Actually, opinions aren’t really very much like arseholes

You know the old saying, “Opinions are like arseholes – everybody’s got one”?  Well, that may be true for some people, but not for me.  I’ve usually got at least five.  Opinions, that is.

The trouble is – and it’s a trouble ignored by about 99.9% of those expressing opinions on social media and elsewhere – that opinions depend on the facts that underlie them.  As the facts change, or as new or contradictory ones come to light, opinions have to change too.  And in big, complex, multi-faceted news stories, facts change and contradictory ones come to light all the time.

Here’s a current coronavirus example.  It’s a fact that most hospitals are doing much less non-coronavirus work than usual at the moment, and it’s also a fact that the newly-built Nightingale Hospitals around the country are empty, or nearly empty. 

So it’s been widely suggested that it would be a good idea to use the Nightingale Hospitals for coronavirus patients, so that other hospitals could do more to treat people with other conditions. 

What opinion do I have about this suggestion?  Well, you can choose from the following:

  1. Good idea, let’s do it.

  2. Sorry, can’t be done.  The problem with the Nightingale Hospitals is that they don’t have any staff.

  3. Good idea, but there’s a snag.  Nightingale Hospitals don’t have any staff, so the only solution is to transfer staff from other hospitals, which would mean they wouldn’t be there to treat other conditions.

  4. It’s not necessary.  In fact the other hospitals have over-reacted and most are less than half-full with coronavirus patients.  They could perfectly well do more to treat other conditions anyway.

  5. You’re missing the point.  The reason other hospitals aren’t treating other conditions is not that they’re full – it’s that they don’t want their staff or patients to catch coronavirus.  If we could provide them with the right PPE, the problem would go away.  

Which is it?  I’ve no idea.  And even if I could figure out which of these five best fits the facts (which I can’t), there’s every possibility that another new fact would emerge and create a sixth opinion, and then a seventh, and then an eighth…

Which leaves us in a situation even more anatomically difficult than having eight arseholes.  The only sustainable strategy is to have no opinion on the matter at all.

Captain Scott and the coronavirus

Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his two surviving companions nearly made it back from the South Pole.   They died in their tent, trapped by a ferocious and relentless blizzard which had kept them pinned down for over a week, just eleven miles from a depot where they had left fuel and food.  So near and yet so fatally far.

It may not be in the best of taste to find an analogy between their terrible sufferings and the hardship experienced by at least some people in early middle age who are losing their jobs in the current pandemic, but a sort of parallel does exist.  At age 55, these people could start drawing their pensions.  At 52, 53, even 54, they can’t.  (They can’t do equity release till 55 either.)  Those pots of their money are almost within reach, and for many still going through those horrendous years of Peak Outgoings they’re desperately needed very soon after the earnings tap is turned off.  But so near and yet so far.

Even after so many bumps in recent years on what we still think of as the “road to retirement,” this latest crisis points out more clearly than ever before  how wrong, how out of date and how deeply unhelpful that construct has now become.

Sure, there are people whose working lives still consist of unbroken salaried employment, achieving a consistent record of pension contributions, until they reach a pre-determined age when they retire and live on their pensions, of whatever sort and value, until they die.

But the proportion of people whose lives follow this simplest of storylines is falling all the time.  More often, there are some periods of continuous employment, but interrupted from time to time by redundancy followed by periods of unemployment – these periods, especially later on, resulting in shifts into self-employed consultancy with varying degrees of success, and then shifts back into the next period of regular employment when a new “proper” job is found.  And although I don’t have figures to prove this, it feels to me that this kind of volatility becomes greater, and the cycles shorter, in people’s later working years.   I can think of friends around my age or a bit younger who seem to have moved on to something different each time we meet for a roughly-annual lunch or drink.  

(When I last saw one of these friends a while ago, he’d just been made redundant from his latest senior corporate role.  “Have you retired?” I asked him.  “I’ve no idea,” he replied.  “I hope not.”   I thought that was a pretty good demonstration of the way that a cork in a storm-tossed sea stands for the shape of many people’s careers these days an awful lot better than a journey along a straight, smooth road.)   

