Copywriter at another agency writes our perfect house ad

Thanks very much, mystery blogging copywriter, I really honestly couldn’t have put it better myself.

For years, I’ve been trying to make the case that financial clients should appoint us rather than generalist agencies with bigger names and bigger creative reputations, for the simple reason that our best people will do the very best they can for them while the generalist agencies’ best people will hide under the desks when a financial brief comes in.

No matter how i put this argument, it tends to sound a bit unpleasant – carping, negative, whiff of sour grapes. Fortunately, though, someone else has just put it for me – an anonymous copywriter and creative director at a very highly-regarded creative agency not unadjacent to BBH.

You may have seen the excerpt from his blog in Campaign last week. He wrote:

What should you do when you’re given a shit brief you don’t want to work on? If you are the dutiful type you will produce the best solution you can, given the limitations of the brief.

This will help your agency, and help the client’s business. But it won’t help you. All that will happen is that you will soon be given another shit brief. Do a good job on a shit brief for a second or third time, and your career is over. Your book won’t move forward. And when the next round of redundancies comes, the fact you’ve been doing a valuable job is forgotten. All anyone will notice is that you haven’t done a good ad in a long time.

So it’s vital to develop an ability to avoid shit briefs. And the best way to avoid them is what I call Playing To Lose.
Years ago, when I worked at Saatchis, some friends of mine (who were a very good team) got briefed on Oil of Olay. They came back with a script about a woman who is dead. However, because her friends regularly apply Oil of Olay to her face, no-one realises. (The idea was based on “Weekend at Bernie’s”.) A fun and lateral way to demonstrate what the product does for your skin, but not something Procter & Gamble could buy.

K***** and C***** were never given a P&G brief again. And yet, no-one could say they hadn’t tried, or hadn’t done a good job. And that, my friends, is Playing To Lose.”

Honestly, I really couldn’t put it half as well as that. The arrogance, the self-absorption, the contempt, the sheer silliness and folly that come pouring through from these few words are absolutely overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone trying to be funny succeed only in being so utterly ridiculous and hateful, except maybe Jim Davidson. If you ever wondered why BBH’s Barclays ads are so utterly ghastly, you know now. And if their wonderful showreel ever leads you to think about appointing them, just be very, very sure that our preposterous friend doesn’t put you in his “shit briefs” box.

Large and bright red rag shown to copywriter

My old friend S***** G****** tells me of a feat of iron self-control in the face of the fiercest provocation.  Impressively, he was able to maintain his customary sang-froid even when a piece of his customarily elegant copy was criticised with the most infuriating term known to copywriters:  TOO CHATTY. Too fucking chatty.  How do you mean, chatty?  (Joe Pesci in Goodfellas “funny guy” scene voice.)  Chatty how?  Chatty like in chatting to someone?  Like in having a PERFECTLY NORMAL CONVERSATION?  What kind of a conversation would you like to have with your reader, anyway?  Some kind of non-chatty conversation?  Like how?  Like a High Court judge?  Like a deaf and dumb person? How the fuck do you mean, too chatty?

S***** said none of this.  He just made it less chatty.  (This usually means taking out the apostrophes, so that it’s “it is”, not “it’s.”  And avoiding sentences starting with “and.”  And making sure that every sentence has a verb.  Unlike this one.)

“Too chatty” stands alone in the copywriter’s hall of infamous criticisms.  (The only other one within spitting distance is the deeply depressing and much more frequent “not punchy enough,” which is kind of the opposite of “too chatty” and is dealt with by putting the apostrophes back in.  And including lots of sentences starting with “and.”  And sentences without verbs.) 

Actually, though, we should all be outgrowing wounding phrases like these.  I’d argue that there are only two really important criticisms of the tone of voice of copy – off-brand (and why) or on-brand (and why).  Tone of voice, in my view, is the last major under-used tool in the brand-builder’s toolbox.  There are two main reasons why it’s under-used:  first because most copywriters (not you, S*****, obviously) are lazy and self-satisfied people, happy to make everything they ever write sound like a parody of Bill Bernbach and David Abbott if that means they can get the job finished and go down the pub quicker, and second because clients tend to go pale if you ever actually put forward a tone of voice that operates in any spectrum other than punchy to chatty.  

So.  Well done, S*****:  earlier in your career they’d have had to hose the bad-news-bearing account exec’s blood off your cubicle walls.  But as a writer, I would happily give £10,000 of my own money to put this whole stupid chatty/punchy thing behind us.


Where are you, Man from the Pru?

