Don’t bother with this one, non-football fans

Or do I mean “football non-fans”?  Anyway, the thing is, a couple of weeks into the new football season, which team is it that’s bestriding the lofty pinnacle of the Premiership (sounds painful) like the proverbial Colossus?  Answer:  the mighty Spurs.

It’s been a very long time indeed since we did much bestriding, so I must say that casting one’s eye over the league table looking for our name, and finding it not towards the bottom….or even in the middle…or indeed the upper middle…or the higher reaches….but right up there in the nosebleed zone, at the very, very top, makes an extremely welcome change.

Will it last?  Well, all my experience as a Spurs supporter says that more than anything else, my beloved team is infinitely creative and resourceful in its ability to deliver unpleasant surprises.  There are, of course, plenty of examples of teams hitting the heights at these early stages and then plunging like weighted sacks from the autumn right through to the end of the season the following spring.  And anyway, these days no-one – least of all anyone who works in financial services marketing - goes in for any kind of long-term, or even medium-term, forecasting. 

All I will say is that it’s great while it lasts.  And perhaps I’m feeling just about bold enough to add that since we’re playing lowly Birmingham at home at the weekend, I’m inclined to think that it’ll go on being great while it lasts for one more week, at least.  But knowing the mighty Spurs as well as I do, I’m feeling even as I write this paragraph that I’ve probably stuck my neck out further than I should. 

That’s it.  End of entry.  If you were a non-football fan hoping that this tedious and rather muted gloating was going to lead to some sort of pithy analogy with, or insight into, the world of financial services marketing, I can only apologise:  it isn’t. 

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Who do you trust more with your money: the sheep or the wolves?

Years ago, in the late 80s and early 90s, Mercury Asset Management dominated the UK institutional investment industry.  They were by far the biggest firm in the country, and also the baddest, regularly hitting the headlines in the FT for casting their votes against some hapless management team in a contested takeover, or refusing to support a refinancing and driving another ailing UK plc to the wall.

At the same time, however, to the firm’s irritation, their name counted for little or nothing in the retail market.  Few individual investors had even heard of them, let alone knowing anything particular or interesting about them.  The Mercury guys were unhappy with this.  How, they asked agencies like mine, could they make themselves better known?

I suggested that one big, obvious idea could make them well-known, highly differentiated and hugely successful in the retail market.  Excuse my language, but I said they should proudly – and quite truthfully - make it clear that they were in fact quite simply the biggest, baddest motherfuckers in the City. 

The rationale, I thought, was as obvious as it was irresistible.  Who do you want looking after your money for you, a nice wooly sheep, or a ravenous wolf?  To put it another way, in the battle to deliver the best results for investors, would you want Mercury fighting for you – or against you?

Of course the clients recoiled in horror at this suggestion.  In financial services, if there’s one thing that big, bad motherfuckers will never, ever claim to be, it is of course big bad motherfuckers.

But still, I thought I was right.  And the thought comes to mind again this week, in the context of the acquisition of Friends Provident by Clive Cowdery’s Resolution.

Ever since it was founded by Quakers in about 500BC, Friends Prov has been a deeply nice company.  But like many deeply nice companies, in many if not most respects it has also been deeply useless.  (It’s been particularly useless at investing its customers’ money, which is of course probably the most important thing it does for many of them.)

Clive Cowdery is an absolutely delightful bloke, but as a businessman he’s not nice.  I’m not quite sure of the distinction between “ruthless” and “relentless”, but he is 100% both.  He has already made a very large amount of money, and he will certainly go on to make a stupendous amount of money.  Much of this will come from his firm’s ownership of Friends Prov.

How should the Friends Prov staff and customers feel about this?  As I write, I can vividly imagine all those nice, amiable sheep flooding out of the exits, and snarling, rapacious wolves waiting to take their places at the desks in their cubicles.  Surelythe customers should follow their example, and get the hell out as quickly as they can? 

Put that way, it sounds as if they should.  But think of the Mercury experience.  Do you want sheep looking after your finances, or wolves? 

Perhaps what you really want is neither – a nice, smart, decent, hard-working, trustworthy black labrador is what you’re after.  But there aren’t many of those around these days, I’m afraid.  And anyway, I’m not sure I’d fancy their chances in a stand-off with the wolves.

Forecasting. Honestly, can there be any future in it?

