Yes, OK, fair cop, you were right to reject me.

I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that I found myself in the unusual position of having to  pitch for something.  I heard today that didn’t get it.  The project was all about running “message development” workshops, and in a thoughtful and courteous rejection email the client explained that she and her colleagues had gone for an agency with an impressively structured and disciplined approach to the task.

If they wanted structured and disciplined, they were right not to choose me.  In fact, despite (or because of) my creative background, I do actually believe that creativity requires some structure and discipline.  (I always think ofTruman Capote, solemnly sitting down to write at 8.30am every morning regardless of whether he had anything at all that he wanted to write on his mind, and regardless of the severity of his hangover; and refusing to get up from his desk until 12 no matter whether he’d written five thousand words or nothing but the heading “Chapter One.”)  But still, I’m more interested in the creative output than the disciplined process, and for that reason alone the clients were right to go elsewhere

But they were right for a more fundamental reason too, although I don’t suppose they know it.  Deep down,I don’t really get all this messaging and proposition thing that’s got so big these days.  On the client side, half the people I know seem to spend half their time in messaging and proposition workshops – and I haven’t really got the faintest idea what they’re spending all that time doing.

The way I see it, the products and services I buy and use are of two kinds as far as propositions are concerned. The first kind is the bleedin obvious.  I’ve just used one of those Vacuvin wine bottle suction pumps that stops the wine in a half-empty bottle from oxidising.  I really don’t think we need too long in a workshop to figure that the proposition attaching to these useful items is that they allow you to drink half a bottle of wine and come back for the rest another time without it having gone off.

The other kind is the well-it’s-hard-to-put-it-into-words-exactly-but-I-just-want-one-that’s-all variety.  At the moment I’m craving an Aston Martin DBS rather badly.  What’s the proposition?  Hard to put it into words exactly.  It’s just a gorgeous,brutal, ridiculously fast two tons of metal, leather and walnut cappings with Aston Martin logos front and rear. You can spend as long as you like in your workshops, but you won’t come up with a better way of making people want it than showing them a picture.  Or even better, a video.

Very, very, very rarely, someone trying to sell you something comes up with a mind-changing proposition.  This is so rare that the best example I can think of comes from nearly 30 years ago, when Ken Livingstone was trying to defend the Greater London Council against the Thatcher government’s determination to abolish it.  The one great ad in the defence campaign showed a picture of Ken and a headline in which he was saying:  “If you want me out, you should have the right to vote me out.”  This, brilliantly, was the only message (or proposition – never been too sure of the difference) which Ken could deliver and make hardcore Tories pause for thought:  the Achilles heel of the Thatcher campaign was that abolition was undeniably undemocratic.

Would that proposition have emerged from a workshop?  I have my doubts, I must say.  In my experience of workshops, they’re good at generating armfuls of banality but hopeless at coming up with anything original or interesting.

But that’s not the important question.  The important question is whether the current workshop extravaganza produces results that are remotely proportional to the effort.

I’d say not, but I recognise that in saying that I’m probably reflecting the prejudices I formed in my long years on the creative side.  These prejudices are basically two:

–  whatever the proposition specified in the brief, it’ll almost always be stupid and ill-considered, and we’ll have to rethink it from scratch before we can start working on any ideas;

–  and (somewhat contradictorily) that it doesn’t really matter what the proposition is, except insofar as it’s the springboard for a great creative idea.  (“Refreshment” was one of the most generic and least interesting of propositions in the lager market, but that’s not a problem when it leads to something as good as “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.”)

Yes, I did notice that these two prejudices are somewhat contradictory.  I even said so, look, in the previous para.  But we creatives, or ex-creatives, aren’t supposed to be fair and reasonable.  Or indeed structured and disciplined.  I’m sure you’ll be agreeing by now  that my pitch client was absolutely right to go elsewhere.




Good heavens, more enthusiasm so soon already

Seems like just yesterday that I was raving about Legal & General’s “Everyday Matters” brand book.   Now I’m enthusing about Credit Suisse’s new brand advertising campaign.

