“We are living in a period of unprecedented change.” Thank goodness.

Someone once said that there has never been a time or place in which you couldn’t start a speech with that corny old line.  Everyone, everywhere, always, thinks it’s true.

Personally, I can’t prove that the levels of change we’re experiencing in the financial world are indeed “unprecedented,” but they certainly haven’t been precedented often.  And from our point of view in the agency, a bloody good thing too.

People imagine that our kind of work – advertising, branding, design, direct marketing – is basically about helping organisations to sell things to people, and therefore that we’re likely to thrive when there is lots of selling going on and struggle when there isn’t.

That’s half-true:  as I’ve said more than once in this blog there are quite a few fair-weather advertisers and direct marketers in financial services who tend to pull the plug on their budgets at the first sign of a change in the weather.  (How many mortgage ads have you seen lately?)

But the other half of our business (and actually I reckon it’s more than half) has nothing to do with selling anything to anyone, and is all about helping organisations deal with change. 

The most obvious examples are to do with mergers and acquisitions.  We’ve just done a brilliant job, working with a brilliant client, on the launch of a new brand in the offshore life market, Royal London 360.  Having bought Scottish Provident International and merged the business into their own Scottish Life International, the parent company was obliged to change most of the marketing and communication material – adopting a single name, rewriting the busines’s corporate credentials, changing the website and the marketing literature, putting new signs outside the offices and so on:   wisely choosing to make a virtue out of necessity, the firm decided to add in the marginal extra cost of doing something new and exciting rather than just restructuring elements of what they’d already got. 

Many other kinds of change – some obviously sensible, others rather less so – also lead to work for agencies like ours.  Even negative change has its implications:  if a client wants to withdraw a number of products from the market, there’s a need to adjust the website and the range brochure, and maybe communicate with customers and advisers.  And then of course there is the troublingly large category of change which is actually to do with people’s egos and personal feelings:  the first instinct of the huge majority of newly-appointed  client-side marketing and advertising directors is to get rid of their predecessors’ agencies and campaigns, and replace them with new people and new work which they have ownership of.

In the financial world, with pretty much the sole exception of the companies selling motor and home insurance direct, sales-oriented marketing and communication have pretty much come to a complete standstill.  But athough our business isn’t in great shape, we’re still quite busy working for our current clients and pitching for new ones.  At the moment, that’s really entirely because of the consequences arising from that period of unprecedented change.   Long may it continue.

Am I panicking, or are they complacent?

Agency people are notoriously panicky.  Actually, we don’t like the word “panicky.”  We like to say that we respond quickly and enthusiastically to events.  But really, we’re panicky.

Financial services people are not naturally anything like so panicky (which means, incidentally, that the fact that bankers have been in a flat spin for the last year or more speaks volumes about just how desperate it is in their part of the industry) .   But is their usual unpanickiness a sign of admirable calm and coolness, or of smug complacency?

As far as the whole world of long-term saving and investment is concerned, I’ve been shouting hysterically for months about the way that everything has changed and nothing will ever be the same again and we’re going to have to re-invent all our products and propositions from the ground up if anyone’s going to buy anything from us ever again.   As far as I can see, no-one in the industry agrees with this:  on the contrary, the universal view seems to be that it’s all just a blip, albeit a nasty one, that the smart money is piling back in while the market’s nice and low, and before too long we’ll be back to business as usual.

Am I panicking?  Or are they complacent?  Or maybe a bit of both?  Only time will tell.

My favourite double meaning? I’m in two minds about it.

Every time I log into this, I go to a Main Menu screen which you don’t get to see.  Of the half-dozen section headings, much my favourite is the one that says “Comments In Moderation.”  Quite right, I always think to myself, everything in moderation.  Nothing worse than immoderate comments.  Sometimes, I must say, when I find 127 emails offering discount Phentermine waiting for me in the comments box, it strikes me that moderation has in fact been somewhat lacking, but still it seems an admirable goal. 

