Credit crunch? What credit crunch?

Thanks to my old friend Andrew Porter, quoting PR guru Ian Mitchell, for this:  go into the Halifax website, or for that matter Abbey’s or any other big mortgage player, and type “credit crunch” into the search engine.  Guess what you get back?  Yes, you’re right: “Your search returned no matching results.”

The financial services industry has always been accused of failing to connect with the real world.  As with so many of its failings, it’s always been as much cock-up as conspiracy:  when you have an advertising approval process, as one large asset manager does, which takes a minimum of 16 weeks, then it’s hard to keep the corporate finger meaningfully close to the markets’ pulse.  But this credit crunch thing has been going on for nine months or so now, and it’s hard to believe that the major mortgage lenders couldn’t have managed a bit of web content by now.

No, I’m afraid that on this occasion at least, it’s conspiracy not cock-up – by which I mean that lenders have briefly contemplated saying something to their millions of anxious customers, and then deliberately decided not to.  Once again, the evidence supports the allegation that financial institutions are fair-weather communicators, who for all their talk about relationships and loyalty and dialogue only actually ever get in touch when they think they have a chance of flogging you something. 

As search engine satire goes, it doesn’t compare with Google’s classic from a few years ago, “Weapons of mass destruction not found.”  But it highlights a truth that’s equally real.

Oh no, the clients want to put the work into research.

Given that agency people like me pride ourselves on how well we understand the way our target groups think and feel, and specifically on how well we can anticipate they way they’ll react to our creative ideas, it’s funny that we’re so panic-stricken when clients propose to test our ideas among real live consumers in research.

This is the stage we’re reaching on a large brand advertising project which has been going on for the last few months, and I must admit that our anxiety levels are rising.

In general, I think there are two main reasons for our anxiety, one fairly obvious and the other less so.

The obvious reason is that we don’t tend to trust research companies (or indeed consumers) with our precious ideas.  It’s just so easy for something to go wrong.  One hectoring or negative respondent.  One piece of badly-drawn stimulus material.  One unhelpful comment in the warm-up, which sends everyone off on the wrong track.  And even without something as concretely unhelpful as this, what about the tendency of consumers to react negatively to things that are new and different?  Haven’t you heard the stories about Heineken and Hamlet bombing out in research?  Basically, in the creative department, we line up squarely on the faith side of the business:  if it feels right, do it, and don’t let the proverbial eight housewives in Ruislip talk you out of it.

But often, there’s a more fundamental issue (not, I must say, in the case of the particular project that has triggered this piece).  Often, we’re well aware that from the start of the exercise right up to now, the whole project has been characterised by guesswork, prejudice and speculation.  There was no real insight in the original brief;  the only reason the creative uses a visual of a Labrador is that the client is a dog-lover;  we all know we need to be on TV to achieve anything, but the client only has enough money for small mono press ads;  and Compliance have taken all the substantiation out of the bodycopy, so now the ads consist of nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations.   In circumstances like these, researching the campaign at this stage seems like a supreme act of folly – a bit like being required to make a meal out of Marmite, strawberry jam, vinegar and lard and then having to submit it to Gordon Ramsay for taste-testing.  If the whole situation has been daft, irrational and subjective from the beginning, then for goodness sake let’s carry on to the conclusion on the same basis, rather than allowing reason and objectivity to make a hopelessly late and counter-productive appearance.

And anyway, all we’d be doing is putting the work in front of those Ruislip housewives.  And see my first point above to understand the trouble than can cause.�

The Curse of Tangible Financial (football version).

I’m not hugely in the habit of feeling bitter and twisted about client behaviour, but two recent experiences that left the nose not entirely in joint, and the taste in the mouth not 100% pleasant, involved the Derbyshire Building Society (slightly, and with justice pretty much done in the end), and the investment group F&C (much more than slightly, and with a level of justice roughly equivalent to the Guildford Four without the appeal process).

Football enthusiasts will already have made the connection with the headline, and noticed that at the time of writing, two of the three relegation places in the Premiership are occupied by Derby (shirt sponsors the Derbyshire Building Society) and Birmingham City (shirt sponsors F&C).

Actually I have a nasty feeling that Birmingham may well escape, and given the choice on the basis of our experiences I’m about 2,300 per cent keener to see them go down than poor old Derby, who are definitively doomed.  Still, at least I’m able to enjoy the idea that Birmingham might go down, and F&C will get to entertain brokers at appetising fixtures (not) against the likes of Plymouth and Preston next season.

The other relegation place is occupied by Fulham, whose shirt sponsors are the consumer electronics firm LG.  We’ve had no business dealings whatsoever with them, so I don’t think they can be victims of the Curse.  But come to think about it, I did once have a lot of very irritating trouble with one of their VHS video players….�

Sorry, sorry, too busy for anything except a quick pot-shot at the banks.