Sorry about the radio silence.  On holiday last week, at an old friend’s wedding in Thailand.  Managed, you’ll be pleased to hear, to avoid spending the whole week pondering financial services topics.  But the odd thought did surface from time to time.  I keep hearing, for example, that UK life companies, prevented these days from selling toxic ultra-high-charge products in their home market, have headed off in search of happier hunting grounds in the developing world:  haven’t I read that the Pru makes more money in Thailand these days than it does here?

If so, there’s precious little sign of it.  In fact, apart from a huge number of ATMs, I didn’t see much sign of financial services at all – very few bank branches, no posters, no press ads in the papers I looked at.  And millions and millions of people on mopeds and scooters, but very very few bicycles – and no-one at all wearing bicycle clips.

It’s not that we’re stupid, it’s just that the job’s really difficult

As I write this – literally, as I type these words – I’m listening to a podcast from the extremely trendy Brainjuicer website.  Brainjuicer is an extremely trendy and successful internet-based research company, and to spice up their site they’ve included a bunch of audio and video programmes which feature extremly trendy research, planning and consumer-insight people talking earnestly to each other on various extremely trendy marketing, comms and brand related subjects.  You’ll find them (and their podcasts) here:

Right now – literally, as I type these words – the three guys on my podcast are talking about the latest and most radical thinking in the field of branding.  The huge idea – the mega idea – that’s floating their various boats is that brand perceptions are built from the totality of the brand experience, and that therefore trying to manage the brand experience as a whole is the best way to manage the brand.  They’re then going on to develop these extraordinary ideas in various different directions - for example, one of them is pointing out that it’s important that an organisation’s people should, as he puts it, “live the brand”.  

I notice two things about this discussion.   One, it is unbelievably naive, uninteresting and useless.  I would expect my kids to manage a more interesting conversation about brands.  Actually, thinking about my domestic landscape, I wouldn’t be surprised if my cats could have a more interesting conversation about brands.  And two, none of the people taking part in the discussion works in financial services.

The fact is, in financial services we got into all this brand experience and 360-degree branding and living the brand stuff at least ten years ago.  It’s been part of our lives for so long now, and a lot of the terminology has become so over-used, that we’re almost embarrassed to keep using such tired old concepts.  (I can’t remember when I last used that toe-curlingly corny old expression “living the brand,” for example.)

At the same time, while we can enjoy being suitably sneery about the staleness and lack of originality in the Brainjuicers’ discussion, we also have to admit that we’ve made a great deal less progress in actually implementing any of these ideas.  Very few financial institutions, and no large ones, provide a remotely consistent brand experience.  Very few provide a remotely half-decent brand experience, come to that, consistent or otherwise.  There are very few, to be honest, where anyone who cares about the subject actually has any control or authority over the subject.

What does this mean?  Is it that we’re all just frivolous dilettantes who pick up these concepts early on, toy with them for a while and then put them down again without actually making any practical use of them?  Or is it that trying to define, align and maintain consistent brand experiences in great big complicated multi-product multi-channel multi-market multi-site people-based service businesses like large financial institutions is about 438,000 times more difficult than writing some cute copy on Innocent smoothie bottle labels?

I know what I think.  And sometimes, I must admit, it does bother me a little.  I like doing difficult things:  easy things get boring very quickly.  But I do sometimes wonder how much I, and all the smart, creative and thoughtful people I’ve worked with over the years, could have achieved in the smoothie sector.    

Old dogs, new tricks, farmers and hunters

Going back to yesterday’s entry on that conference, I said that most of the presentations I saw were pretty good - but I didn’t say that all of them were.

One particularly silly effort came from a speaker who thought that the best way to go about the “reinventing” of life assurance promised in the conference title was to persuade advisers to stop being hunters and start being farmers – in other words, to give up on the thrill of the new-business chase and settle down with a nice steady client bank and generate a regular income from it.

As Woody Allen said, “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”  For most financial advisers – especially for most male financial advisers – the thrill of the new-business chase is the best part of the job.  Hanging around with a bunch of existing clients hoping that some more crumbs may fall off their tables isn’t just boring, it’s demeaning.

Like so many people in financial services over so many years, this speaker had been fooled by what may well be the most unhelpful verbal confusion in the entire marketplace – and believe me, there are quite a few to choose from.  I’m thinking of the confusion between “advising” and “selling,” and the way that almost everyone in the industry uses the former when they mean the latter.  (Oddly enough, no-one ever uses the latter when they mean the former.)  Sure, there are some advisers around, although not many.  They will very likely be farmers.  But the large majority of people described as advisers are actually sales people, and as soon as you realise that, you realise that they’re as likely to stay at home tending their flocks as… well, whichever predatory hunting creature you choose to name.

