The name’s Branson…Richard Branson

About half the people I know who’ve seen Casino Royale have commented on the cameo appearance of Beardie (and one or two of his Virgin Atlantic planes) in the Miami Airport scene.  A few have also noted other product placement highlights – Ford doing particularly well with a broad range of their car brands, and Omega conspicuously present on Bond’s wrist.

But in a film so much about money, why no financial services brands? OK, it might have been hard to find a natural entry point for a pension provider.   But credit cards, private banking, life assurance obviously, critical illness in the poisoning scene, travel and motor, stockbroking, investments, all a piece of cake.  Come to think about it, no cake provider either.


What would Dorothy Parker think about investment funds advertising?

We’ll never know. But we do know what she thought about girls who went to Yale (“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised”). And about drinking (“ “I wish I could drink like a lady / I can take one or two at the most / Three and I’m under the table /Four and I’m under the host”). And, more relevantly, about the actress Katharine Hepburn, who, she memorably if unfairly said, “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

It’s difficult to imagine her paying much attention to current UK advertising for investment funds. She didn’t care much about advertising or investments, she was an American, and she died in 1967. But if she had, I think she might have saved the Katharine Hepburn quote for them. Because the thing is, the campaigns are all incredibly samey.

I can hear you taking in breath and preparing to disagree. “Au contraire,” you’re thinking. “Investment funds advertising has never been more varied. Look at Artemis, with their retro illustrations. And Gartmore, with their square-jawed fund managers. And New Star with their lairy star. And invesco Perpetual with the cool monochrome mountain. I could go on, but I’ve run out of breath.”

Well, yes but. These campaigns are superficially different. And so are several others you could have mentioned – Newton, M&G, Investec, Jupiter too. But under the surface, none of them is really very different. Ultimately, they’re all about how successfully we manage the money. Some use realism to communicate this: here are the managers of a certain successful fund, and here is some copy about how they do it. Some use analogy: here are some retro 30s style illustrations of hunters acting as a metaphor for the way we manage money. Some use explanatory copy, often together with icons – mountains, stars, bulls – that help brand the communication. Some use borrowed interest that’s more campaign-specific – gliders, weather symbols. But to Dorothy, these would be a bit like Katharine’s haisrtyles and costume changes: under the surface, it’s still Katharine Hepburn.

Let me make the same point another way. Think about what the campaigns don’t do. None of them is at all to do with the consumer, or with any kind of end benefit to the consumer. The visuals, either literally or metaphorically, are all of the world of the fund manager. None gives any sense of being targeted towards a particular consumer segment, in terms of demographics, behaviour or attitude. Although some do have some emotional colouring, none offers an emotional proposition. None uses humour, although you could say there’s the occasional glimmer of gentle wit. And none, except, perhaps, at a push, Artemis has any kind of specialist or distinctive positioning.

We’re so used to funds advertising being as it is that it’s almost impossible to imagine just how different it could be. But think in terms of advertisers in other markets, and suddenly the options start opening up. Why couldn’t The Economist’s poster campaign be for a funds advertiser? Why couldn’t a funds advertiser (it would have to be one with a strong direct business) focus on price in the way that Ryanair and easyJet do in this country, and Vanguard does in the States? Why couldn’t it have been “the future’s bright, the future’s Fidelity”? Could a funds advertiser present its products with the style and celebrity of The Gap? Or with the single-mindedness of a Boddington’s (remember “The Cream of Manchester”)? Or with the style of Jaguar’s “Gorgeous” campaign?

I can imagine hundreds of examples, taking us far beyond the journey from A to B and way off to F, J, N, even S and maybe W (although even I struggle with what Z might be like).

Why do none of these campaigns exist? I think it’s because funds advertisers still haven’t really got their heads round the idea of consumer brand-building.

After all, it’s only a few years ago that this even started to seem like a good idea. Until then, the only recognised purpose of consumer advertising was to generate direct response from hobbyist investors – and, surprise surprise, the way you did that was to show them how successfully you would manage their money.

