I was right. We were a better choice for asset management clients.

For obvious reasons I’d better keep this anonymous, but I’ve fairly recently heard some war stories from inside a non-specialist agency pitching for an asset management client.

It’s been pretty fraught, and as you’d expect a lot of the available time has been wasted on getting up to speed with how this difficult and complex industry works, who the target audiences are, what sort of brand promises can be made (and kept) and what restrictions are imposed by the regulator.

But beyond all these issues, most of which I suppose are the sorts of things that arise when an agency starts work in any unfamiliar sector, what’s really struck me is the sheer difficulty of finding a strong creative solution.  All the above issues apply here too, of course, but there are others that present specifically creative challenges.

Of these, two in particular stand out.  The first is the intangibility and invisibility of the whole subject (or at least of 99% of it).  If you’re advertising a beer, there’s a reasonable assumption that you’ll show someone drinking it, or pouring it, or going to a pub, or whatever,  You may not:  but you always could.  Similarly, if it’s a car, I wouldn’t be amazed to see it being driven.  But what does an asset management look like?  Nothing, that’s what.

Then second, there’s the whole.business of uncertainty and unpredictability, which make it more or less impossible to focus on any kind of end benefit.  We may not want to show someone using our shampoo, but we’re almost certain to want to show someone with great-looking hair.  What does someone with great-looking asset management look like, especially on a day the market’s down 10 per cent?

There are plenty of other problems to overcome, but even setting all of them aside these two make it unusually difficult to identify fruitful territory – especially fruitful visual territory – in which to base your creative approach.

In my agency days, I always used to tell clients (or rather, prospects) that they should appoint specialist agencies like mine to solve problems like these, rather than mainstream agencies which – however talented – would struggle even to understand why they were finding it so hard, let alone to identify a solution.  But I always suffered pangs of doubt about whether the mainstream agency people were so talented that it would be worth working through the pain so as to get through, in the end, to the sunlit uplands of a great creative solution.

My recent insight into a non-specialist pitch has belatedly eliminated such pangs.  You’ll never get to the sunlit uplands if you can’t find a way out of the boggy marsh down at the bottom of the slope.

New VISA TV campaign: foolish, brave or just realistic?

It was less than 48 hours ago that a VISA payments meltdown made it onto the national news.  A system crash left queues of frustrated shoppers unable to pay at Sainsbury’s checkouts, among other places – resulting in fleets of abandoned trolleys laden with slowly-defrosting petits pois littered around the stores.

About three hours ago, in a commercial break during the Test Match, I saw a (reasonably) entertaining new commercial.  As I recall, it was set in a bar, where, with painful slowness, a young chap counted out an implausibly huge number of coins to pay for his beer.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for it was he, was sitting next to him.  With a bit of sleight of hand and some suitably Ibrahimovicesque remarks, he paid the young chap’s bill with his VISA card.  Either Zlatan, or a voiceover, I can’t remember which, told us how incredibly much easier and quicker it is to buy things with VISA cards than with stupid old money.  “Not on Friday afternoon, it wasn’t,” I and an unknowable number of other viewers said to ourselves.

I don’t suppose it matters very much, but in between the regular fall of Pakistani wickets I’ve been wondering about the decision-making at VISA which allowed this commercial to be shown.  Which is more likely to be the case:
–  As a large, bureaucratic organisation, VISA’s decision-making processes are slow and cumbersome, and no-one was able to postpone the campaign in the time available?
–  The client has decided that ultimately all publicity is good publicity, and a bit of whingeing from a few sourpusses like me doesn’t matter very much compared to the positive halo effect of being associated with Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
–  Some fast-turnaround consumer research indicates that no-one much noticed the crash on Friday, and those who did don’t much care:  as so often with bad financial news, VISA is shielded by consumers’ apathy and indifference, and so might as well bash on with its advertising?

Any views?  And any other explanations?

Is it just me, or is this stuff really meaningless?