I think, though, that on the whole I narrowly prefer the similar ambiguity when you arrive at the docks at Dover and find yourself asked to choose between two entry lanes, “Passengers With Reservations” and “Passengers Without Reservations.”   Since we pretty much always have reservations, the kids greet my choice with appropriately dubious comments:  “Dad, honestly, I’m really not sure about this”….”This could turn out to be a big mistake”…. “I’ve always had my doubts about this trip”….”Shouldn’t we think again, while there’s still time?”

Always makes me laugh.  A lot more than those discount phentermine emails do, anyway.

Financial crisis either better or worse than we thought.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to chair a conference planned for mid-February titled “Responding To The Financial Crisis,” with the sub-head “Adapting Products, Distribution and Service Propositions To The Changed Economic Climate.”  If you’ve noticed my previous blogs on this kind of subject, you’ll know that I’d have been quite excited about this.

Today, I’ve received a letter from the organisers saying that it has “failed to attract the level of support” they had hoped for, and they’ve decided to cancel it.

I can see two alternative explanations.  Either there’s a “Crisis? What crisis?” attitude still prevailing out there, and people don’t yet understand how or why “adapting” might be necessary;  or they understand perfectly well but can’t get sign-off to spend £1275 a head on conference tickets.

It’s difficult to decide which would be the more regrettable scenario.

Ever get the feeling you’re living in a Western film-set?

Great excitement at Camp Towers on Saturday evening. Very loud crash, everyone rushes into hall, stone the crows, would you adam and eve it, the upstairs landing ceiling has collapsed and the landing is inches deep in sodden plasterboard, insulation and miscellaneous unidentifiable building material..

There is of course an explanation: our cold water tank is on the house’s flat roof, right above the scene of the disaster. Fearing that the damage has been caused by a leak from the tank, I turn the water off and drain the tank. No-one is very happy about this.

By chance, I’d renewed my home insurance a few days before and flicked through the renewal pack, so at least I knew right away what to do. Our insurer offers us a) a personal relationship manager on hand to help with any problems, and b) a 24-hour emergency helpline. Either of these will surely sort things out.

First I try the 24-hour helpline. I’m pleased to hear that my call is important to them, but less pleased that apparently it isn’t actually important enough to be worth answering. I try the main number to speak to my personal relationship manager. This number isn’t in operation at this time: I’m asked to call the 24-hour emergency helpline. Amazingly, this time I get through after about five minutes and am told that a supplier will be found to come round that evening and provide emergency assistance.  I will be called back within an hour with details of what’s going to happen.

After an hour and a half, nothing has happened. I call again. It takes about 10 minutes to get through. I’m told that a mistake has been made, and my details have not been fed into the system. They are being fed in now. I can expect a call within two hours.

Nothing happens. I call again. By this time it is getting on for midnight. I get through after about fifteen minutes. A nice and apologetic call handler tells me that he’s very sorry, but he can’t find anyone who can provide emergency assistance until Monday, up to 48 hours later.

I’m not very pleased and tell him that I will try to find a better alternative, but meanwhile we should keep the Monday arrangement in place in case I can’t.

Two things happen in the last act of this story. First, I cleverly remember the concierge service on my Coutts World card, which solves all my problems with characteristic speed, courtesy and efficiency; and then, finally, I try to call the insurance company to cancel the Monday arrangement, but can’t get through and eventually give up. The end.

I’ve held back one aspect of this ordinary little tale until now. The main reason my home is insured with the company in question is that for several years the agency used to handle their advertising and much of their marketing communications – in fact, we may have even written that renewal pack I’d been flicking through. Sure, client loyalty had something to do with my choice, but actually, writing the copy for the ads and the literature, I thought the service sounded really good. I particularly liked the idea of that personal relationship manager – and that 24-hour helpline would definitely be a good thing in a crisis…

In fact, it’s all rubbish. None of it works at all. These are just Western film-set services, looking good from the distance of a marketing brochure but obviously no more than two-dimensional facades when you get close to.

