Level playing field, but few goals scored

In the run-up to the implementation of GDPR at the end of this week, heaven knows how many organisations are frantically emailing their customer and prospect lists asking them to opt in to continue to receive their communications – certainly hundreds, probably thousands, possibly tens of thousands.  It’s a level playing field, or almost – give or take the odd regulatory quirk, everyone has to say the same things and deliver the same call to action (“opt in if you want to keep on hearing from us”).  So how’s everyone getting on?

Before I answer that, a word on those regulatory quirks,  To be honest, I don’t understand the rules of the GDPR game well enough to understand the reasons for the differences I’m noticing in message content.  Why can some organisations just send me dull, passive and seemingly completely pointless emails telling me they’ve updated their privacy policy, while others vigorously urge me to click on a button to remain opted in and others still seem to need me to fill in lengthy questionnaires?  I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t care.  I’m creative, me.  Suits and/or planners explain these ramifications in the brief.

But what I do know is that, looking at the hundred-or-so emails that I’ve received over the last few weeks, the quality runs the gamut, as Dorothy Parker nearly said, from pitiful to mediocre.  I don’t think I’ve received a single communication that really did anything positive or good for my relationship with the brand.  And I’ve received a great many which, when they caught me in two minds about whether to opt in or not, filled me with such negativity that I decided not to.

Much of what’s worst about many of the messages are the headings.  I can’t decide which was the most hopeless from a shortlist including one which said only “General” and another which said “GDPR Survey Link.”   (I’m pretty sure, though, that in third place was “GDPR updates to DIBOR emails,” not aided by the fact that I haven’t the faintest idea who or what DIBOR is.)

Most aren’t quite that bad, but they’re not a lot better.  I’d say that only one rung higher up the ladder of effective communication are the ones where, as so often in our industry, stupid useless “creatives” think their job is to do something with words which makes the message incomprehensible rather than actually helping to tell the story.  A retailer called Thyme kicks off “Thyme to opt in.”  The Gatwick Express says “Final call before boarding.”  Given the crisis that generally surrounds email open rates these days, it’s very hard to believe that this kind of opacity is the way forward.

Next there are a few odd men out (and in the case of the first of these I use the word “men” advisedly, since it’s from male moustache-growing charity the Movember Foundation).  Plainly defeated by the whole thing, their email begins “We have to say goodbye soon,” which is strange because the whole point of the communication is that we don’t have to.   And online retailer Hush comes on to me with the line “A love letter from Hush,” which I have to say since I can remember nothing about ever doing business with them is love of a sadly unrequired kind.

Amidst these exceptions and anomalies, the large majority adopt a consistent approach with a headline about staying or keeping in touch, and a short piece of explanatory copy.  This is fairly sensible, although maybe a little short of “what’s in it for me?”, so you might imagine  all is well with this lot:  but not so, because there turns out to be a wide range of things that can go wrong during and indeed after the opt-in process.  Lengthy and complicated questionnaires, forms that don’t work, pre-populated forms pre-populated with the wrong information, processes that take you to websites you had no interest in – a significant proportion of emailers (up to half, I’d say) offer experiences bad enough to put us right off the idea of remaining in contact.

And then of course it hardly seems fair to mention it, but there is the whole tricky business of offering some kind of distinctive brand experience, intended to play some part even if only a small one in shaping our perceptions of difference.  Do you know, in all honesty I don’t think I’ve received any of those.

And one more thing:  although the GDPR timetable has been entirely clear for months, it does all seem to have turned into the most monumental stampede to hit Friday’s deadline.  The first email I received was on Wednesday 9th May, and all the others have been jostling for attention in a period of a little over a fortnight.

It’s true that it’s in the interest of both providers and consumers alike to clean up the database from time to time.  There’s little point in maintaining records of millions of people who have no further interest in what you have to offer.

But the depressing thing about these last couple of weeks is that in quite a few cases, I did have an interest, if perhaps a slightly less-than-red-hot one.  It was only irritation at the uselessness of the message that made me pretend I didn’t.

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.


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.”

Big but sadly implausible idea

Recently in the financial marketing communications world, there have been a couple of those horrendous procurement-driven RFP questionnaires doing the rounds.

The worst was dozens of pages long, and demanded levels of detail on the workings of agencies taking part that most had never even imagined, let alone answered.  (I think it’s true that one of them requested an account of firms’ policy-creation policy, although I might have made that bit up.)

