Would someone please do something interesting?

When I’m stuck for a subject for this blog, I can always bang on about a current ad campaign.  Well, almost always.  Maybe I’m overlooking or underestimating something, but I really can’t think of anything of any interest at all in financial advertising at the moment.  And even in the bigger wider world of non-financial advertising, pretty much the only thing anyone is talking about is the return of Lego’s 1981-vintage “kipper” film. 

I do have one marginally-interesting thing  to share with you about this film, which is that although everyone says it has a voice-over by the late, great comedian Tommy Cooper, as I recall there was a bit of a fuss at the time because for some reason Tommy either couldn’t or wouldn’t do it, but on receipt of a large fee said to be not unadjacent to £10,000 was willing to be imitated by an impressionist.  So actually it isn’t a Tommy Cooper voice-over after all.  OK, OK, I did say “marginally interesting.”

I suppose this rebroadcasting of a classic commercial may start a trend, and next we may see the return of R White’s “secret lemonade drinker,” which will allow me to point out that the eponymous drinker was in fact Elvis Costello’s dad.   And then perhaps some of the 1970s Birds Eye fish fingers films featuring those two slightly irritating Northern kids called Ben and something, which will allow me to tell you that these marked the directorial debut of Alan Parker.  But none of this would really be very interesting, and would serve largely to remind you (and indeed me) how old I am. 

So please, will someone do something really interesting?  And ideally, do it nice and soon?

Phew, that’s my existence justified for another day.

We’re working on an interesting pitch at the moment, and having hovered around on the sidelines for a while watching my colleagues come up with ideas I don’t like much, today I decided to pile in myself and write some stuff.  And thanks be to God, I’ve come up with a couple of things I quite like.

These days, I probably only write on pitches or client work two or three times a week, and even then most of it is difficult or tiresome small stuff which I take on to leave the rest of the chaps free for more interesting things.  But at the back of my mind – well, not so far from the front of it actually – I’ll always have a feeling that writing is proper work, and everything else is a bit of a distraction.

At one level I know this isn’t true, and that even today having a cup of tea with a new business prospect this afternoon was probably more useful than coming up with the ideas for the pitch.   But at another level I’m going home now feeling quite pleased that I’ve earned my salary and justified my existence for at least part of the day today.  And it wasn’t the tea-drinking part.

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me opportunities.”

Tending to believe, as I do, that a problem is a problem and an opportunity is an opportunity, I like the story of the boss who was always delivering this particular cliche to his underlings, until an underling told him one day that he feared the firm was facing a number of insurmountable opportunities.  

Still, there’s nothing like a trip to the US to shake up the preconceptions and prejudices of cynical old Brits like me.  I’m just back from a couple of weeks in California, which means I’ve been getting a timely update on the state of American TV advertising.  Hardly a commercal break goes by without a representative of what was to me a completely new category – salesy and excitable commercials inviting us to come and make big and quick money at huge public auctions of repossessed homes.

The post-credit-crunch rate of repossession in the US housing market is undoubtedly a problem. But for the organisations behind these auctions (check out www.ushomeauctions.com as an example), their ad agencies, the TV stations and hopefully at least some of those attending, I guess I have to admit that it is indeed an opportunity too.

Sorry, it’s another very downbeat analogy.

Last time I came up with an analogy for the death and destruction in today’s financial markets, it involved wildebeest and hyenas. I thought it was pretty good, although if I wanted to update it now I’d add an extra paragraph about the way that the wildebeest (banks) are now protected from the hyenas (short-term investors) by a defensive screen of elephants (governments).

Today, a different analogy for the global economic crisis as a whole comes to mind:  Japan Airlines Flight 123, and specifically Japan Airlines Flight 123 on 12th August 1985.  You remember:  this was the packed Jumbo, with over 500 people on board, that lost its vertical stabiliser (tailfin to you and me) shortly after take-off from Tokyo.  With no means at all of controlling the plane except by accelerating and decelerating its engines, the crew kept the plane staggering chaotically around the sky over Japan for the best part of an hour, without ever having anything like enough control to get anywhere close to a safe landing.  Eventually, unable to turn away from a particularly mountainous part of the landscape, it smashed into the ground with the loss of all but four lives.

