Is any big FS provider not changing its strategy at the moment?

Lunch today with an extremely shrewd and capable senior manager who has recently parted company with the large firm for which he has been running a business unit for the last three years.  The background, as is often the case with such things, is quite complex – but the biggest single issue is that there’s a recently-appointed new man at the top who wants to take the firm in a different direction:  my friend’s two-thirds-completed transformational change programme will be abandoned, and before too long a new transformational change programme heading in a very different direction will be introduced.

This kind of thing is obviously expensive, confusing and deeply demoralising for all concerned, not least all those left behind after the departure of my pal.  And in all probability, the expense, confusion and demoralisation will be redoubled again some time in the next two or three years, when the big boss is replaced by another big boss who wants to take the firm in a different direction.

The point of this is not that big bosses change too often, or even that big bosses always want to implement new strategies.  The point is that the level of confidence in financial services firms at the moment is much the same as the level of confidence in Premier League football clubs threatened with relegation – and the favoured solution, changing the manager, is very often the same.

Of course the dangers – more money wasted, lack of success, steepening spiral of decline – are much the same too.   But in a market where there simply don’t seem to be any winning strategies – or at least, none that’s available to cost-sodden traditional life companies – no better way of getting out of trouble seems to come to mind.

Announcing the death of the specialist financial agency. Well, almost.

This is one of those blogs that may be more interesting to me than it is to you.  (What do you mean, another one?)  I spent 22 years of my career working in agencies which explicitly specialised in financial services.  Throughout that time, I was aware that my agencies were members of a smallish but distinct and recognisable sector, made up at any given moment by somewhere between, say, half a dozen and a dozen agencies in total.

I always thought it was important that the sector should be seen to be thriving, and doing good work for good clients.  The last thing I wanted was for financial services clients to think that if they approached a financial agency, they would be approaching a member of a failing sector, losing clients and producing poor work.

I suppose it’s true to say that since I left agency life and set up as a one-man consultant two and a half years ago, perhaps I’ve paid a little less attention to developments in the sector than previously.  But the way things have been changing was brought home to me when I did my Money Marketing awards judging stint last week.

As I wrote in a rather sarky blog a few days ago, the world these days seems to be full of obscure, smallish and not-very-exciting integrated agencies who certainly aren’t financial specialists, but do have some financial business.

It’s also noticeable that nearly all of the larger financial specialists aren’t financial specialists any more.  My former colleagues at Tangible now say their business is only about 50 – 55% financial;  for my friends at Masius, whose office I now share, the figure is a little lower;  the same goes for the former Citigate (now CST The Gate).  One or two of the former financial agencies are less far along the same path, but there’s no doubting the direction of travel:  AML, for example, the former Allison Mitchell, currently has little non-financial business but makes the most of what it has.  The former Abstracts now seems to be Dogstar Abstracts, and shows a client list in which only eight out of 28 names are financial.

As far as I can see, this leaves just three men, or of course women, standing in the unashamedly specialist sector – TeamSpirit, Red Tag and Fin.  What does this mean?  I don’t really know.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the generic sector promise – really good people fully focused on doing great work for financial clients:  it’s just keeping the promise that’s hard.  Judging from my own experience over many years, the hardest part of running a specialist agency is persuading really good people to come and work for you – and of course if you can’t, and/or if you can’t help them to become comfortable in the sector, then your promise crumbles to dust.

That said, non-specialist agencies struggle with the financial world as much as they ever did.  Most of their work is toe-curlingly lacking in insight or originality:  even when they’re trying, the results are mostly dreary and uninviting, and they’re not usually trying.

To sum up, it seems to me that the need for a strong, creative, committed specialist financial agency sector is pretty much as great as it ever was.  But – sadly, in my view – the majority of those with experience of running such agencies have decided that there are better and easier ways to make a living.

Tottering on the brink of snootiness

My very clever friend Surrey Garland does a brilliant riff on the identities, clients and outputs of third-rate creative agencies.  Inevitably I’ve forgotten most of it, but I do remember two of the agencies on his third-rate pitch-list, Typhoon and Quasm.  And I do remember that the client lists of all the agencies involved all feature British Airways Cargo, Honda Lawnmowers and Mars Catering Products.

