Book response update: what we used to call “encouraging progress”

Early in my financial marketing career, I did quite a lot of ads communicating companies’ financial results.  This was lucrative work for the agency, but desperately dreary for the poor sods actually doing the work.  Among the investment community targeted by this advertising, there was a recognised short list of coded expressions that were understood to convey precise and surprisingly detailed messages about the performance of the companies in question.  “Poised for growth” meant “still losing money”,  “strengthening the management team” meant “firing the CEO for underperformance”,”  “steady progress” meant “dead in the water”, and so forth.  It wasn’t necessary, or indeed useful, to try to come up with new or different forms of words:  the aim was simply to choose the existing option which fitted the facts most accurately.  (There’s probably an algorithm that does this these days.)

Perhaps the phrase we dialled in most often was the one in this blog’s headline, “encouraging progress.”  This was about the blandest message available, the beigest colour in the colour palette,  It meant things weren’t going too badly, but nor were they going all that well.  You wouldn’t want to sell your shares in a panic, but you wouldn’t be queuing to buy more.

That all seems to fit pretty well with the tenor of this report on my last post, in which I urged the FS marketing community to respond more vigorously to my book on the subject, No Small Change, co-written with leading challenger banker Anthony Thomson.  In response, the following things have happened:

  • The book shot back up to about #10,000 on Amazon, although I have to admit that it has now shot back down again to about #300,000.
  • It has now gathered a total of six Amazon reviews, and although that doesn’t compare too well with, say, the 2,000 or so received by The da Vinci Code, ours average out at 4.8 stars and Dan Brown’s only just over 4 (which I to say I think is absurdly generous).
  • One estimable client has not only read it, but has also sent me a copy of his written critique, to be circulated among his team, which includes, for goodness sake, no fewer than 93 bullet points (the large majority of them positive).
  • Another estimable client has also read it, and, perhaps even more admirably, invited me to discuss it over lunch.

That’s about it, and writing it all down like this I do wonder whether “encouraging” progress might be pushing it a bit.  As I recall, the next level down was “solid” progress – perhaps that captures it better.

Come on, FS marketers, let’s be ‘avin you.

It seems to have been an obscure American humorist called Olin Miller (not Mark Twain, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or any other of the usual famous-quote suspects, and definitely not Delia Smith) who first  made that mildly deflating comment, “You’d worry a lot less about what other people think of you if you realised how seldom they do.”  We don’t know much about Mr Miller, or the circumstances in which he made the remark, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find he’d recently published a book about financial services marketing.

When my co-author Anthony Thomson and I published No Small Change:  Why Financial Services Needs a New Kind Of Marketing a couple of months ago, we didn’t imagine we’d be rivalling Dan Brown and JK Rowling at the top of the best seller charts.  But, to be honest, having included some original and quite controversial ideas, some harsh and probably unfair criticisms, some surprising new market research findings and some reflections from the individual who is now the UK’s, probably Europe’s and now arguably the world’s leading challenger banker (Anthony, obvs, not me), ,I think we have been a tad surprised by the near-complete silence that has greeted us.

One of the more important ideas in the book is that marketers can never blame their target markets for not getting what they have to offer or hearing what they have to say.  If the target market doesn’t get it or hear it, by definition it’s the marketers’ fault.  Exactly the same is true of authors.  By definition, if people don’t know of the book, or if they do but can’t make any sense of it, then it’s our fault (and maybe also a little bit our publishers and our PR people).

But even so, it’s not quite that simple.  We do know that a lot of our friends, clients and contacts have bought it – after all, we signed several hundred copies at our various launch events – and even if most just bought copies to be nice and show support, there must have been some who intended to read it, or at least part of it.

And yet we’ve only had four reviews on Amazon, and while they are all perfectly genuine reviews from real people who’ve read the book, three of the four did result from email exchanges in which we said how grateful we’d be if the individuals concerned could write up some of the nice things they had to say.  And of course it’s a mixed blessing that all four of the reviews all give us five stars – hasn’t anyone managed to find anything they’re upset about (not even at Barclays)?

I don’t think I’m going to say any more on this subject, because I can feel that I’m on the brink of blaming my readers and that really is a cardinal sin.  But encouraging my readers is OK – so, come on, chaps and chapesses,let’s be aving you – there’s still plenty of time to say something, appreciative, or indeed otherwise.

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.

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.

 

Apparently no-one in FS knows what marketing is. Not even marketers.

As the countdown continues to the launch of my financial services marketing book No Small Change, co-written with leading challenger banker and old friend Anthony Thomson, it’s time for these blogs to start working harder to build up a frenzy of pre-launch excitement.  Hence this effort, which previews some of the book’s findings from the research we carried out among senior financial services marketing people.

