No cards, no donations, no nothing. Except this.

Haven’t done well with Christmasiness this year.  No Lucian Camp Consulting cards with droll seasonal gags and graphics.  No charitable donations, or at least no special extra charitable donations.  No Jacqui Lawson e-cards.  No tweets.  Nothing on LinkedIn.

Just this.  To the very select few who look at this blog:  thanks very much indeed for your attention.  Have a great Christmas and New Year break.  And see you again, I hope, in 2012.

A “financial plan”: how much do you want one?

In the last couple of months, by chance two similar new online financial services have launched more or less simultaneously.  Leading mutual insurance group Royal London has launched MoneyVista, and former Cofunds founder Andy Creak has launched rPlan.

I say “very similar,” but in fact there are two big differences.  The first, obvious from the previous paragraph, is the David-and-Goliath thing.  The second is that rPlan is fundamentally a transactional site, with a business model dependent on trail commission, whereas MoneyVista is absolutely not a transactional site and its business model depends on flat-rate monthly fees.

But while those are certainly big differences, there seems to me to be a much bigger similarity:  both are predicated on the idea that the most valuable, appealing and important thing they can offer us is the chance to create and manage a “financial plan.”

Not being a customer of either service, I don’t actually know exactly what they mean by this term.  But I must admit that in the current climate, I am more than a little dubious about the customer appeal, and the real long-term value, of such a thing.

I suppose that at an emotional level, the idea of a financial plan may be appealing in uncertain times specifically because having one does give you a reassuring feeling of preparedness for what Allied Dunbar used to call “the life you don’t yet know.”

But thinking about it more rationally, I’m sure that almost all of that feeling is much more apparent than real.  Now more than ever, during this lengthy period of financial and economic turmoil, people are having to recalibrate their expectations on a more-or-less monthly basis. With all kinds of pension provision under massive pressure, retirement dates are being pushed out further and further into the future. Lifestage costs – kids’ educations, parents’ care homes – are rocketing at levels that make 5% RPI inflation look like paradise.   Every day, thousands of young people are giving up on the dream of ever buying their own home – the dream of getting a job looks quite unlikely enough.

I’m 58, so by now I ought to have some reasonable clarity about my future and specifically my financial future.  But I absolutely haven’t.  Amidst stock market turbulence and ever-falling annuity rates, I have no idea what kind of retirement my pension fund could buy me.  With two university-age children, I have no idea what financial support they’ll both need over the next ten years or so.  With a one-man consultancy business, I have no idea what my earning potential might be over the next year, let alone the next decade (and the reality is that my uncertainties on this subject aren’t much greater than friends employed in the corporate sector, some of whom are now up to their fifth or sixth redundancies).

I could go on, and indeed on, but you get my point.  If a “financial plan” simply means squirrelling away as much as you can, whenever you can, so that despite the risks of plunging stock markets and soaring inflation you’ll hopefully have some kind of cushion for whatever the next crisis turns out to be, then I suppose that’s no bad thing.

But if MoneyVista and rPlan have some sort of bigger-picture, longer-lasting, more strategic concept in mind – one in which we’re really able to draw up a reasonably clear picture of the life we want to lead in the future, and then manage our finances in a way that gives us reasonable confidence that we’ll be able to afford it – then they’ve got to be kidding.

I’m not sure if real life was ever very much like that.  But these days, it seems absurd even to pretend that it might be.

Baffled of Westminster

Met a Tory MP at a party over the weekend.  Either he’s a very good MP, or he  was genuinely quite interested in my financial marketing consultancy thing.  He was particularly interested, apparently at least, to hear about my recent dealings with TheCityUK, the consortium organisation charged with the tricky responsibility of restoring public trust and confidence in financial services.  However, his interest waned when I told him that I thought there was no chance of this organisation getting any significant trust-and-confidence-building activity off the ground.

In my view, I explained, there are two major obstacles.  First, these guys are smart enough to realise that the challenge isn’t just about communication.  If you really want to start building trust and confidence, the top priority is to start behaving in trust-and-confidence-inspiring ways – or, perhaps more accurately, to stop behaving in trust-and-confidence-destroying ways.  The people running these organisations recognise that they are neither willing nor able to do this, and so any campaigning activity is sure to be torpedoed at regular intervals by media headlines telling new tales of hanky-panky.  This will certainly make any campaigning activity a waste of time and money.

And then second, the guys are at best unconvinced that a better public rep would be good for business – or, again, to put the same point a bit more accurately, they’re unconvinced that their public rep can be improved by a margin big enough to be good for business.  People like the MP at the party argue that if the industry was better liked and more trusted, then it would be more difficult for politicians to do horrid things to it like imposing more regulation and windfall taxes.  But the industry’s leaders simply don’t believe that this degree of change in perceptions is possible, particularly in the light of point 1 above.