I have a feeling I could have expressed all this better, but even so I hope the main point is clear.  There’s a big, unhelpful disconnect between the kind of lives we imagine in our financial planning, and the kind of lives that more and more of us actually lead.  And the result is – back to Captain Scott for the last time – that we’re all too likely to find ourselves hunkered down in our tents as our food and fuel run out, while a lifesaving stash waits a few miles out of reach.

This is about plans, and about products, but before any of that it’s about perceptions.  For some reason, perceptions about the way we lead our lives are right up there among the hardest and slowest to shift.  Ask a class of primary school children to draw scenes from family life and they’ll take you back to the 1950s – detached houses with front doors in the middle and chimneys on the roof, and Sunday lunches with families sitting at dining tables while Dad carves.

Sometimes this kind of fantasy doesn’t do any harm, but sometimes it does.  As far as the shapes of our financial lives are concerned, I think our outdated assumptions, about work and about an increasingly blurry thing which we still call “retirement,” are doing us no good at all. 

Footnote: Reading this piece again, I can see it might be taken to imply that people should be able to access their pension pots at any age. Actually I didn’t intend to imply that, or indeed to imply any other specific solution. It does seem to me that given the way we live today, too many of us keep too much of our long-term savings locked away until we reach age 55. But as for the best solution, well, that’s a tricky one…,

A word of advice from one member of the Silly Names Club to another

Way back in my schooldays, I didn’t like being called Lucian Camp very much.  It made me stand out at a time when all I wanted was to fit in.  I’d have been far happier with the anonymity of either of my best friends’ names, Andy Hall or David Green.

Years later, I learned to see it differently.  I remember a comment in the biography of the Saatchi brothers as a bit of a Road-To-Damascus moment.  Charles, or possibly Maurice, said how grateful they were for that strange, awkward surname:  they wouldn’t have achieved half as much, he said, if they’d been boring and forgettable old Charles and Maurice Williams.  That’s the upside of weird names.  You stand out. 

But of course at times when you’d prefer to keep your profile as low as possible, it’s the downside too.   The unhelpful side of weird names is, I’m sure, painfully clear just now to the insurance company Hiscox, who certainly aren’t the only insurer getting media attention for declining to pay coronavirus-related claims on their Business Interruption insurance. But they are the only one to do so with a name as strange, and silly, and, unfortunately, memorable as Hiscox.

How stupid does a rule have to be to make us mad enough to fight it?

Here’s a story I picked up in a webinar yesterday, which goes on a bit but bear with me.  It’s to do with the borderline between financial guidance (unregulated) and financial advice (mega-regulated, or megulated for short. by the FCA).

It’s about firms which offer services to self-directed investors, and which therefore don’t want all the complexity, cost and risk of offering full regulated advice.  It’s absolutely fine, within the definition of guidance, for firms like these to publish lists of their favourite funds, which if they like they can break down into sectors – favourite UK equity funds, favourite corporate bond funds, favourite absolute return funds, whatever.  And of course it’s absolutely fine for customers to choose to invest in these funds:  if the firm providing the list offers investment services, like say Hargreaves Lansdown, people can make their investments through them.

But imagine that a year later, say, this favourite fund has gone tits up.  The star manager has left, the new manager is an idiot and the performance is falling like a weighted sack.  Needless to say, the firm that favoured the fund a year ago now removes it from its Favourite Funds list.

And of course as part of its regular communications with its customers, it tells everyone who has invested in the fund that it’s done so.

Except that it doesn’t.  It’s not allowed to.  Because it says something specific to a selected group of people, on the basis of some specific characteristic that they share, that communication would be “advice,” not guidance.  To stay the right side of the advice/guidance borderline, the regulator insists the firm must choose one of two other options.  It can:

  • tell all its customers, including the huge majority who haven’t invested in this fund and couldn’t care less, that they’ve dropped the fund from the firm’s Favourite Funds list;

  • tell no-one.

These options are both stupid and ridiculous.  The first just adds to the never-ending avalanche of pointless and irrelevant paper (or pixels) that customers receive from their investment services providers, confirming in its own small way their perception that anything they receive is likely to be pointless and irrelevant.  The second deliberately withholds important information which is likely to have passed unnoticed by many investors, confirming in its own small way that investment services providers are always keen to shout about reasons to buy, but unhelpfully reluctant to mention reasons to sell.

