Please please please, let me pay you more

I’m trying to renew my travel insurance at the moment.  I’ve called four times, but I haven’t got through yet.  Actually, strictly speaking I did get through once, after a very long hold.  But the woman who answered the phone told me that she wasn’t authorised to do a renewal.  And in hindsight, I was so amazed by the idea of a call being answered at a call centre by a person who couldn’t do a renewal that I meekly thanked her and hung up.

At most (though not all) airports these days, when the queues at Security are bad, you can pay a few quid and go through Fast Track.  If you have a business-class ticket you can use Fast Track anyway.  Offering a Fast Track does involve a tacit admission that everyone else is on Slow Track, which is a bit embarrassing and could cause trouble.  But on the whole, it works fine.  Impatient people like me, who can afford it, go through Fast Track and look down on the people waiting interminably in Slow Track.  And people waiting in Slow Track look at me either with pity (for being so easily parted with my money) or dislike (for being a flash git).  (Actually, I’m kidding myself – they don’t really look at me at all.)

If any financial services provider with an average call waiting time of longer than, say, 15 minutes (which in my experience means pretty much all of them) offered either an ad hoc Fast Track, or a permanent arrangement through the FS equivalent of an Easyjet Plus card, I would jump at the chance to give them some more money to buy one.

To the best of my knowledge, none does.  Can anyone explain why this is?

Old worry, new evidence

As my regular reader knows well, one of the key themes of this blog over quite a few years has been to do with the role of creativity in advertising and marketing communication. Creative people say that their efforts make communications more impactful, more arresting, more engaging, more memorable, more distinctive.  Others harbour a dark suspicion that as often as not, the creativity gets in the way of the communication and draws attention only to itself.

I suppose I’m in the tick-both-of-the-above category:  creativity sometimes helps, sometimes hinders.  But as an ex-creative of some four years standing, I can probably now acknowledge that in my honest opinion, there’s rather more hindering and less helping than I wanted to admit when I was still toiling away at the coal face. (Joke.)

Take the bus-back that I’m seeing a lot on London buses at the moment.  In well-designed, large and legible type, its headline says:  “WHY AREN’T YOU ON THIS BUS?”  This seems to make perfect sense:  it’s obviously talking to car drivers and giving them a prod towards using public transport more often.

Except that it isn’t.  There are a couple of lines of very small copy at the bottom of the ad – too small for my ageing eyes to read unless I actually stand within a couple of feet of thebus – which make it clear that the ad is in fact encouraging small local businesses to advertise on London buses.  Bus advertising, it tells them, is cheaper and more effective than you think.

I wonder how many owners of small local businesses get this.  The pun works fine – when you realise what it means, you smile at the neatness of it.  But I’d guess that a good 95% of the target market never do realise, and assume the ad is in fact doing exactly what it appears to be doing – promoting bus travel.

In the end, I suppose the trouble with this ad as with many obfuscatorily-creative ads is bad execution.  Those copy lines down at the bottom are simply much too small.  If you choose to use a misdirectingly-punning headline, you need to redirect people to what you really mean pretty quickly and clearly.  In not doing so, I’d guess that the creative team responsible for this ad have wasted 95% of the client’s money:  it would have been far, far better if the headline had simply said:  “SMALL LOCAL BUSINESS?  ADS ON BUSES CAN WORK GREAT FOR YOU,”  which is totally lacking in creativity but pretty much right up there on clarity.

I hate the idea that I spent much of my 30 years in agency creative departments making sure that my clients’ target audiences couldn’t understand what the clients were saying to them.  Of course that’s not a mistake I was always making.  But it’s not a mistake I was never making, either.

If our relationship’s so personal, where’s my wife’s birthday card?

I’m not in favour of the meaningless, machine-signed corporate birthday card.  Of course I’m not.  It’s as silly, and potentially as counter-productive, as those birthday funeral plan mailings I used to get every year from Cornhill Insurance on the erroneous premise that my date of birth was the fifteenth of the tenth 1903.  (They congratulated me each year on reaching such a ripe old age up to, as I recall, 2008, in which year I’d have been 105:  at that point some sort of data-cleaning exercise must have taken place, because I haven’t heard from them since.)

