This pensions crisis is obviously a complete disaster. Unless perhaps it isn’t.

I sometimes think that I go to conferences and seminars and forums and suchlike for only two reasons – one, to show off when I’m speaking, and two, for the networking.  But actually there’s a third reason that applies more often than I might imagine, which is that I do get to hear some cracking presentations.

My old friend Malcolm Small, for example, was in magnificent form at an event last Friday, making our blood run cold at the horror and hopelessness of our retirement planning efforts in the post-final-salary-pensions era.  Chart after chart, statistic after statistic, added up to a conclusion that was pure Private Fraser:  “We’re all doomed, Captain Mainwaring.”  Doomed, I tell you. Doomed.  To describe our pathetic attempts to save for our retirement as a fart in a hurricane would be an insult to farts.  The handful of coppers we will receive from our wretchedly underfunded annuities won’t even stretch to a weekly tin of catfood – and I don’t mean for the cat.

We all accept this dire prognosis so unquestioningly that the contrarian in me assumes it must very likely be wrong. 

It’s certainly slightly exaggerated, at least as far as its imminence and universality are concerned.  Although most final salary pension schemes are now closed to new members, there are still millions of existing members, and not just in the State sector – and most are still able to make contributions.  But that’s not really the point: Armageddon Postponed is only relatively good news.

What I wonder more fundamentally, though, is whether everything else is going to get quite as much worse as we all think it is.  There are a few reasons why it might not. 

First – as Malcolm emphatically recognises – these days people hate pensions, and one of the consequences is that they put their money into other forms of retirement saving.  These, as we all know, include things like property and ISAs.  They also include those huge cash savings balances, often derided by investment experts as the evidence of “reckless conservatism” but actually at the moment not so stupid when the rate of return on risk-free savings is better than most risk-based alternatives.

Second, despite wobbling and probably tumbling property prices, I wonder whether those who calculate these things have fully worked out the consequences of inheritance.  When elderly people of very modest means have homes worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, the key questions for the offspring are a) how long will mum and dad live, and b) how many siblings do I have.  At the very least, for millions of people with few siblings, their inheritances are likely to add up to a good deal more than their personal pension savings.

And third – I could add fourth, fifth and maybe even sixth, but this piece is too long already – we may just have to live with the difficult and disturbing fact that most people have never had all that much money in retirement.  Even in that “golden” final salary pension generation, most people’s final salaries weren’t anything to write home about. We imagine them desperately trying to burn through huge piles of cash, sailing yachts around the South Pacific and racing vintage Jaguars.  But you have to be a failed FTSE-100 Chief Executive to get a pension like that.  Most people live on pretty low incomes in retirement – and although some are horribly poor, the majority aren’t unhappy with their standard of living.   

This is all sounding rather patronising and unsympathetic, which wasn’t at all my intention.  And of course I know there’s a big and real problem here.  I do just wonder, though, whether it’s quite as big and quite as real as the doom-mongers would have us believe.

How come I’m on the bench, not on the pitch, today?

An interesting and difficult pitch taking place this morning, and I’m not part of it.  There are some good reasons – mainly that it came in at very short notice and I’ve been really busy, but also it’s much more about strategy than it is about creative and my esteemed colleague Chris Bromiley, our fairly recently-appointed planning director, can certainly take the lead in that area without me hovering about.

Still, I must own up to some slightly mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I’ve always loved pitching and I’m sorry not to be part of it.  On the other hand, I can’t deny that my recent record has been distinctly Derby County-esque, and objectively it would have been hard to pick me on current form.  And on the third hand, or possibly first foot, it would be absolutely brilliant if we won it without me being involved, because it would help to convince everyone – internally and externally – that these days we have real strength in depth across the team. 

The clients are in at 10, and the pitch team are all looking a lot smilier this morning than they were yesterday afternoon.  I hope they do really really well and reduce the other pitching agencies to rubble.  And I hope they miss me just a little bit too. 

Problems with letters pacing.

There’s a restaurant just off Oxford Street with a funny name that always catches my eye:  it calls itself Eagle Bardiner.  I’ve often wondered where the name came from.  On balance, I decided some while ago, it’s most likely just the names of the two people who founded it. You can be called Eagle – there is, or was, an MP called Angela Eagle, isn’t there?  And Bardiner, well, that’s unusual, but there’s a wonderful American writer of Chandleresque deep-noir thrillers called John Franklin Bardin, and it’s a pretty small step from there to Bardiner. So that must be it.  It’s named after the two founders.

Except that of course, it isn’t.  I’ve misled you, or tried to, just as I was misled, by the letter spacing (and, in fact, by not showing the name as it actually appears, in capitals).  The restaurant is actually called EAGLE BAR DINER.   I still don’t know why “EAGLE,” but BAR DINER has nothing to do with Raymond Chandler.