Yesterday, for an article I was writing for a client, I spent a while googling my way around the whole subject of investment forecasting.  Honestly, it’s a joke:  as far as I can see, in recent years, the forecasts produced by the experts have been a very great deal less reliable than any self-respecting blindfolded chimpanzee could manage with a list of numbers and a pin.

The wrongness and uselessness take three major forms.  First, there’s the Wrong Consensus.  A good example of this would be the January 2008 forecasts of the level of the FTSE-100 at the end of that year.   At first glance, it’s the consistency that you notice:  the eight I have in front of me are clustered within a thousand points, between 6400 and 7300.  At second glance, it’s the wrongness that really catches the eye:  actually, at the year-end, the index was a little below 4500.

Then, second, there’s the Moving Target:  the forecasts that lurch one way, then another, like an empty dinghy in a stormy sea.   The 2009 predictions for the housing market fall squarely into this category:  at the beginning of the first quarter, the consensus view, aggregating all the major forecasts, predicted a 14% fall, by the beginning of the second quarter the figure had fallen to 8% and now, in the third quarter, it stands at around 0%.  What’ll it be in the fourth quarter?  Back to a 10% decline?  Swinging all the way round to a 10% increase?  Stuck at 0%?  Anything is possible.  The only thing for certain is that there’s no point whatever in taking any account of moving-target forecasts like these in your decision-making.

And then finally, of course, there’s the Scattered Pack – the times when there just isn’t any trace of consistency at all and each individual forecaster is ploughing his or her own lonely furrow, often not in the same field or indeed even on the same farm as the others.  The forecasts I found for the UK stock market in 2009 fall into this category, with the 31st Dec level of the FTSE-100 being variously predicted to lie anywhere between 2500 and 6500.

When you take a tour around the forecasting landscape as I’ve just been doing, you really do wonder what on earth the point of it can possibly be, and how on earth the forecasters themselves can possible maintain a) their enormous salaries and b) any level of self-respect.

As I’ve written many times in this blog, those of us in marketing and communications all share deep, dark doubts about the effectiveness, and the reliability, of much of what we do.   But, my goodness, compared to those forecasters, we’re absolute bloody paragons.

  

Double Baby Strollers

As a rule this blog gets very little spam these days, but the odd weird exception still sneaks through.  If anyone can explain why something I wrote a few months ago under the headline “Don’t mind him, he’s from Barcelona” has picked up a copy-less response simply headed “Double Baby Strollers” and carrying the web address www.doublebabystrollers.org, I’d be very grateful to them.

Learning from meerkats

There’s a piece in Marketing this week about the way that Comparethemarket’s meerkat has thrown his competitors into a panic.  Confused.com has already put its account out to pitch, and Moneysupermarket seems to be going the same way even though it’s only just launched a new campaign.

The CEO of Confused.com says: “The meerkat has raised the bar,” while the troublingly-named Mark Vile at Comparethemarket, where site traffic is up year on year by over 200%, says:  “We realised there was an opportunity to be the one price comparison site that had engaging and entertaining adverts.”

For people who’ve always believed in the need for ads to be entertaining and engaging (even if few of those people are comfortable with the word “adverts”) this feels like it just might be a breakthrough moment.  After all, with the monster FMCG advertisers like P&G and Mars having experienced Damascene conversions on the subject of engagement and entertainment in recent years, the direct insurance sector stands out in the world of big-ticket advertisers as the biggest remaining proponent of insultingly repellent advertising.  I’ve said before that I would rather give up my car and travel, around London at least, on my hands and knees rather than insure with any of the brands in the Admiral group:  to make the same point another way, I don’t think I could really ever be friends with someone who was insured with elephant.com.

Five years ago, we won the MORE TH>N business with a pitch based on the idea of building engagement, mainly through the simple but remarkably effective brand icon of a cute dog called Lucky.  Three years or so later, new people on the client side decided that they didn’t care about engagement any more, and fired us.  Since then I believe their business has prospered as a result of some smart and innovative initiatives involving data and customer management, but advertising-wise they’ve fallen off the map:  I wonder now if they, as well as other direct insurers with horrible advertising, will find the meerkat offers food for thought.

At the heart of this whole subject, at least as far as the insurance market is concerned, is a debate about what we mean when we talk about “brand response” advertising.  If this hybrid category has two objectives, to build positive brand awareness for the longer term and at the same time to generate immediate response, which set of advertising rules should it play by:  the engage-and-entertain rules of brand advertising, or the insult-and-depress rules of direct response?

