Dark days at the Co-op brought back to mind

Back in the early 80s, I probably learned more from working on the CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) advertising account than from any other single working experience.  For this, I owe a huge vote of thanks to my client, Barry Silverman – a rotund, food-loving, wine-loving, bad-tempered, ceaselessly political, endlessly-frustrated and frustrating lunatic who I should have recognised as a wonderful, inspiring and weirdly loveable mentor long before now.

But on the grounds that you learn much more from failure and imperfection than you do from success, I also owe a huge vote of thanks to the amazing, unbelievable, totally unsustainable chaos and inefficiency which permeated throughout the Co-op movement at that time.  I could write a book about it, but suffice it to say for now that there were then about 135 Co-operative Societies spread across the country, and while Sainsburys, Tesco and Asda had one of everything (eg one person to go and negotiate with Heinz and Unilever) the Co-op had 135.

Since it also had about a third of the sales per square foot, my arithmetic tells me it was about 400 times less efficient than its main competitors.

The most important thing I learned from this time – something I’ll never forget – is that almost every one of the 135 people doing each job really liked it that way.  Their darkest fear was that someone, somewhere, somehow would become able to launch a massive efficiency drive, because if that ever happened the odds would be 134 to 1 that they’d lose their job.  The huge majority of people working for the Co-op would rather than the whole thing went down in flames than that it should survive by changing in ways that threatened them.  And go down in flames is pretty much what it did in the following years.

Why am I calling these distant experiences to mind just now?  Because last week I went to the Building Societies Association conference at Bournemouth.  And one thing I learned about building societies today is that spread across the country there are, by chance, just 135 of them. 


Spam, spam, spam, spam

I know this isn’t very interesting, but every time I come back to this blog now I find between a dozen and fifty spam emails, the large majority about pharmaceuticals, most of the rest about porn and a few, bewilderingly, apparently about workshop manuals for 1970s cars.

I wouldn’t mind so much if they were interspersed with the odd real comment, but nine times out of ten this spam mountain is all there is.

Do people really respond to this stuff?  Is there a steady flow of emails carrying credit card details to Russian and Rumanian addresses from British bloggers eager for Phentermine and Xanax?  If so, there really is one born every minute.  No wonder the financial services industry finds ripping off perfectly sensible people so ridiculously easy.  


Whateve else you believe about pensions, believe this

All sorts of people and all sorts of organisations are saying all sorts of things at the moment about the future of pensions and other long-term savings. 

But whatever you’re saying, or doing, or believing, believe this: ordinary people on average incomes saving their own money will never, ever build up retirement savings pots worth bothering about.

I think that at retirement today, the average value of a personal pension pot is a little over £30,000.  Via an annuity, that will produce an income of about £1800 a year.  That’s nothing like enough.

Why are “ordinary” people saving their own money never going to do much better than this?  Partly for what we call “emotional” reasons, like the fact that they don’t trust pensions an inch and, on balance, even though they understand the advantages, can’t live with the idea of locking their precious money away for so long.

But actually, much more to do with rational reasons. Like the fact that average incomes for people in full-time work are now about £25,000 pa.  Like the fact that since the average age for having children is now 28, you’re still helping them with university funding nearly up to the age of 50.  Like the fact that the average age of a first-time mortgage borrower is now 34, so if you’re going to help them with the deposit and/or the repayments you’ll be doing so at around the age of 60.

it’s a funny thing, that while lifetimes have got longer and longer, the Savings Years have got shorter and shorter – to the extent that many people today don’t actually have any Savings Years at all, they just go straight from the Spending Years to the Oh Fuck Is That All We’ve Got Years.

And don’t tell me that the answer is for them to all carry on working till they’re 70, or 75, or whatever.  There aren’t that many jobs at B&Q.  And – bearing in mind the banker, adman and architect chums of mine who’ve been made redundant in their 50s and told there’s no chance of getting another job at the same level until hell freezes over – we should be honest enough to admit it if what we actually mean is that people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, whatever their skills and cvs, should take any demeaning and menial job available to keep body and soul together till they die.  We had that idea once before, and we called it the workhouse.

There may be answers to this living-longer-in-a-spending-culture thing.  But believing that if we can just get the pieces of the organisational puzzle in place, ordinary people will solve it for themselves by making adequate provision for their older age, is the daftest and most fantastical of behaviours.   


“Information assymetry? You calling me stupid?”

“Information assymetry,” or, in this entry, IA for short has turned out to be one of the FSA’s more resilient pieces of jargon, right up there with “principles based regulation” and “clear, fair and not misleading.”

