Very worrying: apparently we’re the “wrong kind of specialist.”

These are tough times for generalists.  Whatever you want doing – a BMW serviced, a hernia fixed, a party planned, a suit made, an ad written – your first thought is that you’ll need someone who specialises in that sort of thing.

And, truth to tell, the evidence says you’re right.  Cars with specialist dealer service records are worth more than those without. The success rate of specialist surgeons is higher than the generalist species.  And you don’t even want to think about what can happen when someone more used to children’s birthday parties and ruby weddings takes on the task of organising your stag night.  Or vice versa.

Specialists rule.  But that’s not the end of the story.  The question now is, what kind of specialist?  Say that your child breaks an arm.  Do you want a specialist in children, or in arms, or in broken bones?  Or maybe in the subtle art of reassuring anxious parents?  Or maybe more than one of the above?

Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this.   Our competitors are “specialist” agencies.  The huge majority don’t specialise in working for a particular kind of client, but they do “specialise” in a particular kind of marketing or communications technique – brand development, direct marketing, TV advertising, digital communications.   We, on the other hand, do all of these things, but we are still “specialists” of a different kind:  like a handful of others, we work only for clients in financial services.

You can see the way the landscape looks through clients’ eyes.  When they want, say, a TV advertising campaign, 99 agencies out of 100 (well, maybe 98) encourage them to choose an agency that specialises in TV advertising.  We, and one or two others, encourage them to choose an agency that specialises in financial services.  Unsurprisingly, most clients go with the majority view.

As a result, these days, few if any major TV accounts are still held by specialist (financial) agencies. Among the last few to shift across into the specialist (TV advertising) agencies were The Gate’s Scottish Widows, and our MORE TH>N.  It looks as if the war is over.  We’re the wrong kind of specialist.  We lost.

Except.  Look at the evidence another way, and you’ll find that Scottish Widows and MORE TH>N are among the very most successful financial TV advertising case histories of recent years, while many of the most mind-blowingly useless financial campaigns come from some of the most admired mainstream ad agencies (with BBH’s current Barclays “Now There’s A Thought” campaign close to the top of the list). 

It’s frustrating.  The truth is, most of us know how to do TV advertising – it’s doing it in the abstract, intangible, heavily-regulated, low-consumer-interest category of financial services that’s hard.

Oh well.  When new people arrived at MORE TH>N and decided they wanted to move the account to the other kind of specialist, they appointed what was then and still is by far London’s most highly-regarded (and indeed probably best) “specialist” TV advertising agency, Fallon (Sony Bravia, Skoda, Cadbury’s gorilla).  So even if we are the wrong kind of specialist, there’s some satisfaction to be gained from the thought that our MORE TH>N work (with Lucky the dog) was about 10,000 times better than the stuff they’re doing now.

One of my better investment decisions. (But sadly unlikely to be my best.)

Three weeks or so ago, I put some money on the Spanish to win Euro 2008.  Following last night’s hugely-impressive demolition of Russia, they’re through to the final.  Fourteen teams have fallen aside:  I’m very pleased with myself for selecting one of the two remaining.

Trouble is, of course, that the other team remaining is Germany.  With the result that – in complete ignorance, and entirely by accident – I’ve broken the number one rule of gambling on football:  never, ever, ever bet against the Germans.

Oh well.  We’ll see.  They don’t always win finals, do they? 

Nice brand, shame about the business?

Pitching to a client planning the launch of a new sub-branded business a couple of days ago, I made the uncontroversial point that in people businesses, brands are built from within.  By way of example, I spoke approvingly about my initial experiences of the people setting up the Egg brand, back in its early days.  When you sat in the main Prudential reception at Holborn Bars, I said, you could easily recognise the Egg people by the spring in their step and the evangelical gleam in their eyes.

At this point the senior client interrupted.  “What you seem not to realise,” he said rather fiercely, “is that Egg was a complete disaster of a business.” 

OK, in hindsight, presenting to a senior client who wasn’t a marketeer, choosing an unsuccessful business as my example wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done.  But to anyone who is a marketeer, or who has any affinity with marketing, my enthusiasm for the Egg brand isn’t at all problematic despite the business’s failure.

