This could be the last time (well, at least, in 2007)

I’ll probably make my customary token appearance in the office on Christmas Eve, drifting in to see whether there’s anyone who wants to go to lunch, but for me today is the last serious working day of 2007 and, I strongly suspect, this is the last blog entry till 2008.

Speaking for myself, and despite everything, I’ve liked 2007 and will be sorry to see it go.  As far as the financial world is concerned, I guess it will go down as the year of Northern Rock and the credit crunch.  But for us here at the agency, the main memories will be on a somewhat smaller scale:  two weddings (Sue and Andy, Sarah and Tim), a couple of new babies, some very good work, some important departures (including both Rupert Pybus and Sean Ingram, the two senior directors who came on board at the time of the merger with Ping Communications), some equally-important new arrivals, a couple of very good parties, and, oh yes, of course, we mustn’t forget the fact that we sold the business back in the early summer.

And then of course for me personally, the main event of the year was something else again, namely clambering back up into the Creative Director’s chair after a six-year gap back in May.  With the greatest respect to all three of the people who did this job between 2001 and 2007, as soon as I started doing it again I wondered why I’d ever stopped.  For one thing I love it, and for another it’s a role in which I really do feel I can make a difference – at a macro level in terms of the shape and structure of the department, and at a micro level in terms of each individual piece of work we produce for our clients. 

It is hard work, especially considering that I haven’t actually given up any of my other jobs in order to make time for it, and I do worry in particular that I’m not finding as much time for my business development work.  But don’t feel too sorry for me.  As you can see, I’m still finding time to keep this blog going - assuming I that I do manage to write something in 2008, it’ll successfully make it into its third year – so, let’s face it, I can’t be that bloody busy.

Have a good Christmas.  I certainly intend to. 

Not “always” Coca-Cola

A central part of my “what makes financial services branding difficult?” presentation features a comparison between the consistency of consumer goods, like for example Coke, and the hopeless inconsistency of most financial services.  I bang on about this at some length, going back into the Victorian era to talk about the way that the Industrial Revolution gave manufacturers the ability to produce goods of consistent quality and in large quantity, and how it’s taken the service sector a hundred years or more to start figuring out how to build anything approaching similar levels of consistency into the experience of their consumers.

I may have to change this part of the presentation.  A good friend and (these days) financial services client was telling me the other day about his previous experience as European marketing director for a very well-known carbonated drinks brand (actually not Coke).  “Of course,” he said, “The issue that we could never overcome was the consistency thing.”  I must have looked puzzled, because he went on to to explain that like all major international brands in the market, his company’s drinks were actually manufactured in the factories of dozens of local bottling firms all over Europe.  And although the concentrated flavourings were supplied from a central source, the sugar and, crucially, the water were sourced locally:  with the result, he said, that every single plant’s production tasted different, and some were so different that they were practically unrecognisable as the same drink.

Actually, when you come to think about it, you know this is true.  I must admit, I drink a good deal of thin Coke.  I drink it pretty much wherever I go, and, yes, it’s true, it does taste very different in different places. 

The same client, while we’re on the subject, reported a similar consistency problem in the international confectionery industry – if anything, in fact, even more so. Apparently, it’s the different kinds of milk in milk chocolate that makes the biggest difference.

I don’t know if any of the milk comes from sacred cows (maybe in India?) but all of this certainly added up to a lethal blow for one of mine.  Regular readers of this blog will both know that I think the FS industry is extremely prone to special pleading – imagining its problems are unique when in fact they’re commonplace – but I must admit, I did think this consistency issue was one which genuinely differentiated the goods and service sectors.  

Sure, FS marketers are right to try to learn from the world of packaged goods and try to build more consistency into their delivery.  But there’s something else that maybe they should try to learn from the world of packaged goods:  how come a carbonated drink that can taste almost unrecognisably different each time you drink it can still be “always Coca-Cola”?

No time to write, let alone drink

Into the second half of December, and according to the stereotype we’re now drinking pretty much around the clock.

I wish.  Truth is, December is a horribly busy month in agencies, partly because lots of our clients have us working on new campaigns they want to launch in the New Year, and partly because at any given moment half the staff are in the pub.  (Same story, or similar story, in August – clients want to launch new campaigns in September, and half our people are out of action, although of course at that time they’re lying about on beaches rather than lying about snoring gently on the office floor.)

