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Cicutti: Free advice ad shows weakness of IFA representation

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A few weeks ago, when the Money Advice Service website launched, I wrote a quick review of it for Money Marketing.

My take on it was that combines both useful and useless aspects with some that are potentially harmful.

Specifically, I am concerned that the MAS site lists products based on cost, regardless of whether price is a key determinant in terms of making a sensible purchase decision.

It may make sense to list some products this way - subject to all sorts of additional information being provided - but in the context of pensions or investment it is a meaningless exercise, particularly as users are not being told how to choose an appropriate product.

Even so, I hoped that a website providing some fairly decent information could be useful to people grappling with big decisions and might even lead some of them to contact an IFA.

That was until last week when, like millions of other consumers, I caught sight of the first MAS adverts on TV - and nearly fell off my settee. Free, independent and unbiased advice? To quote Ricky Tomlinson in the Royle family, “My arse!”

I associate myself 100 per cent with the comments of Money Marketing editor Paul McMillan, in that what the MAS is delivering is nothing that looks remotely like financial advice. At best, it is a poor and rather inadequate version of financial guidance.

The use of the word “unbiased” is a direct rip-off of the IFA Promotion website, which has for many years promoted independent financial advice using that very name.

I do not believe for a second that this did not enter into the minds of those who came up with the advert. Knowing how the world of PR and advertising works, I can imagine a scenario where a bunch of self-styled creatives even had a little giggle about their misuse of the word, knowing it is virtually impossible for IFAP to do anything about this intellectual theft.

Paul McMillan is right on two other key points. First, the MAS website is not free. How could it be? Who do they honestly believe is paying for the site? The staff in call centres and the boots on the ground who may end up giving “unbiased advice” to punters on a face-toface basis?

Moreover, for the FSA to let through an advert trivialising the fact that advice needs to be paid for - and that such charges should be visible and up front - is a disgrace.

Even worse, it flies in the face of everything the regulator claims to stand for. More than 10 years ago, I was involved in setting up a website that aimed to give exactly the same guidance as the MAS site. The technology was nowhere near as good as the MAS website - we have come a long way on that score - but our written content was infinitely better.

We had long discussions with the FSA about what we were doing. In our case, there was no way we would ever have been allowed to describe what we were giving users as advice. It was quite clearly guidance and guidance alone. Yet in the MAS case, guidance has now become “advice”.

By promoting itself in the way it has - and being cleared to do so by the FSA - the MAS has cheapened and devalued the concept of independent advice and done a massive disservice to thousands of IFAs at the same time.

All that said, one must ask how it is possible for such an advert to be broadcast. A few weeks ago, I wrote that compared with a decade or so ago, the importance of how advice is defined and what advisers and salespeople are allowed to call themselves has gradually been allowed to wither on the vine.

What appears to have happened is that the territory of “status” and the debate over how to protect it has been vacated by IFAs and their trade bodies over the years, not just Aifa but also the other self-styled professional and awarding organisations that rake in millions of pounds from advisers by churning out endless qualifications.

What they all seem to have forgotten is that holding a qualification is only useful as a differentiator from someone who does not have one if the status of the person who has it is made crystal clear and defined by the regulator. It would have been unthinkable for IFAs to be treated like this a decade ago, and on such a clear point of principle. This advert reflects the weakness of IFA representation of all stripes over the past few years, of a slavish devotion to behind-closed-doors representation rather than tough negotiation.

For those who care about these issues, it is time to tell those nice people at Aifa, CII, IFAP, IFS, PFS and all those other important-sounding bodies that it is time they started earning the money you pay them. Otherwise, what is the point of being a member?

Nic Cicutti can be contacted via

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Readers' comments (29)

  • I wonder if there is a case for a complaint(s) to be made to the advertising standards authority as the advert contains a number of inaccurate statements (i am pretty sure that the FSA is meant to independent of government which is why we pay for it through levies but the advert claims MAS was set up by government).

