Oh no. It seems one of my deeply-held prejudices is wrong.

It’s always pleasing when real-life events and experiences confirm one’s prejudices, but it’s probably more salutary when they don’t.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing some fairly bad-tempered stuff about the credit crunch, reserving some of my fullest-flavoured ire for those greedy, self-deluding building society management teams who pushed through inappropriate and ill-considered demutualisations in discreditable and doomed attempts to line their own pockets and keep up with their peer group in the proprietary companies.

Except that they didn’t.  Or at least, some of them didn’t, as I was reminded by a throwaway comment in one of the weekend’s papers.  This briefly made the point that in the case of Bradford & Bingley, at least, the management team, led at the time by Christopher Rodrigues, didn’t want to demutualise at all and in fact argued that the society and its members would be better off if it maintained its mutual status.  The society was then stalked by greedy carpetbaggers who supported the vote for demutualisation so that they, and the other members, could enjoy a windfall demutualisation bonus.

As it happened, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, the bonus in B&B’s case turned out to be a paltry £600 per member, which is a pretty pathetic amount to receive in return for a vote which rapidly led to the demise of the business.

But that’s another story. It’s true that in the end, under pressure from the carpetbaggers, Mr Rodrigues and his colleagues became gradually more enthusiastic about life in a proprietary company.  But from my point of view, my version of history needs to take on board the fact that while some management teams deliberately achieved demutualisation, others had it thrust upon them:  and in those cases it was customers, not managers, whose greed and short-termism first triggered their institutions’ destruction.

And much as I don’t particularly want to acknowledge it, this truth is part of a bigger truth, that stupid and greedy consumers are as much to blame for today’s banking crisis as stupid and greedy intermediaries or bankers.  No-one likes taking responsibility for anything these days, and everyone will try to claim that every bad thing that happens is someone else’s fault.  No doubt some of the poor and deluded people signing their names to false applications for mortgages in trailer parks all over America really didn’t have the faintest idea what they were doing and were effectively conned by crooked intermediaries, but a very large number knew perfectly well they were playing a part in a fraud and went ahead and signed anyway.

As I say, I don’t particularly like this version of events:  it doesn’t play well with the consumerist in me.  But when we think of those, from the first carpetbaggers to the trailer-park fraudsters, who’ve played a part in bringing the western financial system to the edge of catastrophe, we may decide we have some problems after all with the idea of the “victimless crime.”

Robin Hood in reverse, or what.

OK, I know, I know, we all need George Bush’s Bad Bank bale-out far too urgently to waste time quibbling about it.  But protecting the jobs, monstrous salaries and even more monstrous bonuses of the bankers responsible for this shambles by dipping into the pocket of the ordinary American taxpayer to the tune of $700 billion does strike me as a piece of Robin-Hood-In-Reversery on probably a scale about ten times bigger than all thefts by the rich from the poor in the history of the universe.

True, it’s very hard to argue with the rich on this occasion.  They’ve taken hostages – about six billion of us, whose jobs, futures and financial security depend on them getting what former Goldman Sachs boss Hank Poulson says they want.  I suppose we have to give it to them.  But – assuming the deal, or something like it, goes through - from this day forward our hatred and contempt of them should know no bounds.  I haven’t felt this angry and radical since I used to try (with predictably little success) to sell Tariq Ali’s Marxist newspaper Red Mole to commuters outside Guildford station in the late 60s.�

Does everyone else already know about Alexa?

No, in case you don’t already know about Alexa, it’s not a she, it’s an it.  Alexa describes itself as “the web information company” (www.alexa.com), and basically they tell you how many people are visiting websites, where they are and what they’re looking at when they get there.  And although their more detailed information is available only for the most popular sites, or to those who pay for the service, what’s available free is quite interesting enough.

I find, for example, that out of all the websites in the world, www.tangible-financial.co.uk is the 7,959,566th most visited.  I can’t deny that at first sight, this sounds disappointing.  But actually, it’s very good indeed compared, for example, to our competitors at www.masius.com, whose site is the 15,118,587th most visited.  On the other hand, it’s not very good compared to our competitors at www.teamspirit.uk.com, whose site is the 4,521,998th most visited.  But then again on the third hand, the figures show that while Teamspirit is on a somewhat declining trend, we’re on a rocketing-upward kind of trend.  Our one-week average is higher than our three-month average by some six and a half million places, which indicates either that our salience in the marketplace is soaring as a result of a powerful and effective business development drive, or that my mum has been showing the site to a friend who’s come round for coffee.

