Whatever we need from financial services just now, it seems we’re not getting it.

Impressively early in the coronavirus drama, even if I say so myself, I wrote a notably grumpy blog on the subject of “peace of mind.”  A huge proportion of financial advisers claim to offer it, I said, but in reality, remarkably few of their clients really enjoy it – especially at times when our world is becoming dramatically pear-shaped.   For most of us, I said, peace of mind is conspicuous by its absence.

Ever since, I’ve been hunting around the echo-chamber of stuff that will confirm and reinforce my views for evidence that I’m right about this, and some highly confirmatory consumer research has just come my way.

Blue Marble, the innovative and insightful research firm run by my old friend Emma Partridge, has set up its own programme, combining qual and quant, to look at post-coronavirus consumer behaviour in different parts of their lives.  The last round, just a few days ago, looked at financial behaviour.

Two questions – or rather, two answers – jumped out at me from the quant.  Among a nice big nationally-representative sample of 2000 adults, over half said they felt “more uncertain about their future” than before the outbreak (rising to over 60% among under-35s), and 39% said they were “more worried about money” (rising to over 50% among under-35s). 

These figures are high – certainly high enough to cast doubt over that “peace of mind” nonsense – but if anything I was surprised they weren’t higher.  Who are these 40% of under-35s who aren’t more uncertain about their future?

The clue to this, I think, is in the qual.  What this is telling us, in short, is that for the time being we’re too worried about the present to have the head-space to worry about the future as well.  I should say that there are some who are working from home, getting paid as usual and actually taking some pleasure from the enforced saving of a locked-down lifestyle. But the majority – whether students unable to find holiday jobs, pensioners with savings “in tatters,” furloughed workers, or self-employed people worried about whether their customers will pay their bills – have real anxieties in the here and now.    Combine that with the lack of any clear sense of where we’re going with all this, and whether (and when) something approaching normality may return, and it’s no big surprise that for some, the time to start worrying about tomorrow hasn’t quite arrived yet.

I think we all know that this will change, though, and when it does the role of financial services providers will be important.  At the moment, it doesn’t seem that it’s very important at all:  the second main theme I took out of the research is to do with another absence.  The fact is that so far in this crisis, the role and the actions of the entire financial services industry haven’t made much of an impression on Blue Marble’s respondents.  While just under half of the quant respondents say that supermarkets have responded to the crisis “very well”  (those loo roll shortages obviously fading from memory), only 9% say the same of banks and building societies.  In the qual, there are a few shoutouts for “good communications” – Nationwide, M&S and John Lewis picking up the odd positive mention – but on the whole it’s a case of the curious incident of the dog in the night time.[1]  Of the respondents with a financial adviser, for example, only one claimed to have received any communication (although I think in fact others must have received 10%-drop letters), and the one solitary strong positive across the whole study was a comment from a delighted motor insurance customer offered a partial refund to reflect reduced car usage.

There’s nothing terrible or scandalous here.  Very few respondents had anything seriously critical to say:  the most widespread grumble was to do with the perceived “hypocrisy” of lenders maintaining unjustifiably high rates while claiming to act in the national interest.  But equally, beyond that small handful of scattered positives, there’s nothing impressive or admirable either.  No institution, and no sector, seems to have seized the opportunity to capture positive attention by doing something – anything – to stand out and capture customers’ imagination.  Heaven knows plenty of financial institutions – actually almost all of them – claim a “focus on the customer,” or to be “truly customer-centric,” or to “put their customers first.”  But given a great big rather scary opportunity to prove the truth of claims like these, Blue Marble’s  research tells us that rather like that empty promise to give us “peace of mind,” fine words like these are mainly delivered from safely below the parapet.

[1] “But Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time!”  “That, Watson, was the curious incident.”

Come on, it’s not difficult – there are only two kinds of advertising ideas

I mentioned that I’ve been involved recently in helping a client choose an agency, and so for the first time in a while I’ve been on the receiving end of a bunch of creative presentations.

Our brief asked for a big (or biggish) idea that could be executed across a number of different executions.  The ideas we saw took me back instantly to my long years as a creative director, and to the single comment I remember making most often in response to the thousands of ideas I was shown.

