Should your financial wellness be down to your employer?

We’ve been hearing more and more about this thing called “financial wellness” and its close relative “financial well-being” for some while now.  Between them, the two terms now clock up three million results on Google – and next time I look I bet it’ll be more.

Nothing wrong with that.  Insofar as both terms are to do with people’s ability to manage their personal finances well, they both describe a desirable objective. 

But what I do find quite peculiar is the way that this objective has become so closely – indeed inextricably – related to the workplace.  Financial wellness is a thing which you get at work.  It seems to have several components, not always precisely or consistently defined, but all provided or at least orchestrated by employers:  a workplace pension, possibly some other “hard” financial benefits like life cover, various additional benefits like discounts on shopping and holidays, and some kind of digital platform which offers some educational content and access to a wider array of financial services and information at the employee’s own cost.

What’s in all this for the employer, apart from a lot of cost and admin?  It’s claimed that employees achieving greater financial wellness by these means will be happier, more productive and more loyal.  I can’t say I’ve seen much hard evidence for any of these claims, but to be honest even if they’re true, I think I’d still struggle to understand why employers feel a responsibility for this particular part of their workforce’s lives when most feel so little responsibility these days for most others.

If we rewind to the golden age of Victorian paternalism, we can see a group of large employers – many of them with religious and often specifically Quaker convictions – pursuing a very broad concept of wellness for their workforces and their families.  My wife grew up in Bournville, the suburb of Birmingham developed and largely owned by the Cadbury’s confectionery business, and she can confirm that for many years the Cadbury family really did provide wellness-creating facilities of every kind, from high-quality and low-cost housing in a pleasant environment through to healthcare, educational and all sorts of recreational facilities.

Slowly at first, and then with gathering speed, all these benefits gradually trickled away over the course of the 20th century, until in 2010 the business itself was sold to new American owners with none of the Cadburys’ paternalistic attitude.

Interestingly, it’s been at exactly the same time that the substance of employee wellness has been evaporating that the use of the term has been proliferating.  Cynics (e.g. me) detect the hand of the Employee Benefits Consultant in all this, expressing predictably Mandy Rice-Daviesian levels of enthusiasm for schemes requiring more employee benefits.  And we have an appropriately cynical theory that much of it’s a smokescreen designed to obscure the extent to which most employers have rowed back from those Victorian ideals in recent years.   

But for most employees and indeed employers, I wonder whether this rowing-back really needed obscuring.  I must say that over my long years as an employer, at two medium-sized advertising agencies, if I’m honest I never really felt any responsibility for my employees beyond what happened to them in the workplace, and I can’t say that my employees showed any signs of thinking less of the agencies as a result.  I never believed that if I did take on some of their out-of-the-office responsibilities, and helped them to, say, insure their cars more cheaply, or feed their families more healthily, or take summer holidays which better suited their needs, they would reward me by working harder or staying with the firm for longer.  I could certainly reward and motivate them by the traditional means of pay, promotion and recognition – and, more generally, by providing a pleasant, safe, fair and stimulating working environment.  But not being a Victorian, and running young companies without histories of providing sports fields for the Works football team and Sunday Schools for staff’s children, it never occurred to me that my responsibilities went any further.

I suppose it’s possible that my employees were disappointed about this, but they never showed any sign of it.  No employees ever came to tell me they were leaving because they’d found another agency that offered them a discount on goods from Sports Direct.  And to take a more serious example, when we offered a then-fashionable “cafeteria” system which allowed employees to choose any combination of benefits they liked by sacrificing the appropriate proportion of salary, I don’t remember anyone ever choosing to sacrifice any salary at all for anything except – in a few cases – interest-free season ticket loans.

Since then, a lot has changed and of course a lot more is arguably changing right now thanks to the coronavirus.  People’s attitudes and priorities may well be different, and I think there has been at least one really important behavioural shift:  app-driven providers like Monzo, primarily targeting millennials, are creating a degree of engagement in personal finance among their customers previously only seen among the nerdiest of hobbyists.

This is important, and I suspect provides an epicentre for this financial wellness thing.  Financial fitness apps allow these people to work on their financial wellness in the same way that physical fitness apps allow them to work on their physical wellness. 

I don’t want to underestimate this.  Significant behavioural change in personal finance is very rare, and this may be just about the biggest in my working lifetime.  But even so, I don’t think it explains the strength of the connection with the workplace.  Of course I accept that employees’ finances have an important effect on their overall state of mind, but I don’t think they’re more important than a whole lot of other things for which most employers take only a limited amount of responsibility:   employees’ and their families’ physical and mental health, their family relationships, their children’s performance at school, the trouble they’re having sleeping, their need to arrange care for their ageing parents, the fact they’re drinking a bit too much these days, their advancing male-pattern baldness, the death of a much-loved dog, the hours spent every day in traffic on the M25.

