No more Mr Nasty Guy. Or not for a while, anyway.

I know, I know, it’s so much easier to criticise than to praise.  Contrary to appearances, it is an issue I worry about.  I’m well aware that the last few pieces in this blog have been distinctly on the Grumpy Old Man side of things.  In the unlkely event that you read this stuff regularly, you may be starting to wonder if there’s anything going on in the world of financial services marketing and communications that I actually enjoy and approve of.

Yes, definitely, is the answer, and I’ll try very hard to write some nice happy positive pieces over the next few days and weeks.

Before gratefully reverting to type again.

One out of 34 ain’t good

Tried out a new little idea a couple of days ago, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

We’ve been having an all-staff meeting once a month for years – everyone’s invited, second Thursday of every month, beer and wine, horrible toxic-looking crisps, a bit of a show and tell, a chance to see what other people have been up to, a report on how the business is doing, the new business situation and so on. 

My new idea slots in half-way between these Second Thursday meetings, which is why after much thought I decided to call them Fourth Thursdays.  Couldn’t be simpler:  everyone’s invited, beer and wine, horrible toxic-looking crisps, and we have a look at a selection of work produced by other people and see what we think about it.

A little unimaginatively, I started the first meeting with a reel of recent financial commercials – most, if not all, of the new financial commercials aired in the last couple of months.   

Whenever you order up a reel like this, you’re always a bit surprised to discover that half the “new” commercials aren’t actually new at all, they’re old commercials with a minor change like a new contact telephone number or some new legal wording.  This can be irritating, but on this occasion it worked quite well because it meant that the reel included “new” commercials from most of the major players – all the high street banks except NatWest, loads of direct insurers, several big life companies, three or four credit card issuers, a couple of regional building societies, a partridge in a pear tree and so on.

Anyway, here’s the point:  when we summed up at the end, we came to the conclusion that out of the 34 commercials on the reel, there was only one really good one, which was the latest in Nationwide’s great Mark Benton campaign.

There were a couple that we thought were pretty good, including Direct Line, and there were a few that were generally unpopular but had the odd keen supporter, like Halifax and Churchill.  The rest we thought were all pretty rubbish, really.

You may think this is no surprise when you have three dozen or so cynical and arrogant agency people in a room with a chance to neck a few beers and slag off some other agencies’ work.  But actually, here, it isn’t like that at all.  Because we haven’t had a major TV account since MORE TH>N, and because agencies like this don’t often have major TV accounts at all, we’re surprisingly humble on the subject.  Around the place, there is a bit of a feeling that the glamorous world of big-budget TV production isn’t for the likes of us.  (Needless to say, this is not a view that I share or indeed approve of.)

And that’s why, from my point of view, the best thing about the session was seeing a lot of my younger and less experienced colleagues realise that in the financial sector at least, most of the commercials from those big famous glamorous above-the-line advertising agencies occupy positions on a spectrum that extends from “shocking” to “mediocre.”  Barclays at BBH, Lloyds TSB at RKY&R, Zurich at Publicis, Abbey at Euro RSCG, The AA at Rapier, HSBC and their absolutely inexplicable “different points of view” at JWT:  everyone here, even the least confident and experienced, was quite certain that we could do much, much better.

Of course everyone could quite easily be wrong.  Writing decent scripts isn’t so hard.  Piloting them through the storm-tossed waters of the approval process and then shooting them as brilliant films is very hard indeed.  One film on the reel was the eventual product, from a regional agency, of a pitch that we’d taken part in and lost.  All of us (including me) thought the work we had shown was better in every conceivable respect.  Well, every conceivable respect except one:  we couldn’t persuade the client to buy it.

Still, despite this important caveat, the experience of the first Fourth Thursday was an encouraging one.  My most often-repeated message, internally at least, is that we can certainly aspire to produce the best financial services marketing communications in the country.  I think quite a few of my colleagues left the meeting with a lot more belief that this goal just might be achievable.


Why do investment ads have to look so horrible?

