“This is absolutely outrageous. No, hang on a minute, on second thoughts, it’s fine.”

Today is a big day for the insurance industry.  I say this not because it’s the Mayan date for the end of the world (after all, who’ll be left to make claims?), but because it’s the day on which the ECJ’s ruling on gender-neutral pricing comes into force.

I seem to remember that some while ago, when the ECJ made its ruling, there was a lot of angry expostulating (is there any other kind?) from insurance companies.  In fact, at the time, when I wrote a blog in favour of it on the Protection Review website, I felt that little thrill you only get from extreme contrarianism:  I seemed to be the only person in the country who thought it was a good thing.

Fairly quickly afterwards, though, insurance companies realised that it could represent a once-in-a-lifetime boost to margins (simply by levelling premiums up and annuity payouts down, rather than meeting in the middle).  At this point the chorus of disapproval started to fade away, and today on G-day I can’t see any sign of regret or disagreement on behalf of anyone in the market – not even the ABI, which now seems entirely relaxed about the whole business.

Of course from my point of view, this is doubly disturbing. I liked being against gender pricing when it seemed like an interesting point of principle.  Now that it’s just a commercial question of following the money, it feels like somehow I’ve ended up on the wrong side.

A brilliant year for innovation. But sadly, not by us.

In the unlikely event that one day a history of retail financial services in the 21st Century is written – and the even unlikelier event that one day it’s read – the 2012 chapter will feature two big stories about innovation.  The first, chronologically at least, is the arrival of pensions auto-enrolment in general, and NEST in particular, during the autumn.  The second – introduced, strictly speaking, on 31st December, and so just squeaking in to the 2012 chapter – is the Retail Distribution Review.

As well as their bigness, these two big stories have two big things in common.  For one thing, they’re both good news stories – not completely good news, and not without their not-so-good idiosyncrasies, but on the whole much more good than bad.  And for another, both have been brought about by a combination of Government agencies and our regulator, the FSA – in the teeth of vigorous resistance, steadily intensifying in the latter case although gradually dwindling in the former, on the part of firms in our industry.

For those of us who would like to believe that the financial services industry has what it takes to identify and address consumer needs, this is all pretty depressing.  It’s not so much that it took a combination of government and regulator to bring these developments about:  both are, after all, in their different ways, the kinds of developments that require statutory intervention beyond the powers of commercial firms.  No, what’s depressing is a) that the industry has so few significant innovations and initiatives of its own to put alongside these two, and b) that an industry which is forever claiming to put its customers first should have been so spectacularly and embarrassingly on the wrong side of both of them.

As regards the industry’s innovations and initiatives in 2012, the only examples of any significance that I can think of are in the area of payments – Barclays’ phone-based Pingit, and the wider range of contactless card payments introduced across the market during the year.  Both of these will turn out to be significant – but not like auto-enrolment and RDR are significant.

(There is, I must concede, a distinct possibility that there have been lots of others and I’ve simply forgotten them:  it’s entirely possible that if I’d been commissioned to write a review of innovation in, say, the year 345,720 BC, I might have needed reminding that both fire and the wheel had made their first appearances during the year.  So if I’ve overlooked anything obvious, please cheer me up by letting me know about it.)

Not wanting to waste such small fragments of good cheer that I can muster, I don’t want to go off on one about our industry’s unwavering ability to choose the wrong side of every argument.  All I’ll say is that thank goodness our noble and far-sighted life companies largely dropped their opposition to NEST when they did the maths and realised that they’d never make any money out of this part of the market.  And no thanks to goodness or anything else for the repulsive claque of commission-junkie IFAs who continue to howl with fury about the alleged injustices of the RDR, most failing utterly to understand that all it’s really doing is the financial services equivalent of introducing a long, long overdue law forbidding stealing money from people while they’re asleep.  One of the other big issues in this year of the Leveson inquiry is whether our newspapers can be trusted to regulate themselves:  compared to many IFAs our newspapers are saint-like in their restraint and decency,

In that history book, the RDR, I’m sure, will be recognised as the single initiative which did most to save a large proportion of IFAs from their own viciously and suicidally self-destructive tendencies.  (At the same time, I also believe that the RDR represents a turning-point at which our financial services industry, focused for so long around distribution by financial advisers, will change course and focus for the future on distribution directly to consumers.  But clearly some advisers will survive this mega-trend, and it would be nice to think that the quality of the survivors will be a great deal higher than the quality of the many to whom we happily say goodbye and good riddance.)

