Straw spotted in wind.

When you meet people in work-related situations, they always ask “How’s business?”  But recently, they’ve been asking with more interest than usual.  It’s not because of greater concern for my welfare:  it’s because agencies like this one are seen as leading indicators for the economy generally.  A bit like canaries in coal-mines, when we stop tweeting and start wobbling on our perches everyone knows that the rest of the economy won’t be far behind.

For the last few months, I’ve been answerin the questions with exactly the same remarks as I’ve made for the last couple of years, only with the words “so far” appended.  “Business is fine, thanks.  So far.”  Or: “Things are going pretty well here.  So far.”  Or:  “Well, you know, we’re generally feeling pretty good about life.  So far.”  And so on.

Anyway.  Just to let you know that on Friday, we had the first of Those Client Phone Calls.  The ones that go “Nothing to worry about, but the Exec Committee has decided that it makes sense for the time being to put a short-term hold on discretionary spending, at least until we’ve got the half-year results out of the way.  Let’s carry on getting the campaign ready to run, but I think it would make sense not to firm up the media schedule at this stage.  And maybe to unpencil the bookings we’ve already pencilled.  As I say, nothing to worry about.”

So.  Sorry to have to share this with you, but I think we’re coming to the end of the “so far” phase.  From now on, as far as this much-forecast downturn is concerned, it looks as if “so near” is closer to it.

“Neither a creditor nor a debitor be.” Whichever is which.

Just this minute listening to former Chancellor Ken Clarke interviewed on the radio, and delighted to hear him getting his creditors and debitors mixed up, albeit only momentarily.

Even after all these years, I still have to stop and think about which of these words is which – is a debitor someone who I owe money, or someone who owes me money?  And so, whenever I come across these words in writing, they cause me a little hiccup, a little jolt a bit like driving over a speed bump, before I remember which is which and accelerate again.

As a result, figuring it’s probably the same for other people, I don’t like using these words at all when I’m writing.  I’d much rather spell it out in longhand – “people who owe you money” and “people you owe money to.”  But there (second Hamlet reference in this entry) is the rub.  The clearer form of words is five times longer.  Pursue clarity at the expense of brevity, and you’ll finish up with copy that’s readily understandable, but dauntingly long. 

OK, OK, in this case Polonius had the answer in the original line.  The words “borrower” and “lender” are a lot clearer than “debitor” and “creditor,” and not longer.  But there are thousands of occasions when this happy middle ground doesn’t exist.  As readers of this blog will be (painfully?) aware, I will pretty much always choose to write long and clear rather than brief and opaque.   But the trade-off still bothers me.  And I know that behind my back, people do say, “Oh yes, you can always recognise Lucian’s copy.  Always a good read. But my goodness, he does go on.”

“Stop looking at me in that tone of voice.”

Silly phrase, isn’t it.  Outdated too – something we used to say in my distant schooldays.  But actually, something I still often find myself wanting to say when I read copy addressed to me by a great many service providers – financial and otherwise – who still haven’t given the subject of tone of voice (or “verbal identity”) a fraction of the attention that they’ve given to their visual presentation.

There are two obvious reasons, one good-ish and one bad, why verbal identity continues to be so widely ignored.  The good-ish reason is that it’s fearsomely hard to (horrible word coming up…) operationalise.  So many people, with such varying levels of ability and enthusiasm, are writing so much stuff within, say, a big financial services company that it’s extremely difficult to imagine how you could provide them with the initial training, let alone the ongoing quality control.  The bad reason is that, as I’ve bitterly observed on many occasions, the whole brand identity thing still remains – bizarrely – largely in the hands of designers, who only think of the words as the “grey lines” in their layouts. 

But against these considerations, think of the advantages in really getting tone of voice working for you.  For one thing, I do honestly think it’s probably the last available part of the competitive battlefield where significant differentiation is now possible.  If you get it right, you can produce writing which be massively more interesting, engaging and compelling for your target groups.  And this, in turn, will mean that many more people will choose to opt in to, not out of, your communications.  (Years ago, I used to rush to the front door when the postman came in the hope of finding one of those wonderfully readable newsletters that Charlie Fry used to write in his Johnson Fry days:  these days, I can’t think of a financial services provider’s mailings that even call for hastening, let alone rushing.)

