Backleading. Guapacha. Shadow position. No? Me neither.

There is an activity that’s enthusiastically practised by a small proportion of the adult population,  Most of these enthusiasts are getting on a bit in years, and few younger people are coming through to join them.  The activity seems to have little to offer to the non-participating millions – it’s low key and under-promoted, it’s full of off-putting technical terms and jargon, getting into it seriously would be quite expensive and you worry that you could make an idiot of yourself if you didn’t know what you were doing.

Clearly, this underdeveloped market represents a massive business development opportunity.  What’s needed is a new generation of services, stripping away all that jargon and complication, delivered mostly online so as to reduce cost and with nice, friendly, accessible brand identities to lessen perceptions of risk.  If we can tick those fairly straightforward boxes, we can increase this size of the market tenfold, twentyfold, maybe even a hundredfold.

I’m obviously talking about investing, aren’t I, and making the case for the new generation of so-called robo-advisers – Nutmeg, Wealthify, Moola.

Except that I’m not.  Unless you’re one of those enthusiastic practitioners, it probably won’t have occurred to you that I am in fact talking about ballroom dancing (which is indeed the world that those terms in my headline come from).   And now you know that, you’ll quickly realise that those first two paras aren’t to be taken entirely seriously

Needless to say, they’re intended as a thought-provoking analogy, and the thought they’re intended to provoke is that just because millions of people don’t do something, it doesn’t always follow that there’s a huge business opportunity awaiting any new market entrant who can make it easy, free from jargon and cheap to do.

To make the same point in a consumer-centric way, consumers may have reasons not to do something that are far deeper and more difficult to overcome than simply perceptions of high cost, complexity and jargon.

This is not to say that these bigger barriers can’t be overcome:  with shrewd insights and targeted marketing, many of them can.  And it’s also not to say that lack of jargon, simplicity and low cost don’t matter:  they do.  As the saying goes, they’re necessary but not sufficient characteristics of any new service that stands any kind of chance.

But think for a minute about some of the reasons, actual and perceptual, why some 40 million UK adults don’t do any DIY investing;  and then go on to think about the sort of propositions that new services would need in order to break through those barriers and start changing their minds.

I think on the whole that trying to trigger the renaissance of ballroom dancing might be an easier task.


Which are more out of touch with consumers: the actuaries or the techies?

For as long as I’ve been involved with financial services, it has been a truth universally acknowledged that actuaries don’t know anything about consumers.  And, arising from this undeniable fact, that financial services firms led by actuaries (if the idea of actuarial leadership isn’t too much of an oxymoron) are bound to be as out of touch with consumers as it’s possible to be.

But increasingly, I wonder whether this is still true.  No, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that actuaries have acquired any capability for consumer insight, or any other kind of emotional intelligence.  But I am wondering whether there is now a new generation of financial services business leaders, with completely different professional skills, who are even less well equipped to enable their firms to identify and satisfy consumer wants and needs.

Who are these people and what is their skill?  They are the techies, and across countless numbers of fintech start-ups t heir skill is doing brilliantly innovative and complicated things with digital processes that in one way or another will transform people’s financial lives.

If, that is, the people in question a) want their financial lives to be transformed, and b) are able to grapple with what’s required of them to achieve the transformation.

This is not some Luddite yearning for things to stay as they are, or indeed to go back to the way they were in the quill pen era.  But it is a fairly strong suspicion that quite a lot of the very clever new services now on offer are simply too complicated, too demanding and require too much engagement for most of us to enjoy the benefits they offer.

Probably the best example is the whole subject of financial aggregation, a big theme than comes in many flavours.  Once we bring all our finances together and start managing them as a whole, all sorts of good things become possible.  We can “optimise” our financial lives in ways we never could when everything was all over the place.  But will we?  Do we really care?  Are most of us not more likely to stick with the principle of “satisficing” – that great word invented by that great US Economist Herbert Simon to describe the way we’re willing to put time and effort into solving a problem until, and only until, we find a solution that we decide is satisfactory:  as soon as we do, we’ll stop right there, even if further work would have led us to even better solutions.

Techies have an infinite capacity to engage with technology, just as actuaries have an infinite capacity to engage with financial systems.  These exceptional levels of engagement are what make these people important, special and valuable.  But when it comes to designing and developing things intended for ordinary, unengaged consumers, they’re also what makes them very dangerous.  .