So why is it like this?  Incredibly, it’s because the FCA thinks that defining, and policing, this kind of border between advice and guidance works in some unfathomable way to consumers’ advantage.

And also, it’s because we’re all too craven, and too brow-beaten, and too despairing of finding anyone with even a quarter of a brain who’s willing to listen to us, to let out even a squeak of protest,.  

I do hope someone in FS is thinking beyond next month

It’s a measure of how completely stunned we are by what’s happening that as far as I can see we’re completely unable to start imagining what life will be like “afterwards.”

There’s been a bit of speculation, in our own remote conversations with families and friends and in the media, about how and when the current lockdown may be lifted in the next few weeks.  But after that?  Nothing.  Or at least, nothing beyond the vaguest and most superficial platitudes – “Life will never be the same again…”

If anyone is most likely to have a crack at it in my world, it must be the “change catalyst,” management consultant Campbell Macpherson.  Campbell’s business is helping his clients, most of them in financial services, to imagine what the future’s going to be like and then to achieve change as necessary to be successful in it.  Unsurprisingly, he’s been quick off the mark to recognise that the crisis creates massive opportunity for this sort of thing, and his website www.changeandstrategy.com now leads with a piece titled Preparing your business for take-off after Covid-19.

But – maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so – even taken together, the five “new realities” he introduces to us paint a sketchy picture at best.  He says (his words, not mine): 

  • Government austerity is gone forever
  • We’ll all be turning a little Japanese (in the sense of accepting much higher debt-to-GDP ratios than previously)
  • People are now important
  • CFOs will be given increased power
  • But you can’t cut your way to greatness

With the greatest respect to a consultant who’s a great deal more successful than I am (and whose first book, published recently, was Business Book Of The Year while mine wasn’t, not that I care about such things), I’m not massively impressed by these predictions.  Without wanting to spend too much time on issues and arguments that are well beyond my pay grade, I’d have thought that of his five formulations, nos. 2 – 5 have all been true for ages, at least since the last crisis, and no. 1, which is the big one, depends on a) how exactly we do emerge from this crisis and b) what you mean by “austerity.”  If, for example, you take the view that unemployment is going to stay stratospherically high for ages, then the Government spending required to deal with the consequences will be gigantic and not austere at all:  but as a result of that (and the simultaneously reduced tax revenues), spending on everything else is likely to be very austere indeed for a very long time to come.

Anyway, the thing is, the point I really want to make about my own world – of financial services and financial services marketing – is that while we’re not really talking about life post-coronavirus among ourselves and in the media, I do hope that our industry’s best and brightest strategists and planners are talking about it in hastily-convened Zoom-based working groups.

OK, at the moment our future is so unknowable that it’s going to have to be a scenario-planning approach, starting with a handful of very different scenarios and developing plans for each.  And it’s also going to have to be a thinking-the-unthinkable approach:  twice in just over ten years now it has rather seemed that only massive government intervention can save the global economy, which does make you start to wonder whether we’re sure that laissez-faire capitalism is the best basis on which to manage our affairs.

But while huge top-down issues like this definitely need thinking about, the job of us marketers is to look through the other end of the telescope at individual consumers, to make sure we understand their changing wants and needs, and provide products and services that meet them.  I only have one observation on this at the moment, but it’s a fairly far-reaching one:  we cannot continue with our long-established, industry-wide practice of offloading financial risk onto individuals’ shoulders.

Whether this is about debt, which becomes impossible to service horribly quickly when income is interrupted, or whether it’s about long-term savings, where the value of decades of contributions can be wiped out in a week or two, individuals would be mugs to go on accepting the consequences of the kind of volatility that we’re now living through.

And meanwhile, when the level of risk falls (which it does occasionally), it’s still the industry and not the consumer who benefits.  For obvious reasons, motor insurance claims have fallen sharply – but, as usual, when I came to renew my cover a fortnight ago, the quote from my existing insurer was up by 20% or so.*

All this may be completely wrong.  It may well be that other much cleverer people around the industry have much better and clearer ideas of how our industry will need to change.  At the moment, though, they’re keeping them pretty much entirely to themselves.  I look forward to a more public discussion kicking off.