Anyway, the point is that while some of the questions are looking for answers that will genuinely help, at least to some small extent, to judge the suitability of those responding for the task at hand, the large majority are just about risk management.  The questions asking for details of all those policies – policy on disability, policy on diversity, policy on maternity and paternity, policy on health and safety, policy on employee representation, policy on creating policies – are all about ensuring that the organisation issuing the questionnaire can’t get caught in a PR debacle when it becomes clear that, for example, a one-man marketing consultancy (say for instance me) has no clear policy at all when it comes to the way it creates policies.

That sounds pretty ludicrous, but I suppose I could just about argue that it’s fair enough, or at least most of it is.  But what I’ve been thinking about is the fact that actually, in real life, the reputational risk to agencies found consorting with institutions behaving badly is far greater than the reverse risk to institutions.  In recent years I can’t remember any agencies being found guilty of despicable and/or dishonest behaviour, but I can hardly remember any financial institutions which haven’t.

Which makes me wonder:  who should be issuing the risk-management questionnaires around here?  And my answer is:  pretty obviously, it’s us.

Yes, sadly, I know:  no sooner have you started to consider this idea than you realise that it isn’t going to work.  The question you really want to ask is something like:  “Are you currently involved in any dishonest, manipulative or otherwise unfair activities that you will want us to have some part in communicating, or miscommunicating, to your customers?”  with maybe a supplementary saying:  “If yes, please give details.”  And there are two problems with this:  a) no-one’s ever going to answer yes, and b) almost everyone ought to.

So I guess that in the end, we’ll have to carry on relying on our instincts to help us steer away from anything too dodgy – and from time to time our instincts, very likely combining with the pressures on our bottom lines, will let us down.

Still, you must admit, as my headline says, it is a genuinely big if sadly implausible idea.

And my Chairman’s Special Advertising Award goes to…the judges, actually

My annual gig chairing the Money Marketing Financial Advertising Awards the other day, and despite a near-disaster early doors when the bacon sandwich delivery van crashed en route (the admirable Centaur Events team leapt into action and found back-up supplies) a thoroughly good and enjoyable day as usual.

Actually in one important way better than usual, because I did think that the standard of entries was extremely high and a couple of the category winners really exceptional.  But on this occasion I want to recognise not so much the standard of the work, but more the standard of the panel of fourteen-or-so judges.

Each year we cunningly invite them to take part months in advance, usually way back in August, when their diaries for January the following year are still as unsullied and white as freshly fallen January snow.  As a result, they nearly all say yes, even though in fact when it comes to it the second half of Jan is usually a really busy time and they all wish they hadn’t.  There are always a couple of last-minute drop-outs, but nearly all last the distance.

And I must say that those who do, without exception, put in a full day’s hard work.  At risk of disappointing those hoping for tales of horse-trading and back-scratching, it’s a long day of serious thought and intelligent debate – and, in the end, a final list of winners which, while not always unanimous, has the support of the very large majority of those present.

(Given the diversity of the judges, by the way – agency people, client-side marketers, practising IFAs, a couple of journalists – the level of agreement is in itself an interesting phenomenon.  As I say most years, people may disagree about mediocrity but they usually agree about excellence.)

Anyway, last Friday, I didn’t see anyone switch off and let anything through on the nod – on the contrary,  even in the less-important morning session, in which the shortlists are drawn up, the intensity of concentration and volume of discussion meant that proceedings over-ran by over 50% of the allotted time even while lunch gently cooled in the room next door.

Of course those judges with proper jobs still get paid for the day, but not so the several who work for themselves.  And if anyone suspects a degree of self-interest in the opportunity for some – especially those on the agency side – to plug their own work, then I must stand on my dignity to emphasise that the no-marking-your-own-homework rule is 100% strictly maintained.

Anyway.  I’d better not get carried away.  A day spent looking at ads doesn’t exactly represent self-sacrifice on a Mother Theresa-esque scale.  But still, it’s a good, serious and responsible effort from a bunch of people who have plenty of other demands on their time.

Why tissue meetings are like horse races

This isn’t a long or complicated blog, but I suppose I do have to start with a quick jargonbuster for people not familiar with the concept of tissue meetings:  these are interim meetings during an agency pitch process, called by clients and taking place roughly half-way through the time available, to make sure that a) the agency has actually started work on the project and b) the agency’s thoughts are progressing roughly in the direction that the client wants them to.  Such meetings are of course treated with fear and resentment by agencies, who remain very unsure how to handle them:  do you give good tissue and run the risk of having little more to add on pitch day itself, or do you give disappointing tissue and run the risk of creating swirling clouds of doubt and anxiety over your abilities which may be hard to dissipate later?

Anyway, having said all that, I know very little about horse racing but I do know that on the whole, it’s a mistake to go to the front too early.  If you’re ten lengths clear with four or five furlongs to go, the chances are that you’ve shot your bolt and most of the rest of the field will come charging past you on the run-in.

