Formula One tank rides again

Of all the creative teams I’ve most enjoyed worked with, Colin and Alex come pretty high on the list.  Partly, that’s because they often came up with cracking ideas.  But also, it’s because they always came up with presentable ideas, cracking or otherwise.  It didn’t matter how woolly or complicated the brief, or how little time was available – if you briefed Colin and Alex, you could be sure that by the time the clients came in (even if that was hours or even probably minutes later), there’d be two or three ideas you could quite happily show them.

Mind you, in the interest of coming up with an impressively thick stack of layouts, the chaps were in the habit of padding the work out just a little – adding in one or two horribly unoriginal, pretty-much-entirely generic ideas which, at a push, you could just about defend as semi-relevant responses to any brief featuring any proposition and any product.

Of these – I am going somewhere with this, honestly – the most frequently-presented was the Formula One Tank – a visual of a tank, obviously, but in a Formula One racing livery, not camouflage. You can see how this works – it’s not just strong, or robust, or reliable, it’s also fast.  Or, at an even simpler level, it’s better than a Formula One car because it’s a tank, and it’s better than a tank because it goes like a Formula One car.  Colin and Alex invariably included this idea in the stack, and I invariably turned this idea down, which of course left Colin and Alex free to add it to the stack again next time.

That’s all a very long time ago now, and the last I heard Colin was living in Bulgaria.  Which, I suppose, makes it unlikely that they’re freelancing for the agency handling the rebranding/relaunch campaign for what until how has been MGM Advantage (and now apparently Retirement Advantage).

This is a bit personal for me, because not so long ago I was much involved in the rebranding/relaunch campaign for what until then had been MGM Assurance – which became, obviously, MGM Advantage.  If I say so myself, we did an excellent job.  The new identity was fresh, lively and original, and the launch communications were simple and strong.

None of which can be said for the new incarnation.  Everything about Retirement Advantage is crap, including the name.  But crappest of all is the advertising which – you’ve guessed it – actually does feature the Formula One Tank, or something very close to it.

Actually, it’s built around a useless generic idea about people being “better equipped,” visualised with pictures like several blokes pheasant shooting with shotguns, and one person on the moors with an anti-aircraft gun.

And since, by the way, one of the many problems with this idea is that photographing it would be unaffordably expensive, it’s only possible to run it as a crap drawing which makes it look as if they’ve decided to run the rough.

There are several other visuals in the campaign (not so far actually including a Formula One Tank among other tanks, but I live in hope).  I can’t actually remember any of them but it doesn’t matter because one of the acid tests for useless generic ideas is that you can think of a hundred more in an hour.

Anyway, I feel a bit guilty about giving this miserable stuff such a kicking, but at least it’s an opportunity to pay tribute to one of the best creative teams I worked with.

And if by any chance they have been freelancing for Retirement Advantage – well done chaps, you finally got it through.


Loved your presentation, still don’t agree

I chaired probably the best Financial Services Forum Brand Strategy Group session that I can remember this morning (in front of a dispiritingly small number of attendees, but that’s another story).  All three presenters were outstanding, but perhaps the outstandingest was a chap called Kim Miller, an investment banker turned entrepreneur who has just launched a technology-based insurance business called Guevara and who gave a fabulous presentation on the whole much-abused concept of “disruption.”

Long story short, Kim is a big believer in this, and is quite certain that squadrons of small, entrepreneurial disrupters are poised to smash up the legacy models, and the legacy businesses, that have held sway in financial services for such a long time.  As a result, he naturally has little time for the issue that I’ve raised many times in this blog, that creating a disruptive business is one thing but making it famous is another, and what’s more is one that’s a whole lot easier to achieve with an advertising budget of, say, £100 million or so.

This is of course a wearyingly old-economy way of thinking.  Kim, with a sad shake of his head, replied that this is invariably the first point made by old-economy investors on the receiving end of his funding pitch, and one which he can counter with the greatest of ease.  Times have changed…millennials do things differently….social media…. the power of referral….viral communication…the great case histories (how much have Uber, Spotify,  Instagram etc etc etc ever spent on advertising etc etc etc).

Well, yes, I kind of get that.  But my big problem is the big problem I always wheel out when faced with case studies telling stories of huge success:  what about the there-but-for-the-grace-of-god case studies telling stories of miserable failure?  I’m sure it’s true that a number of digital businesses have achieved fame by the kinds of means that Kim describes without a seven-figure advertising budget – but what about the many, many more that didn’t?

Another very good speaker at the event, Travers Clarke-Walker, of Fiserv, told us that he had chaired last year’s judging for the FinTech50 awards.  From across Europe, there were over 750 entries from young tech-based financial services businesses.  If more than 5% of these can ever achieve the positive awareness that’s required to break through to broad consumer audiences without an advertising budget, I’ll eat what’s left of Paddy Ashdown’s post-election hat.

And by the way, if I’m wrong (which I’m not) remember that there’ll be another 750 entries next year, and another the year after that, and the year after that, and so on.