Obviously the most interesting question is whether these figures are good or bad in absolute terms.  But, as usual with figures, it’s hard to be sure.  I must say that in the kinds of areas where positions in a table are usually found (the Premiership, the top 30, the FTSE-100 etc) being just above eight millionth isn’t something to get too excited about.  But then again, the sheer enormousness of the web means that everything works on a different scale.  Maybe eight millionth isn’t so bad.  And anyway, as I say, over the last week it’s just above one-and-a-half millionth anyway, which – even if the Masius site is the very least visited on the whole internet, which it obviously isn’t – would put us into the top decile.

Yes, that’s all sounding pretty good.  “Top-decile agency blogger Lucian Camp said today…”.  It makes me think – despite the initial disappointment of being eight millionth – that this is definitely worth continuing with.

When I close my eyes I see …. wildebeest.

It’s the current financial services industry meltdown that’s doing it.  What it’s calling to mind is that sequence – anyone who’s ever watched National Geographic channel has seen it hundreds of times – of the pack of predators, lions, jackals, whatever, tracking the huge herd of wildebeest, and looking for the weak or lame one that somehow gets detached from the herd.  And we all know what the jackals do to the weakest wildebeest, don’t we.

Northern Rock was the first weakest wildebeest.  So far, the others have included Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Alliance & Leicester, Bradford & Bingley and now HBOS.  (A few of these, admittedly, have adopted a survival strategy not as far as I know often adopted by wildebeest, which is to go and hide amongst a family group of friendly elephants – Santander elephants in Alliance & Leicester’s case, Bank of America ones in Merrill’s.) 

The troubling thing about this analogy is that as that herd of wildebeest makes its way across the dusty plain, and as the predators continue to prowl, the point I can’t get out of my mind is simply this:  there is always a weakest wildebeest.

Excellent, I’ve just come up with a new car analogy.

People in financial services, particularly on the advertising and marketing side, love car analogies.  Car analogies are interesting, tangible, even – if you choose the right car – glamorous.  Listen to us talking among ourselves on financial marketing topics, and we sound like a bunch of sheepskin-coated second-hand car dealers, gathered on a forecourt somewhere on the Mile End Road.

 

I’m pleased to say I’ve just contributed our ability to behave like this, by coming up with a new analogy.  To be honest, for the general reader, it’s on the abstruse side, but I want to share it with you anyway.  Here goes. 

 

The thing is, if you look at the world of investment companies, most of them operate in a sort of triangular world where they represent one point of the triangle, and the other two are represented by a) consumers (ordinary people who buy investments) and b) intermediaries (the financial advisers who recommend the investments to ordinary people).

 

This may seem a bit odd if you’re not a financal marketing person, but one subject of endless debate between the investment companies and the intermediaries is the question of who, in their terminology, “owns” the customer.  The investment company says it does.  They’re the people who look after the customer’s money, and that’s what the customer cares about:  the customer “belongs” to them.  The intermediary says that’s rubbish.  He or she has the personal relationship with the customer, and the customer will invest with any firm that he or she recommends.  He or she (usually he, to be honest) “owns” the customer relationship.

 

I’ve always hated this terminology, which I find arrogant, patronising and extremely misleading (if you think, quite wrongly, that you “own” someone, you’re likely to come a very nasty cropper when you try to cash in on your “ownership”).

 

And it’s to help explain why I think this terminology is so misleading that I’ve come up with my new car analogy.  “Imagine,” I say, “that the investment is a car.  It was made by a manufacturer, and bought from a dealer.  The customer brings it back to the dealer every time it needs servicing or maintenance.  The customer may or may not buy another car made by the same manufacturer, and may or may not carry on bringing the car back to the same dealer for servicing.  In this situation, who “owns” whom, or what?”

 

Clearly, it’s ridiculous to say that either the manufacturer or the dealer “owns” the customer.  As far as “ownership” is concerned, the only thing we can say for sure is that the customer owns the car. 