Well, I told you it was gloomy.  I’m not quite sure what exactly counts as the loss-of-the-tail-fin moment (probably the collapse of Lehman Brothers), but it seems clear that the Jumbo Jet which is the global economy hasn’t been responding anything like normally to the controls ever since.  There are brief moments when it seems that we may be past the worst, followed by sickening lurches when we suddenly find ourselves heading rapidly towards the scenery again.

Quite apart from increasingly assertive forecasts of the deepest recession for a hundred years or more, I’m still reading deeply scary pieces in the papers saying that no major bank, or indeed financial institution, anywhere in the world is yet safe from the risk of complete collapse.   Of course I’d much rather be reading about all this from the comfort and safety of my home or office than sitting terrified and waiting for the end on board JAL123.  But the similarities are striking, all the same.

FMCG brands, what are they good for?

As Edwin Starr said, absolutely nothin – or next to nothin, anyway, as far as figuring out how to build financial services brands is concerned.

I spoke at a conference last week about the way that ideas about brands and how to build them have changed over the years.  It was one of those speeches where I hope what I said was surprising and thought provoking for the delegates, but it was definitely surprising and thought provoking for me.

If I think back to my early days in advertising working on textbook FMCG brands – notably Mars confectionery products – some of the most important things we all believed unquestioningly were that:

-  Building brands is a very long-term business.  They take 30 years or more to establish.

-  You do it mostly with advertising.

-  The advertising should be focused on a clear and unique proposition, expressed in a memorable strapline.

-  Strong brands are better able to survive scandals, disasters and setbacks.

-  Brands are managed and controlled by brand managers.

-  Brands are very malleable things, which can be rethought and reworked at any time.

-  Strong brands are much more trusted than weak brands.

-  The best brand-builders work in FMCG.

None of these ideas really stands up any more.  Building brands isn’t a long-term business:  the likes of Google, Facebook and You Tube needed more like 30 months than 30 years.  Advertising often has little or nothing to do with it:  ever seen an Amazon ad? Brands need a clear purpose, but the whole business of unique propositions sounds almost comical these days: what brands need is not a USP but an EAP, an Extremely Attractive Personality.  After Arthur Andersen, we stopped believing that strong brands can survive scandals, but just in case anyone was still dubious a whole bunch of financial brands from Icesave to Lehman Brothers have just re-emphasised the point.  More and more brands are managed and controlled by their customers more than by brand managers, especially on the Internet:  it’s really interesting to see, for example, how studiously bland and characterless the Facebook visual identity is, presumably on the grounds that the brand is all about what the users bring to it, not what it is in itself.   Whereas FMCG brands are indeed pretty malleable and redefinable, service-sector brands clearly aren’t:  I’ve been arguing for some time now that it’s demonstrably daft to keep on believing you can conjure up a new, clear and different sense of what, say, Barclays stands for, when the truth is that it doesn’t stand for anything at all.  In financial services, if “strongest” means best-known, then generally the strongest brands are the least trusted.  And finally, we’ve gradually come to appreciate that since brand-building in big, complicated service businesses is to brand-building in packaged groceries as chess is to noughts and crosses, even though we’re far from perfect at it we’re about a hundred times better than people dealing with nice simple passive malleable groceries.

So what I’m saying, in short, in that last far-from-short paragraph is that actually none of those pieces of received wisdom from the world of FMCG branding 30 years ago stands up today in financial services.  And I reckon that’s about 25% because things have changed over the years, and 75% because when you come to think about it service brands and FMCG brands are and always have been incredibly different species.

All of which, I hope, goes to explain why I get so incredibly cross when people say – as they still surprisingly often do – “Financial branding?  Just like baked beans, innit.”  No, actually.  It really isn’t.

It’s the morning after, and I’m still annoyed.

They say that one reason why London’s public transport and the National Health Service aren’t better is that senior politicians travel around town in Jags and go private. 