On that Saturday evening, I couldn’t help wondering just how many people all over the country, hanging on for hours while calls remained unanswered and then eventually discovering that no emergency service could be arranged till Monday, were cursing the insurance company for their over-promising and under-delivery. 

And maybe saving a little supplementary curse for whichever creative agency had built the Western film-set that had fooled them.

The story of Sir Peter Parker’s arse

 When Chairman of what was then British Rail, Sir Peter Parker was asked why the railway industry wasn’t able to build a more polished and attractive image.  “Simple,” he replied.  “Our problem is, our arse is our face.”

I’m sure you can see what he meant by this, but in case you’re in any doubt he meant that to many of his customers, British Rail’s least “polished and attractive” aspects – its lowest-paid staff, its grottiest commuter-line trains, its most run-down infrastructure – were its most visible.  People, especially London-bound commuters, formed their impressions of BR largely from its least impressive attributes.

Parker’s succinct assessment was unkind to thousands of staff members who, I always thought, remained astoundingly decent, human, cheerful and loyal despite the grotesquely under-resourced chaos in which they were trying to do their jobs. But otherwise, the problem he described was a real one.

In the opposite corner of the consumer economy – the world of fast-moving consumer goods – the position has always been very different.  In this world, companies’ arses are usually safely hidden away in their trousers, and it’s possible to present attractive and carefully made-up faces to the public at almost all times.  Who cares what the conditions are like in your chicken farms? What does it matter how much you pay the EU immigrant workers who kill and pluck them?  Who’s ever going to know about the drugs pumped into the birds while they were alive, or  the water pumped in to bulk them up after their death?  If all that anyone is going to see is a) the glossy advertising campaign, and b) the carefully-packaged products in the supermarket chiller cabinet, everything else is invisible.

It’s true that occasionally, a belt gives way or a waistband button pops, and the trousers briefly drop to give a glimpse of what lies beneath – the video from the battery chicken farm, the journalist working undercover in the slaughterhouse, the whistleblower reporting on the drug abuse.   But for most people, most of the time, there is no obvious cause for concern.

At risk of over-generalisation, I’d say that major mass-market providers of financial services tend to suffer the worst of both of these worlds.

As service providers, their arses are often their faces, particularly as far as frontline staff are concerned and particularly when they operate through call centres.  And as product providers, their behind-the-scenes malpractices are dragged out into the spotlight much more often than their counterparts’ in fmcg – often through regulatory or media exposure, but also often as a result of pure cack-handedness that even the least observant customer can’t fail to notice.  (How could you not have been incensed, for example, by the savage penalty charges imposed on current account banking customers until recently?)

If you were feeling sympathetic to the industry, you’d say this worst-of-both-worlds position is jolly bad luck. But the fact is, the industry has forfeited much of its entitlement to sympathy by failing to respond more intelligently to the realities of the situation.

So there’s a danger that remote call centres full of low-paid and unempowered staff may present an unengaging public face?  Then for goodness sake don’t exacerbate the problem by a) using an unpopular and expensive 0870 telephone number, b) fronting the system with a universally hated IVR system, c) understaffing the call centre so that waiting times creep up above 10, 15, even 20 minutes, d) undertraining the staff so that they can’t deal with customers’ enquiries and e) running an inadequate IT system that makes resolving the simplest issue absurdly complex and difficult.  

As for behind-the-scenes sleight of hand, there are so many examples that will obviously and inescapably look shabby as soon as they’re held up to scrutiny that I can hardly settle on a single example, but Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) is as good as any.  OK, it was very, very profitable.  No, make that very, very, very profitable.  But it was also, most of the time at least, almost indistinguishable from theft.  The risk of discovery was stratospherically high.  How could those involved have been so silly?

If it’s true that when it comes to maintaining trusted and admired brands, financial services has to deal with inherent difficulties greater than most other service providers, as well as inherent difficulties greater than most providers of manufactured goods, you might imagine it would proceed with particular care and discretion.

In fact, on the whole, far too many big players do just the opposite, blundering blindly through the sensitivities of service delivery oblivious to their customers’ distress and dismay, while simultaneously coming forward with a never-ending series of dodgy or dishonest products despite the near-certainty of discovery.

