Thank goodness I’m not writing this for a client

The absence of a client is bad in one way:  it means the absence of any payment.  But it’s good in two other ways, of which the first and more obvious is that no-one’s going to come back demanding lots of stupid and irritating changes to it.

That is, more or less, the potted, one-para version of the blog I intended to write.  The full-length version, needless to say, would have developed into a bit of a rant about clients, and how tiresome they are – and how silly and counterproductive they are, too, because if I look at the universe of all the stuff I write, I’d estimate that the half that hasn’t been dicked around by clients is at least twice as good as the half that has.

But at the moment I sat down to unburden myself of these thoughts – fingers hovering over keyboard – I realised that actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  I said there were two reasons why it’s good not to be writing for a client. The second – the one that’s very easy to overlook, even though it’s a rather big and uncomfortable point, to be honest – is that in truth, on the average, I write about half as well for clients as I do for myself.

Yesterday, for example, I wrote a 750-word piece for a client, and this morning I was less than astounded, or indeed delighted, to find an email from the client pointing out its sixteen miscellaneous faults and failings – basically, the title, the beginning, the middle and the end, as well as a dozen more nitpicky comments.  Bloody clients, I thought:  but then on closer examination, and in a sudden moment of objectivity, bloody hell, they’re absolutely right.

Well, maybe not quite all sixteen.  But actually it was a rotten piece, wrong factually, tonally and structurally.  It was Start-Again Time.  I hope Draft 2 goes down better, though I sent it off a couple of hours ago and it’s all gone suspiciously quiet.

If I think about it, the way I set about writing these different things tells its own story.  As you’ve probably surmised, I knock these blogs off in a few minutes, basically writing as fast as I can type.  By contrast, writing that client piece yesterday was like trying to hew something out of granite with a teaspoon – hard going from first thought to last word, and an anxious feeling when I finally finished that what I’d written didn’t bear much resemblance to the piece I’d imagined when I started.

Why is that?  Is it to do with the content?  Not really.  The piece I was writing yesterday was on a subject which I’m very comfortable with – indeed, which I’ve written about on previous occasions in this very blog.  Is it to do with tone of voice?  Maybe a little bit, but the industry’s a lot more relaxed about that these days than it was just a few years ago:  copy that would once have been dismissed with a withering “too chatty” now comes back with a note saying “more engagement needed.”

No, I don’t think the problem with client copywriting jobs is to do with the client.  I think it’s to do with me, or mainly at least.  For some reason, I’m just not as fluent, not as confident, not as committed, when it’s a client job than I am when it’s a blog, or an article for a paper or magazine, or a conference paper, or whatever.

That’s not to say (he adds defensively) that some of my copywriting for clients isn’t pretty good.  On the whole, it’s just not as good as my other stuff.  It’s not you, as the saying goes, it’s me.

Unless, of course – scary thought – the other stuff isn’t as good as I think it is either.

If I had any money to invest, I’d invest it with Fidelity

Do you watch Air Crash Investigation, on the Discovery Channel?  As a nervous flyer, I love it.  I’ve seen them all, some several times.

Occasionally, they tell a story of a single catastrophic failure that was unavoidable and unrecoverable:  out of nowhere, without any warning, the wings fall off.

But much more often, it’s the story that we first saw in the film The China Syndrome:  it’s only when a dozen different things go wrong, one after another, and then the thirteenth thing goes wrong too, that the plane actually crashes.

The weather over New York is bad.  A short closure of the runways means that many planes are circling.  A plane from Colombia is towards the back of the queue, held in the stack for over 80 minutes.  It has had to divert to Miami en route, to drop off an unwell passenger.  The tanker operator at Bogota had a scam going, and put in 500 gallons less than he should have done. The plane’s fuel gauges have been badly serviced.  The pilot and the co-pilot don’t speak very good English.  They notice the fuel is low, but they fail to explain just how low to Kennedy ATC.  Eventually they get to attempt a landing, but there is windshear and they have to go around again.  There’s not enough fuel left for this.  Five miles out, on their second final approach, the plane runs out of fuel and falls onto a village in Long Island.  Game over.

Sounded quite realistic, that, didn’t it?  Actually, it is quite realistic – a somewhat souped-up version of the story of Avianca Flight 52, which crashed on final approach into JFK in January 1990.  But what’s it got to do with Fidelity?

