The most useless message ever

Has there ever been – could there ever be – a message more useless than the NO JUNK MAIL stickers that you seem to see stuck on or around more and more letterboxes?

And not just useless, but silly, prissy and naive too.  Naive because most junk mail is of course pushed through letterboxes by postmen, and it’s just inconceivable that a postie would scrutinise every envelope, decide whether it’s junk mail and then…well, then what, exactly?   Then not put it through your letterbox and do what with it?  Take it back to the sorting office?  Return it to sender?  Put it in a bin?

It’s inconceivable for a whole bunch of ridiculously obvious reasons.  First, it’s just stupid to imagine that a busy postman with a full mailbag has time to peruse every envelope and take a view on whether they’re junk mail or not.  Second, even if he or she did, it’s often really hard to tell.  Crappy Barclaycard 0% balance transfer mailings come in anonymous envelopes intended to sneak through your defences by looking like proper mail.  Statements from proper insurance companies come in garish envelopes carrying full-colour images in a desperate (and usually unsuccessful) attempt to achieve “engagement.”

Third, these stupid sticker-stickers don’t seem to realise that the Royal Mail’s contract isn’t with them, it’s with the customers paying for them to deliver things.  If postpeople were deflected from fulfilling this contract by a front-door sticker, the Royal Mail’s contract business would collapse into chaos.  And, of course, long before than, your kind, helpful, sticker-reading, envelope-perusing postie would have lost his or her job.

Similar considerations apply to non-Royal Mail deliveries.  You have 500 restaurant menus to post through letterboxes before you can collect your four hours’ money on minimum wage.  Apart from the fact that you’ll certainly be sacked if a stack of them are found in a bin somewhere on your delivery round, how keen are you to politely desist from posting a leaflet whenever you see a NO JUNK MAIL sign?  Not keen at all, 100% unkeen, is the answer.

There are four of these useless stickers in my street alone, and there must be hundreds of thousands across the country.  They can’t possibly achieve any part of their aim, so what’s the point of them?

I think they’re there, as most communication is, to say something about the communicator rather than something to the communicatee.  In their abrupt rejection of JUNK MAIL, they say the residents aren’t taken in.  In the same way that research focus group respondents smugly tell us how utterly they remain unaffected by advertising,  NO JUNK MAIL:people choose their restaurants on the basis of the review in the Good Food Guide, unbiased recommendations on social media and personal, objective experience, not on fliers pushed through the door offering freed delivery on orders of £20 or more..  NO JUNK MAIL signs are a sort of virtue signalling, although somehow that isn’t quite the right phrase – I’d be grateful if you could suggest a better one.

And one final thing – they’re ugly, too.  From the point of view of passers-by, rather uglier than the mail inside, lying on the doormat.

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Segmentation. So important in theory, such a shag in reality.

I think I first started getting my head round segmentation about 37 years ago, maybe 36, when I was a creative group head looking after the Co-op’s food retail business.  The stores were pretty grim, and to be honest so were our ads, but our senior client Barry Silverman was probably the closest thing to a mentor that I’ve had in this business, and segmentation was a big theme of his mentoring.

Because of the nature of his organisation, his approach was largely product-driven, not consumer-driven –  basically he’d segmented his food outlets into three, superstores, supermarkets and corner shops, and segmented their propositions and communications on the basis of the needs that each met (respectively, main shop for car users, main shop for non-car users, and secondary or top-up shop)..

This was basic stuff, but it still reflects an approach that’s fairly uncommon in large parts of retail financial services today.  Well schooled by Barry, I can remember when I moved into the financial services world how troubled and surprised I was by the usual practice when promoting products to end-consumer and intermediary target audiences:  to the end-consumer we said “You’ll love this top-performing fund,” and to the intermediaries we said “Your clients will love this top-performing fund.”   This is search-and-replace segmentation, not the real thing at all.  Although I don’t actually think we have search and replace in those days.

