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.


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.

The triumph of brands over experience

(Yes, I know, it would be a better headline if the word “brands” rhymed with the word “hope”.  Oh well.)

Over the last few days, I’ve been having my first airbnb experience, trying to sort out three or four places to stay during a short trip in the New Year.

I suppose the initial online experience is OK, although there are some highly un-intuitive page layouts and the whole thing certainly conforms to my comments about idiosyncracy from a few blogs ago.  But it’s once you’ve tried to book somewhere that it all gets very tricky.

I may have been unlucky, or maybe people took an instinctive dislike to the slightly self-conscious personal profile that I was obliged to provide.  (Or maybe it was just that it was obvious from my photograph that unlike the large majority of male users, I don’t have a beard.)   But for whatever reasons, it happened five times in three or four days that my bookings were accepted, and then within 24 hours cancelled again – involving me in a less-that-straightforward refunds procedure, and of course the need to go through the whole rigmarole again.    (In the end, I decided to quit while I wasn’t too far behind, booking half the trip on airbnb but turning to expedia for the other half.)

This was all extremely tiresome, and not at all what I expected from the service that has been hyped as the future of leisure travel.  But here’s the thing:  at a brand level, I don’t really mind.  In a service industry sector where we all agree that brand perceptions are overwhelmingly driven by experience, my experience has been rather less than mediocre.  But I still perceive the brand as the future of leisure travel, and I expect I’ll still go back to it again.

This doesn’t really make sense.  My not-very-positive experience should be powerful enough to overwhelm the fairly feeble positives built up in my mind by seeing some posters on the tube and reading some PR in the newspapers.  But somehow, it doesn’t work like that:  with brands that you kind of like, as with people that you kind of like, you’re willing to set aside the negative experience and carry on with the liking.

If there’s some kind of general theory about how brand relationships work, and specifically about how some kind of positive emotional engagement can offset a whole lot of negative experiences, it’s obviously important to try to understand how it works.  Can anyone help me with this?  If anything’s been written on the subject, I’d like to read it.

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.


How disruptive must disruption be?

It’s one of those words, “disruption.”  A digital-era word that has been used and over-used across the digital economy for at least 10 years (maybe more), and has now fairly recently landed in financial services.

It’s in the title, for example, of a new publication from the consulting firm EY (to be exact, the document is called “Disruption In The Life, Pension and Investment Markets”).  And although the weakness of my position arises from the fact that I haven’t actually read past the first page of it yet, it still made me ponder, on my journey into the office this morning, whether I think, by digital economy standards, that what we’ve seen so far in financial services really amounts to “disruption.”

Certainly the industry has had to contend with a whole load of change.  My involvement is this whole weird world dates back fairly exactly to the passing of the 1988 Financial Services & Markets Act, which introduced various important ideas like the distinction between tied and independent advice, and the changes – occupying all four boxes in every offsite strategic brainstorming’s PEST analysis – have come thick and fast ever since.  But by the digital community’s definition of the world, do they amount to “disruption?”

Of course the difficulty I’m facing with this blog is that there is no digital community definition of the word.  It’s a judgment call.  But I’d say that the first and most obvious sign of disruption is the sweeping-away of tired old legacy players, and their replacement, either immediately or at least pretty rapidly, with shiny new digital players.  Uber is disruptive because it’s supposed to kill black cabs.  Amazon killed small bookshops.  Wikipedia killed encyclopedias.  Digital photography killed Kodak, Polaroid and pretty much the whole film-based photography industry.

Or, second, if sometimes the legacy industry lives on, then the “disruption” consists primarily of bringing about a whole new kind of consumer behaviour that the legacy industry had never encouraged.  Low-cost airlines, for example, have got millions of us all going off for long weekends in Vilnius or Katowice in a way that sad old British Airways had never imagined.  eBay is apparently responsible almost single-handedly for the massive growth in self-store facilities around the country, because huge numbers of us are now trading in something or other – vintage jukeboxes, Norton motorbike parts, low-cost Polish strawberry jam we bought from a bloke we met in Katowice – that we need secure storage for.

