Asset management: the race to be different is on

Over the years, there have been few easier ways to make money than asset management.  It’s not just at the rocket-science, hedge fund end of the market:  for decades, a combination of high and opaque charges, unaware and largely inert customers, uncritical and often conflicted intermediaries and an absence of serious external scrutiny kept the most vanilla of fund managers (of whom there are many) well supplied with six-figure bonuses and top-of-the-range Mercs and Range Rovers.

Perhaps more importantly, these same factors have also combined to keep the market ridiculously overcrowded and undifferentiated.  When you can still make a ton of money running small funds that are exactly the same as everyone else’s and perform no better or indeed rather worse, there are few if any pressures to make the industry more competitive.

Now, though, that’s all changing in the retail market at least, and the active fund management industry is feeling the first stirrings of panic.  Among a long list of things all happening at once, the three most important are:
1.  The somewhat slow-motion effects of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR), implemented in January 2014, which eliminated intermediaries’ financial incentive to recommend high-cost actively managed funds.
2.  The ever-growing body of irrefutable evidence that, not least because of their indefensibly high charges, the very large majority of active funds underperform their low-cost passively-managed counterparts.
3.  The shamefully-belated new effort by the regulator to tackle the industry’s bad practices and help consumers get a better deal.

Over the next few years, the combination of these and other factors will change the industry in many ways.  But the one that most interests me is now clearly apparent:  pretty much all big and reasonably businesslike firms are feeling the need to ask themselves the question:  “What makes us different, a) from each other and b) from passive firms who charge 85% less than we do?”

For most, this is a horribly difficult question to answer, or at least to answer well.  (The troubling answer “Absolutely nothing” is readily available).  A few firms do already own, or in some cases partially own some kind of differentiating idea, and they’re much more strongly placed.  But most really don’t, and it’ll be fascinating to watch them grappling with the issue.

The key issue, it seems to me, will be to do with the balance of power between the marketers and the fund managers.  As I’ve often written in this blog, hitherto this has resided about 98% with the fund managers and 2% with the marketers, whose job is confined to producing the brochures and the sales aids and even then the fund managers tell them what colours they want them to be.

But in the evolving new world in which marketing assets like a differentiated positioning, a strong brand and a convincing value proposition are suddenly absolutely mission-critical, this long-established balance of power isn’t going to work any more.  A bit like star chefs newly-dependent for their survival on their pot-scourers, or airline pilots humiliatingly subservient to the cabin crew, an awful lot of pride-swallowing is going to be necessary.  At the moment, I really wouldn’t like to say whether I think they have it in them.

I was right. We were a better choice for asset management clients.

For obvious reasons I’d better keep this anonymous, but I’ve fairly recently heard some war stories from inside a non-specialist agency pitching for an asset management client.

It’s been pretty fraught, and as you’d expect a lot of the available time has been wasted on getting up to speed with how this difficult and complex industry works, who the target audiences are, what sort of brand promises can be made (and kept) and what restrictions are imposed by the regulator.

But beyond all these issues, most of which I suppose are the sorts of things that arise when an agency starts work in any unfamiliar sector, what’s really struck me is the sheer difficulty of finding a strong creative solution.  All the above issues apply here too, of course, but there are others that present specifically creative challenges.

Of these, two in particular stand out.  The first is the intangibility and invisibility of the whole subject (or at least of 99% of it).  If you’re advertising a beer, there’s a reasonable assumption that you’ll show someone drinking it, or pouring it, or going to a pub, or whatever,  You may not:  but you always could.  Similarly, if it’s a car, I wouldn’t be amazed to see it being driven.  But what does an asset management look like?  Nothing, that’s what.

Then second, there’s the whole.business of uncertainty and unpredictability, which make it more or less impossible to focus on any kind of end benefit.  We may not want to show someone using our shampoo, but we’re almost certain to want to show someone with great-looking hair.  What does someone with great-looking asset management look like, especially on a day the market’s down 10 per cent?

There are plenty of other problems to overcome, but even setting all of them aside these two make it unusually difficult to identify fruitful territory – especially fruitful visual territory – in which to base your creative approach.

In my agency days, I always used to tell clients (or rather, prospects) that they should appoint specialist agencies like mine to solve problems like these, rather than mainstream agencies which – however talented – would struggle even to understand why they were finding it so hard, let alone to identify a solution.  But I always suffered pangs of doubt about whether the mainstream agency people were so talented that it would be worth working through the pain so as to get through, in the end, to the sunlit uplands of a great creative solution.