And – looking at it from a defensive point of view – you will at the very least avoid the danger that tone of voice accidents or miscalculations will actively repel potential customers.  (Unfair to pick on an example, but I had been thinking quite seriously about shelling out to join the Financial Services Forum’s Practitioner Group until I read this stunningly unwelcoming copy:

I’ve been going on about all this for so long now, and with so little interest or enthusiasm in response, that I can hardly find the strength to flog what looks very much like a dead horse any more.  But still a flicker of hope remains.  Like those scientists sending radio signals out into deepest space and waiting year after year for a reply they’ve never yet heard, I still believe that there’s intelligent (copywriting) life out there somewhere.

Next stop Uranus?

I have a feeling that this piece will probably be a sort of upside down version of the one I wrote a few days ago about the French adman M. Dru, and his theory of “disruption.”

It’s one of those negative words for which no positive counterpart exists – there isn’t a word “ruption.”  But if there was, I suspect we’d use it a lot in the investment funds market - and perhaps particularly to describe the relationship, at brand and advertising levels, between Jupiter, New Star and Neptune.

We all know the Jupiter/New Star story, with John Duffield founding the former, selling it to Commerzbank, falling out with them, leaving to found the latter, and choosing quite deliberately to make his new brand a twice-as-lurid version of his old one. 

I think, though I’m a bit hazy on the details, that there’s actually an earlier chapter to this story, in which a few people break away from the giant fund management group then named after the tiny planet Mercury, and as an act of intentional hubris name their small new start-up after the very biggest planet, Jupiter.

To be honest, I don’t know whether there’s a historical connection between Mercury and/or Jupiter and/or New Star and the latest big-budget advertiser in the retail funds market, Neptune.  But even if there is, Neptune’s level of Jupiter and New Star looky-likiness is silly and embarrassing, and leaves everyone thinking that this whole stupid planet thing has gone past a joke.

With Neptune’s visuals and headlines looking and sounding almost exactly like Jupiter’s previous approach (before they moved on to their current planet-in-close-up style) I’d have thought that the latter had a pretty good case for a passing-off action, with Neptune’s best line of defence probably being that nothing in Jupiter’s previous advertising ever resembled Neptune’s ugly and amateurish logo.

But no-one wants lawyers getting involved.  What we want is smart brand, advertising and marketing people who can get stuck in to at least one of these Identibrands and develop something different and special.

It’s true – as M. Dru says in his scribings on disruption – that in many, if not most, advertising sectors there are sets of invisible Category Rules that result in obvious similarities in the way that brands present and promote themselves.  You know pretty much what I mean if I say “shampoo commercial” or “washing powder commercial” or “press ad for computer retailer.”  But the game is then to try to differentiate within the category rules, a bit like medieval painters trying to do something different with the Madonna and Child.

This is, arguably, what Jupiter and New Star are doing.  Beyond the Duffield-driven similarities (astronomical objects, fixation on performance, hyper-lurid inks) there are clearly different intelligences at work.  Jupiter is aiming for wit, involvement, concision:  New Star is more like a Hyde Park orator, seeking to overcome doubters by shouting at them very loudly and at tremendous length.

But you couldn’t credit Neptune with a controlling intelligence of its own.  It’s all just pallid imitation – dull visuals, weak layouts, feeble headlines, dreary copy. 

I find it astonishing that a brand apparently committed to spending millions of pounds on building a reputation among retail investors and advisers doesn’t have the courage, the ability or even the sheer common sense to try to lay out its own stall a little further away from the two biggest, brightest and best-known in the marketplace. 

We wait with bated breath for the next wannabe investment brand to appear.   (In this market, it may take a while.) M. Dru, and I, and everyone else who thinks it’s important to try to be different, are all hoping that it’s not just another planet with obvious and literal copy and visuals.

Unless, of course, someone does go for Uranus.

Why my son doesn’t like Mondays

At a tender age, my 14-year-old son Oliver decided to follow in his father’s footsteps all the way up Tottenham High Road to White Hart Lane – in other words, to become a Spurs fan.

I must admit, I was – and am – delighted.  It’s a big bonding thing.  We’re season-ticket holders, pretty much ever-present home supporters.  Being there at Wembley for our victory over Chelsea was a fantastic experience for Ollie and me.

What’s not quite so fantastic for him is going in to school on Monday mornings.  Spurs, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, are consistent only in their inconsistency.  The weekend after we beat Chelsea at Wembley, for example, we lost 4-1 to Birmingham.  Ollie’s classmates all support one or another of the Premiership’s big three, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.  Tremendous jeering takes place.

That’s what happens among football fans, right?  Supporters of more successful teams jeer at supporters of less successful teams.  ‘Twas ever thus.

