Financial Services Forum chief executive Anthony Thomson is a man who doesn't pull any punches in business or leisure. That is why he is taking part in a boxing competition in November and he doesn't mind mixing it to the extent that he has had his nose broken twice in the ring.
In 1996 after a hard hitting spell as a marketing specialist in the industry Thomson sold his company, City Financial Marketing, which he founded with John Paterson in 1987 and decided to spend a year travelling around the world, until one day he had a change of heart.
“During my year off, I was with my family in the Red Sea diving. One day I was sitting listening to Counting Crows and decided I wanted to do something. I wanted to have conversations with a sense of purpose. I wanted to work.”
Thomson chose to stick to what he knew best – financial services marketing. “Even in the early 80s, marketing in financial services meant sales promotion. In the consumer retail sector, marketing has been highly sophisticated since the 50s. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Every three weeks, Thomson jets off to Philadelphia to visit his nine-year-old son and he is keen to learn from the financial services industry overseas. In 2000, three years after founding CST Intelligence with Keith Carby and John Seals, the trio ran a series of workshops for chief executives and marketing directors throughout the UK, Europe, South Africa and Asia. The aim was to find out how the industry defines effective marketing.
Thomson soon realised they had tapped into a huge appetite for development. From an experiment, the project quickly became formalised as the Financial Services Forum.
Membership of the FSF is restricted to senior marketing executives in the financial services industry. The applicant must control or at least directly influence their organisation's strategy, distribution or marketing as well as being part of their executive group.
“I remember Keith Carby saying that if we had 50 members in a year it would be a success. We had 120 after the first year and at the end of the second year we have 220 members.”
Due to the strict criteria Thomson estimates that membership in the UK will peak at about 300. But he is aiming to extend the concept internationally. “Distribution, brand, product innovation service delivery, operating costs and customer acquisition and retention. Whether it's in Sydney or Stockholm,we all face the same key issues. We want to identify and spread best practice.”
Within two years, Thomson aims to set up in the US, with the possibility of spreading to Europe and Asia after that. Within three years, they aim to reach 3,000 subscriptions worldwide to the FSF's journal Argent.
Thomson doesn't seem to do anything by halves. He came to boxing when he decided to move on from marathons and triathlons, he doesn't just play the guitar but collects them – 12 at the last count and he has his own wine cellar.
W ith all the changes on the horizon in the financial services industry there is more need than ever to share information. The FSF helps the process by organising eight evening events, six half-day workshops and three two-day conferences each year.
“This would never happen in the soft drinks industry. I can't imagine the chief executives of Pepsi and Coca-Cola even being in the same building. But marketing is very new in this industry so everyone benefits from sharing.”
The FSF awards aim to show off the best in financial services marketing. Over 60 entries have been submitted for nine cat-egories from most effective new product or service launch to best motivation of an internal audience. The awards will be presented at the annual FSF dinner at Vinopolis in London on October 2, with speaker General Charles “Chuck” Krulak, chairman and chief executive of MBNA Europe, and former commander of the US Marine Corps.
Thomson is clearly a man who focuses on the future but how does he think regulatory change will affect the industry and the role of the FSF? “We have brought upon ourselves much of the change that is happening in the industry by not putting the customer first. For too long, we have had opaque pricing and little real interest in the consumer. Now it has come back and bitten us.
“More enlightened people will see this is as a wake-up call but there are still companies who will take rearguard action to defend the indefensible. The days of those companies are numbered and I think rightly so. The FSF is not about a cartel for the protection of old practices, it is about challenging the status quo.”
The one thing Thomson believes will persist through change in the industry is the importance of the role of IFAs. He believes distribution is central to marketing and IFAs will remain an important channel of distribution.
But that is not the only thing IFAs have to contribute. In Thomson's mind, IFAs have for years succeeded where product providers have failed. By their nature, IFAs accommodate customers to an extent that product providers are struggling to achieve. “The oneor two-man IFA is intuitively client-led. That is one of the things that we should be learning from IFAs – the way they are utterly customer-centred. They start with the customer and work out rather than starting with admin, IT or the product and going from there.”
The challenge for IFAs will be to carry on their good work in a more organised, methodical way whereas product providers have a more complex job ahead of them.
“Product providers need to be more effective in marketing. Stronger brands, better products and effective pricing will make a real difference to IFAs. It is clear that there is no future in product differentiation. The lead time for new products is as little as three weeks. The future of financial services marketing lies in service.”
Born: Corbridge, Northumberland
Lives: Alone in an apartment in Hampstead
Career: Advertising for Thomson Newspapers; marketing director for North-east department store Macintosh and Pell; head of direct marketing for Sun Life of Canada and sales promotion director and assistant sales director. Founded City Financial Marketing in 1987, sold it to Publicis in 1996, Set up CST Intelligence in 1997. Founded Financial Services Forum in 2000.
Career ambition: To make a difference in marketing financial services.
Life ambition: To have fun, spend more time with friends and family. To achieve balance in my life and beat my nine-year-old son at chess.
Likes: Good wine, interesting people, collecting and playing guitars, boxing and weight training.
Dislikes: Dishonesty, duplicity, smokers.
Car: 911 Turbo, 1971 Corvette Stingray and Honda Fireblade motorbike.
Peers say: “Anthony has made a massive contribution to financial services in the UK. He has a consumer and marketing-led approach which is so often missing in the industry.”