Anyway.  I’ll stop there.  As you can see, contemplating this subject is having a bad effect on my ability to summon up good will to all men.  But here’s hoping that when I look back in the same kind of way next year, we’re not so depressingly reliant on government and regulator for the year’s big good news stories.

You mean “endorse” like a driving licence?

You’ve probably seen this new thing on LinkedIn about “endorsing” people.  Every time you log on, it gives you the opportunity to “endorse” all sorts of people you’re LinkedIn to, which basically means clicking on something to agree that they possess some particular skill or other.

This seems to me like a rather pointless and unnecessarily competitive new idea.  It creates a new and misguided anxiety, that if say only three people have endorsed a copywriter for “creativity,” then the copywriter must be miles less creative than someone who has been endorsed by a hundred people.  (All it actually means is that the latter has worked his or her LinkedIn contacts much harder than the former, who was very likely too busy being creative.)

Anyway, I don’t suppose I really mind, but there are two details that do bother me a bit.  First, although I could probably figure it out if I looked more closely, I don’t actually know where the lists of individuals’ candidate skills actually come from, and I must say that my own is less than entirely satisfactory.  It occupies a rather boring middle ground, suggesting that I may have skills in dull-sounding things like “integrated communications,” but not providing any options to do with brand (brand strategy, brand development etc) which is what I spend about 70% of my time actually doing – while also not including any of the really valuable life-skills that I actually pride myself on, like “not overcooking fish,” or “parking a long wheelbase Audi in very tight spaces,” or “remembering most of the Wombles’ bass guitar parts nearly 40 years later.”

My second grumble is less important – even less important, you might say – but reflects a greater irritation.  When you log on to LinkedIn, to encourage you to do some of this endorsing, it suggests a few examples from among your contacts to get you started.  It says, for example, “Does The Pope know about Catholicism?” or “Do Bears know about forestry-based toilet facilities?”  Except that in my case, it does just the opposite – coming up with the names of the most incompetent and inept people that I know, and asking if I think they possess the most challenging and esoteric skills.  One particular person, who it’s really tempting to name, comes up all the time.  Does she know about Integrated Communications?, it keeps asking me.  Does she know about Marketing Strategy?  You’re kidding, I want to reply.  She doesn’t know her arse from a hole in the ground, as Randy Newman put it.   Sadly, the endorsement tool doesn’t give me that option.  Nor the option of dealing with the whole process like the courts deal with driving licences, and endorsing her to the tune of 12 points – that would take her off the road for a while.

Thanks for everything, FSA

When I first heard about the RDR, way back in whenever it was, maybe 2008, the first name that came to mind was the name of my old friend Simon Harris.  Back in 1999, Simon was the only person I knew who made money out of consulting on the Y2K “millennium bug” – as it turned out a complete non-event of a drama, but in the run-up to the turn of the century a huge source of great and excitement, with people genuinely quite certain that as the clock struck midnight on December 31st aircraft would start falling out of the sky because all their computers would fail.

I can’t remember what Simon was offering to do to prevent this exactly, but whatever it was people paid him quite a lot of money for it, and my first thought about the RDR was that it might work in the same sort of way for me.

I was right in one way – the RDR has directly or indirectly generated a very high proportion of my consultancy income over the last two or three years, and it’s risen to something of a crescendo in these final weeks of the old regime with my highest-ever monthly billings despite the fact that I’ll be signing off for my Christmas break on the 21st.