As I suggested a few paragraphs back, the best reason I can think of for employers’ continuing interest in financial wellness is some kind of lingering overhang from the era of Victorian paternalism.  If that’s right, it is a very lingering overhang indeed.  If it’s wrong, I’d be grateful for any other explanations.

What does it say about you when you can’t spell your own name?

Sorry if that screen grab is on the large side, but at least you can see what I want you to see. I was pleased to receive this email yesterday telling me that what’s probably my favourite London fish restaurant (and was probably my fathers favourite too) has now re-opened for business. But I was much less pleased – in fact I was amazed – to notice that in the email’s header the name Sheekey is spelt wrong.

I suppose the fact that I’m writing a blog about this says that I’ve become the sort of pompous old fart who complains when restaurants spell their own names wrong. In other words, it’s a blog that says much more about me than about them – and what it says about me isn’t good.

So I’ll leave it there – except only to add that I actually am pompous enough for this little error to have put me off going.

Is that nice Rishi Sunak our only line of defence these days?

Maybe it’s always been that way.  Maybe, when it comes to really huge and cataclysmic events – wars, financial crashes, tsunamis, pandemics – a nation’s treasury is the only pot of money big enough to cope with the consequences for individuals’ finances.  Maybe if anything has changed in recent years, it’s only been an increase in the frequency of such cataclysmic and near-cataclysmic events.

But it doesn’t feel quite like that.  It feels as if the other actors previously in the business of providing financial solutions of one sort or another in the event of calamity –  families, employers, the financial services industry and not forgetting individuals themselves – have largely left the stage, leaving Rishi and his counterparts in other treasuries around the world as the last actors standing.

OK, I exaggerate.  Those other actors are still playing some kind of part.  But perhaps the starkest reality that the pandemic has highlighted is the astounding – and terrifying – lack of resilience in millions of people’s lives.  Without the furlough scheme and all the other State-sponsored financial interventions, gigantic numbers of people would have lost their jobs, their incomes, their homes, many of their possessions and even the ability to feed their families.  When furlough and some of the other schemes – such as mortgage payment holidays – unwind over the next few months, a considerable number still may.

I suppose that looking back over the years, this was always the inevitable consequence of a lengthy period in which institutions of all kinds tacitly conspired to offload responsibility for private individuals’ financial wellbeing onto the shoulders of the private individuals themselves – without ever quite making it clear that this was what was happening, and that people needed to take significant action to manage the new risks they were unwittingly acquiring.

The most obvious example is the shift from DB to DC pensions, which has represented a really huge transfer of risk and responsibility from employers to individual employees – a level of risk and responsibility which employees, despite the apparent success of auto-enrolled workplace pensions, are still nowhere near shouldering.  But actually there are plenty of other examples, many of which aren’t usually seen in terms of risk transfer at all.   How many people raising mortgages to buy their council houses, for example, understood the transaction in terms of risk?  Even the winding-down of large company car fleets, increasingly replaced by private lease purchase contracts, can be sen in the same way.

Which is all fine as long as the pay cheques (pay cheques?  Who gets pay cheques these days?) keep coming in.  During the period when my family’s running costs peaked, I saw myself standing on the roof of the house, a bit like Father Christmas, pouring sackfuls of money down the chimney (who has chimneys these days?).  The money flooded out through every door and window, but for as long as I kept pouring everything would be fine.  Thankfully I never did stop pouring, and everything was fine.  But this year, in millions of homes around the country, it’s been several months since any money came down the chimney, or at least it would have been without that nice Rishi Sunak, and that isn’t fine at all.   

What’s particularly disappointing is the way that the life industry has accepted this massive burdening of its customers without a squeak of protest or (a rather different thing) a trumpeting of its commercial interest.  I remember a well-known industry leader – well, OK, it was Otto Thoresen – saying to me some years ago that if the industry isn’t in the business of helping people manage risk, then there’s no reason for its existence.  But looking at it now, you’d never guess that managing individuals’ risk had anything much to do with it.  Over a couple of decades, the large majority of big risk-managing ideas – with-profits, guarantees, final salary pensions, ASU insurance, annuities – have been whittled away, leaving… well, leaving what exactly?  Leaving pretty much what Otto feared when he spoke to me.

