Would this headline work better if it was more creative?

I suppose that like thousands of other “creative” people – and indeed like the whole of the creative services industry – I’ve built my whole career, and two or three businesses, on the assumption that the answer to this question is “Yes.”

But in order to maintain this conviction, it is necessary to ignore a fairly steady flow of news which suggests that the answer is actually “No” – the most recent, in my case, being the identities of the winners at this year’s Financial Services Forum Marketing Effectiveness awards.

If you’re interested, you’ll find a PDF of a booklet about the winners here:  http://www.thefsforum.co.uk/upload/FSFAwardWinners2012.pdf.  But, trust me, if you’re interested in creativity, you’re not very interested in this, because in all honesty I don’t think there’s a trace of it there.  I’ll give you two examples:

–  the headline of the Post Office’s motor insurance direct mail pack, described by the judges as “transformational,” and reading “Free Breakdown Cover for one year with our car insurance”;

– the visual in the campaign which not only won the B2B campaign category, but was also the joint winner of the Campaign of the Year category.  I’ll let you guess this one:  what is the dreariest, least original, most over-used image to express the idea of “being able to adapt to changing conditions”?  Got it yet?  I’ll give you a clue:  it’s a reptile with skin that can change colour…Oh dear, you seem to have nodded off.

Of course I know that there’s more to creativity than ads full of startling and unexpected words and pictures.  Twenty-odd years ago, I used to deliver a whole lecture to baffled advertising students on why it was right that a BMP press ad seeking to defend the Greater London Council, then led by Ken Livingstone, against the Government’s plans to abolish it, won a shelf-full of creative awards despite the fact that the visual was just a picture of Ken and the headline just said in the plainest of English:  “If you want me out, you should have the right to vote me out.”

But there is a depth of insight and intelligence in this work that’s entirely lacking in, for example, the RBS Corporate and Institutional Banking work which was commended in the Customer Loyalty category using the theme:  ” Putting marketing and relationships to work in austere times.”  There’s no insight or intelligence there, just a bullet point copied and pasted from the brief.

But the thing is, it’s all very well for me to sit around sneering at these examples:  the fact is that they won awards for effectiveness in a tough scheme where the evidence of effectiveness has to be pretty compelling.  People like me believe that dead, cliched language (and visuals of cliched if not actually dead chameleons) put people off, discourage engagement and make communications less effective.  But surely evidence like this challenges our beliefs?

Well, yes, it does, and leaves us rather struggling for a reply.  The best we can do is a sort of two-strand combination which goes something like this:

1.  When a communication has a strong and appealing message to deliver, the first responsibility of the creative people is, quite frankly, not to fuck it up.  “Free breakdown cover for one year with our car insurance” is a better headline than a headline that says, I don’t know, “More amazing than a dancing wombat” because it successfully tells people about something they’re likely to find quite appealing.

2.  In the country of the blind, it’s no disadvantage to be blind yourself. If no-one else (or at least in this case no-one else in your award category) is using any kind of real creativity, your chances of winning are not reduced by the fact that you aren’t either.  On the other hand, of course, if yours was the one entry to include some real, exciting, original, relevant creativity….

As a whole, it occurs to me, this defence is in some way reminiscent of the defence of communism that I used to make as a pinko student – “Yes, it’s true that all existing communist countries are total failures, but that’s only because none of them has implemented it properly.”

That. in hindsight, was complete bollocks.  I wonder if one day my defence of, and belief in, the power of creativity in marketing communications will seem like the same sort of thing.

Why the trust genie won’t go back in his bottle

I don’t know about you, but one of the things that most infuriates me about the financial services industry is the way that it treats its most loyal customers.  No-one is worse than the direct insurers:  they lure you in on the basis of a rock-bottom quote, and if you’re stupid enough to stay more than a couple of years they wind your premiums up and up and up and up until eventually you realise that you’re being taken for a fool, and you go onto a comparison site, and find to your relief but also to your fury that you can save hundreds of pounds by switching, so you do, and then the whole cycle starts all over again.

It happens that a friend has a top job in a direct insurance provider, so a while ago I quizzed him quite sternly about this.  “Why do you do it?” I demanded.  “We all hate it – surely you know that?”