But there are various financial services providers, especially in my household’s segment which I guess I would define as “upper mass affluent,” who pride themselves on a more genuinely personal approach.  Naming no names, but the kinds of firms I’m thinking about include our financial advisers, our rather exclusive private bank, the black card provider and maybe the classic car insurers who cover our small fleet of (2) ageing seventies sports cars.

All these firms would claim to justify their premium prices at least partly on the basis of their close personal relationships with us.  All of them have provided us with the names of specific individuals who are supposed to be looking after us.  And of course although none of them knows very much about us, one thing they do all have is our dates of birth.

My wife is coming up to a Big Birthday in the next few days (although some might ask what’s so big about being 39 again…).  I wonder how many of these named individuals maintaining these close personal relationships will take the trouble to send her a card.

I wonder if this spellcheck will recognise the word “podcast”

No, it doesn’t, it’s given me a wiggly red underline. It’s given me a wiggly red underline on “spellcheck” too.  And bizarrely, displaying a really remarkable lack of self-awareness, it also doesn’t recognise the word “blog.”  All in all, it’s a bit like having your spelling checked by a very elderly great-aunt who has no truck with all this modern technology.

You may wonder why I’m wanting to write the word “podcast” anyway.  There is a reason.  Roger Edwards, the only man I know and probably the only man in the world who is both a senior protection business manager and a martial arts instructor, has added a third string to his bow:  he is now a podcast producer.

His new venture involves publishing a new 30-minute podcast every week.  In each one, Roger will interview some kind of luminary of the financial services marketing scene – with the exception of the first one, in which he interviews me.  “Where can we find it, where can we find it?” I hear you shout excitedly.  Here, I reply:

Actually, I will be genuinely interested to see how many people do listen – not just to this first one, but also to the series as it unfolds over time.  People often say that podcasts, and for that matter videos, are popular in a B2B environment because they’re easier to consume than written documents:  you can listen to a podcast, people tell me, while in the car or in the bath or out running.

Yes, you can, I always think to myself, but do you?  I must admit I’ve never listened to a podcast while in the car or in the bath.  And I wouldn’t have got far if I’d listened to one on the only recent occasion I was out running, about 30 yards to Platform 1 at Paddington when cutting it a bit fine for a Temple Meads train.

Personally, when it comes to business-related content, I’m overwhelmingly a reader rather than a listener or watcher – mainly, I think, because I’ve mastered the techniques of skimming reading-matter so that I can hurtle through 3,000 words in less than 5 minutes. while there’s not much I can do to make a 3,000 word podcast take less than half an hour.

But maybe that’s just me.  Maybe the rest of the financial world is entranced by the idea of enlivening a journey in a car, or a bath, or a run, by listening to Roger and me, and subsequently others, chuntering on about financial services marketing and other such matters.

We shall see.  Here’s the link again, just in case you fancy it:

The words-beginning-with-capital-letters thing. Or Thing.

More by accident than design I found myself looking at a page listing all my recent blog headlines just now.  I can’t say it was a particularly rewarding experience – it was pretty obvious that I bang them down more or less instantaneously so I can get on with whatever I want to rant about.  But there was another thing I noticed: most of them included words beginning with capital letters, aka proper nouns.

Of these, the majority were people’s names.  In the course of this month, Keith Richards, Martin Wheatley, Neil Woodford, Anthony Bolton and Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show have all made appearances.  But so too have Start-Rite Shoes.  And the horror film locations Haddonfield, Amityville and Bodega Bay.

I suppose this may be coincidence, or perhaps more likely just a formulaic way to inject a bit of interest into some tedious financial topic.  But I suspect it may go a bit deeper than that.  Ever since I started doing much in the way of reading, say from the age of about 12, I think I’ve always basically thought that pieces of writing with lots of words beginning with capitals look interesting and inviting, whereas those without look dreary and dull.