Where do we go from here?  Assuming we don’t want a return to The Grapes Of Wrath, and also assuming – perhaps more questionably – that all those risk-shedding institutions have absolutely no intention of taking it all back on again, it looks like a fairly binary fork in the road.

Either we carry on more or less as we are, with people terrifyingly unresilient but relying on Rishi to bail them out, or at least soften the blow, when things get really ugly (as they seem to do more and more often).

Or, belatedly, the principal actors – the State, employers and the industry – are going to have to work very much harder than ever before to help people understand the responsibilities that they are now shouldering, and to provide relevant, accessible solutions so that they can face up to them.  

As a private individual, I can’t say that I love either of these options.  But I think, on the whole, that if I am actually dealing with a massive burden of financial risk and responsibility, I’d rather be able to understand it and, maybe, at least partially, cope with it.   

I fear I may have been wrong about how tone of voice can build brands

At the end of the Financial Services Forum’s webinar, How Financial Services Brands Can Use Words To Stand Out, earlier this week, I was feeling pleased with myself.  I had asked a question which, I thought, had revealed the fatal flaw in the thinking of both the panellists and revealed them both as men of straw.  Other webinists, (webicipants?  webinarians?   webendees?) I felt sure, would be grateful to me for setting them straight.

What had happened was that in addressing the event’s title, both panellists, one client-side and one agency-side, had made the absolutely bog-standard, heard-it-a-thousand-times presentation:  write in simple, conversational language, stick to short sentences, use the word “you” a lot, don’t be pompous or formal and whatever you do, no passive verbs.   I came back with the almost-equally bog-standard, heard-it-a-thousand-times challenge to all this, which is that if all FS brands follow this same set of rules they won’t “stand out” at all, they’ll just sound like everyone else.  There has to be more to achieving differentiation than just replacing old-fashioned Rulebook A with new-fangled Rulebook B.

At this, the speakers almost audibly stroked their chins for a few moments and then replied that yes, that’s pretty much right, it isn’t really about differentiation, it’s just about connecting with consumers and being accessible and engaging, which would make a nice change from the way that most FS brands have used words in the past.

Leaving me, obviously, feeling smug and self-satisfied in my belief that I understood the contribution language can make to brand differentiation very much better than either of these two speakers, who seem not to understand it at all.  To make the point, I’d highlight a handful of businesses where a distinctive tone of voice – usually instigated by a founder or other principal – has had a huge effect on brand perceptions:  Tom Baigrie at LifeSearch comes to mind, and Justin Urquhart-Stewart at Seven Investment Management, and Mark Polson at The Lang Cat, and kind of Holly Mackay at Boring Money, although I can’t help thinking that these days Holly needs to be careful if she wants us to understand that her firm’s name is meant ironically.   Role models like these tell us how you do it, I’ve always thought, not just a stupid generic rulebook about passive verbs.

Except that when I come to think about it, there is an obvious and, I fear, show-stopping objection to my role model-based approach.  All these businesses are small, and in some cases very small, as in tiny.   And in each case, the TOV-originator is actually personally and more or less single-handedly responsible for writing in the firm’s tone of voice.  It isn’t the case that there’s a whole bunch of people at LifeSearch writing like Tom, or a herd of felines at The Lang Cat who sound like Mark.  There may be one or two other people who can have a reasonable stab at it, either within the organisation or at any external agencies they may work with.  But although I’ve never seen a letter from LifeSearch chasing an overdue payment, or an email from Boring Money acknowledging a change of address, I feel pretty sure that they don’t sound as if they’ve been written by Tom or Holly respectively.

And, importantly, nor should they.  It would take an enormous effort to achieve that level of consistency, and what would be the point?  If the accounts department clerk receiving the letter from LifeSearch noticed the tone of voice at all, they’d just think it was rather odd.

It’s at this point that my long-held but slightly fuzzy theories about all this start looking wrong.  I suppose I’ve always thought that the stick-of-rock principle applies to TOV just as much as it applies to visual identity:  in the same way that everything should follow the visual style, the same goes for the verbal side.  That letter from LifeSearch should be written on the right stationery (God, who uses stationery?), in the right font, with the right logo, following the right layout – and in the right tone of voice.

But the problem is that the more genuinely distinctive and idiosyncratic the tone of voice, the more it’s going to be difficult-to-pointless-to-impossible to stretch it across the business.  Sure, if it only comes down to some simple rules of effective communication – simple language, short sentences, no passive verbs – then it shouldn’t be impossibly difficult to get all writers on board.  But if the voice is, say for the sake of argument, “crazed Glaswegian headbanger”, it’s not going to happen.

