Good news. We’re all living longer. Unless we’re not.

These days, there’s never a complete consensus on any big issue.  You can always find a small minority of pundits who will still argue – often surprisingly plausibly – that there’s no such thing as global warming, or that smoking doesn’t actually cause cancer, or that there’s no danger of Sumatran tigers becoming extinct, or whatever.  But whether or not you choose to agree with these people, you’re not in much doubt that theirs is the minority position.  Rightly or wrongly, the large majority takes the opposite view.

The current longevity thing is a bit of an exception.  As far as I can see, the argument is balanced pretty much exactly 50:50 between those who believe we can look forward to many years of rapidly-increasing longevity, and those who believe the opposite – many years of rapidly-increasing shortgevity, you might say.

Both have excellent arguments and statistics on their side, with the result that both are entirely plausible.  The longevitists point mainly to advances in medical science, and also the rapid decline in smoking.  The shortgevitists point mainly to growing obesity and lack of exercise.

The thing is, they can’t both be right – well, actually, in a sense they can, if there is, say, one segment of the population which is living longer and one which is living less long, but even so there must be an overall net position.

And clearly the actual outcome is hugely important in all sorts of ways, but not least for the financial services industry which does have to fundamentally decide whether it needs to spend vast amounts of time and money working on new products and services designed for people living on through 40 or 50 year periods in long and generally healthy retirements, or designed for people having to pack up work and live on benefits from the age of 45 until their untimely deaths a few years later because of their extreme obesity.

If there is any shape to the argument currently, I’d say it’s the FS people who expect the next generation to live to 100, whereas it’s the medics who expect them to choke to death on their deep-fried pizzas at 50.  But whether that’s right or not, I wish some sort of consensus would emerge.  It’s very schizophrenic for a copywriter to be spending the mornings writing about the horrendous implications of people living too long, and the afternoons writing about the growing risk of dreadfully premature death.

Come on medics and actuaries, what are the facts here?  We haven’t got all day.  Or perhaps we have.

You know, this press advertising thing is really quite serious

A few days ago I wrote a long piece about how I couldn’t find any decent current press ads in newspapers and magazines to use in a talk that I’m giving.  After a few more days of totally unsuccessful hunting, I’ve decided to give up and talk about something else.  Press advertising seems, as far as I can see, to be dead. 

OK, there may still be signs of life at some of its more distant extremities.  I suspect, for example, that the reasonably-intelligent-but-somewhat-vacuous corporate ad still lives on in The Economist, and maybe from time to time in the FT.  But if you can find a single even half-decent advertisement in the several thousand pages of newsprint that make up this last weekend’s papers, then I’m a banana.

What’s really, really depressing is the leaden, oafish, clunking, dumb obviousness of the ads compared to the fizz and zip of so much of the editorial.  Leafing through papers and magazines, time after time I’d flick over onto something that looked interesting, fun, different, intriguing – and time after time it would be an editorial spread and not an advertising one.  (The same is at least as true, if not more so, in lifestyle mags:  in cars, fashion, cinema, music, it’s the same story, all the smart people producing some very sparkly editorial, and the GCSE failures producing pedestrian vacuousness.)

What’s going on here?  And how long has it been going on?  Why wasn’t I told that press advertising had died?  Has everyone else noticed, or is it just me?  Is there anything to be done about it, or do we have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that in a market like cameras, graced by so many great ads for Olympus, Nikon and others over the years, the best we can now do is a campaign of dreary shots of the footballer Joe Cole saying “Great shots are my business”?

As I say, I’ve thought again about that talk I was going to give.  Instead of looking at good current press ads and asking whether it’s the insight or the execution that makes them good (answer:  it’s neither), I’m going to scan in the press advertising section from my trusty 1982 D&AD annual and ask why we don’t make them like that any more.

I know, I know, it’s a grumpy-old-man kind of presentation.  But I’m definitely a man, and by the standards of this industry I’m old, and as far as the collapse of press advertising is concerned I’m well grumpy. Not to mention mystified, depressed and more than a little appalled.

A tale of two blue plaques

Stuck in a traffic jam on the Cromwell Road yesterday, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before – a rather run-down and creeper-covered house carrying a blue plaque to tell us that Alfred Hitchcock had lived there from 1929 to 1939. 