I’ve never really believed this.  Even without first-hand experience, how hard can it be for politicians to imagine the way things are for people who do depend on these services?  They don’t even need to imagine:  they just need to meet someone like my auntie Anna, who is old, has cancer, doesn’t drive and lives 15 miles and four bus journeys away from the hospital where she has to go for her twice-weekly treatment.

Last night, though, I decided that maybe I’m wrong about this.  It’s one of my sitting-next-to-someone-at-an-industry-dinner stories, and this time we were talking about the standard of living that ordinary people can expect in retirement. “It’s very simple,” the other chap said, “these people just need to be told that they’re going to have to work for a lot longer than they thought.  Certainly 70, maybe 75, maybe even later:  otherwise they’re going to be very poor indeed.”

I fear he may be right.  But that’s not what I’m cross about.  I’m cross about the utter failure to imagine what that means for people.  You’ve spent the best part of 50 years as a truck driver or a factory worker or a hospital cleaner;  although you’re in good health you’re tired, it’s getting harder and harder to get up in the morning, and you’re not as strong as you were.  Now you find that you have to keep going for ten years or more longer than you thought.  And, very likely, ten years or more not doing the job that you’ve mastered and that gives you your sense of self-worth:  it’s unlikely that you’ll be strong or fit enough to be taking 44-tonners up and down the motorways to the age of 75 and beyond, so what you’ll need to do is see if you can get a job sweeping out the yard. 

It’s all right for the Bloke Sitting Next To Me.  Delaying his retirement probably means moving it back from 50 to 60, and for the duration of those extra working years he can very likely hang around on the senior executives’ floor;  if not, he can set up on his own and take on some agreeable consultancy projects from the Neville Johnson office newly built in the room above the garage with the Merc in it.   

It’s not easy for workers on the line in Japanese-owned car plants, or hard-hat construction workers with a lifetime’s experience of scaffolding and aggregate, to secure agreeable consultancy projects.  And it’s not easy to keep yourself going in a job like that till you’re 70, 75 or even more.  It may be the best prospect we can currently offer to people.  But if that’s the reality of the world we’ve spent our careers building, we might at least have the decency to show a bit of regret about it.  

“Ah, Mr Blond, or Mr Band, or Ms Dond, I’ve been expecting you.”

When the only information that a direct marketing company has about you is your name and address, then putting a message on the mailpack’s outer envelope that there’s a bunch of free name and address stickers inside is quite a smart way of getting you to open it.

Provided, of course, that the mailing house gets the name and address fields right.  The labels in the pack from a leukaemia charity that I received yesterday will come in very useful if I ever decide I’d like to start calling myself Mr L Clamp.

I’m starting to wonder if the media may not be entirely trustworthy.

Actually, rather more than “starting,” but it’s a better headline.

You know the way that when TV or the newspapers cover anything that you really know about, you find yourself shouting at the screen or the article that the’ve got it all wrong and it isn’t really like that at all?  There’s a particularly extreme example of this in the press coverage of football matches which you’ve actually been to, where it’s almost always the case a) that somehow all journalists on all papers all have exactly the same view of what happened in the match, and b) that their collective storyline is very different from your own.

Without wanting to bore non-football-fans (or football-non-fans?) too much, I was at the Spurs/Liverpool game on Saturday.  The media version of events is that we (Spurs, of course) were a goal down at half time, but the manager made a couple of shrewd substitutions at the start of the second half and we were able to fight back and win with two goals, the second in the last minute.

In fact what happened was that the half-time changes were absolutely disastrous.  We lost our shape so completely that no-one will ever understand how Liverpool failed to score a second goal in the first twenty minutes of the half.  Our defence was such a shambles that all around me all I could see was fans covering their eyes with their hands, not wanting to see the second goal when it went in.  Then, somehow, we managed to hold the ball for six or seven seconds and win a corner, and astoundingly their centre back Jamie Carragher scored an own goal, and after that some semblance of equilibrium was regained until we scored a lucky winner at the death.

But none of the papers saw it that way – all they saw was a lucky win with a couple of substitutions doing just enough to make the difference.

Of course this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  But it is a little disconcerting to find that even when reports of an event are completely clear and consistent across half a dozen newspapers, they can still be largely or wholly misleading.