Dear Sir, with regards to your blog of 23rd inst.

Exhibit A:  a computer-generated A4 sheet blu-tak-ed to the front door of the Oliver Bonas store on Kings X station today.  I didn’t take a note of all of it, but I know that it began with the words “DUE TO THE CURRENT INCLEMENT WEATHER…” and it was saying that even though the door’s closed, please come in anyway.

Exhibit B (sorry if this is a bit complicated):  a client has kindly taken on the task of organising some market research interviews I’m doing for them, so I drafted an email for her to send to the potential interviewees.  She was pretty happy with it, but made a few minor tweaks.  For example, where I’d written “If possible, I’m keen to book the time in before Friday February 20th,” she changed it to:  “It is hoped that the research can be completed before Friday February 20th.”

Exhibits C, D, E, F and millions of others:  all the countless pieces of copy I’ve written for clients who’ve come back asking me to make it less conversational, take out all the apostrophised words like “there’s” and “you’ve”, remove the “ands” and “buts” from the beginnings of sentences and generally make it much, much duller and much, much stuffier.

I’m sure that none of the people responsible for these exhibits is actually dull or stuffy in person.  I’m sure none of them gets particular pleasure out of dull and stuffy writing.  I’m sure none of them communicates dully or stuffily in any other situation.  And I’m sure that none of them really imagines that their clients have a passionate preference for the dull and the stuffy over all other kinds of writing

But, all the same, it’s quite extraordinary how this desire to pomposify lives on.  No-one writes like this outside their place of work, but in their place of work loads and loads of people still do.

Quite frankly, it’s by far the most important reason why I really don’t go looking for copywriting jobs any more.  Pretty much every time, my first draft will come winging back with comments which, no matter exactly how they’re expressed, are basically saying it’d be absolutely fine if I would just kindly take all the good bits out.

In saying all this, BTW, I’m not overlooking the fact that brands do need their own clear and distinct voices and it wouldn’t be a good thing if they all started sounding like Lucian Camp blogs.  But then again, it’s an even less good thing if they all go on sounding like correspondence from underwriters in Victorian life companies.

And finally, don’t you hate that “with regards” in my headline?  As far as I’m concerned, anyone who writes “with regards” forfeits the right to change a word of my copy.  What a shame that they don’t know this.


“Big data” benefits: the wait goes on

Yes, I know that taking potshots at the relentless advance of Big Data is a stupid thing to do – I feel a bit like the bloke in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, only without the bravery, danger or political context, obviously.

Still.  Received two items of post yesterday:  one from AXA PPP Healthcare (already a customer) and one from Virgin Media (already a customer).  Also a couple of texts from Vodafone Select:  one quite cleverly observing that I was driving pas Cockfosters tube station and telling me that I could have Tesco shopping delivered there, which would have been quite good except that it’s the only time I’ve ever driven past Cockfosters tube in my life and probably the only time I ever will, and the other inviting me to sign up with the employment agents Reed for whom i can’t believe I’m core target market.

I can only say that if this is the quality of the targeting that’s achievable in the era of Big Data, I hate to think (and mercifully can’t remember) what it was like before.

The only post that got me into trouble: looks like I was (mostly) right

Just coming up to five years ago, right at the end of my time as a sort of semi-detached part of the group to whom I’d sold my previous agency, Tangible, back in 2007, I wrote the only post in the eight-year history of this blog to get me into some fairly hot water.

It was headed “Of lunatics and asylums” (it’s still there, if you want to search for it) and basically it was a bit of a rant about the ideas being promoted by an agency called FACE – which, unfortunately, was then by far the most successful business within the agency group I was part of (and about a million times more successful than my own little agency at that time).

What irked me was FACE’s Big Idea, promoted with great evangelical zeal throughout their website, in conference presentations, in white papers and for all I know on branded umbrellas and golf tees.  According to them, when it came to developing advertising ideas, it was time to consign agency creative departments to the dustbin of history and adopt a process called “co-creation,” in which groups of clients and consumers would get together to come up with the ideas for the ads in workshops moderated by…you guessed it, by people from FACE.