My recent insight into a non-specialist pitch has belatedly eliminated such pangs.  You’ll never get to the sunlit uplands if you can’t find a way out of the boggy marsh down at the bottom of the slope.

Change neophyte tweaks leading change guru’s tail

Campbell Macpherson’s recent book The Change Catalyst is Business Book Of The Year, and my book No Small Change, co-written with Anthony Thomson, isn’t.  I therefore have a bit of a cheek challenging something Campbell says.

In a blog about his book on his website, which you can find at http://www.changeandstrategy.com/mission-impossible-leading-change-successful-organisations/, he discusses the practical and emotional obstacles that prevent leaders of highly successful businesses from maintaining the capability to achieve change, and gives some hints on how to overcome them.  He strongly believes that these leaders should encourage and empower their colleagues to put forward their own ideas, and the following somewhat edited quote will give a flavour of his recommendations:

“Make continuous improvement a core part of your company’s DNA:  Change doesn’t have to be large and disruptive to be effective. The most effective and sustainable changes are often evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Every leadership team needs to help their people to embrace an attitude of continuous improvement – and empower them to act upon it.

Allow your people to (constructively) question the status quo.  This is where your newer employees will add the most value. Allow them to (constructively and respectfully) query the way things are done.”

It’s true that these are not his only tips on the subject, and at least one of the others suggests more radical measures.   But I do wonder, looking at what’s written here, whether it’s all a bit, well, timid.  I think it was that bracketed “constructively and respectfully” that aroused my suspicions.  Should employees of Pony Express in the US in the 1860s have “constructively and respectfully” have pointed out that the country’s first transcontinental railroad was about to open and would quickly wipe out most of their business when it did?  Should employees of Polaroid in the 1990s have “constructively and respectfully” flagged up a teeny concern that perhaps this digital camera thing might prove a bit of a problem?  I could go on, but you get my point.

And anyway, as I say, my point really isn’t a very fair one.  Campbell isn’t only suggesting constructive and respectful process-tweaking, and anyway such humble actions do often have their place.  On other occasions, though, an expression involving the words “deckchairs” and “Titanic” does come to mind.

We really must start making things simpler. Especially the complicated things.

Abraham Okusanya is unquestionably a good bloke.  He and his investment consulting firm Finalytiq are 100% on the side of end-consumers, and they’re doing everything they can to ensure that fund management firms do their best for them.   But when it comes to one of the fault lines dividing consumers’ real friends from consumers’ not-so-real or indeed false friends, as identified in my new financial services marketing book No Small Change, I’m afraid that Abraham is on the other side of the line from my co-author Anthony Thomson and me.

Let me explain.  Abraham has just written a hard-hitting article in the online edition of FT Adviser that’s highly critical of Absolute Return funds in general, and Aberdeen Standard’s giant GARS fund in particular.  He has one massive objection to them:  they’re far too complicated.  He says:  “Hands up if you really understand how GARS works? Enough to explain it to a typical client? I certainly don’t.  Many advisers and discretionary fund managers who invested in GARS didn’t.  I’ll wager that many analysts and managers who work at the Standard Life multi-asset teams and indeed the most senior people at Standard Life don’t either.”

And he goes on to deliver his coup de grace:  “If all these professionals don’t seem to understand the fund, what hope has poor old Mrs Miggins got?”

Leaving aside my intense dislike of the patronising, alienating and horribly over-used term “Mrs Miggins”, it’s the sense of what Abraham’s saying that bothers me.  Let me be clear:  if he was saying that Absolute Return funds like GARS don’t work, or can only find a market by making false promises they won’t be able to keep, then I’d completely share his intense disapproval.  But he isn’t.  It’s the complexity that’s upsetting him.  And for the life of me, I cannot understand the financial services industry’s obsession with explaining how complicated things work, whether to our colleagues within the industry or to our poor old end customers.

It’s not just Abraham who wants everything explained.  It’s everyone.  It starts with the regulator, who has insisted for years on a regime which provides consumers with rafts of unintelligible and impenetrable detail about whatever it is they’re putting their money into.  It includes all those who keep calling for a massive educational effort to get key financial concepts across to consumers so that they’ll become better able to grasp the detail of what we’re offering them.  And it also embraces all those firms publishing mountains of market reports, pie charts, analyses of one sort or another, fund manager interviews and all the other manifestations of an industry that’s grimly determined to explain itself to people.