You’d think that if there was one thing that young, innovative, disruptive fintechs might be good at (better, at least, than their stuffy, legacy-bound predecessors), it would be communicating.  But you’d be wrong.  Most of them write in an abstract, conceptual, intangible way that I find absolutely impossible to understand.

Here’s the copy from a full-page ad for a fintech called Finastra in a Times supplement today.  The headline says:  “OPEN for banking with unlimited potential,” and although I don’t suppose Bill Bernbach or David Abbott would have signed it off I can live with it, provided the copy goes on to tell me what this “unlimited potential” might look like.

In fact, however, it says:

“Today, banks of all sizes are being held back by outdated legacy systems and increasing regulations.  But customers want innovation more than ever.  It’s time for financial software to change.  Finastra brings you a dynamic, open platform that will unlock the full potential of financial institutions.  It’s time to open up to realize banking’s full potential.”

I can’t tell you how little I can make out of that paragraph.  There’s only one bit I understand, and I completely disagree with it:  I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that banks’ customers “want innovation more than ever.”  Beyond that, I know this is something about software, but I have not the faintest idea what.

I suppose you could argue that I’m not in the target audience, which, as far as I can tell, is people in banks (or maybe in financial institutions).  But I’m not that far from the target audience.  And anyway, my strong feeling is not that this is written in a specialised language that only makes sense to a small and specialised group:  my strong feeling is that it’s vacuous nonsense that can’t possibly make sense to anybody.

In the unlikely event that anyone from, or connected with Finastra reads this blog, then I apologise to them.  It’s nothing personal.  In this sector, I’m afraid there are plenty of other ads and comms of one sort or another which I could just as well have chosen.

When it comes to the quality of copywriting at least, Pete Townsend was on the money:  “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” indeed.  Now there was a young, innovative disruptor that I could make sense of.

The adperson’s take on “Don’t think of an elephant”

You know that old idea that as soon as someone says “Don’t think of an elephant,” there’s one thing you just can’t stop thinking of.  (Clue:  large, grey, big floppy ears if African, trunk.)

I discovered the adperson’s equivalent many years ago, and to share it with you I have to admit that back in those days I worked (a bit, and among many other things) on advertising for cigarettes. The adperson’s equivalent of “Don’t think of an elephant” was something called the CAP code – I think it stood for Code of Advertising Practice, so it doubled up on the word “code” a bit like the longhand version of the Dutch financial firm ING Group is in fact International Nederlanden Group Group.

The CAP code laid down all the things you weren’t allowed to do in cigarette advertising.  For example, you couldn’t claim that smoking a particular brand made you more successful, or cooler, or more attractive to the opposite sex, or indeed to your own sex.  No adperson in their right mind would want to do anything so ludicrously implausible and crass.  If anyone did, consumers would have mocked the brand to oblivion.  We all knew this.  And yet somehow…

Somehow, the very existence of the code and its many prohibitions meant that we all spent 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round it.  We were obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such a brand did indeed make smokers more successful or cooler or more attractive or all the rest of it.  It was ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always made sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we couldn’t help ourselves.

The equivalent in financial services is a little bit more complicated – you might say a bit more conceptual.  We’re not allowed to say anything definite about the future performance of investments (except guaranteed investments, obvs, which are a whole different ballgame).

Of course it’s fine that we’re not allowed to, because in our rational minds we don’t want to.  We fully understand that nothing definite can be said.  The whole thing about investments is that their outcomes are uncertain.  And yet somehow, the existence of the rules ensures that we spend 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round them.   We’re obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such an investment is sure to deliver them an excellent return.  If we could, we’d put a number on it. It’s ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always make sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we just can’t help ourselves.

“Money On Toast targets high earners,” says the newsfeed. Targets how, exactly?

Money On Toast’s You Tube film has had 801 views.  On Twitter, they have just over 700 followers, nearly all of them as far as I can see either IFAs or industry people of one sort or another.  They have about 150 likes on Facebook, which is kind of surprising because there is very, very little to like on their extremely dreary page.