People working in financial services often ask how on earth the industry has come to be so little trusted by consumers, and what on earth the industry can do to win consumers’ trust back. 

Somewhere between the lines of this rather downbeat entry, they might find the beginnings of a solution.

Interesting that I’m having second thoughts so often these days.

Perhaps I’m just getting old and muddled.  But I think, in a muddled sort of way, that there’s more to it than that.  We live in extremely – perhaps uniquely – muddling times.  I used to know what I thought about things – well, financial marketing things, anyway.  These days I think things, and then realise I was completely, or mostly, wrong.  Maybe that’s good – it indicates flexibility of mind.  But I appreciate it can be a bit disconcerting for my loyal reader, who never knows whether any point of view in this blog will swing like a weathervane in stormy weather to its diametrical opposite in the next entry.

My recent entry on the Norwich Union/Aviva name-change campaign being a case in point.  I stand by my view that in the circumstances, the name change is a reasonable thing to do.  But, a but like someone who responded to the sinking of the Titanic by bemoaning the damage done by ships to innocent icebergs, I now realise I missed the bigger story.

Which is, of course, just how much people hate the name-change advertising campaign.

They hate it with a vengeance, which by chance is more or less the title of one of the Die Hard series of films featuring one of Norwich Union’s protagonists, Bruce “Walter” Willis.  I could hardly turn a page of a newspaper yesterday without finding some comment, feature, letter or random outburst from someone saying how much they hated it.

And what I suspect is that they hate it for a bunch of reasons which have arisen – or, if not arisen, then at least been greatly intensified – by the current crisis.

First, and probably foremost, they hate financial institutions much more than they used to.  This means that they approach any campaign like this in a hostile and questioning way.

Second, they hate extravagance.  Wasting money on paying celebs to appear in ads is only one rung down from wasting money on executive bonuses.

Third, they hate hypocrisy or inconsistency.  Many – especially customers – will have noticed that at the same time as running the campaign, NU have announced big cuts in with-profits terminal bonuses.

And fourth – as I did more or less acknowledge in the last piece – they don’t like name-changes much, and they particularly dislike name-change advertising, which seems in principle solipsistic and lacking in meaning or relevance for them.

Add all that up together, and it now seems quite clear that you have an own goal of quite spectacular proportions.  I’d love to be able to claim that if I’d been advising Norwich Union, I’d have spotted the danger in advance – not just in hindsight.

Funny, I could’ve sworn I’d written this rant before.

I’ve written quite a lot in this blog on various aspects of our current financial crisis, but checking back, I find that somehow I’ve neglected to make the point that I feel most strongly about.

One of the most often-discussed issues arising is whether the crisis will bring about lasting changes either in the way that the industry thinks about what it has to offer consumers, or in the way that consumers think about what’s on offer from the industry, or both.

To my great surprise, as far as the long-term implications are concerned,the industry remains largely in “Crisis? What crisis?” mode.  Sure, there will be a few changes in the short term – people always save more in a recession, for example – but in the longer run things will gradually return to normal.

I may be wrong, but I completely disagree with this.  I think loads of things have fundamentally changed.  There are so many, in fact, that we haven’t begun to get our heads round them all yet – but one really big one seems blindingly obvious.

To me, it seems as plain as a pikestaff (whatever a pikestaff may be) that the events of the last year – and arguably the events of the last ten years or more - mean we can kiss goodbye to one of the most important underpinnings of the whole long-term savings and investment market:  the idea that it’s reasonable to ask ordinary people to shoulder all (or nearly all) the risk of investing for their long-term financial security.

It simply isn’t reasonable.  In fact, it’s completely unreasonable.  Speaking for myself, I really, really wouldn’t fancy trying to explain to a young person today, for example, that for the next 30 or 40 years they ought to divert 5%, 10%, maybe even 15% of their income into forms of long-term investment that will secure their future in later life – but that, sorry, by the way, I should mention, it’s perfectly possible (at the moment the odds seem somewhere between 5-1 and 10-1) that in the period immediately before you’re planning to retire, the value of the amount you’ve put away could fall by half, and if interest rates move the wrong way the retirement income you could receive from your ruined pension fund could fall by another half (or more) too.

