From Start-rite Shoes to powwownow

Perusing the tube cards opposite me on the Victoria line this morning.  There were four:   Powwownow, Paypal, trivago and something called Moonbingo.

When I first travelled on the tube in the year 544BC, they’d have been Start-rite Shoes (“Children’s Shoes Have Far To Go”), Refuge Assurance, holidays in Skegness and something called the Location of Offices Bureau.  I guess Skegness still exists, but the other three have expired along the way.

Plus ca change, I suppose.  I wouldn’t mind betting that Paypal is the only survivor from these four in another million years.

Male pale and stale tale

I can’t remember how many blogs I’ve written on the basis of censuses of the pictures in editions of the financial press, but definitely more than a couple – looking at what’s there for us to look at, be it advertising, editorial or both, tells us a good deal about our industry.

In the editorial of this week’s Wealth Manager magazine, there are 33 photographs of people other than the paper’s journalists.  Guess how many of them could fairly be described as white middle-class middle-aged blokes?  I’ll tell you:  30.  And the other three?  Two Asian middle-class middle aged blokes, and a completely gratuitous picture of the actress Emma Watson, present for no obvious reason in an article about corporate demergers.

I’m not blaming Wealth Manager magazine for this.  If their snappers turn up to get pics of this week’s star interviewees and finds they’re all middle-aged white blokes, they can only photograph what’s in front of them.  But, my goodness, our industry (perhaps especially the asset management part of it) is Nowheresville USA on this diversity thing.  I’d so like to see some females assail and prevail so we hear some pale stale male fail wails.

When will the protection industry start taking responsibility for its own consumer marketing?

The estimable Louise Colley, protection director at Aviva, makes an excellent job of championing her own specialist area.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find she gets more coverage than anyone else in the protection industry, excepting of course Tom Baigrie.

I suppose you can hardly blame her for her fairly frequent attempts to encourage someone else – usually the Government – to meet a large part of her marketing costs.  You’ll find details of her latest effort here:

But as I’ve tried to explain on several previous occasions, I think that the fundamental industry attitude that lies behind this latest proposal – that protection is some sort of absolute good which stands outside the normal world of consumer marketing and requires statutory promotion like wearing seatbelts or giving up smoking – is a) completely wrong and b) hugely damaging to the sector’s own vim and marketing vigour.

For ordinary young families with no special health or lifestyle issues, the upside is that protection is remarkably cheap – much cheaper, in fact, according to research, than most people think it is.  But there is of course a reason for that, which is that parents are extremely unlikely to die while their children are young.

I have absolutely no problem with people choosing to insure against this risk, any more than I have a problem with people choosing to spend money betting on any other very unlikely event, like winning the lottery.  (In fact, according to my own notoriously shaky arithmetic, compared to the National Lottery, the chance of “winning” a big lump of cash on a life policy is at least ten times better.)  But equally, when disposable income is limited, I have absolutely no problem with people choosing not to insure against this risk.  I can perfectly well argue, even when it comes to the wellbeing and happiness of children, that it’s better to take them on family holidays or sit down with them and watch the football on Sky or whatever than it is to spend money year in and year out on a benefit that is very, very unlikely ever to be needed.

This doesn’t mean that I’m against protection.  On the contrary, I’m all in favour of it, just as I’m in favour of going on holiday or watching football on Sky.  But it’s clearly an optional, discretionary purchase that’s competing against all those other optional, discretionary purchases.  (To see the proof of that, consider the effect on a household budget if, say, two working parents were both maxed with what the protection industry would consider the optimal levels of life, critical illness and income replacement insurance.  Even Louise Colley would have to accept that the consequences would be untenable.  And as soon as you accept that point, we’re into the world of Winston Chrchill’s famous comment to Nancy Astor – “We’ve established what you are, Lady Astor. Now we’re haggling about the price.)

All of this being so, I finally come to the point I’ve made a hundred times before – that it’s not for the Government, or the ABI, or the actuarial profession, or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, or anyone else, to promote protection to the public, it’s for the firms that make up the bloody protection industry to get off their lazy arses and do it themselves.

Over the weekend, I took part in a podcast on more or less this subject, and the presenter reminded me of Aviva’s excellent protection TV commercial – the one where Paul Whitehouse played his own ghost watching his family prepare to go on holiday.  Louise Colley had a hand in this admirable piece of work.  But the point I made in the podcast and make again here is that the commercial first aired in January 2011, nearly three and a half years ago, and here we are still talking about it as the only recent example of “image” advertising for protection.  (I exclude grubby direct response commercials, especially those targeting the over-50s, offering horribly overpriced products and featuring Michael Parkinson.)