Yes, I know, they’re only client case histories.  But like all the classic advertising formulae – testimonial, product demonstration, dramatic analogy, etc etc – it’s all in how it’s done.  And this Credit Suisse campaign is done with a flair, wit and impact that I have never seen before in case histories in this sector.

(Actually, I did see something almost as good once, in a captains-of-industry testimonial campaign that I wrote for the Wall St Journal/Europe about a million years ago, but this isn’t the time or place.)

Here’s a link to the best of the ads, in case you haven’t seen it:  What I particularly like about it is that having come up with a splendid visual idea (Lindt CEO sitting at hotel bar alongside giant Lindt chocolate teddy bear), no-one has rested on their laurels and they’ve pushed on to get a really atmospheric end-of-the-working-day-in-the-bar-of-a-business-hotel-somewhere-a-long-way-from-home picture, with the Lindt CEO’s loosened collar and his and the bear’s shot glasses of what looks like milk making important contributions.

The remaining ads in the first phase of the campaign aren’t bad, but they’re nothing like as good as this one because they don’t have the same simplicity and focus.  When they come to develop and shoot the second phase, I hope the agency (Euro RSCG) will learn from the first-phase experience.

Still, warm congratulations are definitely in order.  There is hardly a grimmer and more featureless landscape in the whole of advertising than international investment banking campaigns, and here all of a sudden is a large, bright and exotic flower blooming in it.  I bet they absolutely clean up at awards time.

Job opportunity (well, sort of)

Tickets on the Gatwick Express are exorbitantly expensive, but at least there are some half-decent special offers.  A one-way single is £17.90, but you can buy a group ticket for four adults for £35.80.  If you’re the sort of person who can persuade groups of incoming (or outgoing) travellers that you have an offer they can;t refuse, there’s an obvious arbitrage opportunity here.

Buy, say, two of these group tickets for £71.60, and then sell on seven of the seats you’ve bought for £15 each, a £2.90 saving on the buy-at-the-station price.  Your customers have a deal, and you have a profit of £33.40.  The journey only takes half an hour, so if you’ve taken another half hour to sell on the seven tickets you’re making £33.40 an hour, which is a lot better than Pret or McDonald’s and, let’s face it, also better than middle-ranking agency account management these days.

And when your train arrives at Victoria, you can do it all over again.  And again.  And again.

Doing this repeatedly for 8 hours should earn you about £265 a day, and I can’t imagine there’d be any tax to pay.

And best of all, I don’t even want any commission for putting you on to it.  Although the odd freebie to Gatwick would be nice.



Come on, mutuals: rise to the challenge and prove me wrong

I’m speaking at a big international conference of mutual insurance companies on Friday.  (It’s very big and very international, and as such will represent my first experience of speaking with simultaneous translation, which will be interesting, interessant, interesante and whatever the Japanese and Russian equivalents are.)

I’ll be giving a new variation on my fairly long-established Come On You Mutuals presentation, which argues that for a whole bunch of reasons (the rise and rise of digital communications, the growing importance of financial self-provision, lack of trust in mainstream financial services etc etc) mutuals currently face a wonderfully big, attractive, easy-to-open window of opportunity – but that to make the most of it, they have to change in one big, difficult, rather scary way.

Specifically, what they have to do is to rediscover the community-based principles on which the first Golden Age of mutuality was based back in the 19th century, and enter into a very different and much more genuinely participative kind of relationship with their members (or customers, as non-mutuals call them).

I must say, I’ve been talking to groups of senior managers of mutuals about all this for several years now in what has become known as my “Facebook meets the Rochdale Pioneers” presentation, and although they generally enjoy it and feel quite titillated by it I don’t think any of them has for a moment ever actually contemplated doing any of the things they hear me banging on about.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  Thirty years ago, when I used to work on its food retailing business, the Co-op consisted not of a single national organisation, but of about 130 fully independent and autonomous societies scattered across the country.  Where Sainsbury’s or Tesco had one MD, or head buyer, or marketing director, or whatever, the Co-op had 130-odd.  A total idiot could see in a second that it was a lunatic and unsustainable structure.  But year after year, the societies’ managements voted overwhelmingly to maintain it – on the basis, obviously, that given the chance turkeys would always vote to postpone Christmas.