Old habits die hard. The objectives have changed, and so has the targeting, but the propositions still mainly hark back to an earlier era.

There is an extra reason for this. Most consumer-facing advertisers are looking for a double whammy – an approach that also makes sense to their most important target group, the IFAs. Their “how we go about investing” messages are designed at least partly with IFAs in mind.

But this too is a sign of the partial evolution that currently characterises the sector. There is no major market in which the consumer proposition is basically the same as the distributor proposition. Newsagents don’t sell the Mars Bar because it helps you “work, rest and play”; tyre fitters don’t sell Pirelli because “power is nothing without control”. They have their reasons to sell, and consumers have their reasons – usually mostly emotional – for buying. Coming back for one last time to poor old Katharine Hepburn, it would be like trying to find a way that she could appeal to the cinema owners as well as their audiences.

I don’t think Dorothy Parker would have approved. As she once said of a book which I suspect she didn’t enjoy much, it wasn’t something “to be tossed aside lightly: it should be thrown with great force.”

Not another workshop

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very dodgy about the name – “workshop” to me will always sound pretty daft when it doesn’t involve spanners and swarfega – but I’m more than happy to attend, in whatever capacity may be required. Still, you do sometimes wonder whether there’s a better way to get a group of people to take a view on a topic, and yesterday someone came up with what sounds like a cracking idea: I was invited to chair a session that will be structured as a debate.

Yes, that’s right, a proper debate, with speakers proposing and opposing a motion, and, if enough people attend, speakers seconding the proposers and opposers too. And then questions and discussion from the floor, and then summing-up, and then finally a vote.

OK, it’s true that the subject is a nice simple binary one where basically the client company in question has to decide whether or not to do something. The debate format might not work so well with more complicated or open-ended agendas. But I’m definitely looking forward to it a lot more than I tend to look forward to my next workshop. I don’t think I’ve taken part in a debate since I was at school: perhaps I’d better pop round behind the bikesheds for a cigarette before it starts.

Caxton 1 Monks 0

At the DM Show at Earls Court this morning, with not one but two presentations to make – the first a so-called “Keynote Round Table” panel discussion, although in fact the table was rectangular and the only other person sitting at it, at least until the chairman turned up half an hour late, was the great John Watson, best known to all of us as the second “W” in WWAV.

John started by reluctantly admitting he’d been wrong about this Interweb thing. Actually, he said, contrary to his initial perceptions, he can see it’s quite important now. John’s presentation style is understated, while mine is of course wildly hyperbolic. “Quite important?” I spluttered. “It’s only the most important thing that’s happened in the whole history of the world since Caxton invented printing. OK, maybe – as with printing – its ultimate significance isn’t immediately apparent. Post Caxton, you could probably have continued to develop a perfectly satisfactory career in the illuminated manuscript business for a hundred years or more, especially of course if you were a monk. But I don’t think you’d have been in too much doubt about which was the growing and which was the shrinking industry.”

The most conservative places on earth?

Lunch yesterday with some old friends and their lovely, talented, delightful 20-something daughter who for the purposes of this item I’ll call Sophie. Sophie decided some time ago that she wanted to be an advertising copywriter and spent the obligatory 2 years beating her brains out on the Watford course, where she did exceptionally well.

All the same, getting a job in a London agency was a nightmare, and to pay the rent she started off on the very lowest rung of the ladder, at a small recruitment advertising agency somewhere near Tower Bridge. In career development terms, this was an extremely dangerous move. Such is the elitism and snobbery of top agencies that you’d do better to approach them as a convicted murderer than as a writer of recruitment advertising.

Still, with an admirable combination of determination and abilty, she overcame this huge handicap and about a year ago she got a job as a copywriter at a highly regarded, well known and very large ad agency.