I’m not talking about initial capitals, at the beginning of sentences.  Somehow, at quite a tender age, I learned how to scan a printed page in a second or two and get a feel for how many non-initial capitals it contained.  I remember that this was one of the things, even more than the sex and violence, which I liked about James Bond – the specificity of his brand names.  The car didn’t have a supercharger, it had an Amherst Villiers supercharger.  He didn’t just smoke a cigarette, he smoked mostly Morland cigarettes but occasionally Balkan Sobranie.  He drove a Bentley Continental – and not just any Bentley Continental, the one with the R-type chassis and the 13:40 rear axle ratio (this latter being an example of capital numbers rather than letters, I suppose).

This particular fascination with brand names probably says that I chose the right career path.  But there’s more to it than that.  The same principle applies in quite different areas.  If I’m going to read a report of a football match, the same scanning technique tells me whether it’s going to have a lot to say about individual players (good) or be written at a general level of abstraction (boring).  Or an account of a war or a battle (I read a lot of those).  Or a restaurant review.  Or a piece about a film, band or play.

Is this just me?  Or is it anyone else too?  If it’s you, then paras 2 and 4 of this blog will look very attractive – paras 1, 3 ,5 and 6 not so much.

Sometimes I’m so glad I’m not 21 again

Of course a great deal of the time I desperately wish I was.  But not always.

My poor old son Ollie is trying to organise an internship in Spain during the summer as part of his languages degree.  He’s working really, really hard at it, but for weeks now he hasn’t been getting anywhere.

This is partly, of course, because there are very few jobs in Spain just now, even unpaid ones for students who speak four languages fluently.  That’s bad, but from Ollie’s point of view what’s much worse is the total, relentless, spirit-sapping unreliability of all the people he’s been dealing with, some in the UK but mostly in Spain.  Absolutely everyone follows the same basic pattern – ridiculous overpromising and over-enthusiasm, followed by complete radio silence and/or an entirely negative outcome.  (Well, that’s absolutely everyone among those with whom it’s possible to communicate at all – the large majority, despite the fact that they are actually advertising for interns, make no response to any approach whatsoever.)

Ollie is literally grey-faced with misery and stress as this ghastly charade continues from day to day.  But what strikes me is that in fact, in a horrible and painful way, he’s learning quite an important lesson about the way the world works.

Because to me, of course, when I come to think about it, all of this is exactly what life’s been like for the last 30-odd years.  No-one ever does what they say they’ll do, least of all when they said they would – and most of the time, most people are impossible to contact by any means at all.

This is of course a pecking-order issue.  When I say “no-one,” I am of course talking about people higher up the pecking order than me, which mainly means clients and prospects.  People lower down – like freelance creatives and indeed clients temporarily in between assignments – are the soul of reliability.  I suppose that if you’re right up at the top of the pecking order, like the Prime Minister or the Queen, you never have this problem at all, or at least if so only when you’re dealing with other heads of state and monarchs.

But why do people higher up your own pecking order need to behave in this cruel and high-handed fashion?  Do they know the effect they’re having on my lovely son, and simply not care?  Or is it that they themselves are so busy trying to get a response from people higher up their own pecking orders that they simply don’t have time to do the decent thing?

I think back pretty miserably over the number of ruined, nail-chewing weekends when I’ve gone home having heard nothing from the client who promised to come through with the result of the pitch on Friday afternoon.  Or the number of times that I had three weeks to do a piece of work but wasted 20 out of 21 days waiting for the client to send through the promised briefing documents.  Or the many, many occasions when I’ve met someone and they’ve asked me to arrange a follow-up meeting, and it’s been completely impossible to re-establish contact and nothing has ever happened.

Recently I had to interview eight clients of one of my clients, to get some testimonials for some copy I was writing.  I carefully booked in times to call all of these people, and called them at precisely the appointed minute.  One out of eight actually took the call:  the other seven were on voicemail.  I refixed appointments for the seven and called again:  same story on the second occasion, only one answered the phone.

