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Judging 1: Customer Publishing
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Judging 1: Customer Publishing

I spent yesterday morning looking through three boxes of entries for the PPA Awards ‘Best Customer Magazine’ category to create a shortlist for discussion with my fellow other judges later this week. I’ve done this before, but because I’ve usually been an interested party I’ve avoided comment here. No longer working for one of the major agencies involved, I’m freer to talk about the process this year.

It was a rather depressing task. Not because the magazines were particularly bad, but because so few were notably good. This is each customer publisher’s chance to select their best work, so the boxes contain a self-selected ‘best of’ the genre. And what did we get?

There were the inevitable few with misplaced ambitions of greatness, but most were absolutely OK, respectably edited and designed. Many aspired to match a relevant newsstand title, which at least makes strategic sense. And in judging ‘Best Customer Magazine’, the criteria isn’t creative excellence alone. The magazines have a brief to carry out, they must reflect the client brand and engage the relevant audience. What disappointed me was that so few rose above being adequate to become genuinely exciting pieces of editorial craft. Too many were interchangeable, with the output of some of the publishing agencies being too similar regardless of the sector they relate to. Was I looking at a car magazine or a business magazine?

Customer publishing has had its ups and downs. When I first began working in the sector, customer magazines were looked down upon by many in the ’real’ world of newsstand publishing. They were regarded as the poor relation of mainstream publishing, editorially restricted by the commercial aims of the client. Over the past decade or so that perception began to change as the industry grew in scale, developed higher standards and attracted increasing numbers of respected editors and designers from the newsstand. Some magazines found space to take advantage of their relative freedom to do things very differently to the newsstand – experimenting with different paper stocks and formats, moving away from the norms of particular sectors.

Yet there seems to be a creative chill running through the industry at present. Basic standards haven’t dropped, there’s just a lack of genuine 'wow’. New projects tend to be less special and quirky than in recent years. The recession has played a part in this as everyone – client and agency – focuses on return on investment over looser roles like brand-building, but it’s often said that recession brings out the best in creativity. Not here, it seems.

It’s a tougher enviroment for all projects that have to combine creativity and commerciality, and I don’t expect every customer title to compete with the more naturally creative world of the independent titles we love here. But it would be good to see more take some notice and learn from other areas of publishing. I’m quite realistic about this. Customer magazines have very specific roles to fulfil, they must reflect the client and strategy of the service/brand they serve. They are commercial entities – like all magazines but more so. But it’s a shame so many appear to be created in a vacuum apart from the rest of the magazine world.

Anyhow, I managed to select ten magazines for my shortlist. Several were excellent and unique magazines, most were good, and one a long-standing flagship for the industry. I just wish there had been more competition. The pressures of the newsstand are far more severe than those on customer magazines. It would be good to see more customer publishers and their clients take advantage of this.

Today I’m judging the Magazine and Newspaper category at the D&AD Awards. Will that be better? The day already has a slight frission added with the replacement of foreign judges who were unable to travel. Step forward Andrew Diprose from UK Wired and The Ride Journal, and Kuchar Swara from Swara&Co – thank you both. Apparently there’s wifi throughout the judging hall and results will be communicated online as they happen. We’ll see!

If that doesn’t work, I’ll let you know more tomorrow.

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