Except that with only a couple of exceptions, these so-called “supporters” of the Big 3 aren’t supporters at all.  They’re just glory-hunters.  Most of the self-styled “Man U fans” don’t even know where Manchester is.  I don’t think any of them has ever been to Old Trafford.  They know nothing of the history, the legends, the characters, the jokes, the chants, the triumphs and the disasters.   Being mocked by fans as synthetic as these is like being beaten about the head with a thin strip of wood veneer:  there may be a good deal of flailing, but the flailer can’t inflict any real pain.

What does any of this have to do with financial services marketing?  Not much, to be honest.  But maybe it says something about one of those terms that we all tend to bandy about a little too lightly. “Loyalty,” whether between employee and employers, provider and distributor, customer and provider or whatever, is one of those ideas that we talk about a lot, look to find ways of supporting, developing and rewarding.  But what kind of “loyalty” are we actually envisaging?  The all-too-perishable veneer that lasts till something more appealing comes along?  Or the commitment which – barring a really appalling breach of trust – is likely to last a lifetime?

Chocolate, cars, TVs, jeans, washing powder, Boots the Chemists. Nothing financial.

Just received the book and the film of the winners in this year’s BTAA TV Advertising Awards.  Top prizes for clients in the categories listed in my headline.  Nothing at all – not even any Diplomas, the prizes that come below bronzes – for any advertiser in financial services.

Overall, across all of advertising and direct marketing, they say that financial services is by far the largest single category, accounting for up to 33% of total spends.  I don’t know if the same is true on television – I suspect the financial share is probably a bit smaller, though not much.  But still, there’s no denying that winning the grand total of zero awards out of the 135 on offer can be described as a bit of an under-representation.

Specialist financial agencies like this one find it extremely difficult to win TV accounts – actually, we find it extremely difficult even to get a chance to pitch for TV accounts.  The clients and the intermediaries who decide who should pitch for what almost always take the view that they’ll get better results from agencies who specialise in TV advertising, not in financial services.

You have to say that on evidence like this year’s BTAA awards, it isn’t easy to sustain this point of view.

Disruptive entry. Well, mildly.

Read a booklet over the weekend by TBWA’s advertising guru, Jean Marie Dru.  His big idea is about disruption – by which he means that in any given area it’s a good thing to identify some received wisdom, which everyone accepts and follows, and then do something else.

As big ideas about advertising go, one has to say that this one is on the thin side (even my 24-page booklet became tiresomely repetitious.)  It’s also not the most original idea I ever heard (show me an anxious creative team, with time running out and nothing good coming to mind, who haven’t said, “OK, OK, let’s treat this life assurance product as if it was, I don’t know, a petfood.  Or a skincare cream.  Or anything – except a life assurance product”).  And, like most theories of advertising, its main role is in post-rationalisation, identifying products or campaigns that have successfully stepped outside the conventional thinking and seeking to explain why they’ve been successful (it’s not quite so effective, obviously, at explaining the reasons for the success of the 80% of successful products or campaigns that don’t break category rules).

Still, even if it’s not a big idea or an original idea or a universal idea, it’s still an idea.  Despite my carping, I come to praise it, not to bury it.  And, more specifically, to suggest that it might repay some consideration by anyone or everyone involved in investment funds marketing and advertising. 

A week or two ago I wrote a piece about RPM3 Beechwood’s Artemis work, and their subsequent Resolution work, saying that executionally at least these were “disruptive” campaigns.  (I didn’t actually say “disruptive,” becase I hadn’t read M. Dru’s booklet at that time and the word itself didn’t come to mind.)  But Artemis is, what, three years ago now?  And Resolution is just Artemis Mark 2 but not as good.  And even if both are executionally disruptive, there isn’t much disruption going on in terms of the products themselves or the overall marketing approach (although to be fair, Resolution’s joint-venture multi-boutique structure is a bit different).

So what’s the way forward?  The two latest arrivals on the significant-budget advertising scene, Thames River and Neptune, are about as undisruptive as you can possibly get – nervous first-formers trying to blend in with the crowd by looking, feeling and sounding as identical as possible to the bigger boys.  (OK, it’s true, I’m biased because both of these organisations dropped us from the pitch process at long-list stage, maybe because they rightly suspected we would have been reluctant to produce such cloned-looking and dreary work.)

M. Dru says you can be disruptive in three different ways – as regards your product design, as regards your consumer insight or as regards your advertising execution.  (I think I’ll try not to write any more sentences using the phrase “as regards” three times.) 

