Don’t worry, I haven’t taken all the good bits out

The book (No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson) continues to inch its way towards publication (on May 31st), but this last week has seen unusually eventful inching.

It would be churlish to comment in any way other than positively on the role of our delightful publishing team at Wiley, so I’ll politely suggest that the reason no-one there had actually read it until a week or two ago was their complete confidence in its excellence.

However, when someone there did eventually read it, I hope they found it excellent but I know they found it a bit troubling from a legal point of view, with particular regard to a) quite a large number of possible libels, and b) a rather smaller number of possible breaches of copyright.  At the 57th minute of the 11th hour Roger the lawyer was given the manuscript to read, and at the 58th minute he came back with eleven pages of closely-typed areas of concern.

At the 59th minute I sat down to work through them all, and owing to the lack of available minutes there wasn’t much opportunity for negotiation, just an opportunity for JFDI.  A couple of good bits did have to go.  But I’m here to reassure you that there are still quite a few good bits left.  And if you buy a copy, I can share some of the deletions on a one-to-one basis.

 

Honestly, who wrote this rubbish? Ah, I think perhaps I did.

I’m about half-way through correcting the proofs of my forthcoming financial services marketing book No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson.  For an inveterate copy-tweaker like me it’s a challenging exercise, because we’re under strict instructions not to change anything unless it’s obviously and embarrassingly wrong – a typo, for example, or an incorrect fact, claim or number.

I haven’t actually read large chunks of the book since I finished writing it late last summer, and I have to say I have almost no memory of much of it.  For example, I’ve just read a paragraph slagging off moneysupermarket.com’s website, which I don’t recall ever visiting, and I’m amazed by the apparent strength of my feelings on the subject.

Coming back to all this material with a largely fresh perspective, I find myself frequently unsure whether to leave it as it is or make changes to it.  I don’t really think I have anything much against moneysupermarket,com’s website, and anyway I’m sure they’ve changed it all since the iteration I was writing about.  I know a couple of people there, and I have no desire to fall out with them.  And the criticism I’m making – about a lack of integration with the brand’s TV advertising – applies to dozens of financial services firms:  why should moneysupermarket.com be singled out for such a kicking?

On the other hand, my brief is clear:  don’t make changes unless what’s written is obviously and embarrassingly wrong.  It’s neither, and also it’s actually quite funny.  Unfair maybe, but I think I’ll leave it as it is.

Another day, another rubbish PA system

Out again yesterday evening, this time to hear a talk about Brexit, and for the second day running everything was fine except that we couldn’t actually hear most of it.  This time the problems were a) the French host’s heavily-accented English, b) the fact that the PA made the sound louder but incomprehensibly distorted, c) the main speaker’s extraordinarily rapid delivery, which made me wonder if he has a lucrative sideline in reading out the health warnings in mortgage and investment radio commercials, and d) the absence of a roaming mike, working or otherwise, so we couldn’t hear the questions from the floor.

I’m sorry, I know it’s bad form to use a public medium like a blog to bang on about personal irritations, but surely at this stage of the information revolution we ought to be able to communicate with each other within the confines of a single, smallish space better than this?

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..

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.

 

 

Plea from the colouring-in department

W e make jokes about it, but of course the reality is that all of us involved in any way in marketing and communications in financial services – whether in internal or external roles – hate the way that the accountants, actuaries and pretty much everyone else in positions of real authority describe us as the “colouring-in department.”

Of course we’re kind of used to it, but every now and then we see or hear something that reminds us just how much we hate it.  A case in point being the profile of Apple’s recently-appointed vice-president of retail and online stores, Angela Ahrendts, in today’s Observer.

Her job, working closely with head of design Sir Jonathan Ive, is to drive Apple further upmarket, making the brand even more successful, even more profitable and even more able to charge premium prices for products that some competitors sell in far smaller quantities for a quarter of Apple’s prices, or even less.