If anyone’s interested, you can always tell what my workload’s like from the frequency of these blog entries.  Currently very infrequent = currently blue-arsed fly.

Still just about finding time, though, to produce a weekly column for Citywire’s online personal finance mag (go to Citywire.co.uk, choose the Personal Investor edition and then click They Want Your Money, if you’re interested).

Like writing for this blog, writing my Citywire column is an exercise in almost-complete futility and, in truth, self-deluded vanity:  both media having mere handfuls of readers, when I have a thought I want to share with them it would probably make more sense to ring them up and tell them about it.

Interestingly, though, Citywire’s clever software reveals that my column last week attracted a much larger handful of readers than usual – just about twice as many, in fact.  Something about my subject obviously tickled their fancies. 

The piece was a grumpy-old-man “why oh why” rant about the fact that NatWest recently charged my teenage daughter £38 to punish her for having a 28p overdraft for one day.  And not only did twice as many people as usual read the column, a pretty fair proportion of them felt strongly enough about it to write replies, almost all of them telling their own stories of eye-watering rapaciousness on the part of their banks.

We all know how it happens (computers), and we all know why it happens (pursuit of profit).  In deceptively calm if not exactly sympathetic language, I go on about the background in the column.

But it still really bothers me – I know I’ve gone on a lot about this over the years, but it really, really bothers me – that the veneer of care and respect for customers created by these institutions’ brand, comms and advertising activities is so painfully, pathetically thin.  More and more these days, for all the hoopla and palaver of the brand development process, and for all the senior management time and money that’s spent on it, you just can’t avoid the impression that it’s all just so much fake and tawdry window dressing, just lies you tell to people in order to begin the process of cheating them out of their money.

Look at NatWest’s student banking communications, and you get the impression that they’re eager to provide an excellent service and good value for money to students in order to start building a relationship with them which will hopefully last a lifetime.  Complete lies.  Not a grain of truth in it.  All they want to do is lure students in so that they can robbing them.

I’ve said this before too, but it really is time that all of us – client and agency alike – who feel embarrassed and ashamed about taking part in this sort of sleazy deception should start being a bit less naive.  I can’t find an analogy that isn’t in troublingly bad taste.  But at times we run the risk of becoming the Rosemary Wests of financial services, inveigling the victims to get into the car knowing perfectly well – but choosing not to admit to ourselves – what Fred’s going to do to them.

Gorillas, airport trucks and campaign rules.

Sorry to return to Cadbury’s again, but it is a perfect example of one of my very favourite themes – that developing great and long-running campaigns requires, first and foremost, that you create a “world” within which the campaign operates, and which is governed by a strict set of rules.

This world-creation business is harder than it looks, and when things go wrong after a good start it’s usually either because there were gaps and flaws in the rules to begin with, or because people responsible for the faulty executions broke or ignored one or more of the rules.

Some campaigns’ rules seem very clear and simple.  Take Heineken’s legendary (although now very long-ago) “refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach” campaign.  The apparent rules are straightforward enough:  take a scene from popular culture in which someone can’t do something;  give them some Heineken;  find that they can now do the something.   (There is in fact an invisible Heineken rule, which I noticed years ago when using the campaign in classes on copywriting:  there must always be an element of surprise in the resolution of every ad.  If you could see exactly how the situation was going to resolve itself right from the first frame of the commercial, then the ad would be predictable and dull.)

These days, campaign rules are often much looser, concentrating not on a rigid structure to be maintained throughout the campaign, but on much more qualitative elements – a tone of voice, a look and feel, a level of engagement and some style guidelines.  It’s difficult to say, for example, exactly what makes a VW commercial a VW commercial, but something does, and indeed has done for the best part of 20 years.

The moment when you come up against the need for rules, of course, is when you come to write the second execution.  What is it that you should retain from the first execution?  And what is it that should be new?

If you haven’t thought about it in advance, these can be hard questions:  and it’s here that the Cadbury’s campaign has gone horribly wrong.

One thing was obvious:  to be part of the same campaign at all, the second film had to carry forward the “glass and a half of joy” theme.  But how to dramatise the idea?  What do you take with you, and what do you leave behind?  The shopping-list was a long one:  the gorilla;  the sudden change of mood from mournfulness to joy;  the emotional involvement that viewers feel at this change of mood;  the unexpectedness and surprise of a gorilla playing the drums; the world-class “magic moment” when the drums come in;  the famous 80s music track;  the stripped-down, low-cost production values;  and the very long time-length, giving the story lots of room to breathe.