As you can imagine, writing as somebody who was at that time just on the point of emerging from a 28-year stretch in agency creative departments, I struggled a bit with this.  In a mildly and diplomatically expressed post (honestly…) I said I didn’t at all agree with FACE’s basic proposition, that in today’s world creative things are much better done “with” their target groups than “at” them.  I said I don’t believe creativity works like that, and I thought a range of expert witnesses from William Shakespeare to those responsible for the Shake’n’Vac commercial would probably agree with me.

I also said that if I was just a teeny bit cynical, which of course I’m not, I’d be tempted to see this co-creation schtick as a smart and ambitious power-play on the part of the country’s tribe of qualitative researchers, unhappy with the way that their moderation skills tended to play only a minor role in the creative development process (typically checking out the creative department’s ideas with focus groups of C1C2 housewives in Ruislip) and looking for an opportunity to take charge of the proceedings.

The post picked up a few somewhat snotty comments, including one from some bloke in the property industry who said I was clearly a frightened dinosaur.  But the heavier flak came up towards me from people in my own building, and especially those in FACE itself.  I found myself about as popular as…well, as any of the unpopular things used in similes about unpopularity, if not more so.

Five years later, I’ve just been back to the FACE website to experience the pain of witnessing the triumph of co-creation for myself.  The agency is obviously still doing extremely well, which is very good news not least for me as someone who still has quite a few shares in the parent group.  And as you’d expect from any agency doing mostly digital work, its positioning and proposition has changed quite a lot over the five years since I last looked.

But the nature of the changes is interesting. FACE is no longer “The Co-Creation Agency” and the website it was promoting called the Co-Creation Hub, which brought together a whole bunch of sad and anxious Cello Group creative agencies under the co-creation banner, seems to have disappeared.  FACE is now “a global strategic insight agency.”

Co-creation is still there, but only as one of 13 different products and services on offer.  And the description doesn’t say anything about developing creating or communications ideas – it says that the service in question, Helix, is a way to “build disruptive product concepts.”   It looks to me as if co-creation, at least as far as taking over from creative agencies is concerned, has come to the end of its brief shelf-life.

Oddly enough, looking back over five years in which technology, in particular, has changed many things but creative work is still overwhelmingly done “at,” not “with,” the only person I feel cross with from that long-ago time is that property bloke who wrote that patronising “frightened dinosaur” comment.  To him, I have a nice simple message written on behalf of creative people in language that I hope people in the property world can understand:  “Fuck you, tosser.  We’re still here.”

First impressions. Can be deceptive, but not often…

There are two main reasons why I’ve been keeping my eyes open for some while for the first glimpse of the new, reborn, redefined Nutmeg.  They are:

1.  I must admit, I thought that the old, pre-rebirth, unredefined Nutmeg was probably the most embarrassingly and catastrophically unfit-for-purpose financial services brand of all time, telling a target market of intelligent, highly-educated, successful young professionals that the company intends to treat them like morons.

2.  I must also admit that a few months ago, when Nutmeg were looking for some outside help with the renewing and redefining bit, I was a tad disappointed when they chose someone other than me.  (This isn’t just routine injured pride and vanity, I’d really have liked to have done it.)

Anyway, I’ve now had my first glimpse of new Nutmeg, a 48-sheet poster that went up at Euston yesterday.  The moronic Nutmeg people had gone, thank goodness.  But in their place…

….well, there was a huge four-word headline which was some kind of twist on the expression MORE MONEY THAN SENSE.  I seem to remember that maybe THAN had turned into THEN.  And maybe MORE had turned into LESS.  So maybe it was LESS MONEY, THEN SENSE.  I don’t know.  That doesn’t sound quite right, or indeed make any sense.  Then again, I don’t care.

There was a strapline too, something about MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.  Can’t remember exactly.