This isn’t the place for detailed facts and figures, but, long story short, one of our key question areas was to do with the activities which respondents thought did, and indeed did not, fall within the remit of marketing.  To do so, our questions were built around the good old tried-and-tested “Seven Ps”, the list made up of Product, Price, Promotion, People, Place, Process and the slightly incongruous Physical Evidence (a list I now know so well that I can write down all seven without hesitation or need to check Wikipedia for the one I’ve forgotten).  How many of these areas should come under the control of marketers, we asked.  And in your business at the moment, how many currently do?

Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that there was one area of very-near-unanimous agreement.  Almost everyone agreed that Promotion should come under the control of marketers (although you can’t help wondering about the one or two respondents who thought it shouldn’t).

But the other two headline findings are less pleasing.  First, there was an extraordinary and extreme divergence of views on the other six areas.   Some felt sure that marketers should control them all.  Some thought that marketers had no business controlling any of them.  Some thought marketers should control some, but not others, Some thought they should control others, but not some.  You get the picture.

And second, almost everyone thought that in their own firms currently, marketers had a lot less overall control of these areas than they should.

What do we conclude from all this?  First, that marketers themselves are still unclear and disunited on the extent of their remit.  Should marketers control, or at least have influence over, everything that touches the customer?  Or is their job only to promote propositions developed by others?

And if we’re unclear, it’s hardly surprising if a) others are unclear too, and b)  in the absence of any visible boundaries they feel free to park their tanks across as much of our lawn as possible, leaving us only with the corner called “promotion.”

It would be interesting to replicate the research outside financial services.  Anthony and I can both remember working for FMCG client companies where the centrality of marketing was universally recognised three decades ago, and I’m sure that any further change since then has only been in one direction.

But here in FS there’s still a long way to go – and that’s as true for us marketers ourselves as it is for our colleagues in other parts pf the business. And that – to sum up the whole story in a well-known and painful phrase – is why, even today, in so many firms we’re still known as “the colouring-in department.”

How not to launch a book

I went to a book launch event yesterday evening in the hope that I might learn something useful for the forthcoming launch of my book No Small Change, co-written with Anthony Thomson, which I think I may have mentioned.

Amidst the drinks and canapes, there was a presentation and panel discussion which lasted an hour or so.  Naturally the author spoke, and the panel also included a couple of quite impressively heavy hitters from the financial world, with a well-known journalist chairing.

There were over a hundred people present, in a long, narrow room where many of us were a long way from the stage.  So it was a pity that three out of the four speakers’ microphones didn’t work so we couldn’t hear them, and neither did the roving mike so the audience’s questions from the floor were inaudible either to the panel, or to the rest of the audience, or both.  Also, the laptop projecting a very large image behind the panel went onto standby every five minutes, so that the title slide disappeared and was replaced by a huge and distractingly day-glo green message saying NO SIGNAL.

By now you may well have guessed the punchline, which is that the book is about how rapidly and how fundamentally IT is changing the world.  We are, the author tells us, in the middle of a gigantic digital revolution which is utterly transforming how the 7.5 billion people on earth relate and connect to each other, with thrilling and largely unimaginable consequences for the way we live our lives.

I didn’t see any evidence that anyone else noticed the irony of the fact that these messages were being delivered in an environment in which the technology present was actively preventing the people in the room from relating and connecting to each other, but I don’t think it can have only been me.

Note to self:  when launching a book about financial services marketing, make sure the launch marketing isn’t too shabby.

Why prognostications of an end to financial jargon are jejune

Ha ha, very funny, a blog about jargon with some really difficult words in the headline.  (As you, ahem, already know, “prognostications” = predictions, “jejune” = naive or simplistic.)

In the ordinary way, we get rid of difficult words by doing what I did just then – replacing them with easier words.   In the book (did I mention the book?), the example I give is the rather lovely word “crepuscular.”  Not many people know it, but the problem is solved as soon as you know it means “relating to twilight.”  Immediately, you know a whole lot of things about “crepuscular” – what it means, what it looks like, when it happens, why it happens (more or less).

Contrast that with an unfamiliar word from the language of investment jargon.  To make my point, I’m choosing a tough one:  “equalisation.”  There’s absolutely no way that any better-known phrase or synonym will cast light on this.  There isn’t one.  The word describes an aspect of the workings of investment funds, which you’re never going to understand unless you learn practically a whole book’s-worth of stuff about how investment funds work (starting, for many people, with an explanation of what investment funds actually are).

Here’s an attempt from a website (actually Neil Woodford’s) to explain the term.