Happy ending? Well, no, actually. A year on, Sophie is very miserable. She just isn’t getting the briefs. She’s only had the chance to make a couple of TV commercials. Recently, she’s been having to tackle the miserable and thankless world of press advertising, which isn’t much fun in its own right and which is very unlikely to provide new work for her portfolio or to win worthwhile creative awards. She’s been asked to work on a well-known household cleaning account which, although it does use television, has a track record of award-less mediocrity. And another team have recently shot a (multiple award-winning) commercial for the agency’s flagship booze account which is expected to have a two-year shelf life, so there won’t be any opportunities there for at least another 18 months.

No, there’s nothing else for it, Sophie is going to have to look for another job. She simply cannot bear the thought of stagnating on a diet of press ads and home cleaning commercials for the indefinite future.

But in truth she’s already got another job, though sadly unpaid and only of one afternoon’s duration: reminding me how extraordinarily narrow and unchanging the world-view of the average big agency’s creative department still is. Only two things matter: TV commercials and awards. Actually, maybe only one thing matters: awards for TV commercials. (Awards for work in other media don’t really count for much.) Press advertising is beneath contempt. The internet is of interest only insofar as it’s become quite a good medium for ‘viral’ commercials – commercials which, for one reason or another, are shown and transmitted online rather than on air. Product categories are divided into two – interesting, which includes booze, cars, fashion and a couple of others, and boring, which includes the home cleaning product, a lot of other mainstream fmcg acounts and, needless to say, financial services. Direct marketing, brand development, design, sales promotion and all other elements of the marketing and communications mix are as remote as the kind of alien planets in Star Wars where Chewbacca and Jabba The Hut live.

The fascinating thing about all this from my point of view is that with the sole exception of the attitudes towards the internet, everything else that Sophie told me fitted perfectly and precisely with the ideas prevailing in big agency creative departments when I last worked in one, 21 years ago, back in 1985. Nothing has changed at all. The role models are still Bill Bernbach’s work on VW, New York, circa 1962, and Alan Parker and Ridley Scott’s work at CDP, Euston Road, circa 1975. Maybe there are one or two more recent inspirations (HHCL in the 90s, Fallon today) but the golden oldies are still very much alive.

Where am I going with all this? I guess big ad agencies are still the place to be if you want big advertising. If you want anything else, though – either as well, or instead – then you’d have to be crazy. Sophie really, really doesn’t want to work on your business. And I don’t think you want her working for you, either.

“Expert wanted – experience not required”

How ridiculous.  A new business enquiry yesterday from one of the firms of intermediaries who now dominate this market, this time on behalf of a smallish (and, as always at this stage, anonymous) financial client.  The brief is generally fine, but one bit makes my hackles rise – the bit that says they’re not keen on a specialist financial agency because they want “a fresh perspective not bringing into play traditional financial services thinking and prejudices from the past.”

We hear this sort of thing quite often, and it always makes me cross.  Who would know better than a specialist what this “traditional” thinking and “prejudices from the past” might be, and how to go about avoiding them?  We spend our whole working lives trying to avoid these limitations.  Agencies who dabble in the area walk straight into them.  In financial services, some of the very worst campaigns come from some of the very best agencies who don’t realise the traps they’re walking into.  Barclays’ “Now there’s a thought” campaign is a classic example – a tired old borrowed-interest idea that I’ve turned down a dozen times, because I know that the stupid and irrelevant “innovations” that the staff come up with do nothing except get in the way of what Barclays actually want to tell us.

If you were ill, I want to tell these people, would you demand a doctor who has no experience of your condition?  If you needed legal advice, would you insist on a lawyer who’d never handled a case remotely like it, just to avoid the danger of traditional thinking and prejudices from the past?

Oh well.  At least we’re on the long list.  And our agency brochure does tackle exactly the issue that this client is raising.  And worst come to the worst and we get dropped out of the process, we’ll just have to carry on bashing out those deeply traditional solutions based on passionately-held prejudices from the past that we offer up to all our existing clients. 


Why does everyone hate Capital One so much?

