Cicutti: Free advice ad shows weakness of IFA representation

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