“Equalisation is a mechanism used by open-ended collective investment vehicles to ensure that income distributions from a fund can be the same for all shareholders, regardless of when the shares were purchased.

By way of background, funds that distribute income do so regularly – sometimes yearly, sometimes half-yearly, quarterly or monthly. In the case of the LF Woodford Equity Income Fund, income is distributed quarterly. When a fund pays out income, it does so by going ‘ex-dividend‘ (XD). Income that is received by the fund from its underlying portfolio holdings is reflected in that fund’s net asset value until it goes ex-dividend, at which point the income is removed from the fund’s net asset value and is paid to shareholders on the pay date on a per share basis, typically several weeks after the ex-dividend date.

If an investor has bought shares in the fund since the last XD date, he/she has not held the shares for the full period over which income is being received by the fund and so those shares will be grouped separately (usually known as group 2 shares, whereas all other shares are in group 1). When it comes to payment of income on those shares, they will be entitled to the same payment per share as any other shares in the fund, but not all of the payment will be treated as income for tax purposes – part of the payment will be treated as a return of capital. This is known as an ‘equalisation’ payment, because it equalises the per share amount that is paid on group 2 shares with that paid on group 1.  Once group 2 shares have passed their first XD date, they become group 1 shares.”

I can’t find the words to express how utterly unhelpful this definition is to most of us.  Within a dozen words most people’s heads have disappeared below the surface, and they never come back up again.  So it’s “a mechanism used by open-ended collective investment vehicles,” is it?  Great.  That really helps me.  Not.

I’m not saying this to beat up the Woodford website.  I’ve had a go at explaining equalisation once or twice, and I don’t think I did any better.  My point is that often, in financial services, a single word of incomprehensible jargon is in fact the tip of a vast iceberg of incomprehension, so that if you want to make sense of the word you have to melt the whole bloody iceberg.  And, of course, long before you complete that enormous task, everyone will have left your website in search of something – anything! – more rewarding.

In the case of this particular example, you can argue that people really don’t need to know – that millions of people invest perfectly happily in funds without any understanding of equalisation, or indeed any idea of the existence of the concept.  But there are hundreds of other terms that are, or at least seem to be, much more important if people are going to make half-decent investment decisions.  (Pound-cost averaging is always a horrible one to have to explain.  Or rebalancing.  Or index tracking, to people who don’t know what an index is.)

Even after 30 years of writing this stuff, I don’t really have an answer.  Basically, the choice you have if you want to de-jargonify is to be either incomprehensibly brief, or unreadably long, which isn’t really much of a choice.

So, I’m sorry if this blog has turned out to be a bit of a waste of time.  But on the upside, at least you now know what “crepuscular” means.

 

 

Why I don’t think gambling is part of financial services

Did I mention that I’ve been writing a book lately?  Or that it’s called No Small Change and is available for advance order on Amazon?  Oh, I did, did I?  Sorry about that.

Writing a book makes you think about things so that you have something to say when you write about them.  One of the things that my co-author Anthony Thomson and I had to think about was the question of what should, and what shouldn’t, be included within our definition of “retail financial services.”  And without more than a few moments’ deliberation, we decided that gambling – whether in casinos, on sporting events or on who’ll replace Theresa May and when – was out.

If you think harder about it, this was a questionable decision.  As consumers in group discussions never tire of telling us, perceptually gambling exists at the right-hand end of a financial services spectrum which has mainstream investing roughly in the middle or towards the middle-right, and building society savings over to the left.  And in fact there are other things over towards that right-hand end which are undoubtedly gambles, but which are undoubtedly financial services too – things like spread betting, CFDs and these scary-sounding newish things called Binary Options.  At the end of the day, they’re all about putting money in and hopefully, though not probably, getting more money out.

So why did AT and I take seconds to exclude gambling from the book?

I guess partly it’s that gambling doesn’t present itself in any way as a part of the financial services world.  Gambling as seen on TV, at any rate, presents itself overwhelmingly as part of the world of sport – presented by football commentators and pundits, and featuring people, mostly young men plus Ray Winstone,either playing or watching the game and occasionally doing things on their phones while other youngish men plus Ray Winstone shout at us on the soundtrack.

But as financial services marketing professionals, AT and I aren’t taken in by this determination to break the category rules.  Plenty of other brands do that – how about animated meerkats? – but Comparethemarket.com is still part of the financial services world.

No, I think the reason we made the decision to leave it out was simply that we hate it, don’t want anything to do with it and definitely don’t want it cluttering up our book.  The business is horrible, the propositions are horrible and above all the advertising is horrible.  There’s a lot wrong with financial services, and it’s taking a distressingly long time to put it right.  But thank God we’re not working in gambling.

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..