Hmm. Have I been wrong about the power of words for all these years?

As a writer, I’ve never felt too much doubt about the power of words over the years.  Of course you have to choose the right words, and specifically the words that will convey what you want to convey to your intended readers, which isn’t easy.  But if you can do that, it’s always seemed to me, words won’t let you (or your readers) down.

However, I have in front of me a document which does rather challenge this assumption.  It’s a 48-page A5 booklet from the guidance service PensionWise titled “Your pension:  it’s time to choose” , and one of its intended pre-retirement age readers is in fact me.

And I can’t get any sense out of it at all.  In fact, I can’t be bothered to read beyond about page 8 or so.

This is partly because the writing style is very boring – flat, dull, colourless, utterly lacking in life.  But it’s more for another reason:  it’s just words. (Well, and a few numbers.)  There’s one font and, as far as I can see, three point sizes, and apart from some tinted text panels and tables that’s all there is for 48 pages.  No graphics, no pictures, no graphs or charts, no signposts (except the front cover, which does literally show a picture of a signpost) and obviously as a printed booklet no video, audio or music.

What I’ve discovered is that today, you just can’t communicate a subject as detailed, lengthy and boring as this when the only tools in your communications toolbox are one font, three point sizes, some tinted panels and something between 15 and 20,000 words.  Yes, the subject is important, and yes it’s of personal interest.  But, even so, it’s just too boring.

And if I’m saying that, as an avid reader and as someone whose understanding of pensions (though pitiful by expert standards) is at least ten times better than average, then so are an awful lot of other people.

So, note to self:  you just can’t communicate with nothing but words any more.  Which, a million or so words into this blog, must be a worry.


Asset management: the race to be different is on

Over the years, there have been few easier ways to make money than asset management.  It’s not just at the rocket-science, hedge fund end of the market:  for decades, a combination of high and opaque charges, unaware and largely inert customers, uncritical and often conflicted intermediaries and an absence of serious external scrutiny kept the most vanilla of fund managers (of whom there are many) well supplied with six-figure bonuses and top-of-the-range Mercs and Range Rovers.

Perhaps more importantly, these same factors have also combined to keep the market ridiculously overcrowded and undifferentiated.  When you can still make a ton of money running small funds that are exactly the same as everyone else’s and perform no better or indeed rather worse, there are few if any pressures to make the industry more competitive.

Now, though, that’s all changing in the retail market at least, and the active fund management industry is feeling the first stirrings of panic.  Among a long list of things all happening at once, the three most important are:
1.  The somewhat slow-motion effects of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR), implemented in January 2014, which eliminated intermediaries’ financial incentive to recommend high-cost actively managed funds.
2.  The ever-growing body of irrefutable evidence that, not least because of their indefensibly high charges, the very large majority of active funds underperform their low-cost passively-managed counterparts.
3.  The shamefully-belated new effort by the regulator to tackle the industry’s bad practices and help consumers get a better deal.

Over the next few years, the combination of these and other factors will change the industry in many ways.  But the one that most interests me is now clearly apparent:  pretty much all big and reasonably businesslike firms are feeling the need to ask themselves the question:  “What makes us different, a) from each other and b) from passive firms who charge 85% less than we do?”

For most, this is a horribly difficult question to answer, or at least to answer well.  (The troubling answer “Absolutely nothing” is readily available).  A few firms do already own, or in some cases partially own some kind of differentiating idea, and they’re much more strongly placed.  But most really don’t, and it’ll be fascinating to watch them grappling with the issue.

The key issue, it seems to me, will be to do with the balance of power between the marketers and the fund managers.  As I’ve often written in this blog, hitherto this has resided about 98% with the fund managers and 2% with the marketers, whose job is confined to producing the brochures and the sales aids and even then the fund managers tell them what colours they want them to be.

But in the evolving new world in which marketing assets like a differentiated positioning, a strong brand and a convincing value proposition are suddenly absolutely mission-critical, this long-established balance of power isn’t going to work any more.  A bit like star chefs newly-dependent for their survival on their pot-scourers, or airline pilots humiliatingly subservient to the cabin crew, an awful lot of pride-swallowing is going to be necessary.  At the moment, I really wouldn’t like to say whether I think they have it in them.

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 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.

We really must start making things simpler. Especially the complicated things.