This isn’t likely to be the fairest and best-balanced piece I’ve ever written.  Working for the investment firm Henderson for more than ten years, at this agency and my last one, I think I helped produce some of the best creative work yet seen in the retail investment sector.  The best bit of all was a period in the mid-90s when we were developing the first Henderson Catalogue, and two of the best writers I’ve known, Surrey Garland and Richard Warren, were competing furiously with each other to come up with pretty much the freshest, cleverest, most readable investment copy ever written.  Reading their alternating efforts was a bit like listening to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts swapping solos on the best live album ever recorded, The Allman Brothers Live At Fillmore East.

Actually it wasn’t much like that, because nothing in this world is much like that.  But a little bit.

Anyway, against this background, getting fired a couple of years ago by some dreadful marketing-hostile sales director who stayed for a few months, achieved nothing and then departed was pretty painful.  But not as painful, or not quite, as looking at the advertising they’re currently running.

Funny thing is, it doesn’t look so bad in the IFA trade press.  But when it starts to appear in consumer environments, you’re reminded that we still live in a world where there’s advertising, and then several miles away there’s investment advertising.

At the moment there are quite a few Henderson 48-sheets up around London, and they powerfully reinforce the well-established point that compared to other advertising, investment advertising is simply more rubbish in every respect.  With only the odd exception, the ideas are leaden and vacuous.  The language is self-congratulatory and obscure.  The propositions are two-dimensional and uninteresting.  And, most importantly and most mysteriously of all, the art direction is simply shocking – clumsy, clunky, ugly, crude, offensive to the eye.

The current Henderson advertising is about as bad as it gets on all these dimensions, but to be fair there’s plenty of competition, especially as far as art direction is concerned.  HTW’s now-vanished M&G long copy ads are literally the only consumer-facing investment ads you could praise in this respect.  One or two more are serviceable.  The rest can only be described as visual pollution.

Why is this?  Partly because investment firms, despite their stratospheric profits, are still as tight as you like with production budgets.  Partly because the FSA still insist that we distribute several cubic feet of meaningless nonsense across the surface of our ads.  But partly – rather large partly, in my opinion – because most of the art directors working on most of these campaigns are useless.  It would be very nice to be able to blame the clients, or the regulator, or someone, but I’m pretty sure that it’s mainly down to the art directors. 

Sorry about that, chaps:  ideally I’d prefer us agency types to stick together on this.  But there it is. It would be interesting to see what people who do art direction as well as Surrey and Richard did that copy would be able to do in this market. 

I do hope no-one’s said this before

I spotted a frequent visitor to the shores of the advertising trade press yesterday.  Can’t remember who, but some well-known creative figure writing Private View in Campaign laid into a new commercial aiming to discourage people from buying pirate DVDs. 

To this end, it brands such people as “Knock-off Nigels,” and seeks to convince us that if we behave in this way, we will be widely despised by our friends and by others.  This approach roused the ire of the well-known creative figure, who made an often-heard criticism:  it is an unoriginal approach, he said in his most supercilious tone, that could just as well be used in all sorts of campaigns seeking to discourage us from other kinds of dishonest behaviour, like not paying our TV licence or not taxing our cars.

There are some comments often made about advertising that almost make me weep with despair at the impossibility of getting into a serious debate with the person making them, and this one is pretty high on the list.  Why on earth does it matter?

I have nothing to say about the effectiveness of the strategy one way or the other, but if it is effective who cares if it underpins the TV Licensing campaign as well?  Or, perhaps more accurately, who cares if it could underpin the TV Licensing campaign?  Is there a single consumer anywhere in the country who’s going to watch the DVD campaign and then say “Well, I suppose I might have been shamed into changing my behaviour, but now that I realise the campaign is based on a generic insight that could apply to many other categories I think I’ll carry on”?

The W-KCF’s comment is particularly stupid when made on a cross-category basis like this, but it doesn’t make much more sense when made within a single category.   