I can’t really explain why the firms in the protection industry continue to sit on the sidelines of their own consumer market waiting for someone else to take on the cost of doing their own job for them.  (Even the high-spending BGL Group, the organisation that spends £30 million a year or more on those meerkats, having built its groovy consumer-friendly online protection business Beagle Street and launched it nearly two years ago, still hasn’t spent more than twopence halfpenny on promoting it.)

In most cases, it’s true that advertising and promotion alone are not the answer.  Very few firms have yet built a customer experience that’s ready to be advertised.  But still, taking on the challenge as a whole certainly isn’t beyond a big and well-resourced firm like Aviva.

It’s a mystery to me.  I don’t think anyone else is ever actually going to take on the responsibility – or the cost – of promoting protection on the providers’ behalf.  Either they’re going to have to do it themselves, or it isn’t going to happen.

But I’m genuinely not sure which of those two options I’d bet my own money on.

David Abbott RIP

I’ve just this minute read of the death of Britain’s best-ever copywriter by a million miles, David Abbott, and I feel something of that horrible empty sadness I remember from the cold, dark early morning of December 8th 1980 when the radio alarm came on and announced the death of John Lennon.

I never met Abbott, but my goodness I read him – there are whole pieces of copy, not just headlines, that I can quote more or less verbatim thirty years or more later.

Abbott was of course the genius of the print ad, and in a way it’s a measure of his genius that he could make you think print ads were worth bothering with (which, of course, they aren’t really, or not unless he wrote them).

But his real genius was that for many of us – well, for me, anyway – he defined advertising as a brand, and as a brand that I could be happy, even proud, to be part of.  I’ve been willing and able to work in advertising for 35 years or whatever it is more because of him than because of any other single individual.

I don’t suppose I approve of advertising in principle, really.  I certainly don’t approve of most of it in practice.  But the way that David Abbott practised it – decent, intelligent, thoughtful, urbane – who could possibly disapprove of even a word of that?


For goodness sake, Mr McWeeney. No. NO. NOOOOOOOOOO!

I don’t know why I have a Barclaycard.  I haven’t used it for donkey’s years.  I suppose it’s because they send me a new one from time to time, and I don’t think it costs me anything (?) so it’s easier to take the new card than go through the rigmarole of cancelling it.

But in a pretty perfect dramatisation of the expression “the triumph of hope over experience,” my total and permanent inertia doesn’t stop them mailing me with promotional offers somewhere around once every six weeks.

Normally, those grim-looking DL envelopes with the return address in Saffron Rd, Leicester go straight into the bin.  I thought I’d open this latest one so I could be rude about it in this blog, and on the whole it hasn’t let me down:  it’s just as dull, witless, impersonal and in fact irrelevant to my needs as I expected.

In fact, the offer isn’t a bad one.  It’s described as a “0% money transfer offer,” and is actually an interest-free loan, through to February 2015, of any amount up to 90% of my credit limit.  The truth is, for as long as there’s any inflation it’s silly to turn down interest-free money, and I’d be quite tempted to go for this were it not for the medium-sized print in brackets reading “1.9% Fee Applies.”  So it’s not really interest-free at all, it’s 1.9% interest. Since Barclaycard present this as a “fee,” they’re not obliged to express it as an APR,  but if they were I guess that 1.9% over just over 8 months would be around 3% over a year, which is good but quite a bit more than 0%.

So it’s the usual mendacious manipulative rubbish that we expect from Barclays, who on this occasion have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by taking what’s actually a good offer but dressing it up in a failed and counterproductive attempt to make it look better than it is.  And for that reason alone, the next 10, 20, 50 or 100 of those grim-looking envelopes from Saffron Rd Leicester will go the same way as the last 10, 20, 50 or 100.

I hardly need to remind you of the bigger-picture context behind all this, because I’ve blogged about it so often.  But in just a sentence or two, when oh when oh when will that Big Data-driven markets-of-one paradise start, if not to actually arrive, at least to be faintly glimpse-able on the horizon?  Barclaycard is nuts to keep sending me this stuff when I haven’t responded to it for a million years.  They never even try changing anything more than the tiniest details;  whether the “interest-free” period is six, eight or nine months, whether the interest is actually 2.5, 3 or 4%.  If they had any ability to look at their data with even a trace of intelligence, they’d have to see this isn’t working.

But they don’t.  So since they offer no opportunity to respond to these mailings except by calling the given 0800 number to avail myself of this not-as-free-as-it-looks offer, I’m sending a message via this blog to Head of UK Operations Paul McWeeney, who has hopefully signed this letter as he has signed so many before:


But I know I’ll get another one just like all the previous ones in a month or so.