All of this leaves me in need of a new theory.  It would be ridiculously counterproductive to argue that crazed Glaswegian headbangers should tone down their outstandingly distinctive and readable style in the interests of achieving more consistency across the business’s output, and anyway I doubt if Mark can write in any other style.  But, on the other hand, if we’re acknowledging that others in the business are never going to sound like that, then there goes any possibility of consistency.

I dimly sense that the answer to this may be – as so often in consultancy – a sort of pyramid, where the business’s front man or woman writes in the full strength, 100% proof version, and others aim for something more diluted.   If I think about my own writing, I could easily come up with a list of a couple of dozen quirks that others could quite easily learn to adopt – extensive use of dashes and brackets, controversially long sentences, frequent appearance of lists, slight overuse of modifying words like “slightly, “reasonably” or “fairly,” etc – which could ultimately achieve a voice which would be both reasonably distinctive and reasonably consistent.

But until I develop this vague theory into a clear concept, with a defined process and an intended outcome, the best I can offer is a tone that’s either distinctive or consistent.  And that’s not really contributing an awful lot to the brand.

When pensions are useless

I don’t know what proportion of people’s savings – and specifically of what they think of as their long-term savings – goes into pensions these days. But I strongly suspect that in the era of auto-enrolment and pensions freedoms, the proportion is high and growing.

This, I suspect similarly strongly, is one of the reasons for the astonishing and alarming lack of financial resilience shown by so many people during the current Covid-19 crisis.  If they’re under 55 and their savings are in pensions, they can’t get at them – and so many seem to have no Plan B.

In the very short term, temporary interventions have largely hidden the scale of this problem.  The government’s furlough scheme, along with low cost loans and repayment holidays on various forms of lending (including mortgages) have kept financial disaster at bay.  But the reality is that these schemes will unwind later this year;  unemployment will spike;  and millions of workers in the gig economy will find their earnings much reduced.  Especially for people who are heavily indebted, all this adds up to an alarming outlook.

And, as I say, the one pot of money that many do have – their DC pension pot (or pots) – isn’t accessible until they reach age 55.

As this phase of the crisis gathers momentum, I can see one good thing coming out of it.  I expect a growing realisation that our cliff-edge model of pensions and retirement fits less and less well with the way people actually lead their lives.    The fact is that as people get older and their financial commitments increase, disruptions to their income have a more and more serious effect – and the need for a fairly substantial savings lifejacket, to keep them afloat in the short to medium term, becomes greater and greater.

I’m not sure about the mixed metaphor of cliff-edges and lifejackets, but, ploughing on, I should say that of course many people do have just such a lifejacket available.  There are billions of pounds – actually I think over a trillion – in personal savings and investments which are not locked away behind an age-limit restriction.  But, that said, I’d be interested to know what proportion of this amount is held by people who are actually older than 55, and therefore unaffected by the pensions lockdown anyway.  It’s people in their 40s and earlier 50s who are at the sharp end of this issue, and obviously the fact that they’re at or around Peak Outgoings is, in itself, the reason why they’re unlikely to be putting a lot away in non-pension savings.

Although I’m no expert in this sort of problem, I can dimly see the outline of a solution.  I can imagine how pension pots could evolve into something like Lifetime Savings Accounts, where the money is accessible at any time but there’s still a tax advantage in leaving it till later life.  If already in place, that kind of mechanism could come to the rescue of a great many LOBBLI – Lots Of Borrowing But Low Income – households over the next few years.

But obviously such a mechanism isn’t yet in place.  And the first step towards creating it is recognising that the need for it exists.

Real name: Smellie. Fake name: Arbuthnot? Bentley? Wellington?

Actually, my headline is unfair to the distinguished 18th century Edinburgh anatomist William Smellie, who kept faith throughout his life with the surname he’d been born with. But I don’t think he would have if he’d founded a 21st century financial advice business: in all probability, he’d have given it a fake name instead.

I don’t know why brands named after fake, or fictitious, founders annoy me so much. Of course I accept that you can call your brand anything you like, provided only that you’re not trying to pass it off as someone else’s, and the name you choose will reflect the perceptions you wish to create.  And in many areas – financial advisers/wealth managers, estate agents, wine shippers, classic cars dealers, art galleries, made-to-measure tailors – a good way to create perceptions of upmarketness and exclusivity is to give your business posh-sounding people’s surnames.

Originally, I suppose, these would indeed have been the posh-sounding names of the businesses’ founders. There was a banking family called Coutts, and a jeweller called Faberge, and a W.O. Bentley.  Very often, posh founders came in pairs: Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Turnbull & Asser, Mappin & Webb, Strutt & Parker, Berry Bros & Rudd. Even if the names weren’t inherently all that posh, they could quickly achieve poshness by association: I don’t suppose the names Knight or Frank inherently sound as posh as, say, Savills, but attach them to one of the very biggest of posh estate agents and the association works its magic.