What the FSA means by it is that we consumers know much less about financial services than the experts we go to for information and advice.  And this imbalance – very stupid consumer, very knowledgeable adviser – is one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why things go wrong in the advice process and we get boxed up with useless rip-off products that offer the adviser huge commissions and offer us, well, more or less nothing at all.

It’s on the basis of this analysis that the FSA thinks one of the most important and urgent challenges for itself, for the industry and frankly for anyone with any significant amounts of money to spend is a massive and sustained programme designed to improve “financial capability” – in other words, to make us so much more knowledgeable about the world of financial products and services that assymetrical advisers can’t pull the wool over our eyes.

Like most of the FSA’s favourite ideas, the whole concept of IA, and of financial capability as the antidote, is completely wrong, and pitifully easy to disprove by reference to almost anything in life outside the world of regulated financial services.

The fact is, gigantic information assymetries exist in absolutely all sorts of relationships between people.  It’s easy to think of lots of other commercial examples – vodafone shop, kwik-fit centre, PC World, snooty posh bird in Joseph, sommelier at Gordon Ramsay.  But actually, many of the most important and most universal relationships far away from the world of commerce are based on the biggest IAs of all – boss/employee, doctor/patient, teacher/pupil, parent/child.

There are too many dodgy doctors, teachers and parents, but by and large most people in these roles manage to avoid conning, cheating and manipulating their assymetrically-informed counterparts.  There is no suggestion of a nine-figure budget being spent to make patients almost as knowledgeable about health matters as their doctors, or to put university students on a par with their lecturers.  There is, of course, regulation – much of it the law of the land – designed to restrain those with a tendency to bad behaviour, but there is no suggestion that IA is a problem that needs solving in itself.

No, as far as I can see, financial services is the only field in which it is assumed that anyone with greater knowledge is automatically and inevitably pre-disposed to rip off anyone with lesser knowledge, and that the only effective answer to this is to transform the people with lesser knowledge into people with greater knowledge.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what this says about the morals, ethics and personal standards of behaviour of people who flog financial products for a living, but I fear it isn’t anything very good. 

If only our consumers were a bit less rubbish

One of the things that most irritates me about the financial services industry is our habit of blaming consumers for their deficiencies in understanding our advertising and other marketing communications. 

Sometimes we criticise them implicitly, in a patronising kind of way, never more so than when we propose spending millions and millions of pounds on “educating” them so that they can understand us better.  At other times we criticise them much more explicitly, saying how hopeless it is that they are “uninvolved” and “inert” when it comes to financial matters, and that they’re “uninterested” in the things we have to say to them.

My own view is that all this is ridiculous and misguided.  Consumers are who they are.  As marketers and communicators, it’s our job to understand them and find ways of engaging with them.  If they don’t understand what we’re saying, or don’t care about what we’re saying, then by definition it’s our fault, not theirs.

The same applies – and this is the rather smaller but still important point I wanted to make today – if they can’t actually read it because the copy is too small.  The agency responsible for Invesco Perpetual’s advertising, for example, may have all sorts of brilliant insights into the consumer target market for their retail funds advertising. But one thing they don’t seem to have spotted is that this target market, being at least forty plus and mostly fifty plus, doesn’t see as well as it used to – and struggles, particularly, with small white type reversed out of black in dodgy out-of-register mono newspaper repro.

You’d be right to suspect there’s a personal agenda here.  In anything but the very brightest light, I am completely unable to read the body copy in Invesco Perpetual’s advertising.  When the campaign started to appear 18 months or so ago, I thought it was one of those obviously bad calls by a young art director that would quickly get fixed in subsequent insertions:  but although the ads’ headlines, which also started out insanely small, have gradually crept up in size, the body copy is just as illegible as ever.

It’s another form of impatience with the imperfections of consumers.  If your eyes aren’t good enough to read this, sod you.  Get some glasses, grandpa. 

We have to get over this.  Communication is something we do on our target market’s terms, or not at all.  Demanding levels of knowledge, or interest, or even just physical ability, that people don’t actually have is a particularly stupid kind of arrogance.

Name news is bad news

Have you noticed the bleating in the trade press recently about how what was GE Life is now Tomorrow?  In truth, it’s been fairly muted – frankly, the rebranding itself hasn’t been high-profile enough to bring about loud bleating – but it has been noticeable enough to make me wonder, for the hundredth time, why it is that rebranding stories are always written up as bad news stories, preposterous examples of bad judgement and extravagance.

