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Nic Cicutti: Money Advice Service has no soul

One of the perils of self-employment, as most IFAs know only too well, is the way that, in the weeks and days leading up to taking a much-needed vacation, the amount of work you have to do before taking that break seems to grow exponentially.

Every client, including many who have not been in touch for months or years, suddenly come up with work they would just love you to do and the matter simply won’t wait.

In my case recently, several last-minute projects that could not be put off meant working late into the night for most of the preceding week, before we finally got into the car and set off to our holiday cottage in Dorset.

One of the pieces of work was a website usability study for a financial services company, the idea being to look at how the site works from an informed consumer viewpoint and make suggestions as to how it can improve the written content as well as some of its navigation.

I love jobs like that. I have written lots of content for websites and spend hours a week or more searching the internet for the financial information I need, so assessing how a site reaches out to its target audience and suggesting tweaks that might help improve those efforts is especially satisfying, all the more so if some of those changes are implemented.

Even more happily in this case, only a few hours after filing my report I was sitting in a lovely thatched cottage, nursing a cold beer and watching telly, my way of preparing for the walking exertions that were to follow in the next few days.

At which point, up pops an advert for the Money Advice Service, urging me to go to its website for a bit of “free advice” to sort out my financial worries. I went to bed instead.

I have written about the MAS before, in rather disparaging terms. I do not feel – and increasing numbers of journalists whom I have spoken to feel the same way – the organisation is achieving enough with its £80mplus budget.

The evidence also appears to support this, with a superb recent deconstruction by Money Marketing of the MAS’s own statistics, which suggest the service is having no quantifiable impact on consumer behaviour.

I believe that is a terrible pity. Setting aside all the hostility from many IFAs, much of it over claims that what the MAS provides is “independent and unbiased” financial advice, there is a crying need for a better-educated population making sensible financial decisions about their future.

The concept of an organisation providing that information independently of the regulator du jour and able to act outside its constraints is also good. So why is it that visiting the MAS website for several hours recently, just to see if anything has changed in the past couple of months, felt like such a desperate chore?

My own view is that what the MAS lacks is soul. To understand what I mean, pop over to MoneySavingExpert or Thisismoney, two of the better money websites.

What is striking about each of them is the strong sense of personality they display, with named writers expressing different viewpoints in blogs and articles of every description.

In the case of Thisismoney, you get a combination of the superb journalism that informs both the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday’s personal finance pages and acerbic comments from online writers such as Andrew Oxlade, as well as intriguing posts by Tara Evans, such as last month’s story about music act tickets being passed on by promoters to so-called “exchange websites”, where they are touted for more than their face value.

Both websites’ viewpoints are often controversial, occasionally inaccurate, slanted or at least debatable. But they are alive, they engage their users and readers and they make superb use of one of the most vital resources of all websites – consumers themselves.

When you go through to MSE’s forums, you get a vast, pullulating range of contributions on just about every money-saving topic under the sun. Over the years, I have lost count of the number of times I have wanted the answer to a specific question and, having discarded some occasional dross, found it – or at least an approximate version of it – enabling me to piece together what I needed to know from there as well as other sources.
By contrast, the over-whelming impression from MAS’s website is a lack of personality, of real live human beings with opinions, interacting with others and motivating each other to arrive at joint solutions to common problems.

The irony is that if there is one thing all websites have discovered in the past few years, including Money Marketing, it is that when you involve your public and make them protagonists rather than just spectators or users, the quality of your product improves immeasurably.

It is a lesson MAS has not yet learned – and the result is millions of pounds’ worth of tumbleweed.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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Comments

There are 13 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Nic
    I am glad that your vitriol is now aimed at the correct persons/organisations.
    It would be really good if you and ‘your kind’ would put all your effort and cynycism to force the so called Authorities(by whose authority were they elected(hmmm) in the first place?) to become accountable to those who they work for-US!!
    By the way,we cant pay you for thios privelige so its a charitable action we would like.
    Hope it doesnt hurt too much!

  2. A mixture of diary entries and obvious facts again Nic, lets ahve some informed original opinions. My gran could have written this.

  3. Good article.

  4. I posted the below response on another article and thought it was relevant to this article.

    My concerns around The Money Advice Service centre on their pretence that they actually provide advice when in fact they only provide information. The industry has gone through the massive expense of up skilling advisers only to have our regulator introduce a service that pretends to give advice. The real joke about all of this is that we who work in the industry have to fund this service. I wouldn’t mind if The Money Advice Service actually promoted the services of independent financial advisers, but it doesn’t! I suspect somebody from the money advice service would say it does through its link to unbiased.com stuck on the back page of its website.

    Our regulator needs to start to listen and work with the industry and particularly promote the services of Independent Financial Advisers if it doesn’t they will not have anybody left in the industry to pay its fees. But maybe that’s their game plan only to have big banks and a few product providers left who can afford the extortionate fees.

    I also believe that our regulator needs to start clamping down on people offering advice services or indeed comparison sites without being registered with the FSA. I think it’s a cheek that many working as journalists can seem to operate and make profit with in our industry without being registered with the FSA. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get a telephone call from a financial services leads producing firm that is often not even registered.

    A good example of this is well known TV money commentator that runs a well-known website which I believe very entertaining but he often comments on areas that he is not authorised to talk about. What is the point of introducing new exams and authorisation levels when somebody operating as a journalist can give his opinion on pensions in the mass media when he is not qualified to do so?

    We need to protect our trade and I would ask that the regulator confirms what advice actually means. I also feel is about time that the financial services marketing act was amended to tighten up in the area of journalistic reporting rights in respects to advertising and promoting. I have no problem in a journalist reporting on a story what I have a problem with is a journalist using these regulations to promote and advertise services that they are not authorised or regulated to do.