Yes, he replied, he did indeed know that.  What’s more, he hated it too.  But here’s the thing:  emerging from a complicated matrix of consumer tests of this and other pricing strategies, one conclusion stood out as clear as anything.  In terms of business performance, no other approach worked anything like as well.  “Quite simple,” he told me.  “I need those loss-leader rates to bring new customers in – and then I need to increase their premiums in every subsequent year in order to make money out of them.  And, oh yes, there’s another element to this.  I need to make money out of them to hit my targets.  And I need to hit my targets or else I get fired.”

As we talked, I realised that there was a third, somewhat shadowy figure circling round the room where we were sitting.  On closer inspection, it turned out to be a genie.  And emblazoned on his stereotypically 1001 Nights attire were the words “consumer trust.”

On the table between us, there was an empty bottle.  But as my friend spoke, the genie, in his circlings, never once came within yards of it.

The ageing population: might we need a Plan B?

I suppose it’s human nature to concentrate on trying to stave off catastrophe, but the more it starts to appear un-stave-offable the more you really do have to come up with a plan about how to deal with it when it happens.

I’ve written about this same idea before in the context of global warming, observing that we’re still spending huge amounts of time and effort trying to find ways of stopping it, or at least slowing it down significantly, when it’s perfectly obvious that nothing on earth is going to stop two or three billion Brazilians, Russians, Indians and Chinese from buying cars and either airconditioners or central heating or both as soon as they can afford them, and on this basis alone any pratting about subsidising middle-class families in the UK putting solar panels on their roofs will be about as important as a fart in a hurricane, and the real trick is to figure out what we’re going to do with everyone when sea levels and air temperatures do rise however much the worst-case scenarios say they will.

But exactly the same point applies to the ageing population, or more specifically to the ageing-and-pitifully-short-of-retirement-savings population.  In just the same way, we’re still spending 99% of our available energies and resources on looking for ways to make the problem disappear (currently mainly by means of pensions auto-enrolment).  And I’m sure that if you do the maths, the problem isn’t going to disappear, or at least not until it’s spent a good many years getting a great deal worse.  But my point is that I don’t think anyone is doing the maths, or if so I haven’t seen any sign of them.

Given almost-entirely-uninfluenceable demographics, and the size of most people’s current pension pots, and current rates of retirement savings, it must be possible to work out how many people aged over, say, 65 there are going to be over the next 40 years or so and just how little they’re going to have to live on.  With final salary pensions now drying up, outside the public sector at least, like rainshowers in the Sahara, and with the average DC pot now said to be worth about £30,000 at retirement, the figures must be horrendous. So horrendous, in fact, that it’s not just an issue about a lot of people who’ll be living in poverty and depending almost totally on the State.  It looks like it must be more that that:  it must be a complete reversal of the market-defining idea that while young people have all the borrowings, old people have all the savings.  Somebody in a presentation I saw recently said this trend represents the “end of the Saga Holidays generation:”  that strikes me as the very least of it.

But I don’t see anyone painting this overall picture,. and starting to map out the consequences not just for the State and the health service, but also for a huge range of commercial organisations.  Old people running out of money will be a disaster for businesses ranging from, for example, mainstream commercial theatre (have you seen the average age of the audiences these days?) to manufacturers of old people’s cars like Honda and Toyota – and, of course, for the very large chunks of the financial services industry that takes money off these people in return for doing things to their rapidly-disappearing savings and investments.

As I say, for many millions, the die is already cast.  Anyone aged over 45 depending, for example, on minimum levels of pension contribution under auto-enrolment is going to be retiring on a pittance.  Who has got their heads round all this?  Who is painting a picture of what’s going to happen to the next two or three retirement generations, and what the consequences will be for those who in one way or another depend on them and their money?  No-one, as far as I can see, that’s who.  In just the same way that as the planet warms up, I don’t see any sign of anyone making a plan to move those living within a thousand miles of the overheating Equator to the agreeably temperate and fertile new landscapes of Antarctica.

Big bloke feeling small

I bought a memory stick at lunchtime.  It is literally much less than half the size of my little finger.

I’m not an expert in translating gigabytes into their equivalent in words, paragraphs and pages.  But I’m pretty sure that this tiny thing could quite easily accommodate everything that I’ve written in my working lifetime

That makes me feel pretty small.  And only very marginally cheered by the thought that it could accommodate everything that, say, Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy wrote in their working lifetimes too.