This was, almost always, “Sorry, but we need a Type 2 idea and this is a Type 1,” or, much more infrequently, “Sorry, but we need a Type 1 idea and this is a Type 2”.

From which you’ll gather that there are two types of campaign ideas.  You may be wondering what they are and what’s the difference between them, so I shall explain.

A Type 1 idea is a campaign idea that lets you say the same thing in lots of different executions.  The great Heineken campaign  Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach is a Type 1 idea.  So is Should’ve gone to Specsavers.

A Type 2 idea is a campaign that lets you say lots of different things in lots of different executions, but in a way which is recognisably part of the same campaign.  Tesco’s Every little helps is a Type 2 idea.  So are Alexsandr and Sergei the meerkats for Comparethemarket.com.  So, in a slightly different way, was what is still the greatest body of work ever produced for a  single client by a single agency, Doyle Dane’s 1960s US work for Volkswagen:  there wasn’t exactly an idea, but there was a ruthlessly consistent look and feel and tone of voice, and an extraordinary attitude which said that in 1960s America, the home of the giant chrome-trimmed V8 gas guzzler, VW would revel in being ugly, small, cheap and slow.  

The fact is that for all their fame and for all the awards they’ve won, there are very few Type 1 campaigns.  There’s a simple reason for that, which is that very few brands can afford them.  Only big brands in big categories can swallow the cost of making campaigns consisting of big, single-minded, simple brand messages famous.  Back in my early days in Big Advertising I worked on a few – but ever since, I’ve worked in a world of Type 2 ideas.

Almost every brand that uses marketing communications needs a Type 2 idea.   A Type 2 idea provides some consistency, recognisability and distinctiveness to a whole bunch of messages in a whole bunch of media.  For example, an asset manager might need some “hurry hurry” ads reminding people not to miss the ISA deadline, an ad in the trade press about winning an award, some thematic messages about how active management adds value, a mailpack inviting intermediaries to a seminar, a series of digital Market Outlook pieces from the fund managers, and so on and so on and so on.

But here’s the thing:  creative people would infinitely much rather come up with Type 1 ideas.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, on the whole, they believe that Type 1 ideas are “proper” advertising, especially if they appear on TV.  Considering how few of them there are, Type 1 ideas win an awful lot of awards.  And second, they’re much, much easier to do.  Coming up with the idea in the first place is hard, but once you’ve done that you can bash out a hundred scripts by tea-time.   Or, perhaps more to the point, before down-the-pub time.

Want to put this to the test?  Probably not, but just in case, here’s your idea:  someone can’t do something, they drink some Heineken and then they can do it.  A hundred ideas by tea-time?  Well, I suppose it depends a bit on what time it is now, but if it’s before 2.30 I’d say you’re in with a chance. 

(I should add that most of those hundred ideas won’t be any good.  Writing great Type 1 scripts is harder than it looks, precisely because the idea is so clear and obvious:  as a result, good scripts have to include some kind of twist or surprise to make the commercial worth watching.  If you know from the first frame exactly what’s going to happen, it’s not a good script.  But we’ll save this more advanced discussion for another time.)

Type 2 ideas work the other way round.  It may not be so hard to come up with the original big idea – quite a few, as in my VW example, are little more than a look and feel, a tone of voice and an attitude.  (Usually, also, a strapline, although VW didn’t bother and didn’t need one.)  But then you’re going to need to come up with further ideas – smaller ones maybe, but ideas all the same – for every single execution.  When you have an ad to do for VW about the reliability of the air-cooled engine, your look and feel, tone of voice and attitude don’t tell you to write How does the man who drives the snowplough get to the snowplough?  But if you do come up with that idea, you know you’ve written a VW ad.

We almost always need Type 2 ideas.  In my recent agency selection project, that’s certainly what the pitch brief specified (although, I should say, without these unfamiliar Type 1 and Type 2 labels).  But altogether, in the tissue meetings and the final presentations, the three agencies must have showed us over a dozen different concepts – and of those, all but a couple were Type 1.

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.