This particular approach is less common these days even if only because there are fewer propositions targeted simultaneously to end-consumers and intermediaries, but nevertheless our approach to segmenting markets and targeting propositions to different segments is still rudimentary in the extreme.  Quite often we start well, observing that a number of segments with different needs and attitudes exist.  But, all too often, having recognised this, we decide there’s no way (or no cost-effective way) to identify, prioritise and target any of them, so we need an approach that speaks to them all at once.  (That’s how, as I’ve said before in this blog, a few years ago I found myself writing a mailing about Child Trust Funds to customers of a Big 4 bank that began “Whether you have children or grandchildren, or don’t have children at all…”.)

This failure to segment and target has a devastating effect on our ability to involve and engage.  Our propositions and communications could be incredibly much more powerful if we could develop them with real insight into the way people are – or, rather, the way some people are.

(And, by the way, at risk of stating the obvious, segmentation isn’t just about offering and saying different things to different people – it’s also about deciding which segments to address, and which to ignore.  A proposition which excites a quarter of your market can be massively more successful than one greeted with a yawn by all of them.)

I don’t suppose many people would disagree with much of what I’ve written here – and for once, by way of additional firepower, I even have the regulator on my side.  The FCA may not be much concerned about marketing effectiveness, but it is very concerned about people understanding things.  As a result, it more or less demands that we segment our markets so we can address them in terms they find comprehensible, but much of the time we seem to ignore this demand.)

So what’s going on?  To take a couple of big current examples, why is it that neither the Pensions Freedoms of the last couple of years, or the coming of PSD2 in the last few weeks, seem to have sparked off the kind of highly segmented, highly targeted activity most likely to deliver results?

I think there are two key issues. The first is a largely emotional problem with the whole business.  Segmentation involves a lot of extra work and ultimately extra expense to make life more complicated and/or to make our target markets a lot smaller.  These both feel like un-smart things to do.  If we can keep it nice and general and generic, we can generate business from everyone.  Our slice of the cake may be a little smaller than it could be, but just look at the size of the cake!

The other issue is that for all the data revolution that we’re living through at the moment, our ability to access and use the data we need at the one-to-one level is still very limited.  That bank I mentioned earlier can’t tell, or at least not with certainty, which of its customers have children, or if so how many, or if so how old they are.  It may know whether some of its customers have children, but targeting its Child Trust Fund activity only on them seems like a missed opportunity.  On the whole, it looks like a better bet to target the campaign very broadly – and to begin the letter with that cringe-worthy first sentence I quoted earlier.

I expect it was Barry Silverman who told me all those years ago that the secret of all good marketing – and, even more so, of all good copywriting – is to do what you’re doing with a clear and full picture of just one single individual in your mind.  Not far off 40 years later, we’re still spending most of our time with our heads full of hazy, ill-understood crowds..

Why do financial advisers make such terrible clients?

Some say it’s bad form to use a business blog to wage a personal vendetta, but I’m far from the first – I may even be the last.

Honestly, this is really true, not just brown-nosing – in the seven years since I launched Lucian Camp Consulting, the overwhelming majority of my clients have been an absolute pleasure to work for.  They’ve ticked all three of what I think of as the Good Client boxes – they’ve been friendly and amiable, they’ve been receptive and they’ve been open and communicative.  (Actually nearly all have ticked a fourth box too, come to the think about it – they’ve paid up remarkably quickly on receipt of their invoice.)

So, lots of grateful thanks to a long list of admirable firms and individuals.  But, there’s no denying, it’s an incomplete list.  If you grouped all those clients – I guess there must be either side of a hundred of them – into financial services industry sectors, while most sectors would be basking in warm sunlight there’d be one beset by dark clouds and rain.  Yes, the exception would be the independent financial advice firms.

I should say that a few years ago, I doubt whether this sector would have been represented at all.  Very few of the thousands of firms in this fragmented cottage industry could see any sense in spending money on people like me.  Most, quite frankly, wouldn’t have bothered even if my services were on offer free of charge – marketing and branding and all that daft colouring-in nonsense just seemed like a waste of time.  But as a waste of both.time and money, well, no-brainer.