* Stop press:  In between writing and posting this, I notice that one insurer – Admiral – is proposing a modest refund.  It’ll be interesting to see if others follow. 

My goodness, I’m glad I don’t still run an agency

Recently I’ve been working on my very favourite kind of project, helping a client to choose a new agency.  I don’t get these gigs very often, but whenever I do it’s always hugely enjoyable and even more hugely instructive.  Usually, my only regret is that since my own agency days are now long behind me, there’s no opportunity to put into practice the countless lessons I learn.

This time, though, it’s a bit different.  I’ve learned many lessons, but by far the biggest and most important would have been so extremely difficult to put into practice that I’m much relieved not to have to.  Let me explain.

Like most smaller-to-medium-sized clients (and after all, most clients are smaller to medium sized), my client has a long list of marketing communications needs.  It’s a fairly long list in terms of the kinds of activity (lead generation, CRM, product collateral, brand projection) and a very long list indeed in terms of the range of channels through which these activities must be delivered (online including web, app, ads, video, social, search, email etc etc, and offline including print, events, ads,  etc etc)

Not unreasonably, the client would like all of this activity to be handled by the smallest possible number of agencies, and obviously the very smallest number possible is one.  And also not unreasonably, pretty much all the agencies we went to see in the long list phase would like to handle the biggest possible proportion of all this activity, and obviously the very biggest proportion possible is all of it.  So, as far as I can remember, every agency we saw told us they were fully-integrated marketing communications agencies, able to deliver the full range of activities and channels from under one roof.

Which is an easy thing to say – but, for two key reasons, an incredibly difficult thing to do.

First, for smaller agencies with limited headcounts, there’s an obvious problem in maintaining the sheer range of skills required.  I suppose this may change over time as the need for genuinely multi-skilled people becomes ever greater, but at this moment the very best people in every marcomms sub-speciality possess an extremely – and I mean extremely – narrow range of skills.  To take writers as the example I know best, the people who write the best ads absolutely aren’t the people who write the best websites.  The people who write the best websites absolutely aren’t the people who write the best social campaigns.  And the people who write the best social campaigns aren’t the people who write the best search ads.  Sure there are plenty of people who can write all of the above.  But they’re not the best people.

But I can tell you, on the basis of my recent round of creds presentations, that the second problem is more difficult.  The second problem is culture.

The fact is that none of these smaller-to-medium-sized agencies started off as fully-integrated multi-disciplinary marketing communications agencies.  They all started off somewhere much more specific, being founded by people with much more specific skills. Then over time they all realised that to achieve a worthwhile share of their clients’ smaller-to-medium-sized budgets, they’d need to broaden their proposition to include a whole lot of other things.

But the funny thing is that when you meet with agencies that have made this journey – and a great many have – you can tell in the first 30 seconds of the meeting, or in about the same length of time on the website, what was the skill they began with.  It’s easy to tell because whatever they may say, it’s still the skill they have – and, when it comes down to it, the skill they valuetoday.

The main reason for that, of course, is the personalities, preferences and prejudices of the founders.  Almost every senior person in marketing communications started as a specialist, and basically believes that all other activities are a bit rubbish.  I’m no exception.  I started as an advertising person, and all of us in ad agencies looked down our noses at people in what we perceived as rather grubby fields like direct marketing, and rather pretentious fields like brand and design.  What we didn’t realise was that at the same time they were looking down their noses at us, believing that our precious TV commercials and poster campaigns (now of course OOH campaigns) were a self-indulgent waste of money that we could only get away with because for some inexplicable reason we managed to duck the need for any serious measurement or evaluation.   In fact, the truth was that everyone was looking down their noses at everyone.

Which is fine until, as an agency leader, you decide that it really does need to build up capabilities in most, if not all, of the areas that you’ve been so sneery about for so long.    It’s possible – but it’ll always be difficult to speak these new languages like a native.  True natives will always a) speak it better than you, and b) know at once that you’re an impostor.  

There may be a way to escape, or at least partly escape, this cultural isolation.  If your agency specialises in a market sector, rather than an activity, you can be a lot less siloed (or perhaps siloed in a very different way).  Both of my agencies specialised in financial services.  It was blindingly obvious that our clients needed a whole lot of different activities for us, and it would have been foolish in the extreme not to provide them.  If you focus on a niche market, and only offer a niche service, you really will niche yourself out of existence.