Exactly the same is true in the case of our investment.  The customer owns the investment.  Any further talk about “ownership” is ridiculous.

 

You might say this is so blindingly obvious that it doesn’t even need saying, let alone bringing to life with elaborate analogies.  But believe me, when you’re talking to silly and arrogant investment providers and intermediaries, it needs saying as clearly and, if it helps, as analogistically as possible.

 

And for my next trick, I’m going to conjure up your new logo.

To hear agencies and clients talk about their business relationships – and the pitch processes they go through at the start of the relationships – you’d think we operate in a particularly elevated branch of management consultancy.  It’s all very, very strategic, very cerebral, very considered.

Spend some time as a fly on the wall, though, and you realise that in the pitch process at least, we operate in a world that’s more like a cross between Billy Smart’s Circus and a village hall painting competition.   We devise presentations in much the same way that conjurers, clowns and trapeze artistes plan their acts:  and within these presentations we lay out galleries of pictures which our prospective clients consider with the inexpert enthusiasm of local dignitaries asked to act as judges by the WI. 

The conventions of the occasion require that someone intelligent presents a bunch of complicated Powerpoint charts about market positioning and audience segmentation, but don’t be fooled:  these play no essential role in the whole process, acting merely as a kind of mise-en-scene to start the ball rolling, in the same way that the clowns in the funny fire engine aren’t really setting off to put out a fire.

We have a big pitch next week, and all around me there are people practising pratfalls and polishing pictures.  I don’t see an awful lot of people interrogating the strategic options, though. 

Things the Internet is making me reconsider, No.2: copywriting

Blimey, that’s a bit of a big one, isn’t it, copywriting?  It’s only what I’ve claimed to be able to do for the last 30 years.  Isn’t it a bit late to be “reconsidering”?

Well, I don’t know.  Look at it another way, it’s good to see an old dog still perusing the New Tricks instruction manual.  Anyway, the thing is, the extra dimension that writing for the Internet obliges you to consider is – are you ahead of me on this? – layering. 

The Internet is brilliant at allowing you to layer the story you’re telling, and making it easy for readers to decide how deep they want to go.  Mainly, of course, you do this with underlined links.  Which link to more layers of copy.  Within which there are more links.  Which link to more layers of copy.   And so on, as deep as you want to go.

This is good for readers, because it lets them choose the length of their own journey through whatever you’re offering them.  They can take the two-minute ride, the 20-minute ride or anything in between.

And although there isn’t a close offline equivalent to the Internet link, it is perfectly possible to achieve similar effects in writing for print:  journalists have always been better at this than agency writers, using a combination of structure (the first couple of paras usually give you the 30-second version) and layout (the sidebars and panels drill down into the historical background of the Russia/Georgia conflict). 

While journalists and sub-editors have been routinely working like this for years, we advertising writers have tended to tackle longer copy like Tolstoy tackling Anna Karenina – beginning, middle and end, with nothing except maybe a few chapter headings to help readers find their way.

Hmm.  A bit like this blog, in fact.  But I plead incompetence, not stuck-in-a-rut-ness or hypocrisy:  it’s not that I don’t want to layer this  in all sorts of interesting ways, it’s just that I don’t have the faintest idea how.   

Don’t mind him, he’s from Barcelona.

Over thirty years on, one of the few things about Fawlty Towers that has definitely dated is the way Basil treats Manuel.  I suppose it’s not exactly racist – I don’t think Catalonians represent a distinct racial group.  But when we complain about the unquestionably racist behaviour of Spanish football and motor racng fans today, it’s worth remembering how contemptuously our most brilliant comedian felt able to treat a Spanish character a generation or so ago.

The thing is, though, racist or not, when you think about our recent experience of Spanish service industries, you can’t help thinking Basil had a point.  All my personal-finance-journalist friends tell me that even by the standards of mass-market retail banking, which aren’t exactly high, the behaviour of Santander-owned Abbey towards its customers is jaw-droppingly bad.  As a frequent flyer in recent years, I am quite certain that I have never in all my life dealt with a service company as cynical and useless as Ferrovial-owned BAA.  And by far the longest, bitterest and most difficult battle I’ve ever fought with a company trying to get compensation for a complete service collapse (successfully, in the end) was with Spain’s national airline, Iberia.