Poor old Tomorrow, after all, had no choice about taking a new name.  The business having been sold by GE to Swiss Re, continuing to call it GE Life simply wasn’t an option.  Admittedly Tomorrow is one of those names that can lead to some convoluted sentence constructions (thank goodness that the newspaper Today doesn’t exist anymore, or we’d have “Did you see Tomorrow in yesterday’s Today?”).  But if it’s a silly name, what would have been a sensible one?  Obviously not Diageo, or Consignia, or Sesame (sold, incidentally, today), all of which were rubbished in their time.  I suppose there have been a few new names greeted with indifference (did anyone make much fuss about boring old HSBC?) but I can’t remember a single one that has ever been received positively.

What’s more, of course, rebrandings are always presented as absurd extravagances, huge amounts of money down the drain.  They always “cost several million pounds,” with £5 million the most frequently-cited figure.  Not in my recent experience they don’t:  the “Big Bang” overnight rebranding, where every manifestation of the old brand is thrown out and replaced all at once, is very much a thing of the past.  On the contrary, these days, more often than not the implementation of the rebranding is on such a gradual rolling programme that the last rebranding hasn’t been fully completed before the next one begins.

It may be that the general media climate of negativity towards rebranding stories reflects no more than a (very reasonable) dislike of brand consultants and a good deal of envy towards their very substantial fees.  But it is odd, all the same.  Other new things – new advertising campaigns, new products, new packaging – are usually rather politely received by journalists, but somehow new names seem to bring out the rottweiler in them. 

So, for what it’s worth and by way of slight counterbalance, let me just say that I think “Tomorrow” is an excellent new name for the business previously known as GE Life.

Must admit, though, I’m not quite so sure about Liverpool Victoria’s “LV=”.  How they can pay £5 million for something like that defeats me.

How to be treated like a criminal

A customer decides to buy your cheapest product or service, but then changes his mind and decides to buy your most expensive.  How do you treat him?

a)  Rather well

b)  Like a criminal

Well, yes, you’re right, extraordinary though it may seem, there wouldn’t be much point in asking the question unless the answer was b).  And on trains operated by Southern, it is.

Going with a colleague to a new business meeting on the south coast yesterday, I suffered a rare pang of guilt about my usual habit of paying huge premiums – at the company’s expense, naturally – to travel first class and avoid the orange-eaters.  I must say, the standard-class day returns that I bought really are an awful lot cheaper, but as soon as we got on the train, I could see why:  packed with orange-eaters and ipod-wearers in all directions.

No problem:  revert to Plan A, go into (deserted) first class and transform Southern’s margin on this particular service by paying a stupendous amount for an upgrade.  Everyone wins.

It’s a very odd kind of winning.  I have beside me the piece of paper issued after we paid the stupendous amount in question.  It’s called a “Penalty Fare Notice/Receipt,” and it begins: “At 14.14 hours, having travelled and failed to produce a valid ticket, you are required to pay a PENALTY of £20 or twice the appropriate single fare (whichever is the greater).”  Further on, it says “Unless the amount owing is paid in fill by 30 May 2007, legal proceedings may be brought against you.”  And further still:  “To enable us to issue the penalty fare notice you will be asked details about your journey and for your name and address.  It is a criminal offence to refuse or falsify your details.”  And so it goes on.

I have to say that I can’t ever remember receiving what we marketing types would call such dissonant treatment, not even the time when I was trying to hold back a surging football crowd so that a man who had fallen could get back to his feet and was dealt a sharp blow to the arm by a policeman who thought I was playing silly buggers and getting in everyone’s way.

Is this really the way that Southern think it’s right to treat passengers wanting to buy their most expensive tickets?  And if so, then for goodness sake why?

I can’t answer the first question, but I can at least give you their answer to the second.  There’s a Q&A on the back of the form, and one of the questions asks why you get a Penalty Fare Notice when you go into first class because standard class was full.  Southern explain:  “Whilst we appreciate it can be tempting to travel in first class accommodation in this situation, we have to be fair to our first class ticket holders and consequently upgrades must be make to your standard tickets before you travel.”

Well.  If you can make head or tail of that, you’re a lot cleverer than I am.  In fact, I can’t even be bothered to make the pithy comments I had in mind about it – just copying it out makes me feel too angry.

Has all this got anything to do with financial services?  Yes, sort of.  A lot of customers do treat their financial providers very badly, across a wide spectrum of badness that ranges from carelessness to outright fraud.  But tonally, a lot of providers find it difficult to differentiate between points on the spectrum, and respond by treating everyone as an outright fraudster – levying the huge penalty charges that have caused so much trouble lately, bouncing cheques, cancelling insurance policies and so forth, and sending letters to their customers not much less confrontational than the form I received from Southern yesterday.

