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Karen Barrett

IFA Promotion’s chief executive is looking to put IFAs on the same page in the public eye as accountants and solicitors and believes the RDR will bring clarity for consumers Interview by Gregor Watt

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Six months into her role as IFA Promotion chief executive, Karen Barrett is feeling positive about the future. She believes the retail distribution review’s definition of independence will make IFAs’ service clearer to consumers while the growth of online technology will benefit advisers in marketing their businesses.

Since leaving university, Barrett says she has been focused on a career in marketing. “I did not really have any preconception about what industry I worked in, I just knew I wanted to work in marketing.”

A stint in sales support at Mortgage Express led her to her first marketing role. “After Mortgage Express, which was quite a small company and had quite an entrepreneurial feel to it, I decided I would like something blue-chip, so I went to Abbey and worked in their savings marketing team. I did that for couple of years but decided that big organisations were not my thing and went looking for something in a smaller organisation.”

She certainly found a smaller organisation, joining IFA Promotion as marketing manager in 2001. Nine years later, IFAP has only five full-time staff and Barrett says the organisation has kept down staff numbers to be as efficient as possible in recognition of the way that IFAP is funded. If they need expertise in a particular area, IFAP contracts out work.

“We have always found it the most cost effective way of buying in the relevant expertise. The money is not our own, we are not for profit, we have been funded largely by the IFA sector and product providers, so ensuring we are as effective as possible has always been part of our strategy.”

Barrett become chief executive of IFAP last September when David Elms stepped down due to ill health. The size of the team at IFAP and the fact that Barrett had worked alongside Elms for the best part of 10 years was, she says, a mixed experience.

“In terms of David and his illness, that was hard. In terms of me taking over the reins, that was an easier experience than many people have when they step into that sort of role.”

She says the close working relationship with Elms is the reason she has not made any huge changes to the way IFAP is run.

“My priorities have been to ensure we continue to drive even greater efficiencies, making online technology work harder for us and ensuring that, with all the noise in the background with the RDR, that we are not forgetting to do our day job, which is to promote independent financial advice to consumers.”

She says as the world of online marketing has evolved, organisations such as IFAP are having to work harder to achieve their goals as it is expensive to pay for online advertising. IFAP has continued to look at innovative and cost-effective ways of marketing independent financial advice.

“As online technology, particularly the pay-per-click advertising model, has matured, that has become more expensive, so we have had to push into new territory with regard to search engine optimisation, to be more imaginative and work harder for us. Also, broadening out our content partners and ensuring that partners such as portals and product providers and anyone who has a consumer audience is taking our content, our tools.”

Barrett says online marketing is a very useful medium for IFA businesses to market themselves directly and, with 30 per cent of firms still not having a basic website, there is scope for development.

“We know that consumers have moved online, it is the way they research for financial advice, we know IFAs using online technology are more cost-effective than those that are not.”

But she cautions that it does take time and effort to do it properly. “Don’t just jump into social networking. You need to have some sort of plan. Social networking or online marketing and client referrals, it all fits in and some firms will want to do more of it than others.”

Barrett says the RDR will benefit the industry by making the proposition of independent advice much more clear to the end customer. “I feel positively that product providers and advisers are trying to deliver to the consumer what the consumer wants. That will increase persistency levels in regard to products, it will hopefully make for a more understandable and clear process for consumers. That is a good thing.”

She says that by making the industry more professional, consumers will value the service provided much more then they currently do and IFAP has been developing the unbiased.co.uk consumer website by adding legal and accountancy services alongside the IFA and mortgage broker searches. “In terms of the RDR, that positions us really well to ride that wave towards professionalism, setting IFAs alongside solicitors and accountants sets an expectation in the consumer mind of the level of professionalism and what sort of advice and how they are going to be paying for that advice.”

IFAP has also been working on the expansion of Professional Connections, a business-to-business service that allows IFAs and other professionals to cross refer business. The service launched just before Barrett took over as chief executive and she is upbeat about its progress.

“That is going spectacularly well and we would call on IFAs and solicitors to engage with that and communicate with each other and use business-to-business referral as a way of generating business for their companies.”

Barrett says unbiased has no further plans to broaden the range of industries that are catered for on the unbiased site and although she is trying to diversify the sources of funding for IFAP away from the reliance on product provider funding, the core of the business is the promotion of independent financial advice.

“With all this RDR talk and change in the industry, we must not forget there is a growing need at the moment, there is a gap in pension provision and saving provision. The day job still needs to be done in getting consumers to engage with advice and there is a massive opportunity there for IFAs and for us to promote independent advice and educate consumers.”

Born: Edgware, 1973
Lives: St Albans
Education: Loreto College, Aldersham School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne University
Career: 2009-present: chief executive, IFA Promotion; 2001-09: marketing manager then marketing director, IFA Promotion; 1999-2001: Abbey National
Likes: Forthrightness, camping, sunny days, mum’s Yorkshire puddings
Dislikes: People who talk over you, being late
Drives: My last car was a BMW M5
Book: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossien
Film: Grease
Artist: VV Brown
Career Ambition: To make planning one’s financial future an aspirational yet achievable goal for many more consumers
Life ambition: To find something I’m brilliant at
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Working for an online luxury fashion retailer or working for myself doing something online

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