One of the great things about the Apple success story – perhaps the same is true of most huge business success stories – is that you can read more or less whatever you want into it.  Success has in fact depended on getting a whole bunch of things right, and, at least in recent years, not too many wrong.  Highlighting any one ingredient of the recipe doesn’t really make sense:  the success is in the combination.

Still, that said, I don’t think anyone would deny that one of the main ingredients has been a commitment to brilliant, outstanding, miles-ahead-of-the-pack design, closely followed by (and closely related to) equally brilliant communication.

In fact, as far as I can remember, it was the great communication that came first.  People still talk about Ridley Scott’s 1984 commercial, aired for the first and I think only time in the centre break of the 1984 Super Bowl, back in the days when Apple computers were beige-coloured boxes just like everyone else’s.  The idea of tech as desirable objects – things that it’s a pleasure to touch, use and own – came later, I’d say perhaps first with the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad and at the same time but in a slightly more muted way the Mac.

But in any event, I bet that the people responsible for design and communication at Apple aren’t known as the colouring-in department..

Which raises what to me, as a working-life-long colourer-in, is still the most important and most baffling question in UK retail financial services:  why isn’t there a single organisation which has made any serious attempt to differentiate itself, and to build brand equity, by a roughly-equivalent effort to achieve consistent, across-the-board excellence in design and communication?

Sure, there are plenty of organisations which do a few bits of it pretty well.  There’s the odd excellent visual identity, a few great advertising campaigns, one or two decent websites (although really not very many), some lively stuff on social media.  But it is simply impossible to name an organisation which maintains a truly excellent standard across all of the above, and indeed across everything else besides.

Can you name a single institution, for example, which is doing a really great job in the area of consumer education and explanation?  Take an obvious area like pensions,. where pretty much everyone is making some kind of effort to explain all the recent changes.  Have you seen anything really good?  I saw a documentary the other day about the British Transport Film Unit, actually part of the communications arm of the rail industry.  People involved in making their films included directors of the calibre of John Schlesinger and poets like WH Auden and John Betjeman.  Is anyone hiring talents like these to explain how UFPLS works?

It’s partly a question of improving the way we do things we’re already doing, but it’s also a question of doing things we haven’t dreamed of yet.  I would love to see what some brilliant people and a big budget could do to build an financial services analogue of the Apple Store – not just a silly new-style branch with some brightly-coloured sofas and no bandit screens, but a real extravaganza designed to inspire and excite.

The kind of top-to-bottom commitment I’m talking about would be very expensive.  Everything I’m talking about could be done much cheaper, and indeed is currently done much cheaper by every brand in the market.

But I don’t really think cost is the issue.  The issue is culture, and the way the industry is still led by people who simply do not get what I’m saying here, or what countless other colourers-in have said on countless other occasions.

I must say that the challenge of trying to build a substantial FS brand which would differentiate itself at least in large part by a 360-degree commitment to brilliance in design and communication is one of the few big ideas that I can still get really excited about.

So much so that if there are any businesses out there which would like to get me involved in a such a project,  then quite seriously I’d be happy to work on it for half my usual rate.

Feel free to make contact with a comment on this blog.  But I don’t think I’ll be bothering to check back all that often.

Sorry Mark, you’re not contrarian – you’re just wrong.

I love Mark Polson.  I love the name of his business (inexplicably, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, The Lang Cat.)  I love the way he writes.  I love the range and depth of his enthusiasms, although I can’t say I always share his taste in the music he shows such passion for.  And I love the way I can rely upon him to be even more contrarian than I ever am – to make me, by contrast, boringly mainstream.

But.

Occasionally, very occasionally, Mark goes a teeny bit too far with the contrarian thing.  His determination to be different, not just to zig when others zag but to zeg, zug and even maybe zoog or zoig, drives him to say some things which are jolly silly.  And the way he’s decided to love the term “robo-advice” is a classic example.

Mark says he loves the term “robo-advice” basically because everyone else in the industry hates it.  Anything so hated by the industry has to have some good things going for it, he figures.