But I was wrong in two other and more important ways.  First, unlike the millennium bug, the RDR is for real.  It is, without question, going to transform financial services more than any other single thing has done ever, and almost entirely in a good way.  The commission-shark product-pusher end of the financial advice industry will be annihilated by it, and thank goodness for that.

And then also, second, the other big difference is that the business opportunity is very definitely not coming to an end at midnight on 31st December.  At that moment back in 1999, I’m afraid Simon Harris’s consultancy opportunity evaporated like Cinderella’s ballgown and coach.  But for RDR consultancy, it’s not the end, nor yet the beginning of the end, and I’m not even sure that it’s the end of the beginning:  I confidently expect the ripples on the pond to keep on generating most of my consultancy work for the next two or three years, at least.

So, at a time of year when we’re all proposing toasts to each other on a more-or-less daily basis, mine is a toast to all those lovely FSA people down at Canary Wharf.   What they’re doing is good for the industry and good for my business in equal measure.  I have nothing but seasonal best wishes and thanks to offer them..

The one-to-one future: still some way off, it seems

I’ve said it before and, like most things on this blog, no doubt I’ll say it again.  But nothing has disappointed me more over the long years of my marketing communications career than the failure of the direct marketing side of my industry to bring about the “one-to-one future” which Messrs Peppers and Rogers first talked about some fifteen years or so ago.

You remember the idea – that we were moving towards a world in which we had so much data about all of our customers, and slicing and dicing that data was becoming so cheap and easy, that we would be able to deliver fantastically personalised propositions to people, literally based on insight into their individual circumstances.

The first examples we heard tended to be about the supermarket till receipt – “As soon as we see Pampers starting to appear, we can offer discounts on baby food.”  Very little of this seemed to happen:  about as smart as it got was that if the till receipt showed you were buying a lot of wine, you’d be sent vouchers giving you money off….wine.  Not wine glasses, or peanuts, or even a kit involving half-grapefruit, cocktail sticks and cheese cubes.  Just…wine.

This was disappointing, but then along came the Internet and surely some progress would be possible.  This time the ideas we got excited about mostly involved GPS and mobile – “as people walk past our pubs, we can send them texts offering them …money off beer!”  The fact that we were planning to use the most advanced technology in the history of technology to offer people 30p off a pint of Carling was depressing enough, but what’s currently even more depressing is how little of even this sort of thing is actually going on.

But at the moment, I’m being bugged by another data-fail example of our inability to crack this one-to-one thing.  A couple of weeks ago, I bought some reading glasses online from John Lewis, and so that I wouldn’t have to do it again for a while I bought several pairs.  OK, six pairs.  (Yes, I appreciate that this is an extremely middle-aged and not-very-edgy thing to do.)  Some very powerful somethings, I don’t know what, maybe algorithms, have obviously spotted this purchase, so that now, on virtually every website I visit that carries advertising, I’m inundated with ads for…reading glasses!  In fact, specifically,. ads from  John Lewis for exactly the same reading glasses that I’ve just bough from them.

How useless is that?  I’ve just bought six pairs!  Of all the products in the world that you could possibly offer me on the basis of the knowledge that I’ve just bought reading glasses, literally the last one which makes sense to offer me is more reading glasses!  I mean, as they say, durr.  Why not offer me laser eye surgery?  Or books in big print?  Or contact lenses? Or sunglasses with the same lenses?  Or a little torch that I can point at menus in dimly-lit restaurants?  Or brighter bedside lamps?  Or the Tomtom satnav with the 7 inch screen?  Or… well, any one of a million things.  But not more reading glasses, for goodness sake.

I’m still waiting with growing frustration and anxiety for the one-to-one future to arrive, but I’m becoming more and more certain that I’m not going to see it in my working lifetime.  Or not without those reading glasses on, at any rate.