The business failed for all sorts of reasons at all sorts of levels.  Most obviously, it failed because it wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on a disastrous attempted expansion into France.  It failed because its cross-selling strategy – recruiting large numbers of customers with loss-leading savings and credit products, and then aiming to cross-sell other more profitable services – never really worked.  And it failed because there was never a clear and consistent vision of what it was actually trying to be as a product and service provider.  Was it a bank?  A credit card company?  An aggregation service? Or something else altogether?

For all these reasons – and, no doubt, quite a few others too – those responsible for developing the brand will, no doubt, firmly believe that their hands remained spotlessly clean.  The same, I’m sure, is true of others responsible for developing distinctive and appealing young brands for other not-very-successful businesses – Smile, First Direct, Barclays’ long-disappeared b2, Intelligent Finance, Goldfish.

On behalf of my client Beelzebub, though, I do wonder if our hands are quite as clean as we think they are.  All of us involved in brand development preach the gospel that there’s far, far more to a brand than a name, a visual identity and even an internal culture.  Brand, we say, is an overarching concept that should shape every aspect of the business – the way it deals with its customers, the kinds of products and services it offers, how it chooses to expand and develop, how it defines success.

On this basis, all of those failures of Egg – and, I suspect, the other businesses I mentioned – could be said to be failures of brand.    What the hell was it doing trying to expand into France in the first place, especially when the UK customer base was so underdeveloped?  How do you come to adopt a multi-product cross-selling strategy when, at launch, you only have one product?  Most fundamentally, what was Egg?  (Straplines sometimes give a clue:  at launch, Egg’s was “Individual Money Matters,” but a) this didn’t help much, and b) it didn’t last long.)

I think I have a slight cake-and-eat-it feeling about us brand types at the moment.  We want to sit at the top table and play a leading role in big strategic business decisions.  But when those decisions go wrong, we want to wash our hands of them and hide behind the claim that “our bit” – the values, the culture, the identity, the pretty pictures – all worked perfectly.

Hmm.  Maybe that top man’s interruption at Tuesday’s pitch wasn’t so ill-founded after all.

Let’s not be too sensible about this naming business.

Pitched for a brand development account this morning.  Clients very interested to hear about our approach to brand naming.  To be honest – I more or less said this in the presentation – my approach is extremely anxious and circumspect.  Naming is really, really hard.  It’s the one bit of the brand development process I sometimes wish we could say we didn’t do.  (Although having said that, I must also loyally defend my agency by adding that even though it’s often painful, we’re usually pretty good at it.)

I’m not sure why, but being a generous-minded chap I’ll pass on the one worthwhile thing I’ve learned from a hundred naming briefs:  a funny-sounding name that you can do something with is miles better than a sensible-sounding name you can’t do anything with.

The textbook demonstration of this is Orange, which was about to be launched as Microtel when Hans Snoek decided to go with the sillier option:  subsequent events proved him so obviously and indisputably right that it’s hard to imagine how brave his decision seemed at the time. 

My own personal lightbulb moment was similar.  A few years ago we were launching an integrated all-in-one insurance provider (don’t ask, it bombed) and had worked our way down to a final shortlist of two names, OneSurance and Bluesure.  I was all for OneSurance – very relevant, very sensible, all-in-one insurance, geddit?  So were the consumers in the focus groups.  But what they didn’t understand, and neither did I, is that Bluesure was miles easier to build out from.  Add a visual idea – hurling pots of blue paint over things – and a strapline, “Everything covered in one policy,” and suddenly you have all the basic raw materials you need for a tight, cohesive, inextricably-branded approach to the whole range of marketing communications.

That’s it, really.  A plea for sillier (but more usable) names.  From someone called Lucian Camp.  Who, I might add, isn’t.

Not that I’m saying this is too clever for you or anything.

It’s come to my attention that this blog is being read by a number of people who have no connection at all with the world of financial services marketing and advertising.  (The “number” in question is in fact two.)

