Times have changed for the North Sea cod fisherman. Not so long ago, he’d put on his oilskins and sou’wester, head out to sea and put out his nets, and then a little later he’d pull them in groaning with big fat juicy cod.
These days, even if he leaves his nets out much longer, when he pulls them in he finds a couple of cod, some undersized haddock and a few handfuls of semi-edible pollock, coley and gurnard.
This year, it is much the same for the reviewer of consumer-facing Isa advertising. Not so long ago, with or without oilskins and sou’wester, at this time of year he would head off on a trawl round London’s mainline railway stations and through the personal finance sections of national newspapers, and come back with nets groaning with Isa advertising.
But this year, Fidelity is the only remaining cod, there is nothing much in the way of haddock and the roles of pollock, coley and gurnard are taken by a bunch of small and semi-legible press ads from various execution-only stockbrokers – Selftrade, TD Waterhouse, The Share Centre.
What’s gone wrong? In the North Sea, it is overfishing but in direct-to-consumer (D2C) Isa advertising, the answer is not so clear.
Many observers will be extremely surprised by the low level of activity. In theory, you could put forward at least four good reasons to expect plenty going on in the first quarter of the year:
There always is. Even when the mood is bearish, the major players usually scrape together a few quid – at least enough to put up a few posters at mainline London railways termini so their competitors think they are spending money, even if no one else does.
The market’s not bad. A strong bull market roughly doubles the level of ad spend, and a strong bear market roughly halves it. Neither of these really applies this year, so there is no market reason why spends should be higher or lower than usual.
Most retail fund managers are more excited about D2C than they have been for a generation. Whether distributing via advisers’ execution-only services, or online broking and trading sites, or in a few cases their own direct platforms, pretty much every fund manager in town is eager to influence the decision-making of self-directed, non-advised investors.
And perhaps most positively of all, the best pair of recruiting-sergeants we have ever seen for fund investment – a 0.5 per cent bank rate and a 4 per cent inflation rate, are still out in the marketplace shouting at consumers that they are absolutely bonkers to leave their savings on deposit.
So with two neutral and two highly positive factors influencing the Isa advertising environment, how come there is so little around?
I think the first reason is simply that a lot of firms made a bad call in deciding not to play this year. Perhaps they thought the stockmarket would be weaker. Perhaps, on the contrary, they thought the advertising market would be too crowded. Or perhaps they thought it was too early to support D2C distribution plans which are mostly in early stages of development.
Whatever their thought processes, I think the big players were wrong to stay away. They could have bought a lot of share of voice for their money this year.
Second, and more shrewdly, several players – both fund managers and distributors – are concentrating much more on targeted direct communications to existing customers and prospects.
Direct communications – email, mailshots, whatever – often enjoy the triple advantage of being relatively cheap, highly effective and flying largely under the radar. For example, it is said that Hargreaves Lansdown spends up to about £8m a year on very effective direct campaigns, but many people believe it spends no money on marketing communications at all.
Third, to be honest, I cheated a bit. I said there was not any heavyweight Isa advertising except for Fidelity, and that is true in the sense that no other major current D2C campaign is ostensibly about Isas. But several other fund managers, including Neptune, Jupiter and Henderson, have current campaigns undoubtedly intended to support their Isa sales efforts but not actually using the term Isa.
Since these are not, strictly speaking, Isa campaigns, I do not have to say anything about them. If I did have to, I would say that the Neptune and Jupiter efforts are perfectly serviceable but that, to the average consume , Henderson’s may be the most incomprehensible outdoor ad they have ever seen.
You have probably seen the same ad in the pages of Money Marketing, which in itself suggests a problem – neither common sense nor indeed TCF have much to say for using the same creative execution to reach professional advisers and the man or woman in the street.
It shows a couple of Oriental kickboxers vigorously kick-boxing, and the headline says: “A cautious fund that’s not afraid to make bold moves.”
I am pretty sure this has no meaning at all to most people, except that it is obviously something to do with the Orient, which in fact it isn’t. The featured fund is, in fact, the snappily-titled Henderson multi-manager income & growth fund.
Advertising of this sort does little or nothing for Henderson but it does quite a lot for Fidelity. Fidelity is spending tons of money on what I can only describe as a shoal of Isa propositions. They are absolutely everywhere, on posters, in press and online, with a campaign using the theme “Isa Choice”.
In fact, it is running almost as many individual executions as the whole industry usually manages at this time of year.
The ads are bold to look at, and most have satisfactorily intriguing headlines and include enlightening graphs and charts but somehow, as is so often the case in this category, they just do not quite stack up as really good advertisements.
They are not quite bright, lairy and promotional enough to work as hurry-hurry retail advertisements but neither are they quite polished, engaging and rewarding enough to work as perception-shaping brand advertisements. They are a bit of both and a bit of neither. But, whatever their imperfections, they are a whole lot better than Henderson’s.
And apart from the pollock and gurnard from the likes of Selftrade and Share Centre, at the moment that’s about it.
That’s perfect timing, because, as chance would have it, it is lunchtime. I fancy a nice piece of cod. If I can find one anywhere.