Normally I don’t even think about any of this these days.  The fact is, if a day gets busy, or a crisis erupts, or even if a lunch over-runs, I know that I’m one of those diary slots that can always be moved. (In fact, as far as lunches are concerned, I’ve had so many cancelled over the years, usually at short notice, that I have thought very seriously on occasions about deliberately double-booking, a bit like airlines do, on the grounds that one will almost always get cancelled and on the rare occasions when it doesn’t, I could always cancel one myself.)

Somebody much cleverer than me could probably work out how much money all this amazing inefficiency costs (although I’m sure it also works the other way – just think how much of BT’s profits come from voicemails).  But it’s not the money that matters.  I’d pay a great deal to see my son looking a bit less upset about it all than he does at the moment.

How much would Keith Richards have to pay for life assurance?

Believe it or not, the Keith Richards you think I’m talking about is 71 this year and long ago moved into the lifestage where the only option available is an over-50s funeral plan

The Keith Richards I’m actually talking about is the chief executive of the Personal Finance Society, who gave a fantastically stupid and actually rather disturbing speech about protection earlier this week in which he said, among other things, that “a consumer who is uninsured but has an adviser indicates, in my eyes, a failure on the part of the adviser.”

The first and most obvious pushback to this is simply to remind Mr Richards of his namesake.  If Keef appointed a new adviser, right now, in his 71st year,with his tens of millions of pounds, massive trail income from having co-written Satisfaction and catastrophic health record, would the adviser “fail” if he couldn’t flog him a few hundred grand’s worth of term?

But that’s a point too easy to be worth bothering with.  Imagine another Keef, aged say about 30, in excellent health, married to Hayley and with a couple of young sprogs.  In the extremely unlikely event that this Keef meets a financial adviser in, say, the next 20 years, I’ve no objection at all if the adviser has a crack at flogging him and Hayley some protection.  But, as I’ve said in this blog too many times to count, I also have no objection at all if, having heard what the adviser has to say, he and Hayley decide that they’d rather spend the money on Sky or a holiday in Spain.   Watching the football on Sky and going on holiday are great things to do, and he and Hayley are extremely unlikely to die in the next 20 years or so before the kids can look after themselves.  And in any case, if Keef does fall off his perch in 15 years’ time, Hayley may well be a main board director of a FTSE-100 company by then and the £200k-worth of cover that they’d spent years not going on holiday for may be a complete irrelevance.

This all makes it sound like I’m weirdly hostile to the whole idea of protection.  I’m not.  I’m absolutely fine with it.  I’m just not weirdly enthusiastic about it.  I don’t get where Keith Richards is coming from when he says that the existence of the so-called Protection Gap is “evidence of serious failings right across the industry.”

If asked, I’m sure that both the other Keiths in this blog – the Rolling Stones one and the imaginary one married to Hayley – would disagree with that as much as I do.

Should Martin Wheatley spend a day or two in Haddonfield/Amityville/Bodega Bay?

On the whole – with a few conspicuous exceptions – when I see signs of a bit of a barney developing between the FCA on the one hand and the financial adviser community on the other, I’m usually on the regulator’s side.

I admit this is for a combination of good and bad reasons.  The good reason is that the advisers are almost always in the wrong – their business practices over the years have generally been so appalling that they richly deserve at least 90% of what they get.  The bad reason is that when they alert me to the latest barney by ranting about whatever the regulator has done to offend them in comments on the Money Marketing website, their spelling and grammar are generally so atrocious.

I must admit, though, that this morning’s developing spat is one of those conspicuous exceptions.  Speaking at a conference yesterday, Wheatley has lashed out at the industry, and perhaps the advice side of the industry in particular, for its failure to launch exciting new technology-driven advice models over the period since the RDR came into effect.

To many in the industry, this is rather like hearing the bogeymen/bogey birds in the films I referenced in my headline (Halloween, The Amitville Horror, The Birds) complain that there’s no-one much on the streets at the moment.  Derr.  Of course there isn’t.  They’re all terrified of you.

I wrote a blog a few months ago – November 14th, if you’re interested – about one of the most depressing experiences of last year:  I spent an afternoon with a US-based client planning a UK launch on the receiving end of pitches from three UK companies on a shortlist to become my client’s business partners.  I’d gone into the session feeling excited and optimistic, looking forward to hearing three firms pitch new, innovative, customer-centric ideas that would help my clients break new ground:  by the end, after three presentations all focused almost exclusively on the regulatory challenges that would have to be overcome, I was head in hands with misery, boredom and despair.