But Mark is missing the point.  And he’s missing the point in a worrying way that makes me wonder if maybe he’s been part of this crazy financial industry for a bit too long.  It doesn’t matter what people in the industry think of the term.  It matters what real people – people not in the industry – think of the term.   And what they think is all bad – they think it’s silly, confusing, a tiny bit scary and definitely of no interest or relevance to them.  Which is absolutely right as far as the form of words is concerned, but absolutely wrong in terms of what the words are trying so hopelessly to describe.

You might guess that the brunt of my ire would be focused on the “robo” bit, with its stupid 50s science-fiction overtones, its connotations of clockwork-powered tinplate toys.  Actually no.  “Robo” is bad, but actually “advice” is worse.  Because to consumers, robo-advice services aren’t advice services at all.  You don’t come away having received “advice.”  You come away having made an investment.  Robo-advice services are in the business of providing investment advice in the same way that restaurants are in the business of providing food advice – which is to say, from the consumer’s perspective, not at all.  While you’re deciding what to order, you may ask the waiter whether the T-bone is better than the sirloin.  But when you leave, you don’t leave thinking that you’ve had some good steak advice.  You leave thinking you’ve had a meal.

Robo-advice is like that, except that I suppose the waiter would need to be a clockwork tinplate toy.  Advice may be a small part of the service.  But the big part is investments.  And, by the way, once you’ve had your advice and made your investment, you may be a customer of the service for many years without ever taking any more advice ever again – for 10, 20, 30 years or even more, it’s just an online investment service,  But according to Mark Polson it’s a great and clever thing that it’s called “robo-advice.”

In my book, gratuitous language abuse is pretty much the worst thing that we in the financial services industry can do to our customers.  It’s the surest way to confuse, alienate and alarm them, to make sure that they keep right on wanting to have as little as possible to do with us and the bewildering nonsense that spouts endlessly out of our mouths.  You’d think that in recent years we’ve already done so many stupid and alienating things with the word ”advice” that it would be hard to come up with yet another one, but somehow we seem to have managed it.

All of which, I hope, explains why, much as I love Mark Polson, I really, honestly and seriously hate what he’s saying about this.

 

Announcing the League Against Small Type. (Obvious gag not available.)

As far as I can see, WordPress doesn’t allow me to select a tiny font for either the headline or the text of this blog.  Which is probably just as well, because writing a rant about how much I hate small type in very small type is a gag that’s probably too obvious to be worth doing.

Still, it’s been in my mind as one of the things I most hate about the creative services industry for literally decades, and a recent small crop of experiences has brought things to a head.

First, I underwent the still-bizarre experience of sitting on the client side of the table for a series of three agency pitches.  All three agencies presented on TV screens.  And two out of the three showed slides featuring levels of small-print detail that were unreadable to most of us in the room – one even showed its creative on screen, with the effect that we couldn’t make head or tail of anything except the headlines.

Then it was my wife’s turn.  She is a financial market researcher, and was sent some PDFs of new print material to test, onscreen, among groups of financial advisers.  The tiny copy was unreadable – she sent it back, saying that unless it could be changed she’d be wasting her time.

And then just today, I needed to read some instructions on a website:  even wearing my very best reading glasses, I have no idea what it was saying.

I know why this happens.  It happens because the people designing and producing this stuff are a) young, with good eyesight, b) working on screens no smaller than 22 inches and often much bigger, and c) don’t care whether type is readable because they have no intention of reading it.

I think it’s pretty embarrassing that designers who are supposed to be in the business of communications operate in this way, but it’s even more embarrassing that those around them on both agency and client side don’t pick them up on it.

Hence the need for the League.  I must admit I haven’t given an awful lot of thought to what it’s actually going to do yet, but I suspect that writing grumpy letters, emails, tweets and blogs to name and shame offenders will be a large part of it.

To this end, it would be helpful if you could send me details of any perpetrators who come to your attention.

But ideally in nothing smaller than 11-point type.