Even three swallows don’t make a summer, and I’m sure there are lots of Spanish service businesses doing a great job for British customers.  It’s just that like Basil Fawlty, I have to say that my own experience has been totally rubbish.

Are you really as stupid as the Internet scammers seem to think?

I don’t know about you, but just at the moment my spam filter is intercepting a startlingly high number of emails asking me to reply to the sender with all my bank account details and passwords.

They always make me wonder how stupid you’d have to be to comply.  First, by now we’ve all read a million articles warning us about this sort of thing.  Second, our real banks tell us repeatedly that they will never ask for this information by email.  Third, 90% of the emails we receive are from banks we have no dealings with, which you’d think might make us suspicious of the few that purport to come from banks we actually use. 

And fourth – I’d have thought this is the most important point of all – the emails are so completely crap.  I just found one wriggling in my spam filter allegedly from Abbey National asking me: “Please verifie you acount statment.”  Quite frankly, a spammer who a) can’t spell and b) can’t even be bothered to use spellcheck simply doesn’t deserve any success. 

I suppose it may well be that there’s a correlation between the kind of stupidity required to believe this sort of stuff, and the kind required to think that’s how you spell “verify.”  In that case, astoundingly, perhaps these emails do generate some worthwhile responses from the scammers’ point of view. 

But not from anyone who can spell, they don’t.  A bit like John Cleese as the centurion in Life of Brian, correcting the Latin in Brian’s anti-Roman graffiti rather than arresting him, my reaction to these emails is as much a kind of schoolteacherly despair as it is irritation.

Things the Internet is making me reconsider, No.1: the whole sub-branding thing

Imagine flying with an airline where you can select precisely the combination of services and benefits you want.  A nice big seat with extra legroom.  Priority boarding.  An edible meal.  Free booze.  The full in-flight entertainment system.  Limo to and from the airport.  Lounge access.  Extra baggage allowance.  Or if you prefer, with each one of these components, not.   If you don’t want any or indeed all of them,  just don’t tick the boxes.  You only pay for the ones you choose.

Sorry, but I don’t think this can ever happen in the airline business.  It would be too difficult and expensive to deliver such a high level of personalisation.  But if it did ever happen, it would spell the end of airlines’ sub-branding strategy:  instead of operating three brands in three cabins (World Traveller, Club World and First, in the case of BA), they’d be effectively operating as many “brands” as they had passengers.  Or, to put it another way, just one:  My BA.

But the thing is, in comparison to the world of seat pitches and wine vintages, delivering this level of personalisation is very easy indeed on the Internet.

We’re working with an online provider of investment services which has identified a handful of key market segments, and defined an equivalent handful of service “packages” which will broadly meet each segment’s needs.  The immediate temptation for people in agencies like mine is to create a family of sub-brands – bronze, silver and gold, or whatever  – to identify each package.  But this would bring in a huge amount of extra cost and complication.  And, more importantly, it’s both unnecessary and, in the long run, actively unhelpful.

It’s unnecessary because there’s no reason why users can’t simply select their own “package” of services from the full menu, just as in my airline example, so that instead of ending up with InvestServ Bronze, Silver or Gold, everyone ends up with My InvestServ.  (Not, obviously, the real name:  even I can think of better ones than that.) 

And it’s actively unhelpful because users’ needs are very likely to evolve over time,  and they’re likely to want to buy some extra components of the service:  it’s common sense to enable them to buy exactly what they want as quickly and easily as possible, rather than requiring them to upgrade to a new relationship with a new sub-brand providing a whole bunch of new components, some of which they want and some of which they don’t. 

OK, sub-branded packages may be easier and more convenient to buy.  There are so many kinds of packaged products and services that you could deconstruct and ask customers to build to their own specification, box-ticking would become pretty much a full-time job for many people if you unpackaged them all.  Even if for this reason alone, pre-packaged sub-brands won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

But I do think the tide has turned.   For many years, confronted with a segmented market wanting different service levels,  I’ve tended to reach into the bag for my trusty sub-branding club.  Increasingly, today, I think that option is likely to lead us into the bunker. �