It was the RDR that changed things, and specifically the bit about needing to tell clients what they’d get in return for that “ongoing adviser charge.”  (Previously, of course, that was what had been known as “trail commission,” and what most clients got in return for that could be briefly summarised in the word “nothing.”)  This new need for advisers to justify the ongoing charge connected strongly to what people like me call “defining the value proposition,” so all of a sudden I found I was speaking on this topic at quite a few IFA events and leaving the events with a pocketful of business cards from advisers wanting follow-up meetings.

Which all sounds great, except that it really hasn’t been.  In case any of my adviser clients are reading this, I should say that two or three have been lovely.  But most really haven’t been very lovely at all – not easy at a personal level, suspicious and dubious about everything I have to say to them and, probably worst, hopelessly uncommunicative.  The default is that most just don’t reply to things.  They don’t answer phones or respond to voicemails or emails.  The only time when they’re not maintaining a couple of months’ worth of radio silence is when they are in fact maintaining a permanent period of radio silence, having just decided to stop dealing with you without ever quite getting round to saying so.  And, needless to say, as regards that fourth box, a well known expression about blood and a stone is the only one that comes to mind.

The reasons for all this, I do appreciate, may be a) good and b) circumstantial    The firms I’m talking about here are small, and no doubt both busy and under-resourced.  And I suppose there is some benefit to me in these otherwise useless experiences – as the proprietor and indeed entire workforce of a small firm which is often busy and arguably under-resourced, they do give me the clearest possible education in the art of pissing your clients off.

The theory behind this born-again blog is that I’m supposed to choose topics that whet your appetite for my forthcoming book on financial services marketing, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson.  This morning, though, I’ve gone off-topic.  There’s nothing in the book about (most) financial advisers making rotten clients.  Which, if you’re among those who think this kind of personal grumbling is n’t really appropriate, is probably just as well..

Robo advice. Still happening, still a stupid name, still a mystery.

Looking back at entries in this blog written before the Great Suspension (i.e.before April 2016) I’m surprised how many of them are about robo advice.  This is a subject that still feels like fairly new news to me, or at least like a fairly new (as well as stupid) name.  But in fact I was grumbling about the stupidity of the name back in late 2015, and expressing major doubts about the viability of the whole concept at the same time.

The viability doubts all focused, one way or another, on a single issue:  are we sure there are enough consumers out there who are keen to engage with services like these?  As I’ve said a million times, there is certainly a small number of enthusiastic investment “hobbyists,” who love everything to do with investing and make up the bulk of the customer bases of most established D2C investment services (particularly Hargreaves Lansdown).  But is it the case that just below them in the pyramid there are a few million potential investors, ready to become more engaged and active if only they could find a nice, simple, accessible service which they felt comfortable with?

There is undoubtedly a “next level down” more or less like this in a great many markets, and welcoming them in with that nice, simple accessible new option can be a very successful and profitable thing to do.  I could argue that in (fairly) recent years this has been the secret of the success of car manufacturers with “hot hatchbacks” from the Golf GTi onwards;  of the “casual dining” sector with restaurant brands including Cafe Rouge, Frankie & Benny’s, Carluccio’s and Nando’s, among dozens of others;  and in a slightly different way of the game-changing success of low-cost airlines like easyJet, Ryanair and Norwegian.

But is it true in investment?  Of course the “next level down” investment brands will pick up some business from curious, promiscuous hobbyists, just as my automotive, restaurant and airline examples  have done.  But that’s not how you make the big money – you make the big money when you find the formula that expands the market.

In robo advice, I’ve never believed that any of the existing players has come up with a propositiion anything like simple enough, a brand anything like appealing enough or a marketing budget anything like big enough to become the GTi, Cafe Rouge or easyJet of the sector.

It seems that quite a few of the existing players share my doubts, because one thing that has been happening while I’ve been away is that a number have been partnering with, or indeed being acquired by, big institutions who, it’s believed, can give them access to millions of warm customers and wonderfully nice low cost.

