One two, one two, is this thing working?

I never put an out-of-office on my emails these days, because I’m never really out of the office.  But for some reason, when I’m doing what has now become my standard two-month summer stint working out of my French place, I do seem to have fallen out of blogging range.

This is partly for extremely tiresome practical reasons.  The sodding internet was down so sodding often this summer that what are supposed to be fresh, topical observations would have been stale and off-the-pace in the extreme by the time they made an appearance.

But it’s also for more personal reasons.  I am very genuinely working while I’m down there – every day, and for big chunks of most days too.  But I can’t say I’m enthusiastically looking for extra or optional work – I’m a bit like Windows running in safe mode, the core functions are all fine but the twiddly bits are lacking.

Anyway.  That’s all over now.  Winter draws on, pissing down all day today, PA plugged back in, re-approaching the microphone to check that it’s all powered up OK.  Roll on summer 2016 – but still a very long way to roll yet, I’m sad to say.

 

If the future is indeed mobile, watch out for happy tortoises

I’ve held off from writing this blog for a long time because I worry that it makes me look foolish, and what’s worse foolish in an old, past-it, off-the-pace kind of way.  But here goes anyway.

If it really is true that the future will consist largely of people much younger than me choosing for preference to do all sorts of things on their mobile devices, then I take my hat off in advance to recognise their extraordinary patience.  Because most of the time that I try to do anything on a mobile device – especially anything which involves a number of clicks – it’s just so incredibly, maddeningly, uselessly just-give-this-up-right-now-and-leave-it-till-I’m-at-my-nice-fast-desktop SLOW.

OK, to some extent this reflects problems of my own making.  My poor old phone is on its last legs, and freezes, hangs and fails to notice my commands (or if it notices, then fails to obey them) a great deal of the time.  Here in France where I’m writing this, our satellite internet connection means that the humblest request to buy an extra litre of milk takes an age to go hundreds of miles out into deep space and back on its way to whichever one of us is in the supermarket.  My texting is pitifully slow and so horribly inaccurate that it frequently defeats even the HTC One’s amazingly intuitive spell-check.

But still, allowing for all this, the fact remains that even checking out the BBC’s totally fictitious football gossip column first thing in the morning routinely involves a hard-fought and narrowly-won battle with the will to live, and, typically, at least two minutes of feeling my blood pressure rise while I stare furiously at a succession of empty white screens.

A few days ago we were driving to collect my daughter from the airport, and, running a bit late, I cleverly thought of using the flight tracker app on the easyJet website to check on her progress.  Now, I thought, we could experience all the wonder of the mobile revolution right there before our very eyes.  Except not exactly.  By the time I’d slogged my way through to the right screen on FlightRadar24, we’d arrived at the airport and Chloe’s flight had landed.  And then the program froze so that I couldn’t actually scroll down to see what was happening at Toulouse.  I was too busy prodding angrily at my phone to notice Chloe emerging  at Arrivals.

Of course if you’re already logged on to incredibly fast wireless, you may not recognise these problems.  But realistically, how often are you logged on to incredibly fast wireless?  Much more likely, you’re either connected to incredibly slow wireless (like on trains, where things happen at the same imperceptibly slow speed as when you watch the London Eye), or to equally slow 3 or 4G, like in the back of the cab when you’re desperately trying to find the address of the restaurant before the driver goes straight past and exits the foodie hunting-grounds of Shoreditch for the badlands of Poplar.

Anyway, apparently the young have no problem with this and are perfectly happy taking 9 minutes to undertake a simple banking transaction, or 14 if they’ve forgotten their password and have to get a reset code sent to their email and then reset two or three times before coming up with a series of letters and numbers meaningless enough to make sure that a) the bank will accept it and b) you’ll have forgotten it again next time.

As a fractious old hare, I think this zen-like calm reflects very well on the young.  But in its demand for a tortoise-esque  mindset, the brave new digital world is once again turning out a bit differently from what we expected.

