Will the curse ever lift from pensions?

An interesting new advertising campaign from Fidelity kicked off in the personal finance sections of the newspapers this weekend.  As so often with Fidelity campaigns, you can’t help wishing that the execution was just a tiny bit less rubbish, and on this occasion, perhaps more unusually, you can’t help wondering what exactly they’re on about:  the ads are complicated and what we creative directors sometimes describe as “unfocused”.  (Others tend to use the word “incomprehensible.”)

But even if the details are hazy, the general outline is clear enough:  Fidelity is having a pop at pensions, and proposing some kind of fund or funds as an alternative.

Quite frankly, the way consumers feel about pensions these days, Fidelity is pushing at an open door.  You could propose crack-dealing, stamp-collecting or begging on the streets as alternatives to pensions and plenty of people would give you a hearing.  Millions and millions of people truly, madly, deeply hate pensions, with what is increasingly a rather scary automatic and unthinking new kind of hatred – a hatred that, since it has no obvious cause, is likely to prove particularly difficult to argue with.

I’m pretty sure that it goes back to the stock market crash of 2000/2002.  But in the five years since, the fact that the market has recovered its losses and people with stock market based investments are generally doing fine again hasn’t made any difference.  Somehow, millions of people’s attitudes have transcended the original issues, and now exist pretty much as articles of faith: Pensions Are A Rip-Off.

One of the reasons for this is that in the minds of most of the same people, there is an obvious alternative which isn’t a rip-off and which indeed au contraire is a Licence To Print Money.  This is of course investing in property, and God knows what’ll happen to people’s overall feelings about long-term investment as and when this crashes.

Meanwhile, I don’t really think the pensions industry has got its head round quite how much it’s hated and distrusted at the moment.   The other day I gave a talk about communication with members to an audience of trustees of group schemes, and made what seemed to me the fairly obvious point that many of them were communicating with people who, these days, viewed them with deep suspicion at best and intense antipathy at worst.  I might as well have accused them of being drunk drivers or pickpockets.  A distinct froideur settled on the room.  It had simply never occurred to this audience that in recent years they’ve been been repositioned from heroes to villains.  But I’m right, all the same.  And all those organisations – from the Treasury downwards – planning initiatives of one sort or another in the field of pensions need to start by understanding that they’re starting not at Square One, but at Square Approximately Minus 500. 

Against this background, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fidelity do well with their new campaign.  It may be creatively barren, unclear and overcomplicated.  But at least it isn’t for pensions.

As I was saying before I was interrupted:

Or more accurately before I interrupted myself, if one can do such a thing.  I stepped down as Creative Director of the agency six years ago, in April 2001, and yesterday I stepped back up again, so to speak.

I’m a bit worried about workload (after all, I’m not as such setting aside any of my other hats in order to accommodate the creative directorial trilby, or straw boater, or Von Dutch baseball cap, or whatever the well-dressed creative director is wearing this spring).  But I must say, I’m very pleased indeed to have my old job back.  It’s the only job I’ve ever really enjoyed – well, maybe along with working in the Grants of St James’s warehouse in the university summer vacation of 1973, but that was only because we drank so much.  And because of a girl called Linda in the bottling plant.  But we digress.

Not sure how much difference it’ll make to this blog.  Might make it a bit harder to find the time to write.  But you probably read that piece the other day that said there are now something like 350,000,000 abandoned blogs orbiting silently and unstoppably around the internet.  And I remain pretty determined not to make it 350,000,001. 

Thank God for the Bishop of Southwark

Every now and then, someone says something so funny and so special that you can hardly even repeat it without falling apart laughing.  For this century’s outstanding example so far, step forward the Bishop of Southwark and his Christmas misadventure.

You remember the story.  He went to a party at the irish Embassy(a risky thing to do, I’m sure you’ll agree), left much the worse for wear, made his way not home but instead to the vicinity of his cathedral, mysteriously found an unlocked car parked nearby, climbed in, found it was full of wrapped Christmas presents and started throwing them out of the car windows for the benefit of passers-by.

At the point someone – I think probably the owner of the car – called the police.  Astonishingly they turned up, and remonstrated with the bishop.  It was then that he delivered the immortal line.  “I am the Bishop of Southwark,” he told them, summoning all the dignity he could muster.  “And this is what I do.”

What exactly is what he does?  Climb into unlocked cars?  Throw Christmas presents out of the windows to passers-by?  Get unbelievably pissed at the Irish Embassy?  It doesn’t matter.  He is the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what he does.

The fantastic thing about the line is not just that it’s funny, but also that it’s so incredibly useful.  It’s a line that’s just sitting up on its hindquarters and begging to be used whenever we want forgiveness for something we want to explain that we just couldn’t help doing, which, let’s face it, is pretty often.  You’re typically late for a meeting.  You’re caught by your wife watching the cricket on TV when you’d promised to put a shelf up.  You reject some work your colleagues have done so that they’ll have to spend the weekend doing it again.  You insist on buying first-class train tickets even though they’re not rechargeable to the client.  (As you may have spotted, these examples reflect a fair amount of personal experience.) But it’s all OK.  Because I am the Bishop of Southwark, and this is what I do. 

Great line.  As an accidental revelation of a great truth about the human condition, the best since Magnus Magnusson’s (RIP).  “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”

What the hell is phentermine, anyway?