The learning from that is one of the most fundamental points about human nature imaginable:  no-one voluntarily gives up power.  Most managers of mutuals would much prefer to maintain their authority in an organisation that will quietly expire within a decade or two, rather than give up some of their power to create an organisation which could thrive for a century.  (In the end, those local Co-op managers were chauffeur-driven one last time in their Jags to meetings at which they were curtly informed that their societies had become insolvent and now required rescue by one of the movement’s centrally-managed lifeboats, the CWS or the CRS:  most were then able to take early retirement with big payoffs and full pensions.  And just in case you think things have changed over the following 30 years, notice how a fleet of more recent XJ6s have been ferrying the top brass of bankrupt local building societies to crisis merger talks with Nationwide.)

No-one voluntarily gives up power, or NVGUP, is a maxim that all sorts of stupidly hopeful groups of people in all parts of the world would do well to remember – the poor bloody Palestinians, blacks in South Africa, supporters of benighted and underfunded football clubs.

And me.  None of my big ideas about the new mutuality is ever going to happen.  No-one sitting in any of their boardrooms will ever open that window of opportunity – for fear of what might come in through it if they did.


Whose money is it anyway?

I must admit, this blog would make a lot more sense if I could find a copy of the ad I want to write about and quote some of its copy.  Sorry about that.

There’s an Artemis ad in the Profit Hunter campaign which has run recently, and which seems to me to cross a line which accidentally reveals something important about the campaign itself, about Artemis and perhaps more fundamentally about the mind-set of asset managers.

I’ve blogged more than once before now about the fondness of fund managers for advertising campaigns that present them as heroes.  It was the Artemis campaign, originated by the agency that was then RPM (now Libertine) that first identified and exploited this particular vanity:  the same agency then did it again, only not quite as well, with the Resolution Asset Management superheroes, and then with its Ignis James Bond campaign.  (At the time when Libertine was churning these concepts out every few months, I remember saying that I quite fancied developing a series of extended-analogy campaigns in which fund managers were likened to school dinner ladies, or traffic wardens, or manicurists, which probably just gave everyone the message that I’d rather shot my bolt as far as asset management campaign ideas were concerned.)

Anyway, that’s all history.  About this recent ad that I can’t find:  the thing is that the copy is even more self-congratulatory than usual, if you can imagine such a thing, about the raw courage, determination and indefatigability of the Artemis profit hunters relentlessly driving on through appallingly harsh and hostile conditions in search of those ever-more-elusive profits.

I don’t actually have an investment in the fund in question, but on behalf of those who do I responded to this extravaganza of self-congratulation with a heartfelt “Fuck that.”

For one thing, even though I regrettably can’t remember which fund was featured in the ad, I wouldn’t mind betting that this year at least, for all that heroic striving, what the hunters have actually been finding is the disagreeable relative of those lovely Profits, the Thumping Great Loss.

But more importantly, just hang on a minute, while you’re being so brave and indefatigable, whose money is it that you’re punting on the markets? Not knowing about Artemis fund managers’ bonus arrangements, I should acknowledge that they may have some skin in the game.  But otherwise, I have to say that being brave with other people’s money isn’t really being very brave at all.

As I say, I think the ad reveals a worrying flaw in the attitudes of fund managers not just at Artemis, but in asset management firms generally:  it never really occurs to them that it’s our money.  Money, as someone famous once said, is just a way of keeping the score:  fund managers carelessly stake our financial futures on the things that really matter to them, like recognition from their peer group.

This question – who is the Artemis fund manager profit-hunting for? – always lay a bit unanswered at the heart of the campaign.  The ad-I-can’t-find gives the game away (pun intended):  troublingly, the truth is that they’re doing it for them, not for us.

I never ignore things till the 11th hour. That’s far too early for me.

I suppose if I’m honest I’ve always been a bit of a last-minute merchant.  I can remember a particularly ridiculous 24-hour period all those years ago at Oxford in which I had to a) read four Hardy novels and b) write an essay about them.  Made it, as I recall, with five minutes to spare.