The same is pretty definitely true of tissue meetings.  Take my two recent examples.  In one, I was part of an agency pitch team:  we gave great tissue but lost the pitch ten days later, the clients saying they were disappointed that our thinking hadn’t moved on more.  In the other, I was actually organising the pitch on behalf of the client, and after the tissue meetings we all shook our heads gloomily and agreed that one of the agencies was well behind the others:  inevitably over the following week or ten days or so they did an absolute shitload of excellent work, came storming through on the rails and won by a distance.

So that’s it.  I said it wasn’t long or complicated.  If you’re in an agency and you’re asked to do a tissue meeting, keep the very large majority of your powder dry – you’ll gain far more than you’ll lose by keeping all the best bits for the pitch itself.

Or alternatively, of course, totally ignore the client’s objectives in calling the meeting, and give the brief virtually no thought until afterwards

Tottering on the brink of snootiness

My very clever friend Surrey Garland does a brilliant riff on the identities, clients and outputs of third-rate creative agencies.  Inevitably I’ve forgotten most of it, but I do remember two of the agencies on his third-rate pitch-list, Typhoon and Quasm.  And I do remember that the client lists of all the agencies involved all feature British Airways Cargo, Honda Lawnmowers and Mars Catering Products.

At least, I’ve always thought it was a brilliant, imaginative and original riff, until I perused the documentation that I was given yesterday during the Money Marketing Financial Advertising Awards judging session, which for some reason they keep on asking me to chair.  Looking at the list of agencies entering work, and then checking some of their websites, I realise that what I’ve taken as the products of Surrey’s imagination and originality are nothing of the sort:  they’re just documentary reportage.

The list of entrants is thick with the names of hitherto-unknown (to me, at least) “creative integrated design, brand and communications agencies” dedicated to delivering “outstanding ROI to clients across a wide range of sectors.”  They all offer “stand-out creative solutions” based on “big ideas with real selling power,” and several of them claim to be good listeners, reminding us that they have two ears and one mouth and use them in the same proportions.  And their websites all feature smiling photographs of the principals, examples of HTML emails produced for British Airways Cargo and blogs with no new entries since one about the Olympics in July last year.


Actually, I could say that they have a couple of other things in common.  For one thing, In the first-stage judging yesterday (in which I played no part whatsoever – I only come in for the second stage), I could point out that almost all their entries were dismissed.  I could go on to say that’s because almost all their entries were derivative, lacking in insight and badly-executed.  And I suppose I could finally point out that if you wanted to see exactly why financial clients are not well-advised to appoint cheap, inexpert, jack-of-all-trades small agencies, you wouldn’t need to look any further than yesterday’s entries.

But, as I say, from the very first sentence this blog has been tottering on the brink of unkind, unfair and unjustifiable snootiness.  And if I actually said all those things n the previous paragraph, instead of just thinking about saying them, I think I’d have tottered irrevocably over it.


Odd choice

Back in my later Tangible days, just up the road at Midford Place, we shared our offices with another Cello group company, the small and distinctly non-specialist advertising agency Farm, which, unusually, was run by its joint creative directors, the delightful Owen Lee and Gary Robinson.  We were on very friendly terms, even though – in their eyes, at least – my Tangible colleagues and I might as well have been representatives of a different species:  to them, our financial services accounts seemed so utterly alien, incomprehensible and unrewarding that they showed absolutely no interest in them at all.

Shortly before I left Tangible’s offices and moved down to my present abode in Whitfield St, Cello decided to close down Farm and a deal was done by which Owen, Gary, a few other people and some of their accounts were able to transfer across to the not-so-small but equally non-specialist agency Inferno.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I’ve just heard that in their wisdom, after a lengthy selection process that started off with a long, long list of potential agencies and gradually whittled its way down from there, the investment group Jupiter has decided that of all the agencies in London the one best suited to its needs going forward is…. you guessed it, Inferno.

It’ll be interesting to see how long that lasts.  Judging by those looks of blank incomprehension and lack of interest that I remember on Owen’s and Gary’s faces, I’d suspect not very.

Just as well I don’t pay myself for writing this

If I did, I’d have to think seriously about whether it was worth carrying on.  (No, with the blog, stupid, not with life.)  I say this because I’m amazed and more than somewhat distressed to see how little the going rate for freelance copywriters has increased over the years.

When I very first started giving work to freelancers, way back in the mid-eighties, the going rate was £200 a day. 25 years later, you can still get a freelance writer for £200 a day, although the best ones will cost more – certainly £300, maybe £400, possibly even £500.  Given that the invaluable inflation calculator on ThisIsMoney says that £200 in 1986 is worth £476 in today’s money, day rates overall have risen far more slowly than the cost of living.