Although it doesn’t absolutely grasp this nettle firmly in both hands, the FSA is clearly pre-occupied with this hunter/farmer distinction in its current Retail Distribution Review.  If they create a new regime in which sales people are free to sell and advisers are free to advise, both with complete clarity about their intentions and both within frameworks that offer proper consumer protection, we’ll have to stop viewing them with quite so much disdain.

Are we having a relationship yet?

Speaking at a conference last week, and one with a big title – “Reinventing Life Insurance,” no less.  I gave a talk about the opportunities (quite big, as I see it) for flogging life insurance on the internet.  But it turned out that everyone else was talking about Life Insurance with a capital “L” and a capital “I” – meaning not just life insurance, but the whole world of the manufacture and distribution of all life, pensions and investment products.

Pausing only briefly to bemoan the fact that our industry still uses such ridiculously misleading terminology, I must say that the half-day I attended was pretty good, with some thought-provoking presentations.  But the thing that really irritated me was the underlying assumption that there’s an existing slice of the advice market characterised by really good and strong relationships between advisers and clients, and that at least in the HNW/mass affluent segments, forthcoming changes in the market make it likely that we’re going to see a lot more relationships of the same kind.

Clearly there must be some advisers who have some close and continuing relationships with some clients, but there aren’t very bloody many.  I know, I know, you should never draw conclusions from research samples of one.  But speaking for myself, probably a good dozen or so financial “advisers” of one sort or another have flogged me something or other in recent years, and I wouldn’t describe a single one as coming within a hundred miles of a “relationship” with me.

I guess there are currently two – one at my bank, Coutts, and another at a smallish IFA firm who administer my pension – who you might think would currently have a “relationship” with me, simply on the basis of the ongoing financial connections between us.  But if it is a “relationship,” Jim, it’s certainly not as we know it.  For example, a year or so ago, I told both of them that I was expecting to sell my business during the course of 2007.  I did, in June. The sale was written up, although not prominently, in the national and marketing press.  Guess how much I’ve heard from either of them since?  You’re right – absolutely nothing.

(Incidentally, another point about the pension adviser.  Despite my perpetually youthful manner and appearance, this is actually the year of my SRD, or selected retirement date as we say outside the world of the TLA.  It’s not for a few months, so the adviser arguably still has some time to demonstrate the strength of our “relationship” by getting in touch to talk about how I want to deal with this financial milestone.  I’m waiting with huge excitement to find out when and how he approaches me.  Not.)

A long time ago, we did a piece of market research for a large IFA firm, looking at “relationships” as their advisers saw them, and as their clients saw them.  Needless to say, the advisers thought they had strong, close, enduring relationships with clients who they could consider to be among their closest personal friends.  The clients, on the other hand, dimly remembered the advisers as charlatans who had sold them some dodgy overpriced and underperforming investment some years before and promptly scarpered.  I exaggerate slightly, but not a lot.

I’d like to do that piece of research again, but I doubt whether the findings would have changed much.  Now as on that occasion, very little of what goes on in the heads of people in the financial services industry has much to do with the real world – from the way they imagine their client “relationships,” right through to what they mean by the words “life insurance.” 


“Sorry mate, I’ve just hired someone else to do your job.”

I often make the point that I like football partly because it’s such a great metaphor for real life, but at times the metaphor really does break down.

The transfer window closed yesterday, and amidst all the excitement about buying and selling one aspect of the story which you don’t tend to read about is the effect that new acquisitions have on the existing team members.

It would be nice to think, for example, that when Spurs buy the oddly reluctant Rangers right back Alan Hutton, Juande Ramos takes our existing first-choice right back Pascal Chimbonda aside and explains what it all means.  But actually, from what we know about football clubs’ approach to man-management, the chances are that the first Chimbonda knows that we’ve spent £9 million on a player who’s going to take his first-team position is when he reads it in the papers.  And anyway, in the unlikely event that Ramos did speak to him, what reassuring message is there to give?  “You’re out, amigo.  And unless the new hombre is injured, you’ll stay out.”

I suppose it’s not difficult to imagine how players’ contracts can be worded in a way which gets round the constructive-dismissal rules, although I must say that if an agency like ours just hired someone to replace an existing member of the team we’d be up before a tribunal before we knew it, even if we were offering to keep paying the existing member their salary.  It’s not a legal issue.  But it is a fairly serious people issue – one where football clubs, I’m virtually certain, behave in a way that’s unbelievably much more harsh and uncaring than the rest of us in the world beyond.