No other industry behaves like this.  There are countless examples of industries that provide complex products and services, but which feel no obligation at all to explain how they work either to their end customers or indeed to their intermediaries – or “shops” as they are often known.  People buy all sorts of IT products – phones, tablets and computers – without having the faintest idea how they actually work, and the amiable sales guys and girls in PC World and my Vodafone shops don’t know much more.  You can buy a car without knowing a thing about the mechanics of ABS braking, and perhaps more crucially you can take a daily statin or SSRI tablet without a clue about what they do to your body chemistry (or even what SSRI actually stands for – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, since you ask).  And, trust me, the same is true of your average GP.

What all these things have in common, as well as complexity that makes their workings quite incomprehensible, is a clear and simple message about what they do – or, to put it another way, about why people might want to buy, own or use them.  I don’t know anything about how ABS brakes operate, but I do know that if I put my right foot hard down on the pedal on a wet and slippery road I’ll come to a stop without skidding.  And I don’t know what that Atorvastatin tablet I take every morning does when it gets into my bloodstream, but I know that somehow it reduces my cholesterol level and that makes it less likely that I’ll have a heart attack.  And these simple, clear messages are absolutely all I need or want to know.

At the same basic level, I understand – more or less – what GARS is supposed to do.  It’s supposed to keep going up in all market conditions.  This, I must admit, sounds a bit too good to be true, and makes me wonder whether I’ve got it quite right.  In all market conditions?  Really?  And going up, not just standing still or going down less than the market?  And is this just a pious hope, or a solid promise, or something in between?  (ABS, after all, doesn’t say that it aims to prevent you from skidding, or that you won’t skid quite so much – it says you won’t skid, period, and you won’t.)   As I say, if the GARS/Absolute Return Fund headline promise is false, or overclaimed, then that’s bad and I’m against it.

But if it’s robust, I have no problem with it at all.  And as we move slowly but irreversibly into a world in which consumers are going to have to take more responsibility for their financial security, and make more of their own financial choices and decisions, it becomes more and more important that we present them with those choices and decisions in ways that are meaningful to them.  Which, in turn, means that we have to stop presenting those choices and decisions in ways that are only meaningful to the most pointy-headed specialists and experts in the industry.

In fact, it may well be that in order to present consumers with “headline” benefits that are valuable and meaningful to them, we need products and services which, when you lift the bonnet, are even more complicated than absolute return funds.  That prospect doesn’t bother me in the slightest – provided only that Abraham, and all those others around the industry who think like he does, can be discouraged  from making even more doomed and counter-productive attempts to explain them all.

The book’s out, and only one word describes how I feel

Regular users of LinkedIn will know that the word is, of course, “humbled.”   If pretty much anything good happens to you – especially anything good which makes you feel any emotion in the proud/self-satisfied/vindicated spectrum – the way you feel these days is humbled.

Words change their meanings all the time, and it’s not unusual for them to flip more or less through 180 degrees and start taking on the opposite of their previous meaning.  In somewhat different parts of the English-language forest, words such as “wicked”, “awful” and “egregious” come to mind.   Even by these standards, though, the recent transformation of “humbled” is striking.  According to the dictionary, it means “feeling less important or proud” or in a different sense “decisively defeated.”  According to hundreds of LinkedIn posts, though, it means “proud and happy and wanting to show off about whatever it is, but in a way that doesn’t sound too insufferably smug.”

No Small Change, my financial services marketing book co-written with Anthony Thomson, is now published.  And we’re both feeling truly, madly, deeply humbled.

It’s out. At least, I think it is.

One of the things you don’t know about books until you write one is that it’s not entirely clear when, or indeed whether, they’ve actually been published.  According to Amazon, No Small Change – my book about financial services marketing, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson. – isn’t published until June 22nd.  In fact, though, unless I dreamed it, we held two very jolly launch events on Tuesday and Wednesday this week (5th and 6th) and sold a stack of copies at each, and if that’s not “being published” I don’t know what is.