Simply this:  that more often than not, the single most important effect upon an outcome is the way people react when a problem arises.  Lots of bad things happened to Avianca 52, some of them avoidable and some of them not.  But if only the crew, instead of faffing about, had declared a fuel emergency 40 minutes into that 80 minute hold, they could either have jumped the queue and landed at JFK without difficulty, or flown on to Boston, their alternate airport.

I suppose that as many bad things can happen in fund management as in aviation, although it’s only money that gets injured and dies.  But the question is, when they do, who has the combination of resources, depth of pockets, experience, commitment and strength of management to pull the fund out of its nosedive?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but if I found that the world’s biggest investment management business is also a specialist operating exclusively in the investment market with no other operations to divert or distract, and is also a private company with no need to justify its actions (or the cost of those actions) to its shareholders, then they’d come towards the top of my list.

And that’s why, if I had any money to invest (not just a large bunch of shares in my parent company Cello that are worth about a quarter of what they were when I received them), I’d invest it with Fidelity.

Second (and last) entry about climate change

What with all the printing of books, building of websites, jetting around the world to events and conferences, shooting of films and even writing of blogs on the subject, the climate change industry’s carbon footprint is already quite big enough without extra help from me. 

Still, there’s one extra point I feel I should make for the record:  having written the other day that we’ve heard a huge amount about the likely losers from the process but never anything about the likely winners, all of a sudden we did.  Hear something about some likely winners, that is.  A BBC News report from China a couple of days ago said that while the predicted changes are likely to be bad for agriculture in the south and west of the country, they’re likely to be good for the north and east.

As a result, the north and east of China now stand alone on my new list of Climate Change Beneficiaries.  When I see details of any others, I’ll add them to my list – but I won’t bother you with them.�

OK, we’re dodgy. But how dodgy?

I went to a grim event last night - the Building Societies Association Annual Lecture, at the May Fair Hotel.  Grim in several ways:  the tragically-depleted ranks of the building society top brass these days, with half the seats in the theatre roped off;  the gloomy physical greyness of all of us there, from our grey-to-greying hair to our grey-to-greying suits and, one fears, shoes;  and perhaps most of all the awfulness of the speaker, representing something called the Financial Services Consumer Panel, the kind of grey, smug, charisma-free dunderhead who makes me deeply wish that I’d pursued a career in a different industry.

The dunderhead’s message was that there are many boring and obvious ways in which the industry could serve consumers better.  This was of no interest, so I found myself thinking about something else instead. 

In his talk, his two most egregious examples of consumers being served badly were a) overpriced payment protection insurance and b) massive “penalty charges” raised by banks on misbehaving customers (for example, £35 for a letter telling you that you’re overdrawn).   And what I was wondering – not, I must say, for the first time – is whether bad behaviour like this is actually any worse, or any more harmful, than bad behaviour in other product and service markets.

The truth is, there are many, many customer-facing businesses which will try on almost anything they think they can get away with. From supermarkets pumping up their chicken breasts with water and phosphates, to garages charging for oil changes they never quite got round to doing, to freelancers in my own industry selling a day’s worth of time to two or if possible even three different clients, the only rule of conduct is “Thou shalt not get found out.”  But what equivalence is there between the different examples of chicanery?  Is a personal loan provider selling £2-a-month’s-worth of PPI for a tenner worse than a restaurant selling 80p’s-worth of bottled water for a fiver?  These days, unbelievably, when you’ve printed your Ryanair boarding card on your own computer, if you forget to take it to the airport they’ll charge you £40 for a replacement: is that better or worse than NatWest charging my student daughter £35 to tell her she’s 28p overdrawn?

And if the FSA intends to regulate the financial advice process to eliminate commission bias, then how about the process of selling cars, or photocopiers, or houses, or any other market in which sales people are paid wholly or partly with commission?

I can see that financial products which just don’t work can be more harmful for consumers than photocopiers that just don’t work.  But actually, this isn’t the issue.  Over the last ten years or more, most investments just haven’t worked, leaving millions of people no better off, and often actually worse off, than if they’d just put the cash on deposit.  But this isn’t the issue that gets people like last night’s speaker hot under the collar.  It’s the smaller, shabbier, day-to-day rip-offs that bother them.

