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 firstname.lastname@example.org