Twenty-five years ago Tony Langham and his partner, Clare Parsons, decided to create their own financial services public relations firm. Starting with just an American Express credit card and a 100 per cent mortgage, they gradually built Lansons into a powerhouse in the sector with a string of high-profile clients.
Lansons has managed the PR and reputations of some of the biggest names in the industry, from major banks to advisers.
In the 1990s it was instrumental in launching consumer brands into financial services, including the Post Office, Marks & Spencer and Tesco.
In 2010 the agency worked with Metro Bank to launch the first new bank for 100 years, accompanied by much fanfare and press attention.
Recently it has been working with Invesco to manage its reputation in the wake of Neil Woodford’s departure to start his own fund.
Perhaps more challenging still has been Lansons’ work with the Co-operative Bank as it manages the fallout from its £1.5bn capital shortfall and the scandal of chairman Reverend Paul Flowers’ arrest on drugs charges.
The firm has also worked with Skandia and Jupiter through good and bad times alike.
Over 25 years, Langham and Parsons have transformed Lansons into the go-to agency for many bank chief executives, fund managers and insurers seeking to protect or enhance their reputations.
Mail on Sunday personal finance editor Jeff Prestridge, who has worked in the same field as Langham for 25 years, says: “When it comes to PR, Tony is fiercely protective of his clients and if you rough one up unfairly he does not hold back in letting you know what he thinks about you. Friendships disappear out of the window for a while.
“He’s a brilliant networker – hence the success of Lansons – and although he’s laid-back, you underestimate him at your peril. He doesn’t miss a trick.”
Langham left university in 1982 and spent six months running a betting shop before finding a job as a political marketer with Mori. He cut his teeth working on the doomed 1983 Labour election campaign, which resulted in the party’s biggest defeat under left-wing leader Michael Foot.
He also worked with Mori on the privatisation of British Telecom before moving into PR towards the end of the decade.
Employed at Dewe Rogerson, later Citigate DR, Langham met Parsons, who became his partner. Eventually becoming frustrated at not being offered an equity stake in the company, he left at the age of 28.
Langham has not forgotten that frustration and, alongside Parsons, has given away 40 per cent of Lansons in equity stakes to staff.
Since 1989 the firm has evolved from a PR agency into a reputation management company that works with firms internally as well as doing lobbying and media work.
In the early days, however, the focus was on acquiring PR clients and linking the City with consumer personal finance.
Langham says: “There were growth markets at the time in centralised mortgages, life assurance, pensions and changes around advice, with IFAs just being established. We used our knowledge to build business in those areas.”
The creation of IFAs in the late 1980s was a major part of Lansons’ early success and the firm won the account for IFA Promotion, later Unbiased.co.uk, in 1992.
As part of his pitch, Langham devised a “wasted tax” campaign to demonstrate how much money people unnecessarily paid in tax, which could be avoided with better financial planning.
Twenty-two years later, Unbiased remains a client. Indeed, Langham is now Unbiased chairman and has worked with five chief executives.
He has observed the advice market change greatly over two decades and has concerns about how the industry presents itself today.
First, Langham believes not nearly enough money is spent lobbying on behalf of advisers. For example, the Unbiased budget for the purpose is 33 per cent smaller than it was in 1992. He says: “Promotion costs money and lobbying costs money. Just look at the numbers: the Money Advice Service has levied £80m from the industry.
“The other form of lobbying is to persuade people with money to give representation to what good financial advisers do.
“A good focus is to not be in conflict with the MAS and Citizens Advice and others with money. Lobbying isn’t adversarial; it’s collective and persuasive. The worry is that with the regulator and other organisations, the sector tends to cause too much friction.
“It comes from what is fantastic about the advice industry. It is so resilient and I have lived through so many predictions about the decline of the sector. It is full of independent individuals but its strength is also its weakness.”
A recent example of conflict in the sector was the storm created when MAS chief executive Caroline Rookes said she was “worried” about the ethics of advisers.
At the Labour party conference in September, Langham was the person who directly asked Rookes if she had concerns about ethics after the issue was raised in discussion.
He says: “The whole thing has illustrated the bad place we are at with advisers and the MAS. Both need each other. The whole-of-market financial advice sector needs the MAS spending £80m on basic and neutral information and the MAS can’t do everything – it needs a fantastic adviser network.
“It was not constructive for the MAS to make a big point about the ethics of advisers but the reaction from advisers was too extreme because both sides need each other.”
More adviser fury occurs whenever “advice” is used to describe anything unregulated, such as the MAS or Chancellor George Osborne’s initial branding of the pensions guidance regime.
Langham acknowledges the problem and says there are, in reality, four big advice brands in the UK – Coutts, Hargreaves Lansdown, Martin Lewis and St James’s Place.
He says: “Regulated advice has a meaning for business but what the public mean by advice isn’t what we currently mean. It is a big problem.”
But instead of delving into the minutiae of what “advice” means, says Langham, advisers should be lobbying for more demand-side reforms to boost consumer savings and take-up of insurance products.
2013-present: Vice-chairman, PRCA PR Council; due to become chairman in December
2011-present: Non-executive chairman, Unbiased.co.uk
1989-present: Co-founder and chief executive, Lansons
1984-89: Dewe Rogerson, becoming joint head of financial services PR
1982-84: Mori, political, financial and social market research
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
What goes around comes around.
What keeps you awake at night?
Our poodle, Fudge.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the past year?
The changes to pensions and annuities announced in the Budget.
If I was put in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Make sure regulatory principle 4 is being considered adequately: “Consumers should take responsibility for their decisions”; look at statutory objective 1: “Secure an appropriate degree of protection for consumers”; and ask if we’re protecting people against the risks of not saving enough and the risks of under-insurance.
Any advice for new advisers?
Learn marketing and tech skills too – the time is right for more national adviser brands to emerge.