This blog, indeed, has been triggered by an announcement of another of these partnerships, with the oddly-named Scalable Capital partnering in some sort of way with Dutch bank ING.  (Is it just me, or is there something a bit troublingly reptilian about that “Scalable”?)   Blackrock already owns a big slice of Scalable, and of course Aviva has bought Wealthify,  LV= owns Wealth Wizards and Schroders has invested a lot of money into Nutmeg.

At boardroom level, I’m sure all these deals make excellent sense.  But out there in the market?   I’m still not detecting much excitement in the pyramid’s middle tier

To be honest, I can’t actually remember if we develop this theme in our forthcoming book on financial services marketing, No Small Change, written jointly by my old friend Anthony Thomson and myself and due for publication in the last week of May.  All I can say is that there may well be.  I’ll give you the pre-ordering details as soon as I have them,. and you can find out for yourself..

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Seems we still can’t stop asking too much of our customers

Back in the day, one of the themes that came up time after time in this blog was about people who are in the industry asking too much of people who aren’t.  We say things that are too difficult for most to understand and come up with products that are too complicated for most to use.

For decades, the result has been that many of the ideas that we’ve intended for ordinary people have been taken up by people who aren’t ordinary at all.  Investment services like Nutrmeg, for example, originally intended fore the inexperienced investor, find to their surprise that their customer base consists largely of exactly the same “hobbyist” customers as existing, mainstream investments.  The supposedly mass market Pension Wise guidance service is mostly used by hobbyist retirees fine-tuning their knowledge and their options.  A few years ago Stakeholder Pensions, intended as the most mass-market of all long-term investments, were principally adopted by affluent hobbyists as a way of boosting their tax-free contributions (they opened plans in the names of their kids, nannies and cleaners).

It’s early days, but I’d say the signs are that it’s happening again, this time around the big and potentially game-changing idea that’s called Open Banking.  So far, I’ve failed to understand more or less all the media coverage that I’ve noticed – but the one message that has come across is that Open Banking makes it easy for me to see the state of all of my finances in one place.

To hobbyists, and crucially within that term I include the very large majority of people working in the industry, that sounds great.  It’s a self-evident good.  Of course I’d like to be able to see all my finances in one place.  It would be really interesting.  And useful.

To most of the rest of us, it’s a proposition that’s of no interest at all.  We’re not that interested in looking at our financial position at all, whether they’re in one place, or a few places, or lots.  It’s about as useful and appealing as being able to look at all our books in one place.  Or all our houseplants.  Or all our carpets.

These are things that we don’t really look at very much at all, and when we do we’re perfectly happy if they’re not in the same place as other similar things.  It’s a bit irritating if we’re looking for a particular book and can’t find it, but it’s not a problem often and we know where to find the ones we refer to frequently.

There are things which it obviously is convenient to keep in one place – clothes, for example, or cutlery, or music (whether physical or virtual).  These tend to be things that we need to choose from frequently, and/or to put together in combinations (whether place settings, outfits or playlists).  Financial services don’t come into this category.

Once you’ve put your financial products together in one place, there is of course the potential for some enormous second-order benefits.  It’s possible to save a great deal of money, to take advantage of propositions that meet your needs much better and do the financial things you need to do a whole lot more easily (I’ve been told a hundred times in the last few months about the imminent arrival of the “one-click mortgage.”

These are all great and exciting things, and could form the basis for simple, understandable propositions that might actually cut through and engage people.  (The role model, as so often in this blog, is of course price comparison sites, which have cut through and engaged through a winning combination of simplicity of proposition and hugeness of ad spend.)

It may well be that eventually Open Banking will reduce down into similarly powerful, simple messages expressed with similarly huge ad budgets.  But for the time being, it’s hobbyist speaking only unto fellow hobbyist.  Most of us absolutely aren’t excited at all.

In the old, pre-sabbatical blog, that would have been the end.  However, in the new born-again.blog it isn’t.  The plan is now to close, pretty much invariably, with a plug for the book.  It includes a lot more on this theme, our habit of asking too much of our customers and over-estimating their level of interest in the financial services world.  You can’t pre-order it on Amazon yet – but when you can, you’ll be the first to know.

