Not that I’m ever one to say “I told you so”

Today I feel a bit like a deep-sea diver who always knew that the lost continent of Atlantis lies just off the coast of Bermuda and has now just spotted a cooking-pot or funerary urn lying on the sea-bed just where he’d always expected it.  Or an ornithologist who had never accepted the extinction of the dodo and now hears an entirely unfamiliar squawk from a dense patch of Mauritian rainforest.

Being in financial services marketing, my elation may be similar but the cause is superficially less exciting:  a story in New Model Adviser that AVIVA Investors is to “pull back” from the UK retail investment market.

On closer examination, the verb “pull back” is being used here in an unusually specific way.  As far as I can tell, it means “give up on trying to sell equity funds but carry on selling the kinds of actively-managed funds in which the asset management arms of life companies have more credibility, namely fixed income, property and apparently multi-asset.”

Still, this is definitely an RDR-related development which I have been expecting for an almost-embarrassingly long while, and here, at last, it is.

The backstory, though potentially boring, is mercifully brief.  RDR exerts a disagreeable double whammy on fund managers, putting their margins under great pressure and professionalising the whole business of fund selection so that weaker firms (or funds) will find it much, much harder to be chosen.  Faced with the prospect of less new business, and less revenue from the new business they can still get, AI has made what looks like a smart if somewhat downbeat decision.

Two points arise.  The first, obviously, is who will be next.  I don’t know, but I would be inclined to be looking in the direction of largish, probably international asset managers with large institutional businesses and small retail businesses:  they’re the ones for whom “pulling back” from UK retail has most to offer and least to fear.

And then second, and perhaps more interestingly, what does AI’s pragmatic decision say about all the asset management arms of life companies who’ve all spent many years – even decades – proclaiming that no, honestly, there’s far more to us than fixed income and property, really, you’d be surprised, we’re already strong in equities and committed to building a world-class capability?  What it says, I think, is that with a couple of conspicuous exceptions, we don’t really buy it.  On the whole, life company equity investment people will be cursing AVIVA Investors this week.  There’s not much doubting the implication of their pull-back – that if you’re looking for equity investment performance, the asset management arm of a life company probably isn’t the place you’ll find it.

Message to my visitors: apologies for being here.

My office has a smallish glass window in the door, and several times a day I see faces peering through it.  But then, when they see that I am in fact here, they look disappointed and go away.  It’s a bit like the mirror image of Major Major in Catch-22, who you’ll remember would only accept requests for meetings with him in his office at times when he knew he was going to be out.

There is a perfectly sensible reason for the window-peerers’ behaviour.  On a mainly open-plan floor, I have one of the only closed offices which people can use for a private meeting or phone call.  Quite often, even if I’ve only popped out to get a coffee or have a pee, I’ll come back and look through my glass window to see three or four people engrossed in earnest conversation.  As I say, perfectly sensible – but all the same, finding that so many people are so disappointed to see me does take a small toll on my morale.

 

The RDR onion: new layer found

I’ve been remarking for some time now on the onion-like nature of the RDR, with more and more layers of meaning and implication always coming into view (also, it makes a lot of people cry).

Thanks to my old friend Brendan Llewellyn, a new layer came into my sight yesterday.  My take on the whole Adviser Charging thing is that in reality it won’t make very much difference:  upfront Adviser Charges will look very much like initial commission, and ongoing Adviser Charges will look very much like trail commission.  But as far as upfront charges are concerned, Brendan makes the point that they’ll be much the same except for the payday bonanzas.  Payday bonanzas are the initial commission jamborees that come along sometimes when an IFA rebrokes a company pension scheme, or places a £1 million investment into a bond paying 8%, or writes £2 million-worth of keyman life cover, and picks up £40, £50, £60,000 or more for a few hours’ work.

Of course cases like this don’t come along very often – but even if they only come along, say, twice a year, they make a huge difference to the adviser’s overall earnings.

I’m still not completely convinced that in terms of the real-life interaction between broker and client, there’s very much difference between the current requirement to tell the client what the broker will be earning and the new requirement to ask if that’s OK.  (And of course protection isn’t included within RDR, so in theory at least the adviser could continue to take commission on that keyman case.)

But, that said, in the extremely unlikely event that I was putting a million pounds into an investment bond and the IFA asked if I was happy to pay him £80,000 for filling in a form or two, I have a feeling that my response would consist of a two-letter word. Or maybe a four- and a three-letter one.

“Sorry, but I insist on making your copy worse.”

Quite a lot of copy comments, from colleagues and clients alike, are entirely welcome because they make the copy better.  Some are neutral – they don’t make any difference, so if you insist…

Then there’s the other kind – the bees that lodge inexplicably in people’s bonnets and won’t go away until the bonnet-wearer has succeeded in destroying anything that was any good about what you’d written.

Most of these, surprisingly, aren’t easily visible to the naked eye – the writing just reads pretty lumpily and clunkily, but, hey ho, so does a lot of writing these days.  But again, then there’s the other kind….

