Two years ago Andrew Hirsch, then chief executive of John Brown Contract Publishing, told Media Week that if his company became number one in the market, it would be a sheer fluke.
"If we end up the biggest, then it's by coincidence. That was never my or John [Brown]'s ambition," he said.
Two weeks ago the company reached the top slot after picking up the contract to publish Sky's customer magazine, the highest circulating magazine in the UK and Ireland (5,183,964, according to the latest ABC
figures), from number one contract player Redwood.
So was it coincidence or design? And what now for John Brown Citrus and the rest of the contract magazine market as it falls in line behind the leader?
"I don't know what the benefit of being number one is," says Hirsch, now chief executive of John Brown Citrus. "We've never been there. Maybe a year from now I might see things differently. The worst thing is to rest on your laurels once you get to the top slot."
The win was a triumph for the merger of John Brown and Citrus earlier this year. Joining up with Citus reinforced John Brown Contract's number two position in the market and, more importantly, created a more rounded company that could pitch at a higher level.
"The Sky account was the first time we'd worked jointly on a big pitch and it worked well. At John Brown we had weaknesses and Citrus had weaknesses, but together I think we're almost unbeatable," Hirsch says.
John Brown Contract Publishing was praised for its creative excellence, which it inherited from the consumer division of the company.
With magazines such as those it publishes for Waitrose and Ikea, it pushed the boundaries of customer publishing with editorial and design matching that of the consumer market.
What was lacking in the company, according to Hirsch, was marketing savvy, which Citrus founders Simon Chappell and Rachel Eburne have bought to the group.
"Understanding the whole marketing strategy of a brand is vital," Hirsch says. "Sky is an energetic, sexy brand and its above-the-line advertising reflects that.
"The magazine needs to be as powerful a statement as any of its above-the-line statements and it isn't currently doing that.
"The content of the title is movies and sport and if you can't produce an exciting magazine based on movies and sport, then you shouldn't be in magazine publishing."
Plans for the magazine could include a standalone Premiership supplement, but above all Hirsch wants the title to be comparable, in design and
editorial, to the best consumer titles.
"If the Sky magazine arrives on the same day as your copy of Marie Claire or Empire, for example, it should be comparable to those titles. If not, the Sky brand will look weak in comparison," he says.
"We want readers to get something additional out of Sky as out of Empire, for example. That's the core of our business."
Contract titles often sit on the shelves next to consumer titles now, a fact not lost on consumer publishers, many of which have launched their own contract divisions. Condé Nast is planning to take on consumer lifestyle titles including I-D and The Face with its relaunch of the Tate magazine later this year.
Meanwhile, the National Magazine Company is also trying to gain a hold in the marketplace. Since launching last year, the company has won two pieces of business, believed to be Barclays Home and consultancy work for
With circulations often topping those of consumer titles, contract magazines are hard to ignore. In the latest set of ABC results, all but one of the top 10 titles in terms of circulation were contract titles.
And the market is a lucrative one for publishers. Sky's magazine is believed to be worth about £16m and Redwood will need to win two or three average sized accounts to make up for the loss.
The shift of the Sky business has rewritten the league table of contract publishing companies - and more changes are expected in the coming months and years as the industry adjusts to a maturing and competitive marketplace.
After a wave of consolidation there are now just four or five big players. Redwood is now number two, while Forward is at number three with a turnover of £27m, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Publishing Agencies. At four, Scorpio Multimedia has a turnover of £19m.
The number five company, Cedar, is widely expected to be merged into its sister company Redwood and further consolidation is likely among some
of the smaller players in the market.
As this sector of publishing matures and contracts become increasing lucrative, customer publishing has become a force to be reckoned with. For retail, automotive, financial services, travel companies and many other consumer-facing brands, customer magazines have moved from being a peripheral part of the marketing mix to become a core element.
"I think customer magazines are pretty much essential marketing now," Hirsch says. "It's a chance to sit down one to one with your customer and have half an hour to explain what your company is about.
"An ad on TV or on a poster takes just a few minutes or seconds. Research shows that those with a magazine have greater loyalty."
This article was first published on Media Week