Dear Sir, with regards to your blog of 23rd inst.

Exhibit A:  a computer-generated A4 sheet blu-tak-ed to the front door of the Oliver Bonas store on Kings X station today.  I didn’t take a note of all of it, but I know that it began with the words “DUE TO THE CURRENT INCLEMENT WEATHER…” and it was saying that even though the door’s closed, please come in anyway.

Exhibit B (sorry if this is a bit complicated):  a client has kindly taken on the task of organising some market research interviews I’m doing for them, so I drafted an email for her to send to the potential interviewees.  She was pretty happy with it, but made a few minor tweaks.  For example, where I’d written “If possible, I’m keen to book the time in before Friday February 20th,” she changed it to:  “It is hoped that the research can be completed before Friday February 20th.”

Exhibits C, D, E, F and millions of others:  all the countless pieces of copy I’ve written for clients who’ve come back asking me to make it less conversational, take out all the apostrophised words like “there’s” and “you’ve”, remove the “ands” and “buts” from the beginnings of sentences and generally make it much, much duller and much, much stuffier.

I’m sure that none of the people responsible for these exhibits is actually dull or stuffy in person.  I’m sure none of them gets particular pleasure out of dull and stuffy writing.  I’m sure none of them communicates dully or stuffily in any other situation.  And I’m sure that none of them really imagines that their clients have a passionate preference for the dull and the stuffy over all other kinds of writing

But, all the same, it’s quite extraordinary how this desire to pomposify lives on.  No-one writes like this outside their place of work, but in their place of work loads and loads of people still do.

Quite frankly, it’s by far the most important reason why I really don’t go looking for copywriting jobs any more.  Pretty much every time, my first draft will come winging back with comments which, no matter exactly how they’re expressed, are basically saying it’d be absolutely fine if I would just kindly take all the good bits out.

In saying all this, BTW, I’m not overlooking the fact that brands do need their own clear and distinct voices and it wouldn’t be a good thing if they all started sounding like Lucian Camp blogs.  But then again, it’s an even less good thing if they all go on sounding like correspondence from underwriters in Victorian life companies.

And finally, don’t you hate that “with regards” in my headline?  As far as I’m concerned, anyone who writes “with regards” forfeits the right to change a word of my copy.  What a shame that they don’t know this.

 

The words-beginning-with-capital-letters thing. Or Thing.

More by accident than design I found myself looking at a page listing all my recent blog headlines just now.  I can’t say it was a particularly rewarding experience – it was pretty obvious that I bang them down more or less instantaneously so I can get on with whatever I want to rant about.  But there was another thing I noticed: most of them included words beginning with capital letters, aka proper nouns.

Of these, the majority were people’s names.  In the course of this month, Keith Richards, Martin Wheatley, Neil Woodford, Anthony Bolton and Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show have all made appearances.  But so too have Start-Rite Shoes.  And the horror film locations Haddonfield, Amityville and Bodega Bay.

I suppose this may be coincidence, or perhaps more likely just a formulaic way to inject a bit of interest into some tedious financial topic.  But I suspect it may go a bit deeper than that.  Ever since I started doing much in the way of reading, say from the age of about 12, I think I’ve always basically thought that pieces of writing with lots of words beginning with capitals look interesting and inviting, whereas those without look dreary and dull.

I’m not talking about initial capitals, at the beginning of sentences.  Somehow, at quite a tender age, I learned how to scan a printed page in a second or two and get a feel for how many non-initial capitals it contained.  I remember that this was one of the things, even more than the sex and violence, which I liked about James Bond – the specificity of his brand names.  The car didn’t have a supercharger, it had an Amherst Villiers supercharger.  He didn’t just smoke a cigarette, he smoked mostly Morland cigarettes but occasionally Balkan Sobranie.  He drove a Bentley Continental – and not just any Bentley Continental, the one with the R-type chassis and the 13:40 rear axle ratio (this latter being an example of capital numbers rather than letters, I suppose).