At least, I’ve always thought it was a brilliant, imaginative and original riff, until I perused the documentation that I was given yesterday during the Money Marketing Financial Advertising Awards judging session, which for some reason they keep on asking me to chair.  Looking at the list of agencies entering work, and then checking some of their websites, I realise that what I’ve taken as the products of Surrey’s imagination and originality are nothing of the sort:  they’re just documentary reportage.

The list of entrants is thick with the names of hitherto-unknown (to me, at least) “creative integrated design, brand and communications agencies” dedicated to delivering “outstanding ROI to clients across a wide range of sectors.”  They all offer “stand-out creative solutions” based on “big ideas with real selling power,” and several of them claim to be good listeners, reminding us that they have two ears and one mouth and use them in the same proportions.  And their websites all feature smiling photographs of the principals, examples of HTML emails produced for British Airways Cargo and blogs with no new entries since one about the Olympics in July last year.


Actually, I could say that they have a couple of other things in common.  For one thing, In the first-stage judging yesterday (in which I played no part whatsoever – I only come in for the second stage), I could point out that almost all their entries were dismissed.  I could go on to say that’s because almost all their entries were derivative, lacking in insight and badly-executed.  And I suppose I could finally point out that if you wanted to see exactly why financial clients are not well-advised to appoint cheap, inexpert, jack-of-all-trades small agencies, you wouldn’t need to look any further than yesterday’s entries.

But, as I say, from the very first sentence this blog has been tottering on the brink of unkind, unfair and unjustifiable snootiness.  And if I actually said all those things n the previous paragraph, instead of just thinking about saying them, I think I’d have tottered irrevocably over it.


The six-year wait is over, and now….

It’s about six years since Callum McCarthy’s famous Gleneagles speech launched the process that has led to the Financial Services Authority’s Retail Distribution Review.  Well over 2,000 days later, it’s finally happened and we are now a couple of weeks (minus a Bank Holiday or two) into the Post-RDR World which we’ve spent so much of our lives anticipating.

(I said in a talk yesterday that I can’t remember spending anything like as long anticipating an event before actually experiencing it, or at least not since I was a teenager.)

Looking out of my office window, the post-RDR world doesn’t seem very different from the pre-RDR world.  It’s still pretty grey out there.  The Saatchi & Saatchi car park, which I overlook, is still full of disappointingly routine machinery.  The fish delivery man has just turned up to deliver fish (obvs).  Life, in short, is going on.  A faint suspicion is beginning to dawn that perhaps, not for the first time, in the run-up to the change we may have become a bit over-excited about it all.

The Waitrose green-token copy test

Are you a Waitrose shopper?  Of course you are.  I can’t believe I have non-Waitrose readers.  But in case there’s the odd one, I should explain the green-token charity selection system.

When you pay at the till, you’re given a green token.  On the way out of the store, you pass a Perspex construction made up of three containers into any one of which you can post your token.  Each container represents a local charity, and above each container there is a a single A4 sheet in which the charities can pitch their stories.  Their success in doing so is starkly revealed by the number of tokens in each container.  Then, at the end of every month, Waitrose makes donations to the three charities pro rata to the number of tokens collected, and the cycle starts again.

OK, obviously to some extent the pulling power of the charities depends on what they do.  They say, for example, that to us Brits the most appealing of all causes are those to do with donkeys, followed fairly closely by dogs, cats and horses, then at some distance by children, then at a considerable distance by British adults and then at an even greater distance by foreign adults.

But beyond this, the pulling power of each cause depends entirely on the quality of the copywriting on the A4 sheet. And my empirical observation is that a mediocre cause with great copy will outpull a great cause with mediocre copy by about five to one, unless of course the great cause involves donkeys.