I’m delighted that you’re reading these abstruse ramblings, and you’re very welcome indeed to carry on doing so.  But I thought perhaps I should mention that these days I am also writing a weekly column in an online personal finance magazine which is in fact specifically intended for ordinary consumers like you.  No, sorry, that didn’t come out right.  Of course you’re not “ordinary.”  No, neither of you. And no, I don’t just think of you as “consumers.”  I agree.  It’s a horrid word.  Not what I meant at all.  What I meant to say was “specifically intended for intelligent and discerning individuals with far more important concerns than these narrow and industry-focused ramblings.”  What?  Too patronising?  Obviously insincere?  OK, I give up.  That’s more than enough trying to explain.  Here’s the link:

Brilliant first lines. (Miles better than this one.)

I think that literally everyone I know has heard me sing the praises of “the best direct marketing letter I’ve ever received” (the one from the small employee benefits consultancy specialising in the agency world whose letter to me began:  “Dear Mr Camp, Have You Ever Wondered How Much Other Creative Directors Earn”).

If you can’t see why that’s an absolutely perfect first line, then, well, please don’t bother asking me for a job as a planner or as a copywriter.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever read another first line as good as that, and other pretty decent examples tend to pale into insignificance beside it.  But still, I received my home insurance renewal pack from MORE TH>N yesterday, and – considering that this is the moment of greatest threat to their customer relationships, when something like a third of us are likely to be so shocked by the renewal quote that we go rushing off to – I thought that “Dear Mr Camp, Welcome To Another Year Of Home Insurance With MORE TH>N” wasn’t a bad effort at damping down people’s smouldering disloyalty.

Mind you, speaking for myself, I’m still seething with injustice at the way they fired us a couple of years ago and replaced our excellent Lucky The Dog advertising with a series of useless and boring campaigns so lacking in any kind of distinctiveness that I honestly can’t think of a shorthand phrase to use to remind you of them.  Despite their well-crafted first line, I think I might go and spend a few minutes on – for purely personal reasons.

The last big empty market?

I remember writing a piece ages ago mourning the death of the mass market brand development opportunity.  “All that’s left now are niche markets,” I said.  The days when you could find enough uncrowded space to build a Nescafe, or a Persil, or a Ford Focus, or a Carling, or a Head’n’Shoulders, have gone.  It’s all about Fairtrade coffee, or Bulgarian lager, or washing powder designed for a particular kind of fabric, or for washing at exceptionally low temperatures.

I did have the sense to recognise that things were different in new markets.  I was writing, as I recall, in the early days of mobile phones, and I think I acknowledged that Vodafone and Orange might catch on, although I wouldn’t be surprised if I said that the obvious long-term mass-market winner would be Cellnet.   Fifteen or twenty years later, there are plenty of other examples – many in markets driven by new technology (iPod, eBay, Amazon) and quite a few in categories created through other kinds of innovation (easyJet, Magners, Innocent).

But still, there was one big exception that I missed – one very big, long-established, mainstream consumer sector where, for many years, no-one, or almost no-one, has been interested in addressing the mass market.

I’m talking, of course, about financial advice.  Only a tiny minority of IFAs are remotely interested in people on, say, average earnings;  there are literally only a couple of mass-market-focused tied sales forces still in business;  and although people have been saying for years that the high street banks and building societies represent the obvious route into the mass consumer market, the only thing that’s obvious today is that most of them are still only ready, and/or willing, and/or able, to play a half-hearted and largely ineffectual role in this area.

There is, of course – or at least there has been – a good reason why this near-void has existed:  regulation.  Largely by controlling the prices that firms are able to charge to serve this market, the FSA has made traditional approaches based on face-to-face communication hopelessly unprofitable. 

This can’t go on.  In a world where – as I’ve argued on many recent occasions – mass-market consumers bear a heavier responsibility for their long-term financial wellbeing than they have for a hundred years or so, it’s absurd and unacceptable that so few organisations have any interest at all in helping them meet these responsibilities.  Things are slowly changing.  The Internet can deal with some of the cost issues.  The regulator is beginning to realise that the current regime is counterproductive.  The Thoresen Review’s Money Guidance service looks interesting.  One way or another, the pieces that could make up a solution are starting to come into alignment.  But for the time being, the last big empty market is still an extraordinary anomaly in our overcrowded world. 