I’ve never seen a Money On Toast ad, online or offline, and although it’s always dangerous testing these things on oneself I am pretty much right in the middle of their target market, as defined in the article appearing beneath the trade press headline quoted above.

You’ve heard me grumble before that the new world of direct, D2C online investment services is never going to happen until a number of the leading players start spending some proper money on marketing communications.  It doesn’t look as if Money On Toast are anywhere near doing so.

I ate some excellent strawberries yesterday. Would you like to hear about them?

No, I thought not.  Unless you’ve come to this blog entirely by chance, with no preconception at all about what you’ll find here,  I’m certain that you aren’t here to learn about my recent red-berry experiences.  In short, the subject wouldn’t pass a relevance test.

I’m a keen reader of The Week, the news magazine that summarises the most interesting content from the previous seven days’ media.  In the last couple of issues, there have been a couple of reasonably interesting pieces about things happening in America – one about the way that almond-growers in California are contributing to that state’s water shortage. and the other about a way of organising busineses, so-called “holacracy,” where you do away with bosses and leave groups of employees to make all the decisions.

Slightly off-brand for The Week, I’d say, because neither had any connection to events or media coverage of the last seven days, but both quite readable and well-written – about as good as my strawberries piece would be, I dare say.

But relevance, or rather the lack of it,  is the connection.  Because these two articles are the latest in a series called “A view from America,” appearing every three or four weeks ago – appearing under the heading “Advertisement Feature,” and carrying the logo of American Airlines.

Waffly writers like me are generally pretty happy with the “content marketing” mania that has gripped the communications industry in the last few years.  You can write a couple of thousand words on almost any subject under the sun and find a company willing to pay you for it and put it on their website, provided that you put the words “White Paper” at the beginning.

And as the fire grows ever hotter, and the need for mountains of further fuel ever greater, buyers become less and less critical about the relevance of what they’re buying.  These pieces in The Week have the word “America” in their theme line, and so does “American Airlines.”  That’ll be fine, then!  Someone somewhere can write a content marketing strategy paper saying that our aim is to own American-ness, the link is created and the pieces start to appear.

But, as Orson Welles famously almost said in the legendary Domecq sherry commercial out-take bootleg, if anyone can tell me how these articles benefit American Airlines’ business, I’ll….

…well, modesty forbids – I’m sure it’s on You Tube.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a mind more than devious enough to like the idea of achieving brand and communications by subtle, cunning and indirect routes.  I’m not with the client I once worked for – at Danish Bacon, if you’re interested – who once sat through an agency presentation of outdoor ideas packed with wit and wordplay, and at the end asked, in a tone of honest bafflement, “Well, everyone, I can see you’ve all worked very hard, and your ideas are very clever.  But could someone tell me – I really want to know, I’m not just being difficult – what exactly would be wrong with a headline which said, say, just for the sake of argument, ‘Buy Danish Bacon’?”

My own mind is a lot less literal than that, but even so I cannot for the life of me understand how American Airlines can possibly benefit commercially from a full page article in The Week with a headline that reads “Holacracy and other flatter-earth theories.”  Or, for that matter, “The trouble with almonds.”

If I’m missing something here, please tell me.  I’d love to find someone who’d pay me for that strawberries piece.

Brief but essential blog (not)

On the subject of language, there’s nothing more important than resisting the temptation to over-inflate expectations.

The investment trust arm of J.P. Morgan Asset Management publish a moderately interesting online newsletter every couple of months or so.  They distribute it as a PDF, attaching it to an email.  The email always carries the headline “Essential Reading for Investors.”  The attached reading is so obviously and irritatingly not essential that I delete it without a glance.  If the email headline said “Mildly Interesting Reading for Investors,” I’d probably have a look at it.