It’s early days for the January charities, but the position is already pretty stark.  One of this month’s charities, unusually, goes for simple name awareness, displaying a message which just reads (more or less) UPPER HOLLOWAY BAPTIST CHURCH.  This approach is a disaster, with just a handful of tokens (presumably contributed by members of the congregation) rattling around at the bottom of the container.

But the second, if anything, is even worse.  I can’t remember what the cause is or does, but its copy has clearly been written by someone who has been working in the charity sector for far, far too long and is now only able to write in the hardest of hard-core voluntary sector jargon.  The copy begins with something like:  “Our stated aims and objectives are to deliver real synergy and integration benefits on a multi-disciplinary basis, within a defined evaluation framework which offers full potential for replicability,”  and goes on in the same vein from there.  Needless to say, this cause, whatever it may be, has attracted about three tokens, probably mostly out of sympathy.

Which leaves the third cause collecting about 95% of this month’s tokens, and presumably being firmly on course to collect 95% of this month’s pot.  Disappointingly, I have almost no recollection of what the cause is or what it has to say about itself, although I have an impression of something about disadvantaged kids and a visual which is a kid’s drawing.  No donkeys, anyway – but against this month’s opposition, even something really unpopular like asylum seekers would clean up with some half-decent copywriting.

I don’t know if you get people wanting jobs as copywriters any more.  But if you do, and if the jobs are difficult to get, then one thing people could do is to go and check out the identities of this month’s two disastrous causes, and offer them a free rewrite.  If they counted the tokens in the containers on the day their copy went up, and then again at the end of the month, they could prove very precisely how effective they had been.


“Raising money for sick and terminally ill children”

If you’re a charity fundraiser, there can’t be a much more compelling mantra than that – as copylines which have everything go, it’s right up there with what’s said to be the most perfect tabloid headline imaginable, “Sex-change nuns in mercy dash to Palace.”  And there can’t be many better places for fundraisers to stand with their collecting buckets than at the foot of the exit steps at White Hart Lane station on a matchday.

I’ve been pushing my way past the three or four bucketeers at the foot of those stairs for several years, delivering my customary remarks to whoever I happen to be with – usually my long-suffering son Ollie – the while:  ” Who are these sick and terminally ill children?  What is it that this charity is doing for them?  Don’t we have a National Health Service for such people?  What the hell is this charity actually called?  I choose the charities I support a lot more carefully than this” etc etc.

Anyway, I finally got round to making a note of the name displayed in unusually small type on the buckets, and seeing what happened when I googled it.  It’s not – I should say straight away – a scam.  It seems to be an entirely genuine organisation called NAS International Charity, or NASIC, run by someone called  Mr Philip Ikhiromonagbe Ilenbarenemen who describes himself as its “Secretary-General and Co-ordinator,” from what Google Images seems to identify as a derelict building in Peckham.

In a two-year-old PDF which provides the only information I could find on the internet, the secretary-general in fact outlines six objectives of the charity.  The first is indeed to help sick and terminally ill children, as well as abused, poor and helpless children, in the UK and all over the world.  The other five are to help:

–  women and the elderly

–  young people, especially those likely to get involved in South London gangs

–  promote racial harmony in the community, as well as awareness of AIDS and other diseases

–  promote African cultural heritage

–  provide support to anyone anywhere who can be described as “weak and feeble” and generally “in desperate need” of succour.

In the absence of any visible financial information, I can’t tell how the charity divides its efforts and resources between these six objectives.  But what I can tell is that Mr Ikhiromonagbe Ilenbarenemen and his volunteers are shrewd marketing people:  if I was standing at the foot of those steps at the railway station looking to maximise donations from the overwhelmingly male, white, north London football crowd, I think I would emphasise the “sick and terminally ill children” rather than any of the numerous other groups I’d be committed to helping.  And I have a slight and probably entirely unworthy suspicion that I would a) keep my organisation’s logo fairly small on the buckets, and b) not go out of my way to provide financial information on the internet about my activities, too.

PS:  stop press, if blogs have presses – on my last two visits to WHL, both within the first few days of 2013, the people with the buckets have been absent. What does this mean, I wonder?