The new commercial has a famous 80s music track and is very long, but otherwise it doesn’t really carry forward any of the things we loved about the first film.  There’s no gorilla, and the production values are stratospherically high.  But much more importantly, there’s very little surprise in the situation, or at least not for anyone who has seen Pixar’s Cars;  there’s no “magic moment”;  there’s a hugely much more muted and less sudden change of mood;  and most important of all, we feel little or no emotional involvement with the trucks, although the little one is vaguely cute.

Looking at the short list of similarities, and the long list of differences, it’s pretty obvious that the new film isn’t likely to engage in anything like the same way as the old one – and in fact, it doesn’t really engage in any way at all.

I suspect that the agency will get one more chance to put the campaign back on track – and I’m sure that in trying to do so, they’ll think rather differently about how to define the rules of their campaign.

No pinch of salt required – or indeed available.

For a good couple of years now, no-one could seriously dispute the proposition that BAA is by a considerable distance the UK’s worst company.  I doubt if what is effectively a monopoly, certainly as far as travellers in the south-east are concerned, has ever been abused as cynically:  time and time and time again, BAA have never missed an opportunity to provide the clearest evidence that they simply don’t give a fuck about us.

You do wonder, though – or at least I do – whether there is an ultimate low point, a corporate nadir, a perfect storm of public hatred and anger, that makes even the most arrogant, contemptuous and dismissive management consider the possibility of aiming for some slight improvement:  and if so, then you’d think that the kicking that BAA has taken over T5 in the last couple of weeks might just be that low point.

You’ll be impressed to hear that on the basis of my experience yesterday morning, BAA’s management are sternly resisting any temptation to improve. 

I had to take my daughter to T4 very early yesterday, and as you may have noticed (although not if you were sensibly asleep) there was a bi of a blizzard going on at that time.  Many flights were cancelled and all that left were seriously delayed, but I’m not going to blame BAA for that.  (Actually I suspect that there was a serious shortage of de-icing facilities, but let’s leave that aside.)

What I do blame BAA for is:

-  not having anything at all on the website about snow or delays, even as late as lunchtime;

-  not having any information in the (packed) T4 check-in;

-  and, most of all, having done nothing at all to salt or grit the roads or, more importantly, the walkways from the car park, so that as Chloe and I walked into the terminal passengers were going down like skittles all around us.

It would be interesting to know if it occurs to any BAA managers that it might be an idea to salt the walkways but then they think, “No, sod it, salt costs money, it doesn’t cost us anything if they break their ankles,” or if they’re so utterly remote from their customers’ experience that it simply doesn’t occur to them.  And, whichever it is, which would be more depressing?  

In my last piece I fretted that this blog is becoming too downbeat, and at first glance this piece isn’t much of an improvement.  At second glance, though, it’s more upbeat than you imagine.  BAA are so completely and irredeemably rubbish, they make the average financial services provider look like a paragon of customer care and focus. 

Reason to be cheerful urgently needed.

I know this is hard to believe – well, actually, very hard to believe – but honestly, in my own mind’s eye, I don’t see myself as a grumpy old man.  Man definitely, old arguably but grumpy not really at all.  On the contrary.  I see myself as a bright-eyed, warmly-encouraging enthusiast, always looking for the best in everything I experience.

Must admit, though, that this might not be exactly how it seems to someone who knows me only from the last few weeks of this blog.  Lately, I can’t deny, it does seem to have turned into a bit of a slagoffathon, where you could be forgiven for thinking that I can’t be bothered to Enter Password and Log In unless I have a target that I want to give a good kicking – the Cadbury’s film, Neptune ads, copy written in a tone of voice I don’t approve of, the advertising philosophy of M. Jean-Marie Dru, whatever.

This morning, I’ve Entered Password and Logged On determined to praise something.  I can think of plenty of praiseworthy things that have nothing to do with financial services, marketing or advertising – Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance against Roma last night, the Barolo I had with dinner, a piece about the Stones in the latest Mojo, the new Elbow album, etc, etc, etc, etc.  But something good that I can praise just now in financial services, marketing or advertising?  I need your help with this.

Glass and a half-empty, I fear.

With thanks to my colleague Christian who sent it to me, here’s a Youtube link to the keenly-awaited follow-up to Cadbury’s “gorilla” film:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bVD-cUFTw.

Keenly-awaited, perhaps, but sadly not-so-keenly viewed.  Even if – like me – you rather suspected you were going to be disappointed, it’s a good deal worse than you feared. Hugely expensive, brilliantly shot, expertly edited, it lacks 99% of the charm, surprise and engagement of the first film.  Even though it’s live action, not CGI, it looks like an out-take from Pixar’s Cars, only not quite as interesting.

Its predecessor, I fear, will go down as one of those brilliant one-offs, along with the like of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air and Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter.

And I suppose, when all’s said and done, that there’s nothing much wrong with keeping company like that.