(Apart from the sheer overwhelming dominance of the regulatory anxieties, the other fantastically depressing thing was how unutterably stupid and counterproductive many of the issues were.  A real example I quoted in the previous blog was that according to one firm, the regulator wouldn’t like it if my client entered into an arrangement with just one UK firm and would prefer to see clients – retail investors – offered a choice of several.  The fact that the large majority of retail investors would be freaked out by this choice and would therefore feel unable to proceed at all was insignificant.  In the end it was this issue which made the US firm decide not to go ahead with this part of their plan, at least for the time being.)

Things like this happen absolutely all the time.  You can’t get into a discussion about anything new or interesting without getting into regulatory anxiety within 10 minutes.  I’d estimate that fear of the regulator kills at least 95% of new thinking, most of it within minutes of birth.

Why?  It may be because a lot of financial people are risk-averse scaredycats, without the balls to take a bit of a chance.  But it’s also because they’re aware that miscalculating a risk can be a career-ending move:  have their name associated with a regulatory action, and that’s the end of their financial services careers.  And, of course, it’s in the nature of the way that the regulator works that almost everything you want to do sits in the grey area – the area where the FCA won’t tell you whether you can do it or not, but leaves you to decide whether to chance it and then comes down like a ton of bricks if they decide you were wrong.

It really is a terrible state of affairs , especially as far as any kind of innovation is concerned.  All that anybody wants to do is copy stuff that the regulator demonstrably hasn’t had a problem with.  And the worst part – I think this is the plot of another kind of Hollywood horror film – is that the villains have no idea that the psychopathic murderers are, in fact, themselves.



Hey, advisers, are you sure you want this bloke representing you?

Many years ago, if for any reason any TV programme wanted a representative of the advertising industry for an interview, panel discussion or whatever, there was only one go-to guy in adland – the founder and then-boss of the Allen Brady & Marsh agency, Peter Marsh.  Whenever he turned up on Nationwide or The Money Programme or whatever, we all cringed.  Marsh was a stereotypical adman right out of central casting, with coiffed hair, heavy gold jewellery and a fast-talking, over-excitable style:  how much happier we’d have been to be represented by that lovely urbane David Abbott (recently RIP).

I can’t help thinking, or maybe hoping, that financial advisers will now be feeling much the same about the new self-appointed role of former trade body leader Garry Heath and his new initiative The Heath Report (

Heath is in every sense of the phrase an industry heavyweight, so I write this blog with due trepidation.  But I have to say that the sound I hear from his website is the sound of a dangerous, furiously angry and totally out-of-touch dinosaur roaring with uncomprehending rage as it slowly subsides into the swamp.

Maybe I shouldn’t comment on this, but I have to say first of all that I can’t ever remember reading a website with more typos and grammatical errors in it.  There’s even a typo in the main navigation.  And in the name of the initiative that provides its subject-matter (he calls it “Retail Distribution,” leaving out the word “Review.”)   You can judge the overall level of attention to detail from the last sentence on the home page, which tells us that his report is ” expected to be issue its first section in July with the final part issues in November 2014.”

The typos may be the equivalent of Peter Marsh’s horrible jewellery, but really it’s the content of Heath’s initiative which infuriates.  It does this in two main ways.

First, there’s the dishonesty.  He claims, repeatedly, that the purpose of the report is to “give a voice” to clients who have suffered from unintended consequences of the RDR – in particular, who have been “orphaned” as a result of their adviser choosing to leave the market.  However, in what he has to say about his methodology, there’s no evidence that he intends to engage with clients at all – his questionnaire is addressed exclusively to advisers.  And even in the list of seven questions he says he intends to answer, only one could be said to represent the “voice of the client” – he asks “what attitude to clients have to RDR?” although he gives no indication as to how he intends to find out.