I lost count years ago of the number of times I’ve been told that such-and-such a campaign is no good because it’s too generic and could be applied to various competitors’ brands.  I have two huge difficulties with this.  First, when isn’t a campaign too generic?  The days of Ted Bates and the USP came to an end years ago, when, in a world of more-or-less parity products, people realised that you could find UPs or you could find SPs, but the SPs were rarely U and the UPs were rarely S.  Any lager could have refreshed the parts other beers cannot reach.  Happiness could be a cigar called anything.  Audi and BMW could perfectly well swap straplines.  It wouldn’t work quite as well executionally, but the future could perfectly well be both bright and T-Mobile. 

There are a very few products and services which have points of difference which are both unique and genuinely compelling – in fact, there are so few that at this precise moment I can’t think of any.  The few that there are may well feature them in advertising that really couldn’t be applied to any other brand.

But otherwise, this uniqueness point just doesn’t matter.  You make it your own by doing it, and by the way that you do it.  Sure, all sorts of other brands – some of them competitors - probably could do something very similar, but they aren’t, and now that you are they almost certainly won’t, and if they did in a market completely unrelated to your own why would you care?

I think the reason why I feel so strongly about this is that it’s one of those empty and useless criticisms – a McCriticism, if you like – that is nevertheless often used by silly people to shoot down perfectly good advertising campaigns (including, of course, a number that I’ve written or am presenting).  It’s in the same category of annoyance and frustration as those all-too-numerous clients who criticise advertising copy on the absurd and totally erroneous grounds that “you can’t start a sentence with the word ‘and’.”  It’s maddening partly because it’s wrong (if it’s good enough for every sentence but one in the first book of Genesis in the King James Bible, it’s good enough for your sodding ISA brochure, pal) but mainly because you know that there’s no reasoning with them and you’re going to have to change it.

I’m a bit dubious about knock-off Nigel because the end line so clearly doesn’t fit the music it’s spoken over, and also because it reminds me of a bloke called Nigel at school who I didn’t like much.  But the fact that he could theoretically have turned up in the TV Licensing campaign is a point of no interest or significance to me whatever.

Sorry, but I’m back on the train again

A few weeks after my tirade about being treated like a criminal by Southern Trains (May 10th) the whole thing about the way train operators treat customers without the right tickets has found its way into newspaper headlines.  A South West Trains memo to onboard staff has been leaked, instructing them on pain of disciplinary proceedings to issue the most expensive penalty fare possible to anyone travelling without the right ticket – even those who are travelling without the right ticket because a lack of staff or out-of-order machines made it impossible to buy a ticket at the station.

The thing about organisations with this kind of attitude towards their customers (and staff) is that we can never believe anything they say to us ever again. In actions like these, they are revealed as utterly cynical exploiters of the position of power that they have over their customers.  We should have nothing for them but hatred and contempt, and we should look for every opportunity to treat them with the cynicism and dishonesty which they show to us.

That’s all good.  We know where we stand.

But here’s the bit that bothers me:  at some point, in the recent past, someone not unlike me will have gone in to South West Trains to do a brand development workshop with the marketing department and all or most of the senior management team.  Some kind of graphic tool will have been used – a brand pyramid, a brand onion, a brand temple, whatever.  And in a room strewn with Nobo boards, Blutak and Hildon water, the assembled group will have come up with a brand definition for South West Trains that will almost certainly have included values such as Integrity (because they always do), and very probably also Customer Focus and Fairness and quite likely Responsiveness and Flexibility too.

And it may well have been someone who took part in that workshop who, a year or two later, and with the brand temple still quite possibly pinned to his office wall, wrote the memo to the onboard staff instructing them to fleece the customers for every penny they can get out of them.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I worry about all this.  Not just as it affects South West Trains, but much more generally as it affects all the organisations that I and people like me have ever done brand development work for – and which have then gone on to write memos to their people ordering them to fleece their customers for every penny they can get.

I really hate the idea that the whole point of my career is to provide window-dressing for organisations of deep and utter cynicism.  Even more, I hate the idea that I am the only person who doesn’t realise this.  But the more I read the things I read about extortionate and unfair bank charges, and hidden fees and penalties on mortgages, and the continuing scandal of commissions on life policies and pensions, and the grotesque earnings of fund managers who underperform tracker funds, and the PPI policies that sit right on the dividing line between fraud and theft, and all the rest of it, the more I wonder.