Anyway, that’s all very well if you want to start a posh business and you’re called Saville or Coutts or Bentley or whatever, but what if you’re called Sidebottom or Smellie (I had a science teacher called Smellie, who in hindsight hadn’t chosen an easy career path) or Lipschitz?

Well, there may be other options readily available. When J. Rothschild Assurance needed a posh new name, it was fortunate that the London office was located in St. James’s Place and not Railway Cuttings. But more often than not, Messrs Sidebottom and Smellie just rummage through the phone book – or stroll around the streets in Mayfair where posh-sounding named brands hang out – and wait for inspiration to strike.

I haven’t researched most of the examples that follow, and I may be completely wrong to accuse the brands named of “synthetic” poshness. It may be that Aston Chase, an upmarket firm of estate agents in St John’s Wood, really was founded by a Mr Aston and a Ms Chase, for example: but I strongly suspect “Aston” was nicked from “Martin” and “Chase” from more than one posh source but primarily “Manhattan.” “Chase” also appears elsewhere as a poshness-signifier, BTW, raising my suspicions in the name Chase de Vere (“de Vere”? Really?).

But there are plenty of other names which arouse my strong suspicions, even without conclusive proof either way. You can Google pretty much any posh name you like and you’ll find a firm of financial advisers of that name – I tried “Bentley,” “Wellington”  and “Wellelsley,” and got a result every time (although I should say that I found two entirely separate Wellesleys, one of which had indeed been founded by a chap called Wellesley). Among double names, I’m not sure about Wren Sterling or for that matter Brooks Macdonald, but Punter Southall and Smith & Pinching have to be for real because nobody would make up “Punter” or “Pinching”.  The same goes for the leading estate agents in my home town, Guildford: “Gascoigne” sounds as fake as anything, but no-one would ever have invented the full name, Gascoigne-Pees.

Anyway, sometimes it’s more straightforward. I’m writing this blog because I was irritated today by a trade press article about an IFA consolidator called Ascot Lloyd, which has 15 offices but none in Ascot and no apparent connection to Lloyds as in Banking Group or as in Of London.   And I also saw a piece about another firm called Berkeley something, but to be honest I can’t remember what the “something” was and Googling “Berkley” and “financial advice” doesn’t help because there are loads, including one called Berkley (sic) Square Private Clients, who are of course located at 14B Market Place…. in Chippenham. And then there’s the controversial one, Berkeley Burke, which was caught up in some rather dodgy business to do with SIPPs recently. And then a few years ago there was another rather dodgy one called Berkeley Berry Birch, which raised the possibility of hybrid fakery in which a real Berry and Birch associate themselves with a fake Berkeley.

As I say, I don’t know why I find this fakery so annoying. Other kinds of fabrication don’t annoy me at all: on the contrary, they strike me as entirely defensible exercises in brand positioning. Name-seekers can rummage about in plenty of other pockets of language offering instant (fake) poshness, for example turning to words lifted from hunting, shooting and fishing; architectural terms; Latin; mythology; art; or classical music, especially if Italian.   I’m fine with all them. But for some reason, it’s obviously-fake people’s names that really wind me up, leaving me expostulating “Ascot Lloyd my arse.”

Thinking about it, I reckon perhaps I know what it is. I really wish they’d bite the bullet, and play the hand they’ve been given. I’m sure they could do something much more memorable if they stuck with Sidebottom & Smellie.  

How I blew the chance Candida gave me to join David, Dave and Bill

I was responsible for a lot of rotten ads in my 35 years in agency creative departments (the first few as a copywriter, then most of them as a creative director).  Looking back at them all, I see a pyramid – all those bloody awful ones down at the bottom, and then narrowing steadily towards a very, very much smaller number of good ones up at the top.

Right at the top there’s just one – probably the only ad for which I can claim some responsibility which I think is good enough to stand comparison with anything else, produced by anyone else, over that long period.  There’s a cropped and slightly blurry photo of its type area here, from which you can’t see that it’s the first of 20 or so that we produced in a campaign for an obscure children’s savings scheme called Jump, based on the more-or-less-equally obscure Witan Investment Trust.

And before I say anything else I should say that I didn’t write it.  Jenny Bond did, combining biographical details from her own children’s lives (being born blonde, swimming galas) as well as mine (being a Goth, being dragged off to France).   And the campaign was originated by Chris Wardle and his art director James Ellis, who I think was the only person to really get it despite having no kids of his own at the time.

