Introducing “backwards progress”

Following a bit of recent excitement, this is the first time I’ve written anything for my reborn, rehosted, redesigned blog.

Well, actually, since you ask, here’s the story.  Even though I came off the payroll of my former agency Tangible over a year ago, the blog was still hosted on the Tangible website.  Which was absolutely fine, until I recently wrote something not massively complimentary about a Tangible new business prospect, who got in touch in something of a huff and who I think we can safely say is no longer a new business project.

At this point my friends in Tangible very quickly realised that maybe hosting my blog wasn’t such a good idea.  There was a hiatus for 24 hours or so, and how I’m hosting myself, so to speak, on Which I’m sure is the best thing all round.  And sorry about that prospect.

Anyway, in setting up the New Blog, my colleagues in IT have taken the opportunity to update me to WordPress 3.2.1, and that’s where the concept of backward progress comes in.  It’s always possible, of course, that I’d simply got used to my old version and now I need to get used to the new version.  But it doesn’t seem like that to me currently.  It seems to me that the old version was simple, clear and intuitive, while the new one is complicated and bewildering.  (For example, the button that used to say “write” now says “add new post.”  That’s three words instead of one, and also much more ambiguous – is it where you post stuff you’ve already written, or is it where you write stuff before you post it?  Or, to the right of my screen as I type this, there are now three clickable links, within two inches of each other, saying “Publish” – two of them just “Publish,” and the third saying “Publish immediately.”  Are the first two not immediate?  Why do I need three links?  What’s the difference between them?  I’ll find out when I’ve finished this.)

Of course backwards progress is an extremely familiar phenomenon.  It’s often to do with saving money – one-man-operated buses, useless hand-dryers instead of towels in public loos.  (Obviously I make an exception for Dyson Airblades.)   But sometimes it’s nothing to do with saving money, and indeed can cost a great deal of money:  for the last two years I’ve used the surprisingly comfortable and welcoming lounge at the Grafton Hotel, a few yards from here, as my second office, but now it’s been refurbed as a kind of bizarre cross between an Angus Steak House and my grandmother’s front room and is completely unusable.

I suppose that if you’re a middle-aged bloke like me and you draw attention to examples of backwards progress one becomes, by definition, a Boring Old Fart who has become incapable of dealing with change.  There is still a possibility, though, that I might actually be right.

Now, let’s see what happens when I click “publish immediately.”  Oh, that’s funny, you can’t actually click on it.



Advertising history repeating itself. Again and again and again.

When I started my copywriting career in the late Middle Ages, one of the accounts in my creative group was the Nationwide Building Society – then only recently restructured and rebranded from its former existence as the Co-operative Permanent Building Society. We produced mostly black-and-white press product ads. Classic two-thirds/one third-layout, the two-thirds being a pic of a nice-looking person or couple smiling at the camera and the one-third being the copy, typically with a headline saying: “We’re getting 6.5%* on our savings – and only thirty days notice of withdrawals required.”

As my colleagues around me toiled night and day to produce this stuff, in my own mind (filled as it was with images from wonderful commercials shot in that era by Alan Parker and Ridley Scott for CDP) I found myself wondering if I had in fact got a job in a creative department, or if there’d been some ghastly mistake.

But in fact, looking back, I had: and what I was getting was valuable exposure to an early example of the ultimate financial advertising archetype – pics of the customers and copy in which they pour exaggerated praise on the products. Since then, it’s been the formula for a hundred financial advertising campaigns, and I’m sure it’ll be the formula for many hundreds more.

Very occasionally (no, make that very, very occasionally) some good stuff is produced within the formula. I yield to no-one, for example, in my admiration for my own former agency Tangible’s work for the children’s savings plan Jump, which I think is simply the best financial print advertising of the last decade.

More often, the stuff is more serviceable than excellent. The current campaign for Northern Rock, produced by my own agency group, features some very good photography and a canny strapline, but still requires the people in the pics to say “I’m paying just 4.5% on my first-time-buyer’s mortgage.”

And most often, it’s frankly pretty terrible. The Co-operative Bank is currently running an outdoor campaign announcing the rebranding of the former Britannia Building Society branches, featuring dreary customer photographs that make our Nationwide pics from 35 years ago look like Mario Testino, and insultingly lazy headlines like: “Now you’ll find The Co-operative Bank is really up your street.”

Hey ho. What goes around comes around, and around, and around, and around, I suppose. They say there are only seven different plot archetypes for Hollywood films, and if so there can’t be more than three or four campaign archetypes for financial ad campaigns. I just wish that having chosen their archetype, advertisers would try a little harder to freshen up its appearance.

How too much transparency turns into opacity

A shortish, dullish and technicalish blog, this, but I thought I’d quickly mention a point which I hadn’t considered until it came up in a meeting yesterday.