If you look at life, pensions and investments for signs of developments like any of these, the picture is pretty mixed.  Some legacy players have disappeared, although usually as a result of mergers and acquisitions than anything more dramatic.  But with only one big exception – workplace pensions, of which more in a minute – I can’t say that the shiny new breed have achieved any great success.  There are certainly dozens of new or newish entrants in pretty much all parts of the industry, but the very large majority are small and struggling.

Disruption may be imminent.  In particular, the slew of D2C investment services now coming onto the market under the terrible “robo-advice” descriptor might really change the sleepy old investment industry.  And as I just mentioned, as the auto-enrolled workplace pension sector gathers momentum, it may very likely achieve a strange slow-motion kind of disruption, diverting more and more mass-market long-term savings into young brands and businesses like NEST, NOW Pensions and The People’s Pension rather than any of the legacy alternatives (be they pensions company, bank, shop or pub).

But that’s the thing about disruption in financial services.  It always seems to be on the point of happening.  If you look at all the major sectors of the market over, say, 30 years or more, the only one that I would say has been clearly and fundamentally disrupted is general insurance, where the coming of Direct Line back in the mid-80s really did change everything.  Otherwise, on the whole, we wait and hope.  Or, in the legacy industry, we wait and fear.



More on this customer-acquisition-cost business

I think I may finally have found something to say in conference presentations which gets some attention, and hopefully not in a Gerald Ratner way.

At the Platforum conference three months or so ago, I did a talk about the cost of acquiring customers, and particularly about the hopeless situation and brief life-expectancy of start-up financial services businesses with no customers and no money to recruit them with.  In this talk, I quoted the very first hard numbers that I learned in the world of financial services direct marketing a million years ago – that whatever your proposition, market sector, target market or media strategy, on the whole, as a universal average, at least for initial planning purposes, you’re doing OK if you can generate a lead for £30 and acquire a customer for £200.

Much has changed since I first learned these numbers – well, let’s face it, nearly everything has changed.  But at least for initial planning purposes, I’d say they still work.  (They certainly work a very great deal better than the ridiculous notion that in today’s world of social media you can recruit any number of customers for no money at all, except perhaps the bus fares of the intern you get to write your Twitter posts.)

What’s interesting – by which I mean both surprising and pleasing – is how much interest these numbers of mine have attracted, and indeed continue to do so.  For example, a new Finametrica report on the emerging robo-advice (bleurgghh) market quotes a typical customer acquisition cost of £200:  without paying £995 for the report I can’t tell whether or not they’ve nicked my number, but let’s just say it’s a funny coincidence if not.

The great thing about a figure like this, of course, is that you can build a whole business plan on it.  If you want 10,000 customers, it’ll cost you £2 million to acquire them.  100,000?  £20 million.  A million customers?  £200 million. And so on.

Of course there are lots of reasons why it’s not that simple.  Particular businesses have particular issues which will force their costs up or down.  There are many of these, and perhaps the most important are the economies of scale, or perhaps as I always say the diseconomies of lack of scale:  if you only wanted, say, 1000 customers then the full weight of your establishment costs would bear very heavily on them.  The figure will require some refinement in the light of your specific circumstances – and of course the best and most accurate refinements will be made in the light of real-life experience.

But still, it’s something.  And as a corrective to the view of all those clever people starting up new FS businesses of one sort or another who all seem to be assuming they can recruit their customer bases for nothing or next to nothing, it’s actually something quite important.

In Professional Adviser’s piece about the Finametrica report today, they mention various robo-advice start-ups tackling the customer acquisition cost challenge.  One of these named in the piece is that well-known deep-pocketed financial services giant which is “Rutland-based Echelon Wealthcare.”

When the history of the robo-advice market is written, and the names of the firms which made the crucial breakthroughs are listed in the roll of honour, I will be astonished – no, let’s make that totally bloody dumbfounded – if Rutland-based Echelon Wealthcare is among them.