There’s a poster campaign for Club Med up in the tube at the moment.  Nothing special, but serviceable enough:  nice pictures of Club Meddy situations (beach, pool, skiing etc) and headlines that point towards the main USP, saying  It’s all included.  Except the stress.  Or It’s all included.  Except the crowds.  Or It’s all included.  Except… well, you get the idea.

But hang on a minute.  Look a bit more closely.  Someone else obviously didn’t get the idea, because actually, that’s not quite what the headlines say.  They actually say It’s all included.  Without the stress.  Or It’s all included.  Without the crowds.  And so forth.

Clearly, this small and single word change, from except to without, serves no purpose at all, apart from destroying the idea.  Including things except things makes sense.  Including things without things makes no sense at all.

There is of course a possibility that the copywriter wrote it like that.  Or, more complicatedly, that it was originally written in French and translated into English by an idiot.  But I doubt it.  It feels to me like a Mysteriously Destructive Client Change, or MDCC for short – something which has no positive effect at all, not even a trivial or footling one, but just worsens what’s already there.

These are the kinds of things that make copywriters wish they’d chosen a different career path (indeed, I think it’s true to say that many years ago it was this kind of thing which did indeed make my brother choose a different career path).  I know there are a couple of copywriters out there among my much-appreciated if regrettably small band of readers:  any of you have any tales to tell?

Famous for their unpublicised charity work

That was once a real newspaper description of weird Jimmy Savile, and I suppose it’s not very fair to use the same form of words to describe my friends and indeed clients at St. James’s Place.

But the thing is, as you may have seen from my previous blog, I was at their big annual Company Meeting at the Albert Hall on Friday, and as always I’ve come away just hugely impressed and, let’s be honest, not a little inspired by what an amazingly smart company SJP is.

Ever since it began, one of its defining elements has been its own in-house charitable foundation, which over the 20 years has now raised well over £20 million and is now generating rather over £3 million year (with around half coming from staff donations, and the other half from a company pound-for-pound matching scheme).

With this kind of money, the Foundation really has done a lot of good for the many causes it has supported.  But the smartness of it lies in the fact that it has also done a lot of good for the company itself, in at least three different if overlapping ways:

–  In what is a decentralised and loosely-associated company, the existence of the Foundation and the hundreds of fund-raising schemes of one sort or another carried out by members or groups of staff every year provides a really big squeeze of the glue which holds the company together;

–  Especially at the Annual Company Meeting, and also at other internal gatherings and events, reporting on the Foundation’s work delivers a big and powerful feel-good kick which gives everyone an extra dimension of pride in their company and themselves;

– And (here’s the smartest bit) it gives SJP a calling-card which it can use to maximise support from celebrities, the great and the good which simply wouldn’t be available to a more one-dimensional corporate.  (For example, at Friday’s meeting I doubt whether Lord Coe would have been there in person, or David Cameron and Prince Charles would have delivered best wishes on video, without the charity story to create the connection.)

The textbooks say that with any kind of sponsorship activity, you should spend as much time, effort and money on “activating” the sponsorship as you do on the sponsorship itself.  If you don’t count the matching scheme, I doubt whether SJP gets within miles of that advice, especially as far as money is concerned.  But the things it does to “activate” its sponsorship are so smart, I think they get a bigger return (internally at least) than many companies spending millions and millions more.

There are times when only spending money will do.

We live in cash-strapped times, and the world is full of people looking for ways to do things more cheaply than ever before.  But actually, one of the lessons of cash-strapped times is that the few organisations still willing to throw money at things get absolutely startling amounts of bang for their counter-cyclical buck.

Thinking back to another recession many years ago, for example, I remember Saatchis’ “Manhattan” commercial for British Airways being pretty much the sole topic of admiring conversation for weeks (well, in adland it was, anyway).  I can’t believe we’d have been half so excited about it if it hadn’t been for the fact that it seemed to have cost more to make than every other commercial on air at the time put together.  (I don’t think it was at exactly the same time, but soon after or possibly before there was the lengthy weirdness of that ITV strike which means for reasons I now forget that the only people you could use in commercials were either kids, or clients.  The kids option was fine if you were advertising products of interest to kids  – toys, McDonalds, 3-litre bottles of cider – but for most grown-ups’ products and services, including airlines and financial services, shooting the client was the only way forward.  No wonder “Manhattan” looked good.)

Anyway, the more recent money-burning episode that I want to strew praise all over took place last Friday.  It was the St. James’s Place Annual Company Meeting, and actually it was a rather special one since it commemorated the company’s 20th birthday.

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what it all cost.  For one thing, it was at the Albert Hall, which doesn’t come cheap.  And for another, think how much you’d have to pay for the line-up of stars interspersed with the corporate speakers over the course of the day: Clare Balding (presenter), two or three acts from Cirque du Soleil, John Major, Gareth Malone (who’d been rehearsing a 100-strong choir made up of St. James’s Place founder members from 20 years ago), Lord Coe and a bunch of Olympic athletes including Beth Tweddell and Phillips Idowu and Russell Watson.  (Oh yes, and “best wishes” videos from David Cameron and Prince Charles, although I don’t suppose they sent in any invoices.)