Why tomorrow’s IFAs are going to look just like today’s agency suits

It always helps when you can find analogies between things you don’t understand, and things you do.  For me, this is likely to mean between things that happen in the financial services world., and in the creative agency world, and in recent years I’ve come up with two:

–  between asset managers and creative agencies, in that both have what I’ve called “mad factories” – fund managers in the former, creative people in the latter, who are difficult, unreliable and hard to manage but who ultimately are responsible for producing what their companies have to sell;

–  between IFAs and creative agencies, especially ad agencies, in that we in the latter have already been through the transition from commission to fees which the former are facing when RDR is implemented at the start of next year.

Now I have a third, also RDR-related:  it seems to me that as a consequence of RDR, IFAs are under pressure to evolve from being little one-person micro-agencies in their own right, to taking on a  much more focused role which in agency terms would be described as account management, buying in from elsewhere all the other elements of the service they used to provide themselves.

How so?  Well, in somewhat simplified terms (and using “he” to mean “he or she” throughout), here’s how an ad agency works.  An account manager, or “suit” in agency parlance, gets to know a client, and to understand what he wants to achieve and what resources he has available.  He agrees a cost for his services going forward.  He asks a planner to develop a strategy to get the client to his goals. Then he looks to a creative team and a media planning team to come up with proposals that deliver the strategy.  The account manager takes these proposals back to the client, who approves them (or something like them, eventually).  The account manager gives the creatives and the media people the green light to go ahead and produce and deploy the campaign, which they do with the help of various specialist suppliers such as TV production companies and digital media buyers, and in due course there may be a role for the planner in evaluating the results and figuring out the implications for the future strategy.  Meanwhile, it’s the account manager’s job to maintain the relationship with the client, watch out for any changes in his circumstances, update him on the campaign’s progress and report to him on any proposed changes to the strategy.

Previously, most IFAs did most if not all of the above themselves, with a bit of back-office support.  They were effectively one-man agencies, looking after the client, developing the strategy, writing and producing the ads and planning the media schedule.  But post RDR, I see it something like this:

An IFA gets to know a client, and to understand what he wants to achieve and what resources he has available.  He agrees a cost for his services going forward.  He asks a planner, or possibly a cashflow modelling program, or an ATR-based tool, or a combination of the above, to develop a strategy to get the client to his goals.  Then he looks to the DFM he works with, or his specialist investment colleagues, or the model portfolio that plugs in to his ATR tool,  to come up with proposals that deliver the strategy.  The IFA takes these proposals back to the client, who approves them (or something like them, eventually).  The IFA gives the investment people the green light to go ahead and take control of the portfolio, which they do with the help of various specialist suppliers such as boutique asset managers of one sort or another, and in due course there may be a role for the planner or planning tool in evaluating the results and figuring out the implications for the future strategy.  Meanwhile, it’s the IFA’s job to maintain the relationship with the client, watch out for any changes in his circumstances, update him on the portfolio’s progress and report to him on any proposed changes to the strategy.

You see?  Writing the two parallel statements really wasn’t hard, although as you can see I did keep finding that the IFA has a wider range of different kinds of support available than the account handler.  But in overall shape, it’s the same.

I’m pleased with this analogy for two reasons.  First, it explains and clarifies a lot of things about the future IFA’s role to me.  (For example, they say there are three ways you can be a great account manager, having either exceptional people skills, or exceptional strategic clarity, or exceptional organisational and team leadership abilities, and I suspect that this theory too will apply in the future financial advice world.)   And second, it’s a very helpful way of explaining and clarifying the future IFA’s role to other people working in creative agency businesses, expressing the workings of the adviser and actually of all the other specialists involved in ways they can quickly understand.

Of course the analogy is completely useless when it comes to explaining the IFA’s future role to IFAs themselves, since they know nothing about what account managers do and so would gain nothing from the comparison.  But I suppose in the unlikely event that any of them ever wanted to understand an agency account manager’s role in terms that made good sense to them, I could always stand the analogy on its head.



Odd choice

Back in my later Tangible days, just up the road at Midford Place, we shared our offices with another Cello group company, the small and distinctly non-specialist advertising agency Farm, which, unusually, was run by its joint creative directors, the delightful Owen Lee and Gary Robinson.  We were on very friendly terms, even though – in their eyes, at least – my Tangible colleagues and I might as well have been representatives of a different species:  to them, our financial services accounts seemed so utterly alien, incomprehensible and unrewarding that they showed absolutely no interest in them at all.