And in fact I can’t have dreamed it, because, as you can see, there is photographic evidence.  And I look so uncharacteristically delighted that I must be holding a real copy of the book and not just some kind of dummy which has to stand in for the real thing until the publication date.  Thomson’s expression is, it must be said, a bit more equivocal.  But then again, he must be balancing uncomfortably on stilts to be towering above me to that extent.

New VISA TV campaign: foolish, brave or just realistic?

It was less than 48 hours ago that a VISA payments meltdown made it onto the national news.  A system crash left queues of frustrated shoppers unable to pay at Sainsbury’s checkouts, among other places – resulting in fleets of abandoned trolleys laden with slowly-defrosting petits pois littered around the stores.

About three hours ago, in a commercial break during the Test Match, I saw a (reasonably) entertaining new commercial.  As I recall, it was set in a bar, where, with painful slowness, a young chap counted out an implausibly huge number of coins to pay for his beer.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for it was he, was sitting next to him.  With a bit of sleight of hand and some suitably Ibrahimovicesque remarks, he paid the young chap’s bill with his VISA card.  Either Zlatan, or a voiceover, I can’t remember which, told us how incredibly much easier and quicker it is to buy things with VISA cards than with stupid old money.  “Not on Friday afternoon, it wasn’t,” I and an unknowable number of other viewers said to ourselves.

I don’t suppose it matters very much, but in between the regular fall of Pakistani wickets I’ve been wondering about the decision-making at VISA which allowed this commercial to be shown.  Which is more likely to be the case:
–  As a large, bureaucratic organisation, VISA’s decision-making processes are slow and cumbersome, and no-one was able to postpone the campaign in the time available?
–  The client has decided that ultimately all publicity is good publicity, and a bit of whingeing from a few sourpusses like me doesn’t matter very much compared to the positive halo effect of being associated with Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
–  Some fast-turnaround consumer research indicates that no-one much noticed the crash on Friday, and those who did don’t much care:  as so often with bad financial news, VISA is shielded by consumers’ apathy and indifference, and so might as well bash on with its advertising?

Any views?  And any other explanations?

I hope my co-author won’t be too upset by this

Today, I’ve been working on the brief (yes, honestly, very brief) remarks that my co-author Anthony Thomson and I will be making at the various events coming up over the next week or two to mark the publication of our book.  (You remember, it’s about financial services marketing, it’s called No Small Change and it’s available now for advance orders on Amazon.)

I found myself thinking about how AT and I will come across as a double-act, and which existing and well-known combination people will find us most like.  Will they see in us the suavity, cool and charm of Butch and Sundance?   The talent and competitiveness of Lennon and McCartney?  The humour and rapport of Eric and Ernie?

Then I got it.  It was none of these.  Two grumpy blokes, well past the first flush of youth, sitting on the sidelines and taking pleasure in a stream of rude and irreverent remarks:  to any Muppets fan, we can only be Waldorf and Statler.

 

Level playing field, but few goals scored

In the run-up to the implementation of GDPR at the end of this week, heaven knows how many organisations are frantically emailing their customer and prospect lists asking them to opt in to continue to receive their communications – certainly hundreds, probably thousands, possibly tens of thousands.  It’s a level playing field, or almost – give or take the odd regulatory quirk, everyone has to say the same things and deliver the same call to action (“opt in if you want to keep on hearing from us”).  So how’s everyone getting on?

Before I answer that, a word on those regulatory quirks,  To be honest, I don’t understand the rules of the GDPR game well enough to understand the reasons for the differences I’m noticing in message content.  Why can some organisations just send me dull, passive and seemingly completely pointless emails telling me they’ve updated their privacy policy, while others vigorously urge me to click on a button to remain opted in and others still seem to need me to fill in lengthy questionnaires?  I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t care.  I’m creative, me.  Suits and/or planners explain these ramifications in the brief.

But what I do know is that, looking at the hundred-or-so emails that I’ve received over the last few weeks, the quality runs the gamut, as Dorothy Parker nearly said, from pitiful to mediocre.  I don’t think I’ve received a single communication that really did anything positive or good for my relationship with the brand.  And I’ve received a great many which, when they caught me in two minds about whether to opt in or not, filled me with such negativity that I decided not to.

Much of what’s worst about many of the messages are the headings.  I can’t decide which was the most hopeless from a shortlist including one which said only “General” and another which said “GDPR Survey Link.”   (I’m pretty sure, though, that in third place was “GDPR updates to DIBOR emails,” not aided by the fact that I haven’t the faintest idea who or what DIBOR is.)

