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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 MoneyAdviceService.org.uk 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 nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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Comments

There are 30 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. 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.

  2. colonel gaddafi 23rd June 2011 at 8:55 am

    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.

  3. 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”

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

    10/10! A+

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

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. Dennis Burling ACII APFS, Chartered Financial Plan 23rd June 2011 at 10:18 am

    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 !!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. I agree 10/10 Nick, however tell us something we didn’t already know! You may remember our email joust, just before Christmas last year, if you have a copy please re-read and you will see that you are now making some of the points I put to you then; RDR has little, if any, positive outcomes for the consumer.

  12. Financial Services has been regulated by various different bodies for years and years.

    There are still problems in the industry.

    Why is it that questions are not asked by the powers that be as to why all these regulators have failed?

  13. I think Steve Beaton has made the best comment -the ASA is there to stop untuths being reported – and they do have power (in theory anyway!) to stop an advert running if it is found to breach the various rules.

    Next stop – ASA web site.

  14. By golly Nic 10 out of 10

    I trust you have copied this article to Downing Street & Canary Wharf

  15. Steven Farrall (Adviser Alliance) 23rd June 2011 at 10:57 am

    Why are you surprised by this land grab by the FSA? The whole purpose of the FSMA 2000 was to nationalise by regulation all of financial services. They have succeeded with the banks and the building societies and the insurers – so who’s next? The IFA of course.

  16. As always, it is our job to de-tangle the riddles put out there by the government and its agencies to clients and prospective clients. I have even now adopted the advert in my introduction of myself and the firm and asked if people have seen it and if not, show it to them….if used and framed properly it can help IFA’s look a whole lot better as we explain what it is we really do for people

  17. Eveyone, do as Steve Beaton, Paul Howard and I have done! Take 5 minutes out, right now, and complain to the ASA. It may have little or no effect, but enough is enough. Please, DO IT NOW!

  18. Good points Nic – we’re currently in a world where the CLEAR disclosure of tied/multi tied/independent often seems questionable.

    Panorama last week allowed someone to rhetorically ask the question ‘if you can’t go to your Bank for advice, where can you go to’ – at which point I fell off my chair. If that’s the public view then we indeed have a serious issue with perception.

    I sincerely hope RDR sorts a lot of this out by raising this in the consumers mind but I often feel that those who ‘bang the drum’ of independence aren’t being heard and/or understood by the masses.

    The MAS – whilst good in principle – clearly seems to add to confusion by staking a claim to free (no such thing as a free lunch) independence (potentially a fair comment) advice (unlikely).

    I would agree with one particular point you make – in the current climate people see cheap as good. Transparency of the cost of financial advice has (and sometimes still is) often been unclear and often undervalued.

    The MAS are now implying Independent (i.e. unbiased, unrestricted) Advice can be free – precisely at a time many IFAs are explaining to clients the opposite and, agreeing with them that they will charge for their advice and going on to outline how this cost if being paid for!

    Is there any wonder consumers don’t know where to turn or who to believe/trust!

  19. Mr Cicutti, you had me agreeing with you all the way to the last paragraph, as if you could care less.
    As so often the case, you highlight a very important issue and then either draw the wrong conclusion or miss the real point.
    You are quite correct that the various bodies representing IFAs have failed to positively influence many of the most important decisions imposed by the FSA affecting us and public. I am not party to the private meetings but it does seem on the balance of probabilities that the fault lies not with the failure of these bodies to make valid contributions but with the FSA for ignoring them, much to the detriment of the public in terms of outcome and IFAs in terms or enjoying a profitable, respected professional career.

  20. Well said. But unless the more eloquent amongst us get into positions of influence we all know that the FSA will simply steamroller over everything. We’ll just be left picking up the tab.

  21. Credit where it is due – this is a superb piece. The pity is that we IFAs did not fight back and thus had our unique space trashed.

  22. There are people who will never seek proper financial advice – people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing who will see
    MAS as a way to get ‘free’ advice. They were never going to be IFA clients anyway.

    There are people who value advice and are bright enough to follow it, knowing their own limitations of experience or time available – MAS will be of passing interest for these people.

    Then there are people (the vast majority) who, even after a telephone call with some half-trained ‘adviser’ will feel incapable of making decisions and will seek out an IFA – something which they might not have done without the MAS ‘door-opener’.

    Yes, the FSA are a bunch of self-important, inept twits. Yes, it is a disgrace that MAS can ambush terms such as independent and unbiased. Yes, it is totally wrong that the FSA can, on the one hand, tell us all which terms can and cannot be used and yet MAS seems to have no semantic restrictions. Yes, it is wrong that the leeching quangocrats can levy fees from the IFA community and spend them on their own bloated bonuses, pensions, expense accounts and now, funding and organization which could, possibly, take business away from IFAs.

    But every government and their agencies (worldwide) are corrupt regimes stuffed full of jobsworths and people looking to feather their own nests. Gvernments take Joe’s money (tax) and spend it as they decide is appropriate (after taking their own slice) – governments make up rules and laws to legalise theft on the grandest scale. The only difference between the British government (and its ‘legitimized’ agencies) and other governments is the size of the slice. Looking at virtually every other western European country and the other major economic powers such as the US, Australia etc – we have one of the greediest governments in the world.