A disappointingly unoriginal blog about Monopoly

Over the last couple of months, thanks to the Chancellor and his budget announcements about pensions, I’ve heard, read and indeed written more on the subject of annuities than in the whole rest of my life put together.

And whenever I hear, see or use the word, I get a quick flashback to where I first came across it:  on a Community Chest card in a game of Monopoly.

Along with the recollection, the flashback includes a flicker of irritation.  Given the chance to make a small but useful contribution to millions of Monopoly-players’ financial education, the Community Chest card blows it big-time.  Confusingly, the wording on the card actually reads Annuity Matures – Collect £100,  which just isn’t how annuities work at all.  Annuities don’t “mature,” and they don’t pay out lump sums.  From the time when I first played Monopoly – aged, say, about 10 – I’d got annuities all wrong.

Actually, quite a few Chance and Community Chest cards deliver financial-services-related propositions, and most of them are to a greater or lesser extent misleading.  Take the most generous of all, for example, Bank Error In Your Favour, Collect £200: sadly, that isn’t how it works, and once the bank spots its error, it’ll ask for its money back.   Or similarly, Your Building Loan Matures, Collect £150.  How does that work?  Is this a loan that you’ve raised?  And if so, how exactly does it “mature”?  Or Bank Pays You Dividend Of £50:  I suppose that’s possible, if either you hold shares in the bank or the bank acts as your stockbroker, but it’s not the likeliest of situations.    Or Receive Interest On 7% Preference Shares £25:  I’m not absolutely sure about this one, but don’t preference shares pay dividends rather than interest?  This is disinformation on a significant scale.

I must say, I was quite pleased with these observations, and with my planned closing comment to the effect that someone important in the industry (the FCA?  the ABI?) should go and negotiate with the game manufacturer, Parker Games, to get some more robust educational messages into the cards.  Until I googled one of the cards’ forms of words and it led me straight to an article on Investopedia called Why Monopoly Is A Terrible Finance Teacher (

Damn.  Still, on closer examination it’s mostly about how the property market works in the game, and touches only very briefly on Chance and Community Chest cards.  And anyway, I’m sure that if I checked carefully enough, I’d find that about 98% of the contents of this blog would fail an originality test.

No comment

It’s all gone very quiet lately.  My last five blogs haven’t attracted a single comment – the last eight only a couple.

Why is this?  Have you all got bored and gone away?  Have the blogs been too dull to be worthy of comment?  Or is it simply that Simon Wood, who’s usually responsible for about half the comments, is on a slightly longer-than-usual holiday?

Whatever the reason, it’s a bit unnerving – a bit like that moment in the movies when the people in the Mediterranean villa suddenly notice that the cicadas have fallen silent (not that any of my readers are in the least bit like cicadas)

Come on people, if there are indeed any people there.  Let’s be ‘aving you, as Delia said..

Frenchman? Bicycle, stripey jumper, beret, string of onions round neck

As international retail financial advertisers go, Zurich usually do better than most.  But I’d say that a current poster appearing as a bus back, among other media environments, in their international brand campaign makes an interesting misjudgment.

Actually, you could say that it makes two misjudgments, because as well as the thing I really want to talk about  I also can’t make much sense of the creative idea.  The visual, a photograph, shows two people in a car – a woman, presumably the mother, driving, and a girl aged about 10, presumably the daughter, sitting in the back.  The headline says Millions of school runs every day.  Just one insurer.  And then – I think this is the creative idea – there’s a sort of small red box on the roof of the car which I think is the daughter’s packed lunch.  And presumably the car’s going to drive off and the packed lunch is going to fall off and be lost.

This doesn’t really work as a creative idea, partly because it’s not obvious enough what the red box is supposed to be but more importantly – reflecting a comment I’ve made to creative teams a million times over the years – it occupies that awkward and uncomfortable space half-way between reality and metaphor, so that we’re not sure how to interpret it.  Do Zurich really mean that customers should make claims for lost packed lunches in red plastic boxes?  Or is the lunchbox symbolic of things that go wrong when you’re in the car?  We’re not sure.  Neither interpretation seems to make much sense.  As I say, it doesn’t really work.

But that’s not the misjudgement I’m interested in.  What interests me is the propping and art direction of the shot.

The car is an innocuous five-door hatchback, probably a Golf, and there’s nothing remarkable about the mother’s appearance.  But two things about the picture do stand out.  First, and less important, the car (which judging from the lunchbox business must be starting off from outside the mother and daughter’s home) is shown in front of some very upmarket and expensive-looking modern, but sort of mock-Elizabethan, homes – very much Charles Church rather than Barrett.