This particular fascination with brand names probably says that I chose the right career path.  But there’s more to it than that.  The same principle applies in quite different areas.  If I’m going to read a report of a football match, the same scanning technique tells me whether it’s going to have a lot to say about individual players (good) or be written at a general level of abstraction (boring).  Or an account of a war or a battle (I read a lot of those).  Or a restaurant review.  Or a piece about a film, band or play.

Is this just me?  Or is it anyone else too?  If it’s you, then paras 2 and 4 of this blog will look very attractive – paras 1, 3 ,5 and 6 not so much.

“The Tube: An Underground History” vs Stafford Hospital

I don’t know if you remember, but a couple of years ago there was a lovely documentary series on television about the London Underground, and mostly about the people who work there.  You couldn’t help warming massively to pretty much all of them.  A few were a bit grumpy.  But the large majority took obvious pride and pleasure in their work, and day after day happily overcame all sorts of hassles and problems, most of them caused by lack of investment, lack of resources and antiquated equipment, to deliver the very best service they could to their customers.  And delivering that service, for the customer-facing staff, also meant engaging with them with warmth, wit, kindness and good humour.

You were left with the thought that if you were going to come over a little peculiar and need some assistance anywhere, then somewhere on the tube would be  the place to do it.  You could be pretty sure of getting the help you needed, quickly, amiably and from someone who knew what they were doing.

Equally, if you were going to come over a little peculiar and need some assistance, recent evidence suggests that the worst possible place to do it would be on a ward at Stafford Hospital.  If you’ve forgotten the detail of some of the things that went on there, I don’t think I can help you.  I can’t find the language this morning to reflect the cruelty, heartlessness and selfishness of most of the people who worked there.   All I’ll say is that faced with very much the same problems as the London Underground staff – lack of investment, lack of resources and antiquated equipment – they responded as differently as it’s possible for human beings  to respond.

What’s my point?  Simply, that both of these are public-sector organisations.  Opponents of the public sector say that state-owned organisations will always have a bit of the Stafford Hospital staff about them.  In the absence of performance management and commercial motivations, they will always tend to sink into solipsism, putting their own comfort and convenience way above their customers’.  Supporters of the public sector will of course argue pretty much the opposite, saying that all public sector organisations will have a bit of the London Underground staff about them:  free from the tyranny of commercial imperatives, people will be able to do the kind of decent, kind, caring jobs that deep down we’d (nearly) all like to do.

There is then a second level of argument on this subject, specifically to do with the quality and commitment of the managers.  Anti-public sector people say that the managers are pretty much always a) second- or third-rate, and b) pointed in entirely the wrong direction by artificial and usually government-imposed targets which will always be perverted in a way that real commercial targets simply can’t.  Pro-public sector people say pretty much the opposite – that free from the tyranny of commercial imperatives etc etc etc.

Where does the balance lie?  In the public sector, are there more London Undergrounds, or more Stafford Hospitals, or an equal number of each?  And, just as important, how different is the balance in the private sector, and on the whole is it better or worse?

Trying to answer these questions brings out the Libran in me.  I can all too easily see both or maybe indeed all sides.  I can think of other rotten public sector organisations, some within my personal experience:  but I can also think of other delightful ones.  I can think of organisations that used to be useless when they were in the public sector, but are now equally useless (or maybe even more useless) in the private sector – BT comes immediately to mind.  And I can think of lots of horrible and useless private sector organisations, including far too many in financial services, but also a number – I have to say probably a rather smaller number – of decent ones.

In this typically Libran way, I conclude that there is no pattern.  In my experience there is no evidence that either or indeed any form of ownership makes any general difference to the values and behaviours of organisations.

I suppose that if that is the case, and there is no general difference in practice, then we’re all free to form our views on the matter on the basis of principle.  And in principle, there’s enough of the student-era pinko left in me that I don’t find it hard to decide which side I’m still on after all these years.