But I think I can fairly claim to have had quite a lot to do with it, from the idea of developing a children’s savings proposition for Witan, through to the positioning designed to resonate among middle-class parents with ungrateful children, through to the creative brief which aimed to bring to life all the insights we had into that kind of family relationship (most of it, of course, drawn from personal experience).

From which came first Candida writes… and then the other 20 or so executions in the campaign. (Many of the others being equally good, but not of course being equally first.  And, I have to say, none of the others having the first line “I didn’t ask to be named after a fungal infection,” which to my mind is the best first line of copy in any advertisement ever.)

Apart from that first line, why do I think it’s so good?  I’m not going to write a lit crit essay here.  If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.  But in a sentence, because in one small black-and-white picture and 71 words, it absolutely nails everything you need to know to understand how relationships work across half-a-million middle class families  spread across the country from Tunbridge Wells to Richmond on Thames to north Oxford to Wilmslow to Edinburgh New Town – and, what’s more, families and relationships of a kind that was then and still are now more or less unknown to, and unexplored by, other advertising.

OK, that was a longish sentence.  But here’s a shorter one:  the campaign always seemed to me to provide us with the key to a previously-undiscovered secret and magic garden, where we could always go to create more great campaigns for more clients targeting those same half-million affluent families with the same breathtaking freshness and precision.

Except here’s the regrettable part:  for some reason that I can’t explain, we never really did.  Never once.  Having found the key and unlocked the gate, we never came back.  The only time I sort of did was ten years or so later, in my one-man consultancy life, when I was responsible for the brand definition and development for the relaunch of what had been the National Counties Building Society, but which we re-invented as the Family Building Society.  This time it wasn’t just that I didn’t write the ads:  by then I didn’t even have an agency.  I worked with my friends at AML to bring the positioning to life, and although the “children” in the family relationships were at least ten years older than Candida and her crew, the genetic code was clearly similar.  And I had exactly the same feeling, that somehow here I was back in the secret garden again – and then, again, we left it and I haven’t been back since.

Either in reality or in perception (not sure which) most of the better-known creative talents in this business are known for mining a fairly narrow seam.  If we talk about a David Abbott ad, or a Bill Bernbach ad, or a Dave Trott ad, or whatever, we have a clear mental picture of the sort of ad we’re talking about.

Of course no-one has the faintest idea what a Lucian Camp ad might be like.  But if only I’d hung around that secret garden for longer, then with Candida’s help things might have turned out different.

Is “Do nothing” really your smartest advice for me?

I have literally lost count of the number of articles I’ve read recently in which financial advisers have been complimented – or, more likely, have been complimenting themselves – on their brilliant strategy for helping their clients weather highly-volatile investment markets.

This brilliant strategy is easily summarised:   do nothing.  Once the markets have plummeted and taken a 10, 20, even 30 per cent bite out of the clients’ portfolios, the smart adviser works hard to convince the clients – and indeed to convince him or herself – to take no action at all, just sit tight and wait for the markets to come back.  “You can’t time the markets,” they say.  And there’s another little saying which they like because it almost sounds quite clever, “It’s time in the markets, not timing the markets,” which most people don’t actually get because it just sounds like the same thing said twice.  And as the days of doing nothing pass by, the advisers congratulate themselves on doing a better and better job.

Now I’m not saying that they’re wrong about this.  In the long run, doing nothing may be the least bad option.  But if I’m not saying they’re wrong, I am saying several things of a distinctly dubious and lukewarm nature, such as:

  1.  You see, for millions of ordinary people, there’s one of your biggest problems with investing right there.  All sorts of things can start going badly wrong – a meal you’re cooking, a movie you’re watching, a journey you’re making – but I can’t think of any others where no matter how horrendously wrong they’re going, the best and most expert advice available is just to strap yourself in, sit tight and hope it turns out all right in the long run.  It’s not how we like to handle such circumstances.  It feels powerless and pathetic.  

  2. Also – and kind of on the other side of the same coin – there’s one of your biggest problems with expert financial advisers right there.  Leaving aside the obvious point that the financial adviser you really want is the one who gets you out of the market the day before it crashes 10, 20 or even 30 per cent, is it really true that there’s really nothing worth doing?   Even if, say, at this moment, you’re still invested in airlines, pub groups and cruise companies?  If that’s the case, what “do nothing” really means is “you and your adviser aren’t smart enough, or quick enough, to get out while it’s still worth it, so now you’ll have to stay put with the rest of the mugs and the sluggards.”  Probably true.  But not what you want to hear.

