The chief executive of IFAP, which is the body behind unbiased.co.uk and the Blue Book of IFA media contacts, sees the job as having two aspects. First, to promote the idea and values associated with independent financial advice and, second, as a practical service to help put members of the public in touch with the right IFA for their needs.
Elms’s background in marketing comes through strongly as he talks about the IFA brand and IFAP’s initiatives. He has also had experience on the sales side of financial services and says his mix of experience has come together well in his current role.
Before he joined IFAP, Elms was a marketing manager at Eagle Star and Merchant Investors, having previously worked as regional financial services manager at Black Horse Agencies.
“IFAP is about sales, it is about marketing and it is about PR so have I actually done the job of advising people? Yes. Have I learnt about financial services? Yes. Have I learnt about PR? Yes, so in a way, it all makes sense.”
Elms joined IFAP as marketing manager in 1998 before becoming chief executive in 2000 and says the reason he joined remains as relevant now as it was then.
“I felt the IFA sector was a great proposition to be promoting and I still do. The chance we are given to present to consumers the benefit of independent financial advice, which remains the best proposition in town, and trying to connect more consumers with that brand and to promote that brand in a way that does the brand credit was a great challenge and it remains such.”
Elms is proud of the organisation’s achievements. He cites 500,000-plus enquiries from the public each year and says the 9,000 members each receive an average of 5.3 referrals.
Elms is particularly proud of the work that IFAP has done to promote the reputation of IFAs. “The IFA proposition continues to be the gold standard of advice.”
But while he says the IFA reputation has been remarkably resilient in recent years, he is conscious of future challenges, with the retail distribution review the most immediate. He says the latest version of the RDR is much more palatable for IFAs. He insists that the definition of independent advice must include whole of market.
“Given that is what consumers want and given that it is what professional-thinking IFAs want, it looks like a very sensible move.”
But he warns that unless a common solution to the problem of remuneration can be found, the RDR risks damaging the whole idea of financial advice. He says there is still a lot of debate needed over whether it should be fees or customer-agreed remuneration but, whatever system is chosen, it must be applied to all models of distribution, not just IFAs.
“It should not be beyond the wit of man to come up with a proposal as far as payment methods are concerned, or CAR, that consumers can understand.
“It should also be possible for us to come up with a system that is applied similarly to all distribution channels. I would argue that if we came up with a solution that consumers could not easily understand and was not applied consistently across all distribution channels, then we would have done the consumer a disservice.”
In the meantime, Elms is doing all he can to push the IFA brand. Alongside unbiased.co.uk, IFAP has 62 white-labelled versions of the website but this is just a small part of the work it does. Elms says it gets referrals from thousands of different sources, including the FSA, the Consumers’ Association, Citizens’ Advice Bureau, product providers, banks, building societies, employers and pension schemes. White-labelled versions of its guides, podcasts and online microsites help spread the word.
Elms says positioning IFAs as expert commentators in the media is also an important role for IFAP. The Blue Book lists IFAs who are willing to speak to the media and is a feature on most personal finance journalists’ desks. He says IFAP works hard on this relationship.
“This year, as well as dealing with over 500,000 consumer enquiries, we will generate over 7,000 pieces of positive media coverage. Importantly, whenever a journalist quotes someone from the Blue Book, they are always positioning them as an expert commentator and they are always calling them an IFA, so from a brand point of view it is very powerful.”
IFAP is funded by 28 industry sponsors and charges IFAs to be included in its listings. It also offers an enhanced online marketing package which includes the options of call-backs for prospective clients and passing online contact information straight to the customer.
It has worked hard to get IFAP or unbiased. co.uk featured on as many search engines as possible. “If you type ‘find an IFA’ into Google, 80 per cent of the returned links are either unbiased.co.uk or white labels of it,” says Elms.
Despite offering benefits to IFAs, Elms warns that technology could be the biggest challenge to IFAs in future. This covers how IFAs generate new business, how they use the web to cost-efficiently interact with existing clients, how they use technology to demonstrate treating customers fairly and how they communicate with providers.
“With margins where they are and the costs on IFAs’ businesses, technology is the only way that all those processes are going to managed effectively.”
He says recent statistics show that 30 per cent of IFAs do not yet have a website even to communicate with existing clients, suggesting that some businesses have a long way to go.
As for Elms’ own future, he says he plans to stay with IFAP for as long as he enjoys the job.
In the shorter term, he has a more pressing issue – negotiating Heathrow’s Terminal Five. Elms has lived in Germany for several years and his weekly commute is definitely not the highlight of his week.
“I have an abiding hatred of Terminal Five and everything to do with British Airways. I did not think anyone could make me feel like that after First Great Western but British Airways has surpassed itself in its ability to disappoint me.”
Born: Gravesend, 1963
Education: Sheldon School, Chippenham, and Hatfield Polytechnic
Career: 1998-2008 – marketing manager, then chief executive, IFA Promotion; 1997-98 – client magazine editor and sponsorship manager, Eagle Star; 1994-97 – marketing executive, Merchant Investors; 1983-94 – regional financial services sales manager, Black Horse Agencies; 1982-83 – Sun Alliance
Dislikes: “I have an abiding hatred of Heathrow Terminal 5 and British Airways”
Drives: Golf R32
Favourite book: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Favourite film: City Hall
Favourite musician: Peter Gabriel
Career ambition: “It would be nice to be part of an industry where all aspects are respected for the approach they take”
Life ambition: To see the statues on Easter Island
If I wasn’t doing this I would be …. A chronicler of German electronic music between 1958-78 but it would have to be with an online proposition