Actually, to be fair, the product guys have more or less being doing their bit.  Investment rocket scientists have been quite good at innovation in the funds business over the last couple of years.  But the bad news is that their effectiveness has been greatly limited by the inability of those of us in marketing and communications to get their new ideas across to the market.  I don’t think that consumers would get any marks at all in a quiz on absolute returns, or multi-asset investing, or 100/30 funds, or funds of hedge funds, or really any new or newish concepts in product design at all.  And I’m afraid that your average bog-standard IFA wouldn’t do a lot better. 

And beyond the product guys, I don’t think there’s much to impress M. Dru.  Come on, funds marketing and advertising people.  Let’s go for a bit of disruption.  I can think of a hundred category rules we could break.  If you fancy breaking one or two, give me a shout.

Lies, damned lies and bank advertising?

I think I’m right in saying that a pathological liar is someone who still lies when a) they’re certain to be found out and/or b) there’s no advantage to be had from lying.  If that’s right, then I do wonder if that’s the point some financial institutions are now reaching in their advertising.

Take the latest cash ISA ad from Barclays.  “An ISA With Nothing To Hide,” the headline says in very, very big print.  Then, in very big but slightly smaller print, “6.5% AER VARIABLE.”  And then in biggish print “6.31% TAX FREE.”

No point in beating Barclays up about the AER nonsense, which absolutely no-one understands and which serves only to confuse and alarm people.  That ridiculous folly is down to the regulator, not the bank.  And apart from that, it all seems clear enough, doesn’t it?  An ISA with nothing to hide, offering a tax free return of, well, let’s say somewhere between 6.5% and 6.31%.

But something about that headline arouses my suspicions.  Why are Barclays claiming to have “nothing to hide”?  Who ever said they did?  Maybe they protest a little too much?  Let’s see what the copy has to say.

In very, very much smaller print, it starts off innocuously if somewhat bafflingly telling us that we can open a Tax Haven ISA with “just £1.”  Why we’d want to open an ISA with £1 in it about four weeks before the end of the 2007/8 tax year isn’t clear – perhaps we’re excited about the prospect of earning between 6.5p and 6.31p in interest over the following year – but, well, fair enough, if we want to, we can. 

But what’s this? After this irrelevant diversionary feint, the copy goes on:  “Our rate includes a 1% gross bonus for 12 months.”  Let’s just think about that for a minute.  So actually, this is just one of those gimmick rates – what the Nationwide commercial calls “bait” – designed to hook you in, thinking that you’re getting something better than you are.  After a year, the rate – which is variable anyway – will fall by 1% as the bonus element disappears.

So, excuse me, not that I’m being pointlessly argumentative or anything, but can we just go back to that idea in the 96-point type? The one about having “nothing to hide”?  That was, let’s say, a little bit untrue, wasn’t it?  It was what one might call a “lie”.  And hidden away in the middle of the (12-point) body copy, flanked on either side by more or less irrelevant diversions, we find what one might call “the truth”.

I don’t know why this makes me so cross.  Heaven knows I should be used to the cynicism and dishonesty of financial institutions by now.  I’ve been writing copy for them for well over 20 years, and I’m sure I’ve written much worse.

I suppose it’s just their utter incorrigibility that really gets me down.  You’d have thought that after the collapse of consumer trust and goodwill over the last generation, they’d have become just a little bit more cautious about lying to us again. But no.  The habit of treating us as fools is so deeply ingrained that they can no more stop doing it than they can stop breathing.

There are plenty of cash ISAs out there with rates as good as, or very, very nearly as good as, Barclays without the “one year bonus” gimmick.  For goodness sake, put your money in one of them instead. 

Inconsistency. The one thing we can always rely on.

Dire experience at White Hart Lane last night.  The papers this morning are oddly kind, but really it was right back to the darkest days of the Martin Jol era – no commitment, no imagination, no movement, no shape, no idea.  Less than a fortnight ago we outplayed and outfought Chelsea to win the Carling Cup.  A week later we were stuffed 4-1 by Birmingham, and now it looks pretty certain that PSV have brought this year’s UEFA cup dream to a rude awakening.

As chance would have it, life has imitated sport more than somewhat this weekend with our disappointing performance at Wednesday’s Money Marketing awards – two bronzes, where last year we had four golds.

On the one hand, you could say that it was just a timing problem:  as it happened, during 2007 we produced very little new work for Jump, the children’s savings account where we win at least half our awards.