I thought of this yesterday stuck behind a bus in heavy traffic.  It was a sightseeing bus, from a company that had gone to some trouble to avoid an Eagle Bardiner-style misreading.  Using bold type and italics, they’d made sure their web address read, which is of course very much more what they mean than “big bust ours” would have been.

Which reminds me of another web address that I saw wrong the first time I saw it and have never seen right since, the mortgage provider Char Colon Line.  And then there was the now-long-departed ferry company that I always knew as Seal Ink.

And then there was…well, it’s your turn.  Do you have any nominations for the dodgy letters pacing awards?

Aargh. The machines have taken over.

A few minutes to ten on a Sunday evening, and Ollie is working (allegedly revising) on his laptop, Chloe is installing programs on her new laptop, I’ve just finished installing a new printer on her desktop and now I’m sitting here at my desktop writing this. 

Admittedly Judy isn’t currently using a computer, but that’s only because she’s in rural Andalusia in a place where there isn’t always mains power, let alone broadband.

There are a lot of people out there building new financial services infrastructure at the moment, quite a lot of it designed to engage with consumers. I do hope they’ve recognised that computers are where we do stuff these days.  Otherwise – judging by my family, anyway – they’re wasting an awful lot of effort, time and money.

No, honestly, I love it, you look fabulous.

Everything’s a pitch these days.  Well, almost everything.  We do have a pretty good core of nice regular clients, many of whom we’ve worked with for many years.  But around them, there’s a large and slightly blurry hinterland of serial pitchers – clients who automatically line up three or four agencies every time they have a brief worth more than about ten grand.

From our point of view, this is terrible for business.  The cost of preparing a pitch is at least as high, and probably a good deal higher, that the initial cost of responding to a brief from a regular client:  but, unlike responding to a brief from a regular client, a) you don’t get paid for pitching and b) there’s typically a chance of only one in three or four that you’ll actually win a commercial project at all.  Do the maths.  Say that a project is worth £30,000, and on that you can make a profit of £5,000.  If you have to pitch for it, your initial presentation costs might well be £10,000.  If you lose, which you probably will, you’ve got nothing.  But even if you win, you can now earn a maximum of £20,000 – and you’re already £10,000 down.

But actually, the point of this piece isn’t to grumble about the consequences of all this pitching from our point of view – it’s to grumble about it from the clients’ point of view.  Maybe people in other agencies are cleverer, or braver, or more diplomatic than us.  But in our experience, one of the key ground-rules of successful pitching is that you have to appear totally, hugely, delightedly enthusiastic about everything the clients are proposing.  Mr Sceptic and Ms Doubtful – even if only about relatively small parts of the client’s overall plan – are not typically members of a winning pitch team.

From the clients’ point of view, it may be nice to meet with a bunch of agency people who all stroke them frantically and tell them how brilliant they are.  But I can think of two or three recent examples when in fact we had massive anxieties about particular aspects of their plans – and, amazingly enough, turned out in the event to be absolutely right.  It would have been much, much better to have the kind of relationship with the client that allowed us to have that discussion.

So if you have a pitch brief you’d like us to have a crack at, then I’d be delighted to hear from you.  Just don’t expect me to tell you what we really think of it, though.


Sorry about that, Birmingham. Not.

Did you see the entry a couple of weeks ago about the Curse of Tangible Financial?  If so you’ll be interested to know that Derby and Birmingham, both of whose shirt sponsors we’ve had one or two little issues with, have indeed been relegated, while Fulham, whose shirt sponsor is entirely blameless as far as we’re concerned, have stayed up.

The shirt sponsor of the third club to go down, Reading, is the office equipment manufacturer Kyocera, and I’d love to be able to tell you that they’re the makers of one or both of our criminally unreliable colour printers. Unfortunately, though, I’ve checked and they aren’t. 

Oh well.  It seems that the curse isn’t absolutely in full working order.  But two out of three ain’t bad.

Apparently, we’re all longing to save money all of a sudden.

Financial services, I keep hearing, are more consumer-focused than ever.  Big companies employ literally thousands of people whose jobs are to keep their collective fingers on the consumers’ collective pulse.  Vast mountains of consumer research pile up weekly, if not daily.  At last, after decades of deaf, dumb and blindness, the industry really knows what consumers want – and is determined to give it to them.

Presumably, therefore, over the last few months this mighty insight-generating effort has been coming back with a single finding:  what consumer want is opportunities to save money, at rates of interest between about 5.5 and 7%.   This must be the case, because this is what virtually every bloody financial ad in the weekend papers is offering:  savings accounts with the odd bell and the odd whistle, and interest rates of between 5.5 and 7%.

By happy coincidence, the deafening clamour from savings-hungry consumers which has sparked this explosion of savings advertising fits in quite extraordinarily well with the needs of the borrowing-and-lending industry, which has an urgent requirement for lots of retail savings to fill the holes in their Swiss-cheese-like balance sheets caused by the knock-on effects of the sub-prime fiasco.