But what’s really dreadful about his account of his initiative is its total, utter, hostility to every single aspect of the RDR, and its absolute conviction that all of its consequences have been entirely, 100% negative.  He’ll stop at nothing to maintain this position, twisting facts and slanting evidence to an extent that would be appalling if it wasn’t so ludicrous.

To quote a few examples of his forms of words:

–  Commenting on one of the most positively-received elements of the RDR, Heath accuses the regulator of “arbitrarily injecting new qualifications.”

–  Having been part of the IFA claque that heaped abuse and scorn on low-quality bank advisers for as long as I can remember, Heath now sheds crocodile tears at the scaling-back of many bank adviser forces – banks realised that RDR “compromised their offering and as a result most have drastically cut their adviser forces.”

–  clients who no longer have access to these formerly-despicable sales-driven advisers are left “victims of the unforeseen effects of RDR.”

–  when it comes to the “losers” from the RDR process, Heath claims that “The biggest group are those clients who no longer have an adviser – known in industry-speak as “orphans”. There may be as many as 10m of these.”  This is nonsense.  Leaving aside the fact that many of these advisers were a commission-driven disgrace to the industry, very few of the clients concerned will have had any kind of ongoing relationship with them  To clients, the huge majority of the advisers who have left the industry will be some dimly-remembered hard-sell product-pusher who flogged them an ISA (or more likely an investment bond paying 7% upfront) a decade ago.

–  On the same aspect, Heath claims he will investigate what will happen after January 2016 when “when many advisers who are currently living on servicing their existing trail commission clients lose that potential income.”  The reality is that the small minority who actually are “living on servicing their existing trail commission clients” will have few, if any, problems:  they will be easily able to justify moving to a similar ongoing adviser charge, paid out of the product in just the same way that trail commission is now.  The very large number who will have a problem are the many who are actually living on not servicing their trail commission clients, in other words taking their 50 or 100 or even 150 basis points each year in return for doing precisely fuck all.  They will not be permitted to keep on doing this, and if there is one consequence of the RDR that’s to be 100% applauded from a client’s point of view that’s it.

I could go on, but I’d get too angry and you’d start getting bored.  (What do I mean, start?)  And in any case, Heath’s website includes a questionnaire for financial advisers to fill in with evidence that supports his opinions (the first question, by the way, has five typos in it), but I hope and actually suspect that despite the PR coverage he’s getting, relatively few advisers will choose to do so.

It seems to me that there are two reasons why the very large majority of advisers will decide not to join the Heathosaurus’s last stand in that nasty sticky swamp.  For one thing, even by the standards of the many advisers who remain pretty hostile to the whole RDR thing, Heath’s views are too extreme:  those who’d happily sign up to half of what he’s saying would feel distinctly uncomfortable about the other half.

But for another thing, they’ll note that Heath intends to use the “evidence” gathered in his report to kick off a lobbying effort focusing on the FCA itself and the Treasury Select Committee.  And surely even the most RDR-hostile adviser can see that Heath’s utterly rejectionist approach, complete with confrontational language, false claims and twisted evidence, is absolutely no way at all to achieve any kind of positive engagement.

For proof, just look at the effect it’s had on me.  I’m neither regulator nor politician, and I do think there’s room for improvement in the post-RDR advice world.  But The Heath Report has got my back up big time.

They’ll be claiming “attention to detial” next

Marooned at Edinburgh Airport last Friday, I had much more than enough time to peruse the digital posters on display.

Jupiter have obviously done a deal with Getty Images not just for a job-lot of still images for use in print advertising (I think they’ve gone for the Basic Financial Metaphors pack) but also a bunch of video clips for digital.  For no terribly obvious reason the clips on display in the posters at the airport seemed to consist mostly, if not entirely, of a young bloke doing parkour-like acrobatics in a council estate, but, hey, I guess they were cheap.

Anyway, it was the copy I wanted to mention.  Most of the clips were supered with single big words like Commitment, Expertise, Dynamism and so forth.  But the one that stood out for me was the one that said Intuition.  Or actually, it didn’t quite.  It said Intuiton.  Hope they run their funds a bit better than they check their ad copy.