I guess pretty much everyone involved in the RDR would agree that if greater transparency is one of the consequences for individuals – in other words, if individuals can see more clearly and precisely what they’re paying for the various elements of the services they’re receiving – that’s pretty obviously a Good Thing.

(In fact, this transparification process has taken a significant step forward this very morning, with my good friends at Cofunds announcing their new “unbundled” charging structure, to be introduced next year in the run-up to RDR implementation on 1 Jan 2013.)

The point that was new to me – maybe it shouldn’t have been, but it was – is that with all sorts of organisations having different “unbundled” structures, with no consistency about what is and isn’t charged for, the overall effect is complete confusion, opacity and un-comparability.

It’s a problem that we encounter all the time in other markets. When it comes to motor insurance, for example, is a premium of £500 a year with protected no claims, a £100 excess, free windscreen replacement, courtesy car and free legal expenses better or worse value than a premium of £450 a year with unlimited free Green Cards, a £200 excess, and a first-year offer of 13 months’ cover for the price of 12? Or with mobile phones, is a 12-month contract with a free iPhone 4, 500 texts a month, free daytime calls within your own network and a flat rate of £35 per month better or worse than an 18-month contract with a Samsung Galaxy, unlimited texts, free calls to UK landlines at weekends, half-price insurance and call charges from 1p a minute?

The point about the preceding mumbo-jumbo is that it’s simultaneously a) completely transparent and b) completely opaque. At the opposite end of the spectrum, imagine a completely flat-rate, “one-number” tariff, which says for example that your phone will cost you £50 a month no matter how many calls you make or texts you send, no matter when and no matter to whom. A tariff like that is completely opaque – you have no idea how the £50 figure is made up. But when it comes to comparability, it’s completely transparent – it’s not hard to see that it’s cheaper than a £55-a-month tariff, and more expensive than a £45-a month one.

Funny, isn’t it. Everyone agree that transparency is one of the biggest, most valuable and most important new customer benefits that’s going to be available in the brave new financial world that we’re busily spending billions on building. But you can make a more-than-respectable case that actually, it’s a move in completely the wrong direction.

No, no, idiot, that’s the other meaning of the word “investment”

As my regular reader well knows, this blog often returns to the subject of the use of language in financial services, or more often its misuse.

I’ve been aware of one of the biggest and baddest examples since my earliest days in the financial world back in the mid-80s – “investment” as in “investment banking,” as opposed to “investment” in “investment management.”

When I first started doing this, I couldn’t get my head around “investment banking” at all. I was writing campaigns for long-since-disappeared investment banks like County NatWest and BZW without really having the faintest idea what they did, or how what they did fitted together, or how they made their money, or – in particular – why they were called “investment banks.” As I recall they usually consisted of three main business units – Corporate Advisory, which did pretty much what it said on the tin, Securities, which was institutional share dealing, and some sort of debt business which issued bonds for corporates. What they didn’t consist of was investment management, which was explicitly and emphatically separate and screened off behind a “Chinese Wall.”

You might say this linguistic confusion didn’t really matter much if all it did was confuse newbie copywriters, but recently it’s resurfaced in a much more challenging way – with this week’s reports of the Vickers commission’s plan to semi-separate and ring-fence UK retail banks’ “investment banking” activities.

Media reports have been generally approving of this, saying it’ll be a good thing if decent, ordinary retail customers are no longer vulnerable to the gigantic, roller-coaster-like profits and losses that can be made in the mad, casino-like world of investment banking, where billions are routinely lost and made on the roll of a dice.

All very well as far as retail banking is concerned. But what does the confusion around the word “investment” mean in this context, for consumers who are depending on financial institutions to look after their pensions and other long-term savings sensibly and responsibly over the long, worrying years till they get access to their money? It tells them that their precious life-savings are in the grasp of coke-riddled, wide-eyed, sweaty-palmed dice-rollers, risking their clients’ whole financial futures in a giant pin-striped lottery, that’s what it tells them.

This is disastrous for the investment management industry. If they had any sense, they’d pay the investment bankers billions of pounds to start using another word – any word, really, other than “investment.” But the funny thing is that as with so many of these language things, people in the industry no longer realise the risk that they’ll cause confusion – and so massive reputational damage is done to their industry, without anyone even noticing.

Can someone please suggest something I ought to be nice about?

Plenty of things to be nice about in the big wide world, from the astonishing performance of Kevin Spacey as Richard III, which I saw last night, to the deliciousness of the seafood risotto at the always-excellent Olivomare in Lower Belgrave St, which I consumed a few days ago.