These days, though, I’m even worse.  If I had that task to do all over again,I’d probably try to fit it in to 12 hours.  Or add the same amount of work again on Dostoevsky into the 24.

I know it’s not good, but it does have its advantages.  For one thing, I remain remarkably unbothered when someone demands something in next-to-no time:  I figure that I can hardly complain when even if they’d briefed me a month earlier I’d have left the brief untouched till within hours of the deadline.

Yesterday, for example, I took a call at about 12 from an organisation inviting me to pitch for a project, the pitch to be made at 3 this afternoon.  This was unusual in two respects:  first I think it’s the shortest interval I’ve ever known between brief and pitch, but also second just in case you’re getting ideas it’s actually only the second time I’ve been asked to pitch at all since going consultant.

Anyway, despite minor inconveniences like a couple of long client meetings yesterday afternoon and this morning, and the (very jolly) Cofunds annual dinner till a lateish hour last night, I was able to send my pitch slides over to the organisation in question about an hour ago, and am now sitting here rather twiddling my thumbs before going to present them in an hour or so.

I knew I’d started work on it a bit too early.

All of a sudden, I’m having a Betamax moment

As everyone has said, last week was a very bad week for Blackberry.  Their internet and email network going down for three days without a word of apology or explanation in the same week that Apple launched its next-generation iPhone: according to the papers mobile retailers have been overrun by customers willing to pay any price to get out of Blackberry contracts and into, well, pretty much anything else.

I haven’t gone that far, even if only because I’m still freaked out by the way my wife’s, son’s and daughter’s iPhones are permanently out of battery.  But over the last few days a conviction has formed in my mind that I’m on the losing side in this battle of mobile technologies.

It’s a feeling that brings back memories in my mind of the great home video technobattle of the 80s between Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS systems (a battle which the allegedly inferior VHS won, and in which unlike this current one I was on the winning side).

I wonder if other Blackberry users have the same feeling.  If so, that’s very bad.  Technology-based products and services depend hugely on a virtuous circle built on perceptions of success.   Without that virtuous circle, brands and technologies are in trouble:   I haven’t paid any serious attention to Blu-Ray, for example, because it seems to me that as with minidisc a few years ago, no-one else is paying any serious attention to Blu-Ray.  Vice versa, I’ve been happy to stay loyal to Blackberry partly because of the batteries, but also because it has seemed to me that it’s a successful, credible brand that is chosen by acceptably smart and discerning people.  If it’s actually a loser brand that is bought by idiots who haven’t spotted that it’s history, I shall have to bite my lip on the battery life issue and buy an iPhone immediately.

Steve Jobs: a contrarian kinda view of a contrarian kinda guy

Yes, yes, obviously, it’s the fairest of fair cops, I do have a little bit of a contrarian streak.  I’m not sure if you can exercise a streak, but if so then I exercise mine at every opportunity and without much hesitation.  And saying “You know what, I reckon we’ve got the Steve Jobs and Apple story all wrong” is a topical example.

For donkeys’ years, up until about five years ago, Apple was mainly the manufacturer of Macs, personal computers that maintained a rather tenuous hold in the market on the basis that they were chosen by just about enough people in the creative world (designers, typesetters, film makers) and various determined eccentrics to remain viable, and also to act as a useful Exhibit A for Microsoft when they needed to prove that they hadn’t achieved a monopoly yet.

Then along came the three big ones:  first the iPod, which was by no means the first digital music player but became overwhelmingly the predominant brand in the market;  then the iPhone, which did something big and important in the mobile market mainly by somewhat belatedly introducing touch-screen technology;  and then the iPad, which probably rode in on the iPhone wave to break open a new market sector that had previously been thought unbreakopenable.

None of these three was anything like the first to market in their respective sectors, and as far as I know none of them introduced anything much by way of revolutionary technology.  But what they all were was beautifully designed and brilliantly marketed.