I’m not here to defend small, shabby, day-to-day rip-offs.  I’m glad that in the financial services industry all sorts of regulators, commentators and opinion-formers are down on them – even to the point of prohibiting the more serious examples, like the two I’ve mentioned here.  But I do think there’s something a bit odd, and a bit masochistic, about it.  In pretty much every other field I can think of, from minicabs to merchant banks, people will cheat you out of as much as they think they can get away with:  and there are an awful lot of market sectors where, thanks to that “information assymetry” beloved of our regulator, they can get away with at least as much as any financial services provider can.

So, in short:   sure we’re dodgy, but in the kind of dodginess I’m talking about here we’re no dodgier than more or less anyone else.  It does mystify me a bit – although definitely in a good way – why we get quite so worked up about ut.�

God, honestly, did we really used to like that stupid meerkat?

The great Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously said that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything,” and of all the things that nobody knows the most unknown of all is whether a script will make a funny film.

Of course that’s partly because it depends so much on how it’s performed and shot.  But even beyond that – even assuming it’ll be performed and shot excellently – it’s still pretty much completely unknowable.

This makes life very difficult, especially when you’re responsible for an advertising campaign that’s supposed to be consistently funny over a long period of time.  There are two particularly painful recent examples.  

Back in the days when the executions focused on stars pitching their concepts, Orange’s Film Funding Corporation cinema campaign consistently came in between Broad Smile and Audible Chortle.  Then, a couple of years ago, they moved the campaign on so that now we see the films actually being made, and commercial after commercial is coming in between Stone Face and Clench Buttocks. 

The mistake here – a painfully easy one to make – was to assume the humour was robust enough to survive the change of format.  It wasn’t.  It turns out, in hindsight, that the humour lay in the confrontation between the star and the Orange team: now that the confrontation only occupies a fraction of the screentime, the scripts are only a fraction as funny.

And now, I suspect – remember, you read it here first – that we’re very quickly going to start coming over equally tight-lipped at each new appearance of that lovable price comparison site advertising front-man Aleksandr the meerkat.   I can’t remember the last film, but it wasn’t very funny, and now there’s a new one in which he appears in a jacuzzi in which the only remaining trace of humour comes from his silly accent.

The problem here is a bit different from Orange’s.  The trouble with Aleksandr is that what makes him funny is his dedication to his own comparethemeerkat.com website, and his lofty disdain for its arriviste rival comparethemarket.com.  This is a difficult idea to develop across a long-running campaign of ads, especially when they’re supposed to be brand response ads that include the kind of copy points that allegedly make the phone ring, or more likely the inbox fill up, and we’re already getting a strong sense that the only solution that’s so far occurred to the chaps at VCCP is to keep on producing increasingly unfunny reworkings of the launch commercial, only without any of its charm, surprise or originality.

My advice to them is to disappear on a lengthy offsite as soon as possible and try to find a new structure that enables the campaign to be consistently funny, because otherwise it’s going to run out of gas extraordinarily quickly.  But as William Goldman would appreciate, that, of course, is a good deal easier said than done.  More than likely, it was just such a lengthy offsite which sent Orange’s campaign off in completely the wrong direction.

My three interesting-ish points about climate change

Yes, you’re right, this has nothing to do with financial services marketing.  But I’ve just been irritated by a tubecard on the Victoria Line, and I feel the need to restore my equilibirium by sharing three thoughts with you.

The tube card?  Oh yes.  It was an Oxfam one, and the headline said:  “People in developing countries aren’t thinking about how climate change will affect them. They already know.”    There was then some short copy about some of the very bad ways it was affecting them – rising sea levels, flood, drought, crop failures etc.

I’ll come back to my irritation later.  Here are the three points.

1.  Wouldn’t this be a good time to buy land in Greenland or northern Canada?  It’s really, really cheap at the moment, because it’s too cold and inhospitable.  This seems likely to change.