OK, it’s gone from “humiliatingly bad” to just “bad.”  And first impressions, especially ones as sketchy as these, can be wrong.  The rest of the reborn brand may be marvellous.  But I’m feeling reasonably bullish about my first glimpse – I figure it may not be too long before they will need another brand consultant after all.

Why my emptying diary says that everyone’s busy again

We all know the expression about building an aeroplane in mid-flight, but as far as my diary is concerned it’s more like the opposite – dismantling the aeroplane as I try to steer its erratic and turbulent course through the working week.

What’s happening to me at the moment is that as I come up to within a few hundred air miles (or, letting this aeronautical metaphor go, about 48 hours) of most of my appointments, regular as clockwork the emails come through postponing them.

To be clear, it’s not all appointments that get cancelled.  It’s those time-for-a-catch-up, haven’t-seen-you-for-ages, must-be-about-time-for-a-coffee appointments, which constitute quite a key part of what I laughingly call my business development strategy.

And on the upside the Outlook cancellation email is usually followed by a let’s-refix email, although on the downside you can guess what the next email after that says.

I don’t complain about this.  I can see that those time-for-a-catch-up meetings do fall into the easily-postponable category when things get busy and diaries come under pressure.

Sometimes I think I’d quite like to have had a career where by this stage, my meetings don’t fall into the easily-postponable category.  But I suppose that if I’d really wanted a career like that, I’d have tried a bit harder to have one.

Retiready, maybe. Advertiseready, I’d say not.

Last time, I mentioned AEGON’s new online retirement planning service Retiready briefly, as a way in to a piece that was actually about the difficulty in delivering worthwhile simplified advice.  This time, I’m actually focusing four-square on Retiready, and its remarkably useless advertising.

It seems to me that the biggest problem facing the people responsible for this – and actually for much other financial advertising – is their unshakable conviction that it’s not possible to make the service they’re offering sound interesting. Therefore, they figure that since advertising does need to be interesting, the only way forward is to spend most of the available time and space talking about something else.

In Retiready’s original launch newspaper advertising, this “something” was an iPad mini that you’d be given in the unlikely event that you became a customer.  In their new very heavyweight Tube card and poster campaign, the “somethings” are a bunch of observations about people’s behaviour in the Tube, hung off the campaign theme line “Your life doesn’t have a score, but your retirement planning does.”

This line underpins a campaign featuring a bunch of large visuals in which hands hold up placards bearing, for example, a very large number 8 and copy that says “Reading someone else’s paper.  Naughty.”

All of this, apart from the words “…your retirement planning does”, has nothing at all to do with the subject at hand.  It doesn’t even provide a useful analogy:  in what sense does my retirement planning have a “score”?  And even if you just take it as an ad about reading other people’s papers, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  What is that large number 8?  8 out of what?  10? 100? 1000?

There are quite a few subjects in the campaign featuring other numbers and other behaviours, but to be honest none makes any more sense than this one.

The conviction on the part of those responsible that the subject can’t be made interesting creates another problem.  It is, I’m sure, one of the main reasons why they’ve chosen to advertise in the Tube – a medium that’s believed to deliver a captive audience who are particularly likely to pay attention to advertising which they’d ignore if they encountered it elsewhere.

There’s some truth in this, especially when it comes to big 48-sheet cross-track posters which offer a pretty good opportunity to write a few hundred words engaging consumers in what you’re actually offering them.  But other Tube media, including in-carriage tube cards, play this role much less well.  And of course all Tube media are hopeless at doing what Retiready most want, which is generating direct response.

My view on all this is very simple.  Great copywriters – or maybe I should say great communicators – can engage people in just about any subject on earth.  Give the subject of people’s readiness – or unreadiness – for retirement to a Sun or Daily Mail journalist, or to Martin Lewis, or, I don’t know, Terry Wogan, or Tony Benn (RIP), or David Attenborough, or the scriptwriters on Breaking Bad, or whatever, and I don’t know what ideas you’ll get back but I do know they won’t be about reading other people’s sodding newspapers on the tube.