As a result, all of the Big Three have overcome performance limitations that would probably have killed weaker brands.  For some reason, for example, Apple has always been hopeless with batteries – iPods and iPhones in particular have had horrendous short-term and long-term battery life issues, complete with a horribly slow, expensive and unreliable replacement service when your battery prematurely gives up the ghost .  And the iPhone has always been pretty good at everything except making phone calls, which seems like a bit of a problem in view of its ostensible purpose.

It has been brand strength which has allowed Apple to overcome these handicaps (for a discussion of how you can pull off the paradoxical trick of building hugely strong and successful brands despite having feet, ankles and indeed whole legs of clay see elsewhere in this blog).

This is the point I’m wanting to make here – that in recent years Apple has succeeded first and foremost as a brand, in an industry where branding efforts on the whole are still pretty lamentable. For one thing, Apple is one of the very few major hardware companies to have cracked product as well as corporate branding, which has been enormously helpful when it comes to creating distinctive identities.  And for another, Apple was as far as I know the first major IT company to recognise that a brand, and indeed a product, can effectively straddle both hardware and software:  together with iTunes, the iPod was the first major brand to combine product and service in one.

No question, Apple’s triumph has been much assisted by the weakness of competitors’ branding efforts.  Can you think of an even half-serious brand rival to the iPod, iPhone or iPad?  It remains quite extraordinary how bad the major players in these sectors have been at giving us any way to think about them or engage with them other than through their products and their functionality:  what does Nokia mean to you?  Or Samsung?  Or even Blackberry?

Looking back over the career of Steve Jobs as his huge industry’s one brilliant brand strategist, it all makes sense, right down to the black polo-necks.  In every sector where it has an offering, you can always buy a great deal cheaper – but you can’t buy a more desirable brand proposition.

Especially now that he has passed away, it seems that all kinds of greatness are being thrust upon Jobs – as an IT visionary, as a business leader, as a lifestyle guru, as an insightful innovator.  There may or may not be something in all of these competing claims.  But it seems pretty clear to me that the spectacular success of Apple in recent years dates from the moment when he (and, for all I know, a number of his colleagues) got the religion of brand management.

Hooray, hooray, something brilliant to get excited about at last

Only one slight problem:  you can’t see it.  Or at least, you can’t unless you visit one of Legal & General’s offices or contact them and ask very nicely for a copy. The thing is, it’s their new Brand Book designed to support and amplify their Brand Truth, or Organising Idea as I think they call it, which is summarised in the strapline Everyday Matters.  And it’s absolutely terrific.

As my regular reader knows well, I fret endlessly about the fact that I spend most of my blogging energies slagging things off – it’s often more of a slog, or even a blag, than a blog.  So it always comes as a huge relief when I see something that’s excitingly good and I realise that I’m still not completely lost to grumpy-old-git-dom.

If I describe the book it won’t sound much. 210mm square, 48pp colour, each spread consisting of a photograph and some words:  the photographs pointing the camera at Legal & General’s customers, and the words being things that they’re saying about their lives.  Big deal?

You’ve probably heard me before praising my own former agency Tangible’s advertising and marketing communications for the children’s savings scheme Jump, and saying that the wonderful thing about it is the way that it breaks through to a level of accuracy and honesty and reality about the way people lead their lives which you never even knew existed – a level which you’d never even momentarily glimpse if you studied a hundred thousand financial marketing communications.

Jump makes its breakthrough with humour.  The Legal & General brand book gets there by an even harder route, with simple human dignity and emotion.  The photographs, taken by Duncan Hamilton, are revelatory.  The words are real and bracingly lacking in sentimentality.  I literally can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen in financial services marketing communications since Tony Brignull’s Albany Life advertising in the late 1970s that I would be prouder to have created myself.

So thanks very much indeed to Legal & General – brand strategy manager Helen Steadman, head of brand and web Richard Nunn, anyone else involved internally, and brand agency Smith & Milton and their creative director Steve Anderson.  It makes a very nice change to feel like a fan and not a cynic for a while.


What if Wayne Rooney was a retail fund manager?