And more importantly, I said that the girl is wearing school uniform, but what I didn’t say is that she’s wearing very posh private school uniform – the poshness and privateness highlighted by the straw boater sitting with its brim at a perfect parallel-to-the-ground angle on her head.

This is not a suitable image for a bus back ad, least of all on the back of a No.29 grinding up through some of the more depressing suburbs of North London on its way to grimy Wood Green.  You can run elitist images like this in Country Life, but not on a bus back.  It’s a major turn-off – a reason for a lot of people not to choose Zurich.

As I say, Zurich are usually one of the more sure-footed of international advertisers.  So what’s gone wrong here?

I think that the key word is “international.”  When it comes to national imagery – and there’s no doubt that the scene in this ad is supposed to be located in the UK – what plays well internationally often doesn’t play well in the home country.  We know that posh British private schools are hugely admired and hugely aspirational around the world – in fact, as soon as families in many countries can afford it, one of the first things they do is send their daughters to Benenden and Roedean.  From Latin America to South East Asia, this is an attractive and appealing image.

But here, it’s different.  It’s cliched and stereotyped – and, worst of all, it’s divisive.If families like that are insuring with Zurich, millions of people will think to themselves, I won’t.

It’s at this late stage in this blog that the Frenchman in my headline comes in (presumably on his bicycle).  Or an American in a ten-gallon hat and a Cadillac convertible.  National stereotypes may communicate successfully across most or indeed nearly all the world.  But you should use them in their home country with great caution.

Good thing this blog isn’t a TV commercial

I haven’t even started writing it yet, but I can already tell it’s going to be far too complicated. TV commercials really do have to be idiotically simple if anyone is going to make anything much of them.  When developing TV advertising – something which, I must admit, I haven”t done a lot of for a long while – you have to put up unending resistance to the siren voices which you’ll hear calling you, urging “Make it complicated!  Make it complicated!”

I fear that the complexity sirens have been singing in the ear of those at Royal London responsible for their two new TV commercials which went on air over the weekend.  The core thought – summed up in the strapline We’re So Yesterday – is simple enough:  in a modern world of financial services which are all rubbish, we’ll treat you with the values of the past.  But I fear that this simple message probably gets very largely lost in two 60-second films full of detail about different kinds of pension and investment strategies for different market conditions.

Of course, it’s in the nature of siren voices that they’re hard to resist.  If they weren’t hard to resist, they wouldn’t be siren voices.  And they have some quite powerful circumstantial evidence on their side, particularly as far as the cost of TV advertising is concerned:  how can anything so expensive be so feeble?

But it is.  It really is.  Commercials basically work like posters where the pictures happen to move.  The message, ideally, should be short enough to make a decent poster headline.  I think back to those distant and rather strange days when it apparently made sense to advertise umbrellas on television, and I remember Dave Trott’s commercial for Knirps umbrellas (the K, you’ll need to know, is not silent).   The visual showed a man taking his open Knirps umbrella through a car wash, and the umbrella coming out unscathed.  And the voice-over said, in its entirety:  “You can bend a brolly, but you can’t k-nacker a K-nirps.”  And thirty years later, I can remember every word.

The new Royal London films are much better and much more expensively made than Trotty’s film was – and, as I say, the core idea about old-fashionedness is simple, distinctive and brave.  (Very few organisations would dare to describe themselves as old-fashioned and use a strapline like we’re So Yesterday:  usually you have to fall back on a much more cake-and-eat-it form of words like Where Yesterday and Tomorrow Meet.  Or the ever-popular A Tradition Of Innovation.  Or something equally stupid and useless.)

But as soon as those responsible came up with their big simple idea, those complexity sirens started singing their siren song.  And I strongly suspect that the consequences will be all too apparent when the first-wave tracking study results come in.


A blog which has nothing to do with wombats, gorse-bushes or cheese

When you’re an agency creative team working on a financial advertising brief, very often your biggest problem is that there’s nothing much to show in the picture.  When you’re advertising cars, chocolate bars or lager, you can always show the product (and indeed you usually do).  But how do you show an investment, or a bank account, or an insurance policy?

Actually, with a bit of fairly basic conceptual thinking, the problem will very often go away.  You can’t show an insurance policy, but you can show someone having an accident, or not having an accident, or feeling happy because they haven’t lost their no-claims bonus, or whatever.