But I have to admit that the range of requirements from financial clients has kept on growing, and may well be twice as wide now as it was when I stood down from my agency eight years ago.   Maintaining the ability to deliver all that lot gets harder and harder, even for agencies with a specialist sector focus like mine.  And that’s why I’m glad I don’t have to put the lessons I’ve learned from my recent pitch project into practice.

I just hope that the winning agency can.

Introducing the new Lucian Camp Consulting Brand Brokerage. (No, not really.)

I don’t have a problem with the former Investec Asset Management, newly demerged, calling itself Ninety One.  (If anything, I have a bigger problem with the uncanny resemblance between its newly-chosen corporate colour and fonts, and those of the former mobile network operator Orange, now part of EE.)

In saying this, I’m declining to join in with the shrieks of horror which greet almost all high-profile renamings – Norwich Union’s switch to Aviva, the consulting arm of PwC’s planned move to Monday and Royal Mail’s intended change to Consignia being among the most famously horror-generating examples.   When people react with such fury, I always want to ask them what they think a good name might have looked like.  Given, for example, that there’s a stack of research showing that Norwich Union really isn’t a very easy or appropriate name for an increasingly global, large, diverse financial services group, then if Aviva is such a terrible idea what should you call it?  

I must admit I think Monday is pushing it a bit (and so did PwC, who quickly back-pedalled when they realised just how badly it had been received), but on the whole I think you can make almost any name work if you try hard enough.  And anyway, for large, well-known businesses it’s only an issue in the first year or so.  After that, the name loses its literal meaning and connotations, and just becomes the identifier of the business in question.  (I remember first understanding this in the context of bands’ names – as soon as they became famous, words like Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones and Beatles lost all connection to concepts of pinkness, of stones rolling or of insectitude.)

So Ninety One it is, and judging by every naming exercise in which I’ve been involved I’m sure the people responsible will have breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was agreed, signed off by the lawyers and registered as a URL.  Thinking of new names – and, even more so, agreeing on new names – is really, really hard.

In financial services, though, I also wonder if it’s a bit unnecessary.  The fact is that with all the mergers, acquisitions and restructurings of the last 20 years or so (probably longer, actually) literally hundreds of brand names have been cast aside, discontinued, jettisoned – made unnecessary by the new shape of the business.

Brand perception-wise, some of these have become quite badly damaged goods.  You probably wouldn’t choose to bring back the Allied Dunbar brand, or for those with longer memories The Levitt Group, MI or Barlow Clowes.  But there’s a huge number which are more or les well-known, and more or less positively, if somewhat indistinctly, perceived – pretty much the ideal state of affairs when it comes to repurposing them to name another business.  There are dozens in every sector of financial services:  to get your head around just how many, have a look at the list of pensions providers on the ABI website, at https://www.abi.org.uk/data-and-resources/tools-and-resources/register-of-consolidations.  The overwhelming majority are no longer open for business:  if you just look at the 14 beginning with the letter “A”, only one – Aviva – is still administering its own pensions under its own name.  (By the way, it’s also administering pensions written originally by AXA, CGU, Colonial Life, Commercial Union, Equity & Law, Friends Life, Friends Provident, General Accident, Hibernian, London & Manchester, National Mutual, Norwich Union, Sun Life, UK Provident and Winterthur Life, a couple of which still exist but most of which don’t.)

Football clubs often don’t want to sell their best players to their closest rivals.  The same might apply to financial services brand owners, especially when it comes to the few really strong and powerful brands.  In retail investments, for example, I’d argue that one of the very best of all brand names is Save & Prosper, previously owned by Flemings but more recently acquired by JPMorgan when it bought the Flemings business.  JPMorgan will never use the Save & Prosper brand:  they’re far too committed to using their own name as a single-minded master brand.  All the same, they might think twice about selling it to a competitor.  But then again, everything has its price.  (And if you couldn’t get Save & Prosper, you could try Prolific, or Framlington, or Newton, or even Perpetual which seems to have been dropped by Invesco recently.)