But I have to admit that I’m not completely convinced by my own analysis.  I have a nasty suspicion that if I wasn’t a) a Libran and b) a pinko, I’d look at the public-sector organisations – I suppose the NHS is the biggest and best, or worst, example – and I’d see troublingly much more bad than good.

What do you think?  You could argue that by now it doesn’t much matter either way – that in the great scheme of things, nationally and indeed globally, this conflict is over and the private sector won.

But looking at how much of the fabric of our society is still in public-sector hands, that’s not really true.  It does still matter.  I’d be interested in anyone else’s views.

Mysterious Messages No.47

There’s a poster in the window of a local charity shop which says PLEASE BRING US YOUR UNWANTED CATFOOD. It always makes me wonder who has unwanted catfood, and why.  I suppose the obvious answer is people whose cats have just died, but how many of them walk past this Camden Town charity shop every day?

Also, someone has handwritten on the poster the additional message HARRY’S FAVOURITE IS FRISKIES.  If the original poster reflects a good deal of optimism, surely this displays too much.  Are there really enough superfluous-catfood-owners walking past the poster that we can afford to be brand-specific (and, what’s more, specific about an esoteric niche brand that can’t have more than a couple of percent market share)?

You may say that given my evident curiosity, I should pop into the shop and ask how well the poster works.  Do people often come in to donate quantities of unwanted catfood in general, and Friskies in particular?  But I only find myself standing outside the charity shop while waiting for the bus to work, and it isn’t open at that time.

Bad news not just for me, but also of course for anyone aiming to drop off a few boxes of unwanted Friskies on the way in.

The blog I probably won’t be writing about insurance

I’ve been asked to write a piece about insurance, with particular emphasis on some aspect or other to do with the recent floods.  I can’t say too much about it, except that it’s going to be nice and light and amiable.  So I’d better not say what the recent floods really make me think.- which is that one way or another, this looks like another biggish nail in the whole coffin of the concept of insurance.  In the unlikely event that concepts can have coffins.

Insurance, it seems to me, thrived during a long period in which we understood that everyone faced risks that would be cripplingly expensive, but we had no way of quantifying how expensive each person’s risk wold actually be.  From this came the concept of pooling risk:  if a hundred people faced a 100 to 1 chance of a mishap that would cost them £100 to remedy, then everyone would be smart to pay a premium of £1 to save a potential £99.

Up to a point, insurance can cope with the availability of more accurate risk profiling data.  Say we can establish that of those 100 people, 50 face a risk that’s twice as great as the others.  No great problem in charging the riskier half £1.33, and the less risky half 66p.

But take that line of thought further, and eventually you end up in a place where the whole concept of insurance comes into question.  This happens when, at the extreme, we can accurately measure the risk faced by each of the 100 individuals.  If we know that there’s one who faces a 99% probability of whatever it is, and two who face a 98% probability, and so on, how do we set our premiums then?

The answer is that we have only two alternatives:  either we ignore the information, or we can’t offer insurance.

At the moment, we’re in a curious limbo between these two options.  Usually under instruction from politicians, regulators and others, we ignore some of the most important information – for example, life insurers don’t use the results of genetic testing; following a recent European Court ruling no insurer takes account of gender;  and – coming back to those floods – there is for the time being an agreement that homeowners living in areas where the flood risk is low will subsidise those in areas where it’s high.

But elsewhere, insurers do use much other very detailed information – motor insurers, for example, use literally dozens of pieces of data in their underwriting processes.

Going forward, left to their own devices, underwriters would only go in one direction with this.  Ironically, though, it’s a direction that would eventually bring about the end of their industry – not exactly a helpful outcome for them, or indeed for their customers.

Hmm.  I think I’ll need a different angle for that nice, light, amiable piece.

 

Blimey. Seven years’ worth of blogging. No wonder I’m mostly repeating myself.

