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.

How many shops are there in Oxford Street?

Walk it from end to end scrutinising the shop windows, and there are obviously hundreds.  But try it another way – scrutinising, instead, the shopping bags actually being carried by the street’s shoppers – and it seems there’s just one.

Which is, of course, Primark.

I’m not actually convinced that anyone buys anything at all from any shop on Oxford St other than Primark.  You just don’t see bags from Selfridges, or John Lewis, or Debenhams, or M&S, or any of the big department stores, let alone any of the specialist clothing, jewellery, footwear or electronics retailers.  You just see Primark bags.

Being so massively visible on what I believe is still the UK’s number one shopping street has to be worth millions and millions in advertising terms to Primark.  To anyone coming to the street in need of a bit of guidance (like any one of several million tourists, for example), it says that Primark is the only place where you’ll find things you actually want to buy.

Inevitably, this leaves me searching for an analogy in the financial world.  Have any firms made anything like the same kind of effort to encourage thousands, if not millions, of consumers to promote their brand on their behalf?

In London, I guess there’s one analogy which works reasonably well – the thousands of rentable “Boris bikes,” originally sponsored by Barclays and now by Santander.  Similarly, this mobilises thousands of people, recruiting them to the cause of building brand awareness.  But that is the only one I can think of.

OK, I admit that Primark has got it easy.  When you’re selling goods to people, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that providing them with branded bags to take the goods away might be a good idea.  And the reason why I can’t think of an obvious analogy in financial services is that there isn’t an obvious analogy in financial services.

Still, I think it would be well worth while to give the whole subject a bit more thought.  Amid today’s blizzard of paid, owned and earned media, I reckon that if dominant enough, “carried” media – that is, media carried around the place by your customers – is one of the most valuable kinds.

Three reasons why I’m not really looking for long-copy jobs

(Short copy, no problem at all – bring them on, don’t let me put you off.)

Reason number one is a sort of hybrid reason:  to be honest, I find writing long things – websites, brochures – boring and daunting in equal measure.  I’ve spent most of my career as an advertising writer, and advertising copy is almost always short.  By this point, 60-odd words in, I’m ready for a wrap-up:  For more information, call me on 07850 055 390, or go to luciancampconsulting,com.  And enjoy a great deal – and a great deal more.  That’s it, job done, off down the pub.  Having to sustain the effort over thousands of words is, well, as I say, boring and daunting in equal measure.

Reason number two:  you’ll change or cut all the good bits.  People who ask me to write long copy usually do so because they think they want my kind of stuff.  But when they get it, they realise either that they don’t really, or that their boss doesn’t, and then they get out their editing pencils and take out all the bits that make it my kind of stuff.  I don’t want to irritate an old friend, but I could point you to a Guide To Investment on a well-known wealth manager’s website that is the dreariest and less interesting thing you could ever read:  it bears pretty much no resemblance at all to the rather perky first draft I submitted.

And then reason number three:  compared to other things I do, it’s really badly paid.  This is partly because there’s no real chance of an efficiency dividend – in other words, of completing the job in half the estimated time so that you effectively double the estimated rate.  Writing long copy takes time.  But it’s also just because…well I don’t really know because of what, but over all the years I’ve been in this business day rates for copywriters have increased less than pretty much any other cost I can think of.  When I first hired a freelance copywriter back in 1985, the going rate was £200 a day.  Now the good ones cost a lot more – but you can still hire a freelance copywriter for £200 a day.

So those are my three reasons for not really crossing the road to pick up a long copy brief.  (I suppose if I’m really honest, there’s a fourth reason, which is that there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of other work that’s easier, more fun and better paid.)

And if you’re feeling concern that this means I’m lacking an outlet for this kind of more expansive expression, don’t worry.  What do you think this blog’s for?

Robo-advice: the good news

A few blogs back I grumbled at some length about this robo-advice thing, basically saying the word “robo” is bad and the word “advice” is even worse (the latter because “advice” isn’t at all what customers think they’re buying – they think they’re buying a nice, simple, packaged, online investment).

However, looking back on it, I wonder if I may have accentuated these linguistic negatives somewhat at the expense of a more important positive.  I’ve been banging on for literally years about the need for the investment industry to start developing product concepts that are designed to make sense to consumers in the post-face-to-face-advice era, and – despite the regrettable confusion generated by the name – I’d say that these new robo-advice services are pretty much what I’ve been talking about.

The proof of this is arguably to be found in the way that full-fat DIY-ers look down their noses at them.  For individuals happy to spend hours every week on their Hargreaves Lansdown account rebalancing their portfolios, a fully-packaged service which requires nothing more of the customer than a single short questionnaire is altogether a bit on the simplistic side.  But the thing about those individuals – as, again, I’ve said many times – is that there aren’t very many of them.  For millions and millions more of us, that single short questionnaire is just about all that we can be bothered with.

As I say, it’s not at all good that we’re still using the word “advice” to describe these propositions even though the most important and attractive thing about them is that they don’t actually involve or require any.  But there you are.  In the horribly hidebound world of investment, an innovation that’s even partially successful is something to be celebrated.

How to make money on the England v Italy game. Maybe.

I remember someone telling me years ago that in what was then the emerging era of online betting, there was an easy and certain way to make money,  Bet on international competitions only, and arbitrage the distortions in the market resulting from the emotions of each team’s home fans.

So, for example, imagine England are playing Italy at football.  Bet on England with an Italian bookie, and on Italy with a British one.  I can’t remember how, or where, you’re supposed to bet on a draw, but I do remember that the emotion factored in to the available odds means you’ll make a profit whichever team wins.

Yes, OK, this is all a bit hazy, but I now have some evidence to support it.  For reasons I won’t bore you with, I recently found myself one of a group of about 25 taking part in a Rugby World Cup sweepstake – and I should say that all but about three of us were middle-aged male actuaries, who you might have thought would be a cautious and level-headed bunch not overly prone to outpourings of nationalistic emotion.

The aim of the sweepstake was to pick the first four, in finishing order.  At this point, I do have to murmur modestly that I did in fact win, with the first three right and in the right order (no, I didn’t spot Argentina – who did?).  But my point (or at least my other point, alongside the point that I won) is the reason why everyone else lost:  the reason is that out of about 25 of us, all but three picked England as one of the final four.  In fact, of course, we didn’t even make it out of the Group stage and into the final eight.

Which goes to show that the “emotional distortions” I was talking about are absolutely for real, even among a research sample made up almost entirely of actuaries.

England are in fact playing Italy at football this weekend.  If this blog helps you make any money, a note of thanks would be welcome.