As it is, at this time of year we start early and work at a feverish pace in order to go out to client lunches at posh restaurants, where we’re looking at our watches from about 2.30 onwards wondering how long we have to stay in order to avoid giving offence.  I went to a lunch in Edinburgh on Friday, and you might assume the procedure would be to make it a longish one, get a late afternoon/early evening flight back to London and go home:  but even then I felt some ghastly compulsion to leave in time to get the 4.30 flight back to London and drop into the office to catch up on a couple of things before the weekend.  (You’ve guessed the punchline:  BA an hour and a half late as usual, and not back in town till 8.  Oh well, at least my liver is grateful for the pre-digestif departure.)

So how come I’m sitting here writing this on a Monday morning when, as I keep saying, there’s such a lot to do?  Simple:  a combination of my customary procrastination, and the key fact that the next task on my list is to sign 800 Christmas cards.

Unusually good joke, typically poor timing

If it’s true that timing is everything in comedy, then I’m afraid that for the 10,000th year running the agency Christmas card is going to fall a bit flat.  Yes, you’ve guessed it, 12 December and it went to print yesterday.

The lateness is particularly indefensible this year because we actually agreed on the idea two or three weeks ago now.  Unfortunately, Martin, whose idea it was, then promptly disappeared on a ten-day pre-Christmas holiday, and of course while he was away his idea gathered no snow or holly but rather a thin layer of dust.

So the timing of the card, just like the timing of 99.999% of all agency house jobs, is terrible.  Which is a pity, because the joke itself is Christmassy, simple, funny and as far as I know original, which I think you’ll agree is an unusually strong combination of characteristics.   I suppose I ought to give you a link to it, or even include a picture of it, but obviously I can’t, or not yet anyway – as I think I mentioned, the artwork’s at the printers.

Not very (Northern) Rock’n’roll

Do you remember those photographs in the national press a couple of months ago showing savers queuing to get their money out of Northern Rock branches?  In case you’ve forgotten, you’ll find one here:

 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/main.jhtml?xml=/money/2007/09/17/bcnqueue117.xml

It’s a perfect example of what the guys who do the retirement planning and Inheritance Tax seminars for one of our clients call the “sea of beige.”

Now, looking at that elderly, greying, bespectacled, car-coated, tightly-permed, maroon-cardiganed throng, what brands would you naturally associate with them?  Saga, first and foremost.  Sanatogen.  The Daily Telegraph.  Honda Civic (despite those lovely ads).  PG Tips.  Harvey’s Bristol Cream.  Horlicks. 

Ad what brands would seem least relevant, furthest away, most alien, least reassuring? OK, Club 18-30 and Ministry of Sound.  But running them pretty close, the supposed new-owner-in-waiting of Northern Rock, Richard Branson and Virgin.

Good luck to them if the deal goes ahead.  But as brand fits go, this one seems made in hell, definitely not in heaven. 

Bricks and mortar investing meets the wrecking ball

Ever since the stockmarket crash of 2000/2002, consumer research into attitudes towards investment has come up with only one key finding:  bricks and mortar rule. 

OK, two key findings.  Bricks and mortar rule, and everything else is rubbish.

Personally, I’ve never made an investment forecast in my life, and I don’t intend to start now.  But an awful lot of people do seem to be saying that the 15-year bull market in property is finally coming to an end.  And even though that doesn’t necessarily matter very much for those who think property is for living in (personally, I don’t care if my London mews house falls in value to £1, provided that 7-bedroom Georgian rectories in Berkshire fall to £2), it does matter a great deal to those who think property is for investing in.

Things are already looking very tough for newbie buy-to-let investors whose special mortgage offers run out in the near future and who will soon be faced with the prospect of covering their 7.5% mortgages on properties that are now falling steadily in value from dwindling streams of rental income. 

Gradually, over the next couple of years, the numbers look likely to make less and less sense to more and more people:  and as more and more of them become forced sellers, the rate of decline steepens and the pain becomes more widespread.

And then what’s left?  We’ve never liked bonds all that much.  We hate equities with a passion.  If we start hating property too, well, then there’s not much left except cash.  “Cash is king,” the old saying goes.  It hasn’t really rung true for a while now.  But the old king might be clambering back onto his throne sometime soon.