Copywriting should never lose contact with reality.  For some reason all this reminds me of the street where there were three cobblers.  The first put a sign in his window reading  “Best Cobblers In The Country,” and immediately became hugely successful.  The second put a sign in his window reading  “Best Cobblers In The World,” and promptly won all the first cobbler’s business.  The third cobbler thought about it all for a while and eventually put a sign in his window reading “Best Cobblers In This Street.”  He now won all the business from both the others – and he kept it.

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.


Language gap

You know that point I’ve made a million times – well, more like a dozen really – about the language gap which exists between those few of us working within financial services and those millions of us outside?

I don’t think I’ve seen a better example than Invesco Perpetual’s current advertising campaign, appearing across a wide range of print, online and outdoor media much of which is clearly targeting non-hobbyist investors.

They’ve bet the ranch on a single execution with a single one-word headline, which makes for a campaign about as concentrated as it could possibly be.  Unfortunately, though, the word they’ve chosen is Patience, which is a terrible choice – boring and meaningless to most, but entirely counter-productive to quite a few.

To investment people, I suppose, it introduces an idea about long-termism.  Invesco Perpetual fund managers, it says, are there, Buffett-like, to stay.  I suppose that’s good, although in these short-termist times I fear there are quite a few investment people who prefer the here-today-gone-tomorrow flibbertigibbet approach, and rather fear that the Invesco Perpetual portfolios will be stuffed with patiently-held stocks bought in bygone eras like Kodak, Polly Peck, Racal and British Leyland.

But it’s what this word means to the 58 million people in this country who are emphatically not investment people that intrigues me.  Patience.  Why patience?  Patience how?

Looking for some kind of context – a known circumstance in which the word is often used and understood – many will think of football.  Those who support frequently-underperforming teams like mine know exactly what “patience” means.  It means: “Yes, results are rubbish at the moment, but please stop booing the manager and give him a few more weeks to try to turn things round.”  (Then, almost invariably, a few weeks later the Board will run out of patience and the manager will go, as for example Gus Poyet did at Sunderland yesterday.)

It’s difficult to imagine why Invesco Perpetual would want to spend a very large sum on conveying this grim message about their current performance and their own managers’ capabilities.  But that’s the sort of thing that can happen when you don’t speak the same language as most of your readers.

Ideas I wouldn’t have approved, #2398

Back on the transport network again, and this time picking on the theme of London Transport’s safety warning advertising.


When you’re working on a brief asking for a campaign idea which can embrace messages about behaviours which, though trivial in themselves, can do a lot to prevent people from coming to harm, coming up with that …WON’T HURT YOU construction must be something of a eureka moment.  These good behaviours, indeed, won’t hurt you.  And in common parlance, the …WON’T HURT YOU construction is, indeed, often used to encourage trivial changes of behaviour – PUTTING THAT EMPTY COFFEE CUP IN THE SINK WON’T HURT YOU.

But there is a problem, and I guess it’s the problem that arises most frequently when you use any well-known element – a form of words, an image, a place, a celebrity, anything – in advertising.  The problem is that while the element in question may mean exactly and precisely what you want it to mean, it may also come ready-packaged with other meanings which you don’t want at all.  Illustrating, I don’t know, say, an ad for a moustache-care product with a picture of Hitler may make perfect sense at one level – he did indeed have a glossy moustache – but doesn’t say good things about your brand at another.

The ….WON’T HURT YOU campaign is a long way from that league.  But the problem with this well-known form of words is that it’s impossible to detach it from a slight sense of exasperation.  PUTTING THAT EMPTY COFFEE CUP IN THE SINK WON’T HURT YOU is the kind of thing you say to idle teenagers who are irritatingly likely to leave coffee cups under their beds, or beside the sofa, or wherever they happen to have finished the coffee.

It may well be that London Transport does indeed feel a slight sense of exasperation about the injury-risking behaviour of its customers.  It may even be – at some sort of subliminal level – that this feeling helps explain why they bought the campaign.

But if I was still a creative director, then despite all the good and right things about the idea, this bad and wrong thing would have prevented me from showing it to them.