M&G and “Murder on the Orient Express”

So poor old M&G has another visual identity and another big advertising idea, once again (as most of them do) focusing on the ampersand but this time presenting it in some very ugly and dirty green colours and treating it not only as a rather questionable visual (a flock of ampersands flying out of a bird cage???) but also as the first thing at the beginning of every headline.

In recent years, M&G’s turnover of brand strategies and big advertising ideas has been up there with my beloved football club’s turnover of managers.  (And some, I’m tempted to say, have been about as comprehensible as our new bloke Mr Ramos’s English.)

It used to be very different.  Over a period of about 30 years or so, M&G built pretty much the only brand worth talking about in the retail investment funds market, thanks to the complete and highly idiosyncratic control of an in-house marketing and communications team led by the much-missed Tim Miller and the great Roger Jennings.  Tim and Roger built a brand characterised by hideously ugly, crude, naive, shouty-looking communications, with more than a touch of the John Bull printing press about them.  It wasn’t remotely intelligent, sophisticated or marketing-literate:  their idea of an ISA poster would be a 6-sheet in 3,600-point type that would say (or rather, scream) ISA – BUY NOW!

And it worked brilliantly.  (Or should I say “& it worked brilliantly?”)  The thing about M&G was, it was absolutely 100% authentic.  It obviously hadn’t in any way been got at by slick, mendacious brand and marketing folk.  You could easily imagine that the fund managers knocked up the ads in a few moments of downtime.  M&G was so utterly transparent – no-one was sophisticated enough to even spin the truth a little bit, let alone conceal it – that you knew you could trust everything it said.  It was the ultimate un-brand:  its total artlessness was the whole point.

Things started to change in the mid-90s.  Inevitably, the first changes took place within the organisation.  I can’t remember if Tim Miller had left by then, but it doesn’t really matter because around that time he tragically died in a car crash.  And new sales and marketing people came on board and didn’t like the look of what Roger and his team were doing:  it was embarrassing for them to be seen to have a responsibility for such crass stuff.  People tittered at dinner parties.

Inevitably, they hired consultants and agencies to look at ways to “refresh” and “update” and “contemporise” the brand.  And (sorry, “&”) we were one of the first to come on board.  

You’ll remember that the point of Murder on the Orient Express is that all the major characters on the train all had a hand in the victim’s murder.  It wasn’t any one of them:  it was all of them.

That’s the story of the job that the marketing, brand, advertising and communications industry has done for M&G since the mid-90s. 

Sure, there have been a couple of highlights.  Steve Harrison is praised – somewhat overpraised, in my opinion – for his long-running and amiable long-copy campaign, which was certainly among the best in this desperately poor category.  (Some would say that all he produced was a knowing, artful and therefore obviously cynical equivalent of what Tim and Roger did with such convincing artlessness, but anyway.)  

But there have also been several lowlights – including, to be honest, one or two where you’ll find my fingerprints on the dagger – and of all of these, this new ampersand thing strikes me as the lowest.

Amidst this feeding frenzy of agencies and consultants, the brand, inevitably, has pretty much sunk without trace.  Old M&G is long gone – I don’t suppose most people reading this have any idea what I’m talking about – and there is no new M&G, just another blurry investment house.

At our best, we do lots of great work in our industry, adding millions if not billions of pounds of value for our clients in the process.  But we’re rarely at our best when it comes to evolving things:  we suffer (sorry about the mixed metaphor) from a disabling inability to distinguish babies from bathwater, and tend to chuck the whole lot away just to be on the safe side.  Old M&G needed to change, but it certainly didn’t need much of what we’ve done to it in the last ten years.  Least of all green ampersands pretending to be birds.

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