2.  Should we spend a bit less time and effort on trying to stop climate change, and a bit more on trying to deal with it?  If for no other reason than the rate of increase of the human population, I find it impossible to believe that even if all of us in the affluent west drive Toyota Priuses and recycle all our rubbish we can do much more than delay the inevitable by a few weeks, or months, or years.   But if we really set our minds to it, couldn’t we tackle some of the huge challenges involved in dealing with it?  Simplistically, at the moment the earth’s polar regions are almost unoccupied because they’re too cold, but everywhere else is inhabited by people even though the region around the equator is pretty uncomfortable.  Might it be the case that in, I don’t know, 30, 40 or 50 years the region around the equator is unoccupied because it’s too hot and dry, but everywhere else is inhabited by people even though the polar regions are still a bit chilly?  The landmass of Antarctica, for example, is 13 million square miles, rather more than Europe and rather less than South America.  In the worst-case scenario when the polar ice caps melt away completely, how much of this would be inhabitable?

3.  Can climate change really be bad news for everyone?  This is the point that connects to that Oxfam tubecard.  The assumption of climate change propagandists is that it’s all bad, and climate change will impact in the most negative way possible on every community everywhere:  places that are already too hot will become hotter, while places that are too cold will become colder;  places that are too dry will become dryer, while places that are too wet will become wetter;  low-lying places will be flooded, while high ground will suffer from drought.   Can this be right?  Surely some places must be better off, or at least not worse?   Someone told me once that in the worst-case scenario, we in the UK will have a climate like the South of France has today.  I can see that the process of adjusting to this would be painful and expensive – umbrella manufacturers diversifying into parasols etc (joke) – but in the longer run would it be worse?  And must not the same also be true for some developing economies, especially in more temperate regions?   The heavy rains in low-lying Bangladesh cause terrible flooding.  But on the higher ground in the region, aren’t they more good news than bad?

On reflection, I think my three points about climate change are just one point:  namely, that if you get beyond the sweeping naivety of saying that it’s bad and must be stopped, some quite interesting new thoughts start coming to mind. 

And I suppose that in that respect, perhaps there is a marginal and awkwardly contrived analogy with marketing financial services after all.

Why I have almost-complete confidence in IFAs

I do indeed have almost-complete confidence in IFAs, but unfortunately it’s confidence in a bad way.  I have almost-complete confidence that when confronted with an opportunity to a) do the right thing for their clients and b) do some good to their own businesses, the IFA community will turn their noses up at it in droves.

Today’s example is to do with Child Trust Funds (CTFs) in particular, and children’s savings in general.  According to a supplement in today’s Investment Adviser marking the seventh anniversary of the launch of CTFs, only 10% of IFAs are raising the subject of CTFs within their general client fact-find, and only 22% claim to be “very interested” in the whole subject of children’s savings.

The reasons for this distinct lack of enthusiasm are obvious enough.  IFAs like large investments paying lots of commission (either initial or renewal or, ideally, both) and they perceive children’s savings at the opposite end of both these spectrums – small investments paying little commission.

The truth is that a) getting into a discussion with affluent people about their children is at least 20 times easier than getting into a discussion with affluent people about themselves, and b) helping clients and prospects with the financial needs of other close family members is the right thing to do.

But, as I say, for the large majority of independent financial advisers, ignoring considerations like these is the kind of instinctive reaction that’s helped them build the great businesses they have today.

T-Mobile’s new posters are rubbish. Unless they’re brilliant

You’ve seen the campaign – adshels, up at the moment, with a headline saying “What would you do with free texts for life?”, and a variety of pix of young people being interviewed in the street by a vox pop crew with captions telling us the things they’re saying, like “I’d stalk my maths teacher with porno texts every hour” and “I’d text my drug dealer on behalf of all my friends.”  (Actually, of course, they’re saying much duller things than this.)

Surrey Garland, probably the best writer I know, says the campaign’s rubbish – pointlessly complicated, much too much like hard work, hopeless, what on earth is the point of all that vox pop nonsense.  But I’m not so sure.

It’s true that there are certainly some technical problems.   The campaign is badly branded (actually, although I’ve stuck my neck out, I’m not 100% sure it is for T-Mobile).  And you can’t easily see what the vox popees are saying, although that doesn’t matter much because it’s all jolly dull.

But all the same, I still wonder if Surrey is wrong for once.  What is the number one lifestyle expectation of teenagers these days?  That they will be famous and will appear on television.  The subtext (or maybe subvisual) of this campaign is that when you buy into this new T-Mobile tariff, you become interesting enough to appear on television.  So far from being an unnecessary complication, I suspect this implicit communication is hugely compelling to its teenage target.