 

Still circling over Rickmansworth

Whenever I talk to anyone about the book, the first thing they always want to know is when it’s going to be published.  Embarrassingly, though, even at this late stage, I still don’t really know.  To be fair, while the uncertainty was initially down to our publishers, the tables have now been turned and it’s now pretty much entirely down to my co-author:  the publishers have told us that we’re now clear to make our final approach and touch down in the second half of April, but at that time Anthony is in the middle of an exhausting programme of long-haul travel and will be, consecutively, in Bahrain, the US, Peru, Chile and Australia during the crucial period.

This is obviously unhelpful from a PR point of view because, let’s not kid ourselves, “Europe’s leading challenger banker writes financial marketing book” is the story here.  It’s not particularly helpful from a patience-of-his-co-author point of view either – after all, I basically finished writing the thing last summer, and have been circling over Rickmansworth waiting for clearance to land ever since.

And of course there is a fairly serious danger that in this fast-changing world,  by the time it finally appears it’ll be terribly out of date.  If so, then hopefully judging by previous examples it’ll only be out of date in detail, not in its main themes and conclusions.  While researching the chapter on data-driven marketing, for example, I was amazed by the strategic foresight and prescience of Peppers’ and Rogers’ 1994 masterwork The One-To-One Future – despite their firm conviction that the emerging one-to-one media that were about to transform consumer marketing were the fax machine, something called “interactive radio” and seat-back advertising screens on aircraft.

I shall have to go back over our manuscript and look for signs of similar misjudgments.  I suspect all those prices quoted in groats and guineas are going to have to go.

 

I’m back. And yes, indeed, it was a while

A bit less than two years, but a bit more than eighteen months – long enough to raise a question about whether I’m restarting my old blog, or starting a new one.

Definitely the former, I think.  For one thing, in purely practical terms I don’t know how to start a new blog.  And for another, content-wise, I’m sure I’m going to be picking up exactly where this one left off, repeatedly running through a grab-bag of half-a-dozen riffs more or less beating up financial services marketers for not being nicer to their customers.

There is one difference, though.  As I hope will become increasingly clear, this time around I’m riffing with a purpose – the purpose being to encourage both my readers to trade up, in due course, from free-to-read blog to £29.99-to-buy tome on the same narrow seam of subject matter.  When I put the blog on hold in April 2016 I said my aim was to free up some headspace to write (or rather co-write) a book about financial services marketing.  To my surprise and relief, this has turned out to be true.  The book is written, and at some point in the first half of 2018 it will be published by leading business publishers Wiley.

(I still have to say “at some point” because at the moment we haven’t resolved a bit of a timing nightmare concerning my co-author. leading challenger banker Anthony Thomson.  Being a (or indeed the) leading challenger banker seems to involve a relentless schedule of long-haul travel, interspersed only with the odd day or two every now and then in this country,  We haven’t yet landed (pun intended) on an odd day or two sufficient for the task of squeezing in a book launch, but it looks like some time in May.

Between now and then, my plan is to build up to a crescendo of excitement so that on P-Day both of this blog’s readers are desperate to lay their hands on a copy.  Right now, it’s a low-key start.  I’m not telling you the publication date, or the book’s title or anything about its content, or, perhaps most importantly, providing a link to our Amazon ordering page..  But just you wait.  The momentum will soon start building.

I’ll be back. (But maybe not for a while.)

Over the last couple of months hordes of eager blog readers (well, three or four) have been in touch to ask why, as we say at the football, it’s all gone quiet over there.  One or two have even been kind enough to enquire about my wellbeing.

So just in case there’s anyone else out there who’s vaguely curious about the situation, but not quite to the extent of getting in touch about it, I thought I should explain.

My being is entirely well, thanks, and to be honest I’m not so horrendously busy to say that time doesn’t permit.  But there are a couple of reasons why, for the second time in the not-far-off-ten-years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’m allowing myself a bit of a sabbatical.

