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The growing excitement surrounding custom publishing shouldn't blind marketers or media companies to the potential dangers surrounding it.

As our Page 3 story this week points out, custom publishing has exploded into a mainstream business dominated by leading magazine houses, such as Meredith Corp. and Hachette Filipacchi. By one estimate, it is growing at a faster clip than the overall magazine industry.

While that's a growth opportunity impossible to ignore, there are potential pitfalls for marketers and for publishers of traditional magazines that shouldn't be overlooked either.

The most important question marketers must ask is whether the custom magazine they will produce fills a real consumer need or is merely a way to ensure a friendly editorial environment for their marketing messages.

In the traditional media model, new editorial products are created to tap perceived consumer needs. If consumers buy the magazine, they form a core audience attractive to advertisers. In custom publishing, the model often begins not with the reader but with an advertiser seeking new ways to communicate with its customers and potential customers.

There's a very real possibility that newsstands and mailboxes will soon be filled with custom titles. Some no doubt will be top quality; others will likely be of questionable editorial value. As advertisers get used to the concept of custom magazines, there's a danger they will put more pressure on independent magazines to also provide friendly editorial environments. There have already been serious concerns raised in recent years about advertiser involvement in editorial decisions, and custom publishing at its worst can exacerbate that issue.

If custom-published products prove a valuable tool for some marketers, others may be better off spending their ad dollars to support independent products-or using money tagged for custom projects to sponsor quality magazines that might otherwise not see the light of day.

Newsweek last week reported that photojournalistic title DoubleTake, which it called "the best magazine you've never read," lost its main backer, Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies. A marketer that steps up and helps keep the presses rolling for a title like that will score many more points with consumers than it will for creating a new magazine to solely showcase marketing messages.

Fact of life

Account conflicts in the ad world exist when an advertiser says they do-no matter how the affected agencies feel about it. That leads us to believe Bates USA and Zenith Media (50%-owned by Bates' parent Cordiant) face an uphill battle to stay on as the media buyer for the U.S. government's anti-drug ad campaign.

Unfair? The American Association of Advertising Agencies thinks so. But consider: One aim of the campaign is to discourage young teens from buying cigarettes. Bates USA handles advertising for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. brands. To Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.), this suggests a conflict of interest.

Bates executives bridle at the senator's suggestion that Bates' B&W tie means it and Zenith may not do a professional job on the anti-drug campaign. We sympathize. But it's the client's call.

Whatever decision is made must comply with federal contracting rules. If the McCain view carries the day, it will likewise deny the government the use of other media buyers that work for tobacco (and alcoholic beverage) marketers. This should force an interesting debate inside the White House drug policy office. If Bates is disqualified, then all other agencies have to be able to stand up to the same `conflict' standard.

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