    Cameron was going to burn the quangos. What has he done so far – created more. Another lying politician who will prove as untrustworthy as Bliar.

    If the FSA, FOS, MAS, ICO (and several other quangos leeching their existence from the financial services industry) we terminated tomorrow, Joe Public would actually be better off with charges for advice coming down, rainforests being saved and common sense returning to replace the red tape and bureaucracy.

    But it ain’t going to happen in the near future so we have to try and make the best of it.

  23. Are the owners of this website at least level 4 or Chartered status to offer free advice?

  24. Has anyone actually looked at the MAS website? I didn’t even know it existed till I read this article and the comments above.

    I took a look.

    It’s really rather good.

    Much better than any IFA’s website I’ve ever seen.

    I say well done to the Govt and the FSA for providing this service to the public.

    It’s precisely what poor and uninformed members of the public need – i.e. the sort of people who were never going to use an IFA in the first place and whomIFAs wouod not want to deal with as doing so might waste valuable golfing time!!

  25. anonymous 11.27

    Exactly – people are ripped off everywhere on a mammoth scale but it won’t change anytime soon. Whilst I totally agree with the comments re a unified voice etc to stand up to the FSA I honestly don’t think it would have made any difference. The FSA could have been much more aggressive over RDR by banning any payments from providers at all to advisers, terminating all trail/fund based commissions and requiring full chartered status as minimum quals. For those of you that think that is fanciful, it remains very much on their agenda for the future and they certainly won’t care if it puts most of the industry out of work. The telling thing is that RDR type initiatives in other parts of the world have, in some cases, been more ferocious than here, so the FSA will do whatever they like without accountability or censure. So take the time to get your business model right without sentiment or muddled thinking and then carry it out with laser like focus with tweaks along the way. Given that I think our collective voice counts for virtually nothing, we have a collective responsibility to at least stick together, help each other and stay in business in spite of the challenges that are being thrown at us. There is an old saying ‘from chaos comes cash’ and there will without doubt be total chaos for years to come as a result of the FSA’s activities. We must make sure that we benefit because that means we will win which to my mind is the only objective worth bothering with. I am damned if the quangocrats are going to undo many years of hard work – RDR is going to make our business more profitable and I wish to be able to raise a glass to the FSA in years to come and thank them, (possibly through slightly clenched teeth) for kindly helping me achieve my commercial objectives.

  26. David Smith @ 11.50
    You might have a valid point if we were NOT paying for it.

  27. Does Anonymous | 23 Jun 2011 10:25 am work for the FSA / MAS by any chance?

    If we stand back and allow the FSA to complete RDR then you can say goodbye to financial advice for none HNW customers, outwith of them receiving the amazing level of advice they get from the banks.

    If I were a cynic, then I would think there might be a link between then FSA being full of ex bankers and their favourable treatment of the banks.

  28. “those nice people at Aifa, CII, IFAP, IFS, PFS..”

    They don’t give a ######.

    There to busy feathering their own nests.

    Total waste of time.

    Mind you they won’t exist in time to come, as they will have no members.

  29. Nic – thank you for raising this issue. The advert has to be turned off in my house as it makes me so angry.

    The comment it makes about the fact it’s free being a breath of fresh air is beyond belief. Many IFAs are currently having conversations with existing clients about the need to agree fee levels in preparation for RDR. Now the regulator is saying people can get unbiased, independent advice for free and therefore massively undercutting us!!

    We can explain to clients the difference between their information site and telephone people and full IFA provided advice. But should we have to? They are our regulators and not meant to be our competitors!

    I agree with David Smith 11.54 am 23rd June that the MAS is better than most IFA’s websites. However, I’d wager that if I had £44m of someone else’s money I could put together a pretty comprehensive website!!

  30. Richard Salter 1st July 2011 at 10:06 pm

    I have lodged a complaint with the advertising standards agency…so far just an acknowledgemnt though… and whilst i am at it i note with disbelief that the consumer Association Which? is now at it too – stealing the clothes of professional advisers by also claiming to give free (mortgage) advice. I bet they don’t mind trying to sell some life insurance with that Sir? too. What a laughing stock the highly quailified RDR ready adviser fraternity are being made – forced to pay for all these free competitors whislt facing just about every restraint of trade ourselves. you cannot make it up – THe FSA trumpets that no advice is free – as someone always pays for it – Which ? must be getting lender backhanders just as HL get a share of fund manager fewss – how else can they purport to offer free advice on every mortgage deal out there. I would be out of business in a jiffy if i tried to do that. Which ? should be slapped with an injunction and made to come clean on this bogus new sideline. Surely there is also a conflict for them offering impartial advice and no bias but then trying to sell products. They are anything but free as theirt adviser force will be being paid somehow and it will not be out of some charity fund. Oh yes and if the gullible public do volunteer to paay Which? a fee then thisis set at a rather tasty 5% – almost double the 3% going rate for mortgage introducer commission!! Once again weak regulators increasing the danger of shrinking adviser numbers clamping down on any claim to free advice which IFAs have done – as a loss leader or out of general benevolence for years – whilst ignoring the same claims for MAS and now Which?

    Another couple of nails in the coffin of professioanl advice all right under the noses of such pathetic regulators.

    Savings gap – big today? – you ain’t seen nothing yet as adviser numbers continure to be decimated….and the FSA band plays on…..

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