One, just like the last time back in 2010, I seem to be running a trifle short of things to say.  I know, I know, this is a non-issue for readers:  most of the best blogs only ever say one or two different things and indeed probably the best in the advertising and marketing world, The Ad Contrarian, only ever says one (digital sucks).  But it’s more of an issue for the writer.   Revisiting a theme I’ve climbed all over at least a dozen times before, a terrible ennui tends to set in.

And then two, there’s a new and much more positive reason.  I’m writing a book.  Well, I’m not actually writing it yet, I’m planning and researching it.  And it’s not just me – it’s a joint effort with my old friend Anthony Thomson, of Metro Bank and now Atom Bank fame.  With just about 60 years of financial services marketing experience behind us, we figure we must have something to say on the subject, so we’re giving it a go.

I suppose it may not be immediately apparent why writing a book prevents me from also writing a blog, but it’s to do with not over-exercising the same mental muscles.   Many years ago, I observed that the cliche about the advertising copywriter with the half-finished novel in the desk drawer is wrong.  It’s not the copywriter, it’s the account handler or media planner.  Writing advertising copy isn’t at all the same thing as writing a book, but it uses the same mental muscles, and after a day at the copy coalface the last thing most copywriters feel like is sitting down to write something.  Whereas the account handler or media planner, writing muscles unwearied by the working day, is a whole lot more up for the challenge.

So, no more blogging until the book has made some serious progress.  All being well, I’ll actually be writing it during the autumn, which raises an interesting deadline issue.  The tenth anniversary of this blog arrives in early November.  And it would be a pity still to be maintaining radio silence when that milestone comes around.

When push comes to shove, whose side are you on?

At a dinner last week, a well-known financial journalist gave a talk.  His theme, more or less, was “The things the financial services industry does that really get on the tits of my readers.”

As you can imagine, it was a longish talk.  We listened attentively, until, towards the end, his 17th or 19th or 27th point was about travel insurance.  His older readers, he told us, were upset about the cost, which could be very high indeed – often so high that it effectively left them unable to travel abroad.

At this point, one of us listeners could remain silent no longer. “For goodness sake,” he expostulated.  “It costs them more for the simple and obvious reason that they’re worse risks.  What do they expect?  That’s how insurance works!”

Of course he was right (or at least mostly right – isn’t insurance at least partly to do with pooling risk so it’s affordable for everyone?).  But all the same, he’d missed the point.  The point of the talk was to bring home to us the real, human, often very emotional consequences of the decisions we make on perfectly robust but rational and not very human criteria.  What the journalist was trying to get across was how miserable it is to be, say, 70 and effectively unable to risk travelling abroad because you had a heart attack or breast cancer 20 years ago.

Actuarily, my interrupting friend was 100% right to do so.  But at another and much more important level, he was 100% wrong.

Product placement from hell

On the news, you see a fleet of jihadists’ vehicles, flying black flags and carrying flatbed-mounted weapons, heading into or maybe out of some terrible place in the middle East or North Africa.  What very well-known brand name do you associate with what you’re seeing?

I’ll give you a clue:  it’s written extremely prominently, in black capital letters, on the tailgates of the vehicles.  Got it yet?  It is of course TOYOTA.  Very occasionally it’s NISSAN.  But I’d say that Toyota has a 95% market share of the jihadi transportation market.

If product placement matters at all – if there is any kind of perceptual halo created in our minds from the context in which we see brands in the real world – then this has to be bad news.

Not entirely bad news, I suppose.  There are some positives to be taken from the fact that the vehicles operate reliably in what are usually pretty challenging conditions and, I suspect, without being serviced at regular intervals.  But on the whole, you’d think that being the vehicle brand of choice for global terrorism would be more of a hindrance than a help.

All of which seems to raise two interesting questions.  First, is the whole business of product placement complete rubbish?  Does it in fact make absolutely no difference at all who’s seen to be using your brand?  And second, if it’s not complete rubbish and does make some difference, why isn’t Toyota trying a bit harder to do something about it?  Presumably there are dealers around the middle East supplying these vehicles:  are the chiefs at Toyota really happy to see the hands they finish up in?

I appreciate that on the list of Issues Arising from jihad this one comes towards the bottom.  But I still think it’s worth mentioning.