It is fair to say that Unbiased.co.uk chief executive Karen Barrett knows a thing or two about the marketing of financial services. After all, she has spent the past 20 years in the discipline that she describes as “a little bit of everything – it sits in the middle of maths and creativity”.
At Unbiased.co.uk – best known for its adviser search facility aimed at consumers – Barrett uses that little bit of everything to promote the benefits of independent financial advice.
“There are a lot of financial guidance and information sites and a lot of sites which help people find an adviser. But we are focused on being a bit of both,” she says. “We explain why people need independent advisers, how they can find the right adviser for them, what questions to ask the adviser. We’re like a dating website that matches advisers with clients.”
With 24,000 advisers registered on its database, Unbiased has plenty of scope to provide consumers with their perfect match. Barrett says the RDR has not affected the number of registered advisers on the database.
“Many advisers are using Unbiased to market themselves – we have more profiles on our database than we have ever had. There has been no drop-off in numbers since the RDR but that may be due to our definition of independent adviser – they have to charge a fee, give whole of market advice for the areas they cover and offer investment advice. Some of the movement in adviser numbers may have been those who are mainly whole of market who advise on insurance but possibly did not give investment advice.”
In the run-up to the RDR, Barrett was positive about the impact the changes would have on the industry and her stance has not changed.
“The number of advisers still in the market is the same as pre-RDR and consumer demand for advice has increased. The recession and economy has made more people talk about financial issues. Everyone is watching their pennies and people are realising they need to plan for their retirement and protect themselves. But we need more discussion and debate within the Government and the financial media. There needs to be more debate about how more people can be helped and at what level.”
Post-RDR, Barrett points out that advisers have had to be clear about their business propositions – whether that is targeting the top end of the market or dealing with all comers, even those in that difficult middle-income bracket that may take the DIY route because they are priced out of professional advice.
“There has been a lot of hullabaloo about whether DIY investment is taking business away from advisers,” says Barrett. “If someone is doing DIY investment and auto-enrolment they may not be making the best choices but they are becoming more engaged with their finances and that’s a good thing. There is no reason why they can’t be the adviser customers of the future.”
With technology the driving force behind new ways of communicating with and servicing clients, Barrett says advisers have to be multi-media aware.
“They can’t afford to ignore technology. Everyone has a device – if you go on a train platform you’ll see nine out of 10 people staring at their phone.”
Rather than pay lip service to the various forms of online marketing, she says advisers should be clear about why they are using some methods of communication and not others.
“Some advisers find listing in our Blue Book media directory is the way to build their profile. Others may arrange garden parties for clients and ask them to bring their friends. Advisers should pick what is right for them and they shouldn’t be afraid to trial and test. Ask clients how they found you and what they think.
“No one size fits all but advisers need to be involved online in some way because something like 95 per cent of searches for advisers start online. Even if people are referred to an adviser they will look up that adviser online. Having an online footprint and a link back to your website makes sense for advisers. They need a good-quality website almost as a shop front.”
Developing a website was one of Barrett’s tasks in her previous role as marketing director at Abbey National.
Barrett started her career with Mortgage Express, the intermediary lending division of Bradford & Bingley. “When I got the job with Mortgage Express I thought I’d do it for a while then get a job in fashion or fast-moving consumer goods later on,” she says. “But I started the job and enjoyed financial services. I liked the people and the industry.”
As a child, she had fancied becoming a lawyer, convinced it was as fast-moving and exciting as it seemed to be in films. “I saw it as high-flying and dashing round courtrooms meeting criminals. But when I got to secondary school I realised the grades you need and the hard slog involved, so I wanted to do something creative like marketing,” she says.
She says this with a hint of playfulness. She is clearly not one to take the easy option – just two weeks away from giving birth to her third child, she is at her desk.
The business-to-business version of the Unbiased website also helps advisers and product providers with marketing to clients and advisers respectively. It provides tips to advisers on pay-per-click advertising and search engine optimisation (how to be found easily online), how to produce a good online profile and how to differentiate themselves from competitors.
“It would be foolish for every adviser to get themselves on Twitter and spend an hour a day on it, but getting connected on LinkedIn could be worth doing,” she says.
Barrett believes that advisers need to justify their fees to consumers by demonstrating that they can show them how to save more, make them feel more confident about their finances and get the right product for them. But she admits it is difficult to convince people that taking advice would make them better off in 10 or 20 years’ time and concedes that advice is most likely to be taken for big matters such as inheritance tax, tax planning, annuities and retirement planning.
“Ageing demographics are feeding into demand for advice on IHT, long-term care and annuities,” she says. “We’re hearing about advisers finding opportunities in previously untapped markets, including auto-enrolment, long-term care and small pension pots.”
Born: Edgeware 1973
Lives: St Albans, Herts
Education: Aldenham School; Loreto College, St Albans; University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Career: 2009–present: chief executive, Unbiased.co.uk; 2001–2009: marketing manager then marketing director, unbiased.co.uk; 1999–2001: Abbey National
Likes: Family holidays, Yorkshire pudding, having nothing planned at the weekend
Dislikes: Tardiness, people who talk over others
Book: Fantastic Mr Fox at the moment (not my choice)
Career ambition: To make a difference to people’s understanding of what financial plans they need
Life ambition: To be happy and successful at what I choose to do
If I wasn’t doing this I would be… doing something in online retailing or property development