Shortly before I left Tangible’s offices and moved down to my present abode in Whitfield St, Cello decided to close down Farm and a deal was done by which Owen, Gary, a few other people and some of their accounts were able to transfer across to the not-so-small but equally non-specialist agency Inferno.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I’ve just heard that in their wisdom, after a lengthy selection process that started off with a long, long list of potential agencies and gradually whittled its way down from there, the investment group Jupiter has decided that of all the agencies in London the one best suited to its needs going forward is…. you guessed it, Inferno.

It’ll be interesting to see how long that lasts.  Judging by those looks of blank incomprehension and lack of interest that I remember on Owen’s and Gary’s faces, I’d suspect not very.

There are those who think segmentation is easy, and those who know it isn’t.

As we run headlong up to the implementation of RDR at the turn of the year, the financial trade press is full of articles advising IFAs on how to develop value propositions that will be relevant to their clients, and profitable for them.

The advice pretty much always begins with the vital importance of segmenting the IFAs’ client bases, or client banks as they seem to prefer to call them, and the proposed segmentation is pretty much always on the basis of some kind of measure of value – either the value of the clients’ portfolios, or the value of the fees the clients can be expected to pay.

This is certainly simple, and at first it sounds reasonably sensible.  But in fact, “simple” and “sensible” rarely sit comfortably together in the world of segmentation, and I fear that such is the case this time too.

There are a bunch of quite important objections around the fact that the adviser may only have responsibility for a small proportion of the clients’ total wealth.  Imagine, say, that Warren Buffett had impulsively bought an ISA as a one-off transaction from an IFA firm.  He would undoubtedly fall into the least-valuable segment – the one to be offered an almost-insultingly poor standard of service in the hope that he’d take his miserable little investment elsewhere.  Which would be a mistake, obviously.

But that’s not really the point I want to dwell on.  My point is to do with the whole other side of segmentation – the side that doesn’t deal in the apparent simplicities of numbers, but deals with much more difficult and slippery subjects like attitudes and emotions.

The example I’ve been giving to demonstrate the orneriness and irrationality of IFAs’ clients is, in fact, me.  I read recently about an IFA who had decided that from January onwards, he would double the number of regular face-to-face review meetings with his clients from two a year to four.  And, what’s more, he would start sending out a weekly Market Commentary email as well.

He obviously thought his clients would be pleased, and, more importantly, that the news would make them happier to pay his Ongoing Adviser Charge..  But if I’d been a client, I’d have been horrified.  More meetings and a newsletter?  Benefits?  Au contraire.

If there are two things which really bug me in my life, they are a) too many meetings in my diary, and b) too many emails in my inbox.  No plan that involves adding to both is going to be welcome to me.  In my case, the benefit would be exactly the other way round:  the fewer meetings I have to go to, and the fewer emails I’m supposed to read, the happier I am and the more I’m willing to pay.  But I’m not sure if this point of view would make much sense to most IFAs, and I’m bloody sure it wouldn’t make any sense to the FSA.

There are of course other people who look very like me, only perhaps not quite as tall, who would be delighted to have four meetings a year and a weekly Market Commentary email.  Picking out the ones who’d be delighted, and separating them from the ones who’d be appalled, isn’t easy (although I can’t help thinking that when an adviser has a total of around a hundred clients, asking them what they’d prefer shouldn’t be an unmanageable task).

But that, as I say, is the thing about segmentation.  There are simple ways of doing it, and there are sensible ways of doing it.  But I’m not sure there are many ways that are both.

Neckwear fail, apparently

I chaired a conference attended by 150-or-so IFAs the other day, and the analysis of their evaluation forms just came in.  Pretty good on the whole, for the conference itself, for the various presenters and indeed for the Chairman – but there was one criticism of the latter made by several of those attending.

They were shocked and stunned to see this chap standing up in front of them in a chairmanly way while not wearing anything around his neck unless you count an open neck shirt.  No tie, bow or otherwise. No cravat.  No nothing.

I must say, I’m fairly shocked and stunned by this myself.  These days, I really never wear a tie except to black-tie events, where going tieless would seem more than a tad confrontational. Am I going round giving offence on a daily basis?  There were two or three LCC clients among the participants at that conference:  were any of them among the complainers?  And what if the organisers – fairly regular conference-holders – invite me to do the chairing again?

Blimey.  I’d have been confident to say that we stopped caring about this, at least in the world of ordinary day-to-day business, a generation ago.  But it seem I’d have been wrong to stick my neck out.