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Money Marketing editor John Lappin on the pensions campaign that wasn’t.

Four or five years ago Money Marketing had, frankly, got rather tired of being in permanent opposition.

Our campaigns had scored famous victories saving polarisation and securing a “fair deal for IFAs” from providers, FSA and ombudsman.

Ah sorry – that was a different universe where Gordon Brown had Amanda Davidson as his IFA, the FSA was headed by someone empathetic like Des Lynam, and Steve Bee and Nick Bamford had been made joint pensions ministers.

Anyway back in the real world Money Marketing had grown sick and tired of being in permanent opposition and losing campaigns so we were thinking of something new.

The idea was based around the slogan – “Shouldn’t you put some money in a pension”. Perhaps it needed a little more polish – we work for Money Marketing but not in marketing or copy writing.

But we had that covered too.

We talked about holding a nice round table of marketing, advertising and PR types – with coffee from Starbucks and sandwiches from Marks & Sparks – these media men and women like their brands big and their coffee expensive – to look at how a national campaign might work.

We planned to invite some of the best brains from the various financial services specialist agencies with names like Camp, Fox and Parker and maybe one or two from outside financial services too. We had an agency in the same building as Money Marketing called Joshua – strange name – but we considered inviting them too provided they agreed to stop taking the lift to the first floor. We might even have invited deadly rival and sister title here at Centaur – Marketing Week.

The first phase would aim to construct an industry wide campaign to get people saving – in a bid to attract some of that elusive “new” money rather than the usual money-go-round. Nothing was ruled out or ruled in except of course talking sheepdogs from the Lake District – cute as they were they should never really have been woofling about pensions in the first place.

We did not intend to ignore means-testing but to try and allow for it. If this meant warning off those on lowest incomes or at least letting them know that they were taking a gamble on the state continuing to provide then we would try.

Controversially we planned to examine whether the campaign should be “distribution neutral”. This was subversive thinking for Money Marketing. But the logic went as follows that it would be better to be saving for retirement even in a bank sold product than not to be saving at all.

It would also have allowed those dreaded multi-ties to get involved too. What would our stalwart IFA readers have said? We were prepared to take the flak.

The aim was to get at least some independents, multi-ties, banks, insurers, fund managers and for that matter employers and unions to bury their various hatchets and get behind the concept.

Of course even as I write this – I get this slightly nervous feeling about some of the hazards – the biggest one is not really anything to do with distribution but with the type of product. With-profits anyone – structured capital at risk product or a “NetNet” trust for that rainy day. But who knows we might have crossed those bridges.

Anyway the point was to test if there was common ground for the savings and investment industry. Aiming for the almost impossible we might even have asked a few national newspaper personal finance editors what they thought and indeed the FSA, Treasury and DWP.

So what killed the idea?

The first one was Adair Turner’s great hoodwinking Pension Commission – soft compulsion and no real warnings about debt do not an ad campaign make.

We would have had to put on wealth warnings of the sort that make marketing men weep.

“Put some money in a pension. It may not be in your best interests but we’re not going to tell you that as it is all a bit difficult. Loan anyone?” It doesn’t trip off the tongue.

How about – “Put some money in a pension. Your employer has just cut his share to the Government minimum contribution and your personal account is now a “lowest common denominator pension. Why bother?”

How about this for the Allied Steel and Wire workers. “Put some money in a pension – we know the Government said your pension was safe – it isn’t – they were telling porky pies but they aren’t going to admit it. Your best option is to die early.”

More an Ad man’s armageddon than an ad man’s heaven.

Of course what Turner made improbable the RDR has made impossible.

“Put some money in a pension – talk to your primary adviser – he or she can recommend something that may not be in your best interests – but he or she doesn’t have to say because some idiot has redefined the word suitable as unsuitable.”

It is not quite “go to work on an egg” or indeed “you get a smarter investor…”

So a voluntary consumer campaign extolling the benefits of retirement saving across the board is probably a non starter. It is of course possible to be dishonest in advertising. Look at those “green” oil companies. But presumably you need some truth to work on – like a green fuel or a sensitively run gas and oil field (such things do apparently exist).

For the masses now, pensions saving is decision to be thrifty with the risk of being punished with means-testing or poor performance in a semi state pension when you might be better spending it on presents for the kids or for the more selfish booze and fags.

Even without those barriers the savings industry is just too unstable because of the regulator to carry off a mass market campaign.

And of course, many of those advisers who just might shout “it’s all a con” or perhaps more to the point – “you’d be better off in an Isa” – may face abolition in the next few years.

Anyway, around the time MM was finally binning the pensions idea, the irrepressible Tom Baigrie of Lifesearch invited me to lunch and suggested we start a campaign to ensure that directly bought life insurance carried the requisite warnings and told people that they were foregoing ombudsman protections. We went with that instead and think we have just won it, given the latest FSA pronouncements. Problem is the RDR may very well screw that up too.

Perhaps positive campaigns are a silly idea anyway. Back to the Opposition benches then. Now about that retail distribution review…

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