Knowing a little bit about the life of Hitchcock, I pondered this for a while.  Why on earth was he there, on the Cromwell Road, for ten years ?  It must have been a busy and noisy street even then, and it wasn’t a particularly impressive house:  these were the years of his biggest UK hits, so surely he could have afforded somewhere nicer?  And anyway, didn’t he famously live at Shamley Green, in the Surrey stockbroker belt?  Amd when was it exactly that he moved to Hollywood?  And so on and so on.

This morning, I took my usual route to work, and stopped at a traffic light where I stop every day, and glanced to my right as I almost always do, remembering that there is a blue plaque on the building but having forgotten, for the five hundredth time, whose name is on it. 

To write this piece I had to make a note of the name, and it’s some bloke called Thomas Young, who is described as a “man of science” and who lived there for a long time in the nineteenth century.

The summary of all this, as you’ve probably recognised, is that having seen Hitchcock’s blue plaque once I will always associate that house with him, while having seen Young’s plaque five hundred times I’ve never been able to remember it.

And why am I telling you this?  Because it’s a story that perfectly demonstrates an important idea about advertising, sponsorship and media planning:  that opportunities to promote a “naked” brand identity (that’s to say a brand’s name or logo without context or explanation, like for example sports ground perimeter advertising) only work when the brand is already well-known. 

You probably knew that anyway, but the tale of the blue plaques makes the point pretty well.

The strange and secret death of press advertising

Once a month, I do an evening session in the agency – beer, crisps, you know the sort of thing – for anyone who wants to come along on a topic that has something to do with creativity and the creative process. For this month, I wanted to show a bunch of current, decent newspaper and magazine advertisements and have the agency equivalent of the “nature vs nurture” debate:  how much of what makes them good is the insight in the brief, and how much is the creative idea?

So, for about the last three weeks, every time I read a newspaper or magazine, I’ve been looking for ads I can use in the session.  Not financial, absolutely any sector.  Just current, decent print ads.  And you should know that I read a lot of newspapers and magazines.

And after three weeks, how many current, decent print ads have I found?  Four.  And even then, two of them are from the same campaign (Mars’ campaign saying that their confectionery isn’t as bad as you think it is) and the other two aren’t really very good (Toyota Yaris and the second-hand VW campaign).

Is this because I’m being ruthlessly, unrealistically selective?  Are there actually dozens of perfectly good print ads which I’m dyspeptically refusing to choose?  Absolutely not.  The pile of near-misses is, if anything, even smaller than the pile of selections.  Meanwhile, the pile of obvious, no-argument, everyone-in-their-right-mind-would-agree rejects towers high over my head.   And I am not a short person.

A small percentage of the rejects are rejected because they’re pitiful failures – crass, lumpen, hopeless, amateurish attempts to do something that’s miles beyond the capabilities of the people involved in trying to do it.  But the overwhelming majority are rejected because they simply aren’t trying to do anything remotely interesting.  They’re not really ads at all, just notices of one sort or another.  A huge amount is, of course, retail advertising just showing us products and prices.  And the rest …well, frankly, it’s too boring to describe.  Have a look – a proper, careful look – through the weekend papers and supplements, and you’ll see what I mean.

As I write this, I have open beside me the document that probably represents the high-water mark of British print advertising, the 1982 D&AD annual.  Admittedly, about half the ads in it come from Mr Abbott and his chums at Abbott Mead Vickers, who in those days approached press work with the kind of zeal usually associated with the Spanish Inquisition or Gordon Ramsay’s kitchens.  And of course, it’s ridiculous and unfair to contrast the tiny fraction of 1982’s press advertising which made it into the book with two or three weeks of humdrummery.

But still, just flick through the annual and you’ll see a whole thought-process, a whole way of thinking about print advertising ideas, and copywriting, and art direction, that simply doesn’t exist at all today.  Brilliant, consistent, dazzling campaigns – Sainsbury’s, Albany Life, Sun Alliance, Stella Artois, Benson & Hedges, BMW, Audi, Volvo.  And fantastic one-offs – “Red Star would like to point out that at 10.15 last night this page hadn’t been printed” or the Youth Opportunities Programme’s “You’re right.  The trouble with us kids today is that we’ve never done a decent day’s work in our lives.”  Honestly, it just goes on for page after page.  It’s wonderful stuff.

So what happened?  How did we get from there to Dell Computers and Carphone Warehouse?  I can’t think of a single major brand that uses print advertising to surprise, engage, reward, provoke and entertain readers today in the way that 30 or 40 major advertisers did 25 years ago.  Why?