But in the world of financial services marketing, not so many. I worry periodically – quite often, actually – that unless I find things to enthuse about from time to time, all that this blog does is to reinforce my brand identity as a grumpy old bastard. This is not the brand I’m seeking to build: on the contrary, so far from Old Bastarduousness, the desired personality attribute is in fact defined as Boyish Enthusiasm. But I do appreciate that it’s not easy to create that perception if all I ever do is slag things off.

Hence this 100% genuine call for assistance. If you can think of anything in the world of financial services marketing worthy of an outpouring of Boyish Enthusiasm, please let me know as soon as. Otherwise I’ll just have to stay off-brand – there’s no shortage of things I hate.

Ah yes, I’ve just remembered when all this happened before

At a conference this morning, inevitably about RDR (are there any conferences on any other topic these days?).

There were two IFA speakers on the agenda, one explaining why he’s chosen to remain independent post-RDR and the other why he’s decided to be restricted.

The independent one had an enjoyable if slightly baffling slide presentation, containing very few words, no numbers and images of a bunch of old masters (Leonardo, Botticelli, Titian etc.) He was a likeable if slightly disorganised bloke, a few pounds overweight and his hair a bit too long, explaining that basically he does what he does for the love of it.

The one who’s going to be restricted wore a grey suit. He had steely-grey hair and frameless glasses. His presentation contained no Old Masters, but it was laden with a vast number of, well, numbers – most of them amounts of money, and all adding up to demonstrate the far greater financial rewards of restricted status. It was a professional presentation, even a convincing one – but, you have to say, a kind of joyless one.

As I thought about this highly-contrasting pair afterwards, I knew they were reminding me of something. Long-haired and jolly versus short-haired and a bit grim….emotion versus reason….art versus science….

It’s the Civil War, isn’t it? Cavaliers versus Roundheads. Royalists versus Republicans. A romantic but deeply off-the-pace old guard against the Modern Men. That’s what it was all reminding me of.

Everyone knows the expression “History always repeats itself,” but I don’t suppose many people have clocked the fact that the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century is replaying itself in the world of financial advice early in the 21st.

I wonder if the outcome will be the same. I must say, I rather think it will. But, I suspect, without an equivalent to the restoration of the monarchy which took place in 1660. Or, I sincerely hope, an equivalent to the execution of Charles 1 thirteen years earlier.

They Kames, they saw, they conquered. Or did they?

There are two interesting questions about the recent rebranding of what used to be AEGON Asset Management and is now Kames Capital.

The first is how long it has been since the last asset management arm of a life insurer managed to get the green light to a plan to sweep away the hated parent name with a rebranding. For a time back in the 80s and 90s this was all the go – Norwich Union’s investment business rebranded as Morley, RSA’s as ISIS, Zurich’s as Threadneedle. But the tide has been flowing in the opposite direction for some time now, ever since Standard Life Investments pulled back from the brink and finished up not rebranding as George St Investments as they planned to do, and the Kames kapital kids seem to have scored somewhat against the run of play.

The reality is, of course, that the passionate desire of life-company-owned asset management businesses to do business under their own, independent brand reflects nothing more than ego on the part of the asset managers. If you take a bunch of firms which do share a parent name (say Skandia, Standard Life and Aviva) and a bunch which don’t (say Threadneeedle, M&G and Ignis) I don’t think you’ll find any evidence that in the real world, the naming approach makes any difference one way or the other. But I suppose at least getting their own way means that the fund managers will stop wasting thousands of very expensive man-hours agitating on the subject, which may be a good enough reason.

The second question is a rather different one: did Kames put their advertising business out to pitch before running their relaunch campaign? If so, I must say, it will definitely be one of the occasions when the losing agencies seeing the advertising that’s now appearing simply can’t believe that the clients could possibly have chosen it in preference to their own ideas.

I can’t find a copy of the ad to link to, but I can describe it easily enough: it’s a moody-looking City of London skyline, with a headline that says: “We’ve made a name for ourselves.” There are a few square inches of generic life-based investment copy, which basically says they’re pretty good at everything except equities, and then there’s a Kames Capital logo. (And one other thing – in small but not invisible type, there’s also the hated form of words “an AEGON Asset Management Company,” which, internally at least, must take a fair bit of gilt off the Kamesian gingerbread.)

This is a really useless ad, quite seriously the sort of thing that you can easily imagine Microsoft Clip-Ads doing in a year or two: just key in “asset management,” “rebranding” and the company’s name and address and this is exactly what you’ll get. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to imagine anything less inspiring.

In short, it’s an ad that accidentally gives the game away: it says that Kames Capital, for all its new name, is made up of the same old bunch of deeply timid, ordinary, risk-averse, creativity-free mediocrity-seekers.

Which, I suppose, shouldn’t come as a big surprise. After all, even in their new disguise, they’re still the asset management arm of a life company.