Just back to this blog after 10 days away, and very excited to find 47 new comments to look at.  Not so excited, though, to find that about 46 of them are from addresses in former eastern bloc countries offering me cheap supplies of something called phentermine.

I don’t suppose there’s anything much to be done to reduce the volume of this stuff, but, loyal reader/s, in amongst all this rubbish it would be awfully nice to find the odd real comment from an email address that doesn’t end with .ru and delivers a message without any pharmaceutical content.  Go on.  Don’t be shy.

Now I’m off to google phentermine. 

Names omitted to protect the guilty

We won another pitch recently (I said we were on a roll), so our new client had the unpleasant task of telling the losers that they’d lost.

One particular firm of losers, she told us, made the conversation extremely difficult for her.  They were incredulous, angry, upset, rude:  when she told them who’d won, they came up with all sorts of reasons why we were the wrong choice.

I was amazed to hear all this. Apart from the shockingly bad manners, I’d have thought that this kind of childish display was obviously inept and counter-productive.  Before the call, the agency in question were strong and respected contenders, people who had made a good presentation and who would be the obvious choice if – for any reason – a new or additional agency was required.  After the call, they’d become a bunch of arrogant, offensive, ignorant troublemakers who’ll never get another call from the client in question until hell freeezes over.

Someone clever and perceptive told me years ago that you should never accept that you’ve failed to win a new account, only that you haven’t succeeded in winning it yet.  This is really good advice.  But to the losers in this particular pitch, this advice doesn’t apply.  If you are in fact arrogant, offensive, ignorant troublemakers, then at the point that you become unable to hide this fact from your prospects, we can safely say that you have actually, definitively and comprehensively failed.  Hooray.

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time (retail funds version)

The Times Money Section on Saturday – last-minute ISA special.  The dates work well this year:  with the tax year not actually ending until Thursday, there’s plenty of time for those stimulated by all this last-minutery to make an investment, either directly or via an intermediary.

So with the market still good, and investor confidence said to be high, there’ll be a lot of fund advertisers making the final push for new business, right?  Well, only if you think that four is a lot - Fidelity, M&G, Legal & General and Invesco Perpetual.

But what’s more interesting than who’s there, if you see what I mean, is who isn’t there.  No Jupiter or New Star.  No Schroders, no Merrill Lynch, no Artemis, no Gartmore.  No boutiques, no insurance companies except L&G, no brokers. It’s all as quiet as anything.

It’s all a case of what Sherlock Holmes called “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” (Watson:  “But Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time.”  Holmes:  “That, Watson, was the curious incident.”)

What does the lack of activity mean?  Well, there’s always the possibility that it doesn’t mean anything very much – simply that most of the big advertisers have spent most of their budgets and think that 31st March is too late to advertise ISAs to consumers.  But among the more interesting possible explanations, I can think of the following.  Take your pick:

-  Private investors still aren’t interested in fund managers’ propositions, so there’s not much point in spending good money on them;

-  Fund managers still aren’t very interested in private investors, so there’s not much point in spending good money on them;

-  Fund managers have become more and more certain that it’s IFAs who call the shots in this market, not consumers  (to support this view, there are 43 fund ads in this week’s Investment Week);

-  Most people have decided that today’s Personal Finance sections are so boring and of such narrow consumer interest that it’s stupid to advertise in them;

-  Many fund managers are quite bearish about the medium-term market outlook and are holding back for fear of storing up trouble for the future;

-  The FSA have scared most people off with their many and not-always-completely-consistent pronouncements on financial promotions in general and funds advertising in particular;

-  In recent years, some of the minor players have belatedly realised that it’s a complete waste of money to turn up in the consumer marketplace for a few weeks of largely-invisible advertising at the one time of year when the sheer weight of competitive activity guarantees an absolutely minuscule share of voice.

Whatever the reasons (and I suspect it’s a combination of all of the above), it’s a bit of a reality check for those who, like me, thought that although the direct-response-oriented, coupon-clipping era had undoubtedly ended, a new and much more interesting era of real consumer brand-building was already well on the way.  Even if only to get both Conan Doyle and Mark Twain into the same entry, I can’t help concluding that reports of this new era’s existence have been more than somewhat exaggarated.

If it’s not Rainham Steel, it’s . . . Watson Wyatt???

Footbal afficionados will know that I’m back onto the subject of perimeter advertising, something which always offers me some interest no matter what’s happening on the field.

During last week’s England vs Andorra debacle, I was up for any kind of distraction, but in fact a truly startling one – one that would have diverted me from even the most wonderful game – appeared at the pitchside every few minutes:  large animated banners for the leading firm of consulting actuaries, Watson Wyatt.

Unlike Rainham Steel, who advertise at every match (see entry a couple of weeks ago), I’ve never seen Watson Wyatt advertise at a football match before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they never do so again.  They don’t seem to have any of the attributes necessary to be either a “serious” perimeter advertiser (large mass-market global brand, high awareness, strategic commitment) or indeed to be a Rainham Steel-style “capricious” advertiser (football-loving owner with deep pockets).  All the same, there must be a reason for it.  Someone somewhere has decided this is a good thing for Watson Wyatt to do: I just canot imagine who or why.

You may think I’m worrying about this too much, but I assure you I’m not alone.  Shock waves will have gone through the world of actuarial consulting.  What will happen next?  Mercers sponsoring the World Darts Championship?  Tillinghast Towers Perrin making a strategic investment in dog racing?  We wait with bated breath.