  5. or indeed purpose or relevance!

  6. I agree with you Nic. I would dearly love to see evidence that the MAS was achieving some of its worthy objectives.

    Goodness knows the country needs people to make better financial decisions during the long austerity age ahead. But how to engage these people to change their habits? The proverbial “man at the Pru” probably did as good a job as anyone ever has for the masses who can not or will not leave their sofa to seek advice. Also we have to remember that these people have to make a conscious effort to visit the MAS website (or any other). Why would they do that, especiall if the site it boring and unchanging? To my mind the solution to the problem will not be solved by MAS but will sit alongside workplace provision i.e. when it is in works time. The innovative delivery of “Discovering Fortunes” by the CII to our sixth forms is also a very positive step that I think should be expanded to all studends not just those who might be interested in a career in financial services as it is at present.

    One of the the problems with MAS is that there is no commercial plan. They do not need to nimbly consider advertising revenues, distribution figures, click rates, product sales or advice fees as would the sites you mention & advisers. They will just keep charging us to fund it. There does need to be more short term accountability on this if it is not to run away out of control over the long term.

    I sincerely hope that the current lobbying is sucessful in this respect

  7. As in the definition of “advice” advice must be given and be of value to the consumer. the MAS does not actually give advice on financial planning and has proven to be both inadequate in its ability to engage consumers and change their behaviour, but of little consequence in the massive changes being made via the RDR.

    There is no such thing as Free Lunch and therefore it follows that so called Free Advice is no advice really, just factual data. The MAS should be rebranded the Money Information Service (MIS) then there would be no MIS understanding of what it is supposed to be doing for consumers.

    Asylums run by lunatics don’t really work and clearly with both the FSA, FSCS, FOS and MAS the lunatics are very much in charge.

  8. The problem is that any ‘comment’ or human opinion on MAS would be jumped upon as advice or a recommendations due to its nature. The other websites you talk about are forums and press, and would not be held responsible if a reader follwed whatever ‘dave from birmingham’ had said and consequently lost money.

  9. The MAS may have no soul, but it seems to have been set up and is being run by a bunch of overpaid and unaccountable R-Souls.

  10. To Ned and Adam

    It’s interesting to note that advice whether written or verbal is covered under the financial services marketing act 2000 and includes all forms of advertising.

    Therefore suggestions via forums to the general public in my opinion are covered under this act. Therefore Dave from Birmingham making a suggestion that Aviva provides the best pension without holding the relevant authorisation level is breaking the law.

    Journalistic principle only applies if the journalist is writing generically about the company and not talking about a specific product. That is my understanding of the regulations I just wish the FSA would enforce its own act.

    If we as an industry don’t put pressure on our own regulator to enforce this rule what’s going to happen when adviser charging comes into force in full after 2012. I’m already coming across accountants who are making suggestions to client’s respects to pensions only for clients to take out that recommendation direct. I even believe that the insurance companies will launch products specifically designed for this type of purpose. We could even have a whole sector of the industry giving advice without having authorisation e.g. financial planners, comparison websites, and indeed non-advice services (joke)!!!

  11. Ned Naylor hits the nail on the head when he mentions that there’s no free lunch. What are the expectations of those who visit the MAS? A solution to all their financial planning shortfalls for £19.99 p.m.?

    I’m 40 years of age, I earn £35,000 p.a. and I have no private retirement provison? What should I do?

    How can the answer be anything other than: You need to start setting aside money on a regular basis?

    Okay, how much and into what?

    Will the MAS provide a detailed and almost certainly lengthy and involved personalised critique of the comparative merits, drawbacks, risks and tax considerations of pensions, ISA’s, property and so on, with costings for each? To do that would take hours and hours and the result would probably be completely beyond the capacity of the average lay-person to comprehend without a lengthy face to face consultation.

    Or will the answer be simply to see an IFA?

    But, says the punter, won’t an IFA charge me a fee to provide all that?

    Well, probably.

    But, says the punter, I knew that already. Your ad’s all say your advice is a free breath of fresh air but now I’ve come to you, all you’re able to tell me is that I need to start setting aside money into something but to find out what and how much I’ll need to consult an IFA whose advice won’t be free.

    Errrm, well………

    Just what are the MAS’s own expectations of itself? It presents itself as being able to provide FOC services that it cannot possibly deliver. If somebody has no private retirement provision, the self-evident, obvious and only solution is to start setting aside money to address the shortfall. Anyone who can’t see that for themselves and who thinks that the MAS can offer some sort of cut-price, magic bullet strategy is either deluding themselves or has been misled by the MAS’s presentation of what it’s able to offer.

    Is it any wonder that the MAS is having no quantifiable impact on consumer behaviour? Of course it isn’t.

    Perhaps the idea is to encourage people who are otherwise reluctant to do so to engage for the first time with the financial planning process. Whilst this is undoubtedly a noble aspiration, so far it doesn’t seem to be working or at least not working on anything like a worthwhile scale relative to what the MAS is costing.

  12. Peter you have made some very importnat points here. Journalists not authosrised to advise give financial advice on a daily basis. Take the Evening Standard for an example – weekly section. Our regulator is living in cloud cookoo land, Gone are the days of IFA’s misselling – its the banks and and unauthorised advisers it needs to worry about.

  13. Exasperated Me 4th April 2012 at 1:26 pm

    MAS adviser numbers include former Barclays Life salespeople, what do they do with their ‘leads’?

    All the MAS debating is is futile, the eggheads rule OK!

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