At this point, you might expect me in my Libran way to offer up half a dozen reasons why things have changed.  I might suggest that brand advertisers rely more on broadcast media these days, or that the Internet has something to do with it, or that consumers don’t have the patience to dwell upon the lovingly-crafted copy of Mr Abbott and his friends any more.  But actually, none of the explanations I can come up with really seems to make any sense.  True, advertisers use broadcast more, but that’s surely a symptom and not a cause.  The Internet has something to do with lots of things, but I can’t see how it can have a bad effect on print advertising.  And although it is true that newspaper readership is in gradual long-term decline (something which the Internet has a lot to do with) the overall readership of printed publications continues to increase, and there’s no evidence that people who buy them read any less of them than they ever did.

Of course those of us working in financial services have played some part in the collapse.  A respectable number of the great campaigns of the 70s and 80s were financial - Barclaycard, Albany Life, Sun Alliance, Nationwide FlexAccount.  You’d imagine that print advertising would be still important to financial brands, not least because there are still literally dozens without the resources to build awareness on television:  it’s extremely odd that you can’t think of a single major financial advertiser who uses print intelligently and originally today.

I don’t think you could simply bring back most of those 80s campaigns, and in some ways even an old fogey like me can see that they do represent a bit of a vanished world.  It is all a little bit prim, and prissy, and very male, and extremely white, and just a bit too pleased with itself.  But I am quite sure there is an equivalent approach to print advertising that can be taken today, and that can be taken by financial brands at least as effectively as by any others.  The 21st Century equivalents are waiting to be written.  If any financial advertiser fancies having a crack at it, please let me know.

Voice from beyond the grave

Were you as surprised – spooked, even – as me to see Northern Rock’s advertising for savings accounts in the weekend papers? 

Your first thought was to wonder whether anyone at the FSA had been told about it.  Remembering that one of the most-criticised aspects of the whole Equitable Life affair was the way they went on prospecting for new business long after they (and the regulator) knew the trouble they were in, there was a real sense of history repeating itself.

Then you wondered – foolishly, but nevertheless – whether these could possibly be ads that had been booked weeks ago, before the whole thing went ballistic, and which no-one had ever got round to cancelling.  Could it be a story, you asked yourself, like those rather eerie ones from the first world war when delayed letters from the front came through to grieving families weeks or even months after they’d heard the bad news?  Of course advertising doesn’t work like that.  But noticing that the copy was completely and bafflingly free from any kind of reference at all to any kind of difficulty that the bank may have been suffering recently, you did wonder.

And then finally, of course, you couldn’t help speculating in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god sort of way about just how shockingly awful the cost-per-response figures must be.  Back in the depths of the 200/2002 stock market crash, there were a few fund managers who carried on advertising for a while despite cost per response figures of up to £2000:  I suspect that the weekend’s Northern Rock ads may have done even worse, and even if a few very brave people did respond then the chances of any conversions will have been effectively eliminated by this morning’s news that the government may not be able to leave its rescue loans in place indefinitely.

Much financial direct response advertising could fairly be said to reflect the triumph of hope over experience.  None more so than this, surely.

 

Let’s have a government campaign in favour of hair conditioner. Or boxer shorts. Or…

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in industry gatherings of one sort or another lately, and I think there’s one thing which I find more irritating, and also more unhelpful, than anything else.

That is the total, unchallengeable conviction on the part of pretty much everyone from the life and pensions industry that consumers really ought to be putting large amount of money into their products and services, and that the world would be a much better place if only they did.

Up to a point, this is not unreasonable.  Before almost anyone can market almost anything, they have to convince themselves that they’re offering a hugely life-enhancing experience.  I’ve lost count of the number of clients who’ve told me over the years that really, their product, whatever it may be, is so much better than anything else on the market that, honestly, consumers would simply be daft not to.

But the zeal of the life and pensions people goes far beyond this.  They are positively evangelical, in much the same way that 19th century Christian missionaries in Africa were evangelical.  Those who don’t believe their gospel are just plain wrong.  And we should stop at nothing – government-sponsored campaigns, education in schools, changes in the tax and benefit system – to help people understand the error of their ways.

This conviction – that life assurance and pensions are essential components of a successful life – is so deep-rooted that it’s almost beyond challenge.

But like many other equally deep rooted convictions, it’s also absolute tosh.  I have nothing against life assurance, and not all that much against pensions.  But I really wish the industry would understand that from the perspective of consumers, they’re just some more options competing for a slice of their scarce disposable incomes – and that for millions of people, deciding not to put money into them, but to put the money into a whole range of other options from subscriptions to Sky to private education for the kids to foreign holidays to meeting the cost of ageing parents’ long-term care, is entirely sensible and reasonable and not at all a mark of ignorance or profligacy or folly.