But at a time when consumers’ needs, by common consent, are paramount, and the industry has entirely outgrown its old habit of ramming products down people’s throats to suit its own purposes, I’m sure that a spooky coincidence is all it could possibly be. 

Seems the new business bar just got higher.

No, obviously, this isn’t about a bar where you go for drinks after winning new business, although I suppose heading up to Vertigo at the top of what I still think of as the NatWest Tower isn’t a terrible idea.  This is the metaphorical high-jump bar, the one you have to clear to win a piece of new business.

Yesterdaywasn’t a good day bar-clearing wise.  First, I heard that we hadn’t made the final shortlist at all for a pitch to a very large investment funds provider;  then we made a presentation, as we thought non-competitively, to a life company who slipped into the conversation that they were in fact seeing a presentation from another agency that afternoon;  and then we were told by another organisation where we thought we had actually already started work on a rebranding project that they have in fact decided to organise a three-way pitch and could we please present in their out-of-town offices on June 20-something, which happens to be the date of our summer party.

Arguably, the first of the three is the most disappointing.  For one thing, it’s by far the biggest account.  But what’s really distressing is that for all sorts of reasons I won’t bore you with, they really ought to appoint, well, if not us, then at least one of the agencies like us which specialises in financial services:  and we’re told that their final pitch list doesn’t include a specialist agency at all.  There is a reason for this, which is that the client responsible for drawing up the shortlist has spent most of her career as an account handler in a big non-specialist agency, but knowing that she saw several specialists at the long-list stage it’s depressing that none of us was able to overcome her doubts about our sector.

The other two are simpler stories, where we have good relationships with key decision makers but either not quite good enough or not quite many enough, and other key decision-makers have put forward their own candidates to compete with us.  I can’t object to that:  pretty much all our pitch opportunities come from relationships with key decision-makers, so why shouldn’t other agencies’ too?

Still, taken as a whole, yesterday does reflect the fact that new business is getting harder and harder (= more and more expensive) to win.  And bearing in mind that most new clients now beat you down on money to the point where the account is barely profitable anyway, it can now take us literally years to earn back the pitch cost.  Which would be fine, except that as often as not what you were actually spending all that time and money pitching for was actually a six-month project.

Oh well.  Mustn’t grumble.  And certainly mustn’t show lack of gratitude to new business prospects.  There is, after all,  one thing that’s a good deal worse than having lots of pitch opportunities.

Whoah, things are turning into classics before my very eyes.

It seems like just yesterday – well, maybe the day before yesterday – that Judy and I went on a motoring holiday in France in her spiffy new Toyota MR2.  There were drawbacks – it’s not a spacious car so we could only take one toothbrush, and MR2, when pronounced “emmerdeur,” means something rude in French so children tended to giggle when the car pulled up, unless of course they were giggling at the sight of a rather solidly-built 6 foot 6 man craning himself inelegantly out of it – but we had a great time.

Today, guess what we saw proudly displayed at a classic car show?  Yes, that’s right – and it was a C reg, a year later than Judy’s B.

As chance would have it, it was the second time in a week that I found that what seemed like a recent memory had achieved classic status.  On AOL the other day I found a selection of “classic” TV commercials, courtesy of Youtube.  Some were pretty whiskery by any standards, but one was written in the next door office to me what seems like a few years ago.

Actually it must be slightly more than a few years, because I seem to have completely forgotten who wrote it.  Was it Don Bowen?  Was it Malcolm Duffy and Paul Briginshaw?  Was it Judy someone whose surname I’ve forgotten?  Anyway, it was a Bisto commercial with a jingle called “Never In A Month Of Sundays,” and although I think we all liked it at the time it never occurred to any of us that some years later it would be among a selection of 20 classic commercials on the Internet. 

There were two reasons for this.  First, obviously, we’d never heard of the Internet, which was in fact still at least ten years away from existing.  (I think, give or take a year or two, that the commercial was made two years before Judy’s MR2, in 1983.)

And second, at the time we all worked at an agency that was then called D’Arcy MacManus Masius, which was universally perceived in the industry to produce very dull advertising.  We all resented this, and tried hard to maintain the belief that we actually produced rather good advertising that was under-estimated by our peers.  But in fact, try as we might to keep our spirits up, we were demoralised by the low opinion of the said peers, and secretly believed that they were right and that we did produce very dull advertising.

So I’m appalled that Don’s, or Judy’s, or Malcolm and Paul’s, Bisto commercial is now thought old enough to be a classic:  but I’m delighted in equal measure to discover that it’s now thought good enough to be a classic.  Perhaps some of my own commercials from that period – for groceries like Ski and Princes Spreads, for beers like Lowenbrau and Skol and for ghastly Talbot Sambas, Horizons and Alpines – will soon be thought to be classics too. �