I must admit that perhaps I’ve been doing this for too long, but – in a more despairing and less complacent way – I’m with the industry’s leaders on all this.  For as long as there’s a weekly headline about some institution or other ripping off eighty-somethings with dementia by selling them long-term investments that must be held for five years or more, derision and ridicule are the most likely – and indeed appropriate – responses to any generic trust-building activity.  And anyway, trust, schtrust, as they probably don’t say in Brooklyn Heights:  as I’ve said a trillion times, the world is full of deeply distrusted people and organisations making tons of money.

I tried to explain this to the Tory MP, but I’m not sure if he got it.  He’s pretty new to the MP-ing game, and has much to learn about the wicked world we live in.  It’s not fashionable to portray MPs as starry-eyed idealists – but by a rather dispiriting comparison to the rest of us, that may be what they are.

In the country of the blind

You know the old saying.  So allow me to introduce you to a one-eyed king and a one-eyed queen, although I must admit I can’t remember the latter’s name.

I came across the king in an unexpected place – a spam email.  It was from somebody called Andy Green at a company called The Customer Framework, offering free white papers.  One of these was titled “Why customer journey mapping differs from process design,” and although I suspected that Andy probably meant “How” rather than “Why” my curiosity was aroused, I filled in a lengthy data-capture form and the white paper duly arrived.

The answer to the question, as far as I can see, is that customer journey mapping is a way of considering and designing customer-facing processes which take the customer into account, while process design is a way of considering and designing customer-facing processes which take no account of the customer whatever.

As a marketer, my immediate reaction is that this first option is obvious and sensible, while the second would be ridiculous folly, roughly on a par with, say, writing up your processes in Hungarian or appointing a team of wombats to manage the customers.  Still, if there are indeed people in companies pursuing the latter option, then they are clearly blind, Andy has at least one eye and he should ascend to the throne without delay.

Here, I guess, he might meet his queen.  She would be an American woman who I saw speaking at a recent Financial Services Forum conference, giving a case history of how she had transformed AIG’s US direct-to-consumer online life assurance business.

Her presentation was really excellent, and the results she had achieved were startling.  But basically, the story she told was that she had gone through the previous online application journey, identified all the places where it was going wrong and the customers had fallen away in a state of confusion, anger or misery, and fixed them all.  Again, very sensible, one-eyed at the very least and in the ocularly-challenged environment of AIG extremely queenly behaviour.

But you can’t help wondering about the process designers who aren’t Andy or the AIG woman, and who are responsible for putting in hand the kinds of deeply unfriendly processes that he and she both decry.  Who are these people?  Why do they do things the way they do?  How can they possibly think they’re doing it right?

I hope Andy and the AIG woman take pleasure in their royal status.  But they must be a little disappointed when they peer down upon their subjects. They really are a miserable and unworthy bunch.

Bags I you tell Ron Collins about the QR code

I grew up in advertising during the era in which we thought of our clients’ logos as the work of the Devil.  White-faced and with clenched teeth, art directors would make a space about half an inch square at the bottom right corner of print ads available for the logo.  If the client bravely demanded three-quarters of an inch, you could expect eruptions.  An inch, and the creative director would insist on resigning the business.

There was only one thing that we detested and resented even more.  Sometimes, intolerably, we were required to accommodate a second logo.  It might be a product brand as well as a corporate brand.  It might be a business partner, Intel Inside being the most frequent.  It might be a key distributor (available now at branches of Dixons).  It might be a regulator or similar authority (“CORGI registered.”  “Regulated by FIMBRA.”)  Didn’t really matter what it was exactly – what it was in general terms was a second sodding logo, and it was going to annihilate my chances of winning an award with this ad.

(Truth is, this fear was probably well-founded.  Before examining any other aspect of the advertisement, awards juries of the time would briefly scrutinise the logo display arrangements.  Anything bigger than half and inch, or, God forbid, any number of logos greater than one, and your work was an instant reject.  Some would say it was no coincidence that some of the most successful award-gathering campaigns of the time – I’m thinking particularly of Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut – featured no logos at all.)

Anyway, thinking back over the volcanic passions aroused by this whole subject, I can’t help wondering how some of the most Vesuvian of art directors would get on today.  These days, four or five logos or logo surrogates are par for the course (client’s brand, web address, find us on Facebook, Twitter, Olympics 2012 logo, Intel Inside still there, etc etc etc).  And then when you get on to distributor brands, things can go seriously ballistic – in financial services some investment brands like to identify the platforms or multi-manager products where they can be found, and this can result in another twenty or so logos jostling for space down at the bottom somewhere.

By now many 80s art directors would have blown a fuse and expired, which would probably be just as well because as well as the twenty or thirty logos already present they would now be informed of the need to accommodate a QR code.

Ron Collins, a 70s and 80s art director said to have been beyond Vesuvian – Krakatoan maybe – died quite recently.  He was retired, of course, but I’m sure this whole logo business was still capable of raising his blood pressure quite dangerously.  It’s almost worth checking:  might the day he expired have been the day a QR code was first sighted in a press ad?