But even that isn’t even the half of it, because in addition St. James’s Place met the cost of bringing well over 3,000 people plus partners to London for the event, and taking up to about 1,500 of these to the Grosvenor House for a black-tie bas.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am absolutely not casting any aspersions on these proceedings.  I thought it was all absolutely brilliant, and absolutely the right thing to do at at least two different levels.

On the more obvious level, SJP has had a good year.  Once you’ve started holding glitzy company meetings (which, in their case, was in 1992, the year after the company was founded) you’re a prisoner of your own logic.  If you decline to out-glitz the previous year, you send out all the wrong messages.

But much more important, whether you’ve had a good year or not, being seen to spend the money is the most tremendous sign of confidence and optimism, and is also the most tremendous display of commitment to your people.  Interestingly, over the years, the part of the agenda in which prizes are given out to the most successful salespeople has gradually occupied a smaller and smaller slice of the time available:  in financial services, “sales” is going through one of its periodic besmirchings as a deeply questionable concept, and indeed on this occasion I think I blinked at some point in the afternoon session and the prizes had all been handed over and Gareth Malone was back on.

Still, even with far fewer prizes than there were a few years ago, everyone in the audience was clearly buzzing as they left – and all the more so, I suspect, when they left the Grosvenor House some eleven or twelve hours later.

In this climate, it a horribly unfashionable idea.  But I wouldn’t mind betting it still works: treat your people like superstars, and they might just perform like superstars for you.

 

I have dozens of Attitudes To Risk. Which one would you like?

Was surprised and, frankly, a tad irritated by a piece in a trade mag by an IFA this week.  It was about risk profiling, and made its point largely by reference to the recent behaviour of one of the IFA’s clients.  And the client in question – though not of course named in the article – was in fact me.

I don’t think my irritation was to do with the overall direction of the article.  It was to do with a bit in the middle, where the author said that when I first completed an attitude-to-risk questionnaire a while ago I seemed to reveal myself as a high-risk investor, but that on more recent examination this was misleading and was just a reflection of my generally “impatient” attitude to life.  Actually, when aiming off for this, I was subsequently revealed in my true pale-yellow colours as a rather risk-averse investor.

I’ve no objection if telling the story in this way helped the author make the point he wanted to make – heaven knows, I’ve never let the facts get in the way of a good story (although, honestly, impatient, moi?)..  But in fact, I think the real history of my so-called attitude to risk (or, as we now usually express it, Attitude To Risk) makes a more interesting and thought-provoking point.

The fact is that I first filled in my ATR questionnaire, as I recall, back in 2007 when I was a few years younger than I am now (let’s say early rather than late-mid 50s) and the stock market was looking a lot healthier than it has since.  At that time, the big issue on my mind was that I hadn’t really done as well as I should have done over the years in building up my retirement fund.  It seemed to me that given another few years of strong markets, a fairly aggressive strategy should have enabled me to catch up with myself, so to speak, and make up for the years of underfunding.  That was the line of thought that led to my “aggressive” responses.

About four years later, I fretted to my adviser about the aggressiveness of the portfolio and he asked me to do the questionnaire again.  This time I was revealed to be a much more conscrvative investor.  Was the first outcome wrong?  Had I changed?  What was the explanation?

It was pretty simple really.  After four years of  turbulent and generally falling markets, and having four fewer years to make up the shortfalls in my retirement fund, I had lost confidence.  My priority now was to defend what I had, not to make up for past under-investment.

The point about this dullish personal history is that I don’t think I have an attitude to risk.  I think I have dozens of attitudes to risk that change from year to year, and from investment to investment, and from new client win in my consultancy business to new client win.  (If I landed a nice big ongoing retainer now, for example, I might well feel I could afford a bit more exposure to Emerging Markets….)

In a lot of the thinking about financial planning that’s going on at the moment as part of the mind-set change demanded by the RDR, Attitude To Risk is seen as one of the cornerstones. It’s believed, quite wrongly, to be one of those fundamental, unchanging things about your personality, like whether you prefer blondes or brunettes and which football team you support.  Portfolios will be designed on the basis of what the questionnaire reveals – and then, over the years, rebalanced so that they never fall far out of line with what you said back in 2007, or 2011, or 2016, or whenever you’d filled it in.

I just don’t believe this.  I think people’s Attitude To Risk changes as their circumstances and their perception of the world they’re living in changes – in much the same way that, say, my Attitude Towards The Kind Of Car That Would Make Most Sense For The Family changes, or my Attitude Towards What Would Be An Agreeable Holiday.

I won’t be pleased if you keep rebalancing me back to a seven-seater people carrier long after the kids have left home, or a white-water rafting adventure in the year of my hip replacement.  Any more than if you keep me locked into an investment strategy that made sense in a vanished world, many years (or even, sometimes, just a few short months) ago.