You’d expect this would be the result of a supply-and-demand thing – too many writers, not enough copy to be written, a buyers’ market, hapless wordsmiths cutting prices to the bone.  But the funny thing is that actually, as far as I can see, the market dynamics are all the other way around.  As far as the advertising and other creative courses at colleges and universities are concerned, we all know that we’ve been through a long, long period in which the writers have been second-class citizens and the art directors and designers the first – everyone has heard the story of the college where pairs of students are teamed up on the first day and asked to toss a coin, with the winner being the art director and the loser being the writer.

And anyway, quite frankly, you don’t need to hear horror stories like this to worry about what’s happened to writing ability – you just need to read stuff.  There are quite simply no great writers these days:  there are people who can do short and pithy, and people who can do long and boring, and really nothing much at all in between.

And at the same time that the ability to write has been disappearing, new needs for writing and writers have been appearing absolutely every bloody where.  I wonder how many billions of words-worth of persuasive writing there are now on the Internet, for example.  And how many billions more are currently being written as components of social media strategies (no matter how horribly misconceived and unsuccessful most of these may turn out to be).

No doubt about it, on the basis of supply and demand these should be happy days for writers.  If you’re any good, it should be name-your-price time.  But it isn’t.  It so isn’t.  For the large majority, it’s how-far-can-I-edge-you-up-from-£200-a-day time.

Though undoubtedly large, I wouldn’t like anyone to imagine that I include myself within that “majority.”  For the brand-conscious one-man consultant, there’s no advantage in creating perceptions of cheapness.

But when it comes to my copywriting day rate, I’m not completely immune to the overall market dynamics.  And that being so, if you ever notice that I’m a teeny bit keener to write the strategy presentation than the website copy, this blog pretty much explains why.

What exactly is it that stops investment people from writing in English?

Someone told me a story about a meeting in which an investment company client was briefing a very senior adman.  When the client got to the end, the adman said:  “I didn’t understand a single word of that.  Do it again, and for every word you use that I don’t understand, let’s both pay a pound to charity.”  By the end of the client’s first sentence, they owed the charity £7 each.

It’s an easy story to believe.  Here are two current examples on the same theme.

Among the many new second-generation online investment services launching at the moment, probably the one attracting the most attention is Nutmeg (www.nutmeg.co.uk). The brand promise is attractive:  in their words from their home page, “Putting your money to work has never been so simple, smart, or fair.”  But a bit further down the same page, we find this explanation:

Automatic, intelligent diversification and rebalancing.Our investment approach is grounded in Modern Portfolio Theory – the Nobel Prize-winning research that seeks to optimise returns for any given risk level. For each fund you create, we design a unique allocation from a set of carefully selected investments across different asset classes, industries and geographies. The more you invest, the more we diversify your funds, and if your allocation drifts off course, we rebalance it – automatically.”

Well, that veneer of simplicity turned out to be pretty thin, didn’t it?  Within three paras, we’ve broken through it to the usual investment mumbo-jumbo beneath, complete with a full set of the dullest, deadest words in the language – not just “optimise” (one of my own least-favourites) but also “approach,” “allocation,”  “selected,” “asset class,” and “rebalance.”  It’s the worst of both worlds – impossible for most people to understand, and dull as ditchwater to boot. They may be Nutmeg by name, but there’s little spice in the way they talk to me.

That said, I suppose that being boring and incomprehensible is marginally less damaging for the author of the communication than being almost universally misunderstood.  Schroders are advertising in the Tube at the moment, with a poster which, as far as I can see as I walk past, displays only the words “DEFENDING YOUR INCOME” as well as the logo and the small print.  I just can’t begin to imagine how those responsible for this headline, on client and agency side alike, didn’t realise that for Londoners travelling to and fro to work on the tube, “YOUR INCOME” must mean the money you earn from your employer, and if the idea of “DEFENDING” this means anything at all, it must mean something to do with protecting you against the financial consequences of unermployment.

Of course this isn’t at all what Schroders are proposing.  I’m not quite sure exactly what they are proposing, but I’m pretty sure it’s to do with some kind of income-generating fund that may offer some kind of secure or protected level of income – or, perhaps more likely, may just “DEFEND” your income in the sense that it offers you more of it than you can get from High Street savings accounts.

Assuming it’s the latter, it really isn’t a very difficult message to get across.  But Schroders have managed to make a pretty comprehensive hash of it – the problem, I suppose, being that even the simplest messages are quite difficult to communicate when you can’t actually express yourself in English.