Kim Miller and Travers Clarke-Walker both agreed that a big part of the formula for success among financial services start-ups is to keep costs to an absolute minimum.  That’s why, for example, both looked thoroughly askance at a business like Metro Bank, with its hideously expensive reliance on a branch-based model.

I understand that.  With Metro Bank’s cost structure, I can’t imagine how they ever recruit enough customers to make money.  But in my mind, the danger of keeping costs too low is just as great.  I liked the concept of Kim Miller’s new insurance business, and I suppose it’s vaguely possible that social media exposure like this, together with the iconic power of the bearded Cuban revolutionary whose career featured a good deal of disruption of a rather different sort, may help to bring it to the attention of the consumer target market that Kim is focusing on.

But if I had to put money on the table, I’d be willing to bet a fair bit of money, at odds no better than evens, that without a nice big chunky advertising budget, Kim’s business, and the very large majority of other equally-disruptive start-ups in insurance and other financial services sectors, will find it distressingly difficult to create the engagement they’re looking for among otherwise-preoccupied consumers.  And as a result, the very large majority of them will burn through their start-up funding and crash back down to earth, without ever achieving awareness among their target groups higher than, say, a single-figure percentage.

I wonder if I’ll ever feel grown-up

I suspect that for many people, one of the most vivid lifetime memories is the way it felt starting at big school aged 11 (or 13 if posh, or in fact 10 in my case being an October birthday).

I do honestly think that in an ordinary life, this may be one of your very most traumatic experiences.  The culture shock of making the transition from big kid in a little school to little kid in a big school is one of those things that really does tend to stay with you.

Perhaps most of all, I remember how the sixth-formers were just men, absolutely not kids at all.  Deep voices, stubbly faces, virtually a different species – even though I was an extremely tall 10-and-11-months-year-old and probably the same height as many of them, they made me feel very young, very un-grown-up, very silly.

Yesterday I went to an excellent conference organised by PR firm Lansons, with a genuinely all-star line-up of speakers (well, at least, in financial services terms), such as former Pru boss Mark Wood, FCA head Martin Wheatley, politicians or rather ex-politicians like Mark Hoban.

In reality all three of these, and probably most of the other big names, are about my age or indeed younger.  My voice is as deep, and I shave just as often.

But, I have to say, in the presence of these self-evidently grown-up figures with their talk of Solvency 2 and Prudential Regulation, I’m definitely back at big school that first September again.

New and even lower links found in food chain. Or rungs on ladder. Whatever.

My regular reader may have noticed that recently, I’ve found a variety of different entry-points into blogs grumbling about the unreliability of clients and the way they never do what they say they’ll do, or at least not when they said they’d do it.

He or she may also have noticed that I try to express these grumbles in a reasonably humble way, recognising that one-man marketing-consultancy bands come pretty far down the food chain, and busy clients will have many more important things to do than engaging with them.

However, if one-man marketing-consultancy bands come near the bottom of the food chain, or ladder, or whatever metaphor you fancy, it’s apparent that they are more links or rungs going lower still – one of these being the job-hunting-graduate link or rung.

For reasons I won’t bore you with, both my children, despite their three-year age gap, are both looking for their first “proper” jobs at the same time – and both are amazed and distressed by the near-total unreliability of virtually everyone they’re dealing with.

I’m not suggesting that people in the working world are more disorganised, inconsiderate or unreliable than people in the academic world.  I’m sure that at an individual level, there isn’t much in it.

But somehow, in the academic world, disorganised and unreliable academics and students alike somehow operate within a process that guarantees a certain amount of organisation and reliability.  If the timetable says that term starts on 16th April, you can be pretty sure that if you turn up on that date the gates will be open and you’ll be expected.  If you have an exam on 12th May, you’d be surprised if you turned up at the appropriate time and place and found that no exam papers were available – and, what’s more, you’d probably expect to be told more or less when the results would be announced, and when that date arrived to get a letter or email or something giving you the good, bad or deeply disappointing news.

In the world of work generally, though, very few such process safety-nets exist.  Actually, here and there, I suspect they do – for example, I expect that the huge graduate recruitment programmes run by firms like the Big Four accountancy practices are probably run in much the same way as any academic timetable.  But as soon as you step outside such herd-management processes and present yourself as an individual,  you realise that you’re in a world that operates by very different rules.

In this world, the essential rule is that no-one ever does what they say they’ll do, or if they ever break that part of the rule then they’ll certainly never do it when they said they were going to do it.  The poor old job-hunter lives in a world of complete uncertainty, having no idea at all how things stand, what’s happening, how their approach has been received or what they can expect to happen next.

All this, of course, is really painful and difficult for two reasons:  first, the job-hunter cares desperately about the outcome;  and second, this entirely uncertain limbo-land is so strange and unfamiliar.

I suppose you might say that it’s a useful learning experience in its own right, a slightly-intensified foretaste of the entirely uncertain limbo-land in which they’ll be spending their next 40 years or so.

That’s not quite how I put it.  “Welcome to my world,” I tell them.  “Welcome to my world.”