It’s just preposterous.  You’d have to be nuts.  The aforementioned young person could be forgiven for replying that on the whole, given that the whole thing is a total bloody gamble, they preferred the idea of  building up a reasonably chunky sum in a deposit account and then, in later life, gambling it on the horses and hoping to get lucky. 

The industry’s textbook answer to this is, of course, mainly about “lifestyling”- moving long-term investments into lower-risk asset classes in the pre-retirement phase.  But this answer is either stupid or dishonest, for three reasons:

1.   Only a minute proportion of pension savers (and an even minuter proportion of savers in other long-term investments) benefit from so-called “lifestyling.”   Few funds offer automatic switches (and in any case these may well be inappropriate), few people have financial advisers who might recommend switching, and even when people do have relationships with financial advisers the huge majority are far too lazy and useless to do anything about it.

2.  In any case, unhelpfully-timed movements in the market can still overwhelm a lifetsyling strategy.  What if, say, you were aged 55 and just about to switch all your equity investments into lower-risk, lower-return cash or bond investments when the market fell by half?  Do you go on and make the switch, knowing that your new lower-risk investments will never get back to where you were?  Or do you change your plan and stay invested in equities, running the risk that the market wll fall by another half in the next decade?

3.  And finally, as far as pension savings are concerned, even if you manage to shepherd your fund more or less safely through to retirement, there’s still the annuity lottery to deal with. True, there is now rather more flexibility about annuity purchase, but the key issue hasn’t gone away:  annuity rates are so volatile that you really might as well plan to bet your tax-free lump sum on a 2-1 favourite. 

The more you think about it, the more you realise that asking people to sacrifice large chunks of their current spending power in return for such extraordinarily high levels of risk and uncertainty isn’t just unreasonable, it’s also immoral – and, given people’s ever-deeper suspicion of us and all the false and broken promises we’ve made them over the years, it’s increasingly unachievable too.

As I say, maybe I’m wrong about all this.  But given that dumping risk back onto the shoulders of consumers has been one of the biggest and most actively-pursued ideas in all parts of the industry – government, regulator, providers, employers, intermediaries – for a decade or more now, the fact that during the last year or so it has been utterly discredited seems like a biggish long-term change to me. �

Ever spent time at Etrov? I bet you have.

Some French friends with very little English came to this country recently.  I asked them where they had stayed.  “Mostly in London,” they told me.  “But the first night we were near Etrov.”

Sounds like they’d stopped off somewhere in Russia, doesn’t it?  But they hadn’t.  They’d been about 10 miles west of London, near Hounslow.  Just off the M4.  Got it yet?  Big airport there – ah, yes, that’s the give-away:  Heathrow.  Heathrow is a sort of miniature linguistic nightmare for Francophones, beginning and ending with consonants they scarcely use, having “th” which they pronounce as “t” in the middle and also featuring two pretty unfamiliar vowel sounds, “ea” and “ow.”   Unfair, really, that for many it should be the first English place name they experience.

I suppose that as difficult English place names go, “Norwich” isn’t in the Heathrow class but is some way from completely straightforward - which is probably one of the less important reasons for the current blitz of Norwich Union-to-Aviva name-change activity. 

My friend Surrey Garland, creative director of by far our best competitor Masius, has sent me a piece from the Guardian by Simon Hoggart on the subject.  Hoggart, you will be less than surprised to hear, is very sniffy about it all, saying:   “The whole thing must have cost a gigantic sum. And for what? Norwich Union sounded strong, reliable, traditional. Aviva might be anything – a car, a brand of face cream, a singer who performs mimsy numbers about gurgling mountain streams. In other words, they have spent (I suspect) millions to achieve nothing. Another triumph for British advertising and marketing.”