Abraham Okusanya is unquestionably a good bloke.  He and his investment consulting firm Finalytiq are 100% on the side of end-consumers, and they’re doing everything they can to ensure that fund management firms do their best for them.   But when it comes to one of the fault lines dividing consumers’ real friends from consumers’ not-so-real or indeed false friends, as identified in my new financial services marketing book No Small Change, I’m afraid that Abraham is on the other side of the line from my co-author Anthony Thomson and me.

Let me explain.  Abraham has just written a hard-hitting article in the online edition of FT Adviser that’s highly critical of Absolute Return funds in general, and Aberdeen Standard’s giant GARS fund in particular.  He has one massive objection to them:  they’re far too complicated.  He says:  “Hands up if you really understand how GARS works? Enough to explain it to a typical client? I certainly don’t.  Many advisers and discretionary fund managers who invested in GARS didn’t.  I’ll wager that many analysts and managers who work at the Standard Life multi-asset teams and indeed the most senior people at Standard Life don’t either.”

And he goes on to deliver his coup de grace:  “If all these professionals don’t seem to understand the fund, what hope has poor old Mrs Miggins got?”

Leaving aside my intense dislike of the patronising, alienating and horribly over-used term “Mrs Miggins”, it’s the sense of what Abraham’s saying that bothers me.  Let me be clear:  if he was saying that Absolute Return funds like GARS don’t work, or can only find a market by making false promises they won’t be able to keep, then I’d completely share his intense disapproval.  But he isn’t.  It’s the complexity that’s upsetting him.  And for the life of me, I cannot understand the financial services industry’s obsession with explaining how complicated things work, whether to our colleagues within the industry or to our poor old end customers.

It’s not just Abraham who wants everything explained.  It’s everyone.  It starts with the regulator, who has insisted for years on a regime which provides consumers with rafts of unintelligible and impenetrable detail about whatever it is they’re putting their money into.  It includes all those who keep calling for a massive educational effort to get key financial concepts across to consumers so that they’ll become better able to grasp the detail of what we’re offering them.  And it also embraces all those firms publishing mountains of market reports, pie charts, analyses of one sort or another, fund manager interviews and all the other manifestations of an industry that’s grimly determined to explain itself to people.

No other industry behaves like this.  There are countless examples of industries that provide complex products and services, but which feel no obligation at all to explain how they work either to their end customers or indeed to their intermediaries – or “shops” as they are often known.  People buy all sorts of IT products – phones, tablets and computers – without having the faintest idea how they actually work, and the amiable sales guys and girls in PC World and my Vodafone shops don’t know much more.  You can buy a car without knowing a thing about the mechanics of ABS braking, and perhaps more crucially you can take a daily statin or SSRI tablet without a clue about what they do to your body chemistry (or even what SSRI actually stands for – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, since you ask).  And, trust me, the same is true of your average GP.

What all these things have in common, as well as complexity that makes their workings quite incomprehensible, is a clear and simple message about what they do – or, to put it another way, about why people might want to buy, own or use them.  I don’t know anything about how ABS brakes operate, but I do know that if I put my right foot hard down on the pedal on a wet and slippery road I’ll come to a stop without skidding.  And I don’t know what that Atorvastatin tablet I take every morning does when it gets into my bloodstream, but I know that somehow it reduces my cholesterol level and that makes it less likely that I’ll have a heart attack.  And these simple, clear messages are absolutely all I need or want to know.

At the same basic level, I understand – more or less – what GARS is supposed to do.  It’s supposed to keep going up in all market conditions.  This, I must admit, sounds a bit too good to be true, and makes me wonder whether I’ve got it quite right.  In all market conditions?  Really?  And going up, not just standing still or going down less than the market?  And is this just a pious hope, or a solid promise, or something in between?  (ABS, after all, doesn’t say that it aims to prevent you from skidding, or that you won’t skid quite so much – it says you won’t skid, period, and you won’t.)   As I say, if the GARS/Absolute Return Fund headline promise is false, or overclaimed, then that’s bad and I’m against it.

But if it’s robust, I have no problem with it at all.  And as we move slowly but irreversibly into a world in which consumers are going to have to take more responsibility for their financial security, and make more of their own financial choices and decisions, it becomes more and more important that we present them with those choices and decisions in ways that are meaningful to them.  Which, in turn, means that we have to stop presenting those choices and decisions in ways that are only meaningful to the most pointy-headed specialists and experts in the industry.