You could argue that Ninety One has the scale and the resources not to need the turbo boost of a well-known existing brand name – that within a couple of years, they’ll have established their own name among the premier league of asset managers.  I’m not sure if that’s true, especially among end investors:  I doubt whether recently-launched brands like BMO, Meriam or Kames Capital (the latter launched nine years ago now) have yet been able to buy even half the brand awareness of Save & Prosper.

But if the point is debatable among large, established asset managers, I don’t think there’s any argument when it comes to small, young ones – and most of all to start-ups.  Consider, for example, that of the list which once included seven pension and investment companies with the word “Scottish” in their names, only one, Scottish Widows, is still open under that name (or two if you count Scottish Friendly, which is a rather different kind of business).  Scottish Amicable, Scottish Equitable, Scottish Life, Scottish Mutual and Scottish Provident have all fallen by the wayside, as a result of acquisition or restructuring or both.  Surely one of these would have been worth bidding for?

Some will say that these old names, even if reasonably well-known and fairly positively perceived, have all the wrong kind of associations for modern, forward-looking, legacy-free, mainly digital financial services businesses.  They’ll say it’s far better to be called Wealth Wizards, or Moola, or Nutmeg.  I’m not so sure.  With a very limited budget, I would much rather redefine and re-present a well-known name from the past, than try to build the same level of positive awareness from scratch with a brand-new one. 

At this point, I’d like to be able to announce that the Lucian Camp Consulting Brand Brokerage is now open for business, its shelves fully stocked with legacy brands from Save & Prosper at the top of the range, down to the Ardwick Union Burial Society at the bottom.  (This really exists, or rather existed – you’ll find it in that ABI pension providers list, now administered by LV=.)

Unfortunately, though, LCCBB is another of those business ideas I’ll probably never get round to developing.  Or at least, not till I can think of a much better name.     

Six degrees of separation in reverse

Strictly speaking, the six-degrees-of-separation concept doesn’t have a direction.  In dramatizing the inter-connectedness of the seven billion of us on this planet, it simply says that you don’t need more than six links between people to make a connection between any one of us and any other.

In practice, though, when people try to explain this concept (or more accurately tried, since these days we all get it and little explaining is necessary), it’s almost always in outbound terms – terms that start with you, and go on to connect you with any random Chinese person growing rice in a paddy-field.  The example makes a positive point perfectly – you feel very connected, very much the global citizen.

What’s been brought home to us these last few months is that the same set of connections works in the opposite direction, starting with the random Chinese person and extending back to you.  Which, when the Chinese person has been dining on bat-infected pangolin, makes a rather less positive point equally well.

Decoding the pics in pension ads was easy. Private Medical ads, much harder.

In my last coronaviral blog I danced rather gleefully on the grave of all those stock shots of well-preserved and obviously American seniors on cruise liners (sorry, bad taste figure of speech) that we’ve been seeing for years in pensions advertising.

It wasn’t hard to figure out how so many desperate creative teams, equally lacking in budget, receptive clients and imagination, would have landed on such images.   They’d be looking for a positive image of retirement, obvs, to encourage people still some years away to put money into a pension.  When they opened the mental box-file called “positive images of retirement,” there wouldn’t be very much in it, not least because the team themselves would almost certainly be in their 20s or 30s and would have no relevant experience except perhaps what their parents or grandparents did;  and they could tell that some of the few options they could think of (playing bowls, gardening, games of bridge, book club, small glasses of sherry) wouldn’t have much appeal to their 40- or maybe 50-something target market.

By a process of elimination, therefore, they’d be left with only a handful of options:  round-the-world cruise;  maybe playing golf, although very male;  and going for a walk, preferably with a dog to add  bit of visual interest (quite likely on a golf course).  Over the years the big photo libraries, most of which are American, realised there was good money to be made from images like these, and so they stocked up with thousands of them, many of the less good ones available royalty-free.

That’s it.  That’s the story, right there.  (Except of course for the obvious point that none of that bore any relation to how 40- or 50-somethings wanted to spend their retirement:  the pictures in our minds largely involved revisiting the kinds of activities we’d had to give up when we found ourselves heading into the long tunnel called mortgages, kids and steady jobs, quite a few of which aren’t really suitable for advertising.  But that’s another story.)