100% of media news and comment pieces about corporate name-changes are negative, laying into the name-changer for absurd waste and folly.  Partly because campaigns that involve name-changes represent quite a big chunk of our business here at the agency, but also partly just out of a traditionally-British sympathy for any underdog repeatedly getting a good kicking from the media, this makes me pretty grumpy.

The trouble is, there’s always more to these decisions than meets the eye of someone like Hoggart, viewing the business from a single perspective in a single country at a single point in time.  The fact is that Aviva (the name of the group plc for the last 5 years or so) has been growing, largely by acquisition, all over the world for some years, and wishing for all sorts of pretty good reasons to appear and indeed increasingly behave as one big global company rather than lots of little local ones, it has been changing the names of most of its smaller and less well known acquisitions to Aviva as it has gone along.  Today, very roughly, it does business as Aviva in about 10 countries, and under a variety of other brands, including Commercial Union, Delta Lloyd, Eagle, Ohra and Hibernian, as well as Norwich Union, in other countries.

Frankly, if it wants to move to a single global brand at all, given where it now is, Aviva is the only game in town.  To drop a big, well-known local brand like Delta Lloyd in Belgium, or Hibernian in Ireland, and require the businesses to adopt the name of a provincial English cathedral city would be bizarre – as it would be to re-re-brand the businesses in the US, Australia, France, Germany and many other countries that are already trading under the Aviva brand.

This leaves two questions:  should the business want to adopt a global brand at all, and if so was Aviva a good choice?  Frankly, I think the first of these questions is too big to blog.  All I’ll say is that although there are a few global businesses that believe there is more value in maintaining a large, loose family of local brands, the overwhelming majority believe that moving towards a single, global brand is a better option.

As for whether Aviva was a good choice, I can’t say I love it – it was always too much of an AXA looky-likey for me.  It ticks the boxes – short, simple, easy to pronounce, the “life” idea in the “viva” part more or less relevant – while completely lacking character and attitude.  But “Norwich Union” was never an option – internationally for the reasons I’ve given, and in the UK because when NU and CGU (itself the result of a merger between General Accident and Commercial Union) merged in 2002, there was a real and important need to make sure that the new PLC’s name stood for something new created by merger, not just for a takeover of CGU by Norwich Union.

Anyway.  I could go on about this for hours.  I don’t love the Aviva name, or indeed the advertising campaign – I’ve seen the celeb-name-change analogy thing too often before.  But I dislike the default media story waste-and-folly tone of voice even more – even when it’s coming from someone who writes as well as Simon Hoggart. 

New Volvo estate now much fewer attractive.

I’ve spent the last six years or so vigorously defending the fact that I drive a Volvo estate, and assuming that in due course if it eventually shows some sign of unreliability I will get another one.  True, my Clarksonist streak requires me to point out that there are four other cars in my household which are not Volvo estates, but apart from that my enthusiasm has known no bounds.

Until just now.

One of the most important of all the marketing commandments is to know your target group, and one of the distinguishing characteristics of middle-class Volvo drivers is that we’re pedants about language.  We’re the people who picketed Marks & Spencer’s head office when the sign above the tills said “Six Items Or Less.”  “Fewer,” we cried.  “Six items or fewer, for goodness sake.  ‘Less’ of quantity, ‘fewer’ of number.”

Now Volvo have done it, and, worse, in a TV commercial.  A rather dreary new commercial for underpowered Volvos with puny 1.6 litre engines carries the strapline “Less emissions.  No less style.”  “Fewer emissions,” the target market cries.  “Yes, we know that’ll mean the strapline doesn’t work, but tough.”

The fact that it’s a piece of advertising is particularly important.  Loads of us got to know Volvos in the first place through all those wonderfully urbane, literate, adult press ads written by David Abbott in the golden era of AMV.  If it’s true that in the beer market the target group drinks the advertising, for many years we Volvo drivers drove the advertising. 

Not any more.  I’m not driving a car that doesn’t know the difference between “less” and “fewer.”  I was thinking maybe I should switch to an Audi anyway.  Now I definitely will.