I frequently make the point that for consultants like me, our best friend is change.  It’s change that creates almost all my opportunities – because it’s change that makes clients scratch their heads and wonder if they ought to get a bit of external help on this one.

It’s equally important – maybe even more so – for bloggers.  We have to write about something.  This is easy in the early days, because we haven’t written about anything yet. But once we’ve covered off all our favourite subjects – pointlessness of financial education, ghastliness of the regulator, reluctance to pay Ongoing Adviser Charge, continuing lack of connection between Tottenham Hotspur midfield and attack, etc etc – we need change.  Without it, we’ll soon start repeating ourselves.

Truth is, in my experience, even with a good deal of change we’re likely to start repeating ourselves sooner or later.  On 29th September, for example, I was pleased with the para I wrote saying that requiring “YOUR HOME IS AT RISK…” warnings on mortgage posters is like requiring a warning on posters for luxury hotels saying “OUR TRIFLE MAY CONTAIN NUTS.”

But going back just now, in the month of this blog’s seventh anniversary, to remind myself what I wrote in the very first entry in November 2006, I find…

…you guessed it, a certain analogy between mortgage and luxury hotel health warnings.  I must admit, I’m amazed I’ve had that idea in mind for so long.

Anyway, in the very unlikely event that there’s anyone who’s actually been reading this stuff for all that time, my apologies for the repetition.  And more apologies in advance, just in case it comes round again in 2020.

 

 

Rare and pleasing opportunity to go ballistic

Not that I believe in any of this astrology stuff, you understand, but I am incredibly Libran.  On the one hand, on the other hand.  Yes but no but.  I’ve half a mind to … whatever.  Point me at an issue and I’ll immediately sprint right round it so I can see both sides.

Which is fine – that’s just the way I am.  But every now and then, it makes a nice change to find some kind of issue or occurrence where there is only the one side – where no matter how carefully you examine it, there is no other possible perspective.

Many years ago back in the days when I used to have a parking space in a mews behind my agency, my car was completely blocked in for three or four days by the car of a man staying in a flat next to the parking area.  Every day I rang on the doorbell, but there was no reply.  Finally, on I think the fourth day, the bloke answered.  I politely asked him if he’d mind moving his car.  “I’ll do it in a bit,” he said, making to close the door.  Instant red mist.  No other side to the story. I was totally right, he was totally wrong.  I’d waited four days, and now he was closing the door in my face.  Except he wasn’t.  I reached through the closing door and grabbed him by the neck of his shirt.  I think I may have lifted him off the ground.  “You’ll do it now,” I said.

I remember this story partly because it was so out of character – I’m really not the shirt-grabbing type – but also because it was so lovely to find myself in such a simple, straightforward, one-dimensional situation.  The other guy’s position was completely untenable.  He was 100% in the wrong.  Even a Libran like me couldn’t see a second option.

All of which is by way of preamble to the workings of the regular procurement process currently being operated by a very large financial institution and utterly bewildering a number of people I know in firms that are currently being put through it.

The people running the process are, I strongly suspect, malevolent and vindictive enough to punish anyone obviously associated with a critical piece like this, so I’d better not give any clues to the identity of the financial institution or any of the suppliers involved.

But without giving any clues to anything, I can say that the single stupidest thing about this asinine rigmarole is the way that it puts the institution’s one-man-band suppliers through the same tendering process as it puts GE or IBM.  There are pages of questions on facilities for the disabled, ethnicity policy, corporate and social responsibility, dispute resolution procedure;  there’s a great big case study required about how you would organise your team to deal with a conflict of interest;  there are pages on your digital security standards.  All of which may possibly make sense if you are indeed GE or IBM.  But if your office is in fact your spare bedroom and you have no other staff and no intention of ever hiring any, pages and pages of this stuff are just wasted paper.  And, by the way, the answer “n/a” is not acceptable.

I simply do not know how people responsible for this nonsense can possibly look themselves in the eye.  Do they have no shame?    What they’re doing is worthless and futile, just generating further waste and redundant work that makes the world a slightly worse and unhappier place.