“People want benefits, not features.” Or do they?

On closer examination, most of the most famous sayings about advertising and marketing turn out to be wrong, but few more so than this benefits/features thing.

It all started, as I understand it, with whoever it was – very likely Mr Black, possibly Mr Decker – when he famously said that people don’t want quarter-inch drills, they want quarter-inch holes.

Leaving aside the obvious point that when you go to B&Q to buy a quarter-inch drill it will invariably turn out that what you actually need is a 3/8 or 9/16 inch hole, i can’t help feeling that Mr B or possibly Mr D didn’t understand us blokes very well.

Many of us certainly want a quarter-inch drill, together with a complete sets of bits in metric and imperial sizes, a reversible motor, a hammer action, adjustable torque settings and steplessly variable load speeds.  We have a dim idea what some of these things are, and why they might be useful.  But that’s not really the point.  We want them in the same way that, many years ago, we wanted the Hornby Dublo Southern Pacific diesel with the real working headlight, not because we actually wanted to operate our model railway in the dark but just because, well, it was there.

There are, in fact, two overlapping situations in which we’re much more interested in features than we are in benefits.  First, as with the drills, when we’re sad anoraks who just want the features regardless of any benefits they may bring.  And second – perhaps more common – when we’re not quite such sad anoraks, and we do in fact know perfectly well what the benefits are but just want to understand the particular features of this particular product. 

You don’t need to tell me, for example, the benefits of a limited slip diff, or a foot-operated effects pedal, or an always-on bluetooth connection.  You don’t need to tell my wife the benefits of a fabric that contains Lycra, or a conditioner with the ridiculously-named Aloe Vera.  Just tell us the ratios of the diff, or the number of effects on the pedal, or the percentage of Lycra, and we can figure out the benefits for ourselves.

The key characteristic of all feature-favouring situations is that they involve people who are, or at least think they are, unusually knowledgeable. Un-knowledgeable people, without the expertise to figure out the benefit for themselves, need us to show it to them. 

In the financial world, recognising this distinction – between knowledgeable people who are interested in the detail of a product or service’s features, and un-knowledgeable people who only care about the benefits – strikes me as one of the essential requirements in conforming to the FSA’s Treating Customers Fairly initiative.  But this isn’t a point I’ve heard anyone else making.  Insofar as anyone has paid any attention at all to the FSA’s comments on the need to segment communications and meet different consumers’ needs, they’ve tended to focus more or less exclusively on the use of language, and, most of all, different consumers’ different tolerances for jargon.

Sure, that’s part of it.  But this benefits vs features thing is part of it too.  You remember that scene in the film “The Sound Barrier” where, nearing Mach 1, our square-jawed test pilot suddenly realises that to break through the barrier he needs to reverse everything he’s been taught and push the joystick forward instead of pulling it back?  Communicating with expert consumers is a bit like that.  To achieve a breakthrough, unlearn all that benefits stuff and give us a raft of features.   Preferably a raft suspended on polypropylene barrels, attached with a 12-twist nylon twine to a deck made of 10cm tongue and grooved larch boards.


Mistkaes? Who, me?

Bad meeting with new client a few days ago.  I thought it was going to be fine, but the presentation we’d prepared wasn’t at all what they wanted.  Chinese whispers, of course:  somewhere along the line the brief got mangled.

Experiences like this always remind me of one of the most thought-provoking – and quite unexpectedly thought-provoking – conference presentations that I can remember seeing. 

The details in the programme weren’t encouraging.  The head of back-office operations at Pearl Group in Peterborough (then still open for new business, which shows how long ago it was) was going to speak on the subject of administrative error rates.  It’s a good thing this was the pre-Blackberry era, or else I’m sure I would have retired to the bar for some emailing.

But in fact, the presentation was riveting.  The speaker started by showing us some intriguing research.  He’d asked customers, intermediaries and others dealing with the back office how many mistakes they thought that the people there made.  And then he asked the people themselves how many mistakes they thought they made.  The gap between the two perceptions was immense.  External customers thought that the office made 15 or 20 times more mistakes than the people working there did.