This is particularly true for life assurance.  It’s true that there are horrendous stories about young families suffering hardship after a father or mother dies without life assurance.  But this isn’t in itself a compelling reason to buy it.  Most young fathers and mothers don’t die.  For the huge majority, the premiums are just precious money down the drain.  Yes, not buying life assurance is a risk.  But it isn’t a very big one – not as big, for example, as driving a car.  And no-one thinks young parents are mad to do that.

The calculation of risk is harder when it comes to pensions.  It’s likely that people will be poor in their old age if they don’t put a good deal of money into a pension or some other source of retirement income.  But that still doesn’t mean that they should.  They may think it’s a reasonable trade-off – a life of wine and roses now, and re-used teabags and wild dandelions later.  They may think it better to invest their money in their children’s futures rather than their own.  Or they may have so many commitments to others – their own parents, for example – that they simply cannot afford the luxury of planning their own long-term financial security.

If you or I were to investigate the finances of a random selection of a hundred households, I’m sure we’d find that by the industry’s standards virtually all of them were underinsured and had underfunded pensions.  But in the large majority of those cases, given the attitudes of the people involved and the shape of their overall financial commitments, I’m certain that we’d conclude that they were right to be behaving as they were.

People in life assurance and pensions are perfectly entitled to think that their products are a good thing, and that people would be better placed if they put more money into them.  But this is just an opinion, not an objective fact.  They have no more right to benefit from government-sponsored advertising campaigns and educational programmes than anyone selling anything else, from hair-care products to underwear.  Like everyone else with something to sell, they should make their own case as best they can, and not expect anyone else to do their selling for them.   

Life assurance: dead in the water?

I don’t know how much the delegates tend to get out of my conference presentations, but I almost always get a lot out of the delegates. 

I spoke at a conference of life assurance people yesterday, giving a sort of life-assurancey version of my last blog entry – that is, speaking about how I think that all sorts of organisation have all sorts of increasingly-compelling reasons for paying fresh and serious attention to the opportunities of the direct-to-consumer (D2C) market.

I think this more or less held the delegates’ attention, and they laughed in the right places when I showed them a longish reel of TV commercials on somewhat tangentially relevant topics, but I have to say that I don’t think I won an awful lot of hearts or minds.

Protection sales are in long-term decline in this country, and looking around the room yesterday it wasn’t hard to see why.  The strongest emotion that people seemed able to muster was a sort of sullen petulance in response to the things that I and several other speakers had to say about ways to revitalise it (obviously not really the best-chosen word in this market).  People in this part of the industry stick doggedly to their long-standing belief that “life assurance is sold and not bought,” and that therefore there’s little point in worrying about anything much except what could be done to find more people to do the selling, and more commission to encourage them to do more of it.

What’s particularly depressing is the way that even some of those who might be regarded as enfants terribles – like Kevin Carr from Lifesearch, promoting the importance of advice in the D2C market, and Andy Milburn from Progress, talking about the importance of spending face-time with IFAs in the intermediated market  – are actually just as trapped in their own thought-processes as the men in grey suits.  Despite the steep decline in sales and a rather ridiculous statistic to the effect that something called a “protection gap” is now worth some £2.3 trillion, I didn’t see any sign of anyone being remotely interested in new or different ideas.

But then again, come to think about it, when a market is in steep long-term decline, the fact that the people responsible for the decline are uninterested in new ideas shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

Just remind me, what exactly are IFAs?

Not a question that anyone in financial services is likely to ask just now.  But give it a couple of years, and you could be surprised. 

Five years or so ago, at the height of the 2000/2003 market crash, it took a superhuman effort of will on my part to resist the temptation to say that the direct-to-consumer market in long-term financial services – investments, life products, pensions – was dead. It looked as dead as anything – deader than the deadest of parrots, you might say.  I heard of one investment funds provider who was generating consumer enquiries – not customers, just enquiries – at over £2,000 each.  That’s as close to dead as it gets.

But you know what they say:  never say never, among other cliches.  Nothing particularly good has actually happened in the direct market, but suddenly it’s back with a vengeance.