Told you it was a bad idea. At least, I think I did.

With this week’s troubles at Bradford & Bingley following on a few months behind the rather more serious damage done to Northern Rock – and with Alliance & Leicester widely claimed to be an accident waiting to happen – the enthusiasm in recent years for demutualisation among mid-sized building societies is looking more and more misplaced.

I think I said at the time that knowing what you don’t want to be – a building society – isn’t a strategy until you also know what you do want to be.  Too small and weak to compete head-on with the big boys of the High Street, these mid-tier organisations were driven more or less inescapably into roles as the retail financial market’s bottom-feeders, specialising in the deals that their bigger and stronger rivals didn’t want.  That may have looked like a reasonably cunning plan during the nice decade – especially in a situation where they weren’t exactly over-run with alternatives.  But as we move into th nasty decade, it becomes clear why others chose not to specialise in bad risks:  even without specialising, some bigger players have found they have more than enough rubbish on their books for comfort.

You can’t help feeling sorry for the customers of the floundering mid-tier, not least because one of them is my father in law who has all his cash savings in B&B.  But as a strong believer in the principle and practice of mutuality, and as an agency man who’s proud to include Nationwide among our biggest clients, I can’t feel too sorry for the greedy and blinkered managements responsible for leading their organisations into no-man’s-land.

Copywriter spotted on suicide mission.

Look, the only way I can write this piece is to come clean: this is the year of my Selected Retirement Date.  This doesn’t, of course, mean that I’m going to retire this year.  It means that a long, long time ago, when I was young and full of hope and optimism, I thought I should be able to retire at the age of 55, which is what I’ll be in October.  In fact, 85 will probably be closer to it.

But that’s not important.  What’s important about this piece is that in my increasingly-implausible role as wannabe-early retiree, my pension provider sent me a pack at the weekend which included a booklet from the Financial Services Authority with the short and snappy title “No selling.  No jargon.  Just the facts about your pension – it’s time to choose.”

I could spend many happy hours ridiculing this pathetic document, but – not least because I suspect it would be much more fun for me to write than for you to read – I won’t.  I’ll just confine myself to a single point:  that one of the key messages in that front-cover title comes under some question, to say the least, in the first page of the main text when we find a section with the heading “Commutation”, a word of jargon so abstruse that even after 19 years in financial services copywriting I don’t know what it means.

The document is, looks and sounds incredibly boring, unengaging and complicated.  It’s everything you’d fear from a brochure about pensions written by civil servants.  I could write it about 8,000 times better, standing on my head in a bath full of custard.

But that’s the problem.  Because actually, 8,000 times better wouldn’t be enough.  To make it really interesting and engaging to people, it would need to be 80,000 times better.  And the point is, the subject matter is inherently so difficult and complicated that you simply can’t write it 80,000 times better.

Nothing about the current approach to the issue of planning pension options at retirement was designed with consumers in mind.  All the major players in the market – providers, distributors, government, regulator – have huge vested interests in keeping things as complicated and incomprehensible as possible.  Only a tiny fraction of IFAs can really get their heads round the range of retirement income options, let alone consumers.

As a result, a bright, breezy, universally-accessible 22-page A5 guide to the subject is about as easy to write as a six-page gatefold on the philosophy of Kierkegaard, or a one-page introduction to abstract impressionism, or a Haynes Guide for a nuclear submarine.

One of our worst habits as communicators and marketers is taking on suicide missions – desperate attempts to get across the un-get-acrossable.  In a suicide mission, you’re bound to get killed.  The task you’ve taken on is impossible.  If the FSA, and above it the Treasury, really really want to enable ordinary people to take on the responsibility of managing their own financial affairs, then the most helpful action we copywriters could take would be to go out on indefinite strike – and stay out until the authorities were willing to simplify the industry’s workings to the point where we had a communicable story to tell.