Most aren’t quite that bad, but they’re not a lot better.  I’d say that only one rung higher up the ladder of effective communication are the ones where, as so often in our industry, stupid useless “creatives” think their job is to do something with words which makes the message incomprehensible rather than actually helping to tell the story.  A retailer called Thyme kicks off “Thyme to opt in.”  The Gatwick Express says “Final call before boarding.”  Given the crisis that generally surrounds email open rates these days, it’s very hard to believe that this kind of opacity is the way forward.

Next there are a few odd men out (and in the case of the first of these I use the word “men” advisedly, since it’s from male moustache-growing charity the Movember Foundation).  Plainly defeated by the whole thing, their email begins “We have to say goodbye soon,” which is strange because the whole point of the communication is that we don’t have to.   And online retailer Hush comes on to me with the line “A love letter from Hush,” which I have to say since I can remember nothing about ever doing business with them is love of a sadly unrequired kind.

Amidst these exceptions and anomalies, the large majority adopt a consistent approach with a headline about staying or keeping in touch, and a short piece of explanatory copy.  This is fairly sensible, although maybe a little short of “what’s in it for me?”, so you might imagine  all is well with this lot:  but not so, because there turns out to be a wide range of things that can go wrong during and indeed after the opt-in process.  Lengthy and complicated questionnaires, forms that don’t work, pre-populated forms pre-populated with the wrong information, processes that take you to websites you had no interest in – a significant proportion of emailers (up to half, I’d say) offer experiences bad enough to put us right off the idea of remaining in contact.

And then of course it hardly seems fair to mention it, but there is the whole tricky business of offering some kind of distinctive brand experience, intended to play some part even if only a small one in shaping our perceptions of difference.  Do you know, in all honesty I don’t think I’ve received any of those.

And one more thing:  although the GDPR timetable has been entirely clear for months, it does all seem to have turned into the most monumental stampede to hit Friday’s deadline.  The first email I received was on Wednesday 9th May, and all the others have been jostling for attention in a period of a little over a fortnight.

It’s true that it’s in the interest of both providers and consumers alike to clean up the database from time to time.  There’s little point in maintaining records of millions of people who have no further interest in what you have to offer.

But the depressing thing about these last couple of weeks is that in quite a few cases, I did have an interest, if perhaps a slightly less-than-red-hot one.  It was only irritation at the uselessness of the message that made me pretend I didn’t.

What FS marketers really think about their brands

Encouraged by the almost Kardashian-like number of views of my last blog, discussing research on how FS marketers define marketing, I thought I’d try another research-based topic.  And like last time, the research content is a brief summary of findings from a study among senior financial services marketing people, commissioned for my forthcoming book No Small Change, co-written with Anthony Thomson and published early next month.

The large majority of respondents worked for firms with at least some D2C distribution, so I suppose it’s no big surprise that 93% of them said that a strong consumer brand is important for their business.  (Just over half of these thought that it was not just important, but increasingly important.)

But after than, the findings were a lot more surprising – and not in a good way.  Only just a shade over a half, for example, thought that their own organisations actually had a strong consumer brand.  A third thought that their direct competitors’ brands were generally stronger than their own.   And when it came to “real” differentiation, the majority thought that their organisations were either “dependent on communications activity” to appear different from their competitors, or “not really different at all.”

Just to reality-check responses to that first question, we also asked respondents whether they believed that strong end-consumer brands are generally important for success in financial services.  95% said they were, and no-one said they were not at all important.

You have to say, on behalf of the financial services marketing community, that these findings are a bit of a worry.  Here is a business asset which is generally accepted to fall within the remit of marketers, and agreed by between 93% and 95% of respondents to be important for success – but where somewhere around 50% of respondents believe that their own firm’s brands are weak, and/or that competitors are stronger, and/or that their firms don’t actually possess the degree of differentiation that provides a platform for brand-building.

I don’t think that in this blog I have much to add to that last paragraph (unlike in the book, where as I recall we bang on about it at some length).  The only thing I do have to say is that of course, at a purely personal level, the picture painted by these findings makes me wonderfully, blissfully happy.  It looks like there’ll be loads of work for financial services brand consultants like me for many years to come.