.7m run Ikea magazine. By 2009, clients included Ikea, the NHS, Butlins, City & Guilds, Jordans and Capgemini. Ikea Family Live is a quarterly published in '21 countries, 24 languages and a worldwide print run of almost 30 million' (UK ABC was 300,441 in 2008).

Axon Publishing

Axon was founded by Paul Keers, launch editor for GQ in the UK and a former editor at Redwood, and the late Ellen Brush, former head of production at Redwood. Axon clients include M&S, Michelin Tyres, St Pancras International, National Childbirth Trust, University of Bedfordshire and The Royal Marsden.

BBC Customer Publishing – see Immediate

Benham Publishing

Benham produces directories, magazines, yearbooks, conference brochures, planning and mapping guides and event guides for industry, chambers of commerce, institutes, government and trade associations.


Bookmark Content and Communications was formed in 2016 when the global advertising agency WPP mergered UK-based Forward Worldwide with Canada-based Spafax Content Marketing

Brooklands Group (closed)

Founded 1992. Clients included Channel 4, Nissan and Renault. Growth came through news-stand titles licensed from production company Celador, such as You Are What You Eat and Location, Location, Location, based on TV series.
Brooklands profile

Cedar Communications

Company founded 1992 but traces itself back to British Airways' High Life in 1973, which it still publishes along with BA titles including Business Life. Other clients include Tesco, Dorchester hotels and Tui. Tesco Magazine has a readership of 6.5 million – almost one in six of all women in the UK. Cedar is a subsidiary of marketing agency Omnicom.

CMYK Design

Edinburgh-based company founded in 1999 by former Redwood and Scotland on Sunday designer Neil Braidwood. Clients include Highland Airways, Scott House Publishing, Scotland in Trust, Scotland Outdoors (magazine and website), Keepers of the Quaich and the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland.

Condé Nast Contract Publications

Division founded in 2002 with a title for the Tate galleries. In November 2005, won contract for the Post Office magazine, with e a circulation of 3m among the 28m people who visit one of its 16,000 branches each week. Clients include Harrods, HSBC and Littlewoods.
Condé Nast profile

CPL (Cambridge Publishers Ltd)

Founded in 1996 by two former Fleet Street journalists, Mark Rosselli and Jonathan Wilson. Has a varied client base including institurions, the public sector and companies. Also designed monthly rap magazine Hip-Hop Connection, which was sold on news-stands.

Craft [closed]

Craft was founded in 2007 by creative and publishing director Christopher Lockwood, formerly of Wallpaper, and editorial director Matthew Line, who edited Homes & Gardens, relaunched She in 2005 and before that was at Redwood. Craft specialises in upmarket and luxuy brands. Clients include Burlington Arcade, the RAC Club, the White Company and Jaeger. In 2008, the company launched Distill, a six-yearly digest of the global fashion press; this turned into an iPhone application for the third issue in November 2009.


In February 2008, Dennis set up a customer magazine division run by commercial director Tim Farthing with Derek Harbinson as editorial director. This was spurred by digital magazines produced for Ford and Playstation as part of advertising campaigns in 2007. It closed after the company refocused itself following the death of founder Felix Dennis in 2014.

Engage Publishing

Engage was founded in 2006 by Sean Collings, and today it claims a ‘strong track record’ in retail, third sector, financial services, education and technology, for both B2B and B2C communications. Clients in 2014 include First Direct, the Law Society, Santander and Dixons.

Fitzgerald Shurey Tarbuck – now 3CC

Fitzgerald Shurey Tarbuck is a multimedia agency set up in 2007 by Mark Fitzgerald and James Shurey, both formerly of Publicis Blueprint, and James Tarbuck, formerly of Toni & Guy, the hair salon chain. FST’s first magazine was in 2008 for Toni & Guy, an account it won from Publicis Blueprint. In 2009, FST won the contract to launch an online customer relationship management (eCRM) programme and digital magazine for Habitat, the home furnishings retailer.

Forward Worldwide (now Bookmark)

Founded by Neil Mendoza and William Sieghart in 1986. Clients include AA, Barclays, Ford and Tesco. Controlled by advertising agency WPP since 2001.

Haymarket Network (Wonderly since 2019)

Founded 1997 as an offshoot of Haymarket Publishing. Haymarket Network plans and creates content for clients across a range of integrated media, specialising in print and digital.Clients include brands such as the British Army, Sky Sports, Jaguar, RBS, Sony and UEFA.
Haymarket Profile

ICP Creative Communicators

Edinburgh-based subsidiary of Trinity Mirror founded in 1984. Closed as part of Trinity Mirror restructuring in 2005. Clients included the Bank of England, Scottish and Newcastle and Scottish Power.

ILN (Illustrated London News Ltd)

Founded 1985 as a subsidiary of Sea Containers. In January 2008, managing director Lisa Barnard led a buyout from Sea Containers by a group of private investors. Owns rights to the Illustrated London News, founded in 1842. Clients include Harrods, Orient-Express Hotels, Visit Britain and South West Trains. Plans included relaunching ILN and exploiting the archive of pre-1960 Tatler, The Graphic and the Bystanderwith the help of the Mary Evans Picture Library.

In 1961, Illustrated Newspapers Ltd was a glossy magazine publisher worth about £6.75m under chairman Angus Irwin and controlled by John Ellerman, a shipping millionaire. It published the Illustrated London News, Sphere, Tatler and Bystander, the Draper's Record and Men's Wear, as well as owning the Michael Joseph book publishing house. However, the group was taken over by Sunday Times owner Roy Thomson in December 1961.

The Illustrated London News was launched by Herbert Ingram in 1842 as the first pictorial newspaper and produced a groundbreaking colour supplement from 1855 – resulting in a circulation of 200,000.

Immediate Media (was BBC arm)

Immediate Media's branded content arm was formed in 2011 after the sale of BBC Magazines and took over BBC Customer Magazines, which was part of Bristol Magazines, a company formed by the BBC when it sold the hobby titles of Origin to its managers. Titles include Lego Club Digital Magazine (for six countries)

Ink Publishing

Founded 1994. Has a particular speciality in in-flight magazines. Clients include CNN, easyJet and Ryanair. Launched European Business as a news-stand title in 2004. This was relaunched with the European arm of US business and financial TV network CNBC as CNBC European Business, a 'co-branded' monthly publication, in December 2005.

James Pembroke Publishing

Founded 2001. Contract magazines include CTC Cycle and titles for Blockbuster and NTL. In August 2006 struck deal with Tesco whereby the supermarket funded the launch of Xplode!, an educational magazine for 7-11-year-olds, in return for sole distribution. Based in Bath.

John Brown

Biggest publisher of contract magazines; markets itself as 'The world's leading content marketing agency'. John Brown Citrus Publishing was formed in 2002 by the merger of John Brown Publishing and Citrus (had been BPA). Sold news-stand titles such as Viz and Garden Illustrated. JBCP dropped the Citrus to become JBP and then John Brown (Media). JB was founded in 1987 by John Brown, who had left Virgin with the contract to publish Hot Air, an in-flight magazine for Virgin Atlantic. Clients include Butlins, Orange, Paddy Power and Waitrose (it rebranded Waitrose Illustrated as Waitrose Kitchen in 2010 to back the upmarket supermarket chain's attempt to appeal to a broader customer base fronted by TV chefs Delia Smith and Heston Blumenthal). The fanzine-influenced Carlos for Virgin Atlantic in 2005 seen as innovative. Now has offices in London, Cape Town, Shanghai and Tokyo, as well as partner agencies in Turkey, Poland and France.
John Brown history

More customer publishers: Kava to Zone