But in fact, in a less angry-making way, the reasons for our own inconsistency are really much the same as they are for my football team.  From day to day, from month to month, we’re not really that bothered about awards.  It’s not something that’s uppermost in people’s minds.  The creatives just want to get the job out of the door so they can get on to the next one, the account handlers just want to keep the clients happy, the management just want to keep the freelance costs down and the profits up, and everyone just wants to be able to get home as early as possible and not have to work the weekend.  These are all perfectly reasonable ambitions, but they’re not ambitions that tend to fit well with winning lots of awards – especially when you’re competing with agencies, and people, for whom it’s the only thing that matters.  (To see an example of that kind of attitude, have a look at the BBH guy’s blog entry which I criticised so fiercely a couple of weeks ago.)

Since we’re all quite good, and since we have one or two clients who are quite happy to accept award-winning work (notably the wonderful James Budden and his team at Witan), we stumble our way to something pretty successful from time to time. But usually, it’s not all that brilliant to begin with, and gets steadily worse as time goes on – as indeed Spurs did against PSV last night. 

It’s not the end of the world.  I suppose most people – here in the agency and among our clients - more or less get what they want.  But both as a Spurs fan and as this agency’s creative director, I would give a very great deal for us to be better.

Icon? Some can. So far, we can’t.

We lost a pitch for a fund management account a few weeks ago, but it was only last night that I found that once again the winner was RPM3, or RPM3 Beechwood as I think we now have to call them.

What’s interesting about this is the way that the agency has used its highly successful Artemis campaign as a door-opener to find a place on virtually every asset management pitch list over the last two or three years (and then has had the ability to win a fair few of them).

As I’ve acknowledged before, Artemis was an “important” win.  It was important for RPM3, because it took them into a sector where they had no previous credibility or experience.  But it was also one of those iconic campaigns that does, at least to some extent, rewrite the ground rules of a whole market sector.   Ever since then, the majority of asset management pitch briefs have more or less asked agencies to “do an Artemis” for them.  And that being so, clearly there are few if any agencies more likely to “do an Artemis” than the agency that did Artemis.

The ultimate category-redefining iconic financial campaign was, of course, Direct Line and the red telephone, launched well over 20 years ago. Since then I must have seen 50 pitch briefs more or less asking agencies to “do a Direct Line,” and both in direct insurance and beyond it isn’t difficult to think of other campaigns that have risen (or is it fallen?) to this challenge.

As for ourselves, though, I think we’ve created our share of iconic brands and campaigns – but somehow we haven’t ever really succeeded in raising them to the level at which they become an aspiration in pitch briefs. 

Our multiple award winning children’s savings brand, Jump, doesn’t just redefine an obscure little category previously dominated by ghastly nonsense featuring Rupert the Bear and Thomas the Tank Engine:  I’d say it redefines financial press advertising.  But I’ve never seen a brief asking agencies to “do a Jump” (??) for another brand.

In the fashionable and fast-growing wealth management space, by far the most admired brand is St. James’s Place, which also happens to be our longest-established client:  I’ve worked for them for 17 years.  But although the case history always goes down very well, I haven’t seen it as a role model in briefs.

Then there’s Nationwide.  Leagas Delaney, not us, do the TV, but still it is easily the most highly-regarded advertising in financial services (winner, again, last night, as Money Marketing consumer campaign of the year).  Other clients are probably right to view the construct of the campaign with some suspicion – it is really hard to build a positive brand by highlighting the negatives of the competition.  But seeing the cut-through and awareness scores, it’s really surprising that other clients don’t seem to have called for similar humour, irreverence and empathy.

And then finally there’s MORE TH>N.  Frankly, the dreadful, inconsistent, irrelevant, unmemorable rubbish that’s come out of Fallon since they won it from us a couple of years ago only serves to highlight what a good job we did for them.  Our Lucky campaign was, I think, iconic in a slightly different way.  Deep down, it’s just another Direct Line brand-icon driven looky-likey.  But whereas most of the others have been happy to go for executions that are ugly, crude and repellent (Admiral, esure, Elephant, Churchill) we brought back engagement, warmth and likeability.  Again, proper grown-up brand tracking showed the benefits.  But again, pitch briefs in the category don’t seem to have been calling for “another MORE TH>N.”

On more than one occasion, then, we’ve failed to do what Direct Line did 23 years ago, and Artemis much more recently:  define the new rules for everyone in their sector.  I’m not quite sure where we’ve gone wrong.  Is there something wrong with the campaigns themselves?  Have we simply not made enough fuss about them?  Are they actually too different and scary, so that others admire them but don’t want to copy them?  Are they not different and scary enough? 

Give me a call if you have any thoughts.  On your best red telephone, naturally.