In fact, it may well be that in order to present consumers with “headline” benefits that are valuable and meaningful to them, we need products and services which, when you lift the bonnet, are even more complicated than absolute return funds.  That prospect doesn’t bother me in the slightest – provided only that Abraham, and all those others around the industry who think like he does, can be discouraged  from making even more doomed and counter-productive attempts to explain them all.

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.

You’d think that when we’re failing, we’d want to learn from success

It seems, though, that you’d be wrong.  At a conference yesterday, several of the sessions focused on the state of play in digital investments.  It was clear that the game has moved on.  That initial surge of enthusiasm which greeted the arrival of god-knows-how-many new more-or-less-mass-market online services has now morphed into growing anxiety about the difficulty (and cost) of acquiring worthwhile numbers of more-or-less-mass-market customers.

My regular reader will know that this comes as no surprise at all to me.  Almost all new businesses go through a customer acquisition crisis, and I’ve always thought that online investing businesses are likely to suffer more than most:  in addition to all the usual problems, they have one great big additional one, namely a widespread lack of consumer appetite for the whole idea.

But what did come as a surprise at yesterday’s event was the amount of fairly desperate and highly tentative casting-about for any kind of solution to the crisis.  What on earth is to be done, people asked.  No idea, others answered.

I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of exchange reflected a really extraordinary level of obtuseness among those involved.  Over exactly the same period that this wave of new services has been launching and failing, elsewhere we’ve seen by far and away the most spectacular success of all time in the field of online investing, but we’re bizarrely reluctant to learn the clear and obvious lessons from it.

This is of course the area of auto-enrolled workplace pensions, where something like nine million new customer accounts have been opened over the last few years and opt-out rates have remained well below 10%.  This is a figure which compares stupendously well with the 0.1% or so of consumers who’ve opted in to other new investment propositions over the same period.

There is pretty clearly one big reason why no-one has tried to learn anything much from the triumph of auto enrolment, and the clue is of course in the name:  since the auto enrolment mechanism isn’t available to investment providers outside the field of workplace pensions, it’s assumed that they’re playing a whole different (and much harder) ballgame and there’s no point in comparing the two.

It’s certainly true that the auto-enrolment principle makes a huge difference, and results without it will be on a different level.  But quite frankly, even if they were 99% worse, they’d still be better than they are at the moment. And anyway, a few moments’ thought makes it clear that the success of auto enrolled pensions also depends at least in part on other characteristics which are perfectly transferable.  Three of these stand out:

  1. Most important, the principle of a default investment option which means that people absolutely don’t need to engage with the whole business of investing or investment decision-making to get a satisfactory outcome.  (As I’ve said many times, this is a completely and fundamentally different approach from your typical online process with its daunting attitude-to-risk questionnaire and range of risk-rated funds.)
  2. The adoption, at least for those involved from the start, of what behavioural economics guru Richard Thaler calls the “pay more tomorrow” principle, beginning with a painlessly-minimal level of contributions and escalating gradually over several years.
  3. The “lock-away” mechanism,” obviously generic to pension pots which aren’t accessible until age 55 but in fact popular with consumers who don’t want to be tempted to access any of their long-term savings (and also obviously appropriate for investments which are described as being intended for the medium to long term.)

In addition, it’s worth saying that in fact some organisations – particularly banks – could if they chose get reasonably close to the principle of auto-enrolment anyway.  One of the few genuinely innovative propositions on the market, Moneybox, shows the way with its “rounding up” mechanism, rounding all your credit card expenditures up to the nearest pound and investing the amount greater than the cost of each item.  Moneybox doesn’t have the money to make this idea famous, and I doubt if one in a hundred consumers has heard of it:  also, the odd 20-something pence overpayment on a coffee or a sandwich probably seems too small to be worth bothering with.  But if you could round up, say, all payments above £30 from your current account to the nearest £10, you’d really get somewhere.

Tucked away in that last paragraph, you’ll have noted a point about the need to spend money to make new services famous.  This, again, is a challenge, and a cost, that auto-enrolled pensions providers haven’t faced, and is another reason why I’m not saying that the auto-enrolment success story can simply be transferred wholesale into the digital non-pension sector.

But a great deal of it can, and I’m sure it has the potential to help providers achieve very much better results than they’re achieving at the moment.   I simply don’t understand why they’re so reluctant to look at it, or to learn from it.

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.