  3. I know I keep making this point – it’s a consequence of my age -but it’s different in decumulation.    (That’s “different” in the sense of “worse.”)  If you’re drawing an income from your investments rather than adding to them, in falling markets you suffer from pound-coast averaging in reverse – pound-cost ravaging, some call it.  Sitting tight for years and waiting for markets to come back is a very unattractive option.

  4. Finally – and sorry if this sounds a bit mean-spirited – “Do nothing” isn’t really the kind of professional advice that I expect to pay a lot of money for.  It may well be that it’s advice born of a lifetime’s learning and experience, and the fact that it’s only two words and doesn’t sound very inspiring is neither here nor there.  But it is only two words, and it doesn’t sound very inspiring, and I reckon it’s worth about £250 tops.

This last point doesn’t mean that advisers should generate complex programmes of activity which only make things worse, simply in order to justify a bigger fee.   

Perish the thought.  That sounds like the sort of thing that only a marketing consultant might do.

Whatever we need from financial services just now, it seems we’re not getting it.

Impressively early in the coronavirus drama, even if I say so myself, I wrote a notably grumpy blog on the subject of “peace of mind.”  A huge proportion of financial advisers claim to offer it, I said, but in reality, remarkably few of their clients really enjoy it – especially at times when our world is becoming dramatically pear-shaped.   For most of us, I said, peace of mind is conspicuous by its absence.

Ever since, I’ve been hunting around the echo-chamber of stuff that will confirm and reinforce my views for evidence that I’m right about this, and some highly confirmatory consumer research has just come my way.

Blue Marble, the innovative and insightful research firm run by my old friend Emma Partridge, has set up its own programme, combining qual and quant, to look at post-coronavirus consumer behaviour in different parts of their lives.  The last round, just a few days ago, looked at financial behaviour.

Two questions – or rather, two answers – jumped out at me from the quant.  Among a nice big nationally-representative sample of 2000 adults, over half said they felt “more uncertain about their future” than before the outbreak (rising to over 60% among under-35s), and 39% said they were “more worried about money” (rising to over 50% among under-35s). 

These figures are high – certainly high enough to cast doubt over that “peace of mind” nonsense – but if anything I was surprised they weren’t higher.  Who are these 40% of under-35s who aren’t more uncertain about their future?

The clue to this, I think, is in the qual.  What this is telling us, in short, is that for the time being we’re too worried about the present to have the head-space to worry about the future as well.  I should say that there are some who are working from home, getting paid as usual and actually taking some pleasure from the enforced saving of a locked-down lifestyle. But the majority – whether students unable to find holiday jobs, pensioners with savings “in tatters,” furloughed workers, or self-employed people worried about whether their customers will pay their bills – have real anxieties in the here and now.    Combine that with the lack of any clear sense of where we’re going with all this, and whether (and when) something approaching normality may return, and it’s no big surprise that for some, the time to start worrying about tomorrow hasn’t quite arrived yet.

I think we all know that this will change, though, and when it does the role of financial services providers will be important.  At the moment, it doesn’t seem that it’s very important at all:  the second main theme I took out of the research is to do with another absence.  The fact is that so far in this crisis, the role and the actions of the entire financial services industry haven’t made much of an impression on Blue Marble’s respondents.  While just under half of the quant respondents say that supermarkets have responded to the crisis “very well”  (those loo roll shortages obviously fading from memory), only 9% say the same of banks and building societies.  In the qual, there are a few shoutouts for “good communications” – Nationwide, M&S and John Lewis picking up the odd positive mention – but on the whole it’s a case of the curious incident of the dog in the night time.[1]  Of the respondents with a financial adviser, for example, only one claimed to have received any communication (although I think in fact others must have received 10%-drop letters), and the one solitary strong positive across the whole study was a comment from a delighted motor insurance customer offered a partial refund to reflect reduced car usage.

There’s nothing terrible or scandalous here.  Very few respondents had anything seriously critical to say:  the most widespread grumble was to do with the perceived “hypocrisy” of lenders maintaining unjustifiably high rates while claiming to act in the national interest.  But equally, beyond that small handful of scattered positives, there’s nothing impressive or admirable either.  No institution, and no sector, seems to have seized the opportunity to capture positive attention by doing something – anything – to stand out and capture customers’ imagination.  Heaven knows plenty of financial institutions – actually almost all of them – claim a “focus on the customer,” or to be “truly customer-centric,” or to “put their customers first.”  But given a great big rather scary opportunity to prove the truth of claims like these, Blue Marble’s  research tells us that rather like that empty promise to give us “peace of mind,” fine words like these are mainly delivered from safely below the parapet.