The discrepancy was so huge – and so important – that the speaker wanted to understand it better.  From much research and interviewing, he came to a single, simple conclusion.  He told us that about 95% of the mistakes made took place in a way that made them exceptionally difficult to spot – namely, in the process of handing over information or instructions from one person to another.  The first person would feel sure that he or she had handed on the information perfectly accurately:  the second person would believe that he or she had received it perfectly accurately.  In fact, though, something had gone wrong.  Something had been misunderstood.  Some information was missing.  Something said was ambiguous.  Someone didn’t hear, or read, something important.  As a result, what the second person went on to do was wrong, just like my presentation last week.  But neither the first person nor the second person had the faintest sense of having made a mistake.

The reason why this matters, of course – and especially in businesses like ours, where the proverbial baton is passed from one runner to another literally hundreds of times in the development of a single project – is that if the error rate is a bit higher than it ought to be, it tells you where to focus in order to put it right.  Just look at what’s happening in those handover moments.  Do people realise quite how much they matter?  Are they writing enough stuff down?  Is the receiver asking enough questions? 

I don’t suppose any of this comes as a complete surprise to people on the agency side.  We’ve always understood the importance of the most critical of all handovers, the creative brief, as a sort of road sign that either sends people on the best and most direct route to their destination, or, all too often, sends them off in completely the wrong direction, into hostile and boggy terrain where all that awaits them is criticism and rejection.  

Still, it’s comforting to know that everyone has the same problem.  Or maybe probelm.

The weirdish world of unchosen brands

If there’s one thing we all believe about brands, it is that they help people make choices.  The whole business of branding starts with the premise that people have choices – and that they’ll make their decisions on the basis of a combination of rational and emotional criteria, more or less consciously felt and evaluated, that we call brand perceptions.

This being so utterly uncontroversial, it’s curious to think how often consumers don’t have choices – or at least don’t have real choices – between numbers of brands at all.

I’m speaking later this week at a conference about the marketing of healthcare, and the basic premise of the event is that we’re moving into an era in which ordinary people – NHS customers, not middle class people with BUPA – will be able to make choices between healthcare providers, notably hospitals.  I’ll be interested to see what’s said at the conference, but in advance of the event this sounds like ridiculous nonsense to me.  People don’t want a choice between numbers of hospitals.  They want a single, good, clean, local hospital which offers prompt and excellent treatment. 

Still, if this is a field in which an era of choice is allegedly imminent, there are many where it isn’t.  Transport probably tops the list.  If you want to travel by train from Bristol to London, or by plane from London to Bergerac, or by tube from Seven Sisters to Victoria, or by ship from Dover to Dunkirk, there is only one choice available.  (Sadly, you’re stuck with First Great Western, Ryanair, London Underground and Norfolk Line, respectively.)

Similarly, if you want a pint of draught cider in most city pubs, it’ll be Strongbow.  If you want a bottle of water at White Hart Lane, it’ll be Vivat.  If you want a lager at Lord’s, it’ll be Fosters.  If you want branch banking at the University of the West of England, it’ll be NatWest.

And one level down from this, there are other markets where consumers seem to have choices but don’t really.  My mother only ever buys Ford cars, not because she particularly likes them but because the only workshop within walking distance is a Ford workshop.  I could buy a computer that doesn’t run on Windows, but after 20 years it’s unlikely.  I could fill my car up on the way to work with petrol other than BP, but only by taking a detour:  both the petrol stations on my route are BP stations. 

Does any of this matter?  Yes and no.  It helps to explain how markets work when all the brands available are weak and generic.  Vice versa, it helps to explain why there are some markets where having weak and generic brands is more or less OK. 

And perhaps most importantly, it provides food for thought for brand owners who haven’t yet realised how indifferent – or even, at worst, hostile - we feel towards them.  First Great Western is a case in point.  “Thank you for choosing First Great Western,” they tell us.  We didn’t.  We chose to travel from London to Bristol.  Travelling on their ghastly trains, paying their extortionate prices and being stuck with their awful food and drink were not things that we chose at all.