The reasons, frankly, are circumstantial.  Everyone, I think it’s fair to say, believes that this time the combined weight of hostile forces is going to drive IFAs back into their mountain fastnesses, holed out in the financial services equivalent of the Tora Bora caves serving small numbers of advice-hungry high net worth individuals.  Meanwhile, every other major slice of the zeitgeist (are zeitgeists sliceable?) is pointing everyone else towards the so called mass affluent and indeed mass markets.  A rag-bag of zeitslices from Generic Financial Advice to NPSS to the economics of wrap accounts to employers’ attitudes towards final salary pensions are combining to make us all think that even if we’re not exactly bursting with optimism, we’re going to have to give the whole d2c market some sort of new attention.

I don’t know what it all means, and I’ve no idea what it’s going to look like, and most of all I have no idea whether any of the new schemes currently being hatched are actually going to work or not.  But I don’t think there’s any doubt that direct is back, and for a while at least it’s going to be big.  And I suppose whether or not the schemes work is as much down to me and people like me in agencies as it is to anyone else. 

M&G and “Murder on the Orient Express”

So poor old M&G has another visual identity and another big advertising idea, once again (as most of them do) focusing on the ampersand but this time presenting it in some very ugly and dirty green colours and treating it not only as a rather questionable visual (a flock of ampersands flying out of a bird cage???) but also as the first thing at the beginning of every headline.

In recent years, M&G’s turnover of brand strategies and big advertising ideas has been up there with my beloved football club’s turnover of managers.  (And some, I’m tempted to say, have been about as comprehensible as our new bloke Mr Ramos’s English.)

It used to be very different.  Over a period of about 30 years or so, M&G built pretty much the only brand worth talking about in the retail investment funds market, thanks to the complete and highly idiosyncratic control of an in-house marketing and communications team led by the much-missed Tim Miller and the great Roger Jennings.  Tim and Roger built a brand characterised by hideously ugly, crude, naive, shouty-looking communications, with more than a touch of the John Bull printing press about them.  It wasn’t remotely intelligent, sophisticated or marketing-literate:  their idea of an ISA poster would be a 6-sheet in 3,600-point type that would say (or rather, scream) ISA – BUY NOW!

And it worked brilliantly.  (Or should I say “& it worked brilliantly?”)  The thing about M&G was, it was absolutely 100% authentic.  It obviously hadn’t in any way been got at by slick, mendacious brand and marketing folk.  You could easily imagine that the fund managers knocked up the ads in a few moments of downtime.  M&G was so utterly transparent – no-one was sophisticated enough to even spin the truth a little bit, let alone conceal it – that you knew you could trust everything it said.  It was the ultimate un-brand:  its total artlessness was the whole point.

Things started to change in the mid-90s.  Inevitably, the first changes took place within the organisation.  I can’t remember if Tim Miller had left by then, but it doesn’t really matter because around that time he tragically died in a car crash.  And new sales and marketing people came on board and didn’t like the look of what Roger and his team were doing:  it was embarrassing for them to be seen to have a responsibility for such crass stuff.  People tittered at dinner parties.

Inevitably, they hired consultants and agencies to look at ways to “refresh” and “update” and “contemporise” the brand.  And (sorry, “&”) we were one of the first to come on board.  

You’ll remember that the point of Murder on the Orient Express is that all the major characters on the train all had a hand in the victim’s murder.  It wasn’t any one of them:  it was all of them.

That’s the story of the job that the marketing, brand, advertising and communications industry has done for M&G since the mid-90s. 

Sure, there have been a couple of highlights.  Steve Harrison is praised – somewhat overpraised, in my opinion – for his long-running and amiable long-copy campaign, which was certainly among the best in this desperately poor category.  (Some would say that all he produced was a knowing, artful and therefore obviously cynical equivalent of what Tim and Roger did with such convincing artlessness, but anyway.)  

But there have also been several lowlights – including, to be honest, one or two where you’ll find my fingerprints on the dagger – and of all of these, this new ampersand thing strikes me as the lowest.

Amidst this feeding frenzy of agencies and consultants, the brand, inevitably, has pretty much sunk without trace.  Old M&G is long gone – I don’t suppose most people reading this have any idea what I’m talking about – and there is no new M&G, just another blurry investment house.

At our best, we do lots of great work in our industry, adding millions if not billions of pounds of value for our clients in the process.  But we’re rarely at our best when it comes to evolving things:  we suffer (sorry about the mixed metaphor) from a disabling inability to distinguish babies from bathwater, and tend to chuck the whole lot away just to be on the safe side.  Old M&G needed to change, but it certainly didn’t need much of what we’ve done to it in the last ten years.  Least of all green ampersands pretending to be birds.