From A Self-Funded Custom Publishing Startup To A Powerhouse Content And Marketing Agency

Aug 23, 2023

When Jim Meyers founded the prominent content-marketing agency Imagination Publishing in Chicago 29 years ago, the media landscape was vastly different. Now it’s almost hard to comprehend.

There was no online publishing. The commercial internet was just emerging. Netscape had just come out with a new interface called a browser. The term “content marketing” hadn’t even been invented.

Back then, the discipline was known as custom publishing, and it took the form of marketing collateral or special inserts, or, as they were called in the newspaper industry, special advertising sections. But there were custom magazines because even in 1994, marketers understood the value of using the journalism format to engage an audience. And certainly, marketers understood that most consumers are just fine with receiving editorial content from them, as long as the stories are engaging and well done—focused on reader interests and reader needs, not on what the marketer is trying to sell.

Jim Meyers.

In the intervening years, custom publishing evolved into content marketing, a multichannel discipline that serves both marketers and audiences in ways that are best suited to them. And just last year, Imagination Publishing merged with the B2B marketing agency Mx Group, where it will lead the content-marketing shop. Fox Tales caught up with Jim Meyers recently for a look at how the content marketing world has changed.

Fox Tales: Tell us how content marketing has changed in the last couple of decades.

Jim Meyers: When I founded Imagination, content marketing wasn’t even a buzzword in marketers’ vocabularies. Back then, custom publishing was really only focused on print publishing—primarily in magazines and newsletters. In fact, during our first couple of years in business, we only had one internet connection, America Online, and our two editors would make trips to the Chicago library a couple of times a week to do their research. Obviously, the internet quickly changed everything about content creation, first from a research standpoint and later as an incredibly powerful way to search, personalize and deliver content in multiple formats and channels.

Fox Tales: What are your clients’ priorities now?

Meyers: Brands today have become much more sophisticated about content marketing. When content marketing became first a buzzword and then a marketing discipline in the early 2000’s, brands and organizations rushed to throw as much content as possible on their website utilizing the “spaghetti-on-wall” mentality. Let’s just create content and see what sticks! With an explosion of digital content over the past fifteen years, brands found that just publishing random content is costly, ineffective and mostly a waste of time. Today, we talk to our clients about the importance of three critical components to a successful content-marketing program. The first is taking the time to create a formal, documented content strategy that becomes a roadmap for the brand. The second is making an ongoing investment in the creation of high-quality journalistic content that answers the needs of audiences and aligns with their business goals. And the third component is an amplification strategy that ensures that the content is getting to and engaging the target audience.

Fox Tales: Imagination is 29 years old. Even when I was with Folio:, it was considered one of the great content-marketing agencies in the country. Tell us about that journey. 

Meyers: At the time I started Imagination, most custom publishers were industry-specific or regionally focused. My thought was that not limiting Imagination to one industry would be more interesting and would be less risky since the entire funding of the start-up was financed out of my bank account and on my credit cards. One night, after a meeting of the museum board that I served on, a fellow board member, who knew of my career in newspaper and book publishing, approached me to see if I knew a custom publisher who might be interested in creating a test issue of a magazine for a client of his. During a discussion that night I became intrigued about the idea of starting a custom publishing company. Only at the end of the discussion did he reveal to me that his client was American Airlines, which was looking to create a custom magazine for its Admiral’s Club members. Two weeks later, after presenting a business and creative plan, put together by myself, a freelance editor and art director, I won the business and Imagination was born!

Over the years, we’ve been honored to work with a multitude of clients and have won countless awards for the quality of our work. Of course, we’ve seen a major shift from print delivery to digital formats such as video, podcast and social, but Imagination’s success was always due to our fanatic commitment to high-quality journalism created by really talented Imagineers for really great clients!

By the way, over the last five years, we’ve seen a resurgence in interest in print. Particularly by brands and organizations that want to position themselves as thought leaders in their industry and with their customers.

Fox Tales: What led to last year’s merger with Mx Group?

Meyers: About a year ago, I was approached by the Mx Group to create a content-marketing strategy for their new business efforts. Within a couple weeks of the initial meeting, they received an RFP from a global logistics company looking for a comprehensive content-marketing strategy and execution. Tony Riley, Mx’s CEO, asked if I’d be interested in partnering since they had no experience or resources in content marketing. We did and we won the business together. A week or two later, we presented to one of Mx’s largest clients who was interested in a social-content program and won that opportunity as well! In a matter of weeks, Tony suggested that we formalize our relationship by merging.

Fox Tales: Going forward, with the merger, how do you plan to make “1 plus 1 equal more than 2?”

Meyers: From the beginning, Mx leadership and I agreed that this was a rare opportunity for two privately-owned agencies with complementary, not overlapping skills, to come together. Mx is the reigning B2B Agency of Year, is second fastest-growing independent B2B agency in the country. It has an incredibly smart and talented staff, great clients and a reputation for high quality and creative digital marketing. Together, we’re now a powerhouse independent agency, offering complete digital and content-marketing services, with nearly 150 full-time staff members.

Fox Tales: What role do companies like Fox Associates plan in the success of companies like Imagination and Mx Group? If there’s anything specific to Fox please let us know about that relationship.

Meyers: Cost pressures at brands and organizations continue to grow, so the pressure on marketing leaders to prove ROI is more important than ever. This means every marketing tactic and campaign is under heavy scrutiny. Obviously, achieving or exceeding business goals with marketing that can be directly tied to customer engagement as well as revenue and profit goals is critical. One way to lower costs, and thereby improve profitability, is to generate advertising and/or sponsorship revenue from a brand’s content-marketing program. Over the years, Imagination had the opportunity to work with the revenue-generating experts at Fox to help our clients improve their effectiveness and marketing ROI. Fox understands the opportunities, strategies and work necessary to build a successful revenue-creation program for brands.