Loads of us have always deeply and passionately believed that the former must work much, much better.  To our great surprise and no less great relief, a meerkat with a Russian accent seems to have the evidence that we’re right.

What goes around

Many years ago, in my DMB&B days, we had the opportunity to pitch for the TSB account.  It was clear that the winning agency would be the one that figured out what to do about TSB’s then-current strapline, “The Bank That Likes To Say Yes.” 

This line was both the strength and the weakness of their existing approach – well-known, well-identified and generally positive, but, even in those distant days, more than a little paternalistic and patronising.  Keeping it didn’t feel like a winning move, but neither did dropping it.  Someone cleverer than me found the answer – turning it round, so that it said “We Want You To Say Yes.”

OK, it’s not as good, but the sentiment matched the zeitgeist far better.  It was about you, the customer, not about us, the bank.  TSB was no longer congratulating itself on its helpfulness, it was working to earn its customers’ appreciation.  It felt like a winning move.  It was.  We won.

Fast forward to the recent Halifax pitch.  No doubt the pitching agencies, as pitching agencies do, looked back over the bank’s past campaigns.  The one that would have stood out would have been the so-called “human house” campaign – the one with the big epic films set to famous pop songs in which large numbers of customers physically clambered on top of each other to build homes and achieve other big symbolic benefits of banking with Halifax.  Good stuff – memorable and popular.  But where is the role of the bank in all this?  Could we make it, well, a bit more self-congratulatory?  Could we dramatise our helpfulness a bit more clearly?

As you’ll have seen, in the new campaign, the big casts and the clambering are back.  But this time there’s a difference – it’s literally-serried ranks of Halifax staff who are making things possible, forming the roads and paths and ladders and bridges that enable the customers to move into their homes or get married or start drug-dealing businesses or whatever.  (OK, I was kidding about the drug-dealing.)

Once again, finding a way to flip an existing campaign property on its head was the winning move (unusually, in this case, for the incumbent agency, which is a particularly impressive and unusual outcome).  But the direction of travel was the exact opposite of the direction that won us TSB nearly 20 years ago.

What does this prove?  That times change, and what was right for then isn’t right for now?  That as someone famous once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?  Just that life is random  and you never know what’s going to win a pitch?  Or that whatever the pitch and whatever the brief, finding a way of tweaking a famous advertising property that the client already owns is a pretty good way to win? 

I’m pretty sure it’s one of the above, but I’ve no idea which.  You choose.

The last time I wrote this blog, I still thought we might win the Ashes

God, it’s a long time ago.  10th July – a month to the day.  Feels like another world:  the early summer, everyone still hoping for the “barbecue” weather the forecasters promised us, two days into the first Test and still everything to play for, the football season still an age away and me, of course, still 24 hours away from embarking on my usual and longingly-anticipated 3-week summer holiday.

Happy days.  Apart from the imminence of the football season, the position a month later is almost entirely worse:  barbecues half-full of rainwater, the Ashes series still technically un-lost at 1-1 but all the momentum with our friends from down under, and my holiday a fading memory.

And amongst all this, what’s been happening in the world of financial services marketing, branding and advertising?  Er, well, not much, or not that I’ve noticed.  One rather depressing point is that one of the few areas to have held up fairly well so far – the area of IFA trade press advertising – has collapsed, at least for the time being:  surely there must be some recovery when everyone goes back to school in September, but for the time being the weekly trade papers are emaciated to a life-threatening extent.  On the upside, there are still insane quantities of advertising on television from direct insurance providers, and perhaps most of all from price comparison sites;  and in the business insurance market my friends at Brit Insurance are continuing the creeping expansion of their involvement in cricket sponsorship, a brave and quite costly journey which deserves to be rewarded with a share in the success of a jubilant England team at the Oval in a week or two (but you’ll probably have noticed that in this world we don’t always get what we deserve…)   

But all in all, I’m quite glad that I haven’t had to try to find things to write about over the last few weeks – and, to be honest, a little concerned to think of the kind of barrel-scrapings that may be necessary over the next few.   Don’t be too surprised if there isn’t a whole lot happening here till, well, maybe another month from now:  apart from the last act of the Ashes at the Oval, and the first few outings for the 2009/10 incarnation of the mighty Spurs, I’m not sure I’m going to have blog topics coming out of my ears.