Frightening how quickly admirable consistency turns to not-so-admirable complacency

Hmm, I think that headline has said everything I wanted to say in this blog.  The only thing I should add is that the thought came to mind when I just popped out to Pret just now:  and while I’m perfectly happy with the crayfish-and-wild-rocket that I’ve just eaten, and while I still think that the Pret strong latte is second only to Nero’s (although possibly equal with AMT’s), I can’t help thinking that in the face of growing and fast-evolving competition, Pret is suddenly looking more than somewhat dog-eared and off the pace.

It’s difficult to summarise what I mean by this, because there are so many competitors growing and evolving so fast.  The most obvious thing, especially on a very cold day like today, is that they’re getting killed on hot food, with nothing to offer except those three slushy wraps (once the breakfast-special bacon rolls have disappeared)*.  But beyond that, they’re getting more generally killed on lack of innovation, lack of excitement, lack of fun – just those big, stodgy, weirdly butterless sandwiches and a few half-hearted bits and pieces on the side.

I suppose perhaps the key point is about the speed of movement of competitors.  Taking an example from a completely different market, as a long-time subscriber to the weekly news magazine The Week I love the fact that I don’t actually think the pagination, or indeed the page layouts, have undergone anything but the most minor changes since it was launched donkey’s years ago.  And if it did suddenly change – especially if it suddenly changed a lot – i’d be harrumphing into my whatever-The-Week-readers-drink (sauvignon? Lapsang? ) just like Radio 4 listeners do at the slightest change to the format of You And Yours.  But then, neither The Week nor Radio 4 face the kind of competition that Pret does.

The Week, in short, and You And Yours, display admirably consistency.  Pret used to do so too, but now it’s displaying much less-than-admirable complacency.   Come on guys, we need something new here.  Paraguayan street food is big at the moment.

*:  My wife points out that the breakfast menu also includes very serviceable porridge.  And of course there are a couple of soups available at other times of day.  Still, apart from the porridge, and the bacon rolls, and the soups, and the wraps, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Vitriolic? Moi?

I had the most unusual experience of meeting one of this blog’s readers yesterday.  As she prepared to tell me what she thought of it, I put on my best gee-thanks-modestly-flattered face.  But it was the wrong choice:  the word that she used to describe it was – I gave it away in the headline – “vitriolic.”

Modestly-flattered gave way to upset-and-surprised.  Is it really “vitriolic”?  OK, the odd blog can be just a tad critical in tone, but overall my sense is of a load of stuff which focuses on financial marketing issues of the moment and comments on them thought-provokingly and a touch laterally in a wry and amiable kind of way.   Would I say that this blog aims to be more or less to financial services marketing what Alistair Cooke’s Letters were to America?  Well, maybe not quite that wry and amiable (and a very great deal less eagerly awaited).  But some way short of “vitriolic,” anyway.

Still, I’m the first to recognise that perception is reality, and if someone who probably represents something between 25 and 50% of the blog’s readership says it’s vitriolic, then it’s vitriolic.  Watch out for a major ToV shift in forthcoming entries:  I’m going to be working a whole lot harder on “wry” and “amiable.”

When I get a clear week or two, I’ll delete this blog’s spam

Deleting spam “comments” has always been one of the more tiresome chores involved in maintaining this blog – as far as I can see you can only delete them twenty at a time, and to delete each batch requires three or four mouse-clicks.

But recently the volume of spam that has been coming through has increased to a terrifying extent, and the backlog of undeleted rubbish has now risen to over 15,000 messages. In batches of 20, I reckon that makes 750 deletion cycles – and with the mountain of rubbish increasing by something like 500 a day, I’m pretty sure that getting rid of it all is now a task too big to tackle.

If anyone knows of a way to bulk-delete WordPress spam, I’d be very pleased if they’d pass it on to me.  And meanwhile, if anyone would like to know where they can find fake Burberry sunglasses, Karen Millen clothing or Uggs, please let me know.  I have some 15,000 – no, make that 15,500 – different directions I can point them in.