Hersh Cohen.  Michael Clarfeld.  Peter Vanderlee.  Philip Matthews.  Anthony Nutt.  Ariel Bezalel.  John Hamilton.  Tony Lanning.  Stewart Cowley.  Chris Bowie.  Mark Harries.  Simon Wood.  (I know a Simon Wood – so do you if you read the comments on this blog, because Simon makes about 75% of them.  Sure it can’t be him though.)  Peter Lees.  Bradley George.  Thorsten Winkelmann.  Stuart Parks.  Tim Dixon.  All of these people (or to be exact, and to strike a swift blow for political correctness, all these white males), have something in common.  Can you guess what it is?

Here’s a clue:  it’s not something they share with their equivalents at Artemis, J.P.Morgan, Liontrust, Fidelity,GLG, Aberdeen, Standard Life Investments, Kames Capital, First State, Newton or Investec.

Still not sure?  Well, what if we narrow it down to a shortlist which includes only Hersh, Michael, Peter V, Stewart, Peter L, Bradley and Thorsten?

OK, I’ll tell you.  It is kind of obscure.  They’re all fund managers, and they all make appearances in advertisements for their funds in this week’s Investment Week magazine.  The firms in the second list also have ads in the magazine, but don’t include any details of any fund managers.  And the cut-down version in the third list includes all the fund managers who get their photographs, as well as their names, in their ads.

After 25 years of working on investment funds advertising, I’m still not sure what I think about making fund managers into the heroes of the ads.

Big picture, as I’ve written in this blog recently, I think that the days of using IFA trade press advertising to try to convince large numbers of individual IFAs of the recommendability (?) of individual funds are now rapidly coming to an end, simply because, thank goodness, fewer and fewer individual IFAs continue to have the brass neck to believe that this is something they are competent to do.

But for as long as this kind of advertising does continue to exist, how much sense does it make to hang the story on the credibility of each fund’s manager/s?  There are quite a few pros, and indeed cons.

The first thing you have to say is that it probably makes quite a lot of sense to the fund manager himself, whose career prospects benefit from the exposure.  In many firms that’s reason enough to do it.  Most funds marketers are scared of the fund managers, mainly because most fund managers think of the marketing budget as money that has somehow tricked its way out of their bonus pool, and if putting their names and photos in the ads takes the pressure of the budget for another year then that’ll be a decision, then.

Within investment firms themselves, if there is any debate about the pros and cons, it focuses mainly on the Headhunters’ Candidate List issue.  The argument goes generally:

Pro:  Putting the manager in the ad is good.  The manager is highly regarded.  Seeing him there will help persuade IFAs.

Con:  Maybe headhunters read Investment Week.  If they see the fund manager in the ad, especially alongside a table showing first-quartile performance, then they’ll lure him away.

Generally speaking, at the firms in my second list above, this cautious argument has held sway and the decision has been taken not to feature fund managers in the ads, whereas at the firms where the people in my first list work it’s gone the other way.

What do I think?  As I say, I’m not sure, and to try to clarify my thoughts I think about Wayne Rooney.  If Manchester United were trying to sell tickets (which of course they don’t really have to), they might very likely promote their biggest stars – Rooney definitely, maybe Giggs.  But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t bother promoting Smalling, Jones, Hernandez, Welbeck, Young, probably not even Nani, because the truth is that outside a hard core of true football fans most people haven’t heard of them or, even if they have vaguely, know nothing about them and hold them in no particular regard.

I doubt whether one in a thousand IFAs knows anything at all about Peter Vanderlee, Thorsten Winkelmann or Tim Dixon, or ever will.  Most IFAs could name Anthony Bolton and Neil Woodford, and after that they’d be struggling.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the only reason to include most fund managers in ads is to satisfy their vanity.  And that makes me think it would be absolutely brilliant to run a spoof campaign featuring bogus fund managers of breathtaking perfection and arrogance, although sadly I don’t suppose there’s an investment firm that would run it.  Although, come to think about it, maybe a firm that only does passive funds, like Vanguard, might be interested as a way of sending up the follies of their active-management counterparts.

Hmm.  This has been very useful.  I know what I think now, and I have a couple of business development letters to write.  Thanks a lot, Wayne, you’ve been a great help.  And thanks to anyone who’s read this far for listening.