But still, an awful lot of creative teams working on financial accounts struggle massively with the what-do-we-show problem.  And while some solve it very successfully – for example, with meerkats – many don’t.  At worst, the hunt for an image ends nowhere good – with a contrived and irrelevant picture linked to some spurious and distracting words in the headline, all of which serves only to obscure the message (like my wombats, gorse-bushes and cheese) rather than in any way helping to clarify or dramatise it.

The danger is particularly acute when the message of the ad is in any case at, or even beyond, the limit of what ordinary people can comprehend.  A good example is the current poster down in the Tube for Old Mutual Global Investors, which features a picture of a combine harvester made out of a sort of Lego and a headline which says:  “Isn’t it time you found a better way to harvest income?”

Of course to a small number of us who work in financial services, and particularly in financial services marketing, this ad makes perfect sense.  First, there’s a reason why it features a picture of an object made out of a sort of Lego:  this is the visual territory of OMGI’s current campaign, already seen extensively in the trade press.  On close examination the Lego-like material appears in two colours, dark green and light green, and this symbolises the way that Skandia’s and Old Mutual’s investment businesses came together to form OMGI.

Then what about the message?  Well, obviously, what the headline is really trying to say is something like:  “With interest rates on deposit savings accounts still so low, isn’t it time you took a look at what you could be getting from our investment solutions, such as bond funds and dividend funds?”

This is a bit long, but more importantly there’s nothing in it which gives the team anything much to visualise.  So they fall back on the standard ad agency response in this situation, which is to find a word we can use in the headline which a) says more or less what we want to say, and) gives us a picture.

The word this creative team have chosen is “harvest.”  They don’t talk about what you can “get” from our funds – they use a word which gives them a picture.  “Harvest” could have given you a bunch of images – not just combine harvester, but also scythe, hand picking apple from tree, field full of ripe corn, worried-looking dormouse amid ripe corn stalks, etc etc.  But it’s obvious what’s wrong with all those:  you can’t build hands or dormice out of a lego-like building material.  But you can build a combine harvester.

So there’s your ad – headline, and, thank goodness, visual.  And as a final creative touch, the team have dressed in a few rectangular hay bales in the wake of the combine harvester, also of course made from our trademark lego-like material.

It ticks all the boxes – I’m sure it was an easy sell to the client.  But to most of the people passing the poster at Euston underground station at 8.30 this morning, it’s still a terrible poster.  It’s all fine, as a rather nice account man said about one of my ideas many years ago, apart from the headline and the visual.

Taking the visual first, this just doesn’t make any sense.  Why is it made out a lego-like material?  The passers-by at Euston know nothing about the background, or the merger, or the campaign property:  they just see a combine harvester and some hay bales made out of something like Lego.  Is it for children?

But then why is it a combine harvester?  Does it have something to do with farming?  Is it targeting farmers?  Or, if it’s meant metaphorically (which, the passers-by at Euston know that advertising visuals often are), does it mean that the story we’re telling is one in which we grow our crop, then chop it all down to harvest it, burn off the stubble and start again?   The answer to all these questions is “No.”  The visual has done a pretty good job of throwing most people off the scent.

But just in case there’s anyone still making sense of this, along comes the headline to finish the job.  The word “harvest” is distracting and irrelevant.  But the real killer is the word “income.”  To ordinary people who don’t work in financial services, income is what you earn from your job.  My “income” is my salary, pay cheque or wage.  Unless you give me a great deal of help, it’s not going to occur to me that the word means anything else.  “Interest” is what I get from my savings.

So against that background, what does the headline men?  “Isn’t it time you found a better way to harvest income?”  If a passer-by at Euston underground station gave a toss, he or she could think about this for quite a while.    Does it mean literally that people could earn more money if they took jobs as farmers?  Is it something to do with how you get paid?  Should you be asking for your salary to be paid to you by some different method, maybe to do with the Internet?  Could it be suggesting that you should make money by buying and renting out combine harvesters?

In fact, of course, the huge majority of passers-by at Euston underground station don’t give a toss, which is why they won’t bother to think about all this for even a second or two and will just instantaneously decide that this is one of those financial ads that isn’t intended for them and which they can’t make any sense of.

And of course in that, they may be right.  OMGI may actually have no interest in communicating with 95% or so of the passers-by, spending their money only to reach that 5% of sophisticated private investors, intermediaries and other financial professionals who do actually understand this stuff.

But if that is the case, I do wish they would try to reach these people in a more targeted and less mainstream media environment.  Appearing where it does, the main thing this poster does is to contribute a little bit more to the existing and dominant consumer perception that the financial services industry has no interest in, and absolutely no understanding of, a single one of them