    The issue with the fragmented industry in which we work is that all parties somehow think that they are going to survive RDR and will be able to cherry pick the profitable clients post 2012. I think it is clear that the FSA has a different idea to us and believes (wrongly) that everyone is able to make decisions themselves based on information from a website and discussions with unqualified call centre staff so there is no need for financial advice going forward.

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  • Doesn't this mean that a firm can simply copy the approach used by MAS and make it clear that it is only offering 'guidance', with a series of disclaimers, whilst giving something closer to advice? Provided that the model is as close as possible to the MAS offering it is hard to see how the FSA or FOS could take issue with it. It will be interesting to see if that happens out there anywhere.

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  • And when all the corner shops were gone the former shopkeepers turned to each other and said " maybe we should have stood together and fought as one voice to repel with the big supermarkets. There was no point in us crying foul and continually saying we were the best. We should have formed a united voice and fought back on a positive note rather than always moaning"

    The public learned to use supermarkets and soon forgot about the expensive personal service of the corner shop.

    Some innovative corner shops fought back by selling their products online. These specialist shops started to do well and their sales grew far bigger than the corner shop ever would have.

    The wise man explained "there will always be threats, but you must fight those who seek to take over your corner. Embrace change and innovate using your expertise. Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose"

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  • I once wondered if I would ever get a chance to say this but Nic

    10/10! A+

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  • Aifa, CII, IFAP, IFS, PFS are all a complete waste of time!!!!

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  • Were any of the professional bodies mentioned in Nic's article consulted by the FSA about what the MAS would aim or claim to offer, how it would present itself and, in particular, whether or not claiming to offer free advice without responsibility would be appropriate? What, if any, note was taken of whatever feedback was submitted by those bodies? Was any Cost:Benefit Analysis undertaken?

    Or, as seems to be rather more likely, was it just a matter of a group of people at the FSA dreaming up yet another new idea and deciding yes, let's do it and who cares what it costs, because we'll just bill the industry for it and anyone who refuses to pay their share, we'll shut down?

    What, for example, was AIFA's input and what if any notice was taken of it? Above all else, does the FSA give a fig what anybody else thinks or might wish to say on the matter?

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  • I have just submitted a formal complaint to the ASA. I'm not over optimistic but perhaps if others did the same it might achieve something.

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  • A lot of good sentiment expressed, however...the problem that we have is that even when we do all join a trade body and give it some funds to fight things, it is still ignored by the regulator who just continues to do whatever they want without any controls at all.

    The only way that anything is ever going to change is for the regulator and its chiefs to be made persoanlly answerable to some higher authority composed of truly impartial and independent representatives of all parties who have power to reverse decisions and punish unfair practice.

    As alas this is never going to happen in my lifetime, I for one have duly left AIFA and am now looking to sell my business while it still has any value at all and leave this doomed industry !!

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  • I think there's been far too much wailing and gnashing of teeth and knicker-twisting about this. If it is so unfair and wrong why not focus your energies to promote the benefits of paid for advice and, for lack of a better phrase, 'ignore' the MAS site? The fact is it is live, in the same way that so called 'professional' ppi claims firms are live but I don't see much wailing about that! I believe the MAS has a place, because before there was a vacuum. There is a massive hole in UK savings, and complaining at length about what the Govt / FSA is trying to do about it achieves nothing apart from perhaps turning some of the public against advisers!

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  • The propensity towards a lack of personal responsibility manifests in the Nanny State where Nanny knows best and will solve all our problems. All we then get is more and more government control, more taxation and less less benefit. In the old days it was called Nationalisation, ie the process of taking an industry into the public ownership of a national government or state. The FSA is a government agency and MAS is funded by an industry tax. The consumer will pay far more for this service than if it was provider by the independent sector. We want less government control not more. I thought we had a Conservative government in power not old Labour, but then again that was before Big Mac Hoban MP.

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