[1] “But Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time!”  “That, Watson, was the curious incident.”

Come on, it’s not difficult – there are only two kinds of advertising ideas

I mentioned that I’ve been involved recently in helping a client choose an agency, and so for the first time in a while I’ve been on the receiving end of a bunch of creative presentations.

Our brief asked for a big (or biggish) idea that could be executed across a number of different executions.  The ideas we saw took me back instantly to my long years as a creative director, and to the single comment I remember making most often in response to the thousands of ideas I was shown.

This was, almost always, “Sorry, but we need a Type 2 idea and this is a Type 1,” or, much more infrequently, “Sorry, but we need a Type 1 idea and this is a Type 2”.

From which you’ll gather that there are two types of campaign ideas.  You may be wondering what they are and what’s the difference between them, so I shall explain.

A Type 1 idea is a campaign idea that lets you say the same thing in lots of different executions.  The great Heineken campaign  Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach is a Type 1 idea.  So is Should’ve gone to Specsavers.

A Type 2 idea is a campaign that lets you say lots of different things in lots of different executions, but in a way which is recognisably part of the same campaign.  Tesco’s Every little helps is a Type 2 idea.  So are Alexsandr and Sergei the meerkats for Comparethemarket.com.  So, in a slightly different way, was what is still the greatest body of work ever produced for a  single client by a single agency, Doyle Dane’s 1960s US work for Volkswagen:  there wasn’t exactly an idea, but there was a ruthlessly consistent look and feel and tone of voice, and an extraordinary attitude which said that in 1960s America, the home of the giant chrome-trimmed V8 gas guzzler, VW would revel in being ugly, small, cheap and slow.  

The fact is that for all their fame and for all the awards they’ve won, there are very few Type 1 campaigns.  There’s a simple reason for that, which is that very few brands can afford them.  Only big brands in big categories can swallow the cost of making campaigns consisting of big, single-minded, simple brand messages famous.  Back in my early days in Big Advertising I worked on a few – but ever since, I’ve worked in a world of Type 2 ideas.

Almost every brand that uses marketing communications needs a Type 2 idea.   A Type 2 idea provides some consistency, recognisability and distinctiveness to a whole bunch of messages in a whole bunch of media.  For example, an asset manager might need some “hurry hurry” ads reminding people not to miss the ISA deadline, an ad in the trade press about winning an award, some thematic messages about how active management adds value, a mailpack inviting intermediaries to a seminar, a series of digital Market Outlook pieces from the fund managers, and so on and so on and so on.

But here’s the thing:  creative people would infinitely much rather come up with Type 1 ideas.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, on the whole, they believe that Type 1 ideas are “proper” advertising, especially if they appear on TV.  Considering how few of them there are, Type 1 ideas win an awful lot of awards.  And second, they’re much, much easier to do.  Coming up with the idea in the first place is hard, but once you’ve done that you can bash out a hundred scripts by tea-time.   Or, perhaps more to the point, before down-the-pub time.

Want to put this to the test?  Probably not, but just in case, here’s your idea:  someone can’t do something, they drink some Heineken and then they can do it.  A hundred ideas by tea-time?  Well, I suppose it depends a bit on what time it is now, but if it’s before 2.30 I’d say you’re in with a chance. 

(I should add that most of those hundred ideas won’t be any good.  Writing great Type 1 scripts is harder than it looks, precisely because the idea is so clear and obvious:  as a result, good scripts have to include some kind of twist or surprise to make the commercial worth watching.  If you know from the first frame exactly what’s going to happen, it’s not a good script.  But we’ll save this more advanced discussion for another time.)

Type 2 ideas work the other way round.  It may not be so hard to come up with the original big idea – quite a few, as in my VW example, are little more than a look and feel, a tone of voice and an attitude.  (Usually, also, a strapline, although VW didn’t bother and didn’t need one.)  But then you’re going to need to come up with further ideas – smaller ones maybe, but ideas all the same – for every single execution.  When you have an ad to do for VW about the reliability of the air-cooled engine, your look and feel, tone of voice and attitude don’t tell you to write How does the man who drives the snowplough get to the snowplough?  But if you do come up with that idea, you know you’ve written a VW ad.

We almost always need Type 2 ideas.  In my recent agency selection project, that’s certainly what the pitch brief specified (although, I should say, without these unfamiliar Type 1 and Type 2 labels).  But altogether, in the tissue meetings and the final presentations, the three agencies must have showed us over a dozen different concepts – and of those, all but a couple were Type 1.