It’s a serious question. The mailings certainly don’t help, but they’re not much grimmer than any other credit card provider. And Capital One has spent tons of money on television over a long period on ads that deliver a competitive proposition (lower interest) and try quite hard to make us like them.

Yet somehow it all goes horribly wrong, and the harder they try, the worse it gets. That dreadful grating ‘What’s in your wallet?’ mnemonic thing. Last year’s appalling abuse of one of the greatest singles of all time, Ian Dury’s immortal ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.’ The characters who probably aren’t dubbed Americans, but behave exactly as if they are. And so on, and so on.

Yes, OK, but apart from that? Capital One’s advertising isn’t quite funny enough, and the production values aren’t quite high enough, but you can say the same of loads of television advertisers who we don’t hate as much as Capital One.

I think it’s something to do with the particular way that they have of making us feel patronised, treated like children. It’s all so manipulative, so clunky, an obvious and mechanical attempt to press our buttons and win our involvement.

It also has something to do with the standards elsewhere in the sector. Say what you like (or more accurately what you dislike) about their other activities, but credit and charge card providers’ TV advertising operates mainly on the spectrum between pretty good and terrific – Barclaycard, Mastercard, American Express, Egg. All these organisations have not only entertained us, but have also treated us like grown-ups, rewarding us properly for our involvement. By contrast, Capital One feel as if they’re trying to trick us, offering a value exchange that they haven’t put enough into: we need better jokes, more entertainment, higher production values, more respect, or else we’re going to feel cheated.

I don’t know how much all of this matters. The biggest thing that’s bothering me in my working life at the moment is the way that we seem perfectly willing to do copious amounts of business with brands that we really, deeply hate – most notably Ryanair, but also MBNA, most utilities companies, most high street banks. To say the least, it’s pretty hard to accommodate this behaviour within our precious theories about brands and marketing: to say the most, this behaviour blows most of our precious theories out of the water.

A big subject, and definitely one for another day. Meanwhile, I’d be very interested to know whether – and if so why – you hate Capital One as much as I do.

Got up, had breakfast, caught 23 bus to school

A million years ago, for a short while I was the world’s most boring diarist. I wrote down everything that was least interesting about my life. In termtime, almost every weekday entry began with the words I used here in my headline, although once in a while I caught the 49 bus. Pretty much the only noteworthy details today – and then only to keen social historians – are the details of what we ate (Vesta curries, Fray Bentos pies, butterscotch Instant Whip) and what I watched on television (The Fugivitive, The Avengers, something called The Rat Catchers).

A million years later, I have an anxious suspicion that I’ll make the same mistakes all over again in this new blog, only this time in public. If so, apologies to everyone. Including me.

One thing that may at least lessen the tedium is shortage of time and pressure of work. Actually, that’s two things. For example, this morning I have to find time to read another 82 pages of proposals from the FSA under the heading “Financial promotion and other communications.” Having flicked quickly through it yesterday, I get the impression that this is something extremely unusual, namely a good-news document from the FSA.

Most importantly of all, it seems to show some glimmerings of understanding that warnings and statutory details which make very good sense at or even near the point of sale are ridiculous and out of place in awareness-building or even response-generating communications at the early stages of the customer journey. The previous failure of the FSA and other regulatory bodies to appreciate this simple point has played a major part in making our communications cluttered, confusing and off-putting over many years, and so to alienate and antagonise consumers in a most unhelpful way.

Over many years, some of the worst examples have turned up in the mortgage market and have actually been the responsibility of the trading standards people. Putting that ridiculous “Your Home Is At Risk…” line on the bottom of awareness-building mortgage posters always seemed to me about as stupid as insisting that brand advertising for luxury hotels should carry warnings saying ‘Our Trifle May Contain Nuts.’

If some of that nonsense is now disappearing, then thank goodness. But that’s quite enough being nice about the FSA. I’m sure if I read through the thing more carefully, I’ll find some points to get really upset about.