When approached by this much respected publication to contribute an article on below-the-line marketing, I wondered a) what it was and b) why an earth they thought I knew anything about it? On reflection, I realised that I have perhaps gained somewhat of a reputation for writing letters and being an all-round big mouth. It would seem that this is viewed as some sort of marketing whereas it could not be further from the truth.
In my case, this activity is actually a device to let off steam. As I cannot afford my own therapist, it is a cheap option.
Proper marketing is a serious business. To me, it falls somewhere between advertising and selling. You are not actually selling anything but it is the promotion of goods or services that you have to offer.
Many IFAs, particularly the smaller ones, rely on doing this at minimal cost so we do not employ advertising or marketing agencies. Writing to the press or making a noise is in itself not necessarily the most efficacious way to proceed. It is all very well trying to impress our colleagues in the trade but they are not going to be clients.
For most of this year, I have been privileged to be a regular contributor to an LBC radio programme but I can honestly say this has not resulted in one extra client, nor did I expect it to. In the past, I have also been a contributor to financial advice panels in the national press and, judging by what comes back, these are the last people I would wish to have as clients. So, if you do not use the press or the media, how do you promote your service?
It is thanks to IFAP and its PR agency Lansons Communications that IFAs have a decent profile in the media. They have been very effective in ensuring the public are made aware of independent advice and the positive contribution it has to offer. My only regret is that we are too parsimonious to fund the operation ourselves and rely on life offices to foot the bill. In my view, this leads to less effective promotion than might otherwise be the case. The piper always calls the tune and, in this case, the piper may not always have the same priorities as the dancers.
What about specific and individual promotion? Of course, the most straightforward way possible is to produce work for your clients that is in a league of its own. This should be the aspiration. Achieving it is very hard and not always possible but, if you do, you will probably need a commissionaire to organise the queues outside your office. It is also probably a virtuous circle because, by providing that level of advice and service, you are most likely to be compliant, thereby enjoying a halo effect from the regulators as well – or so it is hoped.
Pontificating is all very well but do not lose sight of the fact that it is the real advice to real people that makes your reputation, the rest is really vanity. Allied to the good advice must be a cost-effective pricing structure for both parties. Excellent advice cannot be provided on a shoestring but you will soon start running out of clients if you charge £300 an hour.
The foregoing presumes that you are interested in individual clients and not a mass market. I am afraid that I am neither interested nor qualified to comment on mass marketing. Personally, I do not consider financial advice to be a suitable vehicle for SPQR (small profits and quick returns). The Government might like to think that stakeholder can be sold with less fuss than a tin of baked beans but I personally disagree.
One thing I think we can all agree on is that we are heading for difficult times. The spectre of recession looms large and it will be the thoughtful and the focused who survive, irrespective of their size and marketing budgets.
Harry Katz is principal at Norwest Consultants