A while ago, in the earlier days of Internet banking, something went wrong in cyberspace and a payment to my MBNA credit card didn’t reach its destination.  MBNA reacted just as you’d expect this deeply charmless organisation to react, suspending my account and writing me an extremely chilly letter.  For several years, they’ve occupied the same deeply negative space in my mind that Southern moved into yesterday.

As a result, no matter what Southern or MBNA may do to build positive brand perceptions, or develop stronger customer relationships, or cross-sell, or up-sell, or do any of those good marketing things that we and our clients spend our time doing, until hell freezes over I will hate both organisations with an undying hatred, miss no opportunity to discourage others from having anything to do with them and summarily dismiss everything they try to say to me with a harsh and hollow laugh.

I wonder how many other customers of how many other organisations feel – and laugh – the same way.

Extremely good writing by Mr L Camp

No, not me – I’m vain and prone to self-congratulation, but not to that extent.  The Mr L Camp in question is my brother Lindsay, who has just published his first book for adults (after many cracking books for children).  It’s called “Can I Change Your Mind?” and you’ll find it here on Amazon:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Can-Change-Your-Mind-Persuasive/dp/0713678496/ref=sr_1_2/203-0920849-6452759?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178646289&sr=1-2.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the title, it’s a book about persuasive writing, slightly in the Eats Shoots & Leaves mould (Lindsay will hate me for saying that, even though what I mean is that it’s funny, clever, outstandingly readable and rewarding for both specialist and non-specialist readers alike). 

As a gesture of fraternal solidarity I was thinking I ought to order a few copies and pass them on to some of the many writers of one sort or another who I know.  There’s no shortage of possible candidates – colleagues in the agency, freelancers who do things for us from time to time, writers at other agencies on clients’ rosters, lots and lots of in-house writers at client companies.

Bit on reflection, I think the best candidates are actually not a group of professional writers at all.  They’re something much more important than that:  the people down at the FSA who decide what we are and aren’t allowed to say in our financial marketing communications.

Yes, of course I know that in this era of principles-based regulation they don’t exactly decide, word by word, what we can and can’t say.  But they are responsible for the overall climate of opinion.  And overall – I don’t think anyone could disagree with this – their view is that the consumer is best served by communications which are full, balanced and fair.

As Lindsay’s book implicitly makes clear, neither fullness nor balance nor actually fairness as such have anything to do with the business of creating persuasive communications.  Cutting down a 50,000 word book to a six-word summary, Lindsay’s advice is, in his own phrase, “Remember the reader and the result:”  in other words, be as clear as you can about exactly who it is that you’re addressing, and think ruthlessly and relentlessly about what you can most effectively say to persuade them to take the action you want them to take.

It’s an approach to writing about as diametrically opposed to the FSA’s as you can get.  I can actually visualise a diameter with the regulator at one end, and Lindsay at the other.

To be honest, it’s also an approach that hasn’t been an option in financial services for quite a few years now, and which I think we can safely say will never be an option again.  In our world, a good 50% of our words are spent on telling our readers things that we have to tell them, whether we want to or not, or whether they want us to or not, or whether the words make the outcome we want more likely or less. 

I don’t think that’s going to change.   But all the same, for those like our regulatory friends, who still believe in the absurd idea of what they call “balanced advertising” – to most of us an oxymoron right up there with “friendly Parisian” or “predictable Spurs team” - Lindsay’s book is a timely and frequently startling reminder of just how far we’ve moved away from the mainstream of persuasive marketing, and into a weird, stagnant and deeply unappealing little backwater of our own.  

“I didn’t ask to be named after a fungal infection…”

Back on the red carpet last night, and skipping eagerly up onto the stage to collect the gold for Best Copy at the Precision Marketing awards. (Actually no skipping on my own part:  a mixed bag of psychological quirks prevents me from going onstage to collect awards, and I always push colleagues and clients into the limelight.)

Best Copy, I might add, not just in financial services but in all of everything.  The best copy in the whole world of junk mail.  Sorry, direct marketing.

Our flagship children’s savings account Jump, of course.  My headline above is actually the first line of copy from the best of last year’s ads.  (To make sense of it, you need to know that the ad’s headline was “Candida Writes…”)

OK, I’m biased, but I’m in no doubt that Jump richly deserves every single award it’s won, and many more besides.  It has an accuracy, freshness and honesty of insight into the state of relations between parents and children that you won’t find anywhere else in financial services.  In fact, although I would never get this claim through compliance, I think it has more insight into the way people feel than all other financial campaigns put together.

I’m very proud of it, but, to be honest, somewhat mystified that we’ve really only done it once.  Is there anyone out there who would like a similar turbocharging of the level of insight into their target market reflected in their communications?  If so, I can’t tell you how much I’d love to hear from you.