I wonder if they wear shirts and stand near doorways.  If so, they’d better hope I don’t ever get too close.

 

If Hotpoint did financial

Channel-hopping during half-time in the Champions’ League games yesterday evening, I found Anne Robinson’s curiously-immobile fizzog looking out at me.  She was doing her consumerist Watchdog thing, and the story she was telling was not a pretty one.

Hotpoint, it seems, have been building several models of dishwasher that have a nasty habit of bursting into flames.  For six months Hotpoint knew about this but chose to do nothing.  Then, eventually, they implemented the standard (and I think statutory) product recall procedure, which involves running a smallish black-and-white ad in three different national papers and writing to any customers whose addresses you happen to have.

All this happened last year, and as a result it seems that about 20% of the owners of these inflammable machines have responded and had them fixed.  The remaining 80% – according to the programme, several hundred thousand people – are pretty much literally still accidents waiting to happen.

The programme was in fact using this Hotpoint story as an example of product recall stories generally.  Whether you have a car with brakes that tend to fail or a jar of jam that may contain glass fragments,  your chances of actually noticing a product recall campaign and doing something about it are typically about 15 – 20%.  It’s all a bit of a fiasco really – a token effort that makes very little difference.

Apart from making me check our dishwasher (no problem, it’s a Bosch) this unsatisfactory state of affairs triggered two thoughts in my mind.

First, I couldn’t help wondering whether it makes sense that the providers of, say, underperforming endowments or unexpectedly volatile funds should be under so much more of an obligation than anyone else when it comes to product recall campaigns. In financial services, after all, we usually contact and compensate the huge majority of our mistreated customers, not just 15 or 20 per cent – and doing so can cost many millions, or even billions, of pounds.   (This is not to say that financial services providers should be under any less of an obligation – rather that surely firms providing products that can threaten life and limb should be under more.)

But then second, since it was still a few minutes till the games re-started, I allowed myself to stray into a quick ponder on the nature of good and evil.  If I’d been a Hotpoint executive during those six months that I knew our machines could be lethal, would I have been happy that we’d decided to do nothing about it for as long as possible?  If I worked for one of th Big Pharma companies, would I happily take on the marketing for an extremely profitable drug that seemed to cause troubling side-effects?  If I worked for a Big Food company, how would I feel about marketing ready meals that contained many times more sugar than anyone could reasonably imagine?

The players were coming back onto the pitches, so it was time to come up with answers, not more questions.  For most of us, I decided, it all comes down to Stanley Milgram (see blog on 7th Feb):  his famous experiment, now partially but not completely discredited, says that most perfectly ordinary people will do horrible things if they think that’s what they need to do to please their superiors.

In consumer-facing businesses, despite the innumerable examples such as those I’ve mentioned here, it would be too cynical to say that we’re grimly determined to rip the customer off at every possible opportunity, and to take every single short-cut we can think of even when we know it means risking people’s lives.

But I don’t think it would be too cynical to say that if we’ve been given sales or other financial targets, and if our job security or pay rise or bonus or share options depend on hitting them, then when push comes to shove most of us are willing to decide that meeting the target is the priority, even if that does mean killing a few customers.

As I’ve said before in this blog, I don’t think the financial industry is any worse in this respect than any other, and in fact our capacity to do serious harm is a good deal less than many.  An underperforming endowment is bad, but it’s not as bad as a Ford car with a fuel tank so badly positioned that, as Ford executives knew perfectly well, it was likely to turn the car into a fireball in even low-impact collisions.

What we are, I think is much more closely regulated than any other consumer-facing industry – and much more obligated to offer recompense when our failings are found out.  If that system of regulation is still far from perfect, and if it misses some really big and important stuff and pounces much too enthusiastically on some utterly trivial and incidental stuff, I’m still in no doubt that having it is much better than not having it.

But best of all, of course, would be not needing it.