At some point back in those years my agency won quite a large chunk of a leading private medical insurance (PMI) provider, and I quickly realised there was a whole other visual language to learn in this area.  A review of existing material revealed an even more tightly-defined visual language.  Like with the Americans on the boat, you would show photographs of people using the product, but your range of options was extremely limited, and defined pretty much entirely by gender.

If you wanted to show a woman, she should be shown in a hospital bed (private room, naturally) being visited by one or more members of her family.  She should be sitting up in the bed, wearing a dressing gown, looking well and smiling.  A smiling nurse could be shown entering or leaving the room.

If you wanted to show a man, none of this would do at all. He should be shown out and about, in a rural situation (or possibly a park), also with family members, also smiling and – crucially – in a wheelchair.  For reasons that I didn’t understand then and still don’t now, he should ideally be wearing a lightweight lemon yellow jumper.

Stock shots of both kinds of scene were, again, readily available, so you could probably find a picture which, although showing all the right characteristics, hadn’t actually been used before by one of your close competitors.  And if it was royalty-free, bingo.    

But although it was clear empirically that this was how the sector worked, it took me a while to figure out why.  The thing is, it’s all about gender roles.  Men, it was believed, lead active lives.  Even when something bad has happened health-wise, like losing the use of a couple of limbs, they’re still as active as they can be:  hence wheelchair.  Women were seen to lead domestic lives.  If something bad happens to them they have to go to a hospital, but to a private room in a hospital that looks as much like a normal bedroom as possible.  And their families come and visit them, and everyone smiles a lot.

If you think I’m being too prescriptive about this, imagine reversing the roles.  A woman in a wheelchair on, say, a clifftop path?  Impossible.  A man wearing a dressing-gown in a hospital bed surrounded by children?  Perhaps we should call the authorities.

This is all a few years ago, and the world has changed.  It’s not so much that we’ve come up with new stereotypes, but at least we now use other visual devices and not stock shots intended to represent our customers.  If you google “man in wheelchair on walk with family” you only get a few dozen, and most of them aren’t even stock shots.

What do we use instead these days?  Well, I’m not quite sure how we make it work, but I suspect it may well be “group of people looking at computer screen.”  Google claims to have come up with over 4 billion of those.

Excellent, it’s the end for the biggest cliche in retirement advertising

Many years ago, when I was still learning the language of financial services marketing communication, there was a time when I still didn’t recognise the biggest cliché in retirement advertising.  At the same time, by the way, it was also the biggest cliché in advertising for long-forgotten products called ten-year savings plans.

It was of course the message, complete with ridiculously cheesy photograph preferably featuring people who were obviously Americans, that these products would make it possible for you to enjoy a round-the-world cruise.  I built up quite a collection of these photographs from ads and mailpacks (this was a pre-internet era), which sadly got lost in an office move some years later.

Even at this early stage of my financial services marketing career something about this round-the-world cruise obsession didn’t ring true.  I personally hated the idea, and I felt sure a lot of other people would too.  In those days my agency was making quite a lot of money, and putting questions on quantitative research omnibus studies was amazingly cheap, so to put my suspicions to the test I devised a question asking people to put in order of preference a bunch of extravagances they might like to experience with the proceeds of their pension or savings plan.

Long story short, the round-the-world cruise was first choice for only 8%, making it the second-least popular option.  The runaway favourite was “penguin pool in back garden,” which from memory was chosen by around a third.

I wrote about these findings, gave a conference presentation on several occasions and went to see some of the major players in the space to try to give them some fresh and more appealing ideas.  But none of it did any good.  The round-the-world cruise pics continued unabated, and I’ve never seen a shot of a back-garden penguin pool from that day to this.  My efforts were a total failure.

But now, I feel a new surge of hope.  Coronavirus, I strongly suspect, may succeed where I failed.  Media reports tell horrific tales of thousands of ageing cruisers trapped in their cabins on virus-soaked vessels parked on distant and desolate quaysides as the illness moves inexorably down the gangways towards them.  It’s almost literally impossible to imagine anything you would less like to do with your 25% tax-free lump sum.

Which is why I predict that all of a sudden, stock shots which have acted as cash cows for the big photo libraries for decades are coming towards the end of their shelf life.  As for me, I’m off to the leafier residential streets of north-west London with my iPhone. There must be a penguin pool in a back garden up there somewhere.