There is one species of advertising which I believe can work well without touching to any significant extent on the product or service being advertised.  That’s the kind that you get in what are often known as “drink-the-advertising” categories, lager being the best example, where the wit and engagement of the advertising, pretty much in and of itself, gives consumers the best reason anyone can think of to choose the brand.

But in the advertising arena, new and totally unfamiliar online financial services stand as far away from lager brands like Carling and Carlsberg as it’s possible to stand, and what they need from their advertising is as different as it’s possible to be.

If those responsible are convinced that it’s impossible to engage the target market in what Retiready has to offer, then quite simply they’re fools to waste time and money trying to launch it.  Spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on lame and irrelevant observations about people’s behaviour while travelling by Tube doesn’t begin to work as a solution.

“Does it help that my father is the Sultan of Brunei?”

If you go out of your way to seek out dull and recessive financial advertising, you may have noticed some grim little ads for something called Retiready, a new service from AEGON, in the last few months.

Retiready is a new execution-only sales channel for AEGON pensions, dressed up as a self-help diagnostic service enabling you to figure out how ready you are (in a strictly financial sense) for retirement.  The first way that it helps you do this is by means of a self-completion questionnaire which will give you your own Retiready score – a mark out of 100 telling you how well-prepared you are.  You’ll find it here if you’re interested:

On the upside, the questionnaire is easy and quick to complete.  And on the Grand Old Duke Of York-style neither-up-nor-downside, I mustn’t beat it up too badly for not being what it has never intended or claimed to be – it’s a cheap’n’cheerful indicative tool, not a definitive and accurate assessment of your readiness to retire.


Having said all that, it does demonstrate very clearly indeed just how cheap’n’cheerful indicative tools are completely useless at best, and dangerously misleading at worst.  By confining its questions about your resources entirely to your “retirement savings” (pensions, ISAs and cash), by saying nothing about the assumptions you should make about the future (eg by not even mentioning inflation), and by not recognising the existence of a spouse or partner whose assets and expenses must also be taken into account , the tool ensures that the score it gives you will be completely meaningless.

(Meaningless, that is, assuming that you feel able to answer the questions at all.  In the interests of simplicity, it makes sweeping assumptions about those using it – such as, for example, that we’re all employees being paid a salary – that don’t fit at all with the many millions of us who work for ourselves, have much less consistent patterns of income and find it pretty much impossible to shoehorn ourselves into the ill-fitting boxes that AEGON have provided for us.)

I don’t really care about this useless service in itself.  Fortunately, its advertising is so bad that hardly anyone will actually get close enough to be misled by it.  But what is interesting is the way it shows us how impossible it is to say anything meaningful about anyone’s financial future without a full picture of their personal circumstances.  A son or daughter of the Sultan of Brunei could complete the questionnaire and, in the absence of pension or ISA retirement savings, would get a frighteningly low  Retiready score indicating a life of grinding poverty post-retirement.  There is no box where they can disclose that their father is in fact the world’s richest man.

What does all this mean?  I’m not sure.  It certainly doesn’t mean that everyone should be taking the detailed personal financial advice that would allow them to receive a reasonably-accurate Retiready score – as I’ve written elsewhere, that just isn’t going to happen.  And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be talking to people in general terms about the risk of an under-funded later life.

But I think it does mean that in this area as in many other parts of financial services, we haven’t yet thought anything like hard enough about what it means to change our focus from the adviser market (on which we focused 95% of our attention from the late 80s till a year or two ago) to the end consumer market.  Just dumbing down adviser propositions, as AEGON’s  Retiready does, isn’t going to work at any level:  most consumers won’t want to engage with it at any level, and the few who do won’t get anything of any value out of it.

Consumers – or at least the huge majority of us – can’t be treated